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Rich Christiano[Jeff Gerke]

Interview: Frank Wu

[Frank and Alison Wu] Frank Wu (shown here with his wife Alison) holds an undergraduate degree in English Literature from the University of Rochester, and a Ph.D. in bacterial genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Now, he lives in California with his wife Alison. Frank was interviewed in August, 2004. Greg Slade asked the questions, and here is an edited version of the question and answer sequence. Shortly after this interview, Frank won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Artist at the 2004 Worldcon. His home page is located at www.frankwu.com. Frank was invited to be the Artist Guest of Honor at ConSecration I in Chicago in March, 2005.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in 1964 in Philadelphia. My dad was getting his Ph.D. in history at the time, so I was named after Ben Franklin. They thought about calling me Ben Wu, but they thought that Frank Wu sounded better. My brother was named after George Washington. Even though we're ethnically Chinese, you don't get more American than that.

Where did you go to school, and what did you take? (And why?)

I grew up in Connecticut, got my undergrad degree at U. of Rochester in New York state, then grad school in Wisconsin and finally wound up in California – so I made it all the way across the country.

When I was younger, before I knew better, I wanted to be a science fiction writer, rather than an artist. I'd read The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and City by Clifford Simak, and totally blown away by them. So I wanted to write. So as an undergrad, I took a lot of both English courses and science courses, particularly biology, because I like things with more than two legs. Especially things with horns and armoured plates and spikey bits.

I think now my favorite mammal is the pangolin, which is a kind of anteater who's covered with horny scales, so it looks like a lizard. Or an enormous pine cone. But it's not. It's a mammal.

I also really like tardigrades, which are microscopic, but sometimes called "water bears," because they look like cute fat bears with four extra legs. They mosey along, straddling twigs in marshes, never seeming to be a hurry. I like that.

So I spent years studying science and trying to be a science fiction writer, before I realized it was just too darn hard and I kept trying to get something published and never succeeded. At the same time I'd also taken some art courses and I'd been drawing my whole life. So about six years ago, I really tried to make a go at the science fiction art thing. That worked! So I'm really happy with my art career.

And, recently I sold my first bit of fiction. This was my tale of a giant space chicken with delusions of grandeur. He thinks he's a cosmic avian avenger destined to free all the poultry trapped in factories in the world, but really he's a giant space chicken. That's going to be in an anthology called Daikaiju (or giant monster) coming out of Australia next year.

What is your family situation? (Married? Kids?)

A few months ago, I married this wonderful woman named Alison McBain. That was on March 19, 2004, 3/19/04, all numbers divisible by one. We met in Toronto at Worldcon, even though we were both living in the San Francisco bay area at the time. Sometimes I guess you have to travel to another country to meet your neighbor.

She's also a writer and has some great ideas. Her first published story was in an anthology edited by Jeff Turner called Fundamentally Challenged, built around the idea that something we take for granted is changed, like there's no gravity or the earth stops spinning. Alison's story "Penned" is one of my favorite stories of all time – and still would be, even if I didn't know her.

What church do you attend, and why?

In my life I've attended all sorts of different churches, from Baptist to Catholic to Pentecostal to Methodist to non-demoninational. Right now I attend a couple different Vineyard churches. Why do I attend those churches? I guess 'cos I like the people and the preaching. They remind us that Christ is the center of all things, and that God forgives us for our sins.

How did you become a Christian?

In the fall of 1982, after many years of soul-searching, I had decided that there was a God. I came to that conclusion after the summer of 1977. That was the summer my sister drowned. She was fifteen at the time, and I was twelve. It was, of course, the most wrenching, horrific experience of my life. In response to that horror, I withdrew, and I did a ton of drawing and writing. And some people thought it was pretty good. And I figured that if something this good could come out of something that bad, there must be a God. I'm not sure that's good theology, but it did lead me on a search for God. One of my next stops was the World Almanac. I figured that, in all these years, somebody must have found out who God was by now. So I went religion shopping, and the Almanac had a handy chart that compared the major religions of the world. I chose Christianity because it was the only one that really made sense to me. Yes, it does seem like sin separates people from God and from each other. It made sense to me for Christ to be the bridge that reunites us and God. Yes, love God and love your neighbor. That seemed to make sense.

There's a question more interesting than Why did you become a Christian? That's the question: Why did you stay a Christian? The reason is that there have been so many desperate hopeless times in my life where God stepped in. When I was in grad school, my mom died. Quite suddenly. One day months later, I was an emotion wreck. I was in lab and everything was going wrong. My test tubes shattered in the centrifuge and everything was going wrong. I ran away from lab and went to the local church on campus and just sat in the pew and cried and cried. It was a freezing cold day, and the church was huge and ornate but completely empty. I had been there twenty minutes and not a single other person had been there. And as I sat there crying, I really felt God's arms wrapping around me comforting me. Then this amazing thing happened. I had a voice in my head that said, "Get up right now, go to the front of the church and someone you know is going to come in." It wasn't the Voice of Charlton Heston or anything, just words forming in my head. And my first thought was, No way. But the voice repeated the message. So I wiped my eyes, got up, went to the front of the church and right then a friend of mine from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was walking in, a guy named Chris Franzen. I said, "Chris, what are you doing here?" He said, "I don't know, I just thought I was supposed to stop by." God had comforted me, then sent someone human to help out, too. Chris was suffering from a really bad rash that just wouldn't go away, and we prayed together and both felt immensely better after that. It was exhilarating in a way, going from deep despair to the highest joy as I saw God send someone to help in my darkest hour. And that for me is what the Christian walk is about.

What was your first exposure to fantasy or SF?

My first exposure to the field was through TV, I think. We had a tiny black and white TV and I used to sit in the cold basement watching Lost in Space and Star Trek. I've been writing a book about something or other my entire life – though never completing any of them, at least not yet! When I was young, I thought the best thing in the world was the Star Trek Concordance, which has plot summaries of all the episodes and a glossary of all the cool gadgets and planets and aliens and spaceships.

I wanted to write an encyclopedia like that for every science fiction movie or TV show that was ever created, ever. So when I saw Star Wars for the first time in a movie theater, I was actually taking notes.

At the same time I also started reading some of the books I mentioned earlier. I also read a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs, though I was never really convinced by how John Carter got to Mars.

What was your first exposure to art that you recognised as "art"?

I've always been a visual person, and I think my color sense has been kind of skewed by the first time I saw Star Trek on a color TV. All those pinks and purples and fuchsias! Wow. But I also really loved movie posters. The Land that Time Forgot from 1975 is a favorite, because the submarine in the poster, with all these cool-looking windows in the front, is different from that in either the movie or the book – and better. And there's a manta ray that spits electricity from an antenna, and that's not in the book or the movie, too. So in a lot of ways, the poster art transcends the source material. I also really loved the poster for Captain Nemo and the Underwater City, which also has a cool sub even though the perspective doesn't work. That, and the Star Wars poster painted to look like an old, sun-faded poster that's ripped up and coming off the wall.

I also looked at a lot of book covers. The cover for the 1980 paperback edition of Samuel Delaney's Nova is a favorite. So is Whelan's art for Simak's City. And the original cover for Alan Dean Foster's Icerigger.

In addition to book covers and movie posters I've always loved, I am very ecumenical in my visual tastes. I don't work in one particular style, but I'll steal idea from anyone whose art I love. The Italian Futurists, the Russian Constructivists. Julia Margaret Cameron, Kinuko Craft. I think if I don't keep trying to do new things, I get bored, so I'll do my own versions of abstracts or Vermeers, combined with fantastic elements, with a little Astroboy and Ultraman thrown in for fun. If I can't have some fun pulling together in one piece all these separate images and thoughts and tidbits of knowledge about science and what I believe as a Christian and a human being, then why bother doing art?

Of the images you've created, which one is your favourite? (Is it on your site? Is it a cover for something we can find?)

How do I pick a favorite? It's like picking a favorite "child," a Sophie's choice. Maybe if I had to choose one, I might pick "Elvissaurus," the painting I did for the San Diego 2006 Westercon. I guess I like it because it was so much fun to do. A big lizard / Elvis creature doing what he does best – singing and burning down the city. Maybe I like it because he's just having so much fun, he's so darn happy. And how many of us get to do what we really enjoy?

How does your faith affect your art?

I'm not sure I've done any particulary overtly Christian artwork, but my faith does percolate out in different pieces. I will sometimes try to sneak in Christian messages here or there in my work. "Ad Astra" was for the cover for Talebones magazine. Editor Patrick Swenson gave me free reign – he didn't give me a topic or a story to illustrate, he just said to do what I wanted. I had had this idea for a long time and this was the perfect venue to do it – a statue of robots reaching for the moon, with homeless people at the base. One of our purposes on this planet is to love our neighbor, and I've done some work with the homeless in the past (though I'd like to do more in the future) and in this piece I tried to say that as we progress into the future, we can't leave people behind.

In another piece I was illustrating a story about vampires. But one of the key scenes in the story – the emotional heart of the story – involved a sad girl sitting surrounded by all this cool stuff. As an artist, I'm given the opportunity to illustrate any scheme from a story that I'd like. (Actually, I'd like to qualify that. This is esp. true of interior artwork, where the editor really doesn't care so much and you don't get paid a lot, compared to book covers, which are edited to death before after and during the creation of the art. Basically, the less you're paid, the more freedom you have, and vice versa.) So for this piece – "The Sad Girl," I could have painted a scene with vampires, but it was Christmastime and I was thinking about materialism, and I wanted to do a painting about that, and about how material things can't bring us happiness.

How has being a Christian – and not hiding it – affected the way you are treated by artists, writers, publishers, fans, etc?

Despite one or two bad experiences, I have actually found that most people in fandom are really open-minded. Or at least polite enough to have a serious conversation without shouting on either side. I have had a lot of really wonderful conversations with people at conventions about Christianity. And I mean with people who are strongly anti-religious or anti-Christian. I don't force my faith on anyone, but if it comes up (which it often does), I'll talk about my faith. But the most important thing I've found is listening to people, and hearing their gripes about bad experiences in the church or with hypocrites. If people have been hurt in the past, it's important to know and comfort them and, in a way, apologize for people misrepresenting the faith. I find that it's often the most vehemently anti-Christian people who are most interested in hearing reasoned, personal experiences of faith. They are often eager to hear us, as Peter says, give an explanation for the hope that we have in us. I find it helpful to approach a conversation with the attitude that I will explain what I believe and why I believe it, not with the attitude that I'm trying to convince anyone of anything.

In general, I find that "coming out" as a Christian hasn't hurt my career at all. Many of the writers and editors I work with closely are atheists, and we know where each other stands, and sometimes we talk about it and sometimes we don't, but we're all eager to produce the best books and magazines that we can, so it works out.

As you have been working on this or that image, have you ever faced theological "puzzles" that you had to figure out to your own satisfaction before you could complete the image?

Not yet.

When you're commissioned to do a book cover, do you get a chance to read the book before doing it? What do you think about readers who complain that the image on the cover conflicts with the descriptions of characters, equipment, and/or situations in the book?

On one hand the reader has a right to not be misled by a cover. The cover exists not only to sell the book, but also provide an introduction to the story. I mean, if I pick up a book with robots and spaceships on the cover, I want stories about robots and spaceships in that book.

So, yeah, I really try hard to make sure that everything matches – clothing, spaceship designs, hair color. I generally do a read-through again right before handing in the final version of a piece and on more than one occasion, I've had to change something like hair color because I got it wrong.

On the other hand, there are things like the poster for The Land that Time Forgot [did I mention this earlier?], which has a cooler submarine than the one in the movie (or the book), and a manta ray that shoots electrical bolts from an antenna on its head, and that's not in the movie, either. So, in a way, the artwork becomes a separate entity from the book, a supplement, something from a parallel universe.

I think of those fabulous covers Roger Dean did for Yes and Uriah Heep and other groups. What do elephants with butterfly wings have anything to do with the music? Well, nothing, but it becomes an image inextricably linked to the album and the band. And maybe sometimes a book cover doesn't have to be so literal, but it can actually add elements that aren't there.

I met K.A. Bedford at Worldcon and he showed me the cover of his book Orbital Burn, which had a black woman on the cover. He said that that was the artist's idea. There was nothing in the book that specifically said what race she was, and he said he'd never thought of his heroine as black.

But, what the heck, he said, in the next book he explicitly made her a black woman. I thought that was cool.

Have you ever been commissioned to do a cover for a book aimed at the CBA market?

Not yet. Do you have a project I can join?

What is your working strategy? Do you do a bunch of sketches working out different bits of the image, and then finally haul out the canvas, or do you start right in and see what happens?

I usually start with a bunch of sketches, most of them really bad. If I start on the canvas too early, without being thought through, the composition will be flawed or otherwise it just won't work. There have been times when I've worked on a painting and it was just wrong – so I cut out the bits of canvas I really liked and glued that onto a different canvas to finish. Sometimes that's the only way to save a fundamentally flawed piece. Just hack it apart and put it back together until it works.

Oh, man. I didn't know you could do that! I thought canvas had to be stretched tight.

Canvas does have to be stretched tight, but other pieces of canvas salvaged from failed paintings can be glued onto stretched canvas.

What is your working method? Do you lock yourself away from distractions, or scribble on napkins whenever inspiration strikes? Do you surround yourself with things to put you in the right frame of mind to be in the world of your image, or is it all in your head?

Every piece is a little different. Sometimes I need to be by myself when I paint – and then generally I have music blaring. Something with a beat, easy to dance to, like Motown or U2's Pop or Achtung Baby albums. And then other times I've painted with other people around, but I can find that distracting.

How did you get your first commission for a pro illustration (cover or inside), and where was it published?

My first paid print illustration was an interior for a little magazine called Darkling Plain, which folded after two issues – but not until after I cashed the check! I got the assignment because the editor found my portfolio on the ASFA (Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists) website. I learned a valuable lesson from that. I had been showing the editor drafts of the piece as I was working on it, and he wound up printing a draft instead of the finished version. It was called "The Tower of Babel" and in the final state, the archangel Michael, about to destroy Man's handiwork, has a flowing robe, just like the one Jesus wore when clearing the Temple in the El Greco painting. Both symbols of God overturning the foolishness of Man. But in the unfinished version that was printed, the Archangel is wearing a bathrobe. I've since learned to put the word "DRAFT" prominently on all unfinished versions I send out.

Do you ever do research for an image? (Say, reading up on robotics, or looking for photos of a place where a particular story is set?)

I always do tons of research – some might say too much. In the piece I'm working on now ("Paradise Passed" by Jerry Oltion), he mentions that the shuttlecraft are "lifting bodies." I wasn't completely sure what that meant, but I wanted to make sure my design matched his. It turns out that lifting bodies were experimental aircraft in the sixties, particularly, tear-drop shaped, with vertical stabilizers, but no wings or tail per se – the whole craft is curved like a flying bathtub. One goal was to safely land a vehicle from space on an unpowered flight, and so the info from these experiments helped the development of the space shuttle. Also, a lifting body is the type of plane that Steve Austin cracks up, before he became The Six Million Dollar Man.

Do you use different media for different subjects (say, water colours for one subject, acrylic for another), or do you tend to use the same tools for everything?

The medium doesn't change so much with the subject matter, but with the "theme" or "feeling" I'm trying to convey. I pilfer a lot of visual ideas from the centuries of artists who came before us. Indeed, as Newton is said to have said, "We see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants."

I don't use just one style. Some pieces "feel" like they would be better expressed by stealing from Julia Margaret Cameron, or Kinuko Craft, or Italian Futurists like Boccioni, or Richard Powers or Frank R. Paul. I don't steal specific images, but sometimes it's fun to paint in someone else's style, but with ironic twists. Like: What would it look like if Boccioni had painted robots? Or if Frank R. Paul had painted the Tower of Babel. I've also discovered that Jackson Pollack's drip paintings look just like close-ups of the Jovian moon Europa.

What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of creating images on a computer instead of an easel?

One great thing about computers is that it's easy to mix the right colors, and they never dry out! You can also shift the colors or increase the contrast of the entire work really easily. A bad thing is that computers can make you lazy. I've seen computer-generated pieces with armies of soldiers or fleets of spacecraft, but they're just copied over and over and look exactly the same. A computer can also encourage someone to noodle on a small area too much, losing a sense of the piece as a whole. Also the instant technical virtuosity that you get from things like flares and starbursts can prevent you from seeing fundamental flaws in composition.

Have you ever started out with a particular idea in mind for an illustration, only to find that it didn't really "work" once you got it onto paper?

One of my favorite pieces – "Losing Memories" – looked swell on the computer, but was one of those fundamentally-flawed monstrosities. The composition was all wrong, because it was mostly rocks, with just a little bit of the writing in the sky. I struggled and struggled with it, and then discovered what the Chinese call the "one-corner composition," where there is a scholar and some trees in a bottom corner, and the rest is mist and smoke, with a floating moon. I discovered that I needed to move the girl to the corner, and focus on the hieroglyphics in the sky.

Conversely, have you ever put down something just as an idle scribble, only to find that it worked so well that you made it into a full-blown illustration?

I love the idea of randomly incorporating scribbles or accidents into artwork. Once I got some Chinese take-out and when I microwaved it, some of the sauce heated up so much that it literally burned a hole through the styrofoam. It was a fascinating shape, so I put the burned up container on my scanner and used that image as part of a burned-up wall. I love the random shapes that paint smears make on desktops. I'm just waiting for the right project to come along to use those wonderful shapes.

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[David R. Beaucage] [Kathy Tyers] [James BeauSeigneur] [Jefferson Scott] [Walker Chandler] [Alton Gansky] [Ray Hansen] [Emily Snyder] [Randall Ingermanson] [Theodore Beale] [Steve Laube] [Laura Lond] [Frank Wu] [Donita K. Paul] [Brenda W. Clough] [Bryan Davis] [John Granger] [Karen Hancock] [Miles Owens] [Robert Liparulo] [Bryan Davis, part 2] [Chris Walley] [Kathryn Mackel] [Gene Wolfe] [Sharon Hinck] [Wayne Thomas Batson] [Lars Walker] [Christopher Hopper] [Jeffrey Overstreet][Rich Christiano][Jeff Gerke]