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Interview with Laurence Yep
By Leonard Marcus*

Posted: November 2002

"Your first home," Laurence Yep wrote in his autobiography, The Lost Garden (1991), "will always be the one that you remember best. I have been away from it for over twenty years; and yet I still go back in my dreams." For Yep, whose father and maternal grandparents emigrated from China, that home was an apartment, and the family grocery store it came with, in an African-American neighborhood of San Francisco. As young people, both he and his older brother, Thomas, helped out at the store. It was there that young Laurence taught himself to juggle while unpacking endless cartons of soup cans. And it was there that he learned about patience, hard work, and getting along with neighbors.

A high school English teacher who set high goals for his students was the first person to encourage Yep to write. The experience of that class changed the direction of his life. Yep was eighteen when he published his first short story, a sci-fi fantasy. He has since written many books and many kinds of books, including picture books, mysteries, historical novels, science fiction, fantasy, and realistic stories set in the present day. He has retold Chinese folk stories and written for the theater. In nearly all these varied works, Yep, who is married to the children's book author Joanne Ryder, has returned to questions he has been asking himself since childhood: What does it mean to be Chinese and American? What is it like to live the life of an outsider in an alien world or culture? Can one who belongs to two cultures ever feel at home anywhere?

What kind of child were you?
Working in our family store, and getting to know our customers, I learned early on how to observe and listen to people, how to relate to others. It was good training for a writer. Back them, however, I thought of myself as a scientist. I was going to be a chemist. Like my father, I was fascinated by machines. My father wanted to know how machines worked — televisions, for instance. At one time he filled our apartment with old TVs! I, on the other hand, was always asking "What if?" questions about machines. What if the world had central energy source that broadcast power? There could be world peace because it would be possible to cut off the power to any nation that wanted to start a war. I was an American child — so relentlessly so that my grandmother became hesitant to talk about Chinese things with me, even about the gods she kept on her bedroom bureau. I regretted this later, when I wanted to know more about my Chinese heritage.

Did you enjoy reading?
Both my parents were good readers, and I became one too. The Oz books were among my favorite books. Fantasy led to science fiction. When it came to realistic stories, however, I found nothing as a kid about the lives of Chinese-Americans. I know now that there was nothing for adults to read, either.

When did you first think of yourself as a storyteller, as a writer?
As a child, I never thought of myself as the storyteller of the family, because the others were always better at it than I was. I got interested in writing purely by chance, thanks to a high school English teacher, the Reverend John Becker. He challenged us not to set limits for ourselves. He told us all to write a story or poem that would be published in a national magazine. That's when I began writing science fiction, which I found was a lot like doing a lab experiment. I could set up a society, give it inhabitants, decide on certain parameters or rules, and then ask myself what might happen next.

What was your first story about?
It was about a time when San Francisco had sunk underneath the ocean. A young man goes back to the underwater ruins, trying to discover his roots. Finally, he decides that the only thing he can know about himself is that he's human. The irony s that he's not human, but a genetically altered dolphin. The reader knows this, but he never finds out. Years later I realized that all my science fiction stories, including that first one, were about alien creatures — or about alienated heroes. And I realized that in writing those stories I was really trying to work my way through to a clearer sense of who I was as a Chinese-American.

How has being of Chinese heritage been important to you?
The answer to that question has changed dramatically more than once. As a child I hated Chinese school. I wanted to be as American as possible. Then, in my early twenties, I became very interested in my Chinese roots. For years after that, I thought that my function as a Chinese-American writer was to act as a bridge between two cultures. Now, though, I am not so sure that it is possible to blend two cultures together. Asian cultures are family- and cooperation-oriented. American culture on the other hand emphasizes the individual and competition. The two cultures pull in opposite directions. So I see myself now as someone who will always be on the borer between two cultures. That works to my benefit as a writer because not quite fitting in helps me be a better observer.

Do you have a daily work routine?
I have always tried to have a separate area in which to work. When I started out, it was the corner of a room. Now I have my own study. I have also always tried to write at the same time each day. There's a reason for this. Writing is raising a window so that other people can look inside your world and your imagination. If you have a set place and a set time, sometimes that window will start rising on its own.
Paying attention to your senses is the first step toward being creative. Before I begin to work, I'll do breathing exercises during which I close my eyes. It's a kind of a trick. Humans are primarily visual creatures, and when we close our eyes the brain becomes starved for visual information. When I finally open up my eyes, I get a flood of visual information and feel I've reconnected myself with the world and am ready to begin.

What kinds of research do you do for your books?
Old newspapers are like time machines for me, even down to the advertisements. In college, while doing an independent study on Chinese-American history, I came across two old articles about the turn-of-the-century Chinese-American aviator upon whose story I later based Dragonwings (1975). I also like to read old maps and study old photographs. From sources such as these, I've learned, for instance, that in San Francisco's Chinatown in the late 1800s there were three shooting galleries and some lumberyards. If you were walking through the streets in those days, you might have heard the pop pop pop of shooting gallery guns going off and the sound of hand-powered saws. I put background noises such as these into my stories because they make for more vivid writing. By now, having done so much research, when I go for a walk in Chinatown I can "see" all the long-gone buildings that lined the streets at different times in the past.

I feel a responsibility as a Chinese-American not to make up facts about the past. Frequently before I begin to tackle a difficult subject about Chinese-Americans, I'll write a science fiction story. I like doing this because I know that if I write about Alpha Centauri, I won't have to worry about my responsibility to the Alpha Centaurians!

Do you revise your work?
I rewrote Dragon of the Lost Sea (1982) seven times. It started out as a story about two suburban kids who were taken to a world based on Chinese mythology. But toward the end of the book I introduced two minor characters, a dragon and her pet boy, who became such vivid characters for me that I finally realized that the story had to be about them.

Do you ever get stuck and not know what to write next?
Often! I'll feel myself running out of gas. When that happens I know it's time to put that book aside and move on to a different project. Frequently I'll write several books at once but in different genres. I wrote The Mark Twain Murders (1982), a murder mystery set in nineteenth-century San Francisco, for example, at the same time that I was working on Dragon of the Lost Sea. As different as they are, both those books describe the humorous interaction between a younger character and an older character as they make their way through a violent universe.

How do you know when a book is done?
I don't know, because a book is never really done.

What do you tell children who want to write?
That there are many ways to get into a writing mood. During school visits, I'll ask for a list of objects in the room. We'll choose one object — a lightbulb, say — and try to imagine it as a living creature. How would a lightbulb communicate with others? How would it get its food? We then try to imagine the creature's world. The last step is to make up a story about that world.

What is the best part of being a writer?
It's nice being able to daydream and to get paid for it.

From AUTHOR TALK, edited by Leonard Marcus.
Copyright ©2001 by Leonard Marcus.
Used with permission of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing.

*Leonard Marcus is a children's book historian, author and critic based in New York. Visit his website at www.leonardmarcus.com

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Laurence Yep
More about Laurence Yep on PaperTigers:
Read reviews of his books The Amah, Dream Soul and The Journal of Wong Ming Chung, a Chinese Miner from Pacific Reader.

More about Laurence Yep on the Web:
A.Gendell and M.Hanley with Kay E. Vandergrift wrote Learning about Laurence Yep
, with an extensive bibiography of his work.

Teachers can find lesson plans related to his books on the Internet School Library Media Center. Kidreach, the online reading center, put together a great page of links to various internet resources related to his books.

 



If you're interested in Pacific Rim/South Asian nonfiction for adults, read an interview to the 2000 Kiriyama Prize fiction winner Michael Ondaatje on our sister site...

 

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