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Author Interview: Antoinette Portis
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Book Bands. Sometimes there are wrong turns. But yes, sometimes the feedback is painful. Sometimes you just gotta cry on the drive home. Then you get back to work and rewrite that sucker. I need to be completely focused for that. Anyone who is serious about making picture books should join a crit group with people whose ideas and talent you respect. Patiently building mutual trust is required. And some of us have been together for a long time now, maybe 15 years. In what way is your relationship with that book different than you have with others? AP : There are two special things about Wait —one is formal, the other is the heart and soul part.
Back to that memory of my brother and I sitting in a cardboard box in our driveway, playing train. Another time, we used every single sheet, blanket, and towel in the house to build a fort. Leave it up forever! But then she sicced Dad on us and we had to take it down and do a lot refolding. A lot. Kids are constantly getting into trouble and breaking the boundaries set for them, often accidentally. He was rapt. Kids learn about the world by looking at things that adults have already learned to take for granted or are too busy to stop and see.
Kids are fascinated by the ants in a crack in the sidewalk and random seed pods. Adults stomp right on past them. I thought the book need that to be interesting. The dialogue is just a simple back and forth. That change becomes a big, big moment. But the real challenge was to create a visual narrative, not relying on poetic text, that had an emotional payoff.
I wanted to let readers figure out what the theme is. I never want to speak a theme. AP : The same thing is indeed true in advertising. But you had to find a clever, funny, or powerful way of communicating that concept, so people would be emotionally or intellectually engaged with it. RVC : Beyond the obvious—finish the work, proofread, send it out, etc.
AP : The main thing is to be open to criticism. Be more committed to making the work better than to sticking with the germ of an idea as it originally came to you. The book around it has gone to a new place, so bye bye beautiful sentence. I once heard Jon Klassen say that you have to be true to the idea. Once the idea is in existence, it tells you the rules if you just listen. It tells you what it needs.
It might take me a while to face up to the fact that something I really like needs to go. Manifesting an idea requires rigor and sometimes an idea has to whup you upside the head to get your to listen. Quick questions. Even quicker answers. My husband and I are both addicted. AP : The Grinch, but from the book, not the modern movie versions.
I think the green guy is on my mind because Christmas kind of wore me out. Sometimes I wanted to pack it up in a sack and stuff it in the back of a cave myself. But now, writing for kids, reading and drawing with them, my life is its own Hundred Acre Wood. It unfolds in your thought and moves you in some way. It makes you feel connected to your own humanity, and maybe makes you able to see your own behavior in a way that resonates for you. And maybe even changes you a tiny bit. Thanks so much, Antoinette! This was such a great interview! I will be saving this advice and referring my critique partners to it.
Thank you! Glad you liked it, Teresa. Immortal, unmatched, and totally unaware of it. Very human. Lower-case, singular soulmate. Jaehyun huffs. The emphasis here is on supposed. Like the ones he makes with Ten. Ten puts his chin in his hands. He calls Taeyong that night once he gets back to his apartment. Which is nice, because Jaehyun likes his fancy Gangnam penthouse and his expensive clothing and buying Taeyong nice dinners twice a month as thanks for putting up with him. The train station? Jaehyun does absolutely not know how it gets.
Taeyong, on the other hand, who lives with his parents, a younger sister, his grandma, an aunt, uncle, and two cousins—as well as the occasional boyfriend or girlfriend—is constantly surrounded by people and noise. Kim Doyoung? For work stuff. Nothing worrying, or nefarious? Maybe Doyoung will change your mind. Someone on the other side shouts his name, and Jaehyun can hear the words dinner and grandmother. And not just any random person, either—Kim Doyoung will make or break his employment here.
Taeyong meets him out front of work, waving when he spots Jaehyun. The engine hums as he starts the car, and Taeyong types an address into his map app before sticking his phone in the cup holder. Conversation flows easily between the two of them while Jaehyun drives them to the sushi restaurant. Taeyong talks about work—making dreams is infinitely more interesting than the stories Jaehyun has about doing paperwork—and his family, and Jaehyun listens, content to let Taeyong talk.
When Jaehyun parks, he hesitates, a hollow, fluttery feeling starting in the base of his throat and making his breath speed. You guys will get along fantastically, I can feel it. He follows Taeyong down the street, attempting to center himself. Doyoung is looking over a menu when they approach the table, and the first thing Jaehyun notices about him is his hands, which are long-fingered and pale and sporting a pretty ridiculous number of rings.
But Doyoung is dressed like the kind of person that would wear too many rings—oversize checkered cardigan, ripped jeans, an expensive-looking t-shirt, and one of those baseball caps that says something in English on the front. Doyoung jumps to his feet when he sees Taeyong, pulling him into a hug.
Ha ha, Jaehyun thinks sarcastically to himself as Doyoung shakes his hand. Very original. Jaehyun picks up the menu without much interest. Connections, stuff like that. And a big company. Lunch is tense. Jaehyun picks at his sushi, trying not to be too obvious with his distaste. Conversation, too, is stiff, and cold—Doyoung refuses to open up to Jaehyun in the slightest, and as a result, Jaehyun grows more and more irritated, already fed up with his passive-aggressive nonsense and frosty replies. Jaehyun pays and leaves before Taeyong comes back, embarrassed and angry and prickling all over with the heat of his failure.
Now what, he thinks to himself, dropping all of his stuff as soon as he steps into the house. Doyoung is never going to talk to me again, much less introduce me to his friends. The air is cold on his cheeks, but it helps with the angry cocktail of emotion in his chest, allowing him to focus on moving forward. The sun is setting over the tops of the buildings, and Seoul is cast in shimmering light, reflecting off windows and cars, turning everything gold.
I hate people, Jaehyun thinks, taking a left at a stoplight. They make no sense. So many more problems would get solved if everyone was just… simpler. Jaehyun stops by a street musician, wiping sweat from his forehead and taking a deep breath. He feels calmer now, slightly, and already his mind is turning to how he can remedy the situation. Jaehyun winces. You can say it. I can never—you guys make no sense. Literally none. You know more about coincidence and chance than I do. Jaehyun collects himself, clearing his throat before he answers. Doyoungie is a really, really nice guy. You just have to give him a minute.
Uh-huh, Jaehyun thinks dubiously, thinking of the way Doyoung had glared at him with the derision and heat of a thousand suns. Bye, Taeyong. His computer chimes with another email, and Jaehyun squeezes his eyes shut, biting back frustration and the nearly-overwhelming desire to slam his head against the edge of the desk. The next two days pass in a blur.
Jaehyun is swamped with work, and ghosts breeze in and out of his office nonstop, delivering more files and messages. He answers so many emails that his head starts to swim, and his work phone rings about five times an hour with issues he needs to fix. I think I may have accidentally set him up with her twin brother.
By the time Jaehyun finally leaves the office, the sun has long set, nothing but a dusty glow on the horizon as he makes his way towards the parking garage. He remembers the party all at once, and his stomach knots immediately at the thought of it.
A second later, he thinks better of it. And Doyoung, who he somehow needs to get on his good side. Not that Johnny can ever know that, though. This better be good, Jaehyun. Jaehyun sends a brief prayer out to the universe, which tugs on him in sympathy. Please go easy on me, he asks, desperate. This is hard enough already. Might as well get that out there, first and foremost. Ten makes a choking sound. You have friends that throw parties now? When did that happen? Can I come? Ten answers before Jaehyun can. And I, uh, well. Jaehyun holds his breath, waiting for Ten to pass judgement.
This could go terribly, or just fine—Ten is more than capable of being kind, Jaehyun knows, but he just likes being sassy more. Jaehyun releases his breath. Thank you, universe, for Johnny Seo.
See a Problem?
Like a soft-edged version of himself. I have a bunch of stuff that would fit you. Jaehyun tries to thank him aloud, too, but Ten waves him off. Jaehyun shrugs helplessly. But Jaehyun can sense things shifting for Ten, threads of the universe tugging and pulling to bring him the answer.
I need to save my job, Jaehyun thinks desperately, and hopes it shows. And leave it open. Jaehyun nods, slightly overwhelmed, and shuffles into the bathroom. The light blinds him for a moment, and he dumps the pile of clothing on the counter, bracing his hands on the edge of it and looking into the mirror. His reflection stares back. Kim Doyoung is not worth it. Jaehyun casts a furtive look behind him, where Johnny is still rifling through the closet.
Ten gives him a flat, disbelieving look before he closes the door behind him, setting the glasses and the soju down on the counter. And then another one, just in case. But he was really drunk. And also in love. Ten shrugs. But hey, Mark Facetimed me last week and he let Donghyuck kiss him goodbye on camera. Some part of Jaehyun does go warm at the news, but he absolutely will not tell Ten that. Ten pours him one more, and then leaves Jaehyun to get changed. The top half is fine—definitely not his style, for sure, but still doable—and then he sees the pants.
Jaehyun seriously doubts that, but he trusts Johnny more than he trusts just about anyone so he puts the stupid jeans on. Jaehyun takes a nervous step back, but Ten is efficient and surprisingly gentle. Jaehyun instantly feels guilty, but Ten jumps in. Jaehyun can do this. Jaehyun opens his mouth to rebuke, but Ten raises an eyebrow. But you look really, really good. I can wear this. He looks back over at his reflection, and something inside of him hardens with resolve. This is his last chance to get the whole Doyoung thing back on track. His whole job quite literally hinges on it, and if wearing an absurdly tight pair of pants will help, then Jaehyun will do it.
Jaehyun wishes it was zombies. But he can hear the music, bleeding out through the door, mingling with the sound of many voices, layered on top of each other. His heart jumps into his throat. Something about him puts Jaehyun at ease. Sure enough, the man in the doorway introduces himself as Moon Taeil and beckons Jaehyun inside.
Also not technically a lie. But it works like a charm.
Be nice to him this time. Taeil leads Jaehyun farther into the kitchen, opening the fridge and rummaging around in it for a second. Taeil straightens, holding out a can of beer. Jaehyun takes it, fumbling with the tab for a second before he manages to crack it open. It foams all over his fingers but he pretends not to notice as Taeil thinks over his answer. I love him very much. So not Taeil, Jaehyun thinks with some dissatisfaction.
Roommates are always really easy to set up. Around him, the party comes to a halt. His phone buzzes with an email. Rolling his eyes, Jaehyun opens it, reading through the brief message. Please use this to your advantage. Time unfreezes. At the same time, someone bumps into Jaehyun, sending him stumbling forward a little bit. He owns the shop Doyoung works at. I need to see if I can set you up with Doyoung. Jaehyun looks between Kun and Taeil, the latter nodding encouragingly.
Come back if you want more beer! Jaehyun nods, trying not to let his nervousness show as he makes his way towards Doyoung, who is clearly intoxicated, swaying back and forth on his feet as he takes yet another shot, throwing it back with a little too much force and spilling most of it down his front. He turns and catches sight of Jaehyun, who fights back the urge to scowl. His eyes narrow. Why are you here? Doyoung stumbles forward a step, catches himself, and glares at Jaehyun again.
They stand there, awkward. Doyoung sways on his feet and Jaehyun debates hitting Doyoung in the face and fleeing the scene. There is a lot to unpack in that sentence. Hopefully some place a bit quieter, and maybe not so packed. I just made a mistake. Doyoung sighs and flops down onto the stairs, tucking his arms around himself. And I have a bit of a temper, too. Maybe the alternate Jaehyun, who wears outfits like this all the time and is infinitely more human than he is.
Doyoung raises an eyebrow just a bit, but Jaehyun ignores his unasked question for the previous one. Something simmers between them, and Jaehyun can feel it in his cheeks. Doyoung leans his head back again. Through the hazy clouds, Jaehyun can see the moon, its light diluted.
Doyoung closes his eyes, and Jaehyun studies him. He realizes now it was foolish to walk into that meeting and expect to be able to figure Doyoung out like he was a puzzle, straightforward with one solution. If only all conversations could be like this, Jaehyun thinks, then his life would be much easier. Jaehyun nods, agreeing. The chill has started to seep through his coat, numbing his fingers and toes. Doyoung fumbles above him for the railing, hauling himself unsteadily to his feet.
He sways a bit, still clutching onto the railing. Jaehyun sighs, pushing his irritation away. Doyoung starts sliding out of his arms, and Jaehyun hefts him up again, annoyance prickling across his skin. His phone reads Doyoung shrugs. Jaehyun sighs, exasperated. Would you, um, happen to know where Jungwoo is?
In the bathroom, Doyoung makes a very sad sound, and both Jaehyun and Jungwoo sigh at the exact same time. Jungwoo sighs again.
I should go, probably. I really do need to go. Jaehyun is a terrible liar, but he hopes Doyoung is drunk enough to not notice. He waves a hand at Jungwoo. The door shuts behind him with a gentle click. Doyoung comes out of the bathroom, looking pale and exhausted. He stumbles over his feet, tipping forward, but this time, Jaehyun is ready, catching him gently by the shoulders and guiding him to the bed. Doyoung kicks off his shoes and looks at his socks for a long moment. His eyes close all the way. Like the promise of something else.
But he never would have thought his own tactics would have been used on him, in some convoluted attempt by the universe to help.
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And despite standing on the curb for fifteen minutes, no cabs stop, so he reluctantly gets on the subway, crowding in with a dozen or so other people. Irritation immediately prickles over his skin, and Jaehyun takes a deep breath through his nose. Jaehyun whirls around, nearly dropping his phone.
Doyoung is standing there, looking vaguely embarrassed and mildly worried, a massive cardboard box propped on his hip. Doyoung goes bright pink, and his embarrassment grows. Jaehyun thinks about Jungwoo, about the pain in both of their voices and eyes. He tells Doyoung this last part, and Doyoung, if possible, turns even redder. Doyoung opens his eyes and squints at Jaehyun. Doyoung gives him a tentative smile. Let me just drop this off at the store. You can come, if you want, and say hi to Kun. I remember him. Jaehyun makes a note to look them up when he gets back to work.
Doyoung stops in front of a neat little shop, all of their clothes a cross between street fashion and overpriced celebrity style. Jaehyun sees where Doyoung gets his style from, now. A bell chimes merrily as he does so, and Doyoung squishes both himself and the box through the doorway with some effort. Kun pokes his head out of a doorway in the back, waving when he sees both of them. And Doyoung, oh my god, thank you so much for grabbing those. Doyoung drops the box behind the counter with a grunt, drawing the attention of some girls browsing in the corner.
Is it okay if I take my lunch break right now? Doyoung gives Kun a quick bow.