Friday, February 4, 2011

Interview with Author Fabian Boutilier

Author Fabian Boutilier and Artist JJ Lee

Fabian Boutilier is the author of the mystical children's story The White Tortoise of Ch'u. He approached artist JJ Lee about creating the illustrations for the story which are currently on exhibit at loop Gallery.

Ingrid: What motivated you to write a children's story?
Fabian: To be honest, I don't really think of the Ch'u story as a children's story. When I wrote it, certainly, I didn't sit down with the intention of writing a children's story. I had been reading the Chinese philosophers at the time - Confucius, Lao Tzu, Mencius and, of course, Chuang Tzu. It was an anecdote I had read in Chuang Tzu concerning a sacred tortoise that prompted me to write "The White Tortoise of Ch'u". If, at the time, you had asked me what I was writing, I would have said simply a story. If you pressed me, I might have said a folktale. It never would have occurred to me to say I was writing a children's story. I did, however, read the story once to a gathering of friends that included writers, artists, academics and several of their children. The youngest of the children was about 7, I think, and the oldest 11 or thereabouts. I was surprised at their enthusiastic response to the story. That, I suppose, was when it first occurred to me that the story might find a young audience. I understand that, ever since the Brothers Grimm, the link between the folktale and children has become stronger so that, today, to say "folktale" or "fable" is, for many, to say "children's story". Still, I resist the idea that this is a children's story. A fable, sure; a folktale, yes: but not a children's story. The story wants readers; the story doesn't care how old or young those readers might be. 

Ingrid: Can you give a brief description of the story of The Tortoise of Ch'u.
Fabian: "The White Tortoise of Ch'u" is the story of a sacred tortoise that is kept in the imperial palace by the King of Ch'u. Highly prized for his white shell and his skill at divination, the tortoise is kept on a silk cushion and eats oysters off a bronze shovel. Despite the comfort - indeed, luxury - of his situation, the tortoise is not happy. No one knows of the tortoise's unhappiness - does anyone even care? - until, one day, a musician arrives at court and plays a song called "Wagging My Tale in the Mud". A conversation between the tortoise and the musician ensues, the musician learns of the tortoise's plight and - well, I'll stop there since I wouldn't want to give the story's ending away.

Ingrid: Is this your first children's story?
Fabian: I've long admired the folktale and the fable as a literary form. This is neither my first nor my only story of this kind. JJ and I have already talked about our next project.

Ingrid: Your brief bio on the press release mentions that you are an author and a playwright. What other type of work have you had published or performed?
Fabian: For a brief time, in the 80s, I was associated with the Theatre Centre. I wrote, produced and directed my own work. It was all very experimental (or so we thought), very avant garde, very black box. I haven't written for the theatre in many years. I miss my theatre days. My one claim to fame is that I was one of the founders of the annual Rhubarb festival. I also claim to have been the one who named the festival, however, there are some who would dispute this. I wrote, among others, the plays "Gina Lolabrigida" and "Ah But It Sings But It Sings Luvena" which was published in Rhubarb-O-Rama. To give you an idea of the sort of plays these were, pages of the Luvena play were transposed in the published version and it hardly makes any difference at all. Since leaving the theatre, I have continued to write but no longer write plays. I write short, short stories or what, today, are commonly called metafictions and stories like the Ch'u story. I have a collection of metafictions, titled "The Ovation", and a collection of folktales titled "A Sack of Tears & Other Tales".   

Ingrid: You describe yourself as a dilettante. Do tell more!!
Fabian: What more is there to tell? I'm a dabbler by nature. I've lived my whole life in a kind of desultory way relying on occasional enthusiams rather than a single purpose to pass the time. This is what makes me a dilettante. I would change it if I could, and I am trying, but it's probably too late now.

Ingrid: When did you first encounter JJ Lee's work?
Fabian: I happened upon Carte Blanche, quite by chance, one day in my local library. At the time, I was searching, albeit casually, for an illustrator; not for Ch'u but for another story. I had been thinking about starting to publish some of my stories. I had the idea of finding my own illustrators to collaborate with rather than following the usual path which is to find a publisher who would then find an illustrator. I felt - somewhat arrogantly, I admit - that I was the person best suited to finding the right illustrator for my stories. Anyway, I was leafing through Carte Blanche when I chanced to see JJ's work. This was the first I had ever seen or heard of JJ Lee. I was struck by the sheer beauty of her work, by its orientalism, its melancholy and other qualities besides. It occurred to me that JJ's style would suit perfectly The White Tortoise of Ch'u although, as I have said, the Ch'u story wasn't first on my mind at the time.

Ingrid: What made you decide to ask her to illustrate your story?
Fabian: It was a quick decision. When I closed Carte Blanche that day at the library, I had already decided to ask. I scribbled her name on a piece of paper. I went home. I googled "JJ Lee". I contacted her. In hindsight, it all seems somewhat serendipitous now. It was my good fortune to have contacted JJ at a time when she had begun herself to think about illustrating books. We traded a few e-mails, we met, and here we are. The qualities to be found in her work that I have already mentioned above were among the reasons that prompted me to approach JJ with the project in the first place. But also, and perhaps most importantly, I could see that JJ would bring the sophistication of a fine artist to the task of illustrating the story which is what I wanted.

Ingrid: What's next for you besides becoming the despotic ruler of a small island on the west coast?
Fabian: More of the same. I have abandoned my despot plan - well, maybe not abandoned but postponed - in order to start a publishing company that will specialize in publishing books like The White Tortoise of Ch'u that are collaborations between writers and artists. I'll begin by self-publishing some of my own stories. I have a number of projects in the works as I am typing this. Eventually and before too long, if all goes as planned, I'll begin publishing other stories by other writers and artists.

Author Fabian Boutilier and artist JJ Lee will be at the gallery on Sunday, February 6 and Sunday, February 13, 2011. Fabian will read the story The White Tortoise of Ch'u at 3 pm. 

Loop Gallery is located at 1273 Dundas Street West in Toronto. Gallery hours this weekend are Friday and Saturday 1-5 pm and Sunday 1-4 pm.