Interview with Laurence
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
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
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
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
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
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
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