About 20 years ago, I created a fish named Ogden. He sprung to life in my head and flopped onto my computer where he remained, patiently waiting for something to happen.
I’d become enamored with writing fairytales with messages and took a correspondence course through the Institute of Children’s Literature. My focus was on creating something magical and inspirational. Ogden and his supportive friend, Finkelstein, became my muse.
At the time, I sent the manuscript to a few children’s publishers but the process of marketing felt too much like hard labour so Ogden remained unseen.
Fast forward to 2016. Skip and I were in Cambodia when I decided to resurrect the floundering fish tale. Due to the wonderful world of self-publishing, I could now do it all myself. But I had no artist. So I sent notes to friends in Phnom Penh: Did they know of illustrators who wanted to take on a new project?
I had a few responses. One said she’d think about it. Another said he might know of someone. Another gave suggestions about where to look.
Heang Thy, a Cambodian friend and former colleague (and good friend) of Skip’s was the first to take the helm. Within minutes, she’d suggested two young artists (the brother and friend of Kek Monny Vathna, a friend of hers from the Department of Media and Communications in Phnom Penh) and connected us on Facebook.
“Let me introduce my wonderful two graphic guys who are happy to help you,” she wrote. ”Please do communicate your concept with them now. Daro and Monnyreak, here is Gabi, my wonderful and respected lady.
“They could only do part time as they need to study and work. I suggest you guys should meet up and discuss further. They are available on Saturday this weekend at 3pm for a coffee.”
This Saturday? Four days from now?
Having waited more than 20 years to complete Ogden, I now found myself plunged into the world of Cambodian immediacy. Why wait? Make it happen now.
So I did.
Four days later, on January 18, I met Daro Sam and Monnyreak Ket in a Phnom Penh cafe and knew I’d found Ogden’s visual creators.
Daro, 24, studied design in Phnom Penh and works as a conceptual artist at Cambodia’s first game development studio His friend, Monnyreak (22) is a second-year visual communication student and works part-time with Daro at the game development studio. They were imaginative, creative and incredibly talented. What’s more, they loved Ogden and agreed to do the book.
For the next four months we exchanged emails, sharing designs and ideas for Ogden and friends. First step was to approve the main character. Next was to approve Finkelstein and the other designs. Once I’d approved the design, Daro created a storyboard based on the manuscript, then Monnyreak did the colourisation and, finally, the layout of the book.
Their vision and intuition brought Ogden to life. Gave him a face. Created a personality. Placed him in an an exciting new world.
It wasn’t always easy. Files wouldn’t upload, margins were wrong, page bleed was out of kilter. Daro and Monnyreak were often consumed with work projects and homework. The internet sometimes went down. Creating new files took multiple hours out of their already busy days. But they were always there for me – even after I left Cambodia for England – making sure everything was perfect until the moment it had been uploaded and published on Amazon.
Along the way, another exciting development occurred. Skip and I were having coffee with our friend, Stephen Bimson, who runs the Phnom Penh School of Ballet and also teaches dance to underprivileged Cambodian youth (Dance Made In Cambodia). I told him about my book project and Skip saw an immediate connection between the story of a fish trying to find himself and Stephen’s dance students.
Later that week, Stephen excitedly approached me at a cocktail party. “I talked to my team about your book,” he said. “And we want to perform it as a dance!”
So, in November, Ogden The Fish Who Couldn’t Swim Straight, will be brought to stage in Phnom Penh. Before I left Cambodia, I attended one of Stephen’s dance classes and told the students the story of a fish who found happiness by taking a chance, and I had the opportunity to watch as they created movement from my tale.
Almost four months after we first met, I got together with Monnyreak and Daro for the last time in Phnom Penh. This time it was to goodbye and take a last photo of the team who created Ogden.
And, thanks to them, Ogden, The Fish Who Couldn’t Swim Straight, is no longer hidden in my computer.
It’s a gorgeous book, with colourful, creative pictures that have the same effect on me every time I look at them: They make me smile.