Thursday, April 25, 2024

Q&A with Thea Lu




Thea Lu is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Here & There. She lives in Shanghai.


Q: What inspired you to create Here & There?


A: Here & There is a fictional story based on two people I met in the real world.


One is my dive guide who I met in Maldives. He works on boats, from place to place. He told me that on some occasions, especially when guests are off board and return to their own homes, a sense of distancing feeling may crawl around him. But he still loves his life choice, one that allows him to travel through works, to meet people in different corners of the world.


Another one is a sweet guy who runs a no-name cafe in a little street in Cambridge. He grew up along this street, and he said: “Most likely, I will retire in the same hospital where I was born (the hospital has been renovated into a nursery house).” He seldom traveled. People who once came for coffee sent him food and cards from their places. He chooses a settled life but is well-connected to the outside world.


I met these two people in different places, at different times. Their life options are much different, but I feel they are also similar in essence. I’ve kept their stories in mind for a long time until I made up my mind that I wanted to turn them into a picture book.


Q: Did you work on the illustrations first or the text first--or both simultaneously?


A: The text and images of Here & There were developed at the same time. I started with very rough imagery and wrote down some phrases alongside.


At the very beginning stage, I doodled two thumbnails on my sketchbook: one is a cafe man leaning against the edge of a long table, and one is a boatman standing on the tip of a boat. Almost at the same time, I got the starting text: This is Aki…. This is Dan….


These initial doodles set the tone for the whole book—the symmetry composition that unfolds the lives of each person, one on the left and one on the right. 


Q: How did you develop your artistic style?


A: For Here & There, I was quite sure at the beginning that the story should be revealed in a cinematic and sentimental style. So I chose oil ink as the main media to render the atmosphere, then added details with color pencils as well as a light touch of collage.


Having a consistent style is good for recognition among a wider public, but I just can’t keep myself loyal to one artistic way. For different book projects, I have to feel and catch the most appropriate visual expression. So when kicking off the artwork, I usually start with a mood board and visual keywords to direct myself. 


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?


A: I prefer to view this title as a cross-age one, rather than a book merely for children.


For young readers, I hope this book can create an opportunity for children and their parents to talk about ‘what kind of life you want to live in the future.’


We tend to ask children ‘what kind of job do you want to have when you grow up,’ but what should be cared about more is ‘what kind of lifestyle you want to have’?


In a sense, Dan’s and Aki’s choices are on opposite poles of a broad life-option spectrum: one that always moves, and another one that is deeply rooted. We can linger and think about our life in between.


I believe grown-up readers may resonate more with this story. The two protagonists’ life options differ greatly from each other but they both feel their lives are incomplete. It is the people they meet that complete their world. Readers can take it as a life-option book, a book about our relationship with the world. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on an editorial illustration project for a poem album. Meanwhile, I’m brewing two new book ideas.


One will be a hilarious, fun, and quirky book, dealing with the dialectical relationship between individualism and collectivism. Another idea is more fantasy. I hope it will end up as an imaginative story about an island and the world. I’d like to keep it a bit mysterious for now ;-).


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: In my newsletter, I've written an article talking about the whole idea and the "back-of-house" process of this book, with some context images. Here's the link:


Though it was written in Chinese, hopefully with help of the Google Translate (thanks to technology), it can be well understood.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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