Author Interview: Emily X.R. Pan

Welcome to my eighth and final interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Book

  • Title: An Arrow to the Moon
  • Author: Emily X.R. Pan
  • Cover Artist: David Curtis
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Release Date: April 12th, 2022
  • Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Synopsis

Romeo and Juliet meets Chinese mythology in this magical novel by the New York Times bestselling author of The Astonishing Color of After.

Hunter Yee has perfect aim with a bow and arrow, but all else in his life veers wrong. He’s sick of being haunted by his family’s past mistakes. The only things keeping him from running away are his little brother, a supernatural wind, and the bewitching girl at his new high school.

Luna Chang dreads the future. Graduation looms ahead, and her parents’ expectations are stifling. When she begins to break the rules, she finds her life upended by the strange new boy in her class, the arrival of unearthly fireflies, and an ominous crack spreading across the town of Fairbridge.

As Hunter and Luna navigate their families’ enmity and secrets, everything around them begins to fall apart. All they can depend on is their love…but time is running out, and fate will have its way.

An Arrow to the Moon, Emily X.R. Pan’s brilliant and ethereal follow-up to The Astonishing Color of After, is a story about family, love, and the magic and mystery of the moon that connects us all.


Interview with Emily X.R. Pan

Q: Welcome back to my blog! It’s been 5 years since I last interviewed you. At the time, your debut, The Astonishing Color of After hadn’t come out quite yet, and now you’ve published your second novel. What lessons have you learned since then that you wish you could send to your past self?

A: This question always gets me all philosophical and turned around—like if I could share some of my current wisdom with my past self, would it really have changed the path I took? Would I actually be worse off in other ways? But it is certainly interesting to think back on how I’ve grown. I had no idea back then that it would feel harder to write after I was a published author. There was much less pressure when I was just writing for myself—much of the time I was full of despair, of course, as it took multiple books for me to sign with an agent and finally sell something. But that’s nothing like the feeling of writing up on a stage, with people watching to see what I’ll produce next.

I learned that I have to trust my creative instincts. I have to trust myself. It took me so long to pull the right iteration of An Arrow to the Moon out of my brain because I was drowning in the noise of everything that followed my debut. I was worrying about what readers would think, whether they would be disappointed, the comparisons they might make.

I remember this conversation I was having with Laurie Halse Anderson at one point—she warned me that no matter what, everyone would compare my second book to my debut. And as soon as she said it, I knew she was right and I had to quit worrying about it. I wanted to write something very specific, and I knew it was going to be quite different from Astonishing—because I would be bored out of my mind if I just wrote the same type of book again and again—and I had to just get out of my way and let myself do it.

Q: An Arrow to the Moon is set in the past in the year 1991. What about this time period interested you, and why did you choose this time as the setting?

A: Two specific reasons. I wanted to bastardize a bit of history from 1974, so that timeline put my characters in 1991. And I wanted to capture the isolation that I felt when I was growing up in a predominantly white town: How my parents would seek out community, but in a way that often made me feel more separate from other Asian Americans my age. How connecting deeply with a single person was enough of a lifeline to get me through the choppiest of times. As an ode to the way I grew up, I wanted this story to be before cell phones, before everyone was on the internet 24/7, to really underscore what that isolation was like.

Q: You mentioned in another interview that you read many different versions of Chang’e and Houyi’s tale while doing research for the book. Do you have a favorite among those different versions you looked at? What version of the tale did you hear growing up?

A: The version I heard the most growing up had Chang’e being so unable to resist her curiosity that she decides to try just a little bit of the elixir that was meant to be shared—she ends up consuming all of it by accident.

My favorite version I came across while researching had a third key character—a villain—who tries to steal the elixir from Houyi. In that one, Chang’e consumes the elixir only to prevent this bad actor from getting his hands on it.

Q: Whereas The Astonishing Color of After is written in first-person from a single narrative viewpoint, An Arrow to the Moon jumps around quite a bit between third-person perspectives of multiple characters. Did you decide to do this from the beginning, or was it something you incorporated after you began drafting?

A: I started out just jumping back and forth between Hunter and Luna, my two main characters. The other perspectives came in because I knew I wanted all the family relationships to be much more complicated, and that I needed to show elements and secrets that Hunter and Luna would not be aware of. I started journaling and freewriting to figure out more about all the parents, and it became clear that I had to give them their own POV chapters.

Q: You mentioned that this book took many years to complete, and you almost thought you wouldn’t finish. Since everyone in the publishing industry seems to be going through burnout and fatigue right now due to the pandemic, I’d like to ask: what kinds of things have you done to take care of your mental health while working on this book, and what kinds of supports from people around you have helped?

A: This is such a wonderful question—thank you for asking it. I am a strong believer in taking all the help I can possibly get for my mental wellbeing. I’m lucky to be privileged enough to afford a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a mindfulness coach, all of whom were absolutely instrumental in helping me care for myself throughout the process of writing this book. They all emphasized the importance of being gentle with myself, and I have to credit my mindfulness coach with patiently teaching me how to do that.

I am also lucky to have the most incredible friends who sent me little gifts or baked me delicious treats when they knew I was having a hard time, or called to check in on me, or made a point of not talking about publishing and getting my mind off things with a board game or some D&D. And on the publishing side, I have the most incredible agent, who really prioritizes my mental health, and who is always helping me find the best way to balance this job with my health. Having his support in that regard really means everything.

I have found that the best things I can do for myself are to get off social media (in fact get off the internet and strictly enforce screen-free time), make some other kind of art (maybe painting, maybe crocheting, or playing the mandolin), reconnect with friends outside publishing, spend some quality time playing with my dog somewhere with grass and trees and fresh air blowing on my face. I recommend everyone try any of these.

Q: I know you have other projects in the works that you can’t really share details on, so I’ll ask a more general question about the future: what kinds of new challenges do you want to tackle with your next books?

A: I have an idea for something that is meant to be commentary on sociopolitical dynamics, that I don’t know if it’s ever going to become what I envision it being—that one feels really hard. But I’m hopeful. I’m also eager to play with form and try something really wacky. And I have some other bits of history that I very much want to bastardize and play around with, and those will be a real challenge with the amount of research I still have ahead of me.

I have too many projects in the works, and not enough time. But what I’ve found is that it’s the stories that feel the most challenging and ambitious for me, craft-wise, that I am most interested in pursuing.


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You can also read my review of An Arrow to the Moon on Medium.

About the Author

Emily X.R. Pan (she/her) is the New York Times and National Indie bestselling author of THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, which won the APALA Honor Award and the Walter Honor Award, and received six starred reviews. It was also an L.A. Times Book Prize finalist, longlisted for the Carnegie Medal, and named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 Best YA Books of All Time. Emily co-created the FORESHADOW YA platform and anthology, and is a passionate teacher of creative writing. She has taught fiction workshops, literature seminars, craft bootcamps at various institutions, including New York University, The New School, The Center for Fiction, 92nd Street Y, Tin House. Emily has mostly recently joined the Vermont College of Fine Arts as MFA faculty in their Writing for Children’s and Young Adults program. Originally born in the Midwestern United States to immigrant parents from Taiwan, Emily now lives on Lenape land in Brooklyn, New York. She received her MFA in fiction from the NYU Creative Writing Program, where she was a Goldwater Fellow and editor-in-chief of Washington Square Review. She was also the founding editor-in-chief of Bodega Magazine. These days she spends her free time playing the mandolin, making art, and training her furry dog-beast to balance on strange objects. Her latest novel, AN ARROW TO THE MOON, was an instant national bestseller. Visit Emily online at exrpan.com, and find her on Instagram: @exrpan.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author Interview: Judy I. Lin

Welcome to my seventh interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series! (Note: Judy is not American but rather Canadian, but I want to highlight the Taiwanese diaspora outside of the U.S. as well during TAHW.)

About the Book

  • Title: A Magic Steeped in Poison
  • Author: Judy I. Lin
  • Cover Artist: Sija Hong
  • Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (an Imprint of Macmillan)
  • Release Date: March 29th, 2022
  • Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Synopsis

I used to look at my hands with pride. Now all I can think is, “These are the hands that buried my mother.”

For Ning, the only thing worse than losing her mother is knowing that it’s her own fault. She was the one who unknowingly brewed the poison tea that killed her—the poison tea that now threatens to also take her sister, Shu.

When Ning hears of a competition to find the kingdom’s greatest shénnóng-shī—masters of the ancient and magical art of tea-making—she travels to the imperial city to compete. The winner will receive a favor from the princess, which may be Ning’s only chance to save her sister’s life.

But between the backstabbing competitors, bloody court politics, and a mysterious (and handsome) boy with a shocking secret, Ning might actually be the one in more danger.

Covert illustration by Sija Hong.

A Venom Dark and Sweet, the sequel to A Magic Steeped in Poison, will be published August 23rd, 2022 from Feiwel & Friends!


Interview with Judy I. Lin

Q: It’s been 5 years since I first interviewed you on my blog, and at the time you didn’t have a book deal yet whereas now you have debuted and even become a New York Times bestseller, with a second book releasing this year. What lessons have you learned that you’d like to share with folks who are currently on the path to publication?

A: Wow, that was so long ago! I remember being newly agented and hopeful that my book will sell and of course the crushing disappointment when it did not. When I’ve learned since then is that it is impossible to predict what will sell and what will not. The books that are being published now sold a year or two ago. Even though my YA horror did not find a home, writing it gave me the confidence to eventually work on the project that I was always scared of – the project that became A Magic Steeped in Poison.

Q: If you were to describe the major characters of your book as different kinds of dumplings, what would they be?

A: This is such a creative question and I’m definitely hungry after answering it.

Ning is best represented by the dumpling that appears in the story: the humble zongzi (glutinous rice dumpling). A dumpling with history, associated with remembrance and sacrifice.

Zhen is the soup dumpling (xiaolongbao), known for its delicate folds, with a surprising filing inside. Just like how she keeps her true self hidden.

Kang would be shumai. A combination of pork and shrimp, from a province by the sea, but has traveled all around the world. There are many varieties of shumai, like how he has to put on different personalities in order to survive.

Lian is the potsticker (guotie). A small package of flavor, very similar to her personality, and usually accompanied by a spicy dipping sauce.

Q: Authors of color are often criticized for writing fantasy stories that draw on their culture that are “inauthentic,” but half the fun of fantasy is being able to make stuff up. What parts of the worldbuilding for Dàxī did you have the most fun with?

A: I really loved incorporating elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine into my story, especially the herbal remedies. In my research, I learned about the formulas from some of the compendiums (including Shénnóng Běncǎo Jīng – the herbal medicine classic!) and what sort of ailments those ingredients and tonics would address. This led me to imagine what these ingredients would be used for if they took on magical properties. Most of my worldbuilding, even the fantastical or magical components, was usually built on a kernel of something that existed in the real world.

Q: I appreciate the amount of thought that went into names of places in the story. How did you come up with the place names in Dàxī?

A: It was important to me that names in the story had a corresponding Chinese name that evoked a certain feeling I wanted to convey (whether it is a person’s name or the name of a place), so I had to make sure the names sounded fine in both the pinyin representation (and corresponding sounds in English) and that it wasn’t something offensive in Chinese. It was a lot of back and forth where I might have settled on an English name, but then had to tweak it when I found that another character matched the feel better.

You’ll also notice that a few places I drew on place names from Taiwan. Yěliŭ for one, because I liked the literal translation – Wild Willow, since the academy is in the forest, surrounded by trees. Língyǎ is from the Kaohsiung neighborhood I grew up in, but I changed the first character to “tomb”, which matches its role as the resting place of former emperors. It’s a fun part of the process!

Q: How do you approach drafting? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you overwrite and have to pare down or do you underwrite and then have to fill in details? Do you write everything in order or do you jump around?

A: I am a plotter for sure. I like to have an outline before I start drafting so I know where I am going, but I still leave space for myself to explore and then revise the story as needed. My first drafts are very short, and I have to keep building with each revision – adding details and emotional arcs as needed.

I usually write everything in order. After I’m done, I update my outline, and then I go back and write it all over again! Maybe not the most efficient writing process, but one that works for me.

Q: What strategies and tools do you find most effective for immersing yourself in the mind of a character or a world?

A: During my first draft, I like to free write. Free writing and using stream of consciousness allows me to fully step into the character’s mind, see what they see and feel what they feel. Most of what comes out of it is not useable, but it helps me get into their headspace and I can see the direction the story should take as I embody the character and navigate them through the story.

I also listen to music a lot while I’m writing. I build a playlist that captures the feeling of the book and then every time I turn on the playlist, I’m instantly in that headspace where I am ready to create.

Q: Publishing involves a lot of factors that are out of our control as writers. What personal goals do you have for your writing that aren’t about numbers, ranking on bestseller lists, etc.

A: To be honest, how A Magic Steeped in Poison has been received has surpassed even my wildest dreams. There were so many things I was able to cross off my “author list”.

My personal goal though is just to be able to write more books. I would love to someday sell a book set in Taiwan, because that’s a dream that has yet to be fulfilled. I have a few ideas that I’ve been working on that I hope I will get to write some day! But right now I have two projects already in the works that I am very excited about and I can’t wait to share when I am able to.

Q: On a similar note, how do you keep yourself grounded when faced with rejection, disappointment, setbacks, etc. in the publishing process?

A: I’ve experienced all of those things and more during the first few years when I was trying to sell a book. There were times when I wanted to give up, but I kept going because my goal was always to show my daughter that it was important to keep working to pursue your dreams. My husband was also very supportive and ensured that I had the time to write without distractions.

On the writing side, I was lucky in that along the way I connected with friends who were at different steps of the publishing journey, so we could help each other get through all the highs and the lows. I was able to cheer them on and received their support and that kept me writing as well. Professionally, my agent continued to champion my stories even when it felt like nobody wanted them! Without all of those supports I don’t think I would still be writing today.


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About the Author

Judy I. Lin, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of the Book of Tea duology (A Magic Steeped in Poison and A Venom Dark and Sweet), was born in Taiwan and immigrated to Canada with her family at a young age. She grew up with her nose in a book and loved to escape to imaginary worlds. She now works as an occupational therapist and still spends her nights dreaming up imaginary worlds of her own. She lives on the Canadian prairies with her husband and daughters.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author-Illustrator Interview: Tracy Subisak

Welcome to my sixth interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Books

  • Title: Jenny Mei Is Sad
  • Author & Illustrator: Tracy Subisak
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Release Date: June 15th, 2021
  • Genre/Format: Picturebook, Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis

With this educational and entertaining picture book, learn how to approach difficult emotions with compassion and understanding—and be the best friend you can be.

My friend Jenny Mei is sad. But you might not be able to tell.

Jenny Mei still smiles a lot. She makes everyone laugh. And she still likes blue Popsicles the best. But, her friend knows that Jenny Mei is sad, and does her best to be there to support her.

This beautifully illustrated book is perfect for introducing kids to the complexity of sadness, and to show them that the best way to be a good friend, especially to someone sad, is by being there for the fun, the not-fun, and everything in between.


  • Title: Amah Faraway
  • Author: Margaret Chiu Greanias
  • Illustrator: Tracy Subisak
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s Books
  • Release Date: January 25th, 2022
  • Genre: Picturebook, Fiction

Synopsis

A delightful story of a child’s visit to a grandmother and home far away, and of how families connect and love across distance, language, and cultures.

Kylie is nervous about visiting her grandmother-her Amah-who lives SO FAR AWAY.

When she and Mama finally go to Taipei, Kylie is shy with Amah. Even though they have spent time together in video chats, those aren’t the same as real life. And in Taiwan, Kylie is at first uncomfortable with the less-familiar language, customs, culture, and food.

However, after she is invited by Amah-Lái kàn kàn! Come see!-to play and splash in the hot springs (which aren’t that different from the pools at home), Kylie begins to see this place through her grandmother’s eyes and sees a new side of the things that used to scare her.

Soon, Kylie is leading her Amah-Come see! Lái kàn kàn!-back through all her favorite parts of this place and having SO MUCH FUN! And when it is time to go home, the video chats will be extra special until they can visit faraway again.

Backmatter includes author and illustrator notes and a guide to some of the places and foods explored in Taiwan.


Interview with Tracy Subisak

Q: I saw that you studied industrial design in school, which I imagine is a pretty different world from children’s literature. Are there any skills or experiences from that time that you’ve found helpful now that you’re working as a children’s book author/illustrator?

A: Industrial design is such a different world! Luckily, there was a lot of drawing and storyboarding in all of my industrial design jobs, so I drew all the time and not only did I learn how to draw any product I could imagine, but I also drew a lot of people using those products in different scenarios. That skillset ended up translating really well into children’s book illustrations, since they’re made up of an entire world, set of characters, and scenarios.

A sample storyboard illustration by Tracy Subisak.
Another sample storyboard by Tracy Subisak.

Q: I love your illustration style and the use of line, shape and color in a way that feels a bit understated yet so textured and intimate and expressive. Can you share some specific artists or artistic styles or movements that have inspired your work and what about them appeals to you?

A: Oh my, I love Jillian Tamaki and Ping Zhu’s works! Their work shows a technical understanding and connection to the brush/tool that I’ve always looked up to – it gives them the freedom to express beyond their technical understanding. I also read a lot of comics growing up, so I naturally lean on using line a lot… I’ve been challenging myself to use more shapes and textures, and only use line where necessary in the story. Selective use of line is something that I learned from looking at a lot of storyboards for film, where storyboard artists use line (or the lack of) to articulate where the eye should travel in the story! I think I would always love to be a spectacular artist like Tamaki or Zhu – above all, I’d love to always keep the focus on the story.

Q: Jenny Mei is Sad was your first picture book as both author and illustrator. How did taking on the role of author-illustrator differ from the work of illustration in general?

A: Since I’m responsible for both the written and visual story, I’m more invested in making sure the words tell the story that the illustrations aren’t, and vice versa. I can easily change a word or sentence as needed to fit the story better to my illustrations. When I am illustrating someone else’s manuscript, I just focus on how well I can tell a visual story, adding details that might enhance and deepen the story to complement the original manuscript. 

Q: Jenny Mei is Sad tackles the subject of sadness and depression for a young audience that may not have the words to articulate their feelings. What kinds of artistic strategies did you employ to make the emotions and messages of the story accessible to a younger audience?

A: I reckon the main strategy was to show the many ways that sadness can form within us – it can be so confusing, even for adults, to know what one is going through when really sad things are happening. Sadness can sometimes manifest into anger. Sadness can be hard to admit or say out-loud. Sadness can be hard to notice. Those are just some of the ways sadness is felt, and there are people that understand and will still be there for you no matter what.

A page from Jenny Mei Is Sad.

Q: In Amah Faraway, there are lots of Taiwanese places and foods depicted. Did you use reference photos or make a research trip, or was it all drawn from memory/imagination?

A: The places and foods depicted are a culmination of all of my experiences in Taiwan! I was lucky to have lived in Taiwan (and at one point I lived in a night market!), and to have visited my Waipo (that’s Chinese for grandma on my mom’s side), and to have traveled around Taiwan with my mom and my friends and family! From visiting Wulai hot springs for the first time to eating at various banquets to climbing up Elephant Mountain to view Taipei 101, there were a lot of visual memories in my head.

Photo of a bridge in Wulai, taken by Tracy Subisak.
Photo of plates of food at a banquet held beneath a tent in Taiwan, taken by Tracy Subisak.

Photo of Tracy Subisak at Elephant Mountain with a view of Taipei 101 in the background.

I definitely used some photo reference though.

Just a couple of scenes :

I was able to take my dad and brother’s family around Taipei back in 2019. Since we had a few little kiddos with us, we went to Daan Forest Park almost every day. It was such a nice reprieve in the bustling city, and the island of birds was so fun to watch!

Two-page spread from Amah Faraway, illustrated by Tracy Subisak.

One of my first memories of Taipei was, of course, going to the Shilin night market with my mom and dad. My dad was so overwhelmed by the smell of stinky tofu, so mom and I walked around and got as many snacks as we could. I remember being enamored with all the cute plushies and clothes and bags. It was important for me to include some of my favorite snacks like roasted yams and candied hawthorn in the book too.

Photo of yams for sale in front of a clothing rack display at Shilin Night Market, taken by Tracy Subisak.
Photo of a lemonade stand at Shilin Night Market, taken by Tracy Subisak.
Photo of candied hawthorn from Shilin Night Market, taken by Tracy Subisak.

Q: The picturebook as a medium is often described as a melding of and collaboration between word and image, but in the publishing industry, authors and illustrators typically have an editor as a liaison rather than working directly together. How much interaction did you have with Margaret Chiu Greanias for Amah Faraway, and how much creative freedom were you given to add details not explicitly referenced in the text of the story?

A: I had zero interaction with Margaret until after I finished all the final artwork for the book! It’s been super nice to do a bunch of events with her though, and she’s told me that it feels like I was on the journey with her when she looks at the illustrations for Amah Faraway.

I could say the same about how she wrote the book. It was insanely relatable for me, and our editor Sarah Shumway gave me a lot of creative license to bring my own experience into the illustrations, mainly giving input on any areas that affected the flow of the story.


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About the Author

Tracy Subisak studied industrial design in school, subsequently working in the field internationally for seven years, designing computers for the future, before turning her focus to freelance illustration and design.

Tracy’s debut author/illustrated picture book Jenny Mei Is Sad (Little, Brown) was published in June 2021. She is the illustrator of several picture books including Amah Faraway, Grizzly Boy, Cy Makes a Friend, and Shawn Loves Sharks, which received a starred review from Kirkus, was a Junior Library Guild selection, and received a 2018 Washington State Book Award. She also illustrated the nonfiction picture book titled Wood, Wire, Wings by Kirsten Larsonm which is a bio of Emma Lilian Todd, the first woman to successfully design and engineer a working airplane. 

Tracy is the proud daughter of a Taiwanese mother who was a Chinese language instructor and art teacher, and an American father, son of Polish and Slovakian immigrant parents, who is an engineer. She was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, has lived in Taiwan, South Korea, NY, and San Francisco, and now makes her home in the PNW in Portland, OR. She is always eager to go adventuring and is a true believer that experience begets the best stories.

Tracy is also a certified yoga teacher, YTT 200 hours and HIIT yoga certificate, focused on providing a light-hearted space for healing and creating resilience in the body and mind. She currently teaches at Flex & Flow PDX.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author Interview: Margaret Chiu Greanias

Welcome to my fifth interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Book

  • Title: Amah Faraway
  • Author: Margaret Chiu Greanias
  • Illustrator: Tracy Subisak
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s Books
  • Release Date: January 25th, 2022
  • Genre: Picturebook, Fiction

Synopsis

A delightful story of a child’s visit to a grandmother and home far away, and of how families connect and love across distance, language, and cultures.

Kylie is nervous about visiting her grandmother-her Amah-who lives SO FAR AWAY.

When she and Mama finally go to Taipei, Kylie is shy with Amah. Even though they have spent time together in video chats, those aren’t the same as real life. And in Taiwan, Kylie is at first uncomfortable with the less-familiar language, customs, culture, and food.

However, after she is invited by Amah-Lái kàn kàn! Come see!-to play and splash in the hot springs (which aren’t that different from the pools at home), Kylie begins to see this place through her grandmother’s eyes and sees a new side of the things that used to scare her.

Soon, Kylie is leading her Amah-Come see! Lái kàn kàn!-back through all her favorite parts of this place and having SO MUCH FUN! And when it is time to go home, the video chats will be extra special until they can visit faraway again.

Backmatter includes author and illustrator notes and a guide to some of the places and foods explored in Taiwan.

Interview with Margaret Chiu Greanias

Q: Your book Amah Faraway features several delicious Taiwanese dishes that made me hungry while reading it. What is your favorite Taiwanese food? (You can pick more than one if narrowing it down is hard.)

A: Fragrant and flaky scallion pancakes are yummy. I had an intense aversion to onions as a kid, but my mom would go easy on the scallions for me.

I also love dumplings–any kind of dumplings! My mom would usually make dumplings on the same days she made scallion pancakes. Pan-fried pork and napa cabbage dumplings with golden, crispy lace on the bottoms–mmm! They are the perfect all in one meal.

As an adult, I’ve discovered the deliciousness of buttery, tangy pineapple cakes! Unfortunately, I was a picky eater as a kid, so I missed out on enjoying them for 30 years. :-/

Q: I noticed that there were parts of the book in Mandarin that weren’t translated (e.g. the song about the two tigers) while others were. How did you go about deciding what would be explained and translated and what would remain as is?

A: The Mandarin that wasn’t translated was added by Tracy Subisak, the illustrator for Amah Faraway. They are generally side conversations that complement the text and are wonderful Easter Eggs for those who can read Mandarin.

The Mandarin characters that are translated were part of the original story that I wrote. They fit in with the structure of the story–which is a kind of reverse poem. A reverse poem is one where the lines are read regularly from top to bottom but can also be read in reverse from bottom to top. The result is two poems with different meanings and often opposite tones.

In Amah Faraway, the reverse poem structure highlights the transformation the main character Kylie undergoes on her first trip to visit her Amah. The lines reverse at the mid-point of the story. Except for some changes to punctuation, the lines in the second half of the story are exactly the same as the lines in the first half–simply in reverse order. Changes in punctuation, words that have more than one meaning, context, and changes in perspective allow the first half and second half of the book to tell a complete story.

Q: What was your favorite part of writing Amah Faraway?

A: My favorite part of writing Amah Faraway was finding a way to impart different meanings using the same lines and words in the each half of the book and still tell a complete story. It took a lot of scribbling, experimentation, and reading my words aloud over and over again. But I love puzzles, and finding the right fit felt a lot like completing a puzzle. So satisfying!

Q: You mentioned elsewhere that you weren’t particularly good at English in school, but later you found your way to creative writing. What kinds of books and stories inspired you and/or made you feel that you could be an author? (Feel free to name specific titles, authors, and illustrators.)

A: The first book to inspire me was Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. This was the one that made me realize that I could play and have fun with language. As I continue to read and study the craft of writing picture books, I am continually discovering books that inspire me to evolve my writing:

  • Wordplay: Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies by Jorge and Megan Lacera
  • Lyrical language: Friends Are Friends, Forever by Dane Liu and illustrated by Lynn Scurfield, The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael Lopez, Eyes That Kiss In The Corners by Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho
  • Delightful characters: One Word From Sophia by Jim Averbeck and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail
  • Packs an emotional punch: I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne and illustrated by Julia Kuo

Q: The structure of Amah Faraway is that of a reversible poem. While writing a reversible poem is already difficult, I imagine fitting it into the picture book format was also a challenge due to the page limit and the way picture books are structured with the two-page spreads and page turns affecting the reading experience. How did you go about blending the two forms?

A: It’s critical to account for the constraints of the picture book format when writing any picture book story. Picture books are generally 32 pages. This includes the end, copyright, and title pages. So we really have between 12 to 14-1/2 spreads to tell the whole story.

As part of my writing process, I create a picture book “dummy” where I break up the story by spread (https://taralazar.com/tag/picture-book-template/). Note that picture book authors generally leave illustration decisions including the page turns to the illustrator, editor, and art director. But this helps me determine some things:

  • Whether I’ve used too many words for a page. For reverse poems, because the lines need to be able to be interpreted with new meaning on the reverse read, it turns out that spare is better. So, this actually helped me.
  • Whether there are enough but not too many varied scenes to fill the book. Too many scenes would mean the story wouldn’t fit into the picture book format. Lack of variety in scenes would make the story less visually interesting. For writing the reverse poem, I chunked the story in a predetermined number of scenes to help make the writing process less intimidating. This also helped in fitting the story into the picture book format.

One thing that I never imagined was how the words and the line breaks that are critical to the reverse poem structure would be laid out on the page and how the illustrations would need to accommodate this. Not only did we have to maintain the line breaks, but the lines had to be placed so that the reader would read them in the right order.

I owe my editor at Bloomsbury, Sarah Shumway, a huge debt of gratitude for having the vision for how to fit my story into picture book format and helping to guide me through revisions to make it all possible. She even somehow made room for back matter.

Q: My understanding is that when the author isn’t also the illustrator for a picturebook, the author generally has little say in the final illustrations. Do you write your picturebooks with a rough idea of the pictures in mind? How do you feel about surrendering creative control when it comes to this aspect of the book?

A: I do write with an idea of the pictures. As I wrote in previously, this helps me figure out whether there are enough potential varied illustration possibilities to make up a picture book and to determine the pacing and page breaks of the story. And also, if I envision illustrations, I may be able to omit some text that the illustration would communicate. But my envisioning the illustrations doesn’t mean I tell the illustrator what to actually illustrate.

For Amah Faraway, I saw sketches at two points and was offered the opportunity to give feedback. But as an author, I try and tread lightly when it comes to illustrations. While it can be nerve-wracking to surrender creative control, I believe in the idea that an illustrator executing their own vision can add a lot of richness to the story. It’s like a song with harmony–it adds layers and deepens the song in a beautiful way.

As the illustrator for Amah Faraway, Tracy Subisak contributed so much richness to the book. She added beautiful end papers which can serve as a search and find for young readers as well as a tool for learning some Mandarin. She created a wonderful illustration under the dust jacket which sets up the story. She set the story in real locations around Taipei which hopefully will enable readers who have been to Taipei to connect to the story in a visual way. And as mentioned above, she added the conversations that were solely in Mandarin to complement the storyline and serve as an Easter Egg for Mandarin readers. I could go on and on. Tracy’s contributions helped make Amah Faraway a rich and layered piece with many potential points of connection for readers. Thank you, Tracy! 🙂


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About the Author

Margaret wrote her first terrifically terrible book in fourth grade. From grade school through college, she struggled through her English classes. Then, during her very last quarter of her very last year of college, she took a creative writing class and discovered she loved writing. She is the author of MAXIMILLIAN VILLAINOUS (Running Press Kids, 2018), AMAH FARAWAY (Bloomsbury Kids, 2022), and HOOKED ON BOOKS (Peachtree Publishing, 2023). She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, three children, and a fluffle of dust bunnies.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author Interview: Ren Iris

Welcome to my fourth interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Book

  • Title: The Balance Tips
  • Author: Ren Iris
  • Cover Artist: CB Messer
  • Publisher: Interlude Press
  • Release Date: October 5th, 2021
  • Genre: Adult Fiction

Synopsis

Fay Wu Goodson is a 25-year-old queer, multiracial woman who documents the identity journeys of other New Yorkers. She finds her videography work meaningful, but more importantly, it distracts her from investigating the challenges of her own life and keeps relationships at a distance. When the family’s Taiwanese patriarch dies, Fay’s Asian grandmother moves to America; and Fay, her mother, and her aunt learn unsettling truths about their family and each other. They must decide to finally confront themselves, or let their pasts destroy everything each woman has dreamed of and worked for.

An unconventional story of an Asian-American matriarchy, The Balance Tips is a literary exploration of Taiwanese-American female roles in family, sexual identity, racism, and the internal struggles fostered by Confucian patriarchy that would appeal to fans of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.

Interview with Ren Iris

Q: The Balance Tips plays around with narrative form quite a bit, employing letters, transcripts of orally conducted interviews, screenwriting scripts, etc. How did you decide which form to use for which scenes/chapters?

A: I’m a lover of documentaries, scripts and correspondence in their many forms, and oral histories/traditions. I knew I wanted to write a documentarian character into being, so before, during, and after my first draft, I consumed a lot of content in these various forms. When deciding which form to use for a given scene/chapter, I put myself into the persona of the character of focus. What are they thinking about? What do they want to avoid thinking about? What makes them feel defensive, powerful, and/or confused? How do they vacillate between celebrating/facing their vulnerabilities and repressing/avoiding said vulnerabilities? I used these questions to drive my selection for each form.

Q: The Balance Tips jumps between multiple narrative viewpoints as well as timelines. How did you create order out of chaos when drafting and revising?

A: I used to conform to a restrictive outlining structure (for my first book, I outlined each chapter in detail). But for The Balance Tips, I knew I wanted to write in a manner that felt natural to me, based on how I think—and I think heuristically. So, I embrace chaos, iteration, and revision. I revise as I go; when I make a decision that will potentially have a ripple effect, I note whatever I’ll need later to conduct a helpful control + find search. I revise each draft with the critical eye of a developmental/copy editor. I aim for intentional chaos, for writing that captures how unmoored a character feels.

Q: Language can be used to hurt or to heal, to divide or to connect, among many other things. What would you say is the role of language in mediating the relationships between the women of the Wu family?

A: There are points where the Wu women try to soothe each other and repair their intrafamilial relationships with shared language. The language they use with each other is rooted in memory, in nativity, and Fay is usually the hinge person. They use Mandarin and/or Taiwanese to remind one another to return home—often metaphorically, but sometimes literally. For the Wu women, English is the colder language, one that can be the language of legality, of alienation, of negotiation from a distance.

Q: Do you have a particular literary or rhetorical device that you favor in your writing? If so, what about it appeals to you?

A: Subtext, subtext, subtext. Idiom. Metaphor. Conceit. Synecdoche. Metonym. What I find appealing about all of these devices is the inherent homage to symbolism and implication. We as humans make and take so much meaning from the unsaid, the half-said, the communication intent that exists between and behind the lines.

Q: I think most writers would agree that they learn something with every work they write. What has writing and publishing The Balance Tips taught you, about writing, about the world, and/or about yourself?

A: When I began my first draft of The Balance Tips in 2015, I wasn’t out, not even to myself. I was continually brushing off what I’ve known in one capacity or another since at least the third grade—I’ve always been queer and genderqueer, even if I didn’t know how to phrase or claim it. I think there was a subconscious element to my writing about queerness in this novel. With each draft, I created clearer characters, a clearer fictional world, and as I was changing my fiction, it was inevitably changing me. There’s so much pain in the world—pain we create for ourselves, pain we experience from others, pain we give others, and/or pain we exchange. While that pain is true, it’s not the only truth, and it’s not the lead truth, either. Yes, we hold great power to hurt ourselves and each other, but so too, do we hold great power to help ourselves and each other. There is always a mix. Always many nuances. And, too, there is always possibility, capacity for self-led change. There is no need for shame or shaming. We can learn from kind, revitalizing teachers. We can, as activist and professor Loretta J. Ross has urged, hold ourselves accountable and call each other in instead of out. When we learn to love and accept ourselves, we can at least learn to mutually accept and support one another; we can lead with the Confucian value of ren—with humaneness.

Q: Do you view The Balance Tips as in conversation with any particular works of fiction (of any medium)? If so, what are they, and what aspects of those works does it speak to?

A: Definitely. I have many more than reasonable to list, so I’ll just list 10.

Porcelain and a Language of Their Own: Two Plays by Chay Yew; Água Viva by Clarice Lispector; Edinburgh by Alexander Chee; The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston; Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson; Aliens in America by Sandra Tsing Loh; Rolling the R’s by R. Zamora Linmark; The Red Letter Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks; The America Play, and Other Works by Suzan-Lori Parks; Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Other Plays by Young Jean Lee

All of these works queer concepts, form, and content. By queer here, I sometimes mean the queer in LGBTQIA+, but also, I’m referring to an expanded application of Merriam-Webster’s verb definition, use 1a: “to consider or interpret (something) from a perspective that rejects traditional categories of gender and sexuality: to apply ideas from queer theory to (something).” As I aimed to do in The Balance Tips, these works reject assumed, traditional notions of a variety of foundational topics and societal constructs. They offer alternative, expansive styles of being, and encourage a self-exploration that imagines identity as a continuous, fluid journey. They underscore the existence of at least a pocket of hope. And they celebrate our capacity for connection and resilience.


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About the Author

Ren Iris* (pronouns they/them; 鳶仁 Yuān Rén) was raised in New Jersey by a Taiwanese mother and a white father. They hold a BA in English from Rutgers University and an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University in England. Whasian (Harken Media, 2015) was their debut novel. Iris’s second novel, The Balance Tips, was released in October 2021 (Interlude Press). Their writing has been featured in The Shanghai Literary Review, The Black Scholar, and Side B Magazine.

*The Balance Tips, was published under the author’s deadname. They have since legally and professionally changed their names. They are solely Ren Iris and solely use they/them/their pronouns—including in historical references.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author Interview: Anna Gracia

Welcome to my third interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Book

  • Title: Boys I Know
  • Author: Anna Gracia
  • Cover Artist: Fevik
  • Publisher: Peachtree Teen
  • Release Date: July 5th, 2022
  • Genre: Young Adult Contemporary

Synopsis

A high school senior navigates messy boys and messier relationships in this bitingly funny and much-needed look into the overlap of Asian American identity and teen sexuality.  

June Chu is the “just good enough” girl. Good enough to line the shelves with a slew of third-place trophies and steal secret kisses from her AP Bio partner, Rhys. But not good enough to meet literally any of her Taiwanese mother’s unrelenting expectations or to get Rhys to commit to anything beyond a well-timed joke. 

While June’s mother insists she follow in her (perfect) sister’s footsteps and get a (full-ride) violin scholarship to Northwestern (to study pre-med), June doesn’t see the point in trying too hard if she’s destined to fall short anyway. Instead, she focuses her efforts on making her relationship with Rhys “official.” But after her methodically-planned, tipsily-executed scheme explodes on the level of a nuclear disaster, she flings herself into a new relationship with a guy who’s not allergic to the word “girlfriend.” 

But as the line blurs between sex and love, and the pressure to map out her entire future threatens to burst, June will have to decide on whose terms she’s going to live her life—even if it means fraying her relationship with her mother beyond repair. 

Interview with Anna Gracia

Q: Throughout the course of Boys I Know, June Chu makes a lot of mistakes and questionable-to-poor choices before getting someplace better. In my experience, the process of writing a book is pretty similar. What kinds of false starts did you make while writing Boys I Know, and how did you move past them?

A: Boys I Know was the first novel I’d ever written, so naturally I had no idea what I was doing. I wrote it in chunks, over the course of a year, not totally knowing what was going to happen to June or how it would come together as a coherent story. I flailed around for a while, tweaking and making (what I thought were) major changes until I was fortunate enough to sign with an agent who had a much more sweeping idea of how edits should go. In short, I deleted the entire book and started over with a blank page shortly after signing, giving me permission to let go of what wasn’t working and start fresh. In that way, I think it parallels June’s options to either continue on her same path with minor alterations or to simply start over, despite that choice seeming much more daunting.

I feel like there’s so much about publishing that’s like “you don’t know until you know” and being lucky enough to take Boys from hot mess first draft to publication has really helped clarify what I need to do going forward and has made me less afraid of, well, everything, because I know I’m capable of doing it.

Q: I really love the use of chengyu/Chinese idioms in this book because of how well they illustrate the relationship dynamic between June and her mother, encapsulating both the pressures these words often put on her but also the influences she picks up from her mother as a result. How did you go about incorporating these into the text in a way that felt authentic to the story you were trying to tell?

A: I’m so glad you asked this! (Mostly because I spent so much time making sure the Chinese was correct and finding the right phrase to go with each situation.) For me, I grew up hearing these left and right, spouted in Chinese with the English translation immediately after, just like June’s mom does, so it felt natural to have her incorporate them into her speech regularly, especially when she’s trying to make a point to her daughter. I wanted Mrs. Chu to encapsulate that passive-aggressive style of parenting where she is somehow both overbearing but also weirdly hands off about things, expecting that simply dictating wisdom is enough to set her kids on the right path. So when June references a particular proverb or phrase in other contexts, I wanted it to be a subtle reminder of how even her own thoughts had been affected by her mom, her upbringing, and her culture.

I think it’s pretty common for multi-lingual people to think in more than one language and I wanted to show how even someone as “Americanized” as June still has the Taiwanese side of her baked into her identity, inseparable from the very way she exists.

Q: When developing their characters, some authors create elaborate profiles and aesthetic collages and playlists while others stick to what is necessary for the story and don’t spend too much time on the rest. Where would you say you fall in the range between these two approaches? And if you have any fun details about June that didn’t make it into the final story, please share a few!

A: Originally, June was a piano player. But that created logistical concerns I didn’t want to have to deal with (like having privacy while she practiced, for one), so I switched her over to the other Asian parent-approved instrument of choice, the violin.

Other than that, June has remained more or less consistent throughout all the versions and edits of this story, which is surprising considering I don’t create any kind of character profile or aesthetic or anything upfront. My lack of structure and overall vision upfront I’m sure makes the process much longer and more frustrating than it probably needs to be, but I’m pretty adamant that writing the story itself is what lets me better explore my characters and keeps them from remaining too tidy.

Q: Do you have a narrative point of view or tense that you default to when you write, or does it vary depending on the story?

A: I personally default to writing in first person past tense because it makes me feel like I’m telling a story, but I did see someone say they DNFed the book because of it so maybe I need to explore writing in present tense because that seems to be more popular in YA!

Q: A lot of writers I know approach a first draft with the mentality that you’re just getting words down no matter how terrible, and editing is on the backburner. However, I’m the type who makes some edits even as I draft. How do you approach the editing/revision process, and how do you deal with situations where you feel like you are ramming your head against a brick wall trying to figure out how to continue improving on the draft you have?

A: Honestly I probably do not have good advice for this because my process is completely chaotic and inefficient. I draft out of order and refuse to outline or use beat sheets, and instead of tackling edits in several passes I try to do everything all at once.

The only thing I can say is that when it all becomes too overwhelming (and trust me, I do a fair bit of head ramming against brick walls as well), I just focus on one paragraph at a time, like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, reminding myself that if I keep hacking away at it, I’ll eventually finish.

It’s not poignant or strategic in any way–I mostly finish projects because of an innate desire to “win” against the part of myself that wants to give up.

Q: Debut year is both an exciting and stressful experience even without the added stress created by the pandemic. What tools and strategies have you been using to manage your mental health?

A: I just keep repeating to myself that most everything outside of the book content itself is out of my control and spend my time on doing things I do enjoy for it, like making unhinged posts about it on social media. I also spend a lot of time burying myself in other people’s books, which helps me remember that there are a lot of stories out there and that mine is just one of many. It’s easy to get swept into thinking that your book is all that matters but it’s also a very good way to burn out and I would very much like to keep publishing. Also, cake. I strongly recommend cake as a solution to everything.


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About the Author

Anna grew up biracial in the Midwest, spending her formative years repeatedly answering the question “What are you?” Before finding her way as a young adult author, she was a CPA, a public school teacher, a tennis coach, and for one glorious summer, a waitress at a pie shop. She now lives on the West Coast, raising three kids and writing stories about girls navigating a world full of double standards.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author Interview: Jane Kuo

Welcome to my second interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Book

  • Title: In the Beautiful Country
  • Author: Jane Kuo
  • Cover Artist: Julia Kuo
  • Publisher: Quill Tree Books (an Imprint of HarperCollins)
  • Release Date: June 14th, 2022
  • Genre/Format: Middle Grade Historical Fiction, Novel-in-Verse

Synopsis

For fans of Jasmine Warga and Thanhhà Lại, this is a stunning novel in verse about a young Taiwanese immigrant to America who is confronted by the stark difference between dreams and reality.

Anna can’t wait to move to the beautiful country—the Chinese name for America. Although she’s only ever known life in Taiwan, she can’t help but brag about the move to her family and friends.

But the beautiful country isn’t anything like Anna pictured. Her family can only afford a cramped apartment, she’s bullied at school, and she struggles to understand a new language. On top of that, the restaurant that her parents poured their savings into is barely staying afloat. The version of America that Anna is experiencing is nothing like her dreams. How will she be able to make the beautiful country her home?

This lyrical and heartfelt story, inspired by the author’s own experiences, is about resilience, courage, and the struggle to make a place for yourself in the world.

Interview with Jane Kuo

Q: What is your favorite Taiwanese food, and what foods feel like home (however you define home for yourself) to you?

A: I really love ba wan, a dish made up of meat, mushrooms and bamboo shoots encased in a layer of sticky chewiness. I love the pinkish sweet and sour sauce that’s poured on top too.

Food that feels like “home” is a little more difficult to answer—I like food so much.  I would say the flavor that’s most nostalgic for me is soy sauce. Give me anything cooked in soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, and sugar and I’m good.

Q: What drew you to writing a middle grade book?

A: I didn’t start out writing a middle grade book. I knew I wanted to write about my family’s immigration experience, particularly our first year in America. I tried a bunch of different genres– memoir, adult fiction and even essay. Then, I stumbled upon telling the story from the vantage point of the girl, my proxy. I built the entire story around her voice.

Q: What made you decide to write In the Beautiful Country as a novel-in-verse?

A: I think it goes back to the whole idea of voice. It’s not so much I decided on novel-in-verse, it’s that the story—and really the voice—presented itself to me in this way.  The verse form allowed me to distill experiences into their most essential form. I didn’t have to write a bunch of exposition and because of the brevity of verse, I didn’t have to explain so much. I could just plop the reader into “moments”. It was very freeing to write with such little constraints.

Q: In children’s literature, there is a lot of emphasis on the child reader as the audience. Would you say this audience influenced your approach to writing In the Beautiful Country, and if so, how?

A: I am writing for a middle grade audience, but I was very careful not to “dumb down” the story in any way. I think kids go through a lot more than we give them credit for and I wanted to capture that on the page. But I’m not writing just for children. I think a good story is a good story for all.

Q: Immigrants and diaspora are often said to occupy a liminal, in-between space in society. What would you say is the power of exploring liminality in literature?

A: I’m particularly interested in immigrant and diaspora literature because of my own experience, and I guess the simple way of saying it is that I like seeing myself reflected on the page. Literature is such a powerful medium through which to explore not just liminality, but any human experience really. I know that when I read a good book, I feel as if my understanding of “the other” has widened. And I think that’s the beauty and irony of literature, that a very specific piece of writing rooted in a particular space and time has the ability to transport the reader and lead to understanding and perhaps, empathy. When we encounter the other, we see ourselves.

Q: In my opinion, verse as a literary form encapsulates the expression “less is more.” Did you ever find yourself cutting lines or details while writing In the Beautiful Country? If not, what aspects did you find challenging about writing it?

Honestly, it was painful to cut lines, even though I knew it had to be done. It’s like that quote from Stephen King, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

One of the most challenging parts was cutting because even though I spent a lot of time writing the book, I was self-conscious about the word count and wanted to puff things up. At the same time, I really appreciate books that are short. So, I figured I’d return the favor.


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About the Author

Jane Kuo is a Chinese and Taiwanese American writer who grew up in Los Angeles. She is an author, a nurse, and a nurse practitioner. Jane graduated with a degree in English Literature from UC Berkeley, where she studied under Bharati Mukherjee, Ishmael Reed, and Robert Hass. Also, she once borrowed a pencil from Maxine Hong Kingston. 

Jane lives in California with her husband and two kids. Her first novel, In the Beautiful Country is inspired by the events of her childhood.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author-Illustrator Interview: Julia S. Kuo

I meant to post my Taiwanese author interviews last week during Taiwanese American Heritage Week, but life got in the way. But better late than never, so here’s the first author interview out of eight.

About the Book

  • Title: Let’s Do Everything and Nothing
  • Author & Illustrator: Julia Kuo
  • Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (an Imprint of Macmillan)
  • Release Date: March 22nd, 2022
  • Genre/format: Picturebook, Fiction

Synopsis

Let’s Do Everything and Nothing is a lush and lyrical picture book from Julia Kuo celebrating special moments—big and small—shared with a child.

Will you climb a hill with me?
Dive into a lake with me?
Reach the starry sky with me,
and watch the clouds parade?

Love can feel as vast as a sky full of breathtaking clouds or as gentle as a sparkling, starlit night. It can scale the tallest mountains and reach the deepest depths of the sea.

Standing side by side with someone you love, the unimaginable can seem achievable.
But not every magical moment is extraordinary. Simply being together is the best journey of all.

Interview with Julia Kuo

Q: Last year I read and attended the book launch for I Dream of Popo, a picturebook about a Taiwanese American girl and her grandmother, written by Livia Blackburne and illustrated by you. I still remember the mouthwatering dishes in the book and wanted to ask what your favorite Taiwanese food is for Taiwanese American Heritage Week! (Feel free to list more than one.)

A: Ooh, what a fun question. I grew up eating the famous oya-jen (蚵仔煎) from Ning Xia Lu night market, so I’m a little spoiled. I would have to say I get the most excited to see ba-wan (肉圓), the steamed meat-filled potato starch snack! It’s sweet and savory and reminds me of rainy days in a simple cafe on Yang Ming Shan.

Q: Congratulations on your author-illustrator debut! Would you say your creative process in making Let’s Do Everything and Nothing was different from your previous projects working as illustrator only, and if so, how?

A: It’s pretty different! The most obvious answer is that the art and text can work more harmoniously together when I’m creating both of them in tandem, but there were many other differences I didn’t foresee.

As an illustrator, I am hired into the editorial pipeline with the expectation that I will find a successful artistic vision for the book. But as an author-illustrator, I need to sell both the art and the text from the very beginning. The artistic vision needs to be there as early as the dummy that I put together to show to my agent, who will then pitch it to editors. In this way there’s more upfront work and uncertainty, and that seems to be the payoff for having more creative control over the entire story.

I also discovered that it’s much lonelier to be an author-illustrator! I have truly loved being paired with the authors of my books. They write stories that I would never come up with in a million years. In this way, my creative freedom as an author-illustrator can sometimes feel surprisingly limited.

Q: I really love the color palette you chose for Let’s Do Everything and Nothing, with the oranges and yellows and the purples and blues. How did you decide on this color palette/ what about it appealed to you?

A: I wanted this book to tell a story through color as the mood shifts and scenes change. The story starts with sedated purplish blues which shift into a purer blue before we are introduced to vibrant new colors. We transition into a world of reds and pinks before settling into the warmth of yellows.

I would normally use bright, warm colors to convey excitement, and colder, darker hues for peacefulness. But I decided to flip things around a bit here. The blues are paired with the adventures; I love the blues of dawn, of alpine lakes and clear skies. And the comfort of home and rest to me is the glow of warm lighting, whether it’s the flickering of a fireplace or the golden windows of houses lit at night.

Q: As an illustrator your portfolio is pretty broad, encompassing different kinds of publications and audiences. What would you say is unique about children’s book illustration?

A: I love that a children’s book basically creates a gallery’s worth of illustrations. You’ll end up with anywhere from 16-32 illustrations, depending on if you’re using pages or spreads, that all make up one cohesive body of work. There’s something so satisfying about building out a visual language and adjusting elements from spread to spread to show nuance in emotion, tone, layout and style, all in order to tell a story.

Q: I’m currently studying children’s literature at Simmons University, and one of our core courses is dedicated exclusively to examining the picturebook as a medium due to its unique history and literary/artistic conventions (I’m not taking it until next semester though). What are your thoughts on the picturebook as a medium? What aspects do you think make for a great storytelling and reading experience? What elements challenge you as an author-illustrator?

A: Picture books are one of the first ways for a child to access a universe outside of their own immediate world. The variety of stories that can be found in picture books (not to mention storytelling styles) are portals not only to experiencing what is different, but also to better understanding oneself. I hope your class reads Rudine Sims Bishop’s seminal essay in which she talks about mirrors, windows and doors!

Since I’m only newly an author-illustrator, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the limitless potential of children’s books. I spend a lot of time thinking about what messages and stories are most important to me. I often imagine that each next book is my last, and if that’s all I get, what single story will I choose to tell?

Q: Let’s Do Everything and Nothing focuses on the bond between a little girl and her mother. How did you go about expressing the intimacy of this bond on the page?

A: Someone recently specifically requested a print of this page, and said it was for them the “memory that mothers have of holding their child, the warmth, the rise and fall of their breath, the touch of that small tender shoulder…” I wasn’t thinking about these individual elements so explicitly when I was drawing this spread, but I was looking to create a feeling of everyday closeness, calmness, and intimacy!

Q: What advice would you give to anyone who is thinking about writing and/or illustrating picturebooks?

A: My advice is to be prolific and make the books that you wish to be hired to make! Repetition will help with both illustration and writing. It took me many years to gain control over getting the illustration in my head out on paper. Now that I just started writing, I’m back to square one and I know that it’ll be years before I have a better handle on the process. If you keep at it, the practice will pay off. Also, no one knows what you’re capable of before you create it and put it out into the world for others to see! So really it’s a win-win to just start writing and illustrating your dream books right now.


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About the Author-Illustrator

Julia Kuo is the author and illustrator of Let’s Do Everything and Nothing and the illustrator of several picture and specialty books including the New York Times bestselling book RISE. She has created editorial illustrations for publications such as the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Vox Media. Julia has taught illustration courses at Columbia College Chicago and at her alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis. She has been an artist-in-residence twice at the Banff Centre for the Arts and was a 2019-2021 fellow with the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago. She currently lives in Seattle, WA.

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[Blog Tour] Book Playlist for A Magic Steeped in Poison

If you haven’t read my review for A Magic Steeped in Poison, please go back to that post, where you can also find the information on the book. Otherwise, come along with me for this book playlist.

Out of the five songs I picked for this playlist, four were used as the opening or ending songs for Chinese historical dramas from the 90s and early 2000s. All of these songs have a bit of a sober or melancholic feeling because of the darkness and angst that weighs on the story and the romance in A Magic Steeped in Poison. I took the time to translate the lyrics as well as I could so you could get a feel for what they’re about. Links are to the individual YouTube videos.

1. 一步一生 – 曾慶瑜 (One Step, One Lifetime – Regina Tsang)

What is that ambling sound
What flickering shadow of feelings
What is that fleeting silhouette of youth
That spins endlessly in this moment?

One turn, a hand raised
A fantastical, mesmerizing gaze
Illuminated my dreamscape
One turn, a foot put forth
Revealing the first flirtation
Decorating another’s eyes

At this time, who comes to see me?
At some unknown far-off place
In this place, just who am I even?
Stranded from the splendid place

One step, one posture
One step, one share of status
Finely crafted into a painting
One step, one stage of life
One step, one transformation
Each step more refined than the previous
Each step more at ease than the previous

2. 下沙 – 游鴻明 (Raining Sand – Chris Yu)

Everyone has someone they cannot forget
Thoughts will pass through your soul like fine grains of sand
When I opened the door gently, there was only the sound of the wind and rain
I feel that love turns people cruel
People who were once in love become thorns in each others’ hearts
The more truly you love, the more deeply you hurt

Just like night and day, separated by an instant
I’m well aware this is goodbye, tomorrow is the last time to see each other again

The sky is raining sand and also laughing at me for being too foolish
You should just stop chasing after footprints you can’t make out
The sky is raining sand and also brooding on my behalf
I bury my love in the sand, along with news of you

Once you’ve left, you’re gone, don’t think of it
The wind has left, the sand is gone, don’t think of it

3. 多情最累 – 辛曉琪 (Sentimentality is Most Wearisome – Winnie Hsin)

Who pities the woman whose heart is like water
Going the extra mile to accompany you
Clinging so, yet all I get in return is silence
I gaze at the waning moon and raise an empty cup
When I look again, it brims with tears
Sentimentality is most wearisome
In the haziness, you’ve gradually grown more distant

Seeing through the gilded facade of passionate love
Who can judge this matter of right and wrong?
In times of storms, I persevere through the dawn and greet the night again
Unable to drink away the bitter taste, I’m left with nothing but thoughts reverberating through my mind
In the space between chatter and laughter, all I see is a sky full of gratitude and grievances

The comings and goings of the mortal world are like a guesthouse
There is no end to the world’s sorrows and joys that you witness
A dream follows a regret
After love and hate, life continues and then breaks again
Who knew that your heart only allows someone to stay for one night
Adding a bit of worry and sorrow for no reason
Could it be that true feelings are hard to obtain
That infatuation is doomed to wander
Until it vanishes like smoke in the end?

4. 白絲線 – 那英 (White Silk Thread – Na Ying)

Tonight, the ash-colored wind stings your eyes
Love rides into the distance on a transparent rainbow
Are all these feelings reciprocated?
The starry night in the cosmos illuminates your face

Memories no longer have a sweet taste
Write down half a punctuation for this paragraph
The snow drifts beneath a forlorn first-quarter moon
There are no roses in this moment, only light blue tears

Love is like white silk thread
Longing tugs at my heartstrings
Weak thoughts buoy along silver leaves, echoing in your world
Love is always limitless
Longing is written in my eyes
Your borders blur and vanish
I only wish you could aid me through my night

5. 江南 – 林俊傑 (South of the River – JJ Lin)

The wind arrives here and is clingy
Clinging to the thoughts of passerby
The rain arrives here and winds into thread
Winding around us as we linger in the mortal realm
Your presence beside me is fate
Our fate is written on the Stone of Three Lifetimes
Love has one in ten thousand parts sweetness
Better that I am buried at this point

Circling round and round
Day after day, year after year, I
Gaze deeply at your face
A face showing the tenderness of anger, the tenderness of grievance

Not understanding love and hate, passion and worry, we both assumed love was like the changeable weather
Believing that loving a day at a time would be enough to overcome eternity
Freezing time in this moment

Not knowing how to express tenderness, we assumed sacrifice in the name of love was merely an ancient tale
How painful the grief of separation can be, how concentrated the pain can be,
When our dreams were buried in the misty rain south of the river
When our hearts shattered
That’s when we finally understood

[Blog Tour] Review for A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin

Hello again. I am currently struggling through the last stretch of finals week, but I’m excited to kick off this year’s Taiwanese American Heritage Week, where I celebrate authors of Taiwanese heritage on my blog, with my review for A Magic Steeped in Poison, written by a Taiwanese Canadian author. Thanks to Colored Pages for hosting the blog tour. You can find the rest of the tour stops on their tour launch page.

Book Information

Title: A Magic Steeped in Poison
Author: Judy I. Lin
Series: The Book of Tea
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Publication Date: March 29th, 2022
Genres: Young Adult, fantasy

Synopsis

I used to look at my hands with pride. Now all I can think is, “These are the hands that buried my mother.”

For Ning, the only thing worse than losing her mother is knowing that it’s her own fault. She was the one who unknowingly brewed the poison tea that killed her—the poison tea that now threatens to also take her sister, Shu.

When Ning hears of a competition to find the kingdom’s greatest shénnóng-shī—masters of the ancient and magical art of tea-making—she travels to the imperial city to compete. The winner will receive a favor from the princess, which may be Ning’s only chance to save her sister’s life.

But between the backstabbing competitors, bloody court politics, and a mysterious (and handsome) boy with a shocking secret, Ning might actually be the one in more danger.

Review

A Magic Steeped in Poison was one of my most anticipated releases of 2022, and it definitely delivered everything I wanted and more.

This book was really a treat for me as someone who grew up with Chinese dramas. It was atmospheric and trope-y in all the best ways while also delivering a fresh story with an innovative magic system, written in lush prose that stimulates all the senses.

Ning, the protagonist of A Magic Steeped in Poison, is the kind of person you can’t help but root for. Her family is the center of her world, she’s competent but humble and kind, and she’s always just Trying Her Best. Even as the story is an epic fantasy with a broad political landscape, it’s also a deeply personal coming-of-age story for Ning. Having grown up in a far-flung rural village in the empire of Dàxī, leaving her family behind and traveling to the capital city for the shénnóng-shī competition dumps her into a world much bigger than what she’s used to. There’s the culture shock of moving to a big city but also the stark class disparities between herself and most of her fellow competitors. Her interpersonal interactions in the capital are intertwined with higher political stakes, and she has to decide who to trust, what she values, and where her loyalties lie.

Chief among the people who test her ability to judge others’ character is Kang, a mysterious, handsome, and brooding boy full of secrets. They meet seemingly by chance and then establish a magical bond through a shared brew of tea that brings them into a surprisingly intimate closeness while also giving them reason to question whether the other person is everything they seem to be. There is sweetness and angst, disclosure and mistrust, and the tension between them extends throughout the story.

Another key player in the story who is full of mystery is the regent, Princess Zhen, who is the host of the shénnóng-shī competition. Ning doesn’t know what to make of her but is pulled into her orbit when she gets entangled in the royal court’s lethal power plays. I may have a soft spot for Zhen because of her romance with her bodyguard, Ruyi, but having a sapphic romance among the major supporting characters was a nice surprise. I can’t say too much about the princess without spoiling the story, but I definitely grew more attached to her as the story progressed.

A Magic Steeped in Poison is the first in a duology, and the setup for the second book is definitely there. When I finished the last page I was beside myself clamoring for the sequel and even though the wait is much shorter than usual because book 2 comes out in August of this year, I am cursing the publishing gods for not dropping it into my lap now.

In the second half of my tour stop, I have a book playlist, so stay tuned for that. 🙂

Book Links  

About the Author

Judy Lin was born in Taiwan and moved to Canada when she was eight years old. She grew up with her nose in a book and loved to escape to imaginary worlds. She now divides her time between working as an occupational therapist and creating imaginary worlds of her own. She lives on the Canadian prairies with her husband and daughter. 

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