New Voices: Jessica Kim & Risa Nyman Talk Truth in Fiction

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Today I’m interviewing two debut middle grade authors about what inspired them as well as how truth emerges through their fiction.

While Jessica Kim’s Stand Up, Yumi Chung! (Kokila, 2020) is a humorous read, and Risa Nyman’s Swallowed by a Secret (Immortal Works, 2020) is more serious, both books are heartfelt.

Jessica Kim

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book? 

I was interested in writing about what it’s like to be a second-generation American and the unique challenges we face trying to find our place between our parents’ traditional culture and the one we picked up growing up in America.

I thought that tension would be a great basis for a middle grade adventure that grapples with identity, values, and ultimately self-acceptance.

To fully flesh out the themes of my story, I needed my main character to pursue something completely out of the box and stand-up comedy was the perfect vehicle. It’s risky, it’s silly, it’s not totally prestigious, it’s basically an Asian mom’s worst nightmare!

Perfect! Also, it’s funny and entertaining.

Stand Up, Yumi Chung! basically wrote itself after I had the premise in play.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with their representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

I spent about nine months writing and revising my manuscript with my critique partners. Then, I pitched it on DVpit, which is a biannual pitch contest for marginalized creators on Twitter.

I sent my query letter and writing sample to the agents who were interested and was offered representation. I worked with my agent to revise my manuscript before she took it on submission, and it went on to sell at auction. I spoke with each of the offering editors and ultimately went with the one whose editorial vision was closest to mine. The rest, you could say, is history!

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

The advice I needed to hear when I was starting out was: Don’t worry so much about being published; worry more about developing your craft. It takes time and practice to find your voice and structure your story. It might take a few rounds of querying before your manuscript finds a home, and that’s okay.

Keep writing, keep reading, keep improving. It’ll happen when it’s supposed to.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your perspective bring to your story?

Middle school was a confusing time. Jessica didn’t quite know where she fit in and struggled to figure out what her “thing” was. Also, she rocked a perm just like Yumi Chung!

In all honesty, I wasn’t too concerned about bringing my perspective to the story.

I just approached it as any writer would: telling a story from my point of view, which would naturally include the cultural references, unitalicized Korean words, and foods and names that would be familiar to people in my community.

I figured that readers who are not familiar with some of those things can just Google them, as I have done many times as a young reader reading about things outside of my experience.

I hope that readers from my community would appreciate seeing themselves on the page while other readers would get the chance to step into my world and experience it for the first time.

In either case, you’re going to go on a great adventure full of laughs and maybe a few tears and learn a little about yourself along the way.

As a child of Korean immigrants, Jessica draws on her culture which comes from a mix of her parents’ traditional upbringing and what she picked up growing up in America.

Risa Nyman

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Perhaps like many authors, I think my inspiration story is odd, but also, a bit magical.

It starts with my mother (doesn’t everything start with your mother?) who always insisted we had to stop to pick up a lost penny.

Being old school, she believed that disrespecting money even a penny with little value means you are putting yourself above people who need money.

When I was selling her condo after she passed, I took one last walk-through to make sure it was ready for the buyers, but also to fix some memories in my brain.

There, in her bedroom, in an otherwise totally empty place, I spotted three pennies neatly stacked on a window ledge.

My first thought was that these pennies had a magical quality and somehow my mother left them for me. This would be a great story for a picture book, and I asked my daughter, who is an art teacher, to write and illustrate the book about my three pennies, but she couldn’t.

A few months passed, and I couldn’t get the pennies out of my head, so I decided it was up to me to write their story. Although in my professional work, I had done a fair bit of writing like press releases, op-eds and fundraising letters, I hadn’t done any creative writing for decades.

I signed up for a Gotham Writers workshop on children’s writing. I quickly learned there was so much I didn’t know and that writing is definitely not easy. My first submission to the class for a picture book met with some devastating comments. I’m not sure how or why, but I didn’t give up.

The next assignment was to write for middle grade. This time, the teacher thought I was on to something. I found my writing voice, and I never looked back.

Although my first manuscript is tucked safely away in the proverbial “computer drawer,” destined not to see the light of day, my second manuscript is now a published middle grade contemporary novel, Swallowed by a Secret.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship.  How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

Reading, writing, critiquing and revising, revising, revising.

I started to read middle grade novels almost exclusively to understand better how authors wrote for this age group. The dialogue, the actions and the emotions all served to enlighten my own writing.

I wrote daily—adding scenes and characters, deleting scenes and characters, revising plot points and working to heighten the conflict and tension. I took workshops online with agents, editors and authors on the Inked Voices website. I participated in writing conferences through SCBWI and joined critique groups. The feedback from others is essential.

Also, along the way, I picked up techniques to help improve my writing and made them part of my routine. I started using word clouds to refine my writing and have the computer read my text out loud as I followed along, highlighting the places that need changing.

I re-read my manuscript so many times from beginning to end and always found something to fix.

When the time finally came that there could be no more changes, I briefly panicked that I might’ve missed something.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

Swallowed by a Secret deals with grief and loss as the story follows twelve-year-old Rocky’s journey to discover the truth about how his father died. Knowing that this book would be read by young people, it was vital that it be written with great sensitivity and accuracy.

I engaged the services of a psychologist, who is also a children’s author, to read my manuscript. Her comments and suggestions were invaluable and most of all, it gave me the confidence that my manuscript could stand up to a publisher’s scrutiny.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Like many authors, I wrote a story of fiction with some of my own truths woven through the plot. When I received the publishing contract. I was thrilled but also nervous about having my story, which was part of me, out in public view with whatever attending baggage that carried.

This dilemma of my truth going out into the wider world was full of irony, because choosing between truth and secrets is a central theme in Swallowed by a Secret.

When twelve-year-old Rocky learns that his mother’s explanation of how his father died is bogus, he is consumed by the secret. He loses trust in his one remaining parent, and his life begins to unravel.

From talking with other authors and reading, it became abundantly clear that both real life and the creativity of fiction join together to give your story depth, sincerity and believable emotions, which are the essence of why we write and why people read.

Cynsational Notes

Jessica Kim writes about Asian American girls finding their way in the world. Before she was an author, Jessica studied education at U.C. Berkeley and spent ten years teaching third, fourth, and fifth grades in public schools.

Like Yumi, Jessica lives with her family in Southern California and can’t get enough Hot Cheetos, stand-up comedy, BTS, and Korean barbecue.

Born in Boston with the accent to prove it, Risa lived within ten miles of the city for decades until a recent move to the neighboring Ocean State.

For many years, Risa worked in a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting active participation in our democracy, with a special focus on voting and elections.

Risa’s deep dive into creative writing started with a strange event that involved finding three pennies in a neat stack in a completely empty apartment that belonged to her mother. It’s a long story. Writing is a priority and passion.

At other times, Risa is reading, exercising or doing therapeutic ironing–unless the grandchildren are around.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.