December 09, 2010

Winter Blog Blast Tour: An Interview with LeUyen Pham

Welcome to our second interview of this year's Winter Blog Blast Tour--a bit of a departure for us, as we welcome a special guest who's primarily an illustrator and graphic novelist: the awesomely accomplished and multitalented LeUyen (please say "LeWin") Pham, who's done everything from picture books to chapter books to graphic novels...and she's even foraying into the field of writing.

A few months ago, we reviewed two of her recent projects here on Finding Wonderland, the Prince of Persia graphic novel and Solomon's Thieves, both published by First Second. So we were thrilled to get the chance to ask Uyen about what it was like to work in a comic book format, what her favorite projects have been, and more.

Finding Wonderland: You've worked on a wide range of projects from children's picture books, to book covers, to illustrated chapter books like Alvin Ho, to graphic novels like Prince of Persia. Can you name a few of your personal favorite projects, and tell us a little bit about them?

LeUyen Pham: It's hard to pick favorites, but everyone says that. For sure one of the most fun books to do was the one I self-authored, "Big Sister, Little Sister", a book about the ups and down that occur between sisters. That one was written as a present for my sister, and the original is a little 4 inch square book. I had thought it was too personal to publish, as most of the jokes were inside jokes, but apparently the experiences are universal. The style I use for that book, done with a Japanese Brush pen, is something that is more akin to hand-writing than drawing for me. I don't even think when I sketch that way. Another favorite is "Bedtime for Mommy", by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Amy is a master of brevity of wit, and this book is clearly a testament to that. And, I adore manuscripts that allow massive interpretation from the artist. This was definitely one of those, where I could inject as much personality into the characters as I wanted. The story is a bedtime role reversal, with the daughter putting the mommy to bed.

I also love doing the Freckleface Strawberry Series with Julianne Moore. The little girl in the story is adorable, and SO much fun to draw! That book was recently made into a musical as well, and I have to say it's surreal seeing your characters and drawings come to life on the stage. And one last favorite -- Alvin Ho! Written by Lenore Look, it's a hilarious set of stories about a young boy named Alvin with crippling fears -- his panic attacks result in him being completely unable to speak at school. Despite this, he manages to get into one set of troubles to another. His best friend is a girl named Flea, he's got an awesome older brother named Calvin and a precocious little sister named Anibelly. And again, he's just such fun to draw.

Finding Wonderland: We recently reviewed both Prince of Persia and Solomon's Thieves here on Finding Wonderland, and the attention to detail and historical art styles that you brought to each project was remarkable—in Prince of Persia, for instance, it was clear that you spent a lot of time looking at traditional Persian manuscripts and paintings. Was there a specific reason you omitted the characteristic Persianate lobed rocks from your graphic-novel-style renderings of Persian manuscripts? (Sorry to get all art-history on you, but that’s one of our favorite things!) How do you decide in an historical project like that what to keep, and what to leave out? What kind of research did you do in order to tackle these graphic novel projects, and did it differ from the type of research you might do for a picture book or illustrated novel?

LP: That's definitely art-history-y for me. Not sure what the Persianate lobed rocks you're referring to are, but I'll try to tackle the rest of the question. Both of these graphic novels were done with my husband, Alex Puvilland, who is both a comic genius AND an ultra-geek when it comes to research. We did a ton of research on the arts and architecture of Persia, to remain as faithful to it as we could. And yes, I spent a lot of time looking at the traditional painted manuscripts, which are absolutely beautiful. Truth be told, we were given less than a year to do "Prince of Persia", and I was also pregnant during the entire time, and managed to hold off giving birth until a week after we finished the book. Given these limitations, we knew we couldn't do as much as we wanted to do with the book. I think we would have really tried tackling those manuscripts, at least I would have liked to been able to paint them myself.

How to decide what historical aspects to keep, and what to take liberties with? That was really dependent on the story. If it served the story to have a character wearing a certain outfit, or for a building to look a certain way, we amended. That was actually pretty hard for both of us to do -- we're big sticklers on authenticity. To research this book, we have a couple enormous three ring binders that we stuffed with information, as well as purchasing loads of books on Persian art and art history. There were some things that were in the story that we simply couldn't find visual references, and thus had to recreate to the best of our ability.

"Solomon's Thieves" was a bit easier. Not only were we both better versed in the world of graphic novels, but we also had a greater amount of resources to go for. The story is set in 13th century France, so there was plenty of reference material. Jordan Mechner, the writer, is also a bit of a stickler when it comes to facts, and he did tremendous amounts of research on the knights of the Templar when producing this story. And, of course, we went to Paris and took pictures, looked at archives, the whole bit. Alex focused more on the architecture of the times, and I focused on the costumes and people.

I have to say, research for books is great fun. The type of research done for a graphic novel doesn't vary much for that done for a picture book, but the AMOUNT of what you need is greater for the prior. Whenever I tackle a picture book that is based heavily on a historical event, I do my best to be as accurate as possible, and I always always try to visit the place the story occurs in. For instance, I once illustrated a book called "21 Elephants" by Phil Bildner, a story about the Brooklyn Bridge and P.T. Barnum of the circus fame who sent his troupe of elephants to cross the bridge to test its strength. I went to the Brooklyn City archives and the New York City archives to research what the cities looked like at the turn of the century, the costuming, everything. I found an old collection of city maps that would be the equivalent to today's "Thomas Guide Maps", with the exception that the maps were also labeled with the local businesses. Then I cross-referenced those maps with old photographs at the time, to determine just which streets I was looking at, in regards to the Brooklyn Bridge. So in the book, the store fronts at the houses are all fairly accurate to what would have been Brooklyn at the time.

Finding Wonderland: Wow - that sounds labor intensive -- but so cool. You really put a lot into your illustrations. And FYI for everyone else -- this is an example of the lobed rocks, as you can see from a book of Persian paintings in a collection at Princeton.

So, LeUyen, could you tell us a little bit about the process of working on Prince of Persia and Solomon's Thieves, and what it was like collaborating with your husband Alex Puvilland and the writer Jordan Mechner? How did that process work? What came first—the script, the character designs, the storyboard?

LP: It was an interesting process, to say the least. I'm very much used to working on my own, so it was a bit of a learning curve to operate within a team. The script came first, from Jordan. Alex and I would review it and give our opinion on, writing notes in the margin on how we thought the story could be improved, or what we found to be flaws. Jordan would do re-writes, then we'd all brainstorm together for larger issues, and then Jordan would rewrite again. Then Alex and I would break down the story into a series of rough drawings, setting the pacing and breaking up the dialogue, and then it would be Jordan's turn to comment, suggest, make changes, etc.

While all this is occurring, Alex and I are researching, designing props and costumes and characters, and again all these would go through some form of approval with Jordan. From the rough thumbnails, we'd produce cleaner drawings, and this is where the acting would come in -- comments between us would concern whether the characters are emoting right, whether the scene was designed well enough to showcase the evolution of the story, things like that. And then the easiest and fastest part -- inking in our drawings. Alex and I would pass drawings back and forth between us. It's funny, because we both have very distinct styles and very separate strengths, so putting the both of us together was great. His sense of drama and composition could offset or elevate my sense of emotion and storytelling. It was a lot of fun, and I think it's something we wouldn't mind to continue doing.

Finding Wonderland: Do you think that your early work as a computer animator for Dreamworks influenced your style and career as an illustrator? If so, how?

LP: Yes and no. Yes, in that when I worked at Dreamworks, I was working with such amazing artists. I mean seriously, I could walk down the hallways looking at the art, and know that I was working with some of the best artists in the world. How cool is that? It was enough to motivate me to keep getting better. I like to say that I graduated from art school where I paid to learn, and went to Dreamworks where I was paid to learn. But I was also pretty unhappy working as a part of such a big project, and not seeing enough of my work make it to the screen. So that provided the incentive I needed to go out and make it on my own. What Dreamworks definitely did for me, though, was to teach me to be a professional. Being prompt, considerate of deadlines, producing clean drawings and presentations, as well as pushing me to excel as an artist, all these things were gained by working there. And also, I just loved the people there. When I first started there, everyone came from somewhere else -- sitting down to a table at lunch was like attending a meeting of the U.N. -- nearly every country was represented. And the stories most of these guys had! About working in this country, traveling there, living here. It made me feel that, in my twenties, I needed to be taking more chances, making more mistakes, before settling down to anything. So I spent a lot of time traveling when I left, soaking up as much of the world as my sketchbook would allow.

Finding Wonderland: That truly sounds like an amazing job - what a great experience!

You mentioned wanting to get into the writing side of the children’s lit field. What’s your dream age group to write for? What kind of project, in what genre, would you love to write?

LP: You know, I'm one of those people who just cannot settle doing one thing. If you look at my picture books, there's such a variety because I wanted to change my style all the time. In the beginning, it would drive my editors nuts, but I think now it's served me well -- I get considered for such a wide range of projects. Likewise, I think writing will be the same. Of course I'd like to continue to write for picture books, as that's second nature to me. But I've already got ideas for young reader chapter books, as well as teen novels, and I'd love to do some graphic novels. I don't think I can settle, because there just seems so much out there that excites me.

The inability to settle on one thing is a mark of genius. That's our story, and we're stickin' to it!

Lightning Round, Because We Don't Want to Let You Go:

1. Mood music while working or silent sketching?
Believe it or not, I prefer to listen to movies or t.v. shows when working. Woody Allen movies, MadMen, the Office, 30 Rock. So long as I don't have to look up at the screen, and the story is contained in the dialogue.

2. Computer software, or pencil and paper?
Healthy heaping portions of both -- nothing beats my sketchbook, but sometime painting or sketching on the computer can be fun.

3. Ideal drawing location?
Sidewalk cafe, on a comfortable bench!

4. Favorite way to distract your boys while you’re working?
Haven't yet discovered that one yet -- if you've got ideas, let me know!

5. Least favorite step in the illustration process?
Ugh! waiting for feedback! I'm on eggshells until I hear back from an editor on how they feel about what I've sent...

THANK YOU, Uyen, for being so gracious to take the time to talk to us! (She has two toddlers under the age of three, and still got all of our questions back -- in such wonderful detail-- and in a timely manner.) This has been a memorable interview, and we can't wait to read (and visually devour) future written and artistic projects. Thank you again!

Visit her truly amazing website:

Don't forget to check out the rest of today's awesome WBBT author/illustrator interviews:

Kathi Appelt @ Shelf Elf
Heidi Ayarbe @ The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Twins Julia Devillers & Jennifer Roy @ Bildungsroman
Paula Yoo @ Hip Writer Mama


Jules at 7-Imp said...

I'm such a fan of hers and her wide-ranging style. I haven't even seen Bedtime for Mommy yet and must fix that.

olugbemisola said...

another huge fan here -- she does such dynamic work. really enjoyed learning a bit about her work processes and research. thanks for this!

Colleen said...

I can't believe the level of research she does - that whole passage about the NYC research she did (which I lifted for my quotes post) is AMAZING. Wow.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I adore the Alvin Ho series. Second, she did these graphic novels? *runs to bookcase to check* Love her versatility. Now I need to read this interview again...

Sarah Stevenson said...

If I could trade jobs with anyone...I think it would be her!

Marjorie said...

Thank you for this great interview - Leuyen has so much energy! I love her picture books but wasn't up-to-date with her graphic novels - will have to check them out...