Recently I had the honor of being interviewed by Young Adult author Medeia Sharif for her award-winning blog SharifWrites.Blogspot.com. She asked great questions about the writing process, how I picked the protagonist for my novel Dragon Chica, advice for writers trying to break into the business, and much more. (You can read the whole interview below.)
Medeia is a Kurdish American, New York-born writer and teacher. Her novel BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER is coming out next year (summer 2011) from Flux.
I’ve posted the interview below but you can also read it directly on Medeia’s blog here: Sharif Writes Blog
INTERVIEW BY MEDEIA SHARIF for SHARIF WRITES BLOG:
Last month I had the pleasure of reading DRAGON CHICA by May-lee Chai. It’s a gripping tale about Nea, a teenage Cambodian refugee girl whose fighting spirit gets her in and out of trouble. History, politics, family secrets, and racism are brilliantly interwoven in this novel as Nea’s family travels from Cambodia to Texas and Nebraska. The novel is realistic, showing both the beauty and ugliness of the immigration experience and what happened under the Khmer Rouge regime that drove Nea’s family out of Cambodia. The author agreed to be interviewed, so I’m happy to have her here today.
Give us a brief bio so that we can get to know you better.
Hi! Thanks for interviewing me for your blog. This is exciting! As for my bio, I’ve written five previous books, including a novel, short story collection, personal memoir, family memoir, and a straight-forward nonfiction book. I’ve also published short stories in various journals. I used to be a reporter with the Associated Press. I’ve taught at a number of universities, lived in four countries and 14 states in the U.S., and traveled even more.
(author photo by Jeni Fong/Grace Image)
Your new novel DRAGON CHICA is being released this month by GemmaMedia. Give us a short description of the novel.
In a sentence, it’s about Nea, a teenage survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, who comes to America and discovers that she’s going to have to fight to save her family and herself. It’s also about the secrets that can bind a family together but also drive a wedge between the generations.
I can see DRAGON CHICA being read by teens and adults. Did you have an intended audience for the novel or you were just driven to tell Nea’s coming of age tale?
I definitely wanted to reach a cross-over audience. I wanted Dragon Chica to be accessible to young adult readers but also adults. I had written a short story called “Saving Sourdi” about the characters in the novel, focusing on Nea, her older sister Sourdi, and the mother. It was published in the literary journal Zyzzyva, but then was picked up in a number of anthologies that are often taught in high school AP English classes as well as colleges. So over the years, I’ve received a lot of emails from students and teachers who’ve told me that they were really moved by the relationship between the two sisters. Even teenage guys related to the story! So I felt inspired by these positive reactions to write the novel.
Writers have varying stories about how they come up with their main characters. When and how did Nea appear to you?
At first I thought the beautiful older sister Sourdi would be the ideal narrator because she’s easy to relate to and she understands everyone so well. She’s old enough to remember the war and her relatives’ lives before the Khmer Rouge takeover, and she also takes care of the younger kids. But I discovered that she knows too much, she can explain too much. Plus, she’s just too sweet. Sweet people are great in real life, but not so great in a book. A sweet narrator, the kind who’s always trying to make peace with everyone, doesn’t create a lot of drama.
Nea was the character whom the others could never understand. She is inherently dramatic because she’s so pro-active. If she sees a problem, she immediately tries to think of a solution and act upon it. She doesn’t remember enough to know WHY the adults have these mysterious rivalries. She’s smart, she understands America pretty quickly, but because she’s young, she can’t explain herself yet to her family. Thus, there’s going to be inherent conflict. Once I started writing a story from Nea’s point of view, it just took off! It became dramatic, exciting, interesting. In the novel, Nea’s quest to try to understand what’s going on with her family mirrors the readers’ journey.
DRAGON CHICA takes us through different decades, countries, and states. What kind of research did you have to do for this novel?
The seed for the novel was planted when I was fifteen and a Chinese-Cambodian family moved to the small town in South Dakota where my family and I were living. I hadn’t even known there was such a thing as Chinese Cambodians until that point. The mother of the family was very kind to me, and she eventually told me how three of her children died in Cambodia as she tried to escape from the Khmer Rouge.
Over the years of my life, I’ve met with many different refugees from Cambodia and Southeast Asia. I formed a mentoring group for refugee children when I was a student at Grinnell College in Iowa. Later as a reporter for the AP, I made sure to include the SE Asian community in my reporting. I had seen there was a lot of prejudice against refugees, a lot of misunderstanding, so I felt as a reporter it was my duty to try to cover these newest members of the communities I was living in.
Obviously at this point in my teens and twenties, I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel.
When I started writing about the characters in Dragon Chica, I first started writing about them in short stories. I already had quite a bit of background. But then when I decided that I wanted to write a novel so that I could go into the characters’ lives more deeply, I had to do a lot of research. One of the hardest things to find was background on Cambodian society BEFORE the Khmer Rouge regime.
Fortunately, I was able to find books and even some videos in French and English about Cambodia at the University of California-Berkeley, where I was a research associate for a number of years. What I discovered was that Cambodia was experiencing a tremendous golden age in its culture in the 1960s and early 1970s, even as politically things were unstable and war on the borders threatened. The arts and schools were flourishing; the people had a lot of hope and expectations for a better life. Nobody writing about Cambodia in the 1960s predicted that in a mere ten years all of that would be destroyed. Nobody.
You’re also a memoirist. What are some similarities and differences between the writing processes of memoir and novel writing?
The biggest difference is that with a memoir, I have actual memories to work with. With a novel I had to invent everything: the characters, the plot, the timeline.
The similarities are that for both types of book, I’ve had to conduct a lot of research to provide context. For the family memoir I wrote with my father, The Girl from Purple Mountain, for example, I had to learn to speak and read Chinese, and then I went to live in China so that I could understand what my grandparents’ and father’s life had been like before, during and after World War II. I had to learn the larger history, the geography, the architecture, all the external details even though I knew the characters (my family) quite well.
Memoirs and novels are also similar in terms of the storytelling. Both require the same set of writing skills to develop the characters, make the scenes come alive, move the plot forward, etc.
What’s your favorite time of day to write?
Night. I’ve always held “day jobs” so my only time to write IS night. Plus, I need time to just let the concerns and worries of the day fall away. Night allows me to feel peace.
What are some of your favorite books? Is there any author(s) or book(s) in particular that influenced you to become a writer?
When I was twelve, I read an interview with Ursula K. LeGuin who said if you want to be a writer then you must write every day. I just loved her novels, including The Earthsea Trilogy, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven, so I took her advice to heart. And I’ve written every day since then.
There are so many writers who continue to influence and inspire me. I’ll just name a few (or else I’d end up with a list of thousands): Marguerite Duras, Julian Barnes, Luis Alberto Urrea, Nina de Gramont, Cynthia Kadohata, A.S. Byatt, Primo Levy, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Kiran Desai, Robert Olen Butler, Percival Everett, Margaret Atwood. The list could go on forever.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a crime novel! It’s still very literary and character oriented, but I like the idea of exploring a crime, why it occurs, who tries to cover it up, how it ultimately comes to be exposed.
What advice would you like to share with writers who are trying to break into the business?
1) Write every day. Even if it’s just a paragraph, start writing! Then keep writing every day so that it becomes like eating or breathing, a part of your life that you can’t live without.
2) Write what you love and want to write about. Don’t try to second-guess the market. Your passion will come through if you’re writing about something you truly care about.
3) When you revise, think of it as an opportunity to re-envision your story, to explore a new path. Don’t think of it as a chore.
4) Don’t give up!
Thanks for stopping by, May-lee.