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Interview with Grace Lin

Today I am excited to bring you an interview with the Inkpot’s own Grace Lin. Grace is the author and illustrator of more than a dozen picture books, including THE UGLY VEGETABLES and DIM SUM FOR EVERYONE and the middle grade chapter book THE YEAR OF THE DOG and THE YEAR OF THE RAT. She is an award winning author who writes about the Asian-American experience because she believes,  "Books erase bias, they make the uncommon everyday, and the mundane exotic. A book makes all cultures universal."

On July 1st, Grace’s newest book released. WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON is her first fantasy novel. It is a book that is already raking in the accolades and it has just won the Parent's Choice Gold award and has a starred review from Booklist!


Minli, whose name means quick thinking, lives with her poor parents in the valley of the FruitlessMountain. In the evenings, against her mother's wishes, her father tells her wonderful stories about the Old Man of the Moon, who knows the answers to all of life's questions. One day Minli spends one of her only 2 coins to buy a goldfish to bring the family good luck. Her mother is angered by the wasteful purchase and Minli feels sorry for what she has done and decides to seek out the Old Man of the Moon to help bring fortune to her family. Along the way, she befriends a dragon, a talking fish and other wonderful characters. The story is beautifully interwoven with Chinese folktales that add a wonderful element to the narrative.

Ello:  First of all, congratulations on the release of your new and brilliant book! I have to admit that I am totally in love with your illustrations. You are an extremely talented artist. Were you an author first or were you an artist first? When did you decide that you were both?


Grace:  As a child, I enjoyed both writing and drawing and loved both. However, I trained as an illustrator. After high school, I went to the Rhode Island School of Design with the express purpose to become a children’s book illustrator.  But as I applied, I also remember vividly my mother saying, “I just think you are of more writer than artist.”

After graduating from art school, I struggled for years as my art samples languished in the slush piles. One day, an editor contacted me after seeing one of them.

“I really like the sample you sent,” he said to me, “do you have a story that goes with it?”

And, even though I didn’t, I said very quickly, “YES!” and started writing as soon as he hung up the phone.  Many revisions, writing courses and books later I finally began to see myself as an author as well as an illustrator.

Ello:  How do you incorporate your illustrations with your story? What comes first? Do you envision your characters first or do they come up from your writing?

 

Grace:  For me, the writing always comes first with any book. I usually can't draw anything until the story is finished.

However, the character of Minli did come from an image I did before I wrote "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon." In late 2003, I did a cover illustration for Cricket Magazine of an Asian girl riding a flying red dragon. As I painted the image, the girl captivated me. I had painted her in traditional clothing, over an idealized Asian landscape. I imagined her full of delight on her ride in the sky, full of adventure and life.  She was my first character idea for Minli. But as I wrote the story, she changed a bit and, of course, became more fleshed out with characteristics and personality. She also became younger.  However, she still retained that same spirit of my original painting.

I became so attached to the Cricket cover image that it morphed into the logo for my website, and finally the cover for "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon."

 

Ello:  You are a multipubbed children's author and illustrator who has been writing for many years, but this is your first fantasy book. How would you describe the experience of your journey as an author from first to latest book? What are the lessons you have learned?


Grace:  I have been a published author for 10 years now, which is kind of crazy! This is my first fantasy book which, while is rather different for me, seemed to grow rather naturally.  Strangely, looking back, while the journey was full of hard work, persistence, highs and lows—it does not seem an extraordinary experience.

The most important lesson I have learned has been to let stories become what they want. Sounds strange, but as an illustrator my reaction to any story is to try to make it into a picture book.  It is the genre I feel safest with. However, some of the stories I have in my head just do not fit that format. Learning to not force stories, learning to leave my comfort zone and trust that I could do something beyond my initial preference has been  a significant part of my growth as an author/illustrator.

“Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” is just another example of that.  It began as a discarded picturebook manuscript I had drafted around the same time as I had began my first draft of “The Year of the Dog.”  It just needed all this time for me to realize and gain the confidence to write it as a fantasy novel.

Ello:  What is the importance of your heritage to your writing?


Grace:  Well, I grew up in Upstate NY as the only Asian in my school (except for my sisters). In my youth, I mainly disregarded my Asian heritage and just pretended I was Caucasian. It was only as I grew to my adulthood that I realized that what I had tried to refused to embrace was something actually quite precious. Many of my books are created as my way of trying to reconnect with my heritage, to learn and uncover the roots that buried so deeply as a child and teenager.

Ello:  As an Asian American writer, you've always included themes about your culture in your writing but WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON is the first of your books set in China. How has researching and writing it been different?

Well, researching has been a lot more fun! I traveled to China  (http://gracegoestochina.blogspot.com/) and Taiwan and relived my trip to Hong Kong (http://gracegoeshk.blogspot.com/) as a way for me to soak up the landscape and help create the imagery in my  mind.

Writing, however, was a bit more challenging. I am most definitely Asian-American, and probably more American than Asian. So capturing Chinese authenticity was something I struggled with as well as debated internally. The book is very much tinged with my Asian-American sensibilities. For example, I knew and learned more about foot-binding for young girls in
China; but I made the conscious decision to leave that tradition out of my book.  I try to make a point in my author’s note that the book is an Asian—inspired fantasy, not full of historical truths or even traditional Chinese values. I hope people still enjoy it as such.

 

Ello:  You know how much I love your book. And I know it is particularly special to you.

 

Grace:  Yes, this book is extremely special to me. I don't want to elaborate too much about it, but it is an homage to my late husband Robert whose death taught me what was important in life.

 

Ello:  Minli is just a wonderful character, and the folktales that you have incorporated are brilliant. Are they all old folktales? Did you create any of them? Are some from your childhood?


Grace:  The book was inspired by the Chinese folktales and myths that I read as a child and when I began to write this book, I researched and read a lot more.  Many times, I would read a myth that was little more than a line and would be unable to find more—which lead me to create the story in my head. For example, at Chinese New Year, it is common to find pictures of two plump children dressed in red decorating doorways. These children are called Da-A-Fu. Why? I researched and only found a very short summary of them: they were two spirits transformed as children sent to destroy a green monster that was terrorizing a village.  There were no details of how or why or what village, but it was enough to spark my imagination. So with that, I created the twin characters of A-Fu and Da-Fu in WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON who destroys the Green Tiger.


So, most of the folktales in the book are my reinterpretations of traditional tales—with those, I have taken creative license and reshaped them slightly so that is fits in with my overarching narrative. Others are completely out of my imagination, however.

 

Ello:  There is a particular scene in the book, which I don't want to give away, but concerns the beautiful generosity of some of your characters in a gesture for Minli that brought tears to my eyes. For me this is the scene that stays with me always when I think of your book. What about for you? Is there a favorite scene or line that you have?

 

Grace:  My favorite is the last line of the book.  I had struggled for a long time with the title of the book (rejected titles include “Never-Ending Mountain” and “The City of Bright Moonlight”), none seemed to capture the entirety of the book. “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” had always been an option, but as I wrote the last paragraph the line streamed out of me unplanned and in that instant, I knew “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” was the right title.  It was kind of a magical moment, kind of a destiny/fate feeling like, “Okay, yes, that IS the title.”


Ello:  What are your hopes for this book? Is there any particular message you hope your readers will take away?


Grace:  At New Year's, one of my resolutions was to make this novel the best work I've ever done. I pulled out all the stops for this book, from the writing to the cover to begging for color printing, I took pains as I have never been able to before. If time, focus, passion can do it, this books epitomizes the best I could possibly do at this time. SO, I hope readers like the book, and to be honest, I hope they love it. 

 

Ello:  Do you think you will write another Asian fantasy novel?


Grace:  I’d like to, though I am sure there will be no sequels to WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON.  I have a lot of ideas, but nothing concrete enough to make into another book, yet. I’m hoping things are just  “a-simmering” for a new fantasy.

Ello:  What's next for you?  

 

Grace:  My next book will be  “Ling and Ting.” It is an early reader (which is a format I have been wanted to try for a while) about Chinese-American twins. It is almost the reverse theme of the “Year of the Dog;” using twins, I am trying to show how even when people look the same they can be different.

After that I have a picture book on the Moon Festival and a picture book set in
Beijing. In the meantime, I have starting preliminary drafts for a novel that may become “Summer of the Pig” to take place in between my past novels “The Year of the Dog” and the “Year of the Rat.” That may or may not end up working out, but I will hope!

Ello:  For those of our readers out there who hope to one day have a wonderful publishing career like you, what would be some words of wisdom that you would like to share with them?


Grace:  Gee, thanks for the compliment! Hmm, if I were going to give upcoming authors helpful fortune cookies, I think the fortunes would say:

1. Remember, writing a book is personal; publishing a book is not.
2. Another person’s success never takes away from your own.
3. Talent is nothing if passion, perseverance and discipline does not accompany it.


 

Ello: That was absolutely lovely. Thank you Grace for a wonderful interview and sharing your beautiful illustrations with us.

Tags: ellen oh, grace lin, interview
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