Trung Le Nguyen discusses The Magic Fish, his YA graphic novel that deals with the complexity of family and how stories can bring us together, in conversation with his editor, Whitney Leopard. In this gorgeous debut, fairy tales are the only way one boy can communicate with his Vietnamese immigrant parents. But how will he find the words to tell them that he’s gay? A powerful read about family, identity, and the enduring magic of stories.
Watch the video of this event here and read the transcript below:
“[A] gorgeously drawn… story of a first-generation Vietnamese American who is struggling with coming out to his parents.”—Forbes
“A sparkling debut… about the child of Vietnamese immigrants who teaches through fairy tales—yet wrestles with how to come out to his family.”—The Washington Post
“Infused with emotional depth and integrity, this coming-of-age story broadens the range of Vietnamese American creative voices in books for young people.”—The Horn Book, starred review
“Warm, loving family and friends are a refreshing alternative to immigrant stories that focus on family problems. Beautifully illustrates how sharing old stories can be the best way to learn how to share new ones.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“The magic happens here on every page, the perfection personified by debut author/artist Nguyen’s autobiographical homage to the infinite power of storytelling.”—Booklist, starred review
“Nguyen’s poignant debut captures the perspectives of, and essence of the bond between, a parent and child, proving that language—and love—can transcend words.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“How do you tell stories within stories within stories? Ask Trung Le Nguyen, who seamlessly blends family history, fairy tales, and a 1998 coming-out tale in this remarkable intergenerational graphic novel.”—The Bulletin, starred review
Thanks to our community partners for their help in sharing this event:
- Charlottesville Pride Community Network
- Side by Side
- UVA LGBT Committee for Faculty and Staff
SARAH LAWSON: Hello, and welcome to Shelf Life presented by the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, Associate Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
A couple of notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. First, please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom throughout the event. Also, this event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize them at the bottom of your Zoom window at any time. If you haven’t already read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from a local bookseller or check out a copy from your library, visit VaBook.org, where you can also watch our past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.
Also, we appreciate the support of our community partners for this event, Charlottesville Pride Community Network, Side by Side Virginia, and the UVA LGBT Committee for Faculty and Staff. To learn more about their work, visit VaBook.org.
Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s speakers.
Trung Le Nguyen, author of The Magic Fish, is a comic book artist and illustrator working out of Minnesota. He received his BA from Hamline University in 2012, majoring in studio art with a concentration in oil painting and minoring in art history. He’s contributed artwork for Oni Press, BOOM! Studios, Limerence Press, and more. Welcome, Trung.
Joining him is Whitney Leopard, the senior editor at Random House Graphic. She has been editing comics for nearly a decade, with notable titles like Lumberjanes, Adventure Time, and R. L. Stine’s Just Beyond series.
Whitney, Trung, thank you for joining us today, and please tell us more about The Magic Fish.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: Thank you for having us. We are definitely excited. Hi, everyone. I’m going to kick off things by sharing with you about this amazing graphic novel. We all know that real life isn’t a fairy tale, but Tien still enjoys reading his favorite stories with his parents from books that he borrows from the local library. It’s hard enough trying to communicate with your parents as a kid, but for Tien he doesn’t even have the right words because his parents are struggling with their English. Is there a Vietnamese word for what he’s going through? Is there a way to tell them that he’s gay? This is The Magic Fish, the beautifully illustrated story by Trung Le Nguyen that follows a young boy as he tries to navigate life through fairy tales. The Magic Fish tackles tough subjects in a way that is accessible to readers of all ages and teaches us that, no matter what, we can all have our own happy endings.
And Trung, it is always a pleasure to see you.
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Yes. It’s lovely to see your face, Whitney.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: So, it’s been almost a year since The Magic Fish came out, and I would love to know how you’re feeling. Have you revisited it since it’s come out? Have you reread it recently? Anything like that.
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Yeah, I read it for the first time in its entirety just a couple weeks ago. It was such a long process kind of writing and then drafting and then drawing the book that I didn’t really feel the need to revisit it. And I have this sense of like if I finish a project, I’m going to be really tempted to go back into editorial mode if I were to read it too soon. So, I put it away, and I didn’t look at it, and I just let other people give me feedback. And it was like, okay, great. This is out in the world now; I don’t need to read it just yet. And so, I think almost a full cycle of a year went by before I was like, okay, I think I’m ready to take a look at this book. Because then I don’t have that impulse to like, oh, I would do things differently. And I don’t remember why I made certain choices on certain pages. And so, I can enjoy the book kind of as it’s meant to be presented.
And, wow, I was really—there were some parts of it that surprised me. Like I kind of remember drawing them, and I remember writing them. But kind of seeing everything come together as like a final product after so much time away from it was still kind of—was still really surprising. And I forgot how heavy it got.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: Okay, my real question. Did you cry?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: I did.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: Because I feel like that’s the one thing that people tweet at you constantly, is like Trung made me cry today because I read The Magic Fish. And I could see that like the amount of times that I like teared up—and I’m like editing this thing, so I’m reading it like twenty, thirty, fifty times. And every time I’d just be like—especially by the time you get to the end with the scene with mother and all that, I’m just sitting here just being like—it just grabbed me in the heart. So, I was curious about now that you’ve revisited, are you getting the same reaction. Like do you understand why people both love and hate you for?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Yes, I get it now. I finally understand.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: Well, I’m glad that you’ve gotten a chance to revisit it in its finality. But let’s talk about The Magic Fish’s origins. Where did the story come from, and kind of what led you to the idea of this graphic novel?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Okay. So, The Magic Fish is my very first long-form narrative anything. I’ve never written anything before I wrote this book. So, I’m honestly really shocked that things came together really well. Thank you so much for being a wonderful editor and helping me pull together all of the pieces.
But a few years ago, I decided I want to tell long-form stories because I love a thick volume. I love books. And I have such strong sentimental feelings about books. That this is a thing that I wanted to make, and I was kind of bopping around in comics, and I love the format, and I love the ways that the pages kind of felt when I read through them. I love libraries. And so, I was like I want to make a book-book that can sit on a shelf that a librarian can recommend to a kid. And I have always loved fairy tales.
And like the main character, I did spend a lot of time in libraries reading fairy stories, and I always chose them because I thought the pictures were really beautiful. I had like my favorite illustrators, and I’d always make the librarians find books for me based on my favorite illustrators as opposed to the authors. So, I have just a lot of strong feelings about making books and writing and examining fairy tales and what they mean to the reader and what they mean to the people who are telling the stories.
So that’s sort of the long answer—is that this is something that I’ve always wanted to do and a story that I’ve always kind of wanted to tell. And the shorter answer is that it was my very first go at a graphic novel, and I wasn’t sure when I would get another opportunity. So, I was like, hmm, how can I tell as many of my favorite stories as possible in one book?
So, I gathered all of my favorite fairy tales together and was like, okay, what is the interesting thing that makes all of these things click for me emotionally? So that was kind of how I chose the fairy tales and threaded them together.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: I absolutely love that. I also love the idea that you were like this will probably be my one go. And it’s like, “Of course it’s not, Trung.” I mean, we’ll talk more about future Trung projects later. But I just kind of love how it all came together and your idea behind this.
I would love to talk a little bit about the process. So, you had an idea. You had multiple ideas of what you would like to do with this book. But how, in the process of it all, did it become the graphic novel that we all know and love? So, I kind of wanted to call out specific stages. Because like Gina Gagliano, who’s the publisher for Random House Graphic, acquired the book. And once all the business aspect stuff was done, what was your first step?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Well, it’s hard to say exactly what a first step is because this project has sort of existed in different iterations before. So, it started as sort of like a short zine thing, where it was like here are some concept drawings that I did for this thing that I wish were a story. And I did like a little gallery show of it. So, a lot of the visual aspects of it kind of came together before.
But the moment that it actually became a book was when I wrote an outline, and then we cleaned it up and sent it in. And that’s when I was like, oh, okay, so here is narrative cohesion. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end. There are characters that I care about that are starting to reveal themselves to me.
I think I was partway through the scripting process after I’d nailed down the outline. And the book was already sold. So, I was already working with Gina, and I think also you at the time. And I was writing it, and I was like, oh, the characters are starting to surprise me with their personalities and their priorities and their interests. And that was when I was like, okay, so this is a real book now.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: I absolutely love that. When I came in to edit The Magic Fish, you had an outline that was working, and you were working on scripting and thumbnails. And you had a very unique process of how you were bringing things together. Because you had like ideas, and then we would kind of rearrange things as we were like working on it together. So, for me personally, I’m curious about like what stage did you feel confident about the story that you were bringing together? Because me coming in, I saw it, and I was like this is beautiful, and it’s going to be amazing, and I can’t wait for the world to see this. But I wonder if you always had that feeling kind of like how I felt whenever I got into this book. Or at like what stage were you confident in the book? Now I’m asking like if you were ever confident in the book.
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: I think the point at which I realized that the story was starting to gel—I think it was after the thumbnailing stage. I was already starting to draw the pages. And I was drawing things traditionally at first. So, I would be like penciling and then inking and then erasing and then scanning and then like cleaning it up. And it was taking a lot of time. And then I switched over to digital later.
But partway through the traditional portion of it, I realized that at the very beginning when I was writing the script, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a very good comic book writer. Because as someone who kind of comes from the art end of things, I assumed a couple of very wrong things. First of all, that I’m a visually oriented person, which I am to a great extent. Because I am an artist, and I think visually. And also, that I thought that I knew what was a great way to write for an artist. Because I’d worked with writers before, and I’d been very spoiled because they’re all very talented and very skilled people. So, I would get a script, and it’d be like, oh, okay, everything makes a lot of sense. So, I had all of these ideas in my brain about how I would be an ideal writer for an artist and how I would be able to gel visually with someone’s visual aesthetics and be able to communicate complex visual ideas in very particular ways. And then I wrote the thing, and then I started drawing the thing, and then I looked back on the script, and I was like I don’t know what my writer self was thinking.
Because writer self and my artist self are two totally different people, and we apparently don’t have the same ideas about what makes a great story. And it does take a long time to get from the scripting process to the drawing process. So, by the time I got to the drawing process, I was like I don’t know what this writer is talking about. I don’t know what he was thinking at all.
But the part where I kind of felt like the story was finally coming together was when I could look at the script and have a really clear idea—like I remember at this point in the process I became much more confident in my abilities to convey my own ideas to myself. So as soon as the drawing process became really smooth—as soon as I could look at a script and be like, oh, okay, so this makes a lot of sense, I sort of understood how I could best work together with myself. And that was when I kind of felt like, okay, so this is finally something that came together.
So, all of the pieces—everything, the story beats—were in order. We did a little bit of rearranging, but it didn’t really feel like I had to change very much. And so, the point at which I kind of felt like actually everything is set in a way that makes sense is when the drawing made sense to me.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: I love that. So, a side question. Who do you think is more organized? The writer you, or the artist you? Like who do you think has it more together?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Oh gosh, the artist me. A hundred percent. Because writer me is just a disaster. I would write a script, and I would be so—I think honestly, it’s just because I’m more experienced as an artist than I am as a writer. So, I know all of the tricks to make myself put a story down on a page in terms of the composition. But as a writer, I’m just overwhelmed with possibility all the time. Partly because it’s the first part of the process. I need the script to be done first before I can understand where the visuals are going. But also, I’m just less experienced at it. Like there’s a lot more room for growth, and so there’s also a lot more room for doubt in that process. So, I’m trying to edit out ideas that are extraneous and that don’t make a lot of sense. By the time I’m drawing things I know exactly where things need to go. So, I think my artist self is much, much more organized.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: Well, I think you could say that both of them should be very confident in what they’re doing because everyone is very happy with this book and loves it so much.
Kind of the final part of the process of putting this book together was working with our senior designer Patrick Crotty. And I know he was very vital to helping figure out the color scheme and the overall design of the book. What was it like working with a designer as someone who’s so visually involved as your book—the writer and the artist of this book?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: A big thing that I learned working with a designer—and Patrick is amazing. I love his work. He did a lot of work with PEOW Press before, and I loved a lot of the mini comics that they put out. And so, I was familiar with his work, and I really like the way that he puts projects together. And so, I was really confident in his capacity to make the book really beautiful. And the one thing that I really took away from it is that my skills in terms of drawing are not design skills. Drawing and illustrating—a totally different skill set than design. Like they’re both kind of visually oriented, but a graphic designer is an entirely different tool set than I’m familiar with. So, I wouldn’t know up from down when it comes to designing a book, so I’m so happy that Patrick was on it.
I also worked with a flatter, Robin, who I credited in the book. And that made the process so much smoother because I am not someone who’s terribly confident in terms of coloring things. And I needed things to be sort of simplified for me. So, working with a flatter was really excellent for that. And then kind of getting to talk with Patrick about the design of the book was a process that I’d never really gone through before, and it was so kind of thoughtful in the ways that—like he designed the text as well. He designed the font that was used. And that was also challenging because Vietnamese is a tonal language, and so there are a lot of diacritical marks that needed to be crafted in order for all of the text to look exactly the way that it needed to. And he did such a lovely job, not understanding any of the language and just kind of going by the notes I gave him. Like, okay, this mark needs to go here, and these are the letters that need to exist.
So, it was kind of a unique process, where he wasn’t just a designer, but he was also making sure that the book was culturally from a space that was really authentic to me.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: Yeah. I think y’all both did an amazing job together. Well, I mean, I’m sure everyone does because the book is just beautiful. And I love hearing about this because I was always kind of curious about now that you’ve had time to step away from it all, how the process worked. At least from your end of things. Because everyone is like, oh, I’m involved with the process. So, I know editorially how things went, which I thought were fantastic because I just really love how this book came together, and I loved working with you.
So, kind of moving on from the promise, in talking more about the book itself, you’ve commented before about how the book ended up heavier than you originally intended. Why do you think that?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Oh my gosh. So, in rereading the book, I got to the back matter. Because I had a very clear idea of what I wanted the book to be. And after I finished making the book, I sort of wrote a little essay that we put together at the end. And I’d had a lot of time to think about things. And one of the things that I said is that I observed that oftentimes when people tell difficult stories, we kind of like to hold things at arm’s length. So, we intellectualize things, and we kind of make things nice and neat so that we don’t have to deal quite so much with the emotional impact of things. And I fully didn’t realize that was what I was doing the entire time. So, I never felt, while I was writing or while I was drawing it, that it was an especially emotionally hefty book. Certainly, there were moments where I was like, okay, so this emotional beat works, and it works for this reason. And so, I could sort of pick at it and think about it on sort of this very minute level.
And then my experience with it as a reader was totally different because I had to experience the emotional beats kind of in my heart instead of in my brain. So, I evidently dragged myself completely already. In the back matter of the book, I could correctly identify that I was holding a topic that held a lot of emotional resonance for me at arm’s length by making it sort intellectualized or making it a craft thing or making it something that wasn’t so personal all of the time. And so, if I could pretend that it’s not personal, I could go through and spend a ton of time with it. And then part of a year later, I actually read the thing, and suddenly it was emotionally resonant. And I was like, oh, okay, I see what happened here.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: It’s kind of amazing to be able to tell a story where even if you are holding it at arm’s length that it does resonate with so many people. Like even yourself whenever you reread it. But like to have that authentic feeling still come through even though like, as you’re actively creating it, you kind of have to separate yourself. Because you don’t want to be like sobbing as you’re drawing every single page because you’re so emotionally connected. But it’s also one of those things being—like I understand the need for that arm’s length, but I also think that it just shows how special this book is that even with you doing that, while you were creating it you were able to create something that still resonated so authentically and so genuinely with such a wide audience. So, I kind of love that aspect of how it came together.
So, kind of moving on from that, the story’s core relationship is between Tien and his mom Helen. Why did it feel important to add those pieces of Helen’s story, and how does that come back to Tien’s struggle of coming out?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Well, I think one of the things that was pretty important to me in terms of making sure that the story beats came together was to flesh out the relationship between those two, and I wanted the story to kind of have two protagonists. It’s ostensibly a coming out story, and it is an emergent story about a young boy. But I wanted to make sure that the important pieces in his life came together in a meaningful way. And I couldn’t do that without making sure that the reader knew about what his family life looked like and where Helen came from as well.
I think a lot of—I guess the themes of the book kind of center around grace quite a bit, about really exploring things when you’re not really sure exactly the right way to do things. And I think it’s one of those stories where the characters have their priorities, but things shift suddenly because life happens, and no matter how hard you’re trying, things will get in the way. You will find that your language is insufficient, and language oftentimes evolves. And it evolves away from you if you’re out of practice.
And so, there’s that sense of this huge, cavernous emotional heft where you’re missing something. And you know that things are happening, and time is kind of moving on in a space that you don’t really exist, and it’s growing away from you. And so, Helen feeling that really strongly and then Tien also really wanting to emotionally connect with his mother—that was something that I wanted to make sure came through. And so, Helen’s story became much, much more important as I was writing it. Because I realized that it was really necessary to kind of flesh out her growth as a character. And I think one of the things that surprised me about the process of storytelling is that Tien—he’s a thirteen-year-old kid. And so, I sort of took for granted that he’s going to grow, and I didn’t need to show him at a moment where he was experiencing an enormous amount of growth. He’s very sure about what he wants, and he knows that he wants to communicate this thing. He knows who his friends are. And so, in a lot of ways he’s very secure in his attachments to his friends and to his parents. He just has to figure out exactly what the right way to go about expressing this thing to his parents is. And so, there’s not a ton of fear and anxiety in rejection in his coming out story. It was more about like making sure that his family understood than that sort of fear of rejection. And the story kind of takes places in the nineties. It’s something that comes up a little bit later, when an antagonist kind of introduces the idea into his mind. That’s when the relationship—like a little bit of insecurity comes into Tien’s focus.
But with Helen, her arc is much, much stronger. She’s at a place in her life where she’s been through quite a lot of things. And so, for her to kind of continue to seek opportunities to grow, to make sure that the world is a good place for her son, I thought was something that was really resonant for me and much more impactful. And so, I think her piece of the story became incredibly important for me to tell.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: I agree a hundred percent because I feel like their relationship just—and what they were each going through individually—just works so well to like parallel each other’s story, even though their stories deal with very different things. Like even though they’re related and they’re sharing each other’s lives, their lives are going through two different paths. And I thought you did such a good job with that.
I do have a curious question about Tien’s father. Because he’s kind of like a background character in the story, but he clearly is loving and accepting and supports his son and loves his wife, but you don’t really get to see his like interaction with the family or his interaction with Tien. Is there anything that you would’ve liked to have added with this character at the end of the story? Or is there any way that you see that he would’ve reacted to Tien coming out? Like his mother changed the story so that she could show that she approved. Was it the same with the father?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: I think I—I don’t know that I paid that much attention to the development of Tien’s father like as a character. But I kind of always had a really strong idea of who he was. And so, I think I sort of took that for granted, and so it showed up in the script that way.
But I think one of the things that I really wanted to kind of push back on in terms of immigrant narratives and coming out narratives is oftentimes there’s a fear of this kind of paternalistic force in the home that would make things very difficult. And I didn’t want that to be kind of the primary—like I didn’t want that to hold a lot of gravity in this book. So, from the get, I was certain that Helen was going to be the parent figure with the most agency and with the most growth. And so, the story beats that have to do with Tien’s father—they’re all kind of within the context of his relationship to Helen. So, he’s kind of there, in a way, to kind of add a little bit of texture to the relationship between Tien and Helen, and he’s not so much a character that I was interested in fleshing out kind of on its own because that’s a story that I’ve heard quite a lot kind of growing up. Is that everything, in terms of coming out stories and in terms of immigrant narratives, are all about kind of father-son relationships. And I think those are very important, but at the same time I really wanted this book in particular to center on a maternal relationship.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: Yeah, I think that makes total sense, and I absolutely love that. I have a few more questions, so don’t worry. But I did want to point out to our audience here that if they have any questions, feel free to start putting it in the Q&A button, and we’ll get to whatever we can at the end. But on with my questions.
So, the book also centers around fairy tales. Can you talk about the process and purpose of using fairy tales to weave within the stories being told by Tien and Helen?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Sure. So, fairy tales are something that I kind of love going through over and over. I’ve read the same stories I think like dozens and dozens and dozens of times in different iterations, and it’s something that I really enjoy doing. Because I really believe that storytelling is a relationship that develops between the storyteller and whoever is listening to or reading the story. And so, it reveals a lot about the storyteller. So, it almost doesn’t matter what the content of the story is. That’s obviously really important, but I am really interested in where the author is coming from, where that voice comes from. I like to imagine the world that the storyteller inhabits and why their priorities develop the way that they do. Fairy tales were kind of the way that I would do that as a kid. I would read stories, and they would start off like, “Once upon a time in a land very far away.”
And it was an opportunity for me to exercise this empathetic imagination. To envision things that I had never seen before and to empathize with characters going through things that I had never gone through in my entire life and couldn’t imagine actually going through myself. And so, I chose fairy stories that were oftentimes very similar or had some comparisons in order to showcase the relevance that they kind of had to different characters with different points of view. They’re drawn in very specific kind of visual aesthetics as well. And so, they’re kind of drawn from the visual imagination of each of the storytellers. And so, I wanted to tell kind of all of the fairytales that were sort of important to me, but also make sure that I drew comparisons to them so that the reader gets a good sense for why they matter to whoever it is that’s telling the story, since that’s the primary mode of communication between the main characters.
So, the first two stories are different iterations of a Cinderella story. And those are kind of pretty common, and we have ideas about what they look like in the popular imagination. And I wanted to challenge that a little bit and kind of turn it on its head and compare two different stories that had a lot of familiar story beats but maybe weren’t the most popular Cinderella stories. And telling the Vietnamese version of Cinderella was something that I had always wanted to do in terms of telling a graphic story or a comic book. And so that was very exciting for me.
And The Little Mermaid—there’s actually two different Little Mermaid stories that are happening at the same time because the characters are participating in a ballet that is also an iteration of The Little Mermaid. So, it’s just like a couple of different—like it’s a little tiramisu of The Little Mermaid. And that one I chose for its pertinence as sort of a story of transition that can be read as an allegory for queerness, in particular having to do with Hans Christian Andersen’s history. But it’s also a story about immigration and about sacrificing your voice and your agency in order to be someplace with the person that you love. And I think that that kind of has a lot of tiered and layered emotional resonance with a lot of different readers.
Yeah, so that’s sort of the gist of why I chose those stories and how I decided to weave them together.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: I love them. You illustrated them so beautifully. Kind of like a side question of this is do you have a favorite. Like now that you’ve gotten to illustrate multiple versions and all this stuff, do you have a favorite one that you’ve gotten to illustrate or a favorite moment that you got to illustrate with these fairy tales?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: I do not because I drew them all in different ways for different reasons that all happen to be kind of my favorite things. So, the first Cinderella is drawn from the visual imagination of Tien. So, I was like, oh, okay, so I grew up consuming a lot of media just like this kid. So, I could draw from my own kind of very sentimental childhood images. And so that was really fun for me. And then the Vietnamese Cinderella, I got to do a lot more research. I got to understand like why the ao dai looks the way that it does and what the history of that garment is. And I got to look at what Vietnam looked like before the Vietnam War. Because a lot of our visual imagination in the US and the West—a lot of our kind of images of Vietnam come from that time. And there’s a rich history. The aesthetic inclinations of the world that people living in Vietnam inhabited before the war is so rich and so interesting, and I’d never seen a lot of those images before. So that was a really wonderful thing for me to experience as a Vietnamese American diasporic person.
And the last story, The Little Mermaid, I drew because I had been going on a John Hughes movie marathon. So, I watched kind of all of those old like teen rom-coms, and I was really sort of fascinated with the texture of this—like with this sort of imaginary world, to me, that I had only ever seen kind of like in film. And so, I was really kind of fascinated with that aesthetic. And these were the movies that a character like Helen would have experienced. Like this is the media that she would have seen that would have made her inclined to want to come to the United States in particular. And this would have been her window to that culture. And so, I imagine this would have some influence on the ways that she saw the world.
So, I don’t have a favorite. I loved doing each of them for different reasons.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: I absolutely love that. That’s amazing. Well now I’m going to put you on the spot. So, you were GLAAD Media Award nominated, Lammy nominated, Eisner nominated, British Fantasy Award nominated, five-star reviews. The response has been amazing. That has to feel good, right? And kind of like what has been your reaction to all the praise that The Magic Fish just continues to get?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: First of all, thank you so much, Whitney. I’m still—like I’m someone who’s not very good at taking compliments. And so, these are all like, okay, so these have been dished out in very formal channels. And so, I got to—and all of this is taking place remotely as well. And so, I get to sort of selectively feel my feelings about them. And so, it feels nice, and I’m like not—they’re not things that I thought about. Like I don’t think it’s ever a writer’s goal to be nominated for awards. And so, this wasn’t something that I ever thought about. So, every award nomination kind of came as this like really pleasant surprise. Like, oh, this is really wonderful. What a lovely first experience.
And then I’m a little nervous now because I’m like, oh, okay, what if my sophomore slump comes in real soon? But it’s exciting, and I’m so happy that it’s a story that really seemed to resonate with so many people.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: It really has resonated with so many people, and I mean, really people of all ages. Because I feel like you’ve gotten a chance to talk with younger audiences and older audiences. What has been one of your favorite reactions from a reader, or has anything stood out?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Sure. There were a lot of things within the fairytales that I completely took for granted, that I just put there because I knew the fairytales really well. And so, one of my favorite parts about kind of this book in particular—it’s ostensibly written for a YA audience, but I don’t really think about books in that way. I read a lot of books that were above and below kind of my reading level and age range, depending on what I was interested in at the moment, at any given point in my relationship with the library. And so, I never really thought about—or I didn’t think too hard about the age ranges. So, I would get to have a lot of conversations with much younger readers and adult readers as well. And one of the best questions I think I ever got was from a middle schooler who was wondering about a particular detail of one of the very first fairytales because that story is an amalgamation—that Cinderella story is an amalgamation of a lot of different fairytales. And there’s a detail in it where the mother character who disappears gets struck three times, and it’s a reference to an Irish story about selkies and this sort of curse where a man would steal a selkie skin, and the selkie would be bound to marry him. But she would be able to return to the sea if he struck her three times.
And so, there was a story—and so that was something that really stuck with me when I was little because I remembered that because my parents also kind of were very intentional about discussing what appropriate behaviors are in relationships between family members. And so, they would observe a lot of domestic abuse in the places where they grew up. And so those were stories that were always things that kind of stuck out in my mind. Like, oh, this is a thing that happens. It’s a part of my imagination that there is sometimes danger in the home. And if that danger arises, it’s appropriate to leave. So, when I read the selkie myth as a very small child, I was like oh, okay, yeah. Absolutely she should leave him if he strikes her. And that was a detail that I included in the story that I don’t really get to talk about. But a very young reader picked up on it right away and asked me about it. And I was like, oh, this is such a wonderfully observant thing to ask me. Because I had completely taken that part of the story for granted. It was just a part of the texture of this particular fairytale. And getting to kind of think about it and explain it to a reader was a really lovely thing that I didn’t think I would get to do.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: I love the idea that something that resonated with you when you were a younger reader and you put it in a future story is now resonating with younger readers of today. So, it’s kind of like carrying on. This story element that has clearly stuck with you all these years. I think that’s amazing.
So now that we’ve talked about The Magic Fish and how amazing you are and how amazing this book is, is there anything you want to share about some other projects you have going on? And any scripts coming through that I should be excited about?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: You know when the script due date is. So, I’m working very hard on scripting my second graphic novel with you and Random House Graphic. And I’m super excited about it because it’s just going to be kind of this fun story that I wanted to do kind of as a cool down from The Magic Fish, which was so emotionally hefty. And so, I’m writing a pastiche of another fairytale that’s sort of set-in contemporary times. So, we’ll see how that goes. It’s a totally different mode of writing than I’m used to. Every mode of writing is different than I’m used to because I’ve never written anything before The Magic Fish. So, I’m just really excited to explore the possibilities of storytelling in my next book. And it does kind of have a fairytale analogue, but it sort of moves away from it a little bit more. It’s not quite so tightly wound as The Magic Fish. So, I’m very excited about that. I’ve been buying a bunch of visual reference books because I’m learning about like Norwegian- and Swedish-American aesthetics. It’s a very aesthetically Minnesotan book. So, I have a lot of strong sentimental feelings about like, oh, these are the places that I love, and these are the places that I was familiar with growing up.
So, we don’t have a title for it yet, but it’s about a girl who gets an internship at her local public theater. And through some—and she messes up at some point, and she has to go about fixing all of the mistakes that she’s made. And she sort of develops stronger relationships with her peers for it and with her parents for it. I’m really excited about it. And kind of in the interim, I’ve been doing a few kind of like superhero comics as well. I did a stint doing a few short DC comics, and that was really fun as well. Because superheroes were something that I never thought that I would ever do. I didn’t think that my aesthetic was appropriate for them. And they found a space for me, and I had a lot of fun.
Yeah, so those are all of the things. So, I did like a Wonder Woman that’ll be coming out later this year. Aquaman’s eightieth anniversary. I did a very short Green Lantern one and a short Batwoman comic as well for different anthologies.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: I will have to say, as a fan of Batwoman, it was very exciting to see you illustrating the character.
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Oh, that makes me so happy.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: Whenever you first posted it, I was just like what is this. So just a little sidetrack. So that was all of my questions, but we do have a question from the audience. And it’s a question for your illustrator side. Was your writer’s POV something that carried on into your other projects, or was it something unique to The Magic Fish?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: I think it’s something that was unique to The Magic Fish. The writing process for that, I hewed very closely to my comfort zone and the things that I’d written before. And the last long-form thing that I had written was literally an essay for college. And so, I structured it a lot like an essay. And so, the ways that I approached the storytelling kind of aesthetically were all things that I came up.
So, there are a lot of common threads to the way that I draw. Like I have a very particular aesthetic. But the visual approaches that I used for drawing each part of the story were things that I sort of made up along the way. And so, I don’t have anything particularly set in stone. I don’t have a lot of strong illustrative habits in terms of long-form storytelling just yet, since this is my very first long-form project. So, I haven’t developed like artistic habits just yet. I’m still sort of learning. So, I don’t know—yeah, so I don’t know if I have like an accurate—I don’t have an accurate assessment of what my process is like for that or what my habits are. But that’s sort of like how I developed things visually and narratively. I don’t know how well that answered that question.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: That’s how it works. Like you’ve said, The Magic Fish was your first graphic novel, your first long-form project. It was also your first time writing a long-form project. So, I feel like there’s such a learning curve, but it’s a learning curve that’s going to follow you from project to project to project because, I mean, I know people who have been publishing for a long time who are still working on the way that they do things and the way that they put stuff together. So, it’s just exciting to get to see your process at the very beginning of it all and then continue working with you as you continue developing what your process actually ends up going to be.
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Yeah. I think that’s a better way to sum up my answer to that question. It’s like I’m also excited to find out like what this looks like for me.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: Basically, we’re all just excited. So that was it for the questions. But before I let everyone go, I wanted to ask you if you had any book recommendations for anyone who enjoyed The Magic Fish or any books that you’ve read recently that you just really enjoy and that you want to share with the audience.
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Oh, gosh.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: Or is it all like Norwegian architecture?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: I’ve just been doing a lot of research. I don’t know how to read for fun anymore, so it’s hard for me to actually like go and read kind of like new books. But one book series that I’m really enjoying is called Geis by Alexis Deacon. It’s spelled G-e-i-s. And it’s drawn in such a beautiful like kind of Punch and Judy illustrated style. It’s so beautiful and so lush, and I love it a lot. Any and all of Tillie Walden’s books are amazing, so read all of them. A lot of them are web comics too, so you can read them for free. But I love having like a physical volume of those books.
There is a book called Stages of Rot by—I don’t know if I’m pronouncing her name right, but the artist is Linnea Sterte, I think. And it’s S-t-e-r-t-e. And it’s a science fiction graphic novel that has very few words in it. It’s mostly visual. And it’s this sort of fictionalized account of almost like evolution over the course of the story. And it’s about the life cycle of this particular being and its relationship to the people around it and the environment around it. And so, it’s just this really lovely meditation on the process of existing and then passing away from existence and then kind of coming back. So, it’s just a really—it’s a lovely and poetic book that’s a difficult read if you’re not used to comic book storytelling. But it’s so beautiful I would recommend it to everybody.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: I a hundred percent agree. You brought up Stages of Rot, and I was like that is by far one of my favorite PEOW books.
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: Yes, it’s so beautiful.
WHITNEY LEOPARD: Yeah, I absolutely love it. Well, it is time for us to wrap things up. So, thank you, Trung, and thank you everyone who tuned in. You can also check out future virtual events from the Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. And just thank you all, and it’s been a pleasure getting to talk with all of you.