FLR: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is an early favorite of ours for the 2010 Newbery. We especially admire how all the individual stories Minli hears along her journey wind up tying together so beautifully. Did you know before you started writing how the all the stories would ultimately connect?
GL: Wow, thanks so much for your kind words! It’s wonderful to think that the book could even be considered for the Newbery—but I won’t think too hard and jinx myself! I am delighted that you enjoyed the book that much.
When I began the book, I knew a little less than half of how and which stories would tie together. The beginning story of how Fruitless Mountain would turn green came to me pretty early on, but many of the other stories—the Green Tiger Magistrate and the Paper of Happiness, actually came while I was writing the book. It was actually a very organic process, where I had the seed of what I wanted and then once the story took root, hundreds of vines grew.
FLR: You have written that your mother left Chinese fairy tales around for you to discover as a child, and that you took the parts you liked into your own imaginings. Do you remember what you thought of other folklore and fairy tales at that time?
GL: I loved folktales and fairytales as a child. I loved the classics, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” “The Light Princess”—all with gorgeous illustrations, which I devoured and gazed at in awe. When I first decided to become an illustrator, those were the types of books I thought I would make—princess-fairy-tale books.
It was because of my love for these stories that my mother knew she could pique my interest with the Chinese fairytale books. At the time, she regretted that I knew and had so little interest in our cultural heritage—this was a way of “sneaking” it in. And it worked!
FLR: Can you tell us which elements along Minli’s journey, if any, come directly from traditional Chinese folklore?
GL: A lot! As I said, 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 led 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.
There are many more than that. For example, the Old Man of the Moon and the Buffalo Boy and the Weaving Goddess are very famous Chinese legends/tales—the Old Man of the Moon is the Chinese God of Marriage who ties future spouses together with a red thread and the Buffalo Boy and Weaving Goddess are the lovers whom Chinese Valentine’s Day is inspired by. I’ve embellished both legends for the novel, but I did try to keep true to the original sentiment of them.
FLR: We understand you had a lot of trouble deciding on a title for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Would you care to share some of those rejected?
GL: Yes, choosing a title was quite difficult! Here are some of the runner-ups: Never-Ending Mountain (but we decided it sounded rather grim, perhaps depressing); The Old Man of the Moon (but I thought that most people would read it as the Man in the Moon, and be mislead about the story); The City of Bright Moonlight (but only a couple of chapters take place in the city); The City of the Silver Moon (before I changed the city’s name to Bright Moonlight); The Story of Minli (didn’t capture the magic/fairytale feeling I was looking for); Minli and the Dragon (only because having the word “dragon” in the title might be good for marketing).
FLR: We are eagerly awaiting the chance to see Minli, the dragon, and all the other characters in full-color illustrations when the finished book arrives. Can you tell us about your method and what media you used to create them?
GL: For this book, I really wanted my art to have a traditional Chinese-inspired look. I didn’t want to reproduce a traditional Chinese painting style, as I feel that the book is not a re-telling, not a historically accurate tale; but an original fantasy with a Chinese influence. I wanted the art to be influenced, but not an imitation.
So, Iike the writing, I tried to do research and blend what I found with my own sensibilities. I took thousands of my own photos during my trips abroad that I used as photo reference, but I also looked at Chinese paintings, ceramics and paper cuts. In China, we visited a cloisonné factory (a tourist standard!), and I found the many steps that the artists do to create cloisonné images fascinating. The intricate patterns, the ornate borders had a certain jewel-type richness that I felt fit the magical atmosphere I wanted to achieve in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. So the cover illustration was very much inspired by that. The full-page illustrations also had cloisonné as its muse, but they were also mixed with influences of traditional Chinese paintings and the art of antique Chinese vases and ceramics.
I wanted the chapter headers to be simpler, more of a teaser or clue to the upcoming story rather than a window into it (which is how I wanted the full page images to be). For those, I looked at Chinese paper cuts. Paper cuts, to me, have always been an interesting art form—all the abstract shapes suddenly coming together to make an image, rather like how (hopefully) the chapters come together to make a story. So, I thought it would be a good approach for the chapter headers.
FLR: Does the expected age of the reader have any effect on your illustrations? In what way
GL: Yes, the age of the reader does affect my illustrations but only because the story is different. I try to adapt my illustration style for what I think would serve the story best. So, if the writing is more sophisticated, then I try to make the illustrations have a more sophisticated feel as well.
FLR: Before you wrote The Year of the Dog, had you attempted other juvenile novels?
GL: Yes and no. The Year of the Dog had many transformations before it became the book it was. It began as a couple of different other novels first; only after about five years and many false versions did it become The Year of the Dog.
FLR: Were you as single-minded as your character Pacy in your ambitions to become an author/illustrator? Or was it one career interest of many?
GL: The part in “The Year of the Dog” where Pacy enters a book into a book contest, wins 4th place and then decides she wants to be an author/illustrator is true. I entered Landmark’s “Written and Illustrated By…Contest for Students” and I won 4th place (interesting side note—the person who won first place was a young high school student named Dav Pilkey. Yes, Mr. Captain Underpants!). After winning, I knew I had found exactly what I wanted to be.
Of course, before that I had a whole list of other ambitions including: ice skater and singer (both better in theory than in practice!) as well as cashier (because I thought they got to keep all the money they collected, I used to feel sad for cashiers with short lines!). In the end, I think I made the right choice.
FLR: How much do you think your nearly lifelong friendship with your editor Alvina Ling influenced both of your career directions? Do you think either of you might have faltered without the encouragement of the other?
GL: Well, I know Alvina would’ve been just fine without me. And I like to think, since I was published at other publishing houses before hers, I would’ve done okay as well. But that said, I know that I have become a better children’s book creator with her encouragement. When we both began our careers, there was always this tenuous feeling of “Is this going to work?”—and having a good friend in the same industry, on the other side but going through the exact same thing, was great. Sometimes authors/illustrators talk themselves into thinking editors/publishing staff are their enemies—trying to change their creations. Knowing Alvina, I learned early on how everyone who works on the book really cares about the book that is created, how we are really all “in it together.”
But not only is Alvina a great friend, she is also a great editor. Without her, I may not have written Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and it would not be the book it is. It’s very different from what I have written before and not only did she believe in it, she passionately fought for the color interiors for me—which I think elevates the book to so much more.
FLR: In The Year of the Dog, you credit the creation of your debut picture book The Ugly Vegetables to your child character Pacy. Did you actually conceive of this picture book story as an adult, or did its idea truly originate in childhood? Do you get letters from young readers who believe The Ugly Vegetables at their library is actually the product of a nine-year-old?
GL: The Ugly Vegetables was/is my first published book, but I did not write or think of it until I was an adult. However, I thought it would be fun for kids if I used a book I authored and illustrated that was published—so they could see that the dream/ambition came true. I do get students asking if that was really the book I made when I was younger, and though they are always a little disappointed when I tell them the truth, they feel very smart picking up on it.
FLR: Are you left-handed? We noticed that at least two of your characters: Jie-Jie and the narrator in Kite Flying, and Lissy in Lissy’s Friends seem to be. If you are, do you have to worry about accidentally smudging your art, and have you developed any special prevention techniques?
GL: No, I am not left-handed. The reason why many of the characters in my books are left-handed is because I use myself as a hand-model and in the mirror everything is reversed!
FLR: Overall, do you find that you enjoy writing or illustrating more? Do you find one more difficult than the other?
GL: Hmm, this is a hard question. Sometimes I find the writing easier, and sometimes I find the illustrating. It depends on where I am in a project—no matter what, the first round of writing or illustrating is difficult.
Having gone to art school, at first I enjoyed the illustrating more. However, as time has passed and I’ve gained confidence in my writing, I find the writing is very much a part of me. In fact, recently I have begun to see myself more as an author than an illustrator. I think this is because, for me the story always comes first. I try to fit my illustrations around the stories or the words rather than the other way around. But I switch back and forth over which I prefer.
FLR: You mention Carolyn Haywood as a favorite author of your childhood, and an inspiration for your novels The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat. Have you reread any Carolyn Haywood books as an adult? What did you think?
GL: I still love the Carolyn Haywood books, even the illustrations. Upon rereading, they do show a little of their age, but I think they hold up well. I think because they are so focused on school and friends and family, connections that are mostly timeless, they are still great. I hope kids still read them!
FLR: Is your family happy to appear, albeit fictionally, in your stories? Do you give them some degree of veto power prior to publication? Have your sisters ever disagreed with your portrayal of them?
GL: So far, they seem happy to be in my books. In fact, Ki-Ki is rather peeved that there is a “Lissy’s Friends” book but not a “Ki-Ki” book; and both sisters were annoyed when I didn’t include them in my first book, The Ugly Vegetables. I know I could not write my books without their (especially my mother’s) cooperation so I am very lucky to have their support. I usually don’t let them read the book until after it is printed!
FLR: You have mentioned that you had some insecurities regarding your ethnic identity as a child, and that more books with Asian-American main characters would have helped you. Was there a particular point that you remember where you began to feel more comfortable with your identity? How rewarding is it now to receive feedback from children who recognize themselves in Pacy—and who may or may not be Asian-American?
GL: I will probably always have a certain amount of insecurity regarding my ethnic identity, but I’ve learned, over time, that that is okay too. Ethnic identity here in the US is always blending and moving and changing, it is one of the most beautiful things about it. I don’t know if there was one exact “a-ha!” moment for me, but I know once I realized I was not Taiwanese and not American—that I was Taiwanese-American—a blend that I did not have to be ashamed of being too much or too little of the other, things began to come together for me. Somehow, it freed me to want to learn about my heritage and the culture I had previously scorned. Which is why I write the books I do—I write what I know as well as what I want to know. It is the highlight of my work to get letters and e-mails directly from kids who identify with Pacy and Melody (it made me think, “Gee, I should’ve started writing chapter books way before this!). I love how it is not only Asian-American children who write me, but children of all races. Because in The Year of the Dog, I wanted to show that even though Pacy was of a different race with some different customs than her classmates, they were basically the same—it’s great when the readers feel that way too!
FLR: We’re pleased to hear you’re currently working on at least one early reader: Ling and Ting. When is it expected to publish, what is it about, and do you expect that more will follow?
GL: Yes, I am very excited about Ling and Ting! It is an early reader (which is a format I have been wanting 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. I am working on the illustrations now; it should be out Spring 2010. I am hoping it will become a series, but I think the publisher wants to see how well the first one is received.
FLR: Do you currently have ambitions to try any other genres, such as a graphic novel or a novel for adults?
GL: I have thought about both (graphic novels more so than an adult novel) but so far the muse has not wandered in that direction. I’ve also had dreams of making a pop-up book or little animations and I would really like to write a fun mystery, but I have to wait for the right story. I can usually tell as I write the story what genre would be best for it. Like I said about the illustrations, I let the story come first. For me, I can’t say “I want to write a graphic novel!” and then I write a story to fit in it. It is usually more along the lines of, “This story wants to be a picture book.” I wish it was the other way, then I would already have a mystery, pop-up and a graphic novel all lined up. Ha ha!
FLR: Thanks so much for your time. We’ll be rooting for you next awards season!
GL: Thank you! Appreciate it!
For additional Grace Lin titles, log in to TITLEWAVE.