Storytelling, Music, and Publishing: An Interview with Eva Lou

Eva Lou is a Taiwanese-born, American-educated writer who has called Hawaii, New York, Seoul, and Paris home. She has a BA in Comparative Literature from Brown University and an MFA in Writing from Columbia University. Lou’s short stories and poems have been anthologized in America and France. Her first collection of short stories, Rapture/d’extases, was published by Editions Lanore in France in a bilingual edition. Her novel-in-progress, QUIETUDE, is a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Award. She is the founder of Madeleine Editions, an international independent publishing house for children.

It takes what some might call moxie to initiate an entrepreneurial venture, especially when you have motherhood and the blank page to contend with. And yet Eva Lou manages not only to tackle them all, but does it with grace while bounding across continents. The author and founder of an international children’s publishing house seamlessly fuses art and culture, cultivates a love for language, and infuses storytelling with a modern multimedia twist. Lou discusses how Madeleine Editions came to be, how her multiculturalism has informed her decisions as a writer and entrepreneur, advice on work-life balance, and the advantages of digital books.

Can you start by talking a bit about your writing trajectory as a former MFA student, author, and founder of children’s publishing house? What led you to start your own company? 

Like most writers, I started off as an avid reader. I was not at all in the children’s space and wrote fiction mostly for adults. When my daughter turned two and began to understand and speak more complex sentences, I realized this so-called “impractical” profession can be handy after all! Without fail, storytelling defuses my most challenging parenting moments. The art of storytelling suddenly takes on a new urgency when your audience is so immediate and impatient for your next words. Around the same time, I was struggling with a novel that I had been working on for several years involving the heavy subject of a massacre in Taiwan. I knew I had to do something different to bring the joy back, when for the first time in my life, I couldn’t bear to read fiction. 

What started off as a fun picture book experiment with cult Parisian illustrator Steffie Brocoli quickly snowballed into something more ambitious. As I brainstormed ideas with fellow parent-artists—musicians, writers, visual artists—we realized that we were passionate about bringing back an appreciation for the traditional arts in a format that makes sense for modern families. And that’s how Madeleine Editions started.

You’ve called many places home: New York, Seoul, Paris, Hawaii, Kaohsiung. How has your global experience informed your decisions as a storyteller and publishing entrepreneur? 

In my writing for both adults and children, the characters cross continents and cultures. I am endlessly fascinated by how a person rooted to a place reacts when they are jolted out of their comfort zone, and in the other extreme, how a global citizen feels like nowhere is home—and how that is at once liberating and melancholic. 

As a publishing entrepreneur, I wanted to create a new kind of children’s book that can serve as a ‘gateway’ to languages for both monolingual and multilingual households. I also wanted the stories to stem from a love for the arts, rather than linguistic methodology, of which there are plenty. Vocabulary and grammar rules can be memorized at any age, but developing an ear for language—for the inherent musicality in every tongue—comes naturally to children. Studies confirm that 3-7 is a crucial age for language and accent fluency. As a writer with a background in music, I am convinced it has everything to do with exposing the ears to the beauty of the spoken word. This is how Madeleine Editions came to focus on producing read-aloud books in multiple languages. 

You’ve collaborated with award-winning artists, musicians, writers, and illustrators from around the globe. Why did you decide to combine music with storytelling, and how does the collaboration process work?

Children often hear rather than read at an early age, so audio plays an essential role in the experience. I’ve decided to unite different languages with the universal language of music. We wanted to show little readers how one can tell a story just as well with words, music, or pictures. I describe the process as a story relay—the writer spins a tale and then hands it to the composer, who then describes the same story, but this time with sound. 

Other times we start with music, such as stunning recordings the classic music label Deutche Grammophon lends us, from which the writer draws inspiration. Or we start with a single, unformed sketch from the illustrator. It’s very much an equal collaboration—often across continents—between the writer, the illustrator, and the musicians. Once we complete the story it goes into the hands of our translators and voice actors: English is recorded in New York, French in Paris, and Chinese in Taipei. 

I am heavily involved in these recording sessions to ensure that the inherent musicality of each language comes through. Elise, our visual art director and animator, plays an essential role. She sets the words, music, and pictures to a synchronized rhythm and merges them together into a magical book that comes to life.

How do you juggle parenthood, writing, and running a company? What time-management advice would you give to an artist trying to strike a work-life balance or business-art balance?  

The first year I started Madeleine Editions, my day went from 7 to midnight—nonstop. This is partially due to the fact that I work with different time zones. I wanted to pick up my daughter from school, so I tried to squeeze in the equivalent of a full day’s work with European and east coast collaborators by 4pm, with no lunch break. Often, after I put my daughter to sleep at 9pm, I started again with people on the west coast. 

After a year of this I was close to burning out, and I’ve learned to scale back. My feeble time-management advice would be to not work after 10pm no matter how tempted you are to check a few more things off the list. The brain, mine at least, cannot shut off without a couple hours’ advance notice. 
As for work-life balance, I whole-heartedly recommend every fellow parent to try at least one work project that can involve their kid(s). I also recommend every artist to puncture solitary work patterns—which is the nature of what we do—with more collaborative ones. In the past, when I only worked on adult projects, I found it disorienting and painful to have to pull myself out of the fictional world I had created, and with the tick of a clock, have to flip back to being a mother again. 

With Madeleine Editions, I can weave seamlessly between work and motherhood. It’s a privilege to be able to share my work with my daughter, and her pride in being involved is priceless. The multimedia collaborative process is also a much needed respite from the often depressing process of novel-writing. Somehow, I’ve managed to find a work-life balance I did not know existed. At the same time, it has given me back the perspective and joy I needed to continue with other writing. 

With their digital ebook format, Madeleine Editions books merge traditional storytelling with digital technology. What are some of the benefits of digital format? Do you see children’s books or books in general moving toward a digital or multimedia approach to storytelling? 

The obvious advantage of digital books is to be able to merge the text, the audio, the visual into a single concerted experience. Yet most ebooks offerings are simply carbon copies of the paperback; most publishers have not given parents legitimate reasons to turn to ebooks, given their anxiety about screen time. On the other end of the spectrum are story apps that are often about the latest gimmick where kids are too distracted by the game-aspect to pay attention to the story itself. 

I don’t think publishers should sit on their hands, nor should they get caught up in the latest technology—whether it’s VR or AR—and venture too much into gaming. I believe the role of a publisher is to take readily available technology and bring back an appreciation for the art of storytelling in a format that makes sense for modern readers. In this way, we can keep our love of books relevant to the modern lifestyle, whether through the digital format or paper.

About the author

Caroline Bodian is from New York and holds an MFA from Columbia University.

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