Owl Enticements: A Cover Reveal and Interview with Eric Fan and Dena Seiferling About the Upcoming NIGHT LUNCH
Today I have just the most splendid treat in store for you! Oh, it’s wonderful. Not simply because it is a cover reveal for a enchanting, entrancing picture book. Not merely because I am interviewing Eric Fan (of the legendary Fan Brothers) about his authorial debut. Not only because I am also interviewing illustrator Dena Seiferling, an artist of such great and abiding wisdom that I just want to sit myself at her feet and listen to her talk. No, it is the great combination of all these elements that has me so positively gleeful.
The book we will be discussing today is the upcoming Night Lunch from Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada, coming out September 27th. When you think about it, the ultimate night workers really are the nocturnal animals that populate a darkened world. From the publisher:
“A mysterious cook whips up midnight meals for fellow night owls in a lavish lunch cart while a hungry mouse looks on in this atmospheric picture book inspired by the forerunner of food trucks and diners. A delectable picture book inspired by forerunners of food truck, for fans of The Night Gardener.
Noses sniff the air as mouthwatering smells waft down city streets, luring growling bellies to the Night Owl. Inside this elegant, horse-drawn establishment, a feathery cook works the grill, serving up tasty dishes for shift-workers and operagoers alike: a mince pie for Fox, a ham sandwich for Badger and puddings for little Possums. Mouse, a poor street sweeper, watches as the line of customers swells, ever hopeful that someone will drop a morsel of food — but Owl’s cooking is far too delicious for more than a crumb to be found. As the evening’s service winds down, weary Owl spots trembling Mouse. Has he found his own night lunch, or will he invite this small sweeper inside for a midnight feast for two?
From the imagination of two acclaimed picture book creators, together for the first time, this dreamlike picture book is a magical ode to Victorian lunch wagons. Evoking the sounds, sights, smells and tastes of the city at night, Night Lunch reveals how empathy and kindness as well as dignity and gratitude can be found — and savored — in the most unexpected places.”
It is my very great pleasure, and even honor, to speak with Eric and Dena today about this truly beautiful book.
Betsy Bird: Eric! A great many thank yous for letting me pepper you with questions today. I confess that I’m perpetually fascinated by great illustrators taking a step back to allow other illustrators to create art for their manuscripts. If possible, I’d like you to walk me through this one. First and foremost, how did you come to write NIGHT LUNCH initially?
Eric Fan: Thank you so much Betsy! It’s always an honour to answer your questions. I started writing NIGHT LUNCH while attending the Bologna Book Fair in 2019. I had pitched the idea to one of my publishers, Tara Walker (Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada) and she liked it, so I went ahead and worked on a first draft while attending the fair. At the time I had been researching the history of diners and food carts and that’s when I first learned about “night lunch” carts, which were the horse-drawn predecessors of diners. What struck me was how opulent and extravagant they were, in contrast to the humble food they typically served, which was mostly sandwiches and coffee. It’s the antithesis of what you usually see, where extravagance and beauty are usually an exclusive domain reserved for the wealthy. If you’re less well off, there’s a kind of aesthetic toll to be paid where frugality of design is almost used to reinforce your status. The subtext is that if you’re poor you’re not entitled to experience beautiful spaces. So, I was fascinated by that reversal. There’s a kind of aesthetic generosity to it, which got me thinking about other forms of generosity, which ultimately became the main theme of the book.
BB: I love the idea of celebrating “aesthetic generosity” in a picture book format. Which naturally brings me to your collaborator. Dena! How delightful to talk to you. I’ve been a big fan of your work on books like KING MOUSE and BEAR WANTS TO SING! This pairing with Eric Fan is particularly toothsome. Tell me, how did you come to NIGHT LUNCH as a project?
Dena Seiferling: Thank you very much, I’m very happy and honoured to be chatting with you.
I was working with my publisher, Tara Walker (Tundra/Penguin Random House Canada), on our second book together Bear Wants to Sing, written by Cary Fagan, when she asked if I would be interested in illustrating for Eric’s story. I had met Tara a couple years earlier – she was working on The Darkest Dark with astronaut Chris Hadfield and The Fan Brothers, and I must have had stars in my eyes when she would mention it because I had all of their books and my kids and I were BIG admirers. “Eric, Terry and Devin Fan were also working on The Barnabus Project and, as Eric mentioned, Tara commissioned me to needle felt a tiny Barnabus as a gift for him which was so much fun. When she sent me Eric’s Night Lunch manuscript to consider, I read it, did a little happy dance and said, “sign me up.” The rest is history!
BB: I’m getting the distinct impression that Tara Walker should have been my third interviewee today. We’re also going to get back to that felted Barnabus, but not quite yet. Eric, when you wrote NIGHT LUNCH, did you know from the get-go that you wanted someone else to illustrate it or did that realization come later?
EF: I initially thought about illustrating it myself, or proposing it as a Fan Brothers’ book, but I’ve always wanted to pass a story on to another illustrator, so that was in the back of my mind. As an author/illustrator I’ve always been a little envious of authors who get to have their story illustrated by someone else. You don’t get to experience that specific creative alchemy if you’re illustrating your own story. The more I thought about this particular story, and Dena’s art, I realized I had kind of been imagining this nocturnal world in her style all along while writing it.
BB: Dena, for your part, what were some aspects of Eric’s manuscript that you particularly looked forward to illustrating?
DS: Eric had written this story in such a way that my imagination ran away on me when I read it – even before it was fully finished. After reading the first draft, I was excited about so many things, like the cast of nocturnal animals. But a detail in the text that I really remember was Owl watching Mouse with eyes like two yellow moons. I really wanted to get drawing that owl! It made me think of dinner plates for eyes which morphed into moons, which is what inspired the title page.
A midnight moon
The Night Lunch cart rolls in”
I enjoyed how Eric’s text took on a poetic and rhythmic pace that propelled the story forward: simple, yet meaningful prompts for the imagery to follow, and cohesive with the overarching transitory character of the food cart and city itself. As an illustrator, I was excited to delve into the visual oppositions that exist in this story: the ornamental lavish interior of the cart contrasting with the humbleness in the characters and lifestyles we see throughout the exterior environment. Another example is the large majestic owl and tiny vulnerable mouse. Stylistically, I’ve always been fascinated with the ornamental and lavish Rococo period aesthetic, which was the style of these original food carts, as Eric mentioned.
And lastly, something I hadn’t done much of before was illustrate food. so this was a fun and exciting aspect of the story for me!
BB: Let’s dive into that a little more. In many ways, the city where this story takes place is a kind of character of its own. Did you have a particular city in mind when you wrote the book?
DS: I love this perspective of the city being a character and I very much agree. Its character is as integral to the narrative as the animal characters within it.
This character/environment took on a very surreal morphing of existing cities and past time periods with the intention to create a “place out of time.” The varying characteristics of the architecture and typography (the days of beautiful hand-painted signs) within the imagery was meant to echo the eclectic merging of culture, lifestyle, and class that takes place within a large city. Of course, I took a cue from Eric’s story being based on the food carriages that came to be in America during the 1880s which evolved into our current day food trucks. It felt fitting to use a slightly cinematic lens to reveal a place in the past and hint at the passing of time.
Atmospherically, there are hints of an alternate daytime reality, but the story plays out within the city’s dark nocturnal personality, which comes out when the sun goes down. The darkness of the world, I hope, sets the stage for empathy toward the vulnerable. The atmosphere is always very important for me to articulate in a story without overstating anything. Therefore, a balance of what to include vs. leave out within the city was very important. I want the reader to feel the air, smell the food, hear the sounds through the visual language within the artwork.
BB: Eric, when you look at the art Dena created for this book, what were some of the choices she made that surprised you? Did she go in any directions that you yourself wouldn’t have thought of?
EF: In many respects it was like she had peered into my head and brought all those flickering images I had been imagining to life. I was blown away by her art, from the first time I saw the rough dummy to seeing the finished art. One thing that was a pleasant surprise was her choice to make the owl a barn owl. In my mind I had been picturing a more classic “storybook” owl like a great horned owl, but I love that she went with a less clichéd choice. There’s something so mysterious and dignified about barn owls and I think it fit with the mood of the story perfectly.
BB: Dena, books don’t always tell the full story on the publication page about how their artists create the pages inside. What techniques did you use to create the art for NIGHT LUNCH?
DS: Most of my process and development is done on paper with rough sketches.
Then it’s research, research, research! I jumped on a Wacom tablet for the final artwork. This was the first time I rendered my final artwork digitally in Photoshop with some exploration of style and color usage beforehand. On the final artwork I did follow a process similar to my drawing process on paper by “drawing” first and adding color last.
EF: Eric, at this point I have to ask – did you know Dena prior to being paired with her on this work? And what would you say is your general assessment of how the book turned out?
EF: I’m absolutely thrilled with how the book turned out, and I love Dena’s illustrations. I think she’s incredible. Her aesthetics and sensibilities were a perfect match for the world of the book, and she also brought a lovely sensitivity and emotion to the characters. I was very familiar with her work before I wrote Night Lunch. As I mentioned, when I was writing it I was already imagining it illustrated by her. I loved both King Mouse and Bear Wants to Sing, and was also familiar with her wonderful felted work from Instagram. After we published The Barnabus Project, my publisher Tara Walker actually commissioned Dena to make a felt model of Barnabus, which she gave to me as a gift:
BB: It’s like Chekhov always said: “If there’s a felted Barnaby mentioned in the beginning of an interview, you’re going to see it before the end of the interview” (I may be paraphrasing here). Dena, your own authorial debut, THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS, just came out. When you write and illustrate a book as opposed to just writing a book, I assume it involves an entirely different set of muscles (so to speak). What are some of the advantages to doing your own books entirely and what are the advantages of doing someone else’s?
DS: I have experienced freedoms in different ways for both and I was grateful to be working with such a strong publishing team on Night Lunch and The Language of Flowers, who gave me an environment of safety and creative opportunity to explore and take risks. In Eric’s text, he left me lots of room to expand upon my own perspective, so it felt really encouraging. This was the first time I was able to hear a bit of feedback from an author throughout the process. Usually my editor is the only point of contact when working on the book. This was a really positive experience and I think this was because we trust each other implicitly.
I tend to really enjoy working within limitations and I think that working with an author sets some boundaries. Self-authoring allows me the creative freedom to have it look and sound the way I want and for me to be able to pull from the sources of inspiration that come to me naturally. But this can also make a new writer/illustrator feel overwhelmed. However, because I was in such good hands, those feelings get channeled into a positive direction for the magic to happen.
At the same time, when I’m illustrating text for someone else, I feel like it can take me places that I wouldn’t normally go with my own imagination. I enjoy putting a spin on another person’s point of view, sensibilities, and sense of humor (trusting that we are well matched). Starting with another creator’s vision and then contributing mine to the mix creates great energy unique to this kind of collaboration.
BB: Eric, would you be inclined to try writing with another illustrator again? Or perhaps go back and forth with illustrating books?
EF: It’s definitely something I’d consider if it were the right project. I had so much fun writing this story and then seeing it come to life through someone else’s imagination.
BB: Finally (if you can say) what are you both working on next?
DS: I’m currently I’m working on artwork for a fun book project that involves a collection of illustrators, but can’t share more just yet. I am also always working on new story ideas and I have a gallery exhibition later next year at the Corey Helford. Sometimes the character development I do for my sculptures leads to story ideas but it’s generally more of an outlet that I try not to place too many expectations on – so we will see!
EF: Right now, we’re working on a sequel to The Barnabus Project and I’ve been tinkering with a middle-grade book idea that we’ve had for a long time. I’m not sure if anything will ever come from it, but it’s been nice to switch gears and exercise different creative muscles.
I’m still a little floored by the careful consideration both Eric and Dena took to answer my questions today. Consider this a little masterclass in picture book creation. I give great thanks to both of them for putting so much time and thought into these answers. Thanks too to Evan Munday and the folks at Tundra/Penguin Random House Canada for setting this up in the first place.
And now, feast your peepers on these peepers:
Night Lunch comes out September 27th. Be sure to look for it then.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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