“A lost forest spirit nestled in a hollow tree”: an interview with “Pilu of the Woods” creator Mai K. Nguyen

“A lost forest spirit nestled in a hollow tree”: an interview with “Pilu of the Woods” creator Mai K. Nguyen

Come the end of the year, when we’re compiling our choices for “Best of 2019” comics, don’t be surprised if Pilu of the Woods makes several appearances on my list. The original graphic novel from Oni Press is a charming, gentle look at grief and belonging, and a true example of a complete artistic vision. Mai K. Nguyen wore pretty much every hat in the production of the story, as she wrote, illustrated, colored, and lettered the entire thing herself. That’s no small feat, especially when the resulting product is just so good, and even more impressive considering it’s her very first comic.

Mai was gracious enough to answer a few questions we had regarding Pilu of the Woods and her artistic process, so read on to find out how her graphic design background helped with her visual storytelling, what her “design-hustle-mentality” entailed, and just where she got that amazing mushroom rice recipe.

Pilu of the Woods is your first comic.  What made you realize this was the proper medium to tell this story?

Comics have always been my medium of choice. Before Pilu of the Woods, I self-published two short stories and left a trail of unfinished webcomics across the interwebs. I grew up reading comics and doodling endlessly, so visual storytelling comes much more naturally to me than say writing. 

Where did you get the inspiration for this story?  At times it reads almost like a bedtime story or a fable, shared by families across generations.

I think this style of soft and gentle storytelling is what I prefer as a reader so it reflects in my work as well. I drew a lot of inspiration from my hikes through the woods here in northern California. I’m often thinking about mysterious encounters and adventures as I go on hikes, and I loved the idea of finding a lost forest spirit nestled in a hollow tree. The visual stuck and I built a plot around it, using bits and pieces of different story ideas I already had floating in my head.

Is any of Pilu autobiographical?

No, it’s actually not. However, I think there are parts of myself in both Pilu and Willow, and a lot of the internal conflict both girls experience are things I struggle with even today. 

It’s not exaggeration to say you did everything on this book: writing the script, pencils, colors, and letters.  Because of that, Pilu feels like a fully realized artistic vision.  Which aspect came to you the easiest?  Which was the hardest?

This might sound silly, but I think the hardest moment was when I made myself a spreadsheet to track the pace of my work and I immediately got very overwhelmed. I had made a chart with a row for each page and columns for each stage—thumbnailing, sketching, inking, coloring, lettering. Visualizing the amount of work I had in front of me, while juggling a full-time job, was really intimidating and scary. But once I found a good creative cadence, I was able to overcome that mental blocker and just focus on what I had to do next. The easiest and most satisfying part was coloring my pages! It’s something I can do while listening to a podcast or watching a show, and at the end of it, my pages really feel like it’s come together. It’s like the icing on the cake.

You “wore every hat” really well, but did you ever consider working with another artist or letterer?

Because I’ve only had experience in self-publishing, I didn’t really realize that was an option! I always thought groups of creators approached a publisher together, with their penciller, colorist, letterer, etc all assembled. Combined with my design-hustle-mentality, I think I just assumed I was supposed to be doing all of it. I would love to work with a colorist or a letterer in the future!

Your biography says you work as a visual designer.  How did that skill set translate to your storytelling in Pilu?

I hope that my experience as a designer reflects in subtle ways throughout my work, because that’s what good design is supposed to be! I put a lot of thought into panelling, lettering, visual context, and overall just trying to create a seamless and enjoyable experience for my readers. 

What struck me most about this story is how gentle it was.  Even though it deals with some pretty heavy subject matter, and the main character can be a bit of a pill, it’s free of anything approaching cynicism.  So, yeah, this isn’t really a question, I just wanted to thank you for such a refreshingly earnest story, in the best possible way.

Thank you! That means a lot! 

Any plans for continuing the adventures of Willow and Pilu, or do you want this book to stand on its own?

I get this question a lot, but I don’t plan on continuing their story. I love the idea of these really ephemeral but unforgettable mysterious encounters, so I want it to be Willow’s special secret. 

How about that “mom’s mushroom rice” recipe at the end of the book?  I haven’t made it (yet...), but it sounds delicious.  Is it a family recipe?

It’s based off of my mom’s recipe! It’s a Japanese recipe, so I tweaked it a bit to make it more accessible to everyone, as it called for a few ingredients that are hard to get at your local grocery store. It’s not stated explicitly, but Willow is supposed to be half-japanese like me. I was trying to find subtle ways to include that, and I figured mom’s signature recipe would be the perfect spot. 

Do you have any other upcoming comics work that you can tell us about?

Not quite! I do have a few story ideas that I’m outlining, but for now, I’m taking it easy.

Are there any books or characters from other publishers that you’d like to take a crack at?

I’ve never really thought about “taking a crack” at other books! But I’ve recently really enjoyed reading Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Witch Boy series. It’s the book that comes to mind when I think about a well-balanced adventure with great characters, an exciting world, an intriguing conflict, and a beautiful message. I wouldn’t really say I want to take a crack at it, but I would love to create a graphic novel of that caliber some day! 

Anything else you’d like to say to your readers?

It’s been incredibly heartwarming to see the support and excitement around my first book! The story is very close to my heart, so when people tell me how it resonates with them, it just makes it that much more special. The ability to really reflect upon myself and be self-compassionate is something I learned a little later in my life, so I’m always eager to share that message with everyone. It’s been a lot of fun interacting with so many readers of all ages, and I’m so, so grateful for each and every one of them! 

 Pilu of the Woods is available now from Oni Press.

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