I met Grace Lin last spring when she was a keynote speaker at our spring conference. She’s sweet and sharp, and she always finds a way to create books in her own unique way. Her newest book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a middle grade novel based on Chinese folk tales with full color illustrations. From the wonderful story, to the beautiful artwork and even the lush feel of the paper, it’s truly a gem.
WT: Tell us about your novel, “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.”
GL: My publisher has dubbed “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” as an Asian “Wizard of Oz,” which, while I am honored it is compared to a great classic that I love, is not really what I had in mind when I wrote it. The story follows a young girl named Minli who, inspired by her father’s stories, goes on an enchanted adventure to find the Old Man of the Moon to change her family’s fortune. On the way, she hears various stories from all the people/creatures that she meets and the stories slowly weave a lesson (but not in a didactic way!) about the secret of happiness. The book is a mixture of Chinese folktales and my imagination and values; it’s both ancient and modern, Asian and American.
A noteworthy thing about the novel is that there are full color illustrations scattered throughout the book. The whole book was actually printed in full color–great pains were taken with the design and production. I truly hope that everyone who reads it feels that the book is a thing of beauty aesthetically as well as story-wise!
WT: What made you want to create this book?
GL: I grew up in Upstate NY, the only Asian (except for my sisters) in my school. Because of this, my childhood was always tinged with a strange sense of identity. Was I Chinese? Taiwanese? American? Most of the time I simply ignored my race.
But my mother regretted that I knew and had so little interest in our cultural heritage. So, one day she put about half a dozen Chinese folktale and fairytale books on the shelve for me to read. Which (always unable to resist the lure of a new book) I did.
At first disappointed. Used to lush illustrations and descriptions, the Asian books were plainly translated with an occasional simple b/w line drawings and seemed an inadequate comparison. However, slowly I discovered the stories had a magic and I began to imagine details of my own, tinged with Asian-American sensibilities. When I grew older and was able to travel Hong Kong, Taiwan and China–the stories came alive.
And “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” came into existence. An homage to the folktales and fairy tales I read in my youth, it is a mixture of Asian fairytales and North American classics. Not a traditional retelling of stories from either cultures it is, as I said above, a mix– like me, Asian-American.
WT: The format is so rich and unique. How was developing this book different from your previous novels?
GL: The was very different from my other novels as it was a fantasy, not first person narrative and less episodic than “The Year of the Dog” and “The Year of the Rat.” But I definitely needed to write those first, to gain confidence in my writing ability, before writing “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.”
I tend to write in kind of a haphazard way. I plan the start and end in my head, write the first couple of chapters and then write brief chapter summaries for the rest of the book. For “The Year of…” books, those chapter summaries were pretty much on base. For “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” the story just went off on its own tangent.
It was really important for me for all the stories to tie together, because of the red thread theme– was how everything is connected. So, this book was a very consuming process. I was constantly thinking of how to link stories– writing notes on scrap pieces of paper at the gym, post it notes all over my house, notesbook scrawls at lunch. This was the first book that I’ve written where it was impossible to work on anything else at the same time. I’m glad the story found its way back to my ending.
Also, my research for this book was much more lavish! I traveled to China to really soak up the atmosphere and landscape for my setting. I don’t think I will get to do that again.
WT: How different was your final draft from your first draft? Were the themes consistent? Any surprises?
GL: Well, the first draft was about half the length of the final. Many authors have a hard time cutting–seems like most write great volumes and cut down. For me it’s the opposite. I tend to write incredibly spare and have to go back and “thicken” it up.
The biggest change was adding the second story of Minli’s parents and their experience while Minli was away. My first draft was solely Minli’s journey and it was my editor who felt that I should include Ma & Ba’s experiences too. I kind of balked when she first told me that, but then I tried it and realized it made the story much better!
WT: I always love to hear when other writers write sparely and add more as they revise, instead of whittling down. I’m the same way, but so much revision advice starts with cutting down your word count. I felt like I must not be doing it right until I just accepted that my process was different.
You attended the Rhode Island School of Design, but I read that you write the story before creating the art. How important is it for you to combine the two?
GL: It’s been very important for me to have both the pictures and the words work together. To me, both are equally important. The difference is in a picturebook, the pictures are there to help the readers understand the words and in a novel, the words are there to help readers understand the pictures.
WT: Do you feel there is a growing acceptance of illustrations in children’s novels?
GL: I hope so. You see it a lot more nowadays, like in Kate Dicamillo’s novels and Sharon Creech’s “Castle Corona.” I think the illustrations add so much to experience of reading. To me, they are perfect—they give a glimpse of visualization into the world you are reading, but not so much that you aren’t left with anything to imagine. Also, they make the experience of owning and holding a book feel that much more special—turning the page and seeing a full color illustration is almost like discovering a jewel and the book itself feels like a little treasure.
I hope these days, in the age of technology with browsers and kindles, these kind of illustrated books will be even more cherished. With so much doom and gloom about the future of publishing, to create books that are not cheap throw-aways, but are beautiful objects to enjoy is something to consider.
WT: Great point! What are you working on now?
GL: 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 started preliminary drafts for a novel that has the same characters of my past novels “The Year of the Dog” and the “Year of the Rat.”
I have no plans on writing a sequel to “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” but I do have ideas for companion. My little dream is to have a trilogy of folktale-inspired fantasies, and then I’ll move on to something else (hopefully).
WT: What do you like to do when you’re not making books?
GL: Well, I lead a pretty boring life. Other than book-related things, I like baking cupcakes, decorating cupcakes and eating cupcakes. Oh, and biking (to burn off the cupcakes).
GL: When I first started blogging, I was going through a lot of emotional turmoil and I really needed outlets. Blogging was one of those outlets. Now that my life is peaceful, I blog almost out of habit. I think blogging was good for my writing, it was practice for expressing myself in words and sometimes it is the only writing I do in a day. I don’t think it takes away from my writing of novels, not yet anyway!
WT: What have you enjoyed reading recently?
GL: I’ve been listening to a lot of audio books lately, as I’ve been painting my new picturebook. I’ve been alternating between old classic and new releases. I just finished Edward Eager’s “Half Magic” and I’ve got “Al Capone Shines My Shoes” by Gennifer Choldenko next. For my eager to read pile, I have “Any Which Wall” by Laurel Snyder (which I heard is an homage to Edward Eager, so I’m all primed and ready) and Sid Fleischman’s “The Dream Stealer.”
WT: Thanks for the suggestions, Grace, and thanks for a great interview!