Stacy and I (along with Bev Patt (now co-chair of the scrumptious Class of 2k9) Linda Joy Singleton (the Seers series and more) and Lila Guzman (Latino historical fiction) participated in a panel on cultural diversity last April down in Dallas during the TLA (Texas Library Association) conference. We'd met online through our publisher, Blooming Tree Press, and through our online marketing group, The Class of 2k8. (I'm a class dropout due to a change in my release date.)
It was Stacy who'd taken the initiative to propose the panel. I knew she was an energetic, focused and determined individual. I also knew she was fun and kind. But what was she like as a writer? Dragon Wishes came out last October and it's been the first book I finished reading in 2009. Read a great review here.
I, too, thoroughly enjoyed it - especially the humorous interchange between Alex and Maddie - two eleven year old girls who carry the main storyline along. But the book has several layers and I marveled at the ease with which the reader is led back and forth between Alex's inner and outer worlds. The varied details of food and Chinese customs, along with smatterings of German and Chinese dialogue, bring an authentic voice to this multi-cultural work. The tension built up around Alex's coming to terms with her losses is subtle, yet continuous.
Here is my conversation with Stacy.
From Dragon Wishes' beautiful red, black and gold dust jacket, we glean that you're a traveler, a marine-explorer, into Chinese mythology and last, but not least, a family woman with a husband and two young daughters. Such a diverse range of interests and commitments.
1. Could you share a bit about your travels?
My grandfather said the traveling bug hit me early. I've been traveling all my life. When I was a kid, we took a lot of road trips to see family, traveling from Indianapolis, Indiana, twenty-two hours south to Houston, Texas, where my mom's family lives. I read a lot, which probably helped toward becoming an author, but more than anything, I got excited about the trip itself.
Where would we go? What would we see? What adventures waited around the next bend? I became a bona fide travel junkie. I've been going ever since. I love the thrill of the unknown that awaits me on a journey.
2. Okay ... so from road trips we meander over to water. Why the fascination for marine life? (Stacy also has three picture books to her credit: Shelby, Dizzy and Squirt).
That is a great question, and many of my friends have come up with lots of theories about it, one more fantastical than the next - I was a fish in a previous life (one of my personal favorites). My astrological sign is Pisces, which are fish, and like them I'm always trying to find my way back to water. Personally, I think is again the thrill of the unknown. The ocean is the last true unknown and hugely unexplored place on our planet. You never know what a trip down below will reveal. That environment gives my imagination plenty of room to play and create.
3. You touchingly write that this book is for your two daughters. Are they of an age to read and appreciate Dragon Wishes?
They are! In fact, my oldest, who is now ten, just finished it. The morning before she did, she came downstairs with dark circles under her eyes. I asked her if she'd had trouble sleeping. Not really. She'd gotten caught up between the pages of Dragon Wishes and lost track of time. Glee. Well, sort of. As a mom, I wanted to tell her not to read so late. As an author, I was tickled pink a reader, my daughter!, had gotten so caught up in my story. I'm not sure it would have made a difference if I told her not to stay up reading. She did it again that night and finished the story. I found out because she came downstairs to wake me up and tell me. Did she like it? Her answer was a huge grin and bear hug. Best compliment ever.
4. In the Acknowledgements you mention that your parents instilled in you a love of storytelling and literature, but that they hoped you'd go into business. Can you expand on this a bit?
I come from a family of numbers people - accountants, engineers, architects, biophysicists, pilots, computer whizzes, you name it. I can do math. I even taught statistics, but it's writing that's my real passion. The numbers people in my family are very supportive, but I am definitely the glitch on the family scattergram.
5. More power to you, Stacy! What about languages? You include both German and Chinese in your book. How familiar are you with these two languages?
I am fluent in German, having studied and lived in German-speaking countries for six years. I wish I could say the same about Chinese. However, my daughters' godmother is from Taiwan, and she was my Chinese go-to-person for all phrases, names, etc. It was a fun process working with her. I learned a lot about China and Taiwan, as well as her personal story. It was fascinating.
6. Your book involves a story within a story. Describe the process in intertwining these stories.
That was probably the hardest part of the book. I didn't want to tell the same story twice, but to have them parallel each other on an emotional level. So I had to think of what would happen in Alex's story and then what would parallel that emotionally in Shin Wa's story. I'd be crazy if I said that was all just me. Alex and Shin Wa came to life for me. They were my guides.
7. It's great when characters let that magic happen for the author. It comes across really well. You appear to be a very disciplined person. (Anyone with a young family knows how distractions can take over.) How do you structure your writing time? Do you have a set time to write? A daily minimum?
I try to write in the morning, every morning. Writing first, everything else second. It's the only way I get it done. And I try for at least three hours a day. I wish it could be more. Some days I hit four or five, but usually not more than that.
8. Do you have a special place to write, or do you, because of your traveling, find you can write anywhere?
I write best in my office. I need the structure of a desk and chair. If I go and sit in my big comfy chair in my bedroom, I get too comfortable. And I find a lot of distractions. I really have to keep them to a minimum. The office setting helps. I wondered if I was too rigid about that until I read the Maya Angelou goes to a hotel, has them take everything but a desk and bed out of the room and writes there until she is finished. That made me feel a lot better about my "distractions" problem.
Having said that, I'm not great about writing anywhere. Edits, yes. Creating story, no. I need quiet and focus, and it seems like I find that best in my office.
9. How does your family feel about your writing? Do they give you the space you need or must you set firm boundaries?
As my girls have gotten older, it's gotten a lot better. I write when they are at school. If they are home, we work out a game plan for them in the morning so I can write and they aren't bored to death. It usually works pretty well.
10. What advice can you give to other women who want to write, but are busy with family demands?
That's hard. Each family situation is different, but it seems like the one overriding factor I've experienced, and that I've heard from other women juggling career and family, is that you have to carve out time to write. It's not going to form itself. Even if it's only an hour, make it a part of your day. Pretty soon, it becomes routine, and it's not so hard to get that writing time in.
11. Okay, back to the book. Why Chinese mythology? What drew you to that exotic world of dragons?
Major confession: this story started out about unicorns. Go figure. But then I thought maybe unicorns was a theme done one time too many. What else could I do? China came to mind. In part, because I am fascinated with the East. There is so little we hear and read about Asian culture, as compared to European. It was a new adventure for me, a new uncharted territory to discover.
12. Of course, you're an explorer! Do you write using an outline?
(Guilty cough) I don't. I've tried, but outlines don't work for me. For all of the discipline I bring to my writing, creating stories works best for me if I let the story unfold in front of me, let my characters guide me, I go back and put together an outline after I've written the story, to make sure I've been consistent, but I don't start from one. Letting the story unfold and surprise me helps me bring that element of surprise to my storytelling.
13. Again, you're showing your spirit of the adventurer. Do you develop characters to go with the plot, or vice versa?
They sort of develop in tandem. Sometimes the character comes first, sometimes the setting, sometimes the plot, but once one of those has jelled, the others develop almost simultaneously.
14. Do your book characters resemble any characters from your real life?
I'm such a magpie in that sense. I take a bit from someone's personality here, and a tidbit from another person's personality there, and splice them together, as well as create entirely from scratch. I have no shame! Alex started out as a rough sketch of my oldest daughter, some basic personality characteristics, but as the story developed, Alex became her own person. Today, I can still see a little of my daughter in her, but I see far more of Alex as a character.
15. I love that magpie image! What would you say is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
Oh, gosh, it depends on the day. Sometimes it's creating the story. Other days, edits and revisions seem like they may kill me. Sometimes it's pacing, sometimes plot, sometimes a wayward character, who's off doing her own thing that I need to bring back into the story. I guess that's what I like about writing. I never know where the challenges of the day will lie. But challenges there will be!
16. It's that road trip all over again, eh? What do you enjoy most about the act of writing?
I enjoy sharing ideas. I enjoy learning. And, I really enjoy watching my watching my characters work through their problems and grow. Most of all, I enjoy sharing my books with kids. When a child giggles or bubbles with questions, all the hard work of writing pays off. I'm inspired. That's the best reward for me.
17. Before you become a seasoned pro, is there anything you'd like to share about your experiences during your first year as a published author?
Perseverance. Perseverance turns an unpublished author into a published one. It's the main ingredient in getting from decent writing to amazing writing. Along that road there are a lot of hurdles - learning to write, learning what you write best, finding someone who connects with your work, finding someone who believes in your work, as well as enough people telling a writer her work isn't up to snuff. Perseverance helps to get through those times, glean out whatever tidbits of advice might be in the critique and make the writing shine. It's the one thing I've heard writer after writer after writer tell me. Staying with it even when the going ws tough and there was no light. Staying with it usually led to a path out of the murkiness and into great writing.
19. Any other advice to beginning writers?
Love what you do. Who knows what will happen with the stories. But if you love your work,
the personal journey of writing will bring satisfaction. Plus, if you love what you do, it shows. That passion comes through your words. It turns words into guides, paragraphs into scenes, scenes into pages and pages into stories. It's the secret ingredient in any story, the love of the craft.
20. I'll end this interview with some advice from one of your characters: "Breathe." Interview is over. Thanks, Stacy for a delightfully engaging book about family, loss and dragons! I'm sure you'll continue to have many adventures as you explore the next bend in your journey as a writer.
No doubt you'll learn more about how Stacy the traveler, the magpie, and the passionate lover of story continues to discover and create.