Part 1 of 2: Grace Lin on the Craft of Storytelling
Grace Lin, a New York Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for her middle grade novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Caldecott Honor for her picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star. In 2016, Grace’s art was displayed at the White House where Grace, herself, was recognized by President Obama’s office as a Champion of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling.
She graciously sat down to chat with me via Zoom about a range of topics, from the creative process to making mistakes and even choosing what to fail at!
The Creative Process and Plot Structure
Amy Amberg: You write picture books, board books, middle grade and early readers. Some of your books are fantasy, but some are based on your own childhood. I notice that you’ll have a series of books, like the Ling and Ting books, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon series, and your new board books; A Big Mooncake for Little Star and Big Bed for Little Snow are companion books. Do you create them as a series, or do you start with one and then it just leads to another one organically?
Grace Lin: It’s organic. I usually have one book, and then — there’s so much that I don’t get to fit into that one, and so I’ll do another one! And then, it doesn’t all fit, so I’ll do another one! Until it’s all done – until there’s no more left in that pot.
AA: Your book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, has the feel of a classic. It’s a female-empowering fantasy/adventure interwoven with Chinese mythology. Kids can enjoy the adventure, but teens or adults pull more nuanced meaning from it. You’ve got your story arc, you’ve got your plot, but you’re also adding depth somehow. How did you structure it, to create this sense of depth?
GL: I purposely choose a very simple plot. As you’ll see, my plots are nearly always “Hero Goes on a Journey” or “Stranger Comes to Town”. With a straight-forward plot as the structure — as the bones — I can do so much around it. Because I keep this simple plot, I can go wild with all the other things. I can interlace it, I can play with it, I can move things around and change things! To me, that is the secret to having a complex, layered story. You can be as complex and layered as you want as long as your story structure plot is simple.
AA: Since you’re an illustrator and an author, I wonder if you visualize your story, or have a plot? Or is it both?
GL: I’m a plotter (not a pantser), so I usually have a plot and I use my little sticky notes. When I start writing, it usually goes off the rails! But I always know the end, so as long as I always figure out how to get to the end.
For me, I feel very lucky that I’m able to go from genre to genre. With my daughter at the age that she is, it’s really hard to write a novel. My family doesn’t like it when I write a novel…(laughing).
GL: It’s hard to be engaged and present when writing a novel because I’m always partially in the novel. I’m always pre-occupied. I’ve taken a small break from writing novels. As my child gets more independent, I’m slowly going back to writing novels. I’m in awe of people who can parent and write novels!
Time Management and Choosing to Fail
AA: You do 2 podcasts currently (Kids Ask Authors and Book Friends Forever), you do all of your artwork, your creative writing work and you’re raising your daughter. How do you structure your time so that you’re able to do all of this?
GL: On my last podcast, Book Friends Forever with Alvina [Ling, editor], we were talking about time management…ok, I need help! I don’t get it all done! The truth is I do the very best I can. Some things don’t get done, and some things I just have to be grateful to the people in my life who pick up the pieces.
For example, my house has not been cleaned. I’m really embarrassed to have people come over – it’s so cluttered & messy! Those are the things that I have decided to fail at.
AA: Fail at…?
GL: I read this book called Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done by Jon Acuff. The thing that he said in that book was to choose what you will fail at and that is the key to finishing. So, I have decided that I am just going to fail at housekeeping. I am fairly embarrassed about it, but I have accepted and embraced it. If I want to finish this creative work, I have to fail at housekeeping. My husband does most of the cooking and I outsource to pick up the pieces.
I’m still 3 years late on my book! My upcoming book, called Once Upon a Book, is not coming out until January or February of 2023. It was originally supposed to be coming out in 2022, but it’s not because I missed the deadline – twice! So, I don’t get it all done. It’s a hard balance.
I saw this blog post a long time ago by Laini Taylor [author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series]. She was quoting another author who had said, “Your choice is, it can be late once, or it can suck forever”!
AA: That’s a good point. Once it’s published, it’s out there — you’re done, so it had better be something that you’re proud of!
GL: There are the realities of 1) money because you don’t get paid until that book is finished and 2) it’s a business, so if you let down your publisher, there are real consequences. It’s that ultimate juggle. You have to let go of your perfectionism. Keep your high standards but let go of perfectionism. It’s a tough thing.
Audacity, Humility and Making Mistakes
GL: To be a writer, you have to be able to hold contradictions in the same hand. Your work is something that you have to be proud of, but you are also upholding your deadlines. To be a writer, you have to have this ego, like, “Hey! My words are important enough to be shared with the world. I have a message. What I have to say is good enough for everyone to hear it and read it.” That’s a certain amount of ego that you have to have in order to make it as a writer. You have to have audacity, but you also have to have humility. That’s what’s hard about being a writer.
I talk about my book called The Red Thread that I’m not proud of, that I think was seriously a mistake. It’s a book about Chinese adoption, where I have never had anything to do with Chinese adoption, either as a parent or as an adoptee. It’s something that I wrote without the humility that it needed. It’s that balance that we as writers always need to have – the audacity and the humility. Figuring out that balance is what’s hard about being an author.
AA: What would you have done differently about that book?
GL: I think it was a good story for me to write, but the wrong one for me to publish. It was a story about the Chinese legend of how people are connected by this invisible red thread. It was an important story for me to write to get me to the ideas that lead me to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. However, it was not a good story for me to publish because it had nothing to do with the realities of the situation of Chinese adoption. I took Chinese adoption and made it into this fairy tale, which in some ways sounds very sweet, but because I didn’t have the humility to think about what it’s like to be adopted, or to be torn away from your family, all these things just didn’t occur to me because I was so full of the audacity of writing it. It co-opts and gives a false impression of what adoption really is, and that’s why it was a mistake to publish it.
We all make mistakes! We’re all writing blind, so we’re all going to have accidents. It’s about recovering from those accidents and keep going forward and getting better.
AA:. Is there anything else you’d like to chat about?
GL: I’d love for authors to take a look at the Kids Ask Authors podcast and see what it’s like. That’s my attempt at equity for school visits because we just can’t reach everybody. Hopefully, it reaches kids who can’t have an author visit in their school. It gives a taste of what that is like.
AA: And we’ll look for your book when it comes out in 2023.
GL: Hopefully, if there’s not another strange supply chain issue — maybe my book will come out sooner!
AA: Who knows, it’s a weird time — it’s all up in the air at this point!
GL: Who knows!
AA: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. It’s been fun!
If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out Pt. 2: Grace Lin on Diversity and Inclusion here on Writers’ Rumpus, to be published on January 25th!
You can learn more about Grace’s work at her website. Sign up for her e-mail newsletter to keep up with all of the latest or connect with her online!
Inspired by true stories, little known facts and fun language, Amy Amberg is a writer and children’s librarian who finds book ideas in the scraps of internet searches, random bylines and bibliographies. A member of SCBWI, she loves writing biographies, picture books and concept board books. When she’s not researching, writing or revising, Amy can be found exploring the New England woods, hiking and kayaking.