August 2010

Terry Hong


An Interview with Grace Lin

I really should have taken a picture: my too-fast growing tween son, cuddled in bed reading to his little cousin (my not-quite-5-year-old nephew with the most amazing eyes you’ll ever gaze into), hearing the very familiar words of Grace Lin’s delicious Dim Sum for Everyone.

“Do you want to hear it again,” my son asks. “SURE!” comes the resounding reply.

Although Grace Lin has never met my kids (or nephews, although they’re practically neighbors), she’s long been a part of their lives -- on their shelves, lying across the couch, now cuddling with younger cousins. As our kids have aged, so have Lin’s books, as she’s moved from the fantastic picture book fun of The Ugly Vegetables, Fortune Cookie Fortunes, Bringing in the New Year, to middle-grade reads that began with The Year of the Dog, continued with The Year of the Rat, and most recently with the just-awarded Newbery Honor title Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. 

Having grown up with the rare but cringe-inducing, exoticized titles like The Five Chinese Brothers (Lin actually illustrated the much-needed girl-power antidote, The Seven Chinese Sisters, by Kathy Tucker), my kids have little idea how lucky they are to be surrounded with so many great books in which their Asian Pacific American, multicultural faces and experiences are thoughtfully, accurately reflected. Ironically, while Lin’s literary stardom is firmly grounded in her Chinese American heritage, she spent her childhood in upstate New York as part of the only minority family in town, mired in cultural denial. Today, she refers to her then-self as “a perfect poster image of the ‘Twinkie’ stereotype” -- that is, yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

The one thing Lin did know early on is that she wanted to “make books.” Sparked by the thrill of a fourth-place win in a 6th grade book contest (that thrill of victory keenly captured in Lin’s autobiographical The Year of the Dog), Lin’s future was sealed. Not until art school in Italy, however, did Lin find her true calling. Maybe it was eating all that pasta (which is originally Chinese, after all), but Lin realized that she knew more about Italian art and history than she did her own family culture and traditions: “I knew more about the Renaissance than why my parents immigrated from Taiwan!”

Ever prolific, Lin’s latest, Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! hit bookstores last month.

Since the big Newbery announcement, I’ve so been enjoying seeing your name regularly pop up (complete with polka-dotted dress pictures) in my various listservs, literary announcements, etc. in the last few months. So are you having the time of your life?

Yes, when I think about it! But I am knee-deep in a rough draft for the new novel so I shut off the Internet and hole up a lot of the time these days. But it's fun when I get to come out and do things, like book parties.

Could you share some of the highlights of your “Cinderella night”?

It was rather a blur, but it was also great fun. Anytime I have a legitimate excuse to get dressed up in a fancy outfit is always fun. I know I should say the best part was listening to the inspirational speeches or meeting so many nice people and being with friends, but really the best part for me was receiving the award! It only felt real once I had it in my hot hands, I guess there was a small part of me before that which thought maybe it was a mistake and they could take it back. Hmm, I guess they could still do that, but now they'd have to pry my fingers off it.

So how do you think your life might change once all this glorious hoopla settles down?

Well, the hoopla has already settled down -- it's just me catching up with the rest of my life that has been the whirl. When I think about it, I get more nervous about my writing as I'm afraid expectations are now a lot higher -- so in general, I try to act the same as before. Which really isn't that hard, because my general day-to-day existence is pretty much the same (though I do get asked to do blurbs more). It's more the special occasions that I see a difference -- more people at my book parties, more people taking advantage of my promos, more people who have actually read my books! For so long, I've been used to a certain amount of people reading my books and now suddenly that amount has changed. Thankfully, it's changed to a larger number.

If you had a favorite book of yours, which might it be?

Oh, that's a hard one. My favorite picture book is The Ugly Vegetables because it's my first published book. But my favorite novel is Where the Mountain Meets the Moon because it has colored illustrations -- I got to do the writing I loved plus the painting. Win/win! My favorite early reader is Ling & Ting and it's an easy choice because it's my only early reader. 

How different is writing picture books than titles for middle-grade readers?

Writing different genres is a bit of a juggle, but I enjoy it. In some ways, writing MG [for middle-grade readers] is more rewarding than the younger genres because it's more of a direct connection to the reader. But the younger genres allow me to tell more of the story in pictures and as an illustrator that is extremely satisfying as well.

But I have to admit that the most challenging to write for me was the early reader, Ling & Ting. There are just so many more rules when you are writing for the beginning reader. Limited vocabulary, sentence structure -- not easy at all! Which is why I don't call them "easy readers." They aren't easy for the intended reader and they are not easy for the writer, either.

Think you might try the young adult genre, or maybe even titles for us old fogies?

Well, I never say never, but probably not. I don't think my talents lie in those genres -- teenage angst is not my forte.

What do you think about this recent trend of oldsters reading titles for younger audiences? I keep hearing of book clubs that read only kid books, and I have to admit I’m definitely tempted to either find or start such a book club myself. Some major gems in so-called kid titles …

I think they are great; I'd join one. Personally, I love children's literature and it is 95% of what I read. Of course, I'm biased, but I think children's books are some of the best books around -- many of them are written better than adult books -- and it's a shame if adults refrain from reading them because they are "kids' books."

Writing/drawing… do you have a preference?

It depends on the project. Writing is more portable and flexible; I can think about it "outside the office" which is both a good and bad thing. Drawing is definitely a more focused action; I have to be in the studio and have to devote a good chunk of time for it. So, preference is dependent on how I'm feeling and my schedule.

And what do you do when you get stuck?

When I get stuck, I start work on something else. Usually I get sick enough of project #2 and return to project #1 unstuck. So far, it's been a process that has worked for me... 

When did you and Alvina Ling [Lin’s editor] decide your paths? How amazing is it to be able to work with your childhood best friend so closely?

I think Alvina decided that she wanted to go into children's books about the same time I was signing my first book contract, around 1998.

She interned (if I remember correctly) at The Horn Book and Charlesbridge Publishing while my first book came out and then got the job at Little, Brown around the time my second book was available. We both always loved children's books; I think I just figured out a little earlier how to incorporate it in my life (not much earlier, though).

Having Alvina as an editor is wonderful. Revising is my favorite part of making a book because I know whatever she says will be smart and insightful and bring the book to the next level. I think because we are such good friends there is an inherent trust, I believe -- not just know -- that whatever she says is to make the best book possible. I know that seems like it would be an assumed thing, but I think for most author-editor relationships, it takes a couple books to really feel this. For Alvina and me, the trust was there to begin with.

In this new era of virtual and constant marketing, how to you find a balance between your actually writing and wandering the country/world giving talks, accepting honors, showing up at conferences and networking, and being a constant presence on the web?

I'm not really out accepting honors that often, so that really doesn't take that much time. I'd be willing for that to take up more time, ha ha! I find most of the rest of that fun -- blogging, for example, has always been a fun outlet that I enjoy doing.

I like getting out of my vacuum of writing and illustrating to go to conferences and schools because I get to see my work actually being used. The saddest moment of being an author/artist is when you create something you believe in with your whole heart that you want to share with the world and no one is interested. So I am thrilled when the reverse happens.

But it is hard finding that balance. I am not a fast writer or illustrator; I need time to create a product worthy of my audience and I hate when I have regrets. But I think I do what every author/illustrator does, and that's just doing the best I can. 

When you’re not being Grace Lin the writer/illustrator, how do you spend your time?

Internet shopping, reading, fighting my sweet tooth and beating my husband at Wii ping pong. I'm quite boring, actually. I keep thinking I should start up some sort of exciting hobby like eating fire or uni-cycling to seem more interesting, but I'm too lazy.

Mountain was both your tribute to [Lin's former husband] Robert as well as your own reclamation of life after he tragically passed away. And what a tribute it is. Do you think your writing/drawing life has changed since his passing?

It's hard to say. When Robert was alive and immediately after he passed, I had a great need for a creative outlet. Things are a lot calmer now for me and part of me wonders if my work will be less successful without that intensity. Perhaps it will be better. The pace of my work is definitely slower. Only time will tell, I suppose.

What would Robert have said when you got the Newbery Honor?

He would've been thrilled. He always wanted me to win a big award. In fact he was the first to dream of me winning one. I didn't even dare to dream of something that large. He probably would've said, "I told you so! I knew you could do it!"

Terry Hong blogs about books for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.