When Literati first came across The Night Gardener by Canadian writer-artist siblings Eric and Terry Fan (which we chose for Club Sprout in October 2017), we were instantly blown away. There are so many layers to the beautiful illustrations that deepen this story of an old man who brings a town to life with his topiary creations that it could become a movie. We wanted to know more about the inspiration behind the book, and more about the Fan brothers who created it. Here, they tell their story – and give us an exclusive peek at some of their incredible sketches.
What was your inspiration for the story?
Eric: Years ago, Terry and I collaborated on a t-shirt design called The Night Gardener, and that ended up becoming our take-off point for building the narrative of the book.
Terry: It was a stand-alone image that depicted a gardener clipping away at an owl tree under the light of a full moon. We always thought there might be a story behind this mysterious image and it evolved organically as we threw ideas back and forth. When we joined the Catbird agency and were asked for book ideas, we presented The Night Gardener along with a couple of other ideas.
How does collaborating work in practice? Do you both write the story and the illustrations? Can you give us some insight into your working world? Did you work on this from the same office / house?
Eric: We collaborate on both the writing and illustration. The process for both is similar in a way. In the case of writing, it’s throwing out ideas and then taking all the best ones and stitching them together, much like we do for the art. I also have to mention the wonderful editors and art directors we’ve worked with too, who have all helped shape our stories, and are indispensable to the collaborative process – Christian Trimmer, Justin Chanda, and Lizzy Bromley at Simon & Schuster, and Tara Walker at Tundra Books.
Terry: For the art, it’s the same “stitching together” process. After we have the roughs finalized, we’ll start on the finals. Each of us will draw certain elements for a scene and then put them all together in Photoshop. It’s great to have a fellow collaborator, because you always have someone to bounce ideas off when you get stuck. Over time we’ve developed a pretty good vocabulary for this process, so at this point it’s almost instinctual. Making a book can be a daunting project sometimes, so it’s nice to have someone to share that workload with. When one of us falls down or falters, hopefully the other one is there to save the day.
How did you go about getting the book published? Did you produce it first then shop it around or did you pitch the concept? Was it hard getting a first children’s book off the ground?
Terry: Initially, our agent Kirsten Hall discovered our artwork online and approached us about representation. When she asked if we had any ideas for picture books, we proposed a few concepts, one of which was The Night Gardener. We sold the idea to Simon & Schuster as a synopsis and text outline, along with the stand-alone illustration that I mentioned earlier. I feel a little embarrassed to admit it, knowing how challenging the publishing world can be, but we were extraordinarily fortunate, in that the process of selling our first book was pretty smooth; a great, marvelous, and unexpected surprise. That’s discounting the years of illustrating and thinking of ideas that preceded it of course.
Eric: Technically, my first few attempts to get a book published were all failures, since I submitted some picture book ideas when I was still in art school, with my younger brother Devin. We sent them out completely unsolicited, and unsurprisingly most came back in unopened envelopes. We did get a couple of very encouraging letters from editors (which I still have). In retrospect I wish I had taken them in the spirit they were intended and kept working on ideas. In the boundless naïveté of our youth we were devastated that our “genius” had gone unrecognized and ended up dispirited.
You don’t mention the fact the boy is from an orphanage in the text, but this is conveyed in the illustrations. He has a photograph of (presumably) his mother and father on his window sill; he is drawing an owl in the mud in the first scene, and the Night Gardener sees this and is inspired to create his first topiary. Did you consciously do these things so there are layers the more you re-read the book?
Eric: That’s great to hear. We definitely wanted there to be some layers in the story, in the spirit of “show-don’t-tell” so it’s nice to hear you mention that. I have to credit our editor for encouraging us to build some backstory for the characters, even if it wasn’t explicit in the text. The way he explained it was that even if something was never shown or talked about, it would find its way into the story somehow.
Terry: Personally, I’ve always had an affinity for picture books where the illustrations are an extension and expansion of the story, and work as subtext to tell you things that aren’t spelled out in the text.
Are there any other things you included that I might have missed?
Eric: We based some of the characters in the book directly on friends and family, which is always fun, but something only we would notice. Our mom is in there, along with our niece Juliette, and our friend Bianca. William himself was based on our nephew Ronin, who served as an impromptu model for some scenes.
Terry: We wanted to create a distinct sense of an actual neighborhood, so we repeated characters in various scenes to add to the sense of community.
Here at Literati we’re convinced we can see the Night Gardener appear in some of the daytime scenes, looking at his creations and the reaction the public has. (on the roof, for example). Is this accurate or just a coincidence that they look similar?
Eric: I love the idea of someone remarkable who is invisible to everyone in their day-to-day life, so we did want to hint at the idea that maybe the Night Gardener was around during the day to witness people’s reactions. We also wanted to keep it ambiguous enough that you could interpret it either way.
How do you create a book that seems so sparse (in terms of word length) but which actually has so much depth you could make a movie based on it?
Eric: That’s a lovely compliment. It’s always a struggle to balance word count with complexity. I think in our case it started with really over-writing the text, and then paring it down carefully, and trying to hold on to the tonal qualities and story beats that would give it the most bang for the least amount of text. That was our intention, at least. Since it was our first book, I think the natural inclination is to overwrite the story anyway. When we started constructing the rough dummy it became apparent that there was far too much text, so doing a dummy is always a good litmus test.
Terry: Since you mentioned movies, our first draft of the story actually had a very cinematic opening that we ended up dropping. The original story started off in the present day, with a kid wondering why the tree outside his window bore a faint resemblance to an owl. The story then unfolded as a story within a story, with his mother telling him about the Night Gardener, who lived many years ago. It was all a little too much, and our editor sensibly advised us to drop it and focus on the essential story of William.
Where did the idea come from to focus on a topiarist as one of your central characters? Are there any real-life topiaries / topiarists you are obsessed with?
Eric: The character of the Night Gardener was actually based in part on our dad. He always had a great love of trees and nature, having grown up in the Taiwanese countryside. I think moving to Toronto, he missed those things about Taiwan. I can see now that he tried to balance that love of nature with the cold Canadian winters, and so our house was always filled to the rafters with plants, trees, and bonsai. It was a veritable jungle, and there was even a parrot flying free in the house. I have a strong memory of him carefully pruning and caring for all his trees. He also won a gold medal in a bonsai competition for his bonsai “Three Heavens” which was a banyan tree growing from a large rock, covered in orchids. It got its name because there were three levels to its canopy, that looked like three levels of clouds. So, he was definitely something of a night gardener himself.
Terry: Since then, people have sent us various articles about some amazing real life topiary artists. It’s incredible to see their creations, and I hope to visit a real topiary park someday.
Do you have any follow-up books in the pipeline?
Eric: Our next book is called Ocean Meets Sky, and is due to publish on May 15th 2018 by Simon & Schuster.
Terry: We also have a book that we’re currently in the process of illustrating called The Scarecrow, written by Beth Ferry, which is being published by HarperCollins for Fall 2019. After that, we’re doing a book with our other brother Devin called The Barnabus Project, which will be published by Tundra Books/ Penguin Random House Canada.
Was it always clear in your mind that the palette was going to stay that way until the burst of incredible color after the town has been changed by the experience? Who came up with that idea and why?
Eric: If I’m not mistaken we landed on that idea in discussions with our editor Christian Trimmer and our art director Lizzy Bromley. I can’t quite remember specifically who first suggested it though.
Terry: The reason for starting with a monochrome palette and gradually becoming more colorful was to provide a visual subtext that reflected the spiritual change in the community. It was also a little nod to The Wizard of Oz, which used color to similar effect. The moment Dorothy lands in Oz always had a profound effect on us as kids – that joyous transition from black and white to technicolor.