Just released Wednesday, Grace Lin’s new book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, has already received starred reviews, a 2009 Parent’s Choice Gold Award, and a place in the Top 10 SF/Fantasy for Youth. She takes some time from her busy week to tell us what the buzz is about.
-- Jeanette White
CS writer & editor
CS: This fantasy novel is so very different from your other books. What were your goals when you set out to write it?
Grace: Well, I've always loved fairy tales. They were my favorite books to read when I was young. I think my goal when I write any book is to write the book I would've loved as a child. So, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, while different in genre has the similar goal as the other books that I've written.
CS: How did you choose the name Minli for your main character? Does it have special meaning?
Grace: Minli, in Chinese, means "quick and clever" which were the traits that I wanted my main character to have. Many Chinese name meanings for girls tend to focus on traits of beauty and modesty. But, I wanted my character's main distinguishing features to be her inner strength, full of spirit and independence—not the loveliness of her appearance; and I wanted her name to embody that. So, when I found Minli (it is the Chinese phonetic match to the name Emily), it was perfect.
CS: Do you see some of yourself or childhood friends in Minli?
Grace: I think the way that Minli and I are similar is our earnestness. I tried to write her as I would feel, with as much sincerity as possible. I didn’t want to make her an annoying “goody-two-shoes,” but I did want to convey that feeling that all of us have of just trying to our best, of always trying to do the right thing.
This is probably even more poignant because this is the novel that I decided I would try to make the best work I’ve ever done. It was my New Year’s resolution! So, I pulled out all the stops for this book, from the writing to the cover to begging for color printing. Like Minli, I am just trying to do my best!
CS: Certain parts of the story just beg to be read aloud, and I look forward to reading the book to my daughters. (I can’t wait to roar when Dragon finds his courage!) Was it intended as a real-aloud?
Grace: I began my children’s book career with picture books, so striving for the read-aloud quality has been something that has been ingrained in me. As I write, I almost always read it out loud to make sure it is clear orally and make changes accordingly. But I think Where the Mountain Meets the Moon can be enjoyed either way, read aloud or alone.
I wanted the book to be appropriate for young children who are able to read at a higher level but may not be ready for the subject matter of older books; and I also wanted the book to be enjoyable for adults and older children. I wanted it to be a book that the whole family could share; where no one would be embarrassed or confused, but everyone would still take great pleasure in. So, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a book with meanings that can be understood at many different levels as well as a fun adventure story. Or, at least that is what I meant it to be!
CS: In our last interview, you said elements of your trip to China were woven into this novel. Can you elaborate?
Grace: Well, when I first began writing this book, I had visited Hong Kong and Taiwan which were wonderful trips. Being Asian-American (and more American than Asian), it was a fascinating experience to be surrounded by a culture that was so foreign and familiar at the same time. Whenever I viewed the landscape, saw a temple or a sampan in the water, I suddenly would remember the Chinese folktales I had read as a child. I could see them happening in the setting around me and I knew in there was a book waiting to be written.
I was almost 3/4th finished with writing the book when I went to visit China. This was the perfect time to go, as I had an idea of what kinds of things I wanted to see and research there but the book was still open enough to be changed. And it was wonderful! Actually seeing China with my own eyes and experiencing it added such a rich layer to the story. For example, one of the excursions we took especially for the book was a visit to a tiny mountain village. I wanted to see a mountain village because I knew Minli (the main character in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon) would be visiting one. The whole time we were there, we were freezing cold but the villagers were so friendly and red-cheeked (which I was to find out later was wind-burn, not good circulation). So, those elements of mountain cold and a warm, friendly shelter became the backdrop of the village Minli visits.
CS: Folk tales are a big part of Minli’s life, thanks to her dad. Are those stories based on actual folk tales? What role have folk tales played in your own life?
Grace: The book was inspired by the Chinese folktales and myths that I read as a child. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is very, very loosely based on the Chinese folktale "Olive Lake." Aside from adding many layers and changing plot points, I also changed the main character from an adult male to the girl Minli. Many of the stories-inside-the-stories are inspired by Asian folk stories as well. For example, "The Old Man of the Moon" and "The Buffalo Boy and the Weaving Goddess" are very famous Chinese legends/tales—the Old Man of the Moon is the Chinese God of Marriage who ties future spouses together with a red thread and the Buffalo Boy and Weaving Goddess are the lovers whom Chinese Valentine’s Day is inspired by. I’ve embellished both legends for the novel, but I did try to keep true to the original sentiment of them.
For me, folk tales were one of the thin threads that connected to me to my heritage when I was younger. In my youth, I disregarded my Asian roots in a quest to be "really American." But, as I said earlier, I loved folk tales and fairy tales and reading the ones from Chinese culture lay the subtle seeds for interest in my heritage to sprout later.
CS: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon has been likened to the Wizard of Oz stories. Were those favorite books when you were a child? What other stories had a strong influence?
Grace: The Oz books were some of my favorite books—I read the entire series and was so upset when there were not more. But I didn't realize until after I had written Where the Mountain Meets the Moon how similar it was, though I suppose it should have been fairly obvious! I suppose it was my subconscious wish to play Dorothy in my elementary school theatrical coming out. Other books that I think influenced Where the Mountain Meets the Moon are My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett and The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt.
CS: You’ve said that writing this fantasy book was a very consuming process. Tell us how it changed your routine and monopolized your thoughts.
Grace: It was really important for me for all the stories to tie together, because of the red thread theme—how everything is connected. Yet, when I began the book, I knew a little less than half of how and which stories would tie together. The beginning story of how Fruitless Mountain would turn green came to me pretty early on, but many of the other stories—"The Green Tiger Magistrate" and "The Paper of Happiness," actually came while I was writing the book. It was actually a very organic process, where I had the seed of what I wanted and then once the story took root, hundreds of vines grew.
So, this book was a very consuming process. I was constantly thinking of how to link stories—writing notes on scrap pieces of paper at the gym, Post-it notes all over my house, notebook scrawls at lunch. This was the first book that I’ve written where it was impossible to work on anything else at the same time.
I traveled to China and Taiwan and relived my trip to Hong Kong as a way for me to soak up the landscape and help create the imagery in my mind.
I also read and reread many Asian folktales and myths. Many times, I would read a myth that was little more than a line and would be unable to find more—which lead me to create the story in my head. For example, at Chinese New Year, it is common to find pictures of two plump children dressed in red decorating doorways. These children are called Da-A-Fu. Why? I researched and only found a very short summary of them: They were two spirits transformed as children sent to destroy a green monster that was terrorizing a village. There were no details of how or why or what village, but it was enough to spark my imagination. So with that, I created the twin characters of A-Fu and Da-Fu, who destroy the Green Tiger in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
Even with the research, however, this book had its challenges. I am most definitely Asian-American, and probably more American than Asian. So capturing Chinese authenticity was something I struggled with as well as debated internally. The book is very much tinged with my Asian-American sensibilities. For example, I knew and learned more about foot binding for young girls in China, but I made the conscious decision to leave that tradition out of my book. I try to make a point in my author’s note that the book is an Asian-inspired fantasy, not full of historical truths or even traditional Chinese values. I hope people still enjoy it as such.
CS: In my favorite paragraph, Minli decides fortune doesn’t consist of gold and jade “but something much more.” What inspired you to make fortune’s true meaning a key element in the book?
Grace: Well, this story first was inspired by the folktales and fairytales of both Asian and European/American cultures that I read and loved as a child. My travels to Hong Kong, Taiwan and China brought the settings of the story to life for me, inspiring the imagery. But mostly, this book is an homage to my late husband. He had been ill with cancer for many years before he passed and his struggles taught me what is truly important in life, which is why fortune's true meaning became such a dominating theme.
CS: So many writers get locked into one genre. You’ve done picture books and novels, and soon you’ll publish early readers. How do you manage to stay so fluid?
Grace: I think almost every writer can write other genre. It's publishing another genre that is tricky! I've just gotten lucky that publishers have been willing to take a chance on my projects. I think I grow into each genre, which I think helps—in other words, I haven't gone from a dim sum picture book straight into an angsty teenage novel about drunk driving (NOT writing the latter, by the way). What usually happens is that all my ideas begin as picture book ideas and they grow into a novel or an early reader if they don't fit the picture book format.
CS: What a treat for young readers to find so many full-color illustrations in a chapter book! Why was it important to you to do that, and how did you pull it off?
Grace: I loved the illustrated MG books when I was younger and I still do. I think they add so much to experience of reading. To me, they are perfect—they give a glimpse of visualization into the world you are reading, but not so much that you aren’t left with anything to imagine. Also, they make the experience of owning and holding a book feel that much more special—turning the page and seeing a full color illustration is almost like discovering a jewel and the book itself feels like a little treasure. I really wanted Where the Mountain Meets the Moon to bring back the feeling I had when I had read those types of books.
I pulled it off with a lot of begging and a wonderfully supportive editor!
CS: Please explain how the swirls you use in so many illustrations took on a deeper meaning for you with this book.
Grace: Somehow, without planning it, my illustration trademark has become "swirls in the sky." What began as a personal, patterned shorthand for wind and air has become a distinguishing element of my painting style. I mostly don’t mind this, I enjoy painting the swirls as well as the effect they have on the overall painting. But, a small part of me has always cringed at the possible gimmicky nature of it.
However, during my research for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, I found that a right-turning swirl had symbolic meaning in Chinese culture. The swirl (like the endless knot) could be seen as symbol for the eternal circle, the continuity of life without a beginning or end and is always interconnected. And by spiraling to the right (clockwise), the swirl echoes the movement of the sun, moon and stars against the celestial sky. Supposedly, even the hairs on the Buddha's head as well as his belly-button swirl to the right.
This knowledge thrilled me. The eternal circle, the endless knot--these symbols correspond with the themes of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. In the book, small, seemingly unrelated stories are slowly revealed to be connected—the fates of a fruitless mountain, a dragon that can’t fly, a lost paper revealing the secret to happiness, and the fortune of a young girl are all intertwined in the circle of the novel. I immediately decided that I would paint all the swirls for the book right turning, to follow the movement of the moon.
So enthused was I about this, that I asked for the cover art to be returned so that I could “fix” it (for catalog purposes, the publisher had asked for the cover art to be done first—before the book was finished). I could change the art for the final cover they told me, but the old image—the one with both left- and right-handed swirls, was already being used for the advanced reading copy and publicity. Still, I felt strongly that I wanted to change it.
However, after years of painting swirls haphazardly, the discipline of painting right-handed swirls turned out to be more difficult than I thought. I would get halfway through painting the background swirls when my eyes would lose focus and suddenly I couldn't remember which way was the "right" way. Many, many, many times after I thought the painting was finished, I would suddenly see a left-turning swirl and have to correct it. Right-turning swirls suddenly did become an endless circle of life for me!
I think it was worth it, even though I know it'll be lucky if viewers even register the swirls much less the direction they are turning. For some reason, I believe these nuances make a difference—if only to let me feel that the purpose for the patterns I paint are a subtle visual message that I am communicating.
But, if you see a left-turning swirl anywhere in the book, don't tell me.
CS: Any chance Minli will show up in a sequel?
Grace: I have no plans on writing a sequel to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, but I would like to write another fantasy novel someday. Maybe Minli will have a cameo role. I just have to hope the muse strikes!