Las Vegas-based author and illustrator Kenneth Lamug has published a new childrens book, The Stumps of Flattop Hill. In this dark yet amusing tale following the tradition of the Brother’s Grimm", Ken tells the story of Florence, a little girl who enters a haunted house - both frightened and courageous. With it's fine and detailed artwork, The Stumps of Flattop Hill immediately caught our attention. We were happy to hear Ken's thoughts about haunted houses, the importance of a scary fairy tale, and the tradition of storytelling.
Interview for bilderundworte magazine by Andrea Härtlein
Ken, your latest children's book, "The Stumps of Flattop Hill", is a scare story and a modern fairy tale. Did you like fairy tales as a kid?
I grew up in the Philippines which was a melting-pot for many cultures - from Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Middle-Eastern, Western and others. Hearing stories about urban legends and folktales was just part of growing up. Grimm fairy tale stories that I read as a child were already westernized versions which were kid-friendly. I enjoyed reading them and watching them on television. The fantastical worlds and mysterious creatures fascinated me.
Did they never scare you?
What really scared me were the stories that kids would share around the neighborhood. We had monsters that stole babies from pregnant women, dark elves that would cast illness, or ghosts that haunted our school hallways. Those were real to me and many of my friends.
When I was a kid, I literally was afraid of all kinds of monsters, under my bed, in dark alleys or unlit corners of our house - and quite a few originated in scare stories. How about you?
I was definitely scared of dark places. Growing up, black-outs were a common thing and we would sit around in the living room with a candle and try to scare each other. I think my imagination was also quite vivid. It often messed with me.
And yet you think there's something "good" about fear. Why?
Fear is part of our natural range of emotions. And I think that a healthy dose of fear is good for a growing child. It teaches them about their strengths and limitations. In a story book setting, it contextualizes concepts and ideas about good and evil and allows them [the kids, ed.] to break things down in a safe setting.
Fear humbles us, just like failure does. It’s one of the greatest teacher we can hope to have. Most of the original fairy tales are actually quite morbid compared to today's standards. Death or mutilation was a common ending. Fairy tales were used as a teaching tool for kids, so they knew not to venture into the dark forest, or accept an apple from a "creepy witch".
How did you come up with the storyline for The Stumps of Flattop Hill?
The Stumps of Flattop Hill was a small idea that started with a rhyme. I didn’t really have a firm idea, so I stowed it away. Then one day, while on a family vacation, we drove past a town called Flat Top in California and for some reason that name sparked the idea for the story. I was rhyming and thinking of the possibilities all the way to San Francisco. When I returned, I started writing down the idea and was even inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.
The haunted house idea came from my childhood experience, where kids daring each other to enter a creepy house was not an unusual event. I got to work and it all came together a few months later.
I remember Neil Gaiman mentioning some years ago that he experienced some trouble with German publishers who thought his Coraline story too scary and "most unsuitable for kids". Did you experience similar problems with publishers?
My publisher, One Peace Books, has been very supportive of the book. The parent company is based in Japan, with a New York office, and they bring in a lot of unique publications to the market. Those who have purchased and read the book have thoroughly enjoyed it.
I can understand how some parents wouldn’t want their kids to read a spooky story. Maybe they don’t think their kids can handle it, but I also think we don’t give the kids enough credit in this regard. Of course, as parents we have to gauge what our kids can and cannot handle. But we should also take this opportunity to explain things and teach them.
What can we learn from your book?
The Stumps of Flattop Hill is not just a spooky story, there’s humor and there’s also a character who shows strength. But the ending of the book is open to interpretation. Even though an entire town feared the haunted house, Florence maintained a peaceful and happy expression in the end. Maybe it wasn’t all that bad after all. Much like our current society. Sometimes we judge things not based on facts, but how we prefer to see them with our own prejudices. I’ll leave you to decide that one!
In that context you also quote Albert Einstein saying that "If you want them [the children, ed.] to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Why is that true?
Through these tales we are able to develop a child’s imagination, teach them how to problem solve, share cultural ideas, use critical thinking skills and help build emotional resiliency. The world is never black and white and stories help children think through these concepts in the environment of one's imagination … knowing that they can leave whenever they want.
Your artwork looks quite detailed, very beautiful. How long does it take you to draw a page?
I found that planning a scene will often take times longer than the drawing process itself. Since I also have a regular job and a family, I can only dedicate so many hours in a day to drawing or writing. A typical drawing can sometimes be completed in a single evening or sometimes it can take more than a week. But planning it and thinking about the right image can take a long time and many trial and errors.
How long did you work for the book?
The entire book took about six months to complete and a few revisions that occurred over a year's time. It’s always healthy to step back from a project and look at it at a later date with a fresh perspective.
You mentioned Edward Gorey as an inspiration for the artwork. What is it about his style that inspired you?
When I first saw some of Gorey’s books I was mesmerized by his technical precision. The detailed line work required a lot of discipline and patience, which was something I lacked at the time. But as I studied more of his books, I also fell in love with his dark humour. I felt that his stories were never straightforward, that something was hidden for the reader to interpret.
His work ethic is also a great inspiration - producing over a hundred books is quite an accomplishment. A few of my favorites include, The Epipleptic Bicycle, The Willowdale Handcar and his most popular book The Gashlycrumb Tinies. These books are perfect examples containing the right amount of humor, macabre and mystery.
Another influence that I should mention is Tim Burton. His short film, Vincent, created quite an impression, along with his loose and dynamic drawing style. I was hoping to achieve that balance between Gorey and Burton in The Stumps of Flattop Hill.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to drawing and illustrating books.
I was born in the Philippines and moved to the USA in the mid-90s with my parents and siblings. Although I loved drawing and creating stories as a child, it never dawned on me that it could be something people actually pursued as a career. I eventually made my way into a career in computers, writing programs and designing web sites. It was a an enjoyable pursuit, but I was eventually drawn back into other creative endeavors.
Such as ...?
Along with a good friend we taught ourselves filmmaking and produced two independent movies. We worked with actors, learned the technical details of filmmaking (and made a lot of mistakes) and had a once in a lifetime experience. I slowly transitioned into documentary photography while we were working on our script ideas.
How did your carrer as an author and illustrator start?
After a few years, I had my second son which meant I couldn’t go out as much anymore to take photographs or make movies. The natural creative output went into writing and drawing, which started my leap into the world of books and comics. Since that time, I’ve published several stories through traditional and independent channels. Most of my work are ideas drawn from my childhood. I try to cultivate them and see if they lead anywhere interesting. My goal is to always learn, grow and have fun in anything I work on.
You said that your book is "meant to be read aloud" for it to come alive. That actually is a rather old tradition which has suffered in our modern times - to tell stories aloud. Why would it be important for a society to revive these traditions?
I agree with you. Since the dawn of time, knowledge has been passed down from elders to the next generation through stories, spoken and written. Today, most of society at a young age, have tuned out of making that personal connection and opted for the digital alternative. I’ve noticed that children who have spent much of their time online actually dumbed down their skills when it comes to interacting face to face. Online, you can easily be offensive or abrasive with little consequence. And when that attitude transposes into real life, most people do not know how to read the other person’s reaction or understand that they’ve done something bad - they’re emotionally disconnected.
My point is that, when we have that face to face time with our family, our children … even through the form of storytelling, we instill in them these traits of understanding, emotion, compassion. It builds a relationship and intimacy, it imparts a piece ourselves and creates cherished moments that will be part of who they are for a long time.
What do you love most about your book?
I really enjoy the wordplay in the book. It was a lot of fun to write and even more to read out loud. I always get compliments on the illustrations because they are visual and easier to interpret and understand. But once you start getting into the words, it opens up a whole new level of appreciation for the story.
Ken, thank you for your time and sharing your thought with us!