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Saturday, January 14th, Not Your Mother's Book Club, Books Inc. Santa Clara, and the two amazing bloggers at Tales of the Ravenous Reader, invited 13 local Young Adult authors and 13 book bloggers to a mix and mingle event where each blogger had the opportunity to interview an author! Hannah, of NYMBC, had the lovely experience of sitting down with Stacey Lee, author of Under a Painted Sky, Outrun the Moon, and most recently, The Secret of a Heart Note to chat about her writing and publishing process, amazing nose, inspiration, Chinese Face Reading, and The Secret of a Heart Note.
Note: This interview was originally recorded and has been transcribed and edited for clarification. Any mixups or mistakes in grammar and/or spelling, are mine (NYMBC).
Out of your three books, which took the longest?
Actually they all took about the same amount of time; with Under a Painted Sky I had such a long time to do it so I didn’t work on it in such concentrated doses, which is typical of your first book.
And with [Outrun the Moon], I was under a tight deadline. I had like 3 months to write the first draft.
I worked every day, nine to twelve hours a day on this book. So, I think if you condense it all down, it’s about the same amount of time for each book. And then with Heart Note I was writing that during the time we were submitting Under a Painted Sky to publishers. And so I had a good nine months to work on that. I wasn’t operating under deadlines for Heart Note and I think I spent about six to nine months writing it. While research for the historicals took several months, it also took me some time to get a handle on all the scents and the flowers for Heart Note. Maybe I'm just a sucker for research!
I have this question further down, so I’ll just ask it now: How did you balance the writing and the researching? Like did you get into a dark hole of research or were you able to keep yourself from clicking and clicking and clicking…
That has always been a challenge for me, absolutely. I give myself at least three months of like no writing at all, I’m just in the library, most of the time, or online doing research. And then I do research as I go. As I start writing, I’ll find things that need to be addressed, like ‘Oh were there sidewalks in 19th Century Atlanta, Georgia?’ Things like, ‘Were the street lamps electric?’ and then that will send me down a black hole that can take days, sometimes weeks to pull myself out of. This last book I’m working on, the recently announced Dear Miss Sweetie, required at least six to seven months of research and since I’m under a deadline for it I had to start writing while I researched. Ideally it would be nice to get all the research done before starting to write, but real life doesn’t work that way.
Right. Right. And I’ll ask you a question about that one later, but I want to put that on hold. So you kind of mentioned this, you work on multiple books at once, when they’re in the editorial stage. Correct?
Yes. That’s right.
Did you have the idea for Outrun the Moon or The Secret of the Heart Note while you were writing Under a Painted Sky?
So what happened with Secret of a Heart Note, when we were submitting the book to publishers, for Under a Painted Sky, I had time in which it was either write or go crazy waiting for responses, or rejections, as the case was. By the time that one sold and I was ready to work on edits, I had just fisnished writing Outrun the Moon, so timing wise, it all sort of worked out.
Right, so there’s one thing I noticed throughout all three of your books that was really interesting to me, especially because it was new to me, so I don’t really have the right word for it, but I did Google it: The Chinese Face Readings. Was that something that you researched or that you knew about or learned about while growing up?
Oh yeah! So for me, I’m like, fourth generation Chinese and a lot of the ummm… Chineseness, has been really mingled with the Americanness. My parents, they’re very western in upbringing and I didn’t learn about Face Reading through them, but just through the experience of interacting with Chinese people. The first time I heard of Face Reading, actually, I was dating a guy, a Chinese guy, and when he brought me home to his mother, she gave me the full read out of my face! She said, ‘Oh you will make a good mother because you have a round, whatever it was…’ and I was very intrigued-- a little horrified-- but also intrigued. That was about twenty years ago and I started to do some research into it then because I was curious about what she was talking about. And then I guess I just always had my ears open for when Chinese people would talk about Face Reading. It is a real thing for some people!
I just loved it. I read are all of your books out of order, so I had to go back and read Under a Painted Sky because I started Outrun the Moon for your Launch and she’s describing, oh gosh I’m going to forget all their names, the Cowboys, the cousins, and she says one of them has the earlobes that are hanging and one has earlobes that are connected and I was like, “I have hanging earlobes!” and I read it out to one of my coworkers and she’s like “I have hanging earlobes!” So we were both like. “OHH! So, something’s come easy for us… sorta.”
So that was really cool and I liked seeing that throughout all your books. Even Secret of a Heart Note has some of that with the scents and personalities matching or how it feeds into all that and I found it really interesting.
Yeah! Thanks for noticing that!
In fact, when I was talking to someone at Putnum, one of the marketing assistants at Putnum, she was talking about the face reading too and she was saying her mother would always comment about, they call them Silk Worms, under your eyes, where you have fat pads under your eyes, they call them silkworms and it’s supposed to be an attractive feature. I had never heard of that one! But it’s interesting what people bring to me.
Yeah it is really interesting. It’s cool. Another thing that I noticed, in all three of your books, whether the parents were around or not, [the characters] still had a really good relationship with their parents. And I feel like a lot of Young Adult books remove the parents so there’s more drama. Because, you know, it’s a tool, to not have parental supervision.
So I thought it was really interesting and I really liked how all your characters had good relationships with their parents. So I’m wondering, was that something you consciously did that you wanted the parents to be a big influence on them or if, it was just kind of natural for you to write.
Umm yeah. That’s a great question. I feel like I do see a lot of that in YA, when the parents are just removed from the situation, and I’ve always thought that was so, device like, it always took me out of the story. I think for most people it’s more likely that their parents are around, that they have relationships (good or bad) with them. Not so much out of the picture. So for me it was just a realistic choice. But also, my relationship with my parents is really important to me. They’ve just been so influential in my upbringing and in my life, and I can’t say that it was the most ideal parent- child relationship ever, but they really do shape who you are, for better or for worse. And I’ve always been interested in portraying that. Especially for Chinese people, our family is so integral to who we are. So yeah, I think, both. It was both conscious and also an organic part of how I write a book.
I really liked the parent-child relationships in Secret of a Heart Note. I thought it was just great. I just loved their dynamics.
Ok … I already asked some of those questions. Oh! Yeah, so I was really shocked when Secret of a Heart Note came across my desk as an ARC. I didn’t know that you were writing a third one! Cause, I think it was a couple months after doing the Outrun the Moon launch for you.
And in comes this book and I thought, “Oh this is a cute book!” and then I saw your name connected to it and I thought “Oh my gosh!” so, how did you keep it a secret? Or did it come out suddenly for you too?
I know, it was weird. I don’t remember, I don’t think it was that I was trying to keep it a secret, but that I was just so busy trying to do so much with Outrun the Moon.
You were also still on tour for it a bit, weren’t you?
Yes, I was going to conferences and doing book promo. So Outrun the Moon came out and in my mind I was like, Ok that one is done, now I can focus on the next one, but in reality it doesn’t always work like that. Like I’m still talking about Outrun the Moon and I am still trying to give that one its push into the world. I don’t want it to feel like it was short changed. I was the middle child so I always feel very conscious of the middle child and giving them their due. And Outrun the Moon is the middle child right now.
I think it’s perfect. It’s set in San Francisco. It’s one of my favorites. When I opened it I kind of just sank into it, so Outrun the Moon has my heart.
That’s a lovely thought! That’s nice.
Of course! Let’s see. I also wanted to ask about the difference between writing historical fiction versus contemporary.
Contemporary with a magical element, so I’m told.
Why did you choose contemporary for [Secret of a Heart Note]. Did you always see it in contemporary or did you not want to put it in historical fiction?
You know, maybe I was naive but when I wrote the historicals, it was just what I wanted to write. And the same way with Heart Note, it was just what I wanted to write. I had no idea that at the time, I was expected to follow one path or another. For good reason, I write historical, and that’s what I’m known for, so that’s what I continue to give the reading public. But Heart Note was just something I was interested in writing. I enjoy the sense aspect and I like writing humorous things and Heart Note has a lighter tone. I was lucky enough to get a publisher who will publish my more commercial things.
That’s great. I loved it.
What was your inspiration for Heart Note?
So I guess, I tell people that it was my nose… *laughs*I also enjoy writing about the mother-daughter-relationship. That was probably the primary reason I wrote it, but maybe the more unique reason is that I’ve always had this strange ability to smell musical notes.
So I discovered that I had this ability when I went to Hawaii some years ago. I was at a perfume shop, that uses only organic natural essential oils from plants, and the perfumer was encouraging me to smell some of her creations and then I noticed she had written musical notes by the smells. I was like, ‘Wow! I can smell those notes!’ I also have perfect pitch. So I knew I could smell the notes that she had written down. So she started testing me and I was like ‘Yeah I can do this too’. And she was like ‘Woah! It’s called synesthesia and this is what it means.’ I just thought it was interesting and I wanted to explore that.
So it exists! It’s a real thing.
Yeah, it does exist. I have never met anyone else, besides this perfumer, who can do that. But my ears are always open for it.
Yeah, its’ a fun and useless trick. Except I can write a book.
And you can say that you can do it! That’s pretty important! Did you have a favorite scene to write?
In Heart Note? I did. I find that the scenes that I enjoy the most are the ones with the biggest pay outs. I think. So for me it was the scene where they go look for the seaweed.
When they use the surfboard to look for the seaweed, I don’t want to spoil it.
The whole time I was beat red! I was embarrassed for her. I would not go in that water. My brother is a surfer but we grew up in the Gulf of Mexico where it’s warm. I would not go in there. Are you kidding me?
No. I would never!
Definitely not! It was really good. I like that scene, I also noticed in secret of a heart note that Mim’s best friend was Samoan. I was so excited to see that! I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with a Samoan main character or supporting character. So I thought that was great. I would imagine, representation is important to you?
Yeah. It’s absolutely is important to me. I think the thing is, that I don’t write books consciously thinking, “Oh I need to represent all these people, I need to make sure I include this brown person, or this…” I just take from what I see around me. So for, POC or people who are diverse, that’s just part of their daily life. So when they write, they show up in their books. It was the same way with Kali. She was just, to me, Samoan. It was quite natural because of my community and the people who I’m familiar with. Thank you for noticing that. She was a fun character to write.
Of course, and she was amazing. Fun and brave.
Full rounded character.
Ok, this one is for Christy , she asked me about your perfumes. Because I know you made some for your giveaways. Are you going to bottle them?
Yes! I sell them through Sweet Briar perfumes on Etsy. I’ve been doing that for I think five years. I used to make aromatherapy perfumes for yoga studios and that was just something I was doing on the side, because I like collecting essential oils. I made a signature perfume for Heart Note and that’s been sort of fun.
You teased a little bit about your next book! Can you tell us a little about that one, can you talk about it yet?
It’s about a Chinese girl who lives secretly in the basement of a print shop. And she becomes the pseudonymous author of an advice column and she must use her influence to affect the outcome of a trial of a black man accused of assaulting a white woman.
That’s essentially what it’s about. It takes place in 19th cent
aury Atlanta, post reconstruction period. There were a lot of issues in Atlanta at the time. I would say this is one of the most research heavy of my books, just because there were so many issues to grapple with: women’s suffrage, in addition to segregation. So it’s going to be a challenge to get a handle on the issues. But it’s going well. There’s a wealth of information on this period it’s just a matter of soaking it all in.
And filtering it through.
Well thank you for letting me interview you! And I’m really excited. I loved your books… I’ll put that on record.
*laughs* Thank you.
*Side Note: It was just announced, January 23rd, that Outrun the Moon is the recipient of the 2016-2017 Asian / Pacific American Literature Award! Congratulations Stacey!
As I mentioned before, there were 13 authors and 13 bloggers at this event, so, NYMBC's interview is not the only one! The following bloggers were involved in this event and over the next month, they'll be publishing and then linking their interviews on one central page, here.
Below are the lists of Bloggers and Authors who graced Books Inc. Santa Clara with their presence! Books Inc. and Not Your Mother's Book Club would like to thank everyone who helped and participated in this event with the goal of strengthening the ties between literary friends of the Bay Area! - Hannah, NYMBC <3
Hannah at NYMBC
Nancy and Christy at Tales of the Ravenous Reader
Hikari at Folded Pages Distillery
Jesalin at JBelkBooks
Alyssa and Addie at San Jose Public Library
Enna at Books, Boys, and Blogs
Amanda R. at Forever Young Adult
Cristina at Girl in the Pages
Joss at Tealreader
Camille at The Young Folks
Alicia at Shooting Stars Mag
Post Event Fun
Author Emily Jenkins
One of my favorite things to do with my children is something we call Storytime Breakfast on the Couch. That means early in the morning—sometimes before dawn—we bring bowls of fruit or plates of toast into the living room, cozy up, and read stacks and stacks of picture books. This practice was a regular feature of our mornings when the kids were small, and it continued, though not as frequently, through their later elementary years. No one is ever too old for a good picture book. One of my favorites to this day is Ruth Krauss’s A Very Special House, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Krauss and Sendak also collaborated on many books that might be best termed poems, including Open House for Butterflies. Her book, The Carrot Seed, illustrated by Crockett Johnson, is a beloved classic with a more formal style.
Krauss was unique as a writer because she spent so much time listening to children. She replicated their speech and thoughts on the page, showing tremendous respect for their depth of feeling. In A Very Special House, there is a small refrain that my children and I grew to love: “A door knob, a dear knob, a dear little door knob; a dear knob, a door knob, a door little dear knob.” After loving that phrase and repeating it with my children for over a decade, I used it as inspiration for my new book, A Greyhound, a Groundhog. The phrase took on a life of its own as I played with it, changed it, and expanded it, but the poem I wrote is completely indebted to Krauss’s book and her genius. Go check out A Very Special House. The Sendak pictures aren’t too bad, either.
Emily Jenkins is a classroom and kid favorite for her picture books and middle grade series, which include Toys Go Out, Toy Dance Party, Toys Go Home, and Toys Meet Snow, with illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky, and Upside-Down Magic, which is co-authored by Sarah Mlynowksi and Lauren Myracle. Find The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss and Emily Jenkins' A Greyhound, a Groundhog in stores January 3rd!