Interview with author Lisa Yee
by Marjorie Coughlan*
Lisa Yee grew up near Los Angeles and knew from a young age that she wanted to be a writer, though she worked in a wide range of different fields before realising her dream. Her first book, Millicent Min, Girl Genius, won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Since then, she has won many other awards and sold more than 1.5 million copies of her books.
Lisa lives with her family and her dog in South Pasadena, California.
First of all, I have to ask you, when do you have time to write?!? Your schedule seems to be jam-packed with events, school visits, book signings… Do you follow a strict schedule when you are writing a book? Do you lock yourself away?
Oh, man. I wish I didn’t have to sleep! There always seems to be sooooo much to get done. I write every day, or rather, every night. My prime writing hours are between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. when the house is quiet.
I give myself writing goals. For example, I’ll say, “Lisa, you need to write a chapter a day – or else!” And because I am the Queen of Procrastination, I use a program called “Freedom” to block myself from email/Facebook/Twitter/ interwebs, etc.
The first three books in your series set in Rancho Rosetta Middle School all take place in the same time-frame of the summer vacation between sixth and seventh grades, through the eyes of three different characters who narrate their stories: Millicent Min, Stanford Wong and Emily Ebers. Each book can stand alone, but there’s also something very compelling about returning to a scene from a different angle. How different was the writing process for you between the first book (also your first published book), Millicent Min, Girl Genius and the later two, Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time and So Totally Emily Ebers?
When I wrote Millicent Min, Girl Genius, I had no idea it would turn into a series. I had planned to write a historical novel next, but then it hit me that I should tell the story of Millicent’s nemesis, Stanford Wong. To write that book I had a huge calendar to catalogue each scene, and the whole story had to be mapped out since there were overlapping scenes and dialogue. By the time I wrote Emily’s book, it was like a massive puzzle and each piece had to fit exactly.
The character development, however, was easy since I used the same cast. What I was not prepared for though, was the depth of Stanford’s and Emily’s emotions, and the secrets they sheltered.
Your most recent book, Warp Speed picks up where the Ranch Rosetta trilogy ends and carries readers through seventh grade. It’s narrated by Marley, who was Stanford Wong’s best friend before he (Stanford) became a star basketball player. Why did you decide to tell Marley’s story?
I had thought that the Rancho Rosetta series was done, and that I had bid those characters farewell. But when I was doing a school visit in Denver, CO, a boy stood up in the auditorium and said, “I need to know what happens to Marley.”
At first I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then it dawned on me, Marley Sandelski was a Star Trek geek from Stanford’s story – a boy who was often mocked and made fun of. He was a very minor character, yet something about him spoke to this student.
After my presentation, the boy’s teacher told me that he had never even spoken in class before. She said, “He is Marley.” Later, a girl wrote to me and used the same words, “I need to know what happened to Marley.”
I wrote her back and asked why, and she said, “Because Marley is like me and I need to know that he’s going to be okay.” I realized then, that I needed to write Marley’s story.
It’s a book about bullying and offers a very realistic picture of all the different dynamics involved in bullying situations. What research did you do?
I mined my own memories of middle school – and I remembered how cruel kids could be. Then I researched online and read as much as I could. I also went to meetings in my school district that addressed bullying, and I spoke to parents whose kids were being targeted.
Warp Speed also highlights attitudes to physical disability, as Marley’s mother is blind. What/who was your inspiration behind this?
In my town, I used to see blindfolded people walking with white canes and a guide. This intrigued me. Later I found out that there was a service agency nearby and they were demonstrating to sighted people what it was like to be blind. That got me wondering, well, what if a person really was blind? What would that be like in Rancho Rosetta, the setting for many of my books?
Marley lives at the historic Rialto Movie Palace, which his parents struggle to keep afloat. Is it based on a real place?
Yes! The real Rialto Theatre was built in the 1920s in South Pasadena, California and is just a couple of blocks from my house. It is closed now, but our local Chamber of Commerce and others are working to preserve it.
I was able to go inside and explore the theatre, and I could imagine what it would be like to live in a gem like that.
Marley is a Star Trek geek; and Star Wars and Batman also figure largely. You even did a book trailer in Klingon – was that hard? And I have to ask you the question the kids ask their AV (Audio-Visual) teacher Mr Jiang: Star Trek, Star Wars or Batman?
It was so fun to do the Klingon book trailer. Much of the Klingon is real, but then some of it I just made up because I kept forgetting the phrases.
As for Star Trek vs. Star Wars vs. Batman . . . I’ll never tell which is my favorite!
The contrast between belonging and being “invisible” is an important theme in Warp Speed, and is a recurrent theme in your writing generally. Where does that stem from?
I think that most kids (and adults) feel like an outsider at some point in their life. But because we don’t talk about this, many think that they are the only person who is invisible. When my son was little he said to me, “It’s funny, you look at the playground and see all the popular kids. But then you look some more and see everyone else.”
I write about everyone else.
What reactions have you had from readers of Warp Speed?
The response has been incredible. I’ve received lots of letters from kids and adults, all telling me that they had been bullied. One teacher said that she read the book aloud in class, and because of that, a student came forward to say that he was being abused at home. (This happens to someone in the book.)
My favourite is from an American solider stationed in Japan. He sent me a two-page handwritten letter. He read the book, and like Marley, he had been bullied in school. And like Marley, he began to run and that was an outlet for him. Now he speaks at schools on the topic of bullying – and offers hope.
Another recent book is your first YA, Absolutely Maybe, which is full of wonderful, colorful characters – especially Maybe (short for Maybelline) herself and her two best friends Ted and Hollywood. Where did your inspiration for Maybe come from?
It began as a question: What if the daughter of a beauty queen was a tomboy?
Originally, the book was supposed to be a middle grade novel called Charm School Dropout. However, as I began writing, the characters hijacked the novel and took over – and Maybe’s age went from 12 to 14 to 16, and finally seventeen.
It’s a story about both physical and figurative journeys – not least the threesome’s road-movie-like drive across the US to L.A. Have you ever made a similar journey yourself?
I grew up in Los Angeles, but later worked for Walt Disney World in Florida. When I got the job, I drove cross-country with my best friend, Henry. Later, when I moved back to Los Angeles, I reversed that trip and drove to California with my husband.
Figuratively, I make the journey all the time. I am constantly taking new roads, going on adventures, and finding out about myself . . . without ever leaving my office.
Absolutely Maybe went through several titles - can you take us through that?
The original book title was Definitely Maybe and we were all set to go with that. Then one evening I was sitting in a movie theatre and a trailer for a new Ryan Reynolds film started to play. I screamed, “OH NO!” when I realized the movie was called . . . Definitely Maybe. Sigh. Because of that we tried lots of other titles including Maybe Maybe, Maybe She’s Maybelline, and finally, Absolutely Maybe.
How many tacos did you eat in the name of research for the book?
How much has your own childhood affected you as a writer for young people?
Growing up, I loved to read. I still do. I went to the library all the time and knew from a young age that I wanted to be an author. As I grew older, I never outgrew my love for books for young people.
When I write I always call upon my childhood memories. I have this freakish ability to remember meals, conversations, feelings and emotions from my youth. Sadly though, I don’t remember much from yesterday.
How conscious are you of the ethnic background of your characters when you create them?
The diversity of my characters is an important part of my writing, but I liken it to breathing. Both are something I just do and don’t dwell on, yet they are essential. I am a Chinese American, however I write about kids with different ethnic backgrounds. I will always do this because it is a reflection of our world. However, my characters’ ethnicities are always just part of the fabric of the story, and not the theme.
Your books always seem to be the perfect balance of making readers want to laugh and cry. How do you tap into that?
To me, humor and heartache are always intertwined. I can recall one instance when I was young and had a particularly bad day. I poured out all my angst into my journal. Then, to my horror, a friend of mine got a hold of it. He stood on a chair and read it out loud at the top of his voice – shouted it, actually, and it was hysterical. Even though I had been in pain, he made me laugh at myself, and I felt a million times better.
You seem to have nailed the male/female divide in your books – yet no one could ever say your characters follow stereotypes. How do you tread that fine line?
It doesn’t matter what sex, race, religion or age one is – emotions are all the same. Laughter and crying sounds the same in any language. The difference is how we communicate it. I consider myself a social anthropologist in that I am always observing how people interact and react. More often than not, if you look beneath the stereotype, the public veneer, you’ll find the heart of a person
Now a question for Peepy: if you ruled the world…?
I just asked Peepy this question, and she said that she already rules the world.
And one from my kids: when is your next book coming out and what’s it about?
My next book is for young adults. It’s called 5 DAYS DOWN and is about the last five days of high school boy for a popular boy who’s set to go to Harvard -- and what happens when it’s revealed that he lied on his college application.
And can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m working on a middle grade novel. But I can’t tell you about it because I’m superstitious and don’t want to jinx it. However, I will say that I am having so much fun writing it!
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Editor
Posted July 2012
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