An Indies Introduce Q&A with Ray Xu

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Ray Xu is the author of Alterations, a Winter/Spring 2024 Indies Introduce young adult selection and January/February 2024 Kids’ Next List pick.

Xu is a Toronto-based story artist for television and feature films. His recent work includes the 2021 Netflix animated hit The Mitchells vs. The MachinesTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem; and more.

Andi Richardson of Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia, served on the bookseller panel that selected Xu's book for Indies Introduce. Richardson said of the book, "Ray Xu delights in this graphic memoir about immigration, family, and fitting in in middle school. The art and the story are both top-notch and it’s so easy to identify with the characters as they navigate the ins and outs of their new [life]. This will bring joy to readers of all ages.”

Here, Xu and Richardson discuss Alterations.

Andi Richardson: Tell us a bit about your publishing journey and how it feels to get your book on shelves!

Ray Xu: Let me just start by saying I never thought I’d publish a book! Alterations started with these little slice of life vignettes about my childhood and family. I always thought it might work well as an animated series but I think that’s because I work in that field. I didn’t even consider the possibility of a book until I was introduced to my agent, Albert Lee, who saw the potential as a graphic novel. I already had a mini show bible and pitch package that I was shopping around to studios and tweaked it to send to publishers. Luckily it worked out!

The story and art resonated with a lot of people. The interest was quite validating and the whole process was an incredible learning experience, and I couldn’t have done it without the amazing support of Union Square, shout out to Tracey Keevan who championed me from the very beginning, and guided me through the manuscript process. She’s the best. Chris Duffy was my personal cheerleader during the production phase and helped me across the finish line. Rob Leigh did the amazing lettering when I realized that was harder than I thought. Making Alterations pushed me to become a better artist and there were many times where I thought writing and illustrating a book was the craziest thing I’ve ever done, but to see all that effort come to life into a physical book, I’m so proud of it all and I still can’t believe it! It’s surreal.

AR: How close is your life to Kevin's story?

RX: Kevin is probably the idealized version of myself that I aspired to be during that period of my life. Specifically, the way he reaches that moment of clarity and self-awareness. This concept eluded me until adulthood. There is that moment where Kevin meets the substitute gym teacher, who is this buff, athletic looking Asian man. This type of mentorship-seeking is something I still think about sometimes as one of the enduring impacts of my parent’s divorce was having no male role model to look up to growing up. It’s the same with Kevin’s comic book hero Maverick. It’s this version of a boldness I wish I had more of.

Other things, like the intricacies of the immigrant experience, failed childhood crushes, the exploration of identity, the challenges of fitting in, and the struggles with self-esteem continue to shape my life. I think writing this story really helped me feel gratitude for what I have accomplished and for the amazing people in my life. I recognize that now. Elements such as the grand finale at the theme park, an incident involving the gym teacher’s tooth, and the creation of the imaginary hero Maverick served as narrative devices to enhance the appeal to younger audiences. I certainly did not hang upside down from a stalled rollercoaster!

AR: How tough is it to bring out your own personal feelings about growing up?

RX: As someone who dwells on regret daily, I’ve been trying to view past decisions as opportunities for learning and growth. Childhood was full of positives too; I somehow fell into the right social circles and made some lifelong friends. I was a little more resilient than I thought. I’ve worked to gain more confidence but I’m still chipping away at that. Talking about my family is probably the toughest, especially memories about my mom. Alterations started from little vignettes about my childhood and mostly featured my mom. It was a tribute to her memory, after she passed in 2016. When I think of her, I think of moments: phone conversations, visiting her when she was in the hospital, or a time we went to Red Lobster for her birthday and she was so happy when I paid for it. All the little sweet moments were simultaneously sad and nice to relive.

But throughout the process, I also kept thinking about how I was going to put this out to the world to see and knowing that my mom would be proud that I was able to honor her memory like that. I play a scenario in my head where I think she feels proud to know all her sacrifices were meaningful. And a little self-compassion helps along the way. If anything, after making this book, I feel more grateful for where I am now.

AR: You started out in film and TV — what made you want to try your hand at a print book?

RX: I don’t think I could’ve done a print book without all that time spent helping people shape and mold their films. I’ve been a story artist for animated films for over 15 years and I gained so much valuable story experience from reading hundreds of pages of scripts and drawing in different styles. At some point I knew I wanted to create something of my own…but I just didn’t know what form that would take. I used to hang out at the comic bookstore a lot as a kid (like Kevin). I was really into superhero stories like Superman, X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman…all the iconic heroes. Then I started reading graphic novels in my early twenties and got introduced to manga, but still felt that my main wheelhouse was animation and film.

I honestly didn’t realize how much I would enjoy the writing process until I started making Alterations. It was amazing to have so much creative freedom with details like the design of the visuals, the narrative style or fun ways to place the panels. Union Square gave me a ton of freedom to play, and I appreciate them for that.

I also consider myself lucky to have my debut book be this personal story of mine and was given an opportunity to craft it the way I envisioned. Having no prior experience making comics was turned out to be beneficial, because I was loaded with this naïve confidence. I was able to really focus on making a great story with cool art and I didn’t know what the boundaries were. It allowed me to push myself even more as a writer and artist. It’s been a great learning experience and I hope that I can do more!

AR: What’s next for you?

RX: Currently storyboarding on a film that I can’t really discuss. I am always going to continue to be involved in the animation industry, but looking back on this whole experience, I can say it was probably one of the most fulfilling artistic moves ever, and I would love to continue telling stories. I would love to do picture books and continue experimenting in different genres in the graphic novel world. I am excited for what’s to come and I really hope I can do it again!

Alterations by Ray Xu (Union Square Kids, 9781454945840/9781454945857, Hardcover/Paperback Middle Grade Graphic Novel, $24.99/$14.99) On Sale: 1/30/2024

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