First Draft Episode #110: Dan Santat - Transcript
Date: October 3, 2017
Dan Santat, Caldecott Award-winning author and illustrator of The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, talks about his newest picture book, After the Fall, an immigrant kid learning about Santa Claus, writing books that reveal other people’s stories, how much anxiety sucks, and the different ways he is interpreting Asian identity in his work.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Sarah Enni Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. This episode is brought to you by JANE, UNLIMITED by Kristin Cashore a twisty mystery that has me reaching for umbrellas. Also, I am recording a special episode to be released next week and in it I’ll be answering listener questions. So, if there’s anything about the podcast, or books, or me that you’re dying to know, send your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week I’m talking toDan Santat, Caldecott Award-winning author and illustrator of The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend as well as Are We There Yet? and Sidekicks among many others. His newest picture book After the Fall is out now. Dan invited me to his home in Southern California, a warm and welcoming space with a menagerie of pets. Dan himself is warm and welcoming and he wasted no time jumping into a radically honest discussion of his childhood, his constant quest to develop as a writer, and how anxiety inspired his most recent book.
So, pause your marathon binge of Stranger Things, focus on your inner child, and enjoy the conversation.
Sarah Enni Okay, so hi Dan, how are you?
Dan Santat Hi, I’m doing well. Thank you for coming over to my lovely home.
Sarah Enni Oh, my gosh, thank you so much for having me. This is really gorgeous. I’m excited to be here.
Dan Santat Oh, thank you, you’re just saying that!
Sarah Enni I’m not. I would never. I tell people their homes are ugly all the time!
Dan Santat “You… get out!” [laughing]
Sarah Enni First of all, can you say your last name for me?
Dan Santat [pronounces last name]
Sarah Enni [repeats name] Okay, I feel there’s a hundred different ways to go when you have that many vowels.
Dan Santat Well, it’s Thai and originally it was Santativongchai, and then when my parents came to America and became American citizens they said, “Let’s see. We’re gonna lop off the other eleven letters. You’re just Adam and Nancy Santat.” And they said, “Okay.” And the crazy thing is, I found out later on that Santativongchai was actually a last name that was given to the family by the king of Thailand. I guess my great-great-great-great grandfather, back in the day, used to be a town crier in Thailand in this little village, and the king bestowed this last name Santativongchai. I don’t know what it means, I don’t know if it even has a meaning. But I remember going to Thailand once, and I went to this village, and my dad pointed to all of these people and he said, “They’re all related to you somehow.” And I said, “Wow.”
Sarah Enni I love that we’re starting with family because I really would like to hear where you were born and raised?
Dan Santat Ah, I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My parents emigrated here from Thailand. My father was a doctor, my mom was a nurse and they were at the Long Island College Hospital where I was born in 1975. By the time I was three, we had slowly made our move west. We moved out of Brooklyn when I was one and we went out to Wyckoff, New Jersey. Stayed for another year in Springfield, Illinois and then made our way out to Ventura County. For those who don’t know, Ventura County is in between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. It’s very agricultural. So, I was one of few Asian kids in this predominantly white, rural, agricultural area.
Sarah Enni And you said your dad was a doctor and your mom was a nurse?
Dan Santat Yeah, my father was a pediatrician. He was working for the state, he wasn’t private practice. There was a point where they said they needed more cardiologists so they said, “Why don’t you… we’ll pay you to be a cardiologist.” And he said, “Okay.” And he became a cardiologist. And then they said, “We’ll pay you to be a psychiatrist because we need [more psychiatrists].” And he said, “Okay.” So, he’s a psychiatrist.
Once I was born, my mom stopped practicing – she was a nurse – she became a full-time mom and dealt with this army of one.
Sarah Enni Ventura County… my really good friend Kirsten Hubbard was raised there. She and I talk about when you’re writing high school stories, and you’re a California high school kid, that you quickly realize how different high school experience is here than in other parts of the country. It’s outdoor campus, much more diverse than some areas…
Dan Santat That’s interesting that you say that. I’m actually working on a YA memoir right now.
Sarah Enni What?!
Dan Santat Yeah with First Second [First Second Books] with my editor Connie Hsu [read an interview with Dan and Connie here]. For Thai, everything is about family. The whole thing is about how my parents wanted me to grow up and be a doctor. And I just had a natural attraction and passion for art and writing. It was something that culturally my parents were trying to discourage in me. Not because they wanted me to be unhappy, but because they just weren’t familiar with art. Art’s always been stigmatized as this thing that you’re starving and you’re not gonna be able to take care of yourself and make a living.
And I think that was the thing that they really wanted to push against. Also, growing up in Ventura County, you have these matters of not really being able to identify with the Asian community because it’s so predominantly white. And then if you do meet people from other Asian cultures, it’s Chinese, it’s Korean, it’s Japanese. A lot of my friends were second or third generation Japanese, so by then they were well integrated in culture and society. For me, being the first Thai member of my family born in the States and my parents not having too much of a familiarity with Western culture, a lot of it was me growing up trying to figure out how things worked.
For example, I remember when I went to school - I was in kindergarten - and I was introduced to Santa Claus. And I said, “Wait a sec. You’re telling me that there’s a big, fat white guy in a red suit that comes down my chimney and he gives me presents?” And I said, “That sounds pretty awesome!” And I went home and I was like, “Mom, we have to get a tree. We have to do all this stuff cause Santa Claus is coming.” And my mom looked at me and was like, “There’s a white guy in a what? He’s coming down…?”
So, they didn’t want me to not fit in so, of course, they went through the whole thing of getting the tree and doing the presents but they did it to the limited capacity of, “Well. We’re not really sure if we’re supposed to play the role of Santa Claus and if you actually believe this Santa Claus thing cause, you know, you’re five – six now and well… Santa Claus hasn’t come for a visit prior to that!”
And with that, I was an early Santa denier because I remember I would go to school and it’s like, “Oh. There’s that kid. He always gets in trouble and he got everything he wanted! He got that dirt bike he wanted. He got the Death-Star Star Wars set.” Which cost, I don’t know how much money, but you were a spoiled kid if you got that thing. And under the tree I got two presents. One from mom and dad and the other from Santa. And Santa had my mom’s handwriting on it. So, I said to myself, “You know what? I know that I’m a much better kid than that guy who got everything he wanted.”
So, I immediately realized, “This is a ruse!” Here I am. I’m a really good kid. And that guy got everything he wanted, so there’s got to be something. I love the fact that it was that that gave it away rather than the idea that there’s a big fat white guy that comes down your chimney.
Sarah Enni Yeah, the implausibility is more…
Dan Santat To the entire planet! “No, no, no … that guy’s a jerk! That has to be the problem.”
Sarah Enni The lack of a meritocracy was really the downfall of Santa. This is a great example of an aggressive adoption of a western cultural thing by you and it immediately fails.
Dan Santat Right. There’s a lot of things about being an only child growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood. A lot of my friends would say, “Oh, what are you doing this weekend?” And they’d say, “Oh, we’re gonna go dirt bike racing.” Or, “We’re gonna go to the lake and go water skiing.” Or, “We’re gonna go jet skiing.” I used to think that there was something wrong with me because I didn’t like those things. I thought something was wrong with me because the idea of dirt bike riding wasn’t what I considered fun.
Also, I grew up in Camarillo and a lot of engineers worked at the nearby military base… white collar office work. And my spectrum of imagination, in terms of what adulthood would be, was that someday I’m gonna wear a suit and I was gonna carry a briefcase and I don’t know what’s in the briefcase [chuckles] but that’s what an adult is.
Sarah Enni That mixed with your parents saying that you’re gonna be a doctor.
Dan Santat That you’re gonna be a doctor and it’s not a matter of choice. That’s just how it is. You’re gonna grow up and be a doctor. It felt like a jail sentence to a certain degree. It’s predetermined that you’re going to do this for the rest of your life whether you like it or not.
Sarah Enni I feel like that’s a common immigrant first generation kid’s story like, “You’re gonna be an engineer. You’re gonna be a doctor. This and this. Done deal.” But again, the alternative from the western world that you’re living within is also untenable. What all of my friend’s parents are doing doesn’t look good either. So, you’re kind of stuck in no-man’s-land.
Dan Santat Right. I remember [sighs], did you ever do those things where they would have people come in and talk about their careers? I remember there was a guy who came in and he was an illustrator and he did movie posters. And I was really excited because he brought in the original painting for Fletch. I remember looking at that - and I would see posters, and I thought it was a photograph - and then I saw the Fletch movie poster and I was like, “Wait a second! You painted that?” And he was like, “Yeah.” And I said, “How long did this take?” And he was like, “Oh, you know, after taking some photos and transmitting it onto a piece of canvas…uh… about three days.” And I was like [exclaiming], “You painted this in three days? And you got paid for it? That’s amazing!”
That really excited me. And then at the same time, I immediately would shut the door because I would say, “Well, that’s not my destiny because my parents won’t let me do that, so let’s not even think about that.” My parents didn’t even let me take art classes because they were afraid that it would discourage me from my true passion of one day becoming a doctor.
Sarah Enni Of being a doctor. Oh, my gosh!
Dan Santat Yeah, my parents were very driven in the fact that if you’re going to be a doctor, everything you should do should be pointed in that direction. So, you should play golf because doctors play golf. You should play tennis because doctors play tennis. If you want to read a book, you should read a math book so you get better at math. Because of that, it really discouraged the love of reading. I hated to read. The only thing I really loved reading was the Sunday comics or Garfield… every day of the week. And that’s how I got started. I would start copying pictures of Garfield and I would go from there.
Sarah Enni Garfield! I love that.
Dan Santat Most of my art education from the beginning was self-taught. I eventually got a paper route, back in the day when you could be a paperboy. And I would take all of my paper route money and I would go to the liquor store and I would buy comic books. And then I graduated from Garfield and I started copying pictures of the X-Men, and the Incredible Hulk, and Spiderman. That was a gradual education in itself for most of my childhood.
Sarah Enni So, despite being discouraged, you found a way to be doing those things anyway?
Dan Santat Right. So, going back in the story, my mom suffers from Lupus, which is an auto-immune disease. And that came almost immediately after I was born. And because of that she could not have any more kids. I think there was a lot of weight that carried in me, mostly I think it was self-inflicted. A lot of it was, “If I’m an only child and they’re really hoping I’m gonna be a doctor, I don’t want to let them down.” And to reciprocate that [it was] definitely my mom. If any of the two parents were playing the good cop, it was my mom. Because my mom also felt bad that I was an only child.
She wanted four kids. And also, when she was sick, I couldn’t go out on a whole lot of play dates because she couldn’t leave the house because the sun could really aggravate her. I was home a lot of the time. And she knew I liked to draw, so in order for me to fill all of that time by myself, I would draw. And she would go out and buy markers, and she’d go buy sketch books, and she even went so far as to let me enter artwork into the county fair - the local county fair - and I would collect all of these ribbons.
I remember my dad being discouraged saying, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting him fall in love with art?” And it was this reciprocated kind of guilt that we had for each other. My mom would say, “Well, he’s home alone. He should be able to do something that he loves. Just give him that.”
I’ve been reflecting about that a lot while I’ve been working on my memoir.
Sarah Enni I was gonna say, memoir writing will do that.
Dan Santat And I used to be this angry teenager that was like [says in pouting voice], “Mom and Dad are just trying to ruin my life.” And then you reflect on the moments of me being a parent of two boys now who are eleven and eight, and saying you weren’t going to make the mistakes that your parents made. And then you end up catching yourself and saying, “Oh. I’m doing what my parents were doing.” It gives you a lot of information about what their intentions were.
So, when you’re trying to think back about moments in high school, and you’re trying to write about them, it’s important to be impartial and not let out your rage about [again in pouting voice], “Oh, my parents did this and they ruined my life by doing this.” You relive these moments that at first you found were very contentious. They were trying to rule with an iron fist. You think about it and you try to put their intentions into your mind when you’re writing their character’s side of the story. It’s very therapeutic.
Sarah Enni Have you and your dad had an interaction… did you ever get a moment where he was like, “Well, I guess this worked out?”
Dan Santat When I got accepted into art school. So, the backstory is, I went to a four-year college. I got a degree in microbiology. I got accepted into dental school. And then I had this whole semester to finish out my units to graduate and it was all my friends in college who said, “You know, we really feel like you’d be making a mistake if you were a doctor. Because we know that’s not what you love. We know that you love to do art. Just see if you can get into art school. Just try it.”
And you would sit there and you would think, “I just want to see if I have it. I just want to see if I have the stuff.” So, my last semester in college, I’m going all over San Diego trying to find figure drawing workshops and taking a crash course just trying to pull a portfolio together in the span of ten or eleven weeks. And I did this without my parent’s knowledge. They didn’t know I was doing this. And then graduation day comes and my parents take me out to dinner and they say, “So, are you ready to go to dental school?” And in the middle of dinner I say, “Mom, Dad, I got into art school.” And they just stopped. My dad looked at me and you could just see the combination of terror and sadness. I think it was at that point he realized, “Oh. This isn’t gonna to happen. You’re gonna do your own thing anyway.”
I remember looking at him and I said, “I got into art school and I think I’m going to go that route instead.” And then you see his heart just shatter in front of my face. And before he could say anything – cause I thought he was going to object – and before he could say anything I said, “I’m gonna do this whether you like it or not.” And he looked at me for what felt like an eternity and then he just said, “Well, I just want you to be happy.” And it was at that moment where it felt like a million tons of bricks got lifted off of my shoulders.
I came with an arsenal of information. At the time, Lion King was the hot new thing and everyone was talking about 3D animation and computers and I had all of these articles, and I said, “Look, places like Disney are paying six figure salaries for people animating on a computer.” And I said, “There’s all these people that can make careers doing album covers and video games and things like that.” I was a big video gamer when I was a kid and he knew that. And I said, “And you can do all these things on a computer and you can make a living.” I think that really relieved him to a certain degree. And with my mom, I remember my mom pulling me aside and she’s like, “Yeah, I knew this was gonna happen.”
So, I went to art school and my parents still had their reservations… because art school’s not cheap.
Sarah Enni Which art school did you go to?
Dan Santat I went to The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena which is probably one of the most expensive art schools in the country [both laughing]. And I felt like I was really behind a curve. I felt like, “Oh my gosh! I’m gonna go to school with all of these kids who’ve been nurtured to be artists for years and here I am… I threw a portfolio together in ten weeks! I’ve been spending my entire life copying X-Men covers.” But I went to art school and of course my parents would look at all of my work. It would be an assignment where I’m studying color with color swatches, and they would look at my assignment and they’d say, “How are you gonna make money off of this?” But they kept to themselves, they said, “I guess there’s a means to an end.”
And then I graduated from art school and my first thought was, “I’m gonna get a job so that they don’t have to worry that I am not employable.” So, I got my first job at a video game company. I got a job at Activision working on the Spiderman video games, the Spiderman movie video games. And that took a ton of weight off their shoulders. It’s like, “Oh my god! He’s making a living!” I was at that for six years.
But the moment that my dad said, “Oh, this was a good choice.” Was when I got my first two-book deal with Scholastic. That was a year out of art school, and I attended a conference SCBWI [Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators] children’s book conference which, at the time, was only four miles away from where I was working. And I said, “Okay, I should show my portfolio and my dummy book.” And I went to this conference, and I had my portfolio, and the portfolio [was on] display. After the judging was all done, this editor comes up to me and he has my dummy book in his hand, and he says, “I saw this manuscript and I want to take it back to my publisher. I want to give you a two-book deal.” And I said, “Oh…uh… well the proper book etiquette is I’m supposed to send it out to one editor at a time.” And I had already promised it to an editor at another publishing house.
So, I was looking at this editor and he was really confused and shocked like, “Oh… Okaay.” And he was like, “If you have any other ideas, here’s my card.” And I take the card and I walk away. My children’s book teacher, who was at the conference, pulls me aside. She grabs my arm really hard, and she looks at me and she says [drops voice and whispers harshly], “What are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?” And I said, “Well you taught me there’s a publishing etiquette! I’m supposed to send it to one person at a time!” She said, “Do you know who that man is?” And I looked at the business card and I said, “It’s Arthur Levine.” And she was like, “Do you know what Arthur Levine does?” And at the time I had no idea. And I said, “No. What does he do?” She’s like, “He edits Harry Potter!” And my response was [raising voice], “What have I done?!” She’s like [still in harsh disbelief], “You go back to him! You go back to him and you tell him he can take that manuscript and give you a two-book deal!”
And so, that’s what I did. I went back and I was like, “Uh, Arthur. I’ve consulted with people who are in the know of this industry and they say that it would be foolish to turn down this offer from you.”
Sarah Enni He says, “They’re right!”
Dan Santat Right! I hate to say it… I don’t have a story of struggle where it’s like, “Oh, I got turned down by all of these publishers.” I went to a conference and Arthur Levine found my manuscript and said, “Here’s a bag of money!”
Sarah Enni Listen, you don’t have to struggle to have an interesting [story]. That’s a very interesting story! I am going to ask you… let’s back up and work our way to that. Because I really do want to hear how you progressed from - you’re copying X-Men, you’re copying Garfield - I want to hear when and how it developed into telling your own stories.
Dan Santat Got it. So, I went to art school [and] at the time I thought I wanted to be a 3D animator. I thought I wanted to work at Pixar or Disney or DreamWorks. And then I took my first 3D animation course using this software Maya, which is an industry standard. I made a one-minute film and it took fourteen weeks, and it was the biggest pain in the butt! It was so user unfriendly. To say that you spend fourteen weeks to make a minute of film, my gut reaction was, “There has to be a better way to tell stories.”
Sarah Enni But up until that point, I’m gonna press you on this, I’m curious about even in high school. Were you finding ways to tell stories? Or, making little comic books?
Dan Santat Oh, yeah! I would make my own little comic books that no one ever saw. I never shared them with anybody. They were all in secret. Mostly they were superhero kind of things. There was a comic bookshop that I would go to, and I would buy comics from that place every month. It was called Ralph’s Comic Corner. I would buy your Batman’s or used Spiderman’s and after a while it got a little stale like [sarcastically], “Oh gee. I wonder if Batman’s going to live through this issue?”
And that’s when [pauses] remember back when Waldenbooks was still a place? That’s when I started getting into Manga. I remember picking up Akira [written and illustrated by Katsuhiro Otomo] and this was when it was in monthly issues through Epic Comics, which is no longer around anymore. I remember picking it up at around Issue Eight, and characters were dying left and right in that comic, but it left a ripple in the story. There were consequences to everyone’s actions.
I remember I was reading it when I was twelve-years-old and it blew my mind! And I said, “This is amazing! This is way better than the stuff I’ve been reading.” I started inhaling Akira and Appleseed [written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow] and all of these great Japanese comics.
Sarah Enni What I love about that is that your discernment. You’re growing and figuring out what your taste is, and it’s driven by story. Because what I really want to hear from you throughout, is about visuals and story, and words and images, and how they interplay.
Dan Santat So, going back to art school, I had to figure out that there was a better way to tell stories. I took a children’s book art class. And they said, “Oh, picture books. Thirty-two pages. You tell a story.” And I immediately fell in love, because I could tell a story, and a lot of it felt heavily driven by illustration and it was mostly things I liked to draw anyway. I liked drawing monsters and robots and all of these fun little things. It quickly became apparent to me that I didn’t actually love to illustrate, but I loved to tell stories. And that illustration was a means to tell stories.
Sarah Enni Really?
Dan Santat It was, yeah. It was in art school I think when I realized that moment.
Sarah Enni Can you break that down for me?
Dan Santat So, let’s say… you can have a gallery artist paint a painting, and they’re completely content with that painting. And it doesn’t have to mean anything it can just be a beautiful image. I did some editorial work back in the day, I would do stuff for Entertainment Weekly and Time, and sometimes they would say, “Okay, here’s an article about a hedge fund. Try to encapsulate this entire article in one single image.” And that was a different type of narrative where you’re trying to explain an entire article with one image.
Sarah Enni Kind of like a book cover.
Dan Santat Right. It’s a different kind of thinking than actually a sequential narrative art that you’d see in comics or even picture books. And just thinking back to my interest in making my own comics when I was a kid, making comics is a really labor-intensive process, and I thought, “I don’t know if I can draw this much every month. If I were to do an issue of X-Men every month, that would drive me nuts. And I remember thinking, “I would rather write the issue and then have somebody else illustrate it.”
But going into picture books they say, “Well, it’s thirty-two pages, but they give you six months to illustrate the book.” And I said, “Oh, well, I can do that!” It really was like a baby step for me to get into writing because I was never very, or at least I never felt like I was a strong writer.
Like I said, going back to my childhood, writing never felt like it was a possibility, so I never really focused on it all that hard. But I do remember when we would have creative writing assignments, I would go all out. I would do a book cover. I’d even do my own “About the Author” photo in the back.
Sarah Enni Oh my gosh! Awesome!
Dan Santat That’s how much fun I had. And even then, it wasn’t so much about the writing, it was about the process of designing an entire book. So, picture books just felt like it was palatable for me at the time. So, now I’ve been doing books for… gosh, what am I in like, my fourteenth year of doing books? And as I’ve progressed I’ve learned a tremendous amount about doing picture books. I’ve done one graphic novel with Scholastic called SIDEKICKS that came out in 2010. And that’s a completely different experience, but I do find that I’m more passionate about telling longer stories. Which is why I’m tackling this YA.
I’ve got another graphic novel in the works that I’m doing with Scholastic. The beauty of a middle grade, or YA, is that you can stretch your legs out. You can take your time to build a moment. To build the emotion in a scene. Whereas with a picture book it’s, “Guys, you’ve got thirty-two pages. Keep this word count hopefully under three hundred words.” And that in itself is a very difficult process.
Sarah Enni Yeah, that’s a couple of tweets.
Dan Santat [pauses] I never even thought of it that way, that’s crazy! You’re using a different part of your brain.
Sarah Enni It’s a poetry as opposed to long form.
Dan Santat Maybe it was my love of cinema back when I was a kid. I inhaled movies because I didn’t like to read, because of what my parents offered me to read. I inhaled cinema. I watched so many movies in the eighties and the nineties. Now, I probably watch three or four movies a week. It’s almost like a job for me to sit there. I want to see how people tell stories. But now, every moment I have I’m spending time… I’m not spending any of my time trying to improve on my craft as an artist in terms of drawing. I mean, I do… I experiment, but not nearly as much as me reading books of all kinds to get that spark that will inspire me to come up with an idea.
Now, I’m at this point in my career where I hope that people can maybe look at me as a writer who is equally as good at writing as he is as an illustrator. Rather than as an illustrator who happens to write… if you get what I mean?
Sarah Enni Yeah! I’ve been wanting to talk to illustrators for a long time because I love this. If you have that skill set, I love hearing that you kind of see the visuals as a means to an end.
Dan Santat Absolutely. I have to say, I think it might actually come to a slight advantage to be able to communicate things visually sometimes. Especially with a comic, you don’t have to talk out certain feelings. Sometimes you can have a very impactful moment by just having a quiet, wordless scene. Especially in the realm of graphic novels. There is such a marriage of the two.
I have to admit, if it’s accompanied in one mind – if you’re doing the writing and illustrating – it speeds up the process considerably. Or, at least you can get more directly to the point of the message without it being cluttered.
Sarah Enni Okay, and I want to come back to that, about other people’s work versus your work. But first it sounds like your story influences are movies from the eighties and nineties…
Dan Santat [laughing] Oh, my god. That sounds terrible!
Sarah Enni No, no. This is great! Manga, and comic books. I love then that you ended up feeling that children’s stories were what you were drawn to. I’m curious about your influences and how you were finding your voice as a storyteller and as an illustrator. I love that your college friends… you clearly were drawing or doodling or whatever to the extent that they were like, “Dan likes this more than people’s mouths.”
Dan Santat I remember when I sold my first picture book, it was called THE GUILD OF GENIUSES, it came out in 2004. The premise was you have this society of geniuses. Around here in Southern California you have a lot of Elk Lodges, people that do a lot of community service, and then they get together and they rah-rah! And they have all of these fun events. The premise of my book was that you had this guild of really smart people who spend their time using their brains to solve all the problems of the world.
In this book, the problem arises when a famous movie star, who has a pet monkey, can’t figure out why his monkey is sad. So, he brings the monkey to the guild of geniuses and it’s up to them to find out, “Well, why is this monkey sad?” I remember at the time when I wrote the manuscript, it was my idea of what I thought I would have liked to have read when I was a kid. Now that I’m a parent of two kids, I think when you try to recall what it was like to be a kid, you end up being way off. You give yourself a very idealized view of yourself when you were a kid. You’re like, “Oh yeah, I did this and I never got in trouble.” Or maybe, “Oh, I worked hard. I earned everything.” Or, “Oh, I loved this, I loved this, and my kids are gonna love this.”
And you sit there, and you watch and observe your own children, and then you realize that your view of childhood is off in the sense that the little things are the things that they are really intrigued by. And unfortunately, that first book wasn’t very well received. Not to Arthur’s fault, but mostly because I just wasn’t ready. I just wasn’t ready to write. It’s one of those things where you look back at your book and you say, “I would have done things differently.”
I didn’t figure out my voice. I think that was the thing. I didn’t know what to say. So, the follow-up was my graphic novel Sidekicks. And that was about four superhero house pets who were owned by a superhero. I grew up with a lot of pets. My wife loves animals. We have three dogs, two cats, a bird. We used to have a rabbit somewhere, a fish. We’d have these discussions of, “Okay, what do these pets do when we’re not home?” And the idea that, “Well, if I could teach my dog tricks… would a superhero be able to teach their pets superhero tricks?”
Also, I started integrating a lot of personal experience. I didn’t have any siblings, but I had friends who would bike home after school, and it would be my friend and his older brother and the mischief they would get in while their parents were working till five or six o’clock. And that was the thing. It was relating the story to kids in a certain way that I was missing. So, Sidekicks, a lot of it is about sibling rivalry. It’s about wanting to be the favorite. It’s about wanting to get that attention. And that one did really well.
Sarah Enni So, you had your first project with traditional children’s books – short form – and then you go right into… you’re still pretty new and writing an entire graphic novel? That’s a lot.
Dan Santat Right, well in between that time I had a cartoon show [laughs]. After the first picture book came out, I got a call from a Hollywood agent and they said, “We’d love to represent you for film and TV. How would you like to go out and pitch some show ideas to some networks?” And I said, “Okay, sure.” And one of my very first pitch meetings was at Disney Animation. I pitched them this cartoon idea called THE REPLACEMENTS which was going to be a children’s book that I wanted to illustrate.
And the premise was: A boy is really upset that his parents make him do chores. They make him brush his teeth. They make him take a bath, go to bed at a certain time. And he looks into an old comic book – and again, there’s the whole comic book influence – but he finds an old comic book. And back in the old days there were comic books that had pages where you could buy sneezing powder, and x-ray glasses, and things like that. And he comes across an ad that says, “You can replace your uncool parents with cool parents.” And so, he cuts out the ad and mails it and in. Eight to ten weeks later a box shows up, and he gets these cool parents and his regular parents get carted away like props.
So, suddenly he has a Mexican wrestler dad and a cowgirl for a mom! In the picture book, the idea was that he realizes that cool parents don’t make great parents and then he rips off the warranty off their butts to get a full-parent refund.
So, I pitched this to Disney. They loved the idea. It’s my very first pitch. They buy the show. And then two years later it’s on The Disney Channel for three seasons.
Sarah Enni Wow!
Dan Santat But, I learned a lot. So, that’s a completely whole other experience. Here I am, four years out of art school and I’ve got a cartoon show. It’s funny, because after taking an animation course and realizing that I hate animation, I’m doing this. I actually have no interest in the art. I have interest in the storylines. And you have all of these network executives that want to touch everything. So, you submit a script and they say, “Mm. Change this, and this, and this.” And you think, “You’re really homogenizing this and you’re just making it lame.” And they say, “Well, you know what? The boss thinks that’s a good idea so, uh, I think you should do it.” And you end up being a company guy, just doing what they want. For lack of a better view, I guess I felt like maybe I sold myself a little bit.
I was getting so many notes! This is the other adverse effect to it, because you end up getting so many notes that you felt like you didn’t know how to write anymore. And you don’t feel confident in what you’re doing. So, after the first season, I left the show. It was just too discouraging. That’s when I focused on Sidekicks.
So, Sidekicks was my first book after Guild of Geniuses. [I was] coming out of this whole thing just feeling really insecure about myself, and I’m really terrified. I’m thinking, “I hope people like Sidekicks. I hope I’m not an impostor. I hope I’m actually a decent writer. I hope I’m an okay writer.” When Sidekicks did well, it gave me this hope that, “Oh. Maybe I do belong in this business.”
That was when I decided I’m just gonna focus on doing the best children’s books I can. And up till this point, I was spreading myself pretty thing. I was working at the video game company while I was running a show, while I was writing and illustrating books, and illustrating books for other people, and doing editorial work. I was averaging maybe four hours of sleep a night.
Sarah Enni Whoa!
Dan Santat It wasn’t until the birth of my first son where that sleep would get broken up, and then I just couldn’t live like that. It was really unhealthy. So, I walked from the show and I said, “Okay. I’m just gonna work on books full-time.” While you’re illustrating other people’s books, and reading other people’s manuscripts, it’s a tremendous learning experience. You’re seeing how they write, and then you’re illustrating not necessarily the text. You’re not literally illustrating the text, you’re filling in the blanks that they’re not saying directly.
The magic behind a picture book is that the text is supposed to say one thing and the illustrations are supposed to tell the other half of the story. Chip Kidd [graphic designer best known for his book covers] gives this great lesson. He says, “You can write the word apple. You can show a picture of an apple. But you can’t have both on the same page, because then you’re talking down to the audience.” I was very mindful of that. And just by illustrating other people’s manuscripts, it made me a better writer because I was learning from their craft.
And then, just like everything else, the way you learn is by imitation. So, you say, “Okay. I’m gonna try and write a little bit like this person.” But it still has your own unique touches to it.
Sarah Enni In reviewing your many, many, many books [laughs], I spent a long time on Good Reads looking through things, it seemed like, especially when you get to Beekle, at that point it felt really different. Looking at Guild of Geniuses and Beekle it seems like you have such a distinct point of view. You’d grown into this fully realized thing.
Dan Santat Right. So, the funny thing is, up until that point, I had been asked to illustrate a lot of humorous books. I think people saw me as this person that, “He’s a really funny guy. He can really nail those jokes.”
Sarah Enni In your illustrations, you can make the joke land?
Dan Santat Yeah, I can make the joke land or I can add to the joke. I can make it funnier. I can punch it up. So, I ended up in this place where, and I didn’t see this too often in picture books, I was kind of the action picture book guy. One of the first books was Oh No!: Or, How My Science Project Ruined the World which was heavily influenced by Japanese monster movies. The whole book reeked of it. It felt like someone had made a Japanese monster movie and put it into a book. But it did so well it ended up winning a silver medal at the Society of Illustrators.
And that kind of puts a stamp on you, “He’s the robot guy. He’s the action picture book guy.” And then you end up getting manuscripts like Three Ninja Pigs and funny manuscripts like Crankenstein or Carnivores and it defines your list after a while. So, here I was, it’s time to do Beekle. Up to that point, I was spreading myself so thin that I didn’t have any time to write anything new, because Sidekicks was a very long process in between everything else.
So, when it was time to sell Beekle, I’m a completely different person. I’ve a whole set of knowledge about what kind of stories I want to write. I’m influenced by my children now.
Sarah Enni I was gonna say, you have two kids, your whole life’s different.
Dan Santat Right. And so, the idea behind Beekle was that it was my sons first word. My wife and I were at an intersection and a man on a bicycle, bikes by and then we hear our son in the back seat say, “Beekle.” My wife and I look at each other and we say, “What is he trying to say?” And we look back and he’s pointing at the guy on the bicycle and he says, “Beekle.” And we realize that it’s his first word for bicycle.
And my wife says, “You know? That’s a really adorable word. If you were to write a book, maybe that should be the name of the character or something?” Most of my inspiration comes actually from just being bored. Just sitting in LA traffic and letting your mind wander and thinking of premises. Because at the time I was also pitching show ideas, which got old really fast, it was just stale. It was constant pitch, pitch, pitch and you’d just be throwing ideas together. And Beekle was this idea about an imaginary friend and I thought, “That seems right up the alley of what a network would want.” It just seemed like the same thing. Everything felt the same. It felt like every pitch about an imaginary friend was, “Oh. There’s a boy who had an imaginary friend. And then he grew up and then he didn’t need his imaginary friend anymore, so what happens to the imaginary friend?” That seemed like 99.9 percent of the imaginary friend ideas.
I don’t exactly know how it landed in my mind, but one day I said, “What if the imaginary friend was born, and then he was waiting to be imagined by somebody?” And the premise was that I wanted the idea that somewhere in this world you’re perfect for someone. The initial draft of it was that he was an imaginary friend who kept trying to change himself. He would paint spots on himself, he’d put on some fake horns, to try to fit in. To try to be something that he was not.
In talking to my editor, she said, “Well that’s more of an older theme. That’s more of a teenager trying to fit in with the crowd kind of thing. This story’s a picture book so you have to speak younger.” And that’s when I thought about it from a point of view of making your first friend. So, that’s how Beekle came about. And then just kind of really getting into the whole emotional part of it. I’m writing the story and I feel like I’m writing it to my son about how he made his first friend. Then I started having these feelings of going back to my parents like, “I really don’t know a whole lot about my parents. I really don’t know where they came from. What their interests are about.” Because they were never open. They were never very open about their feelings. They would never even say that they loved me. It was kind of like, “Okay.” And I’m like, “God dammit!”
So, the idea behind Beekle was that I wanted it to be a love letter to my son. And I wanted it to be something where he could read the book and he’d say, “This tells me how much he loves me.” And years from now, if he gets married, if he has his own kids, he can show his kids and he can say, “This is a love letter from grandpa to me.”
So, family has become a really big thing for me. That’s where my writing has gone… in that direction. So, I have Beekle and then I had another book that followed up after that and it was called ARE WE HERE YET? And that goes to my younger son who just can’t wait to grow up. He always wants to do what his older brother does. And again, you’re trying to connect it to, “How do kids relate to this?”
I always thought it was interesting how people perceive time. Where if you’re bored, it feels like time slows down. When you’re having fun, time feels like it speeds up. But kids don’t really care that it’s two o’clock, or three o’clock. They don’t think in those terms. But they do think about how when you’re bored, “Oh! It’s taking forever.” What kid has never said, are we there yet? We’re taking forever. So, that one was for my younger son. And it was about how I wanted him to enjoy the time that he has being a kid. Because we as adults, we can think back and be like, “Oh, my gosh, I remember I had all this time to do whatever I wanted.”
And now I have a book coming out this fall, it’s called AFTER THE FALL. The premise was one of these things where you’re just kind of shocked that no one had ever done it yet. The story was about Humpty Dumpty after he fell. The relatability is that everyone can relate to some kind of failure, or some kind of accident and the fear and anxiety that comes with trying to overcome that fear. Maybe you fell off your bike. Do you want to get back on the bike and conquer it, try to ride it again? And that one is a love letter to my wife because my wife has spent a good chunk of her life dealing with anxiety. So much so, that after we had our first kid she went through a bout of postpartum depression and then her anxiety really started affecting the marriage.
The way her anxiety, and I believe a lot of people with anxiety, they’ll change their life to avoid certain triggers. It just got to the point where I felt like I was the only parent taking care of the kid, because she was just so concerned about not triggering these things that would set her anxiety off. If she was stressed out about something - it wasn’t a bad day - it was bad weeks. It would go on for three weeks, four weeks. We went to Hawaii on our tenth anniversary and she couldn’t even calm down. From a scale of one to ten, her anxiety was a six or seven. She would wake up at a six or seven and I would be like, “We’re in Hawaii! Why can’t you stop thinking about work and just enjoy this?” It really affected our marriage to the point where I said, “Look, I can’t be married to you if this goes on like this. You either do something about this anxiety, or I can’t go on like this. It’s really stressful on the kids, on me, and I can’t do this alone.”
So, she went to a doctor. She got medicated. I remember she was very resentful about it at the time. Saying, “Oh, are you happy? I’m taking these pills for you now.” Then two or three weeks into it the edge started taking off. The anxiety was starting to go away, but the weird part about it was that it stressed her out even more.
Sarah Enni Not having the anxiety?
Dan Santat It was almost like a security blanket kind of feeling where it’s like, “My body’s telling me that there’s constant danger 24-7 and now that it’s telling me that there’s not? I feel like there’s something wrong.”
Sarah Enni Yeah, or I’m missing it.
Dan Santat Right. And so, six to eight weeks on the medication… she was a completely different human being. It was like she was the person I met in college, she was the person I fell in love with. It’s a big step for someone to overcome their anxiety and I’m not saying that medication is the answer for everybody. I know plenty of writers who have anxiety and they live with it. They function as best they can. And that’s the other thing, my older son has inherited that anxiety. And that’s also a concern of mine because the debate my wife and I have back and forth is, “Should we do something about this now before he starts tailoring his life to it? Or, should we just let him choose how he wants to live his life?”
My wife insists that he should be able to choose when he’s older. And in the back of my mind I can’t stop but think, “I feel like I’m doing a disservice to my son by doing that.” But, I relent and I say, “Okay.” Who am I to say that if you want to live that way, it’s the wrong way. So, I do that and I step back and I let him do what he does.
But, After the Fall comes very much from the life experience of living with someone with anxiety. In the story, you have Humpty Dumpty tailoring his life to avoid heights in every way possible, until he’s put in a position where he’s forced to climb the wall again.
Sarah Enni And he’s a uniquely fragile person, or character.
Dan Santat It changes him. It changes him. I’m not going to go any further about what happens. I think the most flattering thing you can get from someone who reads your manuscript is to see them get really emotional about it. To see someone cry about it? My wife, oh my god, my wife just cried about it. She loved it. She got a tattoo for it. And then we had this discussion. I said, “Okay, well I’m eventually gonna have to talk about this book. And I want to know if it’s okay if we talk about this.” And she said, “I want people to know everything, because if it can help then, more power to it.”
For me, I think I revealed a lot about myself when I was talking about Beekle. And this book, it’s a little bit more about revealing who my wife is. I’m an old hand at this, obviously, but my wife is taking it in stride. We know that it’s not gonna be this thing that will immediately solve your problems like, “Oh, I no longer have anxiety because Humpty Dumpty doesn’t have anxiety.” But maybe it’s a stepping stone. So that’s where we’re at.
Sarah Enni Or, having stories that refer to that. Being around and knowing as many creative people as you and I do, there’s a lot of talk about mental illness, anxiety, and all of these kinds of things. And I’m constantly talking about my therapist, referencing her conversations all the time. And I feel the honesty then becomes second nature. I recently was helping a close friend of mine go through something hard, and she was like, “Oh, I’m having a panic attack.” And I was like, “You are not having a panic attack. I absolutely know what a panic attack looks like. We would be handling this very differently if it was. You probably have anxiety.” Another friend got diagnosed ADHD and I was like, “I’m so unsurprised by that. Here’s people I know that you can talk to about which medications they take.”
It makes me realize that there still are pockets of people where this isn’t a common conversation. So being open about your wife taking medication, and taking that route, is really real.
Dan Santat I have to admit, I have a pretty strong resentment for anxiety. I don’t have anxiety, but I hate what it does to people. I hate how they become a prisoner to it. I think early on before I realized my wife had anxiety – because she never admitted she had anxiety – leading up to it, I remember it would be a constant like, “What are you afraid of? Get over it. Get over it.” Not realizing that she could never actually get over it.
Sarah Enni Yeah, anxiety sucks.
Dan Santat [sighs heavily] It’s terrible. So, it’ll be interesting to see how people react to the book who have anxiety. So, when we’re talking about inspirational, a lot of inspiration for me comes from deep down and just being really honest with myself. I think that’s where the best stuff comes. I’ll admit, I’ve been having a bit of a dry spell, or… not a dry spell in terms of ideas, but for some reason, a lot of my ideas are sprouting up more towards, “Oh. This seems more suitable for a middle grade.” Or, “This seems more suitable for young adult.” And I don’t know if it’s a matter of the content I’m imbibing, but…
Sarah Enni The age of your kids.
Dan Santat Yeah, perhaps.
Sarah Enni Getting older.
Dan Santat Right, right. Or maybe what I’m watching, or maybe what I’m more interested in these days.
Sarah Enni You said earlier that you feel like maybe, to some degree, drawing all of these robots, and aliens, and dragons was recapturing a youth you were perhaps robbed of in some way. So maybe you’re aging.
Dan Santat Definitely. Going back to the memoir I’m writing. That deals with my mom’s breast cancer. I had a rough time with my dad because of this cultural barrier that we had, where my dad absolutely had no knowledge of how to cook or clean in the house because that wasn’t the role of the Asian male. “I go out and make money.” At the time, you get really pissed off, because your mom’s going through chemotherapy and your dad comes home and he’s like, “What’s for dinner?” And you’re like, “What? You need to step up man! You gotta take care of her cause she’s vomiting from the chemo drugs.” Like, “Have a heart.”
I remember this moment where you could see a clear wall where my dad was raised a certain way and I was raised another way, and we just couldn’t see eye-to-eye. There was just no way he was going to see what he was doing was wrong.
For me, the inspiration isn’t [pauses] So, I was with Gene Yang at the Miami Book Festival, this was back in 2009 or 2010, and I had read American Born Chinese and it changed my life. It was one of those books where I said, “This spoke to my soul, man. This was amazing.” And we were exchanging stories about what it was like growing up as Asian Americans and the struggles with our parents about wanting to be creative. And then I told him the story about my parents. And it was Gene who said, “You need to write this book.” And I said, “Uh, I’m gonna wait until my parents are dead before I write this book.” And he said, “I know you say that, but there’s a lot of Asian kids out there who need to hear this story because they totally relate.”
So, after winning the Caldecott medal for Beekle, I don’t know if other medalists go through this, but there’s this pressure of having to live up to this award because it’s such a big award. You don’t want to let anyone down. You don’t want to let a publisher down by doing something that isn’t worthy of that title. I remember talking to my editor and agent and I said, “I think I want to try my hand at this memoir.”
Sarah Enni And the memoir is a graphic novel format?
Dan Santat Yeah. And they said, “Yes. I think that’s a good step to take.” So, we signed it and my parents still don’t know about it.
Sarah Enni Really?
Dan Santat They still don’t know about it. Because they just don’t want any of their stuff aired. My mom would flip out if she was like, “You told people I had breast cancer. How could you do that?” And rather than go through the years of hearing my mother nag while I’m writing the book… I think if they were to impart their disapproval throughout the process, it would influence the story. And you’re like, “Oh, maybe that’s too hard on my parents. I should back off on that.”
Granted that this book also doesn’t paint me in a whole positive light. There’s some really ugly moments in my life that I’m not proud of that go in the book. Like I talk about how I beat up three guys in a parking lot at Denny’s with a golf club.
Sarah Enni What?
Dan Santat I mean, I didn’t start it, but it was a very ugly moment where, for a brief few minutes, I just wasn’t a human being. I turned into this ugly monster. But it all builds about the pressure that I had as a teenager and not having an outlet to share it with anybody. Just keeping it in and then exploding all at one moment. It’s not an inspirational tale. I don’t necessarily feel like this [book] paints the Asian culture in a great light, but it does allow us to feel human.
Sarah Enni That’s interesting to hear that because memoirs aren’t typically about praise.
Sarah Enni It’s always gonna be about struggle. There’s always gonna be conflict.
Dan Santat But the thing I really relish is just the raw honesty of it all. I feel like there’s a line that a lot of people won’t cross. I talk to other people who write memoirs. You ask, “Did you hold back a little bit?” And some of them will say, “Yeah, I changed a little bit.” Or, there’s just a line they won’t cross. I’m aggressively chasing after that line. Maybe it’s all the Sedaris that I read where he just tells all of this stuff about his family and he’s not necessarily apologetic about it.
Sarah Enni Oh, my god. He’s so not apologetic. Maureen and I were just talking about his most recent Fresh Air interview.
Dan Santat For his new book?
Sarah Enni Yeah. It’s literally his diary, literally. [Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002] He talks about the death of his sister; his sister took her own life. And he was like, “We totally contributed to that. My family was not great to her.” It’s remarkable. I feel like there is part of me that is so interested in this because I feel radical honesty is the only way that we’re gonna survive the moment that we’re in. In a real way. We have to push against the Instagram filter of the world that is happening around us.
We need to talk about our therapists, and talk about anxiety. Warts don’t go away, they just get Photoshopped. There’s something really refreshing about listening to David Sedaris be like, “I dreamed about this life and now that I have it, it’s amazing.” He’s honest with the good and the bad in a way that we don’t hear that much. And it’s really refreshing.
Dan Santat [sighs heavily] It’s been a process. There are chapters that I know I’m just not ready to write yet. I know, “Okay, this happens in this chapter.” But I need to get emotionally set. I never thought that would happen to me. So, I’m actually writing chapters out of sequence and just saying, “I’m gonna come back to that later because that’s really heavy.” Sometimes I’ll work on it on a plane. I remember I wrote a chapter, and then I just started crying in my seat. I was flying to a conference in Wisconsin and I turned away and was looking out the window. And of course, I looked like someone that’s like [weepily], “Oh, Wisconsin… so beautiful.”
So, you sit there a go, “Okay. That’s enough writing for today. Most of that is not only to make something that Asian American kids will relate to, but I think it’s more therapeutic for me.
Sarah Enni I was gonna say, do you think moments like that are big moments of growth as a writer?
Dan Santat Oh, absolutely. I never want to feel comfortable when I’m writing. Even with my illustrations. Like right now I’m illustrating a book… I’ve never worked on too many books that dealt with Asian identity. I never got those manuscripts. But I got this one, it’s called Drawn Together [written by Minh Lê] and it’s about this grandson and this grandfather who can’t communicate with each other because of the language barrier, but they bond because of their abilities to draw. I can relate to that. I could never speak with my grandmother. She spoke Thai, I spoke English. I could understand her, but I couldn’t communicate back to her. In that respect, I felt very deeply connected to the manuscript.
After a while, you keep illustrating the same books over and over again and you can get a little bit bored sometimes. You’re just doing the same thing the same way. So, now I’m experimenting more with this book and I can typically knock out a picture book spread, a two-page spread, in a day. And these are taking me about, on average, three days which is very unfamiliar to me. And I’m excited because I never know what the end result’s gonna be. But it’s also brand new. It’s being able to experiment for the first time.
And I love that. I love not knowing what the end result’s going to be and it’s going to be something fresh. I haven’t felt that way in maybe five or six years. There’s a lot of growth, there’s a lot of plateaus that come with your work. So, you get to a point where if you’ve plateaued for a certain while, I think the anxiety is, “This is as good as it’s gonna be.” Like, “This is it. This is all I’m gonna be.” So, when you do finally have a breakthrough – and it’s not something you can force. Being able to write, being able to illustrate, sometimes even trying to find my art style, it’s best if you just let it come to you.
And that can be the very discouraging thing about creativity. It’s like chasing your shadow, the harder you try, it’s gonna be harder to get. So, I had this breakthrough for me and it’s very exciting.
Sarah Enni Do you think it would have been possible unless you were already also breaking through on this other side?
Dan Santat That is a very good question. Um, I’d have to say maybe the manuscript for this particular book influenced that because I’m a very form follows function kind of person. I don’t think of myself as someone who has a style. I think of myself as someone who sees a manuscript as a problem and I have to make the proper choices to address the solution.
So, in other words, I can’t paint a book about rainbows the same way I paint a book about a robot terrorizing a city. Two different voices. So, when drawn together you have to think, “How does a child draw? How does an old Asian man draw?” At the beginning of the book you’re literally drawing as a child. You’re literally drawing as an old man. And then at some point in the book, their styles blend in together. And that’s how it happened. I think the manuscript maybe forced my hand and then I was forced by influence of the manuscript to evolve to what it’s turned into.
Sarah Enni I have a basic question to ask because I don’t know this exact process and I think many of my listeners may not be familiar. Let’s talk about the memoir graphic novel. Do you write all of the words first? How does this process work?
Dan Santat I outline very heavily. There’s people that can just type and they can wander. And I’m always tackling multiple projects at once. So, like right now, I have literally five projects on my plate right now. So, I have to outline heavily so that I can see where this path goes. Now with the memoir it’s tricky, because there’s a lot of things that you think are relevant or maybe you’re so attached to the experiences in life that you don’t know that it’s not relevant. So then, you include everything. That’s when you have an editor to say, “Help me sort this out. Tell me if it’s too much noise.”
I guess it’s a bastardization of the term memoir, because what happens is it is twelve years of my life and I’m scrunching it down to one year of high school, and you have to take certain liberties. You can’t have eighty characters in your book that influenced you. You have to take ten friends and turn them into one person. It’s all about trying to find that single vision, that single moment or that single timeline that makes the whole thing sing. Then you’re also looking at the twelve years of your life and saying, “I’m gonna pluck out this moment, and this moment, and this moment. And how do I connect these.” That’s been very difficult.
Also, the other thing is that throughout the book I tell the old tale of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So, the story goes back and forth where you see a passage from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and then you see a portion of my life that reflects that in the story. So, throughout the book, I’m living my own Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Sarah Enni So, this is where I want to hear where the visuals come in. Because as someone who is just working with prose, a part of me has total envy about like you said, the heavy impact a quiet frame can have. Like a slow-pan in a movie, and things like this that are really evocative and can say so much with total silence. When you’re in someone’s head, in a YA novel, you have to provide all of that and make the reader forget they’re reading. And that’s a whole other task.
But you can embrace that a reader is watching and reading which is very interesting to me. So, when you’re outlining and writing that process, are you thinking of the images?
Dan Santat Do you think in images? My mind plays out like a movie.
Sarah Enni Um, somewhat. I think that you are much more evolved than that. Mine are like… I don’t see faces, they’re very indistinct.
Dan Santat I’ll sit down and I’ll think about a moment, and it will just play like a movie in my head. And then I’ll let the scene finish out in my head, and then I think about the scene again. I do it again. A lot of my writing isn’t actually on paper, or typed out, a lot of it’s just in my head. I’ll just sit there and think. It’s much easier with a picture book because it’s smaller. I can probably map out an entire picture book in my head without writing anything. I can just think about it.
With a graphic novel, I think that kind of thinking totally lends itself to a graphic novel. When you’re taking moments of your own life, and making an even bigger graphic novel, there are moments where I might not feel the impact of the scene with the words. But in my head, when I know what I’m going to draw, it can definitely be moving to me.
Sarah Enni Well, that’s where the therapy comes in, right?
Dan Santat [whispers] Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. I’ve been struggling a little bit about whether I want to tell the people in the book about [it]. Like my high school girlfriend. I’m wondering, should I tell her that she’s in this book? Or, should I just let her stumble upon it by accident? It doesn’t paint her in a negative light, but…
Sarah Enni But everyone wants to be painted in a glorious light.
Dan Santat Or maybe it’s like, “I don’t remember it this way.” Or, “I didn’t know you felt this way about this.” If I were to tell her, and she would constantly ask me questions, I’m afraid that that might influence how I’m writing the book.
Sarah Enni I think, you’re not asking for my advice but I’m gonna give it to you…
Dan Santat Give it to me, give it to me!
Sarah Enni I think a heads-up before it’s out.
Dan Santat That’s wonderful.
Sarah Enni It’s like, “You what? I wrote a book. You’re kind of in it, kind of not. Check it out if you want.”
Dan Santat Right. [Laughs] I’ve spoken to other authors, and they were just like, “Yeah, you’re gonna tell people and no one’s gonna be happy about it.”
Sarah Enni Yeah. I doubt it’s gonna be great.
Dan Santat When the publisher made the announcement that I was doing the memoir, I didn’t share it because I know that my parents are lurking on social media and they’d be like [whispers], “What’s this?” And so, I have to be like, “I’m sorry. I didn’t re-tweet that.” Or, “I didn’t…” Because I know my parents are watching. So, by not re-tweeting it they’d be like [whispers], “Don’t tell anyone.” And then…
Sarah Enni Are they gonna listen to this?
Dan Santat No. I mean, I’ll share it, but I’ll share it on the platforms that they don’t follow.
Sarah Enni That is amazing. So, we wrap up the interview with advice. I would love to hear general writing advice, but I’d also love just advice as someone who is writing and illustrating their own work. What are some tips?
Dan Santat Oh gosh [sighs]. I don’t want to give a cliché response. I’ll go with form follows function. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from the head of the grad department for illustration at the School of Visual Arts. His name is Marshall Arisman, he’s a legendary illustrator. I remember I was struggling with style, I was trying to find a style and I asked Marshall, I said, “How did you find your style?” And Marshall Arisman said, “I didn’t find a style. You just do your work. And if you ever find yourself asking yourself if you can make money off of this, then you’re going down the wrong path. What you want to do, is do your work. And the money will find you.”
So, the hardest thing I think most people have is probably to be true to yourself. And the difficulty with that is that being true to yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be successful. Your work just may not be commercially viable. But, it’s better to live a life like that, then to try to be something you’re not.
I’ve been fortunate that the work that I do is so palatable to people, but I think a lot of that comes from having an open mind and letting everything in, and being influenced by everything around you. And familiarizing yourself with things that are unfamiliar. The greater knowledge you have of the world, the better the writer, the better an artist you’re going to be. Because you then have something to say.
It can be scary. It can be scary to try to be open-minded about certain things that maybe you were even raised to be contentious about. But everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has an opinion. I think if you broaden your mind to those opinions, you are going to be better off and well informed about how you want to express yourself. I think that’s the best advice I can give.
Sarah Enni That is amazing, I love that.
Dan Santat Good.
Sarah Enni Thank you so much.
Dan Santat Yay! Thank you! That was awesome.
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Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent; Linda Holmes, author and host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast; Jonny Sun, internet superstar, illustrator of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Gmorning, Gnight! and author and illustrator of Everyone’s an Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too; Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender; John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; or Rhett Miller, musician and frontman for The Old 97s. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.
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