This Is All the Time We Get: A Conversation with Felicia Chiao
Felicia Chiao was working as an industrial designer at IDEO when A24 reached out and told her that Daniel Kwan, director of their highest-grossing film, Everything Everywhere All At Once, wanted to collaborate. The project was not a movie, but one of two picture books that Kwan had written (24 Minutes to Bedtime and I’ll Get to the Bottom of This), to be published by A24 as part of their expansion into children’s literature. Neither Kwan, Chiao, nor A24 had gone through the process of publishing a picture book from start to finish, which is perhaps why the final product is so strange and delightful.
Much in the way that Everything Everywhere All At Once layers dimensions in the multiverse, 24 Minutes to Bedtime layers dimensions of time. Each set of facing pages counts one minute closer to Winston’s eight o’clock bedtime. “Why can’t we stay up later?” he mourns, to which his dad answers, “Because . . . this is all the time you get.” With the help of a time machine, Winston fills every minute with chaos, as four different versions of him time-jump between pages, running from the inevitable. Chiao embedded mini storylines throughout the illustrations, and readers can choose to follow any of the Winstons, countless hidden easter eggs, or his frazzled parents. As Winston tries to slow the minutes, his parents wish they could fast forward. When he finally falls asleep in their arms though, they realize that truly, this is all the time they get.
Chiao has been drawing since she was a child, and thought of it not as a profession, but as a coping mechanism. Struggling to express her feelings, she drew in notebook after notebook through her school years and beyond. She began sharing her drawings on Instagram, but her account didn’t take off until the pandemic. When lockdowns began, she steadily gained an audience, and now has a following of over half a million. At the beginning of 2022, she left her job to become a full-time illustrator. On a phone call from Texas where she was visiting family for the holidays, she spoke with me about being part of this inexperienced yet brilliant team, working with Daniel Kwan, her own artistic process, and how her mental health has both shaped her work and transformed within it.
The Rumpus: Looking at your body of work, one of the things I notice is the dreamy state it creates. There’s a sense of both mundanity and magic, a melancholy about the passage of time, but also humor and joy. Your art seems like a perfect fit for something that Daniel Kwan would write. How did this partnership come along?
Felicia Chiao: A24 had a list of people they were interested in working with, and Daniel had his own list. It seems I was on both, so they reached out to me. I knew A24 as the movie house, but I didn’t know anything about publishing or children’s books, and they didn’t really have a clear idea of how it was going to be done either, so it was new for all of us.
Rumpus: Traditionally, a children’s book author and illustrator might work separately, but it seems there was so much integration between the text and the images. Did you and Daniel work closely together on these things, or follow a more traditional model?
Chiao: I originally anticipated the more traditional model. I thought they were going to give me a storyboard and I was going to translate it into my style. But on one of the very first calls with everyone, they said, “We don’t know what we want the characters to look like or how we want anything done,” and they turned to me and asked, “Do you want to help us figure that out?” This wasn’t what I signed up for originally, but I’m glad it turned out that way because it gave me a lot more freedom.
Rumpus: As I was reading the book, I was thinking the family looked a bit like Daniel’s.
Chiao: I hadn’t actually seen a picture of his kid until later in the process, but, you know, every Asian child has that bowl cut. Originally, I’d drawn the dad as a bald man with a mustache, very stereotypical, and the mom with her hair up in a bun. They said, “Actually, we’re aiming for the A24 audience now—Millennials becoming parents—so the dad can be a little more hip.” I realized both dads on the video call were wearing beanies and had long hair, so I thought, “Well, I’ll take from life.”
Rumpus: What was the creative process of working with Daniel like?
Chiao: We would go through his stick figure storyboard online together and try to catch all the errors, because it’s a very complex book with connecting lines in different chronological orders. So there was a lot of conversation, a lot of back and forth. For example, triple-checking that the pajamas matched up on the right page, and that what each version of the character was talking about made sense in the time jumps. I didn’t really understand this book until I had to draw every single page.
It was also an interesting process because I work traditionally. I don’t do anything digital really. For a book, especially with the repeating imagery of this one, we had to tailor it to fit my process. I was able to make a few drawings and scan them, then I would Photoshop in the different elements and characters and move around the speech bubbles that I hand-lettered.
It was a very strange process because of the way we all work—the A24 team versus Daniel, versus my abilities and the tools I had—to make this book come to life. We thought we would be done in June or March of this year and we finished maybe August or September. It all started in November last year, before Everything Everywhere All At Once came out.
Rumpus: The book reminds me of Everything Everywhere All at Once in the way it plays with time and dimension, and how there are so many threads to track. I imagine it was a challenge to illustrate.
Chiao: Yeah, I was having a really hard time in the beginning figuring out the book. Then when I went to the screening and saw Everything Everywhere All at Once, all of it clicked. Suddenly, it made a lot of sense. I got what he wanted, and what he was doing creatively. After that, it made the book a little easier.
Rumpus: I can see how that would happen. Artists are often preoccupied with getting at deeper truths around the same themes, and there were many that crossed over between this book and the film.
Chiao: Yeah, there was that vibe of nothing matters, do what you want, but everything actually matters so much. Wrestling with that idea was inspiring. A lot of times, I think artists are paralyzed by the fear of making something bad, so they procrastinate or don’t start a piece at all. When I first started concepting the house and the characters for the book, I spent so much time agonizing over small details. I drew several versions of Clarence, the stuffed rabbit, and nothing felt quite right. Eventually I just said “fuck it” and made what we called “long Clarence.” Did the shape really matter in terms of the story? No. But giving the stuffed toy an irregular shape added to the overall vibe of the story.
Do what you can or want and have fun with it; you’ll be surprised how much impact something you’ve made can have on other people when you’re not stressing about how to do it the “best” way. I’m so used to consultancy life where you just deliver what you think the client wants. And Daniel is such a big proponent of saying, “Well, what do you think? What do you want to do? What’s interesting to you? Let’s make it happen.” It was a really lovely reminder that I’m going to enjoy the work more if I do what I think is best. They hired me for my work, so I should be able to push my ideas a little bit stronger.
Rumpus: The subtitle of the book is “a 4-dimensional bedtime story,” and its nonlinear nature invites the reader to revisit it again and again, even more than the usual return to a children’s book, because you can read it differently each time. You did such a wonderful job of creating these layered reads and offering something new to discover with each one.
Chiao: Well, thanks. In my drawings that are interiors, I always love adding little details and objects all around the page. I think it gets people to look at your work a lot longer, especially in the time of social media where you stare at something for three seconds and keep scrolling. People tell me that they stop and zoom in, and they look for all the pieces. When you spend twenty to thirty hours on a drawing, you want people to look at it.
Growing up, I loved Richard Scarry. He had a book about vehicles and all I remember is looking for gold bugs on all the pages. I don’t remember the story. I don’t remember the rest of the book. I just remember every night I would go look for the bug even though I knew where it was already. So, I like the idea of a kid being able to enjoy little elements of the illustration and the art, even if they’re not reading per se.
Rumpus: Can you tell me more about your influences? For this book but also for your work in general?
Chiao: I didn’t use too much for this project besides the vague nostalgia of the books I grew up on. I knew this wasn’t about reading a book front to back like adults do. It’s more of a journey. I knew whatever Daniel was coming up with probably wasn’t going to be a standard children’s book, and I didn’t want to have that gut feeling where I’d be thinking, well, that’s not how it’s done. I also felt that if I looked at a stack of children’s books now, it would influence me too much in a way that isn’t authentic to my style, which is kind of how I handle life, too.
I don’t like looking at too many artists or illustrators because I don’t want to inadvertently copy what they’re doing. A lot of my work is inspired through film and music and the world around. If a song I like has a strong emotion in it, I try to go off that feeling. I want to portray that in my illustrations. My biggest inspiration, I think, is the artistic process itself. I like making things, so how I feel while I’m making it, that’s what translates into the drawing.
Rumpus: I was sharing your work with a writer friend, and she remarked on how every image felt like being dropped into the middle of a story. When you create your own art, does it stem from a larger narrative playing out in your mind?
Chiao: I think I’m very lucky that there’s a storytelling aspect people can connect with, because that isn’t done on purpose. Images show up in my head. Then there’s a queue in my brain of what drawings I’m going to do next, and they stack up until I can get them out. A lot of times, it’s because I love the materials I use, which are alcohol-based markers and pens. I’m dabbling a bit with watercolor now. I know my tools well though. So I’ll think, “Oh, I wonder if I can make colors a certain way,” or “I want to draw this rounder shape,” and it’s just purely selfish. It’s the idea of, oh, I really want to draw a certain shape or certain lighting, or maybe sometimes when things are chaotic, I want to draw one point perspective interiors, because grids and perspective have rules.
Rumpus: It makes so much sense to me that during the pandemic, everyone found your work. The sentiments that I either read in your captions or find in your images signal that here is an artist who really has her finger on the pulse of what we’re all going through.
Chiao: It’s a little sad because I’ve been drawing the figure alone in interiors for a long time, and when the lockdown happened, my work blew up. I recognized, “Oh, suddenly everyone’s depressed at the same time.”
I think because I’ve had mental illnesses for a very long time; it’s not something I’m actively fighting against anymore. A lot of my work is about exploring what it’s like to live with it. There are still good days and then you’re having a bad day, and they’re both equally right. The little blob creature I draw that a lot of people seem to like is mostly anxiety. It’s a mix of things, but it used to be within the figure’s body impacting it. Now it hangs around in the house like a cat as a companion. People have interpreted it 100 different ways. I don’t actually know what’s right, because I’m not thinking too hard about what the drawing means. I do a drawing a week. So I’m glad people are finding meaning in it because sometimes I just want to draw a grid. I’ll put up a drawing that was done purely for technical reasons, and people will comment, “Oh my God, I feel this.” And I’m so curious: What are you feeling?
Rumpus: That’s part of what’s beautiful about your work. You leave space for the viewer to fill it with what they need. I noticed in 24 Minutes to Bedtime that there are multiple pages with illustrations and no words. In the beginning there’s an empty landscape, then the frame of the house being built, which I really only appreciated after I’d gotten to the last pages where you see the decay of the house. It was such a poignant way to show that this is all the time we have and it’s so fleeting. Was having these images without text part of the plan from the beginning?
Chiao: That was all Daniel [Kwan]. You just described exactly what he wanted people to feel. I’m so glad that came across because at first we knew we wanted the beginning scenes of the field and then the house showing up, but I did question the ending because I thought it looks like they’ve all died. We decided to stick with it though, because the story is talking about the passage of time. Even though the parents are so stressed and so tired, they recognize that this is all the time we get. Even if in the moment it doesn’t seem like the best thing ever, we have to appreciate this time.
I didn’t exactly have “this is all the time we get” in my mind before this project, but I had a similar thought in my work about “maybe this is all there is.” It’s the idea that so many of us are waiting for things to work out, for the next big experience or memory to define life by, but maybe life is really just about appreciating the day-to-day ups and downs that make up the majority of our lives. Stuff that seems simple now may carry a lot of nostalgia later, and I think the best we can do is to be grateful that we get to experience it all.
Daniel came at it from a film perspective of having opening shots and closing shots, and the text that comes in like credits. So it’s also been interesting working on a book with someone who normally does movies, because the vision is not what we’re used to seeing in books.
Rumpus: It feels full circle that you aren’t influenced necessarily by specific illustrators, but by film and by music. This partnership between the two of you seems like such a great fit for that reason as well.
Chiao: I still can’t believe it happened. I’m glad it’s done but I’m so appreciative of the opportunity because I don’t regularly freelance, which has been good and bad. It’s like a rubber band. It was stretched out when I was working for other people. Now I purely do only what I want to do. With freelance, I have to give up a little bit of control, but this was one of the first times genuinely working with another creative person that has expanded my idea of what good work is and how I want to work.
Self-portrait by author