Interview with poet and author Janet S. Wong
The first-generation American daughter of Chinese and Korean immigrant parents, born and raised in California, Janet Wong made a dramatic career change in the 1990's, giving up her work as an attorney to take up writing full-time. Since then she has written poetry and stories for young people of all ages. Her poetry is also to be found in many anthologies: and in some unusual places, such as subway trains for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Poetry in Motion project. She has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and was asked to read her picture book Apple Pie 4th of July at the White House Easter Egg Roll in 2003.
Janet's work has received numerous awards and honors, such as the International Reading Association's "Celebrate Literacy Award" for her exemplary service in the promotion of literacy; the Stone Center Recognition of Merit, given by the Claremont Graduate School, for both A Suitcase of Seeweed and Good Luck Gold; the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature for The Trip Back Home; and Bank Street College "Best Children’s Book" for Knock on Wood.
Before you became a writer you were a lawyer: have you found any affinity between the two careers?
The best thing about my legal training was that it encouraged me to look at the many sides and nuances of a situation. I would write a memo supporting x; and when I found a case or fact that was contrary to x, I had to somehow reconcile the two. Legal writing is like putting a puzzle together, making odd pieces fit. And what terrific training for a writer of literature! I’d like to think that I have a particularly healthy view of revision, and this might be the thing that has helped me “succeed” (in terms of being published). The hardest part of writing books is dealing with an editor who wants major revisions. It’s not easy to cut out passages that you were once passionate about. But if you take the view (as a lawyer must) that there are many possible, even opposing, truths, it’s much easier to be pragmatic (and brutal) about revision.
You have indicated in the past that you didn’t like poetry when you were at school – why not; and do you think it would be different if you were at school now? What was your route to rediscovering poetry?
In fairness to poetry, I didn’t know enough poetry in 4th grade to hate it. I think what I hated was poetry homework: I’m terrible at memorizing poems (even my own), and I hate picking poems apart to try to find the “true meaning.” But there are many good teachers today who share poetry in a less formal and structured way, simply reading it aloud. Also, there’s a much greater selection of very accessible poems for children and young adults. If I were a student today, I think I would love poetry (which, of course, I do)!
Your most recent poetry collection, Twist: Yoga Poems, is the third book you have produced together with illustrator Julie Paschkis (the others being Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams and Knock on Wood: Poems about superstitions). Can you tell us a bit about what you think makes you both such a strong team?
Laura McGee Kvasnosky introduced me to the work of Julie Paschkis. Both of them live in Seattle, where I used to live. I was looking for an artist who had a ton of paintings in her studio, and my goal was to write poems to fit the paintings. When I saw Julie’s work, I thought it had a very dreamlike quality, and so I embarked on Night Garden, a collection of poems about dreams. I was inspired by Julie’s existing work, but she ended up painting a whole new set of paintings that fit the poems perfectly, so it was particularly gratifying when this book was named one of the NY Times’ “10 Best Illustrated Books of the Year.” Our most recent book, Twist, was inspired by the fact that Julie is a devoted yoga practitioner. I wanted to write poems that would be a gift to her, and my son had also been nagging me to write animal poems, so this topic (with the various animal poses – Down Dog, Cat/Cow, Cobra, etc) seemed a natural subject.
For Knock on Wood you explored the theme of superstitions in different cultures– where did you garner your material from? Are you yourself superstitious?
I had tons of fun researching superstitions for Knock on Wood. My initial research was done through books and the Internet. Next came the fun part: talking to people about their superstitions. One woman was quite adamant about not being superstitious herself, but then her face brightened suddenly and she said, “Let me tell you about the boy next door who put a hat on his bed, and then his house burned down!” I’m not very superstitious, but I do observe the most basic Chinese numerology: 8 is the Chinese number for wealth, and I often find myself squirting 8 shots of moisturizer into my hand. I also try to avoid 4, the Chinese number for death, when I can. One superstition that I learned about during my research involves itchy ears: when the right ear itches, people are saying good things. When the left ear itches, they’re saying bad things—and you can pinch your ear lobe to make the slanderer bite his tongue!
In general, what part do you think the illustrations play in your writing?
Readers might find that the tone of the poems in my earlier collections is more conversational. My later collections, Night Garden, Knock on Wood and Twist, have a different ring to them. This is partly because those three collections are all themed collections, and I had specific information to include and “transmit,” but a larger reason is Julie Paschkis’s influence. When I approached Julie about working together, I wanted to make sure that she loved the poems. So for all of those books I asked her to choose among poems and different drafts of poems. There were several times when I might not have chosen the same poems that Julie did, but her participation made the writing and art meld together in a more meaningful way. I’ve also worked closely with Margaret Chodos-Irvine, illustrator of Buzz, Apple Pie 4th of July and Hide-and-Seek (a Seattle artist who is a best friend of Julie's); for Apple Pie 4th of July, I gave Margaret photos of my parents’ mini-mart in Oregon, and we went on a walking field trip/photo shoot in West Seattle - a field trip that required us to eat Chinese food, of course!
Many of your poetry collections follow quite a specific theme – how long does it generally take you to put a collection together and do you write other poems alongside or are you very focused on a particular goal? Once you have decided on a theme to write about, do you ever find yourself suffering from writer’s block?
I used to be quite good about disciplining myself to “power through” a project: from idea to working drafts, to a final draft (in my mind), to rejections to revision, past copyediting, and to publication. Recently I’ve found myself getting stuck, mainly in the working draft stage. I’ll write ten or so poems and then the manuscript disappears into the depths of my computer. Call it writer’s block, or laziness, or addiction to email and various ways of wasting time; but I think the loss of my editor, Margaret McElderry, who retired right after she bought Twist, has a lot to do with it. Margaret was such a special person, with such high standards. When she asked, “What are you working on?” it was not a casual inquiry, but a directive to produce something good right away. Luckily, I continue to work with other terrific editors, such as Frances Foster at Farrar Straus Giroux - we have a book coming out this fall, Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer.
You have written poetry in many different forms – from Haiku to free-verse stories. Is there a form you feel a particular affinity to?
I enjoy writing unrhymed couplets. I don’t know why; maybe I just naturally think with a lot of pauses! Following an artificial form gives useful structure to my thoughts, but often I’ll take a structured draft and then put it into free verse.
You unfailingly seem to come up with just the right nugget to describe so many everyday situations, with sensitivity, insight and humor – do you see a poem in everything you see or do?
I think it drives my writer-friends nuts that I am constantly suggesting book ideas to them. Someone’s mother dies, and I’ll suggest a book idea. Someone else bakes a bad batch of cookies, and I’ll suggest a book idea. Ideas are constantly popping into my head. Unfortunately, it’s not the ideas that count, but what you do with them! About ten years ago I was spending a lot of time in airports and I thought of a great idea for a novel: what if someone were stuck living in the airport? You can imagine my disappointment when I saw the movie trailer for The Terminal years later. Yes, unfortunately, ideas are cheap.
You also seem to be at home writing for all age-groups. Do you have a particular audience in your mind’s eye when you are writing?
Most of the time I simply write for myself. I really am about 9 years old at heart, or maybe younger; the books that delight me most, still, are picture books.
A recent departure from "Selfish Writer Mode" was focusing on my young readers when I was towards the end of writing The Dumpster Diver: early drafts were odes to dumpster-diving, but then the worry-ridden mom in me kicked in. What if five-year-old readers started climbing in dumpsters? What if they broke bones, got cut, and brought cockroaches home? I didn’t want to feel responsible for any of that, so I arranged an accident for Steve the Dumpster Diver, which prompts the kids to collect their useful junk door-to-door from friends and neighbors, intercepting that good stuff before it found its way to the dumpster.
The Dumpster Diver offers a perspective on the maxim ‘One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure’ – except that here, the treasure sometimes requires imagination. How did you choose the objects Steve emerged with from his dives into the dump? Do you see the book as an antidote to today’s throwaway society?
Most of the descriptions of objects popped into my mind (somehow), and my editor Kara LaReau suggested some others. Really, though, all the credit for these magical creations is owed to David Roberts. He has an amazing oddball imagination. I’m very curious to see his studio! I’m now working on a sequel to that book, and I’m hoping that Candlewick chooses to publish it.
I’d like to say that The Dumpster Diver is social commentary and a call to action, and I do feel that people buy (and waste) too much, but my inspiration was pretty simple and non-political: I saw a chair made out of old wooden skis, and I asked the artist how he came up with the idea. He said, “Oh, I’m just a dumpster diver; I saw some broken skis sticking out of a dumpster and I knew I could do something with them!” I hadn’t (knowingly) met any dumpster divers before that, and I admired him for being so resourceful. Thanks to this book, I’ve now met many dumpster divers, including some very unlikely-looking cashmere-sweater types!
Do you think your ability to capture and convey an ordinary moment and make it special is also what makes your stories so appealing to read?
I pride myself on being able to turn a simple moment in an everyday life into a poem or a whole book. Buzz is about the sounds in a child’s morning—Daddy’s electric shaver, Mommy’s blow-dryer, the banana shake in the blender. By being so basic, the story also becomes universal. After a child reads Buzz, he sees himself as part of a large community of busy morning families. Well, the kid won’t be thinking that, and I don’t want him consciously to think of it, either. But maybe somewhere deep in his brain, when the doorbell rings and grandma comes to do childcare, a tiny voice will say, “Yes, just like the book!” The book will help to validate his view of his everyday life as regular and important.
Readers of all backgrounds can relate to your work, which focuses primarily on your own experiences growing up as a first generation American of both Chinese and Korean heritage. Why do you think that is?
Good literature makes us feel part of "the club." My best writing is inviting; it makes a reader want to know my characters, to be part of my world. I did a school visit in a very white suburb of Indiana where I asked, “How many of you have eaten Chinese food on the 4th of July?” About fifty hands went up, which made me laugh out loud. I doubt they were all telling the truth; I think they just liked the idea of belonging to my club. It would be great, though, if people all across the US started eating Chinese food on Independence Day, thanks to Apple Pie 4th of July.
Do you deliberately seek to instill an awareness of diversity and tolerance in your readers?
I have written a few poems and stories that are explicitly about diversity and tolerance, but I haven’t been able to sell any of them. Editors didn’t want to say what the problems were, but my guess is that these pieces of writing were seen as too preachy, too didactic. I shared one story, When They Call Me Names, with a friend whose child was being bullied, and she found great comfort in it. Someday I’ll post a bunch of my unsold stories on my Web site—that’s probably #2045 on my list of things to do!
You first visited Korea when you were four years old, and later turned this experience into your very special picture-book, The Trip Back Home. What effect did your visit have on you as a child and what prompted you to write about it years later?
I remember enjoying my visit to my mother’s childhood farm, and so I focused in The Trip Back Home on the love, the warm floor, everyone cooking together, and the beautiful slow rhythms of farm life. But I also remember thinking: “Where’s the toilet? UGGH!!” (Her house had no indoor plumbing.) I also remember my uncle burning a leech off my leg with his cigarette (I wrote about this in “Leeches” from A Suitcase of Seaweed).
Sad and strange as it may seem, I believe that trips back home, to the Old Country, sometimes backfire. Parents and grandparents hope that heritage trips will instill pride, but the reverse can happen: a child sees the poverty, gets swallowed up in pressing crowds, or experiences the chauvinism, smells “weird” smells, and emerges feeling more American than ever.
Have you encouraged your son to explore his cultural heritage? Can you recommend any books you enjoyed reading together?
When my son was very young, I read him the best of Asian American children’s literature, set here and in Asia, contemporary, historical, folktales - everything. I wish I could say that there were favorite books, but truly he enjoyed everything.
He’s now a teen and not too keen on reading anything other than car reviews! Still, I recently managed to get him to read Girls for Breakfast by David Yoo and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and I think he enjoyed them. He finished them, at least, and maybe scenes from those books will pop into his head sometime years from now.
And what about the future? Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment? Any special projects you can share with us?
My next book is Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer, to be published by Frances Foster/FSG in August 2008. In this sequel to Minn and Jake, we learn that Jake has a Korean grandmother, which makes him one-quarter Korean, or “Quarpa,” as he likes to call it. This fact never came up in the first Minn and Jake, and Minn now feels cheated because Jake did not divulge his racial identity earlier in their friendship. Minn accuses: “You didn’t tell me you were Asian!” Jake defends himself: “You don’t care that I never told you I’m part Norwegian and part French and part German! And did I ever tell you that I like taking bubble baths and playing Halo 2 until midnight?”
My family is all mixed-up: my Chinese father, my Korean mother, my Filipina stepmother, my Thai aunt, my Irish aunt, my German-French husband, and my Korean-Chinese-German-French son. But this is where Asian American fiction is headed, I believe: a jumble of cultures, fused together by love. The next wave of books will be populated by Hapa and Quarpa kids mixed together with immigrant Asians and American-born Asians (rich and poor, suburban and urban)—and whites, Latinos, Blacks, everyone we find in our neighborhoods today. The traces of Asian culture that survive in these multiracial kids (and the books about them) will present the essence of being Asian in America.
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Associate Editor
Posted March 2008
|interviews | gallery | personal views | reviews | past issues | lists and links|