Q&A with Gene Yang

Gene Yang will be at the National Book Festival on August 30 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center at 4:40 p.m in the Teens Pavilion, and signing beforehand at 3:30 p.m. Politics & Prose is proud to be the official bookseller for NBF this year! We’ll be previewing some of the great talent here all throughout the month of August.  

You write about complex issues like Chinese-American identity and social acceptance, but often do it through younger protagonists. What draws you to writing stories through these younger characters?

There’s something very compelling, very dramatic about coming-of-age stories. The transformation from immaturity to maturity happens over and over again in our lives, but it’s most stark during adolescence. Crises are so deeply felt, and yet there’s usually an underlying hope because everything is still so new. A young protagonist isn’t set in her ways yet. She can change, and that makes her interesting.  

Your work, of course, features the graphic and artistic in addition to text. Does the story come first, does it follow an image that inspires? Can you take us through your process?

Every one of my books begins as an outline. I write a 3-6 page outline that states what happens, and it serves as the map for the rest of my process. The final story almost always deviates from the outline in significant ways, but having that outline gives me the confidence to move forward.

After I finish the outline, I design my characters. I sketch my characters in a sketch book. When I’m satisfied, I do a model sheet for each major character. This is a sheet that has a couple of full figure drawings from different angles, and a few close-ups of the character’s face.  

Then I do thumbnail sketches for the entire book, where I figure out the composition of each panel. From the thumbnail sketches, I’ll pencil and ink every page.

The pages are then scanned into the computer for lettering and coloring. The completed files are sent to my publisher.

Graphic novels and comics are gaining enough respect that people like you and Bryan Lee O’Malley are appearing at the National Book Festival. Heck, the Washington Post had a good article about the Eisner Awards recently. When you do appear at events like these do you feel like you’re being called on to represent comics to the wider literary world?

When I go to those events, I feel lucky. I’m riding on other cartoonists’ coattails. Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, neil-gaiman, Lynda Barry, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Scott McCloud, Dan Clowes, Los Bros Hernandez— many, many cartoonists working decades before me pushed comic books into literary circles. By the quality of their work, they made people sit up and take notice. They challenged readers’ assumptions about comics, including my own. I happened onto the scene when things were really coming together. I’m deeply thankful to be a part of the comic book industry right now. We’re building on the great work that came before. To answer your question, I don’t feel particular pressure, in part because there are so many cartoonists out there doing amazing literary work. I’m one of many.

At this point in your career you’ve done a few solo projects, such as American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, as well as a few collaborations, such as The Eternal Smile and The Shadow Hero. How does working with an artist affect your creative process versus when you choose to illustrate the work yourself?

When I work on my own, I can do something very, very personal. I’m in control of every word and every line. There’s something very introspective about working like that, and the process is appropriate for a certain kind of story.

When I work with another cartoonist, I let go of that control, but I trade it for something else. Hopefully, the collaboration results in something that neither of us could achieve on our own. Hopefully, the storytelling voice that comes out is a mix of the two of us. Take The Shadow Hero, for instance. There’s just no way I could have done that book on my own. I can’t draw like Sonny Liew, and Sonny is just perfect for that book. He pulls off comedy and drama and action with such grace.

You also teach on the subject of writing for children and young adults. What’s the most common misconception that people come in with? What’s your go-to piece of advice?

Beginning writers often think there’s some point at which you’ll feel secure in your writing career. You’ll feel like you’ve made it. Maybe J.K. Rowling had a point like that, but most of us don’t. If you want to write, prepare for a life of striving.

Gene Luen Yang is the author and illustrator of American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, as well as the collaborative author of The Eternal Smile and his newest work, The Shadow Hero. He received his MFA from Hamline University in 2012.

Yang has received several awards, including the Xeric Grant, the Michael L. Printz Award, two Eisner Awards, the Ruben Award, CALA Best Graphic Album and was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and has been recognized on Top Ten selections from several publications and organizations.

We also like