Interview with Ratha Tep, WALLY THE WORLD'S GREATEST PIANO-PLAYING WOMBAT
I've had the privilege of interviewing so many talented writers and illustrators over the past year. To celebrate Wally’s launch, the tables have been turned, and seven amazing picture book authors and illustrators that I admire are interviewing me!
WALLY THE WORLD'S GREATEST PIANO-PLAYING WOMBAT
Written by Ratha Tep and illustrated by Camilla Pintonato
Published by Princeton Architectural Press (October 18, 2022)
RT: “Thao, you wrote such a wonderful book about growing up with an unfamiliar name. I was really awestruck when I saw THAO: A Picture Book since we have the exact same problem with our names—and the same remedy, too. Just like in ‘Thao,’ ‘Ratha’ has a silent ‘h,’ as in ‘raw-ta’ (same emphasis on both syllables). But it took me awhile to get here. In elementary school, I acquiesced to “rATH-a” (we were learning phonics after all), and in junior high and high school my name became “rAWTH-a” (a baby step toward asserting myself). It wasn’t until I got to college (a great place for reinvention), that I started introducing myself in the way I really wanted my name to be pronounced."
ANNE WYNTER, author of Everybody in the Red Brick Building and the forthcoming Nell Plants a Tree: “You wrote a fantastic book about piano-playing wombats. I'm curious—do you have a musical background?”
RT: “It’s so fitting that you asked me that, Anne! In Everybody in the Red Brick Building, a chain reaction of noises wakes everyone in an apartment building, and then another one lulls them back to sleep. I grew up in an apartment and know only too well how thin those walls can be. As a child, I had started piano lessons, but my next-door neighbor complained that my piano playing was too disruptive. So I barely practiced for fear of making noise, and quit after only a short while. If only I had a big eucalyptus forest to play in, like Wally! But I’m picking up the piano again after all these years, and learning alongside my kids.”
RUTH CHAN, author-illustrator of Thank You, Neighbor! and The Alpactory: "This is your first picture book! (Congrats!) What was the most challenging or unexpected part about writing Wally the World’s Greatest Piano-Playing Wombat?
RT: “For sure, cutting down the words! I’m a journalist and used to writing long-form pieces, so limiting myself to such a small amount of text took some getting used to. I’m a real writerly writer, and can get quite wedded to certain words and how they sound, so having to cut something I loved was difficult. It also meant that each word carried more weight, so each one of the 400-or-so words in Wally had to go under heavier scrutiny than usual. Wally went through at least 50 different drafts. An earlier version was completely in rhyme!”
CARTER HIGGINS, author of A Story is to Share and Big and Small and In-Between: "What's something you really love to do but aren't very good at? Let's assume you are an end-of-story version of Wally for this one: celebratory and playful, not mad about it!"
RT: “Writing? I’m not sure any writer thinks they’re very good at it, do they? I’m the opposite of a beginning-of-story version of Wally when it comes to writing. He’s over-confident; I’m definitely not. I fret and fret, but also like Wally, at some point I just say, ‘Enough!’ The fretting only gets you so far.”
JULIE FALATKO, author of Rick the Rock of Room 214 and Yours in Books: "One thing I love about the picture book community is the relative lack of competition. Everyone boosts each other and cheers each other on (like on this website!). And here you are with a book about a competitive wombat! What are your thoughts on competition in general? Or is it really envy that motivates us to do better?" RT: “Agreed! I’m a newcomer in the picture book community, and I’m constantly amazed at how welcoming it is. I think it stems from the fact that bookmaking can be a lonely process. We’re all in the same boat, toiling on our books alone, and never really knowing if anything will actually come from it. So I’m so grateful for all of the amazing support I’ve received.
Competition was something I really grappled with as a child. (I was on a swim team, but didn’t compete.) I hope Wally can help kids work through these messy feelings of envy and competitiveness. I want them to see that these feelings are perfectly normal, and what matters is how they react to them.
But while I’m competitive about many things, I’m oddly not competitive with writing. I think it’s because I’m so amazed by what other writers create. I’m like Wylie here, who’s so in awe of Wally. Knowing that there are so many talented authors out there making such creative, smart, funny, moving books really motivates me to do better.”
KATE HOEFLER, author of Courage Hats and Nothing in Common: “I love the emotional honesty of this book—an honesty that resonates with all ages! It made me think a lot about internal versus external validation when it comes to making things or doing things we love. It’s something people of all ages struggle with (and wombats, too). How do you grapple with it?”
RT: “What a question, Kate! I’m definitely my own worst critic. I set a high bar for myself, which I don’t usually reach, but when I get close, it’s certainly a great feeling. A deep-seated, long-lasting one, too. But writing is a nebulous thing, so external validation can, well, validate internal feelings. Wally and Wylie swelled with pride when they saw their adoring audience. But when that audience moves on, I hope they’ll still feel proud of themselves. External validation can depend on a lot of things that are beyond anyone’s control—the mood of the moment, what’s already been done, what’s floating down from the sky (I mean, ahem, what's coming down the pipeline)—so I try not to let it affect how I intrinsically feel about my work.”
ZOEY ABBOTT, author-illustrator of Clementine and the Lion and Pig and Horse and the Something Scary: "I have a theory that we write for ourselves (despite the fact that a book is an offering to the world and a marketplace object). Did you write this book for yourself? Your current self? A past self? An alter-ego self?" RT: “Writing, putting words down on a page in some form, was the only thing I've ever aspired to do, even from a young age. It brings me so much joy. But I only ever started thinking about writing for children after my first daughter was born. As Matt de la Peña put it so well, picture books ‘are a reason for a child to be close to a parent and a parent to be close to a child.’ With my daughters on my lap, we’ve read so many books together: gorgeous, lyrical books; thought-provoking books; books where they see themselves; books that shed light on a certain aspect of the world; and books that helped them wind down for bedtime. But what I loved most was to hear them laugh. So I wrote Wally for that version of myself: the parent who wanted to hear one last shriek and snort from my kids before I kissed them goodnight.”
Art by Camilla Pintonato