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Interview With Laurence Yep

LY: Laurence Yep NF: Nickie Finnegan
 
NF: First of all, can you tell me about your family?
LY: My grandfather was actually born here in America in 1867 on my father's side. But because immigration and anti-discrimination laws, he went back to China as a teenager to get married, but he couldn't bring his wife back to America. All of his family was born in China, and he would work here periodically and then go back to China, so even though my father was born in China, he's technically an American citizen. Now, my mother was born in Ohio and raised in West Virginia. So I was actually raised on stories about West Virginia. My mother had a very old-fashioned childhood there. Then both of my parents met in Chinatown. My brother is 10 years older than I am because my parents were afraid of sibling rivalry, so they read in a book to get the older sibling involved with the baby right away. So they let my brother name me. And it only came out years later that he deliberately chose the spelling Laurence that most people would misspell. He also named me after a saint who died a quick and gruesome death: St. Laurence was barbecued. My brother's gift still goes on working to this day because even my publishers misspell my name. There is definitely a lot of history behind the name Laurence.
 
NF: Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood?
LY: I grew up in an African-American neighborhood and went to school in Chinatown. So I actually really didn't run into white culture until I was a teenager in high school. The school I went to in Chinatown was run by nuns, but we had an hour of Chinese language lessons a day. My parents didn't speak Chinese at home so I really didn't have that basic language. I really belonged in the first grade language lessons, but I was in a type of third grade class. My teacher used simple words, but I didn't even know those. Luckily, I had a good memory so I got straight A's. But I didn't learn Chinese until much later in my life. I still really can't speak it, but I can slowly read it.
 
NF: Were you born in China?
LY: No, I was born in San Francisco.
 
NF: Did you like it there?
LY: Oh I loved it. I still go back very often. When I was in high school, I actually wanted to be a chemist because I had a very good chemistry teacher that made me interested in it. I hate to say this, but my specialty was explosives. When I graduated from high school, I graduated with a science award, no writing ones. But, in my senior year in high school, I had an English teacher who said that if I wanted to get an A in his class, I would have to get something accepted by a national magazine. I didn't want to argue with him, so I wound up setting up a story and getting rejected, so he retracted the threat. Once I had received the rejection letter, I could prove that I had actually tried. I definitely learned from this experience that a rejection letter will leave you depressed for 2 weeks, but it won't kill you. So I kept writing stories and finally went back to my roots, which was science-fiction, and I wrote a story about a time in San Francisco when it had sunk underneath the ocean. I sold that story when I was 18, so actually I got my start as a science-fiction writer. I've even done a Star-Trek book.
 
NF: What are some of your hobbies besides writing?
LY: Let's see, I like walking by the ocean and making jewelry because my wife, Joanne Ryder, makes and sells jewelry.
 
NF: I read that your wife used to be your editor?
Ly: That's right. We actually met in journalism in college and became good friends. There was another student, Gale Gleason, who introduced us and is now an editor. She was our matchmaker. Joanne asked me to think about writing some sci-fi for children, and that's exactly what I did. It just so happened that the next book was "Dragon Wings." Joanne and I were very good friends for a long time. It was sort of like the movie "When Harry Met Sally." These two were lifelong friends who were matchmakers together. At the end of the movie, Sally and Harry fall in love. This was the same thing for Joanne and me. When we saw this movie, we only allowed each other three romantic nudges, and we used all of them up in the first 5 minutes!
 
NF: How do you get your ideas for your stories? Is it from every day events or from personal experience?
LY: It's from both. I believe that good writing comes from bringing out the specialness in ordinary things. For instance, I used to teach creative writing at the University of California Berkley, and I focused on teaching my students to make it real for the reader by including small details about every day objects. Then, you start applying this skill to your own memories. I am now at a stage where I can find a story from, say, a wooden table. If you found 18,000 Chinese in Chinatown, maybe only 3 would speak Chinese, so you would have to ask yourself about the difference. This can lead to all sorts of other stories.
 
NF: Do you ever get writer's block, and if so, how do you deal with it?
LY: Something that I learned to do is switch to a different genre or idea abruptly. Writer's block, to an author, can cause us to stop eating, so I try to fix this as quickly as possible. I think of writing as a craft, and I learned this writing for sci-fi magazines. I used this idea in my English classes. I know that I can teach the craft, but the inspiration comes from personal motivation.
 
NF: Do you have any kids?
LY: No, we don't have children, but, since my brother is much older than me, his kids are like mine. I have three nieces and a nephew that are like my kids. My oldest great nephew is 23 now, and the youngest one isn't even in kindergarten.
 
NF: Who would you say your favorite author is?
LY: That would have to be Robert Heinlein. He is a science-fiction writer from the 40's and 50's. He taught me how to write first-person narratives because he would write novels around this concept, and in the space of 3 paragraphs, he would create a voice with whom you want to travel with into galaxies. The other writer I enjoy is Andre Morton. She was a retired librarian that became a science-fiction writer. She used to create these really interesting alien worlds that taught me how to create other spaces. You have a character, but then you have to create a space for them to live in.
 
NF: I read your books "Mia" and "Bravo Mia" from American Girl. How did you get into writing those stories?
LY: Many years ago, they asked me to do a story for the American Girl magazine about a Chinese ballerina and her grandmother. If you are in ballet for a long time that your feet become very callused and sore. The grandmother in the story has bound feet and becomes upset when she sees a little girl's unhurt feet since hers are permanently damaged. Then, AG asked me to try to do another series about the girl of the year, Mia, and ice skating. I had a lot of fun doing that because, even though I didn't know much about skating, I knew that perseverance is a big part of it, so that's what those stories are about.
 
NF: Finally, what advice do you have for young writers?
LY: First of all, Write about family experiences. They could become great stories someday. Also, pay attention to the world around you. People's actions and scenery come in handy a lot of the time. Remember perseverance and ordinary things made special, too.

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