Speak(Penguin Putnam imprint) interview
Like Young Ju in A Step from Heaven, you are an American-raised child of Korean immigrants. Did you get the idea for her story from your own experiences growing up?
The initial stirrings for the story stemmed from one of my memories. For example, I remember getting my hair permed, and being told that all Americans have curly hair. But as the novel grew, it became Young Ju’s story. Her father is despondent from the beginning, and he struggles with his place and manhood in this new country. It was different for me. My father was stern and very traditional, but my parents did well here and adjusted. Still, there were times when it was difficult and there were lots of family arguments.
What kind of role did books play in your childhood?
I read all the time. I used to lock myself in the bathroom for hours, since that was the only room with a lock, and read until my mom threatened to break down the door. As a child, books were my cultural teachers. They helped explain concepts and traditions specific to the United States that I couldn’t ask my parents. Things as ordinary as eggnog baffled me. What was it? After reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, I knew. Her story allowed me to taste eggnog even though I had no idea how to make it or where to find it. I remember reading books and falling under a spell, stepping into another world, becoming another person. More than television or movies, I could identify with the protagonist simply because she or he was not portrayed to me. The beauty of a book stems from the way in which readers can overtake words. Words have built-in spaces where readers can make themselves cozy.
Did you ever feel like Young Ju, caught between your Korean heritage and your desire to be “American”?
That really was a conflict when I was growing up. At church and with my Korean friends, I was outgoing and gregarious, and I wasn’t ashamed of my family or my house. But I went to a pretty affluent high school, and it was difficult being in honors classes, feeling kind of poor and out of place because I was Korean American. But I was different from Young Ju, much more outspoken. I really fought hard for the things I believed in.
A Step from Heaven covers so much ground. It begins when Young Ju is four and ends when she is about to go off to college. Was the scope of the narrative a conscious decision on your part?
I wanted readers to feel like they were reliving Young Ju’s childhood with her. Memory doesn’t come as a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, but rather lives in moments that focus on a smell or a touch or a feeling. This was what I wanted to convey when I began to construct Young Ju’s life from a very young age to her years as a teenager. Hopefully, readers will leave the novel understanding how bits and pieces of Young Ju’s childhood shaped who she became as an adult.
So did the idea to structure the book as a series of vignettes come from that process?
It was Sandra Cisneros who first inspired me. I read The House on Mango Street and I felt those realistic vignettes were a terrific way to capture childhood and memories. Then I read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, which made me think that I could do a child’s voice without having it sound condescending or babyish. And then I had a really amazing writer, Jacqueline Woodson, as my first writing teacher. She kicked my butt. She was the one who taught me to pare down my language, look at the metaphors, and see how a vignette packs a multi- layered punch.
Was A Step from Heaven a difficult book for you to write? What kind of challenges did you face while you were telling Young Ju’s story?
One of the biggest challenges occurred at the beginning of the writing process. I realized at a certain point that my skills as a writer were not up to par with what I visualized and heard in my head. I couldn’t make the words that I was writing convey the emotions and sentiments that were in my mind. I had to put the book down and work on something else. I wrote an entire novel (that I eventually chucked) before going back to Step. In some sense, I had to prove to myself that one, I could write an entire book, and two, that I could hone my craft. Finally, when I went back, I was ready to do the hard work. And this time I knew I could do it.
A Step from Heaven is such a natural book, it’s hard to imagine it existing any other way. Did the manuscript change a lot in the course of rewriting and editing?
I knew at some point that I wanted the voice to grow. It seemed like a daunting task at first, but [Jacqueline Woodson] was really great at pointing out the gaps and also in helping me find the core of Young Ju’s voice in all of the pieces. There was a lot of cutting. And a lot of shuffling. The pieces were not written in consecutive order. It was a hodgepodge until I finally printed them all out and laid them on the floor. I took a notebook and charted each one. How old was she in this piece, which characters were present, what emotion was being displayed, what character motivation? Then the pieces started to move around. Then my editor, Stephen Roxburgh, got his hands on it. Stephen was all about cutting and focusing. He took a pretty lean novel to begin with and made it razor-sharp. He really homed in on the family and cut all that was extraneous to the family’s story. So other characters and scenes—specifically the ones where Young Ju is in school and at church—were taken out, unless they shed some light on the family dynamics.
You attended an M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts) program for writing, and now you write full time. What’s your life like?
Only after starting the program did I experience the realities of writing full time. All the elements that made writing so fantastic were still there, but along with the thrill was the discovery of the day-to-day process. Writing, revising, editing, rewriting, re-revising, cutting, chopping, crumbling—all of that was also writing. Trying to write five days out of the week as though it is a regular job is hard when there’s no one else that you have to be accountable to except yourself. Eventually, for me, if I don’t write, I get so antsy and guilt-ridden that I have to go and do the work.
So do you ever get writer’s block?
There are times when the words come to me as though spirited through the skies by writing fairies and there are times when I wander around my office picking lint off books. Through it all I try to keep the words of a good teacher in mind. He said in a lecture once that inspiration and the muse were all a hoax to legitimate writer’s block. While writing does often occur in spurts or in “inspired” moments, it is the hard work, the making your butt stay in the chair even though the only tapping going on is your feet, that gets you to those glorious moments. To say that you will write only when the feeling moves you invites writer’s block. His words are hard to live by, but I believe they are true. So every day, I go to my office, sit in my chair, and try to write. Some days are better than others and some days I wonder if I shouldn’t be bagging groceries somewhere.
What do you love about writing?
I love being lost in the story and the characters. It’s so amazing when I can get into the story and that is all I want to think about. Words and sentences and phrases stream through my mind when I’m out running or cleaning the house. Or when I start to cry because something bad is going to happen to my character. All this is to say, writing is hard, but what other work lets you create a world and people of your own making? I have found no greater joy than stepping into a half-complete story and asking my characters, “What’s next?” I could not imagine a better way to live.
Some portions were quoted from “The Booklist Interview: An Na” by Hazel Rochman from Booklist, March 5, 2002; “Interview with Young Adult Author An Na”by Cynthia Leitich Smith, December, 2001; and a 2001 interview with An Na’s hardcover publisher Front Street.
Power Naps and Time Travel: An Interview with An Na
By Penny Blubaugh
An Na was always a writer. She just didn’t know it. Moving from the musicals she made up (starring her!) to put herself to sleep to writing her Michael J. Printz Award winning novel, A Step From Heaven, was a logical step. It just took a while to get there.
It wasn’t until her senior year in college, after a children’s literature class, that Na decided that writing was for her. She wrote one picture book story, and she was hooked. The worlds she’d been creating in her mind finally had a place to come out. She found that she loved the whole writing process; the thinking, the freedom, the creativity.
Then she entered the MFA program in Writing for Children at Vermont College and found out the rest of the story. Writing wasn’t just freedom. It was also revisions, edits, rewrites (and rewrites and rewrites), cuts, and starting over one more time.
Still, in spite of the hard work, the bad days and the frustrations, the joy of creating worlds and characters has stayed with her. Give her a few power naps, and she’ll pull you with her through time, and place. Meet An Na.
Describe a typical writing day.
A typical writing day begins with sending off my girl, Juna, to school. As much as I love my family, it is so hard to write when they are in the house. My office is in a shed. We're moving soon and I'll have an office in a barn. For me, the most important thing is the space and quiet. So much of being able to write comes from doing nothing. Walking around my office, listening to music, and letting the words of the scenes come to me. And then I can sit down and do the work. Sometimes, I read if I get stuck. Sometimes, I take a nap. People underestimate the power of sleep. Our brains work at a different level when we sleep. I have a hard time convincing my husband of that, but I've come to trust that a power nap can often do more than if I stress about the work.
Why do you write? What does it give you?
I write because stories and words move me. I have always loved the power of a good story. It's that ability to travel through space, and time, and bodies. Nothing, can do what a good story or book can do, which is to take you out of your own life, and place you in someone else's. I spend so much time imagining. Thinking about the \"what if.\" As a child, the way I would put myself to sleep was to think about a story. Usually, I was the main character and then I would fantasize a situation for myself. For a while, I was big into musicals. This was back in fourth grade, so all my musicals took place on the playground. I would be dancing and singing on the four square court. As a writer now, I can't say that I’ve changed much. I still put myself to sleep by making up stories. Only now, I can say it's my job.
Do you, or have you ever written anything but prose? Why, or why not?
I ‘ve only written prose, but I feel like I'm early in my evolution as a writer. I realized I wanted to be a writer rather late. Some folks know at a young age that this is what they want to do. I was always a big reader, but I had never imagined that writing could be a life. My parents, being immigrants, believed one aspired to be a professional; a doctor, or lawyer, or businessperson. It wasn't until after college that I seriously considered a life in writing. I hope in the future to try different forms of writing, be it poetry or screenwriting. Stories can take so many forms.
What are you working on now?
I'm trying to finish a young adult novel entitled Wait for Me. I call it my love story. It's been sitting with me for about five years. Hopefully, it won't take as long to write.
How did the nomination for the National Book Award for your first novel affect you – professionally and personally?
Just to be considered with all those talented writers, especially for my first novel, was amazing. I was hiking in India with my husband when the finalists were announced. James and I tried and tried to check our email, but the internet connection in the Himalayas, understandably, was not always working. Finally, at a cafe, we were able to log on and all these emails with the heading CONGRATULATIONS popped up. I remember jumping up and down screaming in the cafe.
Professionally, being an NBA Finalist, for some strange reason, doesn’t really do much for your book. I don't know if that's the same in the adult market, but I think the only award that garners attention in the children's literature world is the Newbery Award. I think other writers and people in the business recognize it, but for a teenager looking to buy a book, it doesn't hold much credibility. And why should it?
Personally, I was blown away. I couldn't have imagined a better fantasy.
Stylistically, you based A Step From Heaven on Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street. What about that book grabbed you?
I loved the way Sandra Cisneros captured the memory of childhood through the use of vignettes. So much of what we remember about our childhood often takes on the surreal quality of these heightened moments, or smells, or tastes. I wanted the reader to experience that with my character Young Ju. I wanted them to feel they were growing up with her. Cisneros is a true poet, and while I couldn't replicate that, I was inspired to try to create at least a little bit of that intense world.
A Step from Heaven is obviously very much about the Korean and Korean-American experience. Do you see this type of multiculturalism widely reflected in YA literature?
I think books about an experience other than white suburban life are becoming more and more commonplace. When I was growing up, I didn't have access to stories about people who looked like me, or felt like me. Now I can go to the library and there is a choice. You have writers like Jacqueline Woodson, Linda Sue Park, David Levithan, all creating lives and stories that reflect a broader experience. This is so important for young people. To know that these “other” lives and stories count. I hope this isn't about a trend. I hope this is about changing our world.
I've heard people say we should all define ourselves ethincally instead of nationally.What are your feelings?
I think we should define oursleves in the ways that matter most to us. And what matters can change in our lives, because life is never constant. For me, right now, I am first and foremost Juna's mommy. Other times, I am a writer. Other times, I am a partner in a relationship. It's really only to people who don't know me, who need to put a label on me, that I'm an Asian American.
The idea of identity politics is a construction, and as such, it will change. I'm not saying that these constructions are not valuable or necessary, they are, but let's look at them within a context. In the political world, we have movements that are based on recognizing voices that have been oppressed. In the publishing world there is a need for more viewpoints and cultures. So, in that sense, these “ethnic” identities are valuable. But people are so much more complex than that. We’re never just one identity, and that's why life is so rich.
What age are you, really? Where are you stuck?
Where am I stuck? Hmmm. My sister would tell you that I’m really sixteen. Juna would tell you that I’m two years old, just like her. My bones and muscles sometimes tell me that I’m eighty, although when I’m dancing I feel like I’m twenty again. At least until my feet tell me I’m ninety. I’d like to believe that I’d never get sutck in an age, because what’s the fun in that?
What one book and one piece of music would you take to a desert island, and why?
I would take my Joni Mitchell and a dictionary because I’m going to have lots of time to write and I’ll need to look up my words.