Transcript from an interview with
Adapting to different realities
I think it's really important in historical fiction to see that these people aren't necessarily actors on a distant stage, but you literally take each reader and bring them up on stage, so they almost feel like a participant.
When I was a kid, there really weren't any books about Chinese-Americans I really respect. There weren't any books, literally. And so as a kid, the librarians would try and get me interested in their hot properties. And this will date me. But, you know, they would try to get me to read Homer Price and his Donut Machine. And my problem is all the kids in Homer Price they all had bicycles, and they all left their front doors unlocked. And nobody I knew had a bicycle. Nobody certainly, nobody left their door unlocked
I lived in an Afro-American neighborhood, and I went to school in Chinatown. And so the books that I really found true to my own life were fantasy and science-fiction, because in those books you have children from an ordinary world, ordinary place taken to another world, where they have to learn strange, new customs and a strange, new language. So, those books talked about adapting. And that's something I did every time I got on and off the bus.
Writing for pennies
I sold my first story when I was 18, because I had a wonderful teacher in high school. His name was Father Becker, and he was an English teacher. And he took me aside and said if I wanted to get an "A" in his course, I had to get something accepted by a national magazine. And I rolled my eyes, but I had no choice, because you couldn't argue with a Jesuit priest because you never win those kinds of arguments.
And so I kept trying. And I got a lot of rejection letters, and he retracted the threat. I only had to show him my letters. But after that, I kept trying.
And so what happened was those very first stories I was trying to write stories for Look magazine, which was still in existence and even Cosmopolitan God forgive me. And I wasn't really writing about what I knew. When I was in Milwaukee at Marquette, I was feeling so terribly homesick, and so I began writing about San Francisco. But it was a San Francisco in my imagination, so it was a San Francisco that had sunk underneath the ocean during an earthquake. And that's the story that actually sold.
But I sold it for a penny a word, which is what Dickens was getting in the 1840s. But pennies went a lot further. So, I never really expected to make a living as a writer.
Writers are writers
I have published about 60 books, and I like to tell kids that if I could take them home, I could show them an entire wall filled with filing cabinets filled with stories, because I think every writer can do that. I mean writers are writers, and they love to write. But we don't always get to publish what we write.
Corner grocery store
I'd always think about my father. We had a small, corner grocery store. And in small, corner grocery stores, it really depends upon the owner. And so my father would work 14- and 16-hour days, seven days a week. It was a big deal when he took a half-day off at Christmas. And there was no question about my brother and I not helping in the store. And our tours could begin, like, at six in the morning, getting the newspapers in, to late at night, restocking the shelves.
And so it sounds strange, but having that little, corner grocery store taught not just myself, but my brother some self-discipline. I just learned how to keep at something. And also, whenever I start feeling tired at the computer, I remind myself how easy I have it, because I'm sitting there in a chair at a desk, while my poor father, you know, was running around the store. I mean he literally wore his legs out, working.
Seeking dead English professors
That encouraged me to start writing the Newbery Honor did. And, you know, I managed to make a good living at it. But for years, my poor father worried about me because I never had a steady paycheck. And so what he used to do was he would go through the newspapers, looking through the obituaries for dead English professors, so I could apply to those schools for jobs. And he actually subscribed to about four or five newspapers, trying to find jobs for me.
A special way of living
It takes me about seven drafts before I'm even willing to show a manuscript to anyone. And, really, even when I taught creative writing, I tried to make this point to my students: don't do it for the glory. Don't do it for the money, because most of the time it's not there. You have to do it for yourself. And I also tell them that even though I make a living at it, I'd be writing even if I was still bagging groceries in a grocery store. I mean that's what I do. I love writing. I think of writing as a special way of seeing, because good writing brings out the specialness of ordinary things.
Children or college students seem to think they have to go to Paris, or they have to have a shipwreck before they can begin writing. And the fact is that's not true. I would actually have exercises in writing, where I would have the students write about their desktop; because there are different things you can do, different tricks you can use to really focus in on what you're looking at. And because, really, all it requires is looking at an object and then taking one step to the side and looking at that object from a slightly different angle.
A cultural outsider
Well, you know, I grew up as an outsider, because I grew up in an Afro-American neighborhood, and I went to school in Chinatown. And so even though I had friends in both areas, I was always something of an outsider. In my own neighborhood, if we were playing war games and, again, this will date me I would serve as the all-purpose Oriental. I'd either be the Japanese that was getting killed, if we're fighting World War II, or I'd be the Korean getting killed if we were fighting the Korean War.
Or, when I would go into Chinatown well, I went to a Catholic school. And so if my friends wanted to tell jokes that the nuns wouldn't understand, my friends would tell the jokes in Chinese. But my parents didn't speak Chinese at home, so I didn't have enough Chinese to understand the jokes.
A professional daydreamer
Dragon's Gate won the second Newbery Honor. And, actually, I feel fairly fortunate; because there're a number of people that have won the Newbery Honor two or three times, but they usually have been close together. And that second award came to me 20 years later, and so it's hard enough getting a book published, and it's hard enough winning an award. But the really most difficult thing in being a writer is longevity. Most of the writers that I started out with back when I was in my twenties, they've stopped writing for one reason or the other. And so the fact that I'm still able to do it pleases me to no end. I mean it's nice being a professional daydreamer, to be able to daydream and get paid for it.
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