Haven’t heard of Queenie Chan yet? You will. (And it’s a very easy name to remember, no?) This year will see the release of the third and final book in The Dreaming series, plus she will be writing and drawing an original manga based on Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. Queenie lives in Australia, and I thought it would be fun to talk to her for the One Shot World Tour: Best Read with Vegemite.
I’m unfamiliar with the Australian manga scene. Please tell us about it.
Australia barely has any manga scene—there are places like Kings Comics (and other comic book stores) and Kinokuniya that sell manga, but that’s about it. There’s a great deal of people here who read manga thanks to the internet, but generally speaking, Australia trails behind the US and the rest of the world in getting manga into bookstores. Cost is the main reason—because Australia doesn’t print its own manga and has no experience doing its own printing, the shipping costs from the US is just staggering.
There are no Australian publishers to speak of. Mostly, English-language manga is dominated by American companies like Viz and TOKYOPOP, and Australia imports manga directly from the US. There are Australian companies like Madman who is interested in printing and distributing manga, but so far the costs involved gives no real incentive to.
How did you first get interested in manga? What made you decide to pursue a career as a manga-ka?
I first started reading manga as a child in Hong Kong, and when I migrated to Australia, I continued to read it. So I grew up reading it and has familiar with it all my life. As to what made me pursue a career as a manga-ka, it was actually… unemployment. I was trained as a systems analyst in university, but had the misfortune of graduating in 2002, right in the middle of the dot com bust. I couldn’t find a job, but I’ve been drawing manga in university as a hobby, so I thought about making that into a career. Luckily, the times allowed for that. In 2004, I was able to land a job with TOKYOPOP, who was looking for international artists to start its own original manga line.
You’re upfront about not being a trained artist or writer. In your view, what are the advantages and disadvantages of working this way and learning as you go along?
Bad habits are very difficult to undo. I like the idea of teaching yourself to draw—it gives a lot more room to experiment, but I really wish at times that I went to art school. You take the long way round to get to the same level of art skill, and worst of all, you at times get into a rut that you can’t seem to get out of. For me, drawing isn’t a big priority—my interest is in story-telling, and while I like my art to look good, it’s not the main focus of my work.
The good thing about drawing without any training or even references is that you gradually come to perfect what you do. You also develop a style that’s independent of any other style out there. But it takes so much more work to put out a decent-looking picture!
In your talk “Adopting Manga: From Hong Kong to America,” you briefly discuss some of your Chinese and Australian influences. But for people unfamiliar with you, as a Chinese-Australian manga-ka, how has your heritage influenced your manga (not just in terms of inspiration, but also stylistically or thematically)? And Australia?
I don’t think there’s any particular stylistic influence happening—I may be a Chinese-Australian, but my identity isn’t that big a deal to me. If there’s anything that’s good about being bi-cultural, is that you get double the amount of inspiration to draw upon. I like to set my stories in Australia, because that’s where I live, but there’s no reason why I can’t draw a story based heavily on Chinese culture either. It’s normal for someone to use their place of origin as inspiration for their stories, so in terms of influence, that’s about it.
Is there an Australian publisher for The Dreaming, or does TOKYOPOP publish it in Australia? Does this have any impact on your storytelling?
There’s no Australian publisher for “The Dreaming”—TOKYOPOP is primarily in American publisher and my primary audience is in America and Europe. In terms of impact on the story—it’s practically zero. Hardly any of the fans I get fanmail from care that the story is set in Australia, in fact, some of them think it’s set in America (despite a shot of the Opera House on the opening page). So many fans think I’m an American. Same goes for Europeans—”The Dreaming” is also available in French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Finnish and German, and no one cares where it’s set either. So, “understanding Aussie slang” is barely an issue here. The visual differences (Australian bush, Opera House, Eucalyptus trees) barely register, so who’s taking notice of what sort of slang the characters use? “The Dreaming” uses International English too—not a single American noticed.
I don’t think the reason for this is due to the “global-ness of manga” though. It’s more so because manga is visual, and children these days grow up in a visual culture. You pick up subtleties in language when you read novels, but visual stories create a reality of their own, and the readers just accept that. When I was a 5 year-old watching Japanese anime on TV in Hong Kong, I never questioned why the characters sat on the floor with tatami mats. I just accepted that was the world that the characters lived in—I barely knew what “Japan” was at the time (in fact, I thought the characters lived in Hong Kong). I think the same thing applies here. People just read the manga, barely register that it’s set in Australia, and just take everything that happens in it as part of the logic of that imaginary world.
The Dreaming was inspired by the disappearance of a classmate of yours. On your website you say that you’re often inspired by real life events, but what was it about this event, or disappearances in general, that inspired a three volume series about a boarding school in which girls are known to go missing?
I’m afraid the real inspiration for “The Dreaming” was “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, a quintessential Australian story. It wasn’t really inspired by the disappearance of my classmate—that was just the icing on the cake. I think as an Australian, we’ve got some kind of national mythos about the bush being an inhospitable and freaky place. This is probably the part that has the most resonance with Australian readers—who also pick up the reference of “The Dreaming” to the aboriginal Dreamtime. These things just seem to go right over the heads of non-Australian readers though.
In the endnotes of vol. 1 of The Dreaming, you say that you often build longer stories off your short stories. Had you written manga with long story arcs prior to The Dreaming? What are the challenges of taking characters or events from short stories and turning them into longer stories, or simply of writing a multivolume manga series?
No, “The Dreaming” is the first long-story I’ve written. Short stories about 10-50 pages long don’t count, but truth is, it’s far more difficult to write a short manga story than it is to write a longer one. Turning a short story into a longer one is no challenge as long as you know the general story arc, but in terms of “The Dreaming”, the real challenge came in splitting a single story into 3 parts. It’s like splitting a single movie into 3 parts—that’s how I originally conceived of “The Dreaming” anyway.
Each volume has to be relatively self-contained, but if you read the story from book1 to book3, the events must be in a chronological order. When the story is a mystery, it becomes even more complicated. When and how should you reveal certain secrets? How do you stay ahead of the reader, so they can’t guess what’s going on earlier? It was a nightmare, really, but I managed to work it out.
You will be drawing and writing the Odd Thomas original graphic novel for Del Rey. How did you get involved with this project?
I was chosen for it by Dallas Middaugh of Del Rey, and Dean Koontz. Del Rey showed Dean samples of my art (I presume for “The Dreaming”), and when Dean liked it, they contacted me about it, introducing me to his book series “Odd Thomas”. I read and enjoyed the series, so I agreed to do it. I was an honour to work with Dean, and I’m glad he trusted me to write and script the story.
And because I’m really curious– How did you get your name?
“Queenie Chan” is my real name, so you’ll have to ask my parents! *laughs*
Queenie Chan was born in 1980 in Hong Kong, and migrated to Australia when she was six years old. She began drawing at the age of 18, and graduated in 2002 with a degree in Information Systems. In 2004, she began drawing a mystery-horror series called “The Dreaming” for LA-based manga publisher TOKYOPOP. Volume 1 was published late 2005, followed by volume 2 in 2006. Since then, it has been translated into six languages, with the third and final installment arriving in November 2007.
Currently, she is working on a single-volume graphic novel with Del Rey, based on the “Odd Thomas” trilogy by novelist Dean Koontz. Apart from her professional work, she also draws a number of online manga strips on her personal site: http://www.queeniechan.com/