Thursday, December 19, 2013

Author and Illustrator Tag Team Interview: Dang Bagas and Aldy Aguirre (1 of 3)

In this tag team interview, author Dang Bagas and illustrator Aldy Aguirre answer my questions on their new story book, The Little Girl in a Box (Adarna House, 2013) their creative processes and dreams of future and past creations.

What's your most challenging experience while working on The Little Girl in the Box? Describe the collaborative process that you both went through in making the book.

L-R: Me, Heidi E. Abad, Xi Zuq, Dang Bagas & Liwa Malabed
Dang Bagas (DB): I faced many challenges in writing The Little Girl in a Box. One was that this story would be written in prose form. I’d been a TV scriptwriter for years and I’d been out of practice writing narratives in prose, at least ones that I meant to get published in a book.

I wouldn’t go into the differences between writing scripts and short stories at length but this time, there was no camera to rely on to capture the world of the story; there was no actor to embody the characters, for me. Letters and words were all I had to create a three-dimensional world.

So words had to be chosen really carefully. They had to be sensorial and synesthetic to engage the reader to travel to the world that I created that could be both familiar and new to them. And as I knew I wanted this story to be read aloud to children, the words had to sing, they had to flow together like a beautifully choreographed dance. So yes, the skills needed to write a narrative in prose was something I had to rediscover before I could even begin writing this particular story.

Another challenge, albeit the most enjoyable so far, was getting to know more stories that are already out there. Admittedly, my reading for the past twenty years were mostly young adult novels so in a period of three months, I read through a lot of picture books. And that’s when I discovered that the story I was originally brewing in my mind was similar to another one.

Dang Bagas with the audience she writes for
The Little Girl in a Box started out as a story about a boy who lived in two houses because his parents were separated and things got so chaotic for him that he ran away and ended up living in the streets, inside a box that would take him to so many magical worlds. But of course, there was always something missing in these worlds, his parents, so the boy chose to come back to his two homes.

Sounds familiar? Yes? The premise was similar to Papa’s House, Mama’s House, a story about children dealing with the unique family situation of separated parents. Good thing I took the time to read and read and read, right, or else I would have ended up with a story that’s already been told and most probably, would have been thrown in the reject file and not published.

Initially, of course, because of this, I wanted to throw my story out and write something else. But the element of the box in the story wouldn’t leave me. It haunted me, demanding to be written. So I went back to the drawing board, find a different premise but retain what was the unique and magical element, the box. The box still took the child to places and experiences but instead of taking the child back to his/her two homes, the box helped the child find the kind of home that’s just right for her. And that’s how The Little Girl in a Box came to be what it is now.

The last and greatest challenge was something every writer face: beating the deadline. Five hours before the deadline (PBBY-Salanga Prize), the page was blank. The words were still just in my mind, stumbling over each other, incoherent, not making any sense. And then I went back to what really drew me into writing it in the first place. Again, it was the box. And so I began, There was once a box, a cardboard box… and much like being possessed, the words came and they sang and danced beautifully and whew, I made it to the deadline.

Horrifying as it is for any self-respecting writer, I submitted a first draft. But I guess, there are just stories that demanded to be told the way they wanted to be told when they wanted to be told. Us writers, we’re just channels for these stories. We’re just wormholes for them to pass through until they reach the place of existence in the form of words on paper or pictures or even through a storyteller’s voice. But there’s really nothing like it, the moment one becomes a wormhole for these stories – horrifying, exciting, enervating. Beating the deadline was a great challenge, but an even greater one, the most fulfilling one, is letting myself be used as that wormhole for The Little Girl in a Box.

Dang Bagas with friends from the industry
The Little Girl in a Box is the first story I’ve written that is meant to be a picture book so I didn’t think myself to really have a hand in the illustration or even to have the expertise to have something to say about how it is to be illustrated and designed.

Back then, I was just happy that the story’s going to be published. I also knew that the story was in good hands with Ani Almario and Adarna House’s design team. Ani was good enough to share the test illustrations with me and get my opinion on which illustration would be best for the story, brainstorm with me on the design, update me on the development of the book but really, I trusted that whatever she and Adarna House decided on in terms of illustration and book design would be what is to be the best for the story.

When I learned that it was Aldy who would illustrate, I familiarized myself with his work and saw his sketches and sort of visualized on my own how Aldy’s illustration is going to look like. Then, we got to meet once and the only thing I asked Aldy to be particular about is to track the growth of the little girl as she gets to be too big for the box because this also tracks the plot of the story that could be missed if it’s not in the illustration.

And that’s about it. But I should say, if I was a wormhole for the written words, Aldy was the best wormhole for the illustrations and between us, we had great mediums in Ani and Eli Camacho of Adarna House. I don’t think we needed meetings, or back and forth discussions. Collaboration happened in the plane of having a singular intention: to come up with a beautiful picture book that we would all be proud of. And that’s exactly how the book turned out to be.

Aldy Aguirre (AA): I always try to give justice to the great stories that I had been luckily given to illustrate, maybe that pressure is one of the challenges. Since I really like Ms. Dang’s story, I wanted to somehow represent the story well with my illustrations, and still have their own appeal. From the studies that I presented to Adarna, Ms Dang told me what she had in mind on how the box should be seen as the story progresses, and I think that was crucial.

What is your box metaphor? 

DB: As a child, the box represented a lot of things for me. If my relatives sent it from abroad, then I knew it would be filled with surprises and goodies. Then, it became lots of other things: a hiding place, a house in bahay-bahayan, a car, a plane, paper to draw in, something to put treasures in, a place where one can sit quiet to read or just nap in when I’m supposed to be doing homework or household chores, or really just someplace I could daydream in.

Now, I look at the box as a person’s unique special place in this world, good or bad, fulfilling or not, filled with adventures or dull, happy or sad, quiet or noisy, in the colors of the rainbow or in black and white or in sepia brown, inhabited by humans or monsters or aliens or epic heroes or the sarimanok, a beach or on top of the mountain, with parents or siblings or a husband or child, a library or a playground.

These places could be different from each other at different times and unique only to us. And what kinds of world that would be is our choice and nobody else’s. And we could be there alone or take anyone we want with us. There is no limit to what the box could be and where it could take us. It could be filled with anything we want. The box is whatever we make our lives to be.

In the story, the box is a powerful metaphor. Readers may interpret the box into many things. As an artist, how can a "box" or "boxes" help you become better at your craft?

As a writer, I sometimes liken the box to my own limitations and to the limitations set by the industries I write for. I mean, working as a writer, there were lots of times when I felt “boxed in” or “trapped in a box” or “forced in a box”. But, and this I realized early on in my writing career, that this box can be moved, or one can work around it or shape it and color it any which way I want it to be. Doing that is certainly hard work but the only thing that should stop an artist from doing so is a lack of imagination and afterwards, determining choices that work, then determination to stick by these choices, at whatever cost.

Actually visualizing my craft as something like a box already helps me make it better cause then I know I could make it what I want it to be though I am still working on that: letting my imagination go freely, making the right choices, and sticking to these choices according to what is the best for me, and the stories that I write.

AA: I think it depends on what that box is needed for. A box as a safe place would be good memories and loved ones. Group hug!

Note: Part 2 of the interview will appear next week.

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