The author was interviewed by Scholastic students.
At what age did you start writing?
I started writing at the age of seventeen, because I had a teacher in high school who said that we had to get something accepted by a national magazine to get an A. The teacher later withdrew that threat, but the writing bug bit me. I sold my first story when I was eighteen to a science fiction pulp magazine called World's Fifth for a penny a word, which is what Dickens made in his day. But pennies went a lot further then!
Where do you get your ideas for your stories?
I get the ideas from everything. Children sometimes think you have to have special experiences to write, but good writing brings out what's special in ordinary things. So all you really need is a brother — I actually wrote a book about the time I gave my brother a pet alligator. But really, writing only requires taking one step to the side and looking at something from a slightly different angle. So you can find unicorns in the garden, and monsters sitting next to you.
When you start a story, do you create the characters or the plot first?
Well, both happen. It depends on the story. Sometimes a story grows from a picture in my head, and I'm just describing the scene. In Dragonwings, the idea came from a picture in my head of a plane flying over a hill. I wrote that last chapter first, where that happens, and then I had to write the rest of the book describing why it happens. I work from an outline, but the outline isn't rigid. It's like the scaffolding around a ship — sometimes halfway through a battleship, I realize I should be making an aircraft carrier, and so I have to change the scaffolding.
I once did a fantasy novel that was like a Narnia book. It had gone through seven drafts, and I thought it was ready. But in the seventh draft, I wrote about a dragon and her pet boy. They were such vivid characters that I tore up the first six drafts and started all over. It turned into a novel called Dragon of the Lost Sea, and there ended up being three more books about the adventures of that dragon and her boy.
How do you choose names for your characters?
The names come from various sources. Some of them are nicknames I hear in Chinatown, because the Chinese Americans from a certain generation had colorful nicknames like Doggie. Sometimes I like the sound of a name, or sometimes there's a hidden meaning. Like in Dragonwings, Ms. Whitelaw is actually “white law.” In the novel I'm working on now, there's a character called Purdy because I had an English teacher by that name. It also comes from “by God,” or “par Dieu” in French.
Do you have a favorite character from your books?
That's a good question, but it's like asking a mother who her favorite child is. Different characters have different associations. I like all my characters for various reasons. The hardest ones to do are the villains, like my old Chinese schoolteacher. When I write about them I start to see them from their own points of view. Then I realize my old Chinese schoolteacher probably had reasons to whack me with a ruler.
What is your favorite kind of story to write?
Well, I like all kinds of stories, and I usually work on several stories at once. When I run out of gas on one, I start work on the other. So I might do a contemporary novel at the same time I'm doing a mystery and a historical fiction. Right now I'm writing four books. One is called Cockroach Cooties and it's a sequel to the alligator book. The second one is a book about the Gold Rush, which is for Scholastic's Dear America series. The third one is a mystery book about Chinatown, and the fourth one is about the Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming in 1885. Two of them are historical — one is a diary, and the other is historical fiction for young adults. Different age groups have different problems and issues in text, so it's a challenge.
How much research do you do before writing a book?
Well, the research can be as short as six months if I'm writing about my family, or it can take 20 years. It took me 20 years to write about building the railroad — sometimes the research is like building a house out of toothpicks. But before you can build that house, you have to find the toothpicks scattered all over a country. So wherever I go, I check out the library. I find odd facts, like a description of a Chinese laundry, and I just found an account of a Chinese riding in a rodeo in 1800. I also found an account of a Chinese circus coming to Yellowstone at the turn of the century. So it's little things like that.
Why do you write all of your books about Chinese culture?
It's what I know best, but I also write about other things. I wrote a suspense novel called Liar, Liar about teenage kids in Silicon Valley. I got my start writing science fiction when I wrote a Star Trek book about Mr. Sulu called Shadow Lord. I'm also writing some stories with my wife, who's also a writer, named Joanne Ryder, and they're just funny little chapter books about things that we've seen.
Were your parents immigrants, and if so, do you know what their journey to America was like?
My mother was actually born in Ohio, but raised in West Virginia, where her family had a laundry. She has a West Virginian accent. My father was born in China, but he's the son of an American citizen. My paternal grandfather was born in San Francisco in 1867. We actually have 500 pages of interviews with the different paternal generations as they went back and forth from China to America, because the immigration officials really quizzed the Chinese when they would try to come into the country again.
I've actually written a novel about my father's journey from China to America. I have an interview of my father when he was ten, and it's like having a window where I can look at him at that age. It's like a time machine. The interrogations were very thorough. They would ask questions about how many windows were in a room in a typical Chinese home, and which direction they faced. The interrogators would give them a set of wooden blocks and ask them to arrange them like they were in a Chinese village. The person being interrogated would have to go block by block, house by house, and say who lived in the houses and how many animals they had, etc. It was very detailed. The Americans were trying to send back as many Chinese as they could, so when a Chinese tried to come to America, the interrogators were trying to prove that the person didn't belong in America. They tried to trip up the immigrants and show that they were lying. It was very scary for my father. One of my uncles made a mistake in an interview, and they almost deported him. If they had deported him, they would've deported all my other uncles and my grandfather.
Were you ever persecuted or discriminated against because you are of Chinese heritage?
There were incidents when I was a kid, but for every bad incident, there are always ten good ones. I've found that if you can get these persecutors to think of you as a person, they stop persecuting you. Once they lose those stereotypes about you and see you as a human being, they stop treating you poorly.
Have you ever been to China, and if you have, what is it like?
Well, my father never spoke about China. So it never seemed real to me. I always heard about West Virginia, and so I thought of that as my real homeland. I did go back there twice, because I wrote a book about my mother's life there. The book won a prize in West Virginia. When I went to accept it, they loaded me down with presents for my mother. Since I started doing folklore and picture books, China has become real to me. My wife and I have tried to set up trips to Asia, but it just hasn't worked out yet.
Is it true that Later Gator was based on your life?
Oh, yes. It's based on Oscar, our pet alligator. Except my brother's ten years older than I am, so I reversed the roles of the brothers in the book.
What is the importance of the word dragon in your books?
I love dragons. Dragons in Chinese mythology bring rain, so they're symbols of fertility. But they've also come to have a deeper meaning for me. They're symbols of my own creativity. Sometimes the dragon takes me where she wants to go rather than where I want to go. I think there's a dragon inside each of us. In fact, my wife hates it when I'm doing a dragon book, because I turn very dragonish.
Is there a real Dragon's Gate?
There is a mythical Dragon's Gate in China. For various reasons, I needed to have the characters go to one in the novel. But the carp is a symbol of success for many reasons. You'll see it in many forms in Chinatown.
Is Star Fisher a real Chinese story, or did you just make it up?
It's a real Chinese story. It's actually a little gorier in the original, and they actually weren't kingfishers, they were herons, but it's a true folktale — an old folktale, that is.
Do you believe your creativity is based on a very active imagination?
I think it's part of being alive. I really think it's part of just being open to the world. We learn to shut ourselves off from our feelings and our memories, and a writer learns how to connect all those things together.
Do you ever base your characters on people you know?
Oh, yes, in fact, one of my family's favorite games is to guess who is which character. I've never had a problem in my fiction. My family is very supportive. But they became very nervous when I did an autobiography. They all wanted to see their sections. My brother, in particular, was nervous, but he finally approved his section. But his wife got mad at me and said that I'd taken it too easy on him. My wife also got mad because I only gave her three paragraphs. So I wrote more about her, but then my editor asked me to cut that part out. I told my editor that was only okay if she would agree to be co-respondent in a divorce.
In your autobiography, what do you mean when you say that many teenagers feel like aliens?
If you think about that age, you're an alien even from your own body. The hormones are making your body change, and you can't stop the changes. Your voice changes, your body changes, you start getting hair. So it's an age when a lot of teenage boys start getting interested in monster movies, because they help them deal with their own reality. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas started subscribing to monster magazines at that age.
But there are larger issues of identity and independence at that age. Growing up means growing away. You have to separate yourself from your parents and become your own person. You have to alienate yourself from your childhood and many of the other things that went with that childhood in order to become a unique person. Most people I know remember that age as a miserable time in their lives.
I also think we live in a time where the pace of technology tends to make aliens of us all. I bought my first computer in 1984, and a similar model is now in a computer museum. My brother makes machines that make silicon chips — the machines look like jukeboxes, by the way — and he deals with a product that he knows will be out of date within a year. Just look at how computers have changed in the last five years. So the children of today are faced with a pace of life that is alienating in general.
Did you look up to any heroes or writers when you were a kid?
Oh yes, I loved Robert Heinlein because he taught me how to write first-person narratives. In one page he made a character come to life as if the character was whispering in your ear, and you wanted to be that character's friend. I also loved Andre Norton. She taught me how to create worlds of science fiction. There was always a certain sadness to those worlds, because those worlds were always changing and disappearing — that's what I could see in Chinatown around me.
It seems as if many of your books are written in the first person. Why?
I like the lens that it provides. It makes me focus on my own experience in a certain way when I write in the first person as opposed to when I write in the third person as an omniscient narrator.
What kinds of books did you like to read as a child?
As a child, I read mostly science fiction and fantasy books like the Oz books. When I was a child, I grew up in a black neighborhood but went to school in Chinatown. So I moved back and forth between two ghettoes. I could never get into the Homer Price novels, because in those books, every kid had a bicycle, and every kid left their front door unlocked, and that was alien to me as a child. You had to lock your doors, and no one I knew had a bike. But in science fiction and fantasy, children leave the everyday world and go to a strange place where they have to learn a new language and new customs. Science fiction and fantasy were about adapting, and that was something I did every day when I got on and off the bus.
Are you planning to write any science fiction books for children or for grownups?
I'm planning to write a new series of fantasy books with the Monkey King and more dragons — and maybe find a girlfriend for Thorn.
Did you study kites before you wrote Dragonwings?
My father was a kite-maker. He learned how to make Chinese kites from the old-timers in Chinatown. He tried to teach me. My father made his kites from scratch so I actually had to find bamboo that he would trim down to make the pieces of the kite. The rice paper had to be just the right kind, and it was getting harder and harder to find Chinese bamboo in America. Much of the bamboo that's for sale now in America is inferior — it won't bend right.
Some of my earliest memories of my father are flying kites with him. He always said that a good kite-flyer never had to run to get the kite up in the air, but I always had to run. In fact, my father objected to the cover of Dragonwings, because the kite there isn't really a kite. It looks like a sail for a type of Chinese boat called a junk.
Are there any similarities between the behaviors of the characters in your stories and your behavior as a child?
Well, I was always getting in trouble in Chinese school, and I wrote a little bit about that in Shadow of the Owl. Often I'm trying to step into someone's shoes. In Dragonwings, I was trying to understand what it was like for my father to come from China to America. In Child of the Owl, I was trying to figure out what it was like for my mother to come from West Virginia to California. The way I was raised, I was always an outsider in both areas, even though I had friends in both. So I think I've always written about that in my books.
What is the origin of the owl folktale in Child of the Owl?
That's based on Chinese folklore about owls. They're disrespectful of their parents; they'll kick them out of the nest, and even eat them. It's also based on a folktale about filial duty and a son who makes sacrifices and is rewarded with a bird wife.
Do you think it's important for children's books to have a lesson?
I don't think you can do it from the top down. I don't think you can start with the moral first. If the story is true to human experience, I think a lesson emerges. For instance in the book about the massacre in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885, I began to understand the point of view of the American miners who were upset with the Chinese. I don't approve of the murders, but I understand some of their motives now. So the whole story changed from a horror story to a tragedy.
Do you think the attitude towards people of Asian heritage has changed?
Oh, yes, I've seen it all around me. When I was a kid in the 50s, I got spat on if I went into certain areas of San Francisco. Now there are Asians all around. People cook with woks; they use Chinese herbal cures like tiger balm. I think it's very interesting how Americans have embraced the martial arts. When I was a kid, you were embarrassed if you were learning tai chi, because you were an American, and you were supposed to learn how to box. Now it seems like every third child is taking some kind of martial arts lesson. It's similar in a way to what I've learned about Hawaii, where people were embarrassed to do the hula at one time. Now it's a matter of pride to learn hula.
Do you have any hobbies or pets?
I would love pets, but I have asthma, so my wife has threatened to replace me with six dogs when I'm dead. I like to walk a lot — we live two blocks from the ocean. Every time I walk by the beach it's like looking at a different page in the same book. My wife and I watch sea otters mate and their pups grow up. We've seen whales and coves of pelicans so crowded you can't see the water because the pelicans are wingtip to wingtip. If I had the time, I'd love to play computer games. I do watch a lot of Japanese animation. In America, we only get to see a little of what's available in Japan, but through fans, I've been able to see a little bit more of what else is out there.
What advice would you give to young writers who want to publish their work?
Well, the first thing is to write about what they know. And the second thing is to try to use all their senses when they write. Too many writers just use their eyes. It's more striking if you can use smells, for instance. Try and map your world by smells. Beyond that, you have to just pay attention to the world around you — gestures that a person makes, how they change their voice. I've taught creative writing at UC Berkeley, and it's surprising how much detail people leave out. Once you connect these details to your memories, you can start making them come to life.
Do you have any final words for the audience?
Well, it's been a pleasure talking to you. I look forward to reading your books when they come out!