Monday, October 1, 2012

Interview #17: Grace Lin

We had the extreme privilege of calling up author Grace Lin for a conversation about her life, her art, and her newest book "Starry River of the Sky."  (Official release date, tomorrow!)  This new novel is a companion to her Newberry Honor winning book "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon."  You may remember our review of that title: a special shadow puppet video review.  

Congratulations to Grace Lin for another wonderful tale, and many thanks for the great conversation!  (portrait of Grace Lin by Gracie)

***First a review....

Dad:  Okay guys, tell me your impressions of Starry River of the Sky...
Gracie (age 12):  It was magical!  And interesting.  And exciting!
Lily (age 9):  It's like a mystery story too.
Gracie:  The moon goes missing.
Isaac (age 14):  And the sky is crying.
Gracie:  So the characters have to find out where the moon went.
Isaac:  But the main character can't leave the city.  He can't get away.
Gracie:  And there are lots of little stories within the one main story.  Like, one of the characters will say, "Did you ever hear the story of... the Giant Frog that Ate the Moon?"  And they'll go, "No! Tell it! Tell it!"  Then later that story will tie into their adventure.  All the awesome little stories add up and connect to the main story at the end.
Dad:  You said 'awesome'...  Why are the little stories awesome?
Gracie:  They are crazy!  Like, there used to be six suns in the sky and this guy starts shooting them down with his bow and arrow.  So cool.  And there's this glorious lady who lives on the moon.  But her husband lives on the sun.  So once every month this celestial rooster flies him across the sky from the sun to the moon, and he gets to be with his wife.
Dad:  Tell me about some of the transformations that take place in the book.  Creatures are changing all over the place...
Gracie:  A tadpole turned into a rabbit.  The rabbit turned into a toad.  A different toad turned into a lady.
Lily:  A man turned into a toad.  A white tiger turned into a man.  The mountain spirit turned into a man.
Isaac:  The angry kid turned into a happy kid.
Dad:  So it wasn't just external changes...  There were internal changes too.
Lily:  People changed their hearts. 
Isaac:  Rendi, the main kid, was really angry and he wanted to leave the city.  At the beginning he only cared about himself.
Lily:  But he changed.  By the end he even saved a lot of people from danger by grabbing this girl's bracelet to make everyone chase him, drawing them away from danger.
Gracie:  But we can't say what the danger is...
Lily:  ...or else it will give the story away!
***And now for our chat with Grace Lin!

Grace Lin:  Thank-you guys for the great movie you made for "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon."  That was amazing!  Everyone who has seen it is so impressed.
Gracie:  It was hard.
Grace Lin:  I thought it was amazing.  You could tell how much work you put into it.  I really loved the shadow puppets.  Isaac designed all of them?
Gracie:  Well, Lily and I helped to design the characters, but Isaac built all the puppets himself.  He has them all hanging up in his room now.
Grace Lin:  I should get the publisher to hire you for new trailers.  It was so good.  So thank-you very much!
Dad:  I think we have a special bond with that book now - since we delved into it for so long, crafting puppets and retelling your story.  And after taking such a close look at your work, it seemed like we knew you a little bit too, even though we'd never met.
Grace Lin:  So what did you guys think about the new book?
Gracie:  It was sooo good!
Isaac:  It was awesome.
Lily:  Yeah!
Gracie:  We enjoyed it so much.
Grace Lin:  Oh good, I'm glad.
Dad:  Who's got an interview question ready?
Isaac:  Since you write your books and you illustrate them... what do you like best about each of those things?  What are their ups and downs?
Grace Lin:  The part I dislike most about both of those things is the same.  I really, really don't like writing a first draft.  And I really, really don't like making the first sketches either.  That first "getting it all out" is the hardest part for me.  The part I like best in both is the revising.  Fixing the story is always fun to me.  And after the drawings are done, painting them and adding the color is fun for me. 
Gracie:  Personally, I love to paint.  And I love the way you paint.
Grace Lin:  Oh thanks!
Gracie:  How do you paint like that?  It's so detailed and so pretty...
Grace Lin:  Aw, thanks!  That's a nice thing to say.
Lily:  Yeah, how do you do that?
Grace Lin:  It's just... "Time."  It's just sitting there and painting one pattern over another pattern.  And I think the way I paint is a little bit like how I write too.  If you notice, there are stories within stories.  Layers on layers.  Pattern over pattern.
Gracie:  I got your books "The Year of the Dog" and "The Year of the Rat" for my birthday.  I was wondering, are those books about you?
Grace Lin:  Yes, they are very, very autobiographical. 
Gracie:  So you are from Taiwan?
Grace Lin:  My parents were born in Taiwan, but I was born here in the United States.  All the things that happen in those books, happened in real life.  But a lot of things that might have taken place over the course of two years, I squished into one year in the book.  Or a lot of the stories that my mother tells me in the books were really told to me by my aunt or my cousin.  But I just said my mom told the stories because I didn't want to add too many new characters.
Dad:  Keeps it simpler.
Grace Lin:  Yeah.  So it's not 100% true.  But they are actually all things that really happened.
Gracie:  What about the stories the characters tell in Starry River of the Sky?  Did you make those up, or did you have to do a lot of research to find them?
Grace Lin:  Those stories are inspired by Chinese folktales.  I added a lot of details to them, and sometimes I made changes or switched things around.
Gracie:  Why did you do that?
Grace Lin:  Many of the folktales don't have a lot of details.  So I saw the story in my head, and I added the details to make it more interesting to myself.  And also to tie the individual stories in better with the rest of the book.
Lily:  Why do you choose to use folktales?
Grace Lin:  I enjoy researching Chinese folklore for my own personal reasons.  And I guess I think, "Well since I'm researching, why don't I just use it in my books!"
Gracie:  Cool.
Grace Lin:  Since you've read "The Year of the Dog," you'll know that I grew up here in the United States.  And I didn't know that much about my Chinese heritage.  In fact I really didn't want to know too much.  Nobody around me looked like me.  Nobody else was Chinese.  But when I grew older, I felt really sad that I knew so little, and I wanted to learn more.  Since I'm a children's book author, I like reading stories.  So one of the ways of learning about my heritage that was interesting to me was reading Chinese folktales and fairytales.
Isaac:  We did notice that your stories have a lot of Asian culture to them.
Grace Lin:  I guess writing all these books now is my way of trying to get back the things I missed out on when I was younger.
Isaac:  In Starry River, one of the characters says, "When people tell stories, they share things about themselves."  So we were wondering what this book tells about you?
Grace Lin:  The first thing is one that you noticed -- all my stories are about Asian culture.  So all my stories share how I'm interested in my heritage now.  But specifically in Starry River of the Sky... I guess a lot of that book has to do with finding peace and letting go of your anger.  There were parts of my life when I felt really angry about things.  But there is a Chinese proverb that says, "Holding onto anger is like holding onto a hot coal - it only hurts yourself."  That is something I learned, and that is something I want to share.
Dad:  And since she's shared that lesson through her story, we readers can have a chance to learn it too.
Grace Lin:  You guys might know...  my first husband Robert unfortunately died of cancer.  He was sick for a very, very long time.  When he first got sick, I was really, really angry.  "Why is he sick?"  And then after a while I realized that... me, being angry that he's sick, is just wasting energy.  It's just making my life very, very unhappy.  So I should let go of that anger and find peace, and that's how things can be happier.  I guess that's what I was trying to share.  That's kind of what this book is about.
Lily:  Are there going to be any more sequels to these two books? 
Grace Lin:  I think one more...
Dad:  Gracie got a big smile when you said that!
Grace Lin:  Ha ha...  Although I'm not exactly sure about it!
Lily:  When you made the first book, did you know you were going to make a more?
Grace Lin:  When I finished the first book, there were all these folktales left over that I didn't get to use.  And I had the beginnings of a new story forming in my head, so I wanted to do a second book.  There was supposed to be a third one, but all my ideas for the third book got squished into the second one... Ha ha... So I'm kind of out of ideas now!
Dad:  Uh oh.
Grace Lin:  But I do know for the third one, I want it to deal with water.  Where the Mountain Meets the Moon deals with the sky... the heavens.  Starry River of the Sky deals with the earth... the mountain.  And I wanted the last one to deal with the oceans or the seas.  That was the idea for doing a third one... although I still have to work on what it's exactly going to be about.
Gracie:  How did you feel when you got a Newbery Honor for Mountain Meets the Moon?  Did you jump up and down and do a happy dance?
Grace Lin:  I did actually!  It's every author's dream to win one of these big awards.  But you don't even want to think about it ahead of time because it's such a big deal and you don't want to jinx yourself.  So the night before they announced the awards, all these people started saying, "I heard a lot of buzz that your book might win something tomorrow."  And I said, "Don't tell me! I don't want to hear anymore!"
Gracie:  Ha ha ha!
Grace Lin:  My editor said, "I have to get up super early, like five in the morning, for award day tomorrow."  And I said, "Don't tell me! Don't tell me!"  But of course I got it in my mind that the awards would be announced at five in the morning.  So the next morning at 5:00, I woke up.  No one is calling.  And I thought, "Oh I didn't win."  Then 6:00.  Nobody calls.  "Oh, I didn't win...  That's so sad...  Who cares...  It doesn't matter...  Newbery Schmubery..."
Kids:  Ha ha ha ha...
Grace Lin:  Then at 10:00 I got a phone call: "You got a Newbery Honor!"  I had already gone into a whole circle of -- who cares, it's not a big deal.  Then I had to go back -- Oh, I guess it is a big deal!  It was a really exciting morning.
Dad:  One final question...
Lily:  What's the best thing about making chapter books versus the best thing about making picture books?
Grace Lin:  One of the reasons I love writing chapter books is because of things like this -- getting to talk to you, the actual readers of the book.  With picture books I do sometimes get to talk to the readers, but usually they are very, very small - very young - and they don't say as much.  Whereas the readers of chapter books have so much they want to talk about and so many things they want to ask... I really, really enjoy that.   I really like the readers' feedback for chapter books.  That's why I love doing them.
Gracie: (sweetly)  Awwww... We're the best thing about chapter books?
All: Laughter
Grace Lin:  Yes, you are!  Definitely!
Gracie:  That's so sweet, thank-you!
Dad:  Well thank-you for the conversation, Grace Lin!
Lily:  It was nice meeting your voice!
Grace Lin:  It was nice meeting you!  I'm glad you like the book.
Gracie:  Oh, we loved it.

chasing after Rendi, by Lily

WangYi visiting the Moon Lady, by Gracie

white tiger changing into a man, by Isaac

Author/Illustrator: Grace Lin
Published - October 2, 2012: Little Brown
Like it?  Here it is...