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Interview with Linda Sue Park
by Marjorie Coughlan*

This is our third interview with author Linda Sue Park, and here we ask her especially about her recent book, the superb A Long Walk to Water, awarded the 2011 Jane Addams Children's Book Award in the Books for Older Children category, and PaperTigers Book of the Month in February 2011. Linda Sue is the recipient of numerous other awards, including the 2002 Newbery Medal for her book A Single Shard.

The daughter of Korean immigrants to the US, Linda Sue 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 teh UK, worked as a food journalist, and taught English as a Second Language.

She lives in upstate New York with her husband and a Border Terrier dog called Fergus.
You were inspired to write your powerful novel A Long Walk to Water by the childhood experiences of family friend Salva Dut, who witnessed unspeakable violence and spent ten long years walking to safety as one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys”.  At what point did you realise you wanted to turn his story into a children’s book, and how much adapting did you have to do to the narrative to make it work?

My husband is a journalist, and has written several stories about Salva for an adult readership. Salva’s story is so amazing and inspiring that I wanted young people to know about him too. Everything that happens in A Long Walk happened to Salva in real life; however, I was conscious of the audience as I wrote the story. It was a balancing act to try to convey the reality of what Salva went through in a way that wouldn’t be too traumatic for young readers.

The two strands, Nya’s and Salva’s, complement each other to help readers’ emotions find some sort of equilibrium – where one of their stories comes close to unbearable, the other at that point is more positive, until the end where the two stories merge on a note of hope.  How important do you think hope is here and in children’s books in general? 

In another of my books, Keeping Score, the main character Maggie comes to the conclusion that “Hope is what gets everything started. . . .Hope always comes first.” But of course, hope alone is never enough. In my experience, smart choices and hard work are essential as well, and my stories reflect that. It’s up to young readers to decide whether those values become important to them too. Hope, smart choices, hard work—that’s a pretty good formula in my opinion.

During a workshop back in 2002, shortly after you won the Newbery, you said the following: "I am very conscious of my role as a novelist. For example, […] my characters do not talk to me. I never cry over a scene when I'm writing it. I feel almost clinical about it, choosing the right words, working on the rhythm, making sure each scene integrates." How much do you think that hearkens back to your days as a journalist?  Did that hold true for A Long Walk to Water?  And of course here, in a sense, one of your characters was talking to you – how did that affect the way you wrote the book?

It’s interesting for me to see that quote ten years later—and I confess I’m relieved that it’s still all true. I have to say that I never thought about it as related to journalism. Instead it seems to me to draw from certain other activities I’ve always enjoyed. I love cooking and I’ve done a lot of knitting: the kind of stuff that takes both your head and your hands. People often think of writing as happening on a cerebral and emotional plane. But for me, it has always been just as much about the craft. So the equivalent of ‘knife skills’ in cooking or achieving the correct tension in knitting, that’s the ‘clinical’ side of writing—paying close attention to structure and word choice and punctuation. It’s the fun part!

What was the real Salva’s reaction to the book, and do you know if it’s had any impact on the work of his charity Water for South Sudan?

By the time the book came out, Salva had seen his story in print many times, so he kind of took it all in stride. This is perfectly in keeping with his personality. He’s so down to earth, so centered—if he were on all the talk shows or in a video clip that went viral or trending on Twitter, none of that would affect him one bit. He’s an extraordinary person that way.

The response of the students and teachers who have read the book has been just remarkable. Dozens of schools and individuals have been inspired by Salva’s story to raise money for Water for South Sudan. I don’t know the exact figure, but I do know that literally thousands of people in South Sudan have or will soon have access to clean water because of the young people who have read the book. Doesn’t get any better than that!

You said in an interview with Publishers Weekly shortly after the book came out, “I do think that part of literature’s job is to comment on and participate in the social issues of the time.” Can you share with us some reactions from young readers?

The most common reaction from young readers is that they want to meet Salva. I’m always sorry to have to disappoint them—Salva is now living in South Sudan, and working so hard that he doesn’t have much time to visit the U.S. At the same time, I find this response from readers truly moving. So often the people they dream of meeting are movie stars or professional athletes or rock musicians, and it’s terrific that Salva is right up there on that list!

In the same interview you also said, “You can’t get more of a human universal than water.”  Has your own attitude towards water changed since writing the book?

Although of course I always knew on an ‘intellectual’ level that water is vital to life, I was surprised and moved to learn how access to clean water affects those who have never had it before. When Water for South Sudan puts in a well, the knock-on effect is staggering. Villagers have opened marketplaces, started small businesses, built clinics. Most important of all, nearly every village that has received a well has started a school for the local children, who no longer have to spend their days fetching water. Clean water directly linked to education—that was a real eye-opener for me!

Your most recent book is The Third Gift, a story that goes behind the three wise men in the Christmas Story.   Can you give us some background: for example, where did the idea come from to draw other characters into the narrative?

No matter what your religious faith or beliefs, there’s no question that the birth of Christ was a crucial event historically. I am always interested in the corners and edges of important historical events; the question that often comes to me is, “Who else was there?” Who else, besides the famous names? As the author’s note to the book says, “History is happening all around us every day and stories can help remind us that we are as much a part of it as those whose names dominate the headlines.”

Before I finish, I have one question from my younger son, who loves your Tap Dancing on the Roof and especially the title poem, which he recited to me as the light bulb went on when I was teaching him long division.  How did you get the idea for that poem?  Are you still writing sijos?

Poetry was my first love as a writer, and I still write poems every chance I get, including sijo. For the title poem in Tap Dancing, I went back to a memory from my childhood: Whenever I did a long-division problem, I always felt like I was drawing a little house for the dividend. I developed that idea further for the sijo. I’m delighted that your son enjoyed it!

What projects are you working on at the moment?

At the moment, I’m finishing up a book for the ‘Cahills vs. Vespers’ series, the continuation of The 39 Clues story. That will come out in the fall of 2012. And in 2013, look for a picture book called Xander’s Panda Party illustrated by the amazing Matt Phelan!

*Marjorie Coughlan is Editor of PaperTigers

Posted February 2012

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interviwee-Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park's photo

More on PaperTigers:

Read our 2006 and 2008 interviews with Linda Sue.

Read her PaperTigers Personal View: "Life With A Hyphen: Reading and Writing as a Korean-American"

More on the web:

Visit Linda Sue's website and read her blog.

Read Linda Sue's interview with Publisher's Weekly.

Find out more about Water for South Sudan

- - - - - - - -

By Linda Sue Park (selected bibliography):

The Third Gift
illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
(Clarion Books, 2011)

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick
illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

A Long Walk to Water
(Clarion Books, 2010)

Keeping Score
(Clarion Books, 2008)

Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems)
illustrated by Istvan Banyai
(Clarion Books, 2007)

Archer's Quest
(Clarion Books, 2006)

Bee-Bim Bop!
(Clarion Books, 2006)

Project Mulberry
(Clarion Books, 2005)

Yum! Yuck! A Foldout Book of People Sounds (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2005)

The Firekeeper's Son (Clarion, 2004)

A Single Shard
(Clarion Books, 2001)

The Kite Fighters
(Clarion Books, 2000)





Interested in Pacific Rim and South Asia-related fiction and nonfiction for adults? Make sure to take a look at our online literary journal, just a click away: WaterBridge Review.

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