Alterations: An Interview Q&A and Excerpt with Ray Xu
Sometimes you just feel drawn to a book the moment you see its cover. What was it about Alterations by Ray Xu (out now!) that just felt so familiar? That look of inescapable horror on its hero’s face? The premise? The roller coasters? The egg? Whatever it was, when I got a chance to interview Ray about his comic debut, I jumped all over it. And I get to show some excerpts from the book too? Woohoo!
But first…. a description of the plot! Cause I’m cool like that.
“Kevin Lee is having a really bad week. Although he lives in a crowded Toronto apartment above the family’s alterations and dry-cleaning store, he mostly goes unnoticed. School isn’t exactly an oasis either—being one of the few Asian kids makes for some unwelcome attention. But when Kevin’s class plans a trip to Thrill Planet, a spectacular theme park, will he finally have a chance to turn his life around, or will it just be another day for Kevin Lee?”
For the record, Dan Santat said this book was, “A funny and heartfelt story that beautifully communicates the honest and awkward relationships we have with life and our immigrant parents.” But let’s hear from the creator himself . . .
Betsy Bird: Ray! Congrats on your middle grade semi-autobiographical graphic debut! My 9-year-old son and I are a big fan of ALTERATIONS, so I’m just gonna load you down with a slew of them. First and foremost, you’ve done so well as a film animator, why did you decide to go into comics at this stage of the game?
Photo Credit: Tobias Wang
Ray Xu: Hey Betsy! Thank you so much. Really happy to hear that Alterations clicked with you and your son. To be honest I’ve never thought I would be making comics or graphic novels. Deep down inside I knew I wanted to tell a story, but I just didn’t know what form that would come in. I think having no experience making comics helped in a strange way, because I was going into it with this naïve confidence. I figured I can draw storyboards, and I’ve read hundreds of pages of scripts, so why not comic panels? So, when the opportunity came along to make a graphic novel, I didn’t hesitate. I was quickly humbled! Writing the manuscript was a huge learning experience for me and forced me to think differently as an artist. As a story artist I was used to drawing with words, but for the first time I really focused on the writing first, and then later drawing everything. It was daunting. I was constantly tweaking the balance between what to show vs what to tell. I really want to shout out Tracey Keevan for her guidance and support during the Manuscript phase, she helped me understand how that process worked. She’s the best. Chris Duffy later came on while I was in heavy production mode and was my personal cheerleader. Lots of people to thank for helping me on my journey to the finish line for which I’ll be forever grateful, my agent Albert Lee, all my peers and colleagues that I bounced ideas off of, and my wonderful, patient family for enduring my frantic late nights. If anything, this experience has taught me that creating a graphic novel is extremely hard and humbling, but something I’m getting better at, so I’m feeling pretty grateful that it’s being published by Union Square!
BB: Well, it’s a beautiful final product certainly.
So the term I’m hearing bandied about this book is than it’s semi-autobiographical. I’m just gonna assume that the huge climax of the story (which I won’t give away) probably may not have happened the way that it’s depicted here. That said, I have to know which parts of this tale rang true. Did you really bring a century egg to school? Were you ever called “Egg Boy”? And how much of your grandma was in the book’s grandma?
RX: Can you imagine If only something like that actually existed! Maybe I should get into theme park designs? I really leaned into my animated film background and wanted to create a spectacular climax so I had a lof of fun doing that. I love pushing the artistic boundaries and seeing what I could create. Yes, I did bring century eggs to school one time. I didn’t like them. Turns out it wasn’t a great lunch idea. Part of me searching for my identity while growing up was this idea of an athlete, and I sincerely tried to play sports! My lanky body did not come off fluid, so I got made fun of for it. Looking back, I think I have to give myself a lot more credit! My biggest moment was making the grade 10 volleyball team. All to say, I tried a lot of new things in trying to find my identity, which ties into the motto of the book: sometimes you have to take risks! I am STILL awkward at sports but I recently started playing a lot of basketball with some old friends, and I really enjoy it. Luckily no cracked teeth yet. I was called a lot of things, but “Egg Boy” was not one of them. The term came along during the story development process, and it really helped emphasize the idea of Kevin’s isolation, but it wasn’t clear at first during the drawing process. To me, the idea of “egg boy” also became a representation of new beginnings, the cycle of life, which ties into the rest of the story. The other aspect of Kevin’s life that was like my own is his family dynamic. My grandma helped raise me, while my sister was busy studying, and my parents were working tirelessly. She took me to parks, made food and bathed me. It’s sad that later on in her old age she started declining, and dementia set in. I was not with her later when she passed but was told she would randomly call out “Zhu Zhu”—her nickname for me.
BB: One of the many things I liked best about this book was the messiness of it all. The family relations, and particularly the mom’s backstory vs. how her life is now, intersect in all these different ways. Did you always envision the book in this way as you were writing it, or did you add in some of these elements later?
RX: I wanted to show that families are full of complicated and nuanced relationships but what matters most is that we rally together when it matters most. When blocking out the story, I leaned into my film background and was shooting for that snowball effect where everything culminates in the end. I tried to pick up different points of views and pay homage to the ensemble cast of characters, mainly my mom whose past inspired Kevin’s mom’s backstory. My mom had a massive stroke a few years ago, and afterwards my sister and I became super curious about her past. This story was told to us by my uncle while my mom was getting sicker, and there were so many revelations upon her death that really opened up our eyes as to how resilient our mother was. My sister and I were stunned when we heard she was jailed for trying to escape China. How did she not tell us this before? So telling her story in Alterations was a way to record her history. I think it was important to highlight through this flashback that we as kids don’t know how much pressure parents put on themselves to be their best. I understand this a lot now that I am a parent of 2 boys. I think overall, family relations and life are always messy, from conflicts to unconditional love and showing up when it matters – I hope that this is one the main takeaways.
BB: Was there anything you originally wanted to include that you had to cut out for one reason or another?
RX: I think this version is ultimately the one that was meant to be made. The original concept had more of a ‘Wonder Years’ narrative style, and Kevin was slightly younger because I wanted to include moments where he would escape into these imagination vignettes. I realized this type of storytelling may have been better suited for animation. Although my inner artist voice will always find something to nitpick, I am truly proud of what I was able to accomplish.
BB: Have you any interest in a sequel or did you always see this book as a standalone in some way?
RX: I am open to exploring more of Kevin’s world and continue telling his story. However, I believe that Alterations works great as is. I owe this to Tracey Keevan who told me to just do the best I could in my debut and to not worry about sequels. I thought that was incredible advice because it allowed me to focus on perfecting this story. As a new author, I found this to be a huge learning moment which elevated my own storytelling abilities in writing, as well as storyboarding.
BB: Finally, what’s next for you right now? Books or otherwise.
RX: I am busy storyboarding on films I can’t really discuss now. I didn’t know how much work it was going to be to write and illustrate a graphic novel so I’m looking forward to enjoying this release. Looking back on this whole experience, I can say it was probably one of the most fulfilling artistic moves ever, and I would love to continue telling stories. I would love to do picture books and continue experimenting in different genres in the graphic novel world. I am excited for what’s to come!
Thank you, Ray! But for all of this, I still feel as though you readers haven’t quite gotten the full gist of the book. I know! Why don’t you read some of it for yourself? I feel like that always helps:
Great big thanks to Ray for taking the time to answer my questions today. Thank you too to Jenny Lu and the folks at Union Square Kids for putting this together. Alterations is on shelves everywhere as of yesterday, so go and grab yourself a copy ASAP!
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.
SLJ Blog Network