Interview with Linda Sue Park
Linda Sue Park, the daughter of Korean immigrants, has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. Before dedicating herself to writing books for children, she earned degrees from universities in California and Great Britain, worked as a food journalist, and taught English as a Second Language.
She lives in upstate New York with her husband, their two children, and a dog.
Your new book, Keeping Score, brings together baseball and the Korean War. The story really succeeds in conveying both Maggie’s passion for the game and also the dilemmas and inward struggles she faces with her increasing awareness of the conflict in Korea and its consequences. How did the book come about?
Keeping Score came about because I have long wanted to write about the Korean War, but I couldn’t seem to find a way into a story with that setting. I have also always wanted to write about baseball, a lifelong love. I had a light-bulb moment a few years ago, when it occurred to me that a baseball story set during the time of the Korean War would allow me to write about both. It sounds very simple in hindsight, but it took me years to come up with the idea.
Of course, all historical fiction is written through the lens of the present. Maggie feels frustrated and confused as she tries to learn about the Korean War… and while I was writing those scenes, I was feeling the same way about the war in Iraq.
You too learnt to keep a baseball score as a child – in fact, you have drawn on your own experiences when describing how Maggie developed her score-keeping methods. Do you still do it? What makes it so special for you?
I don’t keep score when I’m watching games on television, but I do when I attend a game at the ball park. It helps me pay closer attention to what’s happening on the field, and I enjoy tinkering with my scoring notations - I’m always trying to improve them, make up new ways of getting more of the game’s details into those tiny little squares. As Maggie discovers, it’s another way to feel connected to the game, and to participate actively even though you’re a spectator.
I also love the way that keeping score emphasizes ‘process’ over ‘product.’ In most cases, the games I score are not historically or even sentimentally momentous; my scoresheet won’t become some kind of valuable artifact when it’s finished. It’s the act of keeping score itself that’s important.
Your book Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems), a 2008 Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts, introduces traditional Korean poetry to the general public. What motivated you to write the book? Did you grow up with sijo or did you have to “study” it to write the book? How did the technical aspects of the form affect your writing?
I had never heard of sijo growing up; I came across it as an adult. I have always loved reading and writing poetry and was delighted to discover a traditional Korean form. Writing in any kind of poetic form is a challenge, but for me, working within formal restrictions expands the possibilities in certain ways, rather than curtailing them. The form imposes certain limits, leaving my imagination free to explore the space within, as opposed to having to worry about creating those limits myself (which is both necessary and quite difficult, although in my opinion many practitioners of so-called ‘free verse’ don’t seem to realize this).
Your first published poem was a haiku, at age 9. How was your path, as a poet, from your first haiku to your more recent Sijo poems?
I have always been grateful that I started my writing life with poetry. I feel strongly that the discipline of writing in poetic form for many years taught me to pay the closest attention to language and to make every word count. These are lessons that continue to apply no matter what kind of writing I’m doing - a three-line sijo or a full-length novel.
I learned from Sylvia Vardell’s “Poetry for Children” blog that you read a brand new sijo on explaining baseball to an alien at the recent Texas Library Association Conference? Could you share it with us?
"Explaining Baseball to an Alien"
There are nine players in the field . . . . Never mind, the game is starting!
We’ll watch together. I’ll keep score, and explain every play.
When you have a question, just poke me with one of your tentacles.
Does having a musician mother have anything to do with your loving to read and write - and recite! - poetry?
I never thought about that! Yes, my mother is a gifted music teacher and composer. My husband and daughter love music too, so there has always been a lot of music around me. I do think a lot about the rhythm of the words as I write, and it’s interesting to consider that this might be because of the musical influences in my life.
You posted a beautiful letter in your journal, from a father who had attended one of your presentations in Kansas City with his family. He wrote: “Your comment [the part where you told reluctant readers they just haven’t found their favorite book yet] made me realize how important it is to encourage kids to keep trying and trying until the light bulb comes on. All it takes is that ONE book, but that can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Thank God for teachers and librarians who know where the hay is.” Do you hear a lot of stories about “that one book”?
I do sometimes hear stories about books that turned kids into readers, and it’s always a thrill when it’s one of mine! It’s so rewarding to hear from kids who say things like, “I don’t really like to read but I loved your book!” A few years ago I met a 13-year-old boy whose mother explained to me that he was a very reluctant reader. I was surprised to learn that the book he loved was When My Name Was Keoko . I consider that book a pretty tough read, and not necessarily one that I would have recommended to him. His mother said that he had never before finished a book on his own but he had read Keoko four times. I was truly moved when I learned that.To be honest, I don’t worry very much about the readers. Kids who love to read usually don’t seem to have a problem finding books that they love. But I do think a lot about kids who say they don’t like to read, and I do everything I can to encourage them not to give up on books. They don’t have to read MY books! They just need to ask a librarian, teacher or a caring adult to help them find books that they will love.
School and library visits, conference presentations, interviews… as wonderful and as important as those things are to help more people connect with your books (and with books in general), don’t they sometimes get in the way of writing?
What I’ve learned over the years is that there is no such thing as a balanced schedule. Traveling and speaking definitely get in the way of writing. But unlike some writers, I’m quite a social person, so I think that traveling and meeting people feed an important part of my imagination.
How about blogging? Did you take it up gladly or did you need to have your arms twisted, so to speak?
I’m a pretty sporadic blogger. When I started my blog, I was determined that it would not become something I would feel guilty about; I already have way too much guilt in my life! I blog when I feel like it. That way, it’s almost always enjoyable. I do feel guilty about not leaving comments in other people’s blogs, though. But we all have to make choices about how we use our time - there’s never enough of it!
I read in your blog that you recently met with a mother-daughter book club, in Boston. Can you please tell us about the visit? Have you ever been part of one?
As I recall, that particular group had read a couple of my books, most recently Project Mulberry. The group had been together for several years, starting when the girls were quite young. It was fun meeting and talking to them! I’ve never been part of a parent-child book group, but I think they’re terrific. I read aloud to my own kids long after they were able to read themselves, into their teens, actually. I love it when another member of the family reads a book I’ve read so we can talk about it. I think it’s great when families want to share books as an activity.
You have said before that the reason you chose to major in English was because you could read all day long and call it "studying.” You’re known to read “all over the place,” from picture books to fantasy to Korean history and folktales to science fiction to non-fiction, and have even described yourself as a “maniacal reader” (you’re a writer and a parent’s dream, Linda Sue!). What would you attribute this voraciousness and openness to? Are your children avid readers as well?
My motto has always been, “I’ll read anything as long as it’s GOOD!” This speaks to my two main interests as a reader: a good story and interesting use of language. You can find those characteristics in every genre… so that’s where I go looking for them! I think my voraciousness has its roots in the fact that my family wasn’t able to travel very much when I was young. I wanted to see the world, and if you can’t travel, one of the best ways to do that is through books. Now that I’m grown, travel and learning about other places and people is still one of my greatest interests. I’ll never be able to go to all the places or do all the things I want to do - but I can read about them!My kids are great readers, although they don’t read as much as I think they should (they think my standards are completely unreasonable!).
Now could you please tell us a little bit about the experience of contributing a chapter to the young adult novel Click, written by nine other great writers (Ruth Ozeki, Margo Lanagan, Tim Wynne-Jones, Deborah Ellis, to name a few)? Yours is the first chapter in it… did starting the story make it easier to participate in the project? Does Maggie from Click have anything in common with Maggie from Keeping Score?
The other writers teased me that I had the easiest job, writing the first chapter. But that could be because they never saw the first draft, which was written, revised, rewritten, revised some more, and then almost completely scrapped (only the photography motif remained).
I loved seeing how the story evolved and I was thrilled by how each author made the story their own.
As for the two Maggies, the only thing they have in common, at least consciously, is their name, although I guess you could say that I wanted to write more about a Maggie than just one chapter, so that’s partly why I used the name again.
I agree. And I think picture-book illustrators need to take the lead here. There are hundreds of picture books written every year that could be illustrated using characters of color. I’d like to see way more of that.
What I say to writers is, “Turn off the default setting!” The default being Caucasian, middle-class, heterosexual, etc. It’s fine if your characters end up being Caucasian and middle-class, but those should be conscious choices, not the result of the presumptive default…no matter who the author is.
Does your writing consciously concern itself with helping create more understanding among people - or is that just a welcome byproduct of some of your work as an American writer of Korean heritage?
Definitely a byproduct. I want to write stories. That’s all. Anything along social/cultural/political lines that has happened as a result of those stories has come as a complete surprise to me, and I confess that I was utterly unprepared. Over the years I have gotten more accustomed to the idea that I am supposed to ‘represent’ in some way, and although I’m still not comfortable with it, I’m doing my best!
You have said: “When I sit down, I feel like a storyteller. I don't feel like a writer for either any particular age group or market.” That being the case, how do you know what audience to focus on when you start to develop an idea? I imagine writing for children and writing for young adults have their own sets of requirements…
I never know what my audience will be. If I try to guess, I am almost always wrong. I thought A Single Shard would have to be an adult project, because what kid would want to read about 12th-century Korean pottery? I write the story as it needs to be written, and so far my stories have been published for young people because of the age of the protagonists and the finished length. I think a couple of my books - When My Name was Keoko and Keeping Score - could have been published as adult projects.
What should your readers expect next? Do you have any new books scheduled to come out this year or next?
My next project will be published not in book form but in the newspaper! I am currently writing a story for a syndicated newspaper feature called ‘Breakfast Serials’. Breakfast Serials are novels published in installments in newspapers all over the country. The tentative publication date for my story is beginning in January 2009. I’m very excited about this project and hope it will introduce my work to lots of readers.
*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers Managing Editor
Posted May 2008
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