July 25, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #33: Thi Bui

As someone who has a soft spot for graphic novels (and a hankering to explore them in new ways for my readers...), interviewing graphic novelist and now picture book illustrator Thi Bui was a dream come true. Thi Bui recently illustrated the highly revered A Different Pond, and rather than creating a large preamble, I'd like to just dive into the interview. Enjoy.

About the book:
A Different Pond is an unforgettable story about a simple event--a long-ago fishing trip. As a young boy, Bao Phi awoke early, hours before his father's long workday began, to fish on the shores of a small pond in Minneapolis. Unlike many other anglers, Bao and his father fished for food, not recreation. A successful catch meant a fed family. Between hope-filled casts, Bao's father told him about a different pond in their homeland of Vietnam.

Let's talk Thi Bui!

LTPB: How did you come to be the illustrator of A Different Pond

I received a couple of emails from the editor and art director of the book at Capstone while I was eyeballs-deep in deadline mode for my graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do. I declined, but they got back to me again closer to when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and adjusted their timeline so that I could say maybe. Then they sent me the manuscript, and it was wonderful. Then I found out the author was Bao Phi, and it became clear that this was a project I needed to work on.

LTPB: The Best We Could Do details your own immigrant experiences and family. What was it like to illustrate someone else’s story on the same topic? What research did you do to bring to life this specific moment in Bao's life? 

It was really wonderful to get to work professionally on a Vietnamese American refugee story. To have that shared background be a bonus, you know? Like when I would ask Bao for details about what his family might have had in the background in their home, and he’d say something like, “nước mắm in an old Miracle Whip jar with the label peeling off,” and I knew to ask whether his mother cut the carrots into thin sticks or flower shapes.

On the other hand, the setting of Minneapolis - and specifically the Phillips neighborhood in the early 80s - was something that I had to research to try to capture the feeling of Bao’s story, since my own experience had been in a very different San Diego. Bao collected some reference photos for me, and I took a lot of virtual walks through Phillips using Google Earth. I don’t know that I actually drew the illustrations from a child’s eye. Bao wrote the story from a child’s perspective, and I responded to it with a fair amount of parental love. The end result is probably a kinder look at the little boy than Bao might have imagined - an outsider mirroring back to him something slightly different than his opinion of himself. 

LTPB: As a comic artist, how did you adjust your technique to create a picture book? How did you balance using comic elements (multiple panels per page, for instance) while still making this feel like a book accessible to young children still learning how to read pictures? 

With my comics background, it was important for me to lay out where the text would go as I worked out the composition of the pages, but I resisted using speech balloons, since those would affect the language of the story Bao had written. I used panel borders for interior scenes and memories to give them a different kind of intimacy than the scenes of the boy and the father out in the world. In one or two exceptions, I use a panel border to highlight a small but important moment within a bigger scene. 

From my conversations with Bao, it seemed that the setting was as much a character as the people in it were. So I give you the story from some unusual angles: from a high shelf in the kitchen, or a branch in a tree, and sometimes from multiple places at once. It is a tool I have to take the story a little bit out of the experience of the characters. To allow the reader to both hear the inner voice of the main character and see the main character as he was - a small child in a large refugee family in a northern American city in the early 80s. 

To situate younger readers, I made sure the little boy was the focal point of the art throughout the book. My son, when he was one, was fascinated by this old French New Wave movie I put on for him. It was called Small Change (or L’Argent de Poche), and it was in French, which he doesn’t understand, but he just followed the kids around in the various scenarios, and loved it. I figured in A Different Pond, as long as the reader can locate the little boy, the rest of the art will fall into place as details filling in the space that he occupies and what he is doing. 

LTPB: What is your process like? What media do you use? 

My workflow is really just habits formed by years of working on comics. I start with rough sketches in pencil on paper that has the dimensions of the book at a shrunken scale. Once I have the composition worked out, I turn it all light cyan in Photoshop and print it out on large Bristol paper. Then I ink the line work by hand with brushes and sumi ink. I colored A Different Pond digitally because it was my first time attempting full color, and I wanted more freedom to mess up and try different things than I would have had if I'd watercolored by hand. I still wanted the feeling of watercolor though, so I had several scans of ink washes I did that I added as an overlay texture. 

LTPB: What can you tell us about what you're working on now? 

I am in the middle of pitching a new book, a nonfiction work of graphic journalism, about climate change in Việt Nam. I can’t show you anything yet, but I think I can say that there will be a lot of water - typhoons, floods, rice fields, rivers, the rising sea . . . and that I’ll be meditating a lot on both the life-giving and destructive powers of water. 

LTPB: If you could choose anyone in the world, alive or not, to illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why? 

Can I cheat and name TWO illustrators? One would be Eleanor Davis, whose art rides this great line between beautiful and awkward, and writes comics (often without panel borders) with a pithy prose that is so just right it’s deadly. The other would be Nguyễn Thành Phong, an illustrator and comics artist in Hà Nội who has that same beautiful / awkward energy in his art and also has spent his career looking closely at Vietnamese bodies and faces.

Thank you so much to Thi for taking time answer my questions (especially those about graphic novels!). A Different Pond publishes next Tuesday from Capstone Young Readers.

Special thanks to Thi and Capstone Young Readers for use of these images!

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