Monday, June 12, 2006

Author Update: Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park is the winner of the 2002 Newbery Medal for A Single Shard (Clarion, 2001). Linda Sue's titles include Seesaw Girl (Clarion, 1999), The Kite Fighters (Clarion, 2000), When My Name Was Keoko (Clarion, 2002). She also has published several picture books--The Firekeeper's Son (Clarion, 2004); Mung-Mung (Charlesbridge, 2004); Bee-Bim-Bop! (Clarion, 2004); What Does Bunny See? (Clarion, 2005); Yum! Yuk! (Charlesbridge, 2005) as well as a contemporary novel, Project Mulberry (Clarion, 2005) and a fantasy novel, Archer's Quest (Clarion, 2006). I last interviewed Linda Sue in March 2002. Read Linda Sue's LiveJournal.

Linda Sue Park on Linda Sue Park: "I was born to Korean-immigrant parents in Urbana, Illinois, and grew up outside Chicago. Since then I have lived in California, Chicago, Dublin (Ireland), London, Brooklyn, and now Rochester, New York. I'm married and have two almost-grown children (one in college, one in high school) and a not-very-bright but loveable dog (Fergus, a Border Terrier).

"My job as a children's writer means that I spend a lot of my time reading, writing, thinking, traveling, and speaking. In my spare time, I like to watch birds, movies, and sports (especially baseball, football, and soccer); cook and give dinner parties; knit; and pester my children. For exercise I do about an hour of DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) every day."

I last interviewed you in winter of 2002, shortly after A Single Shard (Clarion, 2001) was named winner of the Newbery Medal. Looking back, how did that change your career? Did it affect the way you approached the writing itself? Why or why not? And if so, how?

The biggest effect was on speaking opportunities. Literally overnight, I went from seeking out invitations to being swamped by them. I love traveling, and I love meeting and talking to people about books, so I do spend a fair amount of time on the conference circuit. It's sometimes difficult to balance the time I spend on the road with time at home for writing and family, but I know how lucky I am to have those kinds of decisions to make.

Other than the time factor (less time for writing), I can't really say how the award affected my writing. When I sit down and stare at that blank screen, it feels the same as it did before--it hasn't gotten one bit easier!

Though I'd like to focus on your latest title, let's catch up on those that came between the two interviews. Why don't we start with When My Name Was Keoko (Clarion, 2002)? Could you tell us a bit about the book and especially your research process in writing it? What about the past calls to you?

Keoko grew directly out of conversations I had with my parents. Sometime after I finished A Single Shard, they told me stories about their childhoods in Korea during World War II--amazing stories that I had never heard before. I was immediately inspired to write about them.

Although it was my fourth historical-fiction project, it was the first time I had primary sources available to me. I interviewed my parents and other family members as well as some of their friends. I read journals and diaries of people who had lived through the era. I looked at a lot of photographs. Sometimes the material was overwhelming--there was so much of it compared to what was available for my other books, which are all set further back in the past. Between the research and the technical problems I had with the book--it is written from two different points of view, which was a challenge structurally--it was by far the most difficult of my books to write.

Could you briefly describe your most recent picture books and tell us what drew you to the projects?

Bee-bim Bop! (Clarion, 2005) has a rhyming text with illustrations by Ho Baek Lee. As I mentioned earlier, I love food and I love to cook. In the back of my mind I always knew that I'd eventually write a picture book about food. Bee-bim bop (also spelled bibim bap) is a natural subject: The word is fun to say and the dish is fun to prepare and eat! It took me a couple of years to write the text, working on it on and off, because the structure I had chosen meant I had to find a bunch of rhymes for "bop," and I wanted to make sure they weren't forced. This book has proven to be a great read-aloud; I've read it to groups of as many as 500 kids at a time and we have a lot of fun yelling out the chorus together.

Yum! Yuck!, coauthored by Julia Durango and illustrated by Sue Rama (Charlesbridge, 2005), is a companion title to Mung-mung! (Charlesbridge, 2004). The latter is a book of animal sounds from around the world, and was the direct result of my work teaching English as a Second Language. I was delighted to learn that the sounds people make when imitating animals varies around the world, and I would use this as an ice-breaker during my first classes with students, i.e., "What does a dog say in your country?"

After Mung-Mung came out, Charlesbridge asked if I had any ideas for a follow up title. Julia and I had worked on a bilingual Spanish-English text on emotional expressions. We took that idea and both simplified and expanded it: Instead of Spanish-English, the text now includes at least twenty languages from all over the world. But it's only 40 words total! The illustrations carry a storyline in which children express different reactions: surprise, dismay, joy, and so on. It is a gatefold book, so there is a guessing-game aspect as well. And Sue Rama's illustrations are wonderful.

It also was a treat to read Project Mulberry (Clarion, 2005), which was your first contemporary novel. It's also a book in which your own voice (as the author) is heard. How did this format evolve? What about it intrigued you?

I am not one of those writers who can say, "My characters talk to me." Alas, as a rule, my characters maintain an absolute silence. Perhaps this is because I am very conscious of writing as a craft, as the act of choosing one word after another. But when I was writing Mulberry, Julia started to talk to me.

My initial response was shock, followed by delight and fascination, and eventually, annoyance and frustration--because she never shut up! I thought it was because I wasn't writing fast enough for her. So whenever I got stuck, I started writing down our conversations in script form. Often, this exercise would get me unstuck, and I'd be able to keep going. This happened so often that the conversations began to feel like part of the story.

Initially our dialogues were sprinkled throughout the book, in three- or four-line segments. My editor found that this interrupted the flow of the narrative to its detriment. She said that if I wanted to keep the dialogues, I had to find some other way to make them work. So I put the shorter segments together into longer passages that were inserted between chapters.

Congratulations on the release of Archer's Quest (Clarion, 2006)(excerpt)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I don't think there was any single source of inspiration; rather, a lot of things came together at once. I love reading fantasy; I've always enjoyed time-travel stories; and of course I have an interest in Korean folk tales. These elements gave me the basis for the story: 12-year-old Kevin has an unexpected visitor, who turns out to be a warrior-king from ancient Korea, and Kevin has to figure out a way to help the king return to his own time and place.

However, the actual spark for the book was a technical question. I was talking to another author, Vivian Vande Velde (author interview), about time span in novels for young people. I said that all of my novels took place over a period of several months or even years. She said that all of her books took place in less than a week! I was intrigued by this difference in our work, and right then and there I decided I wanted to try to write a book that would take place in a very short span of time--less than a day. Archer's Quest takes place almost entirely within one afternoon. I love thinking about how the technical aspects of writing can affect a story.

Because of the adventure and fun relationship between Kevin and Archer, the novel is a great choice for reluctant readers, but its seamless integration of math, history, etc. also makes it a good pick for strong ones. Oddly, it seems that there aren't enough books that really challenge kids to think. Why do you think this is? Do we have a tendency to underestimate the audience?

Hmmmm...I guess I'm always finding books that make me think, in both the adult and children's market. And of course there are people from all walks of life who underestimate young people; writers are no exception! When I write, I'm aware that people read for many different reasons, and it's not possible for any one book to satisfy every reader, so I don't even try. The only thing I can do is to write a story that interests me, and that includes challenging me intellectually. Then I hope there will be other readers out there who share my taste.

(Incidentally, I'm not very good at math...I had to work really hard on the math problem in Archer's Quest, and I had my number-fluent son check it for me!)

Since Potter-mania hit, I've been inundated with requests for fantasy recommendations. There are so many wonderful books in this area for kids. But the challenge has been trying to identify fantasies that feature non-white protagonists and/or casts. Clearly, more and more diversity is reflected in high quality literary trade titles for young readers. However, in fantasy (as well as in science fiction, mystery, and horror), it seems we're dragging behind. Do you think I'm on-base about this? If so, why do you think it is? With the assumption that we want only the best books to fill the gap, do you think such diversity in these genres is important? Why or why not?

I don't think this is a "new" problem; for example, for years now I've been hearing about the need for books with black characters in which their race is not the "issue," the book's central focus; that we need characters of color in picture books, school stories, mysteries--whatever. Ironically, I take some comfort from this concern because I think it indicates progress. Not too long ago, it wasn't easy to find characters of color in books; when they finally did show up there were lots of stereotypes and misinformation. Eventually we got books focusing on characters whose color was important to the story. And now at last it seems we're getting ready to go beyond that, to stories where a person's ethnicity is a part but not the sum of them.

It makes complete sense to me that this process has taken longer to filter through to the various genres of fiction. Both fantasy and science fiction generally posit the protagonist as an "other," amid races and species that are not of this world. Some writers whose lives are lived as part of the majority might feel that they have to leave the real world, as it were, in order to place their characters in environs of alienation. But writers of color didn't need to do that--we've got plenty of alienation right here, thank you very much. As we continue to get more comfortable in the mainstream of both life and literature, I think you'll see more characters of color in other genres. These things take time...

You've published books for young readers at various age levels as well as contemporary stories, historicals, and with Archer's Quest, a fantasy. It's clear you're not content to stand still creatively. Can you tell us about the range of your body of work? At this point in your career, do you still find it scary to try new things? How has your writing grown and changed over the years?

My writing is first and foremost and always a reflection of what I love to read. I like to say that I'll read anything, as long as it's good! Because I read all over the map, both age- and genre-wise, I tend to get interested in writing all over the map too. I feel fortunate that I've been able to publish books and stories and poems across both the adult and children's spectrum.

Scary? Interesting. When I try writing something different, I don't think of it as scary--I think of it as exciting, a challenge. Mostly because I'm not afraid of failing: If I write something really terrible, nobody sees it but me!

Publishing something different, I guess that's a little scarier. But in a way, it's not my problem. It's the editor/publisher who decides whether a manuscript will become a book or not, which takes the ball out of my court.

Sometimes folks are surprised to hear that I received rejections even after Shard won the Newbery. Rejections are always disappointing, of course, but with every project I learn something about myself, about reading or writing, so I never consider any rejected project a waste of time.

I'm not sure how my writing has grown or changed in itself, but I do know that I've become more conscious of technique and craft. Not so much when I'm writing, although there are definitely certain points that I keep in mind as I work; for example, I think a lot about structure and scene. But the biggest change has been after I finish--because now people ask me how I came to write my books.

I confess that at first I was dumbfounded by those kinds of questions, because my only answer seemed to be something like, "Well, I had a story in my head, and I typed a word, and then I typed another word, and I kept doing that until it was done." I learned that people were not very happy with this kind of response, so I've had to reflect on how I write and come up with some specifics.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Read.

How about those building a career?

Oh dear. Not good at this question. I do know that when I first started out, my children were young and I still had a day job. I made the decision not to worry about marketing my work; I just didn't have the time. Instead I concentrated on making the next book as good as it could possibly be. This strategy worked, but of course it wasn't through my own doing--I was very lucky.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I've written a poetry collection for young people--a book of sijo (the working title is "Tap-Dancing on the Roof" and it will be published by Clarion). Sijo is a traditional Korean verse form, akin to Japanese haiku--three lines and a syllabic structure, but each line is longer than in a haiku. It is currently being illustrated, so it probably won't be out for another year or two, but I'm really looking forward to sharing it with readers!

Cynsational Notes

Beyond the Newbery with Linda Sue Park from the Institute of Children's Literature. Transcript of a Feb. 19, 2004 chat.

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