Crystal Chan is the debut author of the novel Bird, now available in Australia from Text Publishing.
This book is so beautiful, and I'm so glad that I was given the opportunity to ask some questions of the very talented author-to-watch, Crystal Chan.
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Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile?
Agent, kind of. I went to a writers’ conference and submitted my first 20 pages for a critique, and the reader loved my manuscript and wanted to read the whole thing! After that, she put me in touch with her agent and other agents she knew. So that’s how I got my agent. BUT fast forward about a year: I went to another writers’ workshop with this editor, who read the first 50 pages of my second manuscript, which was (then) a WIP, when we went out with my finished, original manuscript, the editor said thanks but no thanks; I want to acquire the WIP I read – I can’t stop thinking about it. So we sold the second manuscript as a first-draft partial, which was crazy process, let me tell you. It just underscored for me how individualized each person’s path to publication really is.
Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?
I let the story evolve naturally, until a certain point – usually midway through, and then I start plotting it out.
Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Bird’, from first idea to final manuscript?
About a year and a half.
Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?
It’s a total free-fall – I like that word to describe the process, btw. In fact, for me (and I know this sounds weird) but for the stories I’ve written, the voice just comes to me – I can hear it so distinctly in my mind – and the first chapter is basically writing down what I’m hearing. The subsequent chapters aren’t necessarily like that, but the voice remains strong.
Q: Jewel is half-Jamaican, a quarter white and a quarter Mexican. The boy she befriends, John, is African-American adopted by white parents. You yourself are of Chinese/Polish descent – why was it important to you to write about mixed-race characters and families?
Growing up in a small town in the 80’s, no one around me was bi-racial. No one looked like me, and no one shared my experiences. In a way, I was lonely and didn’t even realize it – I didn’t know what it would be like to have someone understand the questions I faced…that was so outside my realm of experience that I didn’t even long for it. Until I got older, as in, college-age. They (at writer’s conferences) always say to write the book you wanted to read as a child, and I knew that if I’d had a book like Bird as a child, I would hang onto it for dear life and never let it go.
Q: John has dreams of being as astronaut, and Jewel wants to be a geologist when she grows up –the book is full of interesting facts about astronomy and geology. I wonder if there were already two areas of interest for you, or did you have to do copious amounts of research when you decided on those ambitions for Jewel and John?
I’ve always loved geological formations, but not in a scientific way. Same with astronomy. So I had to do a LOT of research, which was fun and interesting – and challenging, as I’m not really a scientist, I don’t have a scientist’s mind.
Q: In the book, Jewel talks a lot about ‘duppies’ - evil spirits from Jamaican mythology. How did you first learn about duppies, and what sort of research did you do into their origins?
I first encountered duppies when, after college, I was working as an AmeriCorps volunteer at a college in New Jersey, and one of my interns was from Trinidad. He was totally chill, very laid back – until you got him talking about duppies and ghosts and curses. Then his eyes would get big, his voice would deepen and tense up – you could really tell that this affected him deeply. That was my first encounter with the duppy. But more than that, I just knew that Jewel was part Jamaican, and I found the duppy again when I was researching Jamaican worldviews/beliefs. I did tons of research: books, websites, interviews with Jamaicans, and I explored different belief systems city v. country, etc. I really wanted to get the culture as accurately as I could; I myself have often been misrepresented, and I wanted to be as accurate and respectful as possible.
Q: What’s the appeal in writing for younger readers?
Writing for younger readers isn’t intentional on my part – it’s just the story that comes out. But I do love the fact that kidlit is so family based, and I can really explore the intricacies of family dynamics. Writing for kids really lends itself to that.
Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
Always hard! Madeline L’Engle, Kate DiCamilo, Kathi Appelt, Neil Gaiman, Adam Rex, Cynthia Kadohata, Angela Johnson, Junot Diaz, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie
Q: Favourite book(s)?
Always harder! A Wrinkle in Time, The Tiger Rising, The Underneath, The First Part Last, Blasphemy
Q: Do you have any advice for budding young writers?
Accept whatever emotions come up inside you – don’t push them down or ignore them, even if it’s uncomfortable. Because if you don’t allow yourself to feel anger, sadness, grief, or loss, how can you possibly write about these emotions for your characters?
And write from your heart, always. When you write, remember you’re writing from a special space inside, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Practice telling stories – tell stories all the time. When you’re not telling stories, practice listening to others tell their stories. Because that’s all that writing really is: telling a story.