Transcript from an interview with Allen Say

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Allen Say. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

A first autobiography

"The Innkeeper's Apprentice" was my first and the only so-called novel; it's an autobiography, of course, which I never thought I was able to write. And it was at the urging of my then-editor, Nina Ignatowicz, to whom "Drawing from Memory" is dedicated, was the editor, my editor at Harper and Row.

And I had done couple of picture books for her, and then I met her socially in New York, and told her some nonsensical story, and she told me, "You're a storyteller! You must write your own story." And she was the one who cajoled me and urged me to write that story, which I didn't think I was able to do, I was going to be able to do it. So there it was. It took me a year, the most difficult work that I've ever done, I think.

Writing English has always been a very terrifying prospect. The only English course that I took in college was English, because I had to take it. Anyhow, all my background is in the visual arts. Drawing, painting, architecture. And it was my first and the last attempt. And then, about three years ago, when the editor with whom I worked for over 20 years, Walter Lorraine, at Houghton Mifflin, retired, I hired an agent for the first time in my career, and he brokered a two-book contract for me with Scholastic, and it was Andrea Pinkney, one of the editors there, who took him out to lunch and asked him if Allen Say might be interested in doing a picture book based on "The Innkeeper's Apprentice". And that's how it happened.

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Learning from the master

Noro Shinpei, who is Noro Shinpei? He was one of the most famous post-war Japanese cartoonists, and happened to be my favorite cartoonist. And he was one of the great pioneers of what manga has evolved into today. And that's what I wanted to be, to do. And I went and crashed his studio.

Well, there had been series of coincidences which are hard for me to explain, because I myself remember them and marvel at them today. The moment that I'm in my one-room apartment, a boy's dream come true, like a treehouse. I could read as late as I wanted. Okay, now I can truly realize my dream, that is, to become, to search for a master in cartooning.

And one of the first things that I did was to buy a newspaper, I mean, 12-year-old boys don't buy newspapers. And I'm reading this in this restaurant, and lo and behold, I read about Tokida. It was kind of a shattering experience to me, that there were other boys who wanted to be cartoonists. I thought I was unique, I mean, who wants to be a cartoonist? I was never taken seriously by grown-ups.

And, but there I was. And I'm reading the paper, and the extraordinary thing, which we cannot imagine today, is that in those days, Japanese newspapers published the names and addresses of those who got on the news. So I had this great man's address. I just simply cut out this article. And that's what I'm carrying in the book when the boy goes searching for Noro Shinpei.

And as it turned out, it was within walking distance from my apartment, and Tokyo is a vast city. It's a place called Ikebukuro, and it happened pretty much the way I described it there. It was a little office in this drab building, which I was sort of afraid to walk into. And it was Kafkaesque. I went from door to door, each door had this milky glass window at the top, and it was in the last room.

I had to go upstairs, I checked every room on the first floor, no Noro Shinpei. I go upstairs, and it was in the last room that I saw that little card pinned there with a pushpin, a thumbtack, "Noro Shinpei." It was his calling card. And I opened the door, and it happened pretty much the way I described it in that book.

First of all, my amazement was that he seemed like a young man — not young man, exactly. I had no idea, I think he was 35 or 37, I figured it out. But he was so famous that I assumed that he would be an old man. No, this man in his prime, wearing a kimono, which most Japanese men did not do in those days after the war, they wore shabby Western-style clothes. And he was in this magnificent kimono, looking like an old-time ronin, ronin is a samurai without a job. A long hair, wild hair. And that's where my self-portrait comes from, this wild hair flying all over the place. I'm still imitating him.

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Off to Tokyo at age 12, alone

I started living alone when I was 12 years old, and it was a deal that my grandmother made with me, which was shocking even to me then. The deal was this: she was a hard woman, and she had actually disowned my mother for having run off with my Korean father, which was an unspeakable disgrace for a high-born Japanese woman, not high-born, well-born Japanese woman who had been born in San Francisco anyway, so.

My grandmother knew that I had been a bad student all along, but after all, I did carry some of the Moriwaki blood in me, the samurai blood. And she was concerned about my education. At least she wanted to be able to say, "Well, my grandson attends such-and-such a school."

But this is what she said to me. "If you can study hard and pass the entrance exam to Aoyama Gakuin," this well-known private school in Tokyo, that she and my mother would let me live alone. I said, "What do you mean?" "We will rent an apartment for you, where you can do serious studying." Many Americans, I've been interviewed several times since the publication of this book, and they're all astounded by the fact that a 12-year-old kid was living alone in a one-room apartment.

Now, what is hard to imagine for the American public today is that Japan was perfectly safe after the second world war. Not just in rural communities, but a huge city like Tokyo. Tokyo then was already one of the largest cities in the world. And there, of course, it was highly unusual for a 12-year-old to be living alone. One of the interviewers asked me, was this a common occurrence? No.

And I was provided with lots of money, but I was completely safe. I became one of the three disciples of my hero, Noro Shinpei, and I began to spend a lot of time there.

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The second disciple

About Tokida, the other disciple, Noro-sensei's first disciple. He was a very, he was a hardcore juvenile delinquent from Osaka, which is about 350 miles from Tokyo. And he had a violent father who disapproved of his love for art. He wanted to be a cartoonist. He drew all the time. And he was 15 years old when he had a blow-out with his father and walked away.

And what I don't tell in the book is that it was on his escape that he succeeded in finding Noro-sensei, or Noro-sensei found him. The first time, he walked for about two weeks, I believe, and a truck driver picked him up just outside of Tokyo and drove him into the city and deposited him at a police station, and he was sent back again to Osaka.

So on his second escape, he succeeded in reaching Tokyo on his own. He walked directly to the largest newspaper company in Japan, and made that announcement. And he became a sensation. And I was actually reading the article on the second day, the events that took place on the second day. The first day, the master, Noro Shinpei, happened to read this front page news.

And as Tokida told me later, he grabbed the first cab that he could find and flew over to the newspaper company and went up to Tokida and said, "If I am good enough for you, I will teach you." And I'm reading that story, oh my god, here's another boy who had the same desire, and beat me to Noro Shinpei's door.

And he was three years older than I, I'm only 12 at the time. Would he take me? I had to find out.

I discovered early in life that nobody in my family, at least, was going to help me toward my goals. That I had to take charge. So I simply had to find out if I had any chance. And he, in fact, teasingly asked me, "What if I don't take you?" This is after he made me draw a horse.

And at that point, of course, my world went dark. But I couldn't lose faith, and I had to show him that I had this… I said defiantly, "I will do it on my own, sir." And he started to laugh. And thereafter I became his disciple.

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Drawing and karate

"Miss Goldfish introduced me to her former student named Orito, who was preparing for the entrance exam to the famous Tokyo School of Fine Arts. He was three years older than me and already an amazing artist. After classes, Goldfish let him use the art room for a studio. Soon, Orito-san took me on as his studio-mate."

Orito-san…" I think I'd rather talk about Orito-san. He is three years older than me, still is, and I speak with him fairly frequently. He lives near Tokyo. When I met him, he was the most amazing French Academic technician that I had ever seen. By that I mean École des Beaux-Arts style of drawing. He was magnificent. But that wasn't his true interest.

He was a karate expert. And this was insane. No one's heard of karate in those days, not even Japan. Well, it was known, but it was one of those mysterious black arts that gangsters and professional killers used. And his great desire was to come to America, which he did in 1957, the same year that I came back here. That's a long story, I'm giving you a huge gap.

And I got him the first job teaching karate in America, that was in Long Beach, California. A dojo had just opened, a gym, karate gym had just opened by this burly, big, blond guy who had read up on karate, gave himself a black belt, opened this shop, and he was teaching the local police force, Long Beach policemen. And I go and bang, I'm used to banging on doors.

I go in there, I say, "Look, I know a real karate expert, would you like to meet him?" "Really?" I take Orito-san in there, who walked in there with his karate uniform, karate gi and real black belt, and showed him a kata, that is the formalized karate dance, and the guy went down, well, he didn't quite go down, but the owner there became his first American student.

And from there, he went to New York, he ended up working in an ad agency as an art director for ten years. In 1959 he founded the New York Karate Club, which went on to produce the modern American karate masters. So Orito is the great pioneer of American karate. My upperclassman.

He was very good. But art is difficult. He was too much of a technician. He was a virtuoso. Virtuosity is probably the most difficult thing to overcome in painting. One of the more difficult concepts in painting, I think, is that you have to be, or it helps if you're slightly clumsy. But I won't go into that. Look at Van Gogh. He certainly was not John Singer Sargent.

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The art of writing through looking

I'm actually quoting Conrad. "Writing, above all, is to make you see," and I have sincerely believed in that. This is the way sensei talked, and it's… actually, what he said is that a painting is like a page out of a book, perhaps even a chapter, not the whole book. It's interesting, though, Gertrude Stein confesses that she discovered the art of writing through looking, by looking at Cezanne's in her collection.

And this is what she said. She noticed that he painted everything in the same way. Now, I discovered that much earlier than she did, by looking at Van Gogh. I thought his paintings were some of the most clumsiest paintings I had ever seen. It was shocking to me, after the war, that a grown-up could paint pictures like that and be famous. They looked, to me at the time, of course I was looking at first posters, and then the real Van Goghs, in the incident that I talk about in "The Innkeeper's Apprentice," that a grown-up could essentially paint like a child, wildly. He didn't model. I never tried to paint portraits in oils, because I thought it would be too difficult, particularly the eyes. Then I'm looking at Van Gogh and he just didn't pay any attention. He painted eyeballs, eyelashes, everything, the way he painted a cypress tree, let's say.

And this is a very interesting point in painting, because as a grown-up I had gone to a number of Van Gogh shows, and one time I saw two old ladies, obviously Sunday painters, standing in front of a Van Gogh portrait, and she said, "You know, you can paint eyes like everything else. He didn't model anything else." I knew precisely what they were talking about.

And it was a very important discovery. And this is what I wanted to convey through sensei, that painting is indeed a form of writing. Each brushstroke is a means of expression. For Van Gogh, and you don't really see that in classic paintings, everything's been kind of smoothed out.

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Drawing comes first

I start drawing. I call this my doodling stage, and I just open a sketchbook and start drawing something. And after a while, when I'm not feeling well, my hand cramps up and line doesn't flow. Nothing happens, but I persevere, and every day I draw.

And I think it's the same with writers, I'm not sure. On a good day, the line flows. Something comes out. And not only that, I see a certain pattern emerge, and then sometimes even words I begin to hear of a strange conversation that happens in my head. I'll give you an example. Out of nowhere, a little voice says, "There're some things that you just simply don't share with others." Now, that's a very curious statement. So I say, "Such as?" And the answering voice says, "Such as loneliness." And I just burst out laughing. You see, this is, I'm just…

It happens while I'm drawing. And sometimes a word or expression comes out and I jot it down. Our house is full of little bits of pieces of paper, notebooks with scribbled notes, and little drawings, and of course when I really need them, I can never find them. But the act of putting them down seems to help, because… what did I do with that piece? But I sort of, I can remember what I wrote, you see. That's the important thing.

Let me describe my working process for my usual picture book. What I do is I start painting from the first page. I don't jump off to some fancy scene that I want to paint first. I go down the line, first frame. And I usually give myself two weeks to do it. At the end of which, regardless of where the painting is, I go to the next one.

And usually I have a fairly rough idea as to what the second frame should be. The reason for two weeks is this. I have reached the point where I cannot finish a painting. I can work on a painting forever. And that's not good for earning a living. So I give myself two weeks, let's say. Go to the next one. Two more weeks. And then I try to get through the book. And when I have all the images on paper, then I return and I start finishing them.

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Memory and imagination

Memory is the most important asset that an artist has. And a lot of people cannot remember their childhoods, and I call this selective forgetting or selective oblivion. I think it's a survival thing. You cannot remember all the painful memories, and in order to go on, keep going, they conveniently forget.

Well, artists don't have that option. We remember things that we don't want to remember. Well, I'm haunted by them, anyway. But also, memory, imagination is a function of memory. Without memory, you can't imagine.

And my idea of imagination is rearranging your memory. So it's very important for me to remember, which I'm beginning to lose, by the way, and it frightens me. I wish I had kept a diary. I have, sporadically, not consistently, and I regret it now. But I have my sketchbooks, and I've always carried photographs.

So, memory is most important.

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From art student to commercial photographer

It was my master who made me learn how to draw in the French academic style, École des Beaux-Arts, that is, which is to say, drawing from ancient sculptures using charcoal sticks and erasing with fresh bread, which no one's ever heard of today.

That's where the kneading eraser comes from, by the way. And Noro Shinpei believed that cartoonists had to be able to draw as well as real artists, because most of what we draw are figures. And the figures had to be anatomically, reasonably correct. And so I started drawing seriously. And then started to learn how to paint with oils.

And when I came to this country, I was just turning 16, and I discovered along the way somewhere in this country that life wasn't really like comic books. It was a little more serious. And then, it was sometime after I left the military academy… left, I say, I got kicked out. And I started thinking about art, becoming an artist. I did a lot of marginal living. Then I was drafted into the army and I met… Several things happened. My first published works in photography appeared in Stars and Stripes. This is a military newspaper.

And I also met someone in the army who had been an assistant to a very famous photographer, a Bert Stern, through whom, that is my friend, I discovered how much photographers make, which was an incredible news to me. And so, when I came out of the army, I decided to become a photographer, try commercial photography. In other words, I sold out.

And for 20 years, I was an advertising photographer, and I felt very guilty about it. For a long time, I thought that I had squandered the best 20 years of my life in snapping, taking pictures of nuts and bolts. And I got paid for it very well indeed.

People, my readers talk about the lighting in my paintings. They know that somehow, something about my lighting in my painting. They know where the light source is. That comes from photography. Photography is about lighting, essentially. And that's what I learned through photography.

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Publishing success at age 50

I started doing children's books in the dark ages of book publishing. That is, the first book that I did, "Dr. Smith's Safari", is a pen-and-ink, it's a book of pen-and-ink drawings. Full-color production was very expensive. And it was reserved for big guns in the industry.

Anyhow, one thing led to another, and then I was given a project, the first color work, full-color work, was "How My Parents Learned to Eat." It was my first full-color work, and the production is so poor that I was just devastated. And by that time, I was a successful commercial photographer, so I said, "I don't need this."

And I quit doing children's books for three years. And one day, the phone rang, and it's Walter Lorraine. Well, I had met him once while I was working on "The Bicycle Man," vice-president, famous editor.

Well, he told me that he had purchased a book, a story, thinking to use me as the illustrator, and that was "The Boy of the Three-Year Nap". I sent in the art for that on my 50th birthday, and it's the book that changed my life. First of all, Walter called me, and he said, he congratulated me that the book had been awarded something called the Boston Globe Horn Book Award, and I said, "What's that?"

"Well, it's the second-most important award in juvenile books." I said, "well, that's nice."

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Home of the Brave

I've been working with the Japanese-American National Museum for some number of years, and it's become a tradition for us to launch my new book there, and in fact we just, last week I think, we were down there for the launching of "Drawing from Memory."

And they have this permanent installation exhibit at the museum, of black-and-white photographs from all the people who had spent time in internment camps. And I kept going back there, and there was one photograph that really haunted me. It's a photograph by Dorothea Lange of the Mochida family, and the two girls in the corner.

Anyhow, they haunted me to the point where I simply lifted them and put in a story that I was working at the time, it began as a young man's wandering in an American desert. And seeing that image at the museum changed all that, I came back and suddenly the storyline came together.

I discovered, while I was working on the book, that most of those internment camps, so-called internment camps, had been built on Indian lands, or Native American lands. And it seemed an odd commentary, and I wanted to make that point. Well, the essay there is that of course the Japanese children have gone home while the Native American children have not.

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Cultural chameleon

Bicultural. It's, when you leave your country, you essentially leave it for good, and you instantly become a foreigner to your own culture. In a way, a fish out of the water. And that's what modern life is about. Especially in this country.

Well, I've always thought of myself as kind of a cultural chameleon, that is, essentially an impostor. I go to one country and I can pass myself off as a native Japanese, or I used to be able to. And then I come back here and carry on as an American Japanese, or whatever. I'm not pure Japanese, my father was a Korean.

Okay. The interesting thing about this is that the Japanese do not consider me a pure Japanese, because I'm half Korean. However, I've never been to Korea, but I've seen enough Koreans to know this. If you have just a drop of Korean blood in you, you are one of us! Or one of them! You see, that's, it's an interesting contrast.

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Say reads an excerpt from Drawing from Memory

"The great cartoonist wasn't an old man. I recognized Tokida from the newspaper article. He didn't look very friendly. 'Come in and tell us who you are,' said the master. I gave my last name. 'Say, sir.' 'Unusual name. How do you write that?' I told him.

"'Kiyoi.' he mispronounced the two characters of my family name. I'd never been called Kiyoi before, but I didn't have the nerve to correct him. Besides, I liked how it sounded. 'Should I guess the nature of your errand?' 'I want to be a cartoonist, sir.' Tokida made a sound like a snort. The shirt collar tightened around my neck, and I started to sweat.

"'How old are you?' Master Noro asked. 'Almost 13, sir.' He looked me up and down, then asked all sorts of questions. I lied that my parents were together, and didn't mention Grandmother or my apartment. 'Why do you want to be a cartoonist?' I wasn't prepared for that question from a cartoonist. 'I don't know. Drawing is all I want to do, sir.'

"'Ah, a boy Hokusai. Mad about drawing. All right. Draw something for me. Let's say a horse.' He handed me a drawing pad. He was comparing me to Hokusai, that great Japanese painter who called himself 'Old Man Mad About Drawing.' I hoped to be that old man soon."

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943