An Interview with Stacey Lee
When Samantha Young swoops out of her father's dry goods store still angry from the news that they will soon be leaving Missouri for California -- the exact opposite direction from New York -- she couldn't possibly have realized that her life would literally be reduced to ashes by the time she got back. In 1849, the death of a frontier town's lone Chinaman gets little more than a headshake at best.
Not yet 16, Samantha is now utterly alone. Her beloved father was her only relative, unless she counts the violin that has been in the family for four generations. At least she has that. When a local businessman offers temporary help, she has no alternative but to accept his hospitality. But within hours, he's dead: "Does killing a man who tried to rape me count as murder?" she asks. "For me it probably does. The law in Missouri in this year of our Lord 1849 does not sympathize with a Chinaman's daughter."
The first witness to Samantha's self-defensive deed is Annamae, who has plenty of secrets of her own -- not the least of which is that she's about to become a runaway slave. She also turns out to be Samantha's first and only friend. "If we're going, we best get you something to wear," Annamae announces as she evaluates Samantha's bloodstained clothes. "Something" turns out to be transformative -- "What if we weren't two girls, but two young men, off to make our fortunes in the gold fields?" Annamae considers out loud. Shorn locks, bound chests, and unfamiliar clothes make the man -- or two, in this case -- and Sammy and Andy take to the Oregon Trail as fast as they can.
Barely 20 pages into Stacey Lee's debut novel, Under a Painted Sky, the excitement and anticipation are well in place. Throughout the hundreds of twist-and-turning pages that follow, the pace only picks up. Originally intended for a young adult audience, Sky will certainly have crossover appeal for readers of all ages. Lee -- herself the fourth-generation descendant of Chinese American pioneers -- creates an unexpected, surprising Wild West adventure with quite possibly the most multi-culti cast, miraculously without an iota of didacticism in sight, thank you very much! From a Mexican cowboy and his two Texan cohorts to violently wicked Scottish brothers, from flirty French filles to a horse called Princesa, to a lost older brother and baby-killing wanted men, Lee's first title is an outstanding, enthralling epic: "Two girls hidden in plain sight. One daring journey to freedom."
Wow -- you're certainly a rarity as a fourth-generation Chinese American! That's quite a history. Can you go back a few ancestors and share the tale of how your family ended up in California?
My mom's side came sometime in the late 1800s; they were probably laborers of some sort. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, they weren't allowed to stay here permanently. Somehow, they made their way back to San Francisco in the early 1900s, as we know that one of them was a successful cigar manufacturer (ahem, opium dealer). Explains a lot, like my need for naps and bad lungs.
My dad came in 1953. He was 11, and came to a country that did not want him. His mom had died when he was very young, and his dad was back in the mother country, so he was all by himself. To me, he very much embodied the frontier spirit, where it was up to you to survive, your destiny was in your own hands. So we guess me to be about fourth-generation Chinese American.
So from your author photo, you look ethnically full Chinese. After four generations, that's quite remarkable given the rate of so-called "out-marriage," especially among Asian American women. How did your family stay so, for lack of a better word, "pure"? You'll have to excuse me for being so abruptly blunt...
My two sisters and I all married Chinese, so my parents often get asked "How did you manage to get all Chinese sons-in-law?" Mom just gives them a secret smile. Actually, my parents never overtly pushed us to marry Chinese (in fact, my dad was an equal opportunity dater in his time). However, they always encouraged us to value our Chinese-ness. It was never something to be ashamed of. I grew up in a very Chinese American household; Mom cooked Chinese food almost every night, yet she loved her French cooking classes. We all played multiple classical instruments, but were also avid Broadway fans. Also, my dad was and is an excellent role model. My sisters and I very much look up to him, and they say you tend to marry someone like your father!
I bet all your aunties are begging your mother for her secrets in raising such dutiful daughters, ahem! I was the first of 46 generations of Hongs to betray the pure bloodline!
Haha. I thought I was staying pure -- I married a Chinese dude, but it turns out he is one-sixteenth Portuguese!
I won't tell your mother! Another thing you've managed to stay pure about: Four generations later, your family is still California based. You yourself moved from southern to northern, but are still hanging on to your California plates (because everyone drives in the Golden State). Could you ever imagine yourself living elsewhere?
I love living in California! My husband, who is from Canada, is always telling me I should try living somewhere else just for fun, but I love it here, mainly for the weather. I don't do humid, hot, or cold well. Also, I love the diversity and the culture. I think I'll always be a California girl!
What inspired you to write Under the Painted Sky? Given your pioneering history, I can see why one of your protagonists is a feisty Chinese American teenager. How did you choose to give her a runaway slave for a sidekick?
I am often asked why I don't speak Chinese, and I thought it would be interesting to go back to a time where a question like that might be appropriate and/or relevant. So that brought me back to the 1800s, which is when the US experienced a significant influx of Chinese people via the California gold rush. Samantha is not from China, but was born in New York mainly because I needed a protagonist whose main language was English. When I started researching the time period, I realized there was a lot going on in the US at the time -- the westward expansion, the rise of the cowboy, the Missouri Compromise, which outlawed slavery in the north and allowed it in the south. However, the question of whether slavery would be allowed in the new territories was very much an open question. So all these issues converged in my story. Also, I wanted to give Samantha a friend, a cohort, because a journey is always more interesting when there are two.
How much of your own family history did you integrate into the novel?
I didn't use much of my family history because we don't know a lot about our early American ancestors. However, there are similarities between how my father raised us, and how Samantha's father raises her, i.e., the value on education and music.
Has your family -- especially your parents and/or your grandparents, if they are still around -- read the novel? Siblings? And reactions?
My older sister and my mother were among my first readers. They've read the book more times than they probably wanted! My dad, however, has not read it. He is strictly a nonfiction guy, and, in the rare event that he does read fiction, it's serious fiction. He did say he would read it soon, however! We'll see....
The consensus amongst my sisters/mom was that they loved it, but they skipped over the kissy parts. I believe the word "gross" was used.
Speaking of "gross," as they're in a whole unique category of their own -- have your (31/32) purebred children read the book? And their thoughts on their writerly Mama?
My daughter, who is now 11, read the book three years ago when it was called Golden Boys and was a romance between Samantha and West. It was even more kissy then. Before Putnam/Penguin bought it, they asked me to change it to a friendship novel, which I did reluctantly, though in the end, I'm so glad I did because it was the original direction of the story. My daughter likes the friendship version better, but maybe in a few years... She is my biggest fan and I dedicated the book to her. (Incidentally, after it became a friendship book, my editor asked me to put the romance back in, so it's there again, just less kissy.) My 8-year-old son hasn't read it -- he's still on Miss Laney is Zaney!
My kids like having a writer for a mom as they think it means I'm famous. I hate to burst their bubbles....
So you did the dutiful daughter thing and went to law school and even practiced for a while. What finally prompted you to quit the corporate treadmill and write full time?
If we're being honest here, I got the financial freedom to quit my job when I got married. I was working as an in-house lawyer at a tech company, and while I thought the work was interesting, my heart was elsewhere. My husband encouraged me to do what I'd always dreamed of doing -- being a writer. I'd been writing all my life, and he basically told me to go live my dreams.
Probably the best investment he ever made. Especially the fame part, too!
Seriously! I think at first he thought I'd just make some fun spending money. Now he's like, "Okay, when can I retire?"
Do you ever miss the law? Would you ever go back into legal practice?
Well, I kept up my bar membership! I would never say never; in fact, I was sort of pulled back into the practice after becoming one of the founding members of We Need Diverse Books.
Oooh, yes! Let's talk about the incredible grassroots organization We Need Diverse Books that grew out of a viral hashtag: I understand you're #WNDB's legal director? Can you talk a bit more about your involvement?
Founding director Ellen Oh is a hero to many! I was fortunate enough to be on Twitter at the time of the blow up over BookCon when many of us writers headed online to vent our frustrations. After the hashtag went viral, we incorporated as a nonprofit, and have been moving full steam ahead with many, many projects in the works. And with huge growth like that, legal issues always crop up. There haven't been many, thankfully, and we have great legal counsel to help us (White and Case, awesome lawyers).
I was just in Southern California spearheading the Children's Literature Council of Southern California's Spring Workshop for WNDB. The turnout was amazing, and it's very encouraging to see so much interest from around the country on this very important issue of diversity in children's literature.
Given the horrors that happened in Ferguson, and more recently Baltimore, we certainly need diverse books more than ever. Many of the challenges Sammy and Andy have to face in 1849 haven't changed nearly enough, even after more than a century and a half. Baltimore was obviously too recent to overlap with when you were writing Sky, but were these sorts of racially charged, violently tragic events on your radar when you were writing?
I think people like to believe that we live in a race neutral society, but racism still exists in so many ways. You ask about particular tragedies, and the ones most fresh in my mind were 9/11 (my husband was living in NYC at the time and should've been at the World Trade Center that morning, but thankfully his meeting was rescheduled), and the riots following the Rodney King beating (I was in LA watching the events unfold from the building where I worked). Obviously, we've come a long way since the days of slavery and legalized racism, but we still have a long way to go. Recent events like Baltimore just confirm this in the most horrific way.
Your characters are certainly more evolved -- no pure bloodlines by book's end expected, so to speak. You've managed to create a realistic rainbow coalition way before their time!
Yes! Though I don't remember setting out to do that. The US was a diverse country from the start: you had the Native Americans, and, of course, blacks, and Mexico owned a huge chunk of the US. I think I was just trying to be accurate.
Speaking of endings, much of the future seems to be left undecided at the end of Sky -- very effectively so. Might we be reading about the further adventures of Sammy and Andy someday?
I would love to write a sequel. Hopefully, there's enough interest from readers so that my publisher will support a book two. I would love to return to the Wild West.
And the inevitable last question: What's next on the writing roster?
My second historical, Outrun the Moon, is slated for publication May 2016. It's about a Chinese girl in San Francisco who impersonates a Chinese heiress to get into an all-white girls' school, but her plans are shaken up when the 1906 earthquake hits. A third book, a YA contemporary novel called Touch Me Not will be published by Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins in fall 2016. In that one, a girl with an extraordinary nose, the last in a long line of love witches, scrambles to reverse the effects of a love elixir after giving it to the wrong target -- all while trying not to fall for the woman's attractive son.
Yikes, I'm going to be busy.
Holy moly! BUSY indeed! Hubby must surely be planning his retirement party?!
Ha! We still have to put the kiddies through college. It's the Asian way.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.