An Na is the debut author of A STEP FROM HEAVEN (Front Street, 2001), a finalist for the National Book Award, and winner of the Michael J. Printz Award. A STEP FROM HEAVEN is her first novel. This interview was conducted via email in December 2001.
Your first novel is for teens. Could you share with us a bit about your own teen years? What type of girl were you then? Did you have anything in common with your protagonist, Young?
When I look back at my teenage years I can see two distinct personalities.
There was the real me, which was gregarious, liked to laugh and have fun, who showed up at my Korean church and then there was the school me, quiet, soft spoken, hardly raised her hand in class. The two different sides related directly to my peers.
At school, I was in all honors classes which consisted of mostly of white students. I can only remember a few other people of color in my classes if at all. It had been that way since elementary school. I was quite shy and self conscious in that environment, having been teased when I was younger for different.
Only at my church, where all my friends were Korean, did I feel like I could be myself. Here, my peers, understood and shared the same culture and issues that I dealt with at home and outside of church. My best friends growing up were Korean church friends. I think Young Ju never really got the benefits of the Korean church the way I did. She really only has one friend, Amanda, and even then, Young Ju doesn’t feel like she can completely trust her.
Did you find yourself writing then, or telling stories? If so, how did that manifest itself in your daily life?
I used to tell a lot of stories through my stuffed animals. My favorite was a bunny named Buggy. He had seven different personalities and I could act them all out through Buggy. If I wanted to say something mean to my sister or brother, I would find a way to have Buggy do it. I got so good at it that my sister and brother would often times forget that I was the one really speaking and they would attack Buggy. Yikes! But other than play acting, I would 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.
What was your reading life like? Did you have any favorite titles or authors, and if so, which ones and why?
I love all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. She was the one who taught me how to celebrate Christmas. All those pies and dances! Books were often times the resources for me to discover how Americans lived. My parents couldn’t explain things like Thanksgiving and I was too embarrassed to ask my peers, so books, often times, were my teachers.
I also read all the Judy Blume books. Thank god for Judy Blume or else I would have no clue about sex or my body. None of that got discussed at home, which I think is the case for so many other teenagers. If I loved one book by an author then I would have to read all the other books. It was like that with Beverly Cleary (who I loved because Ramona’s family had to struggle with the money thing just like my parents), Madeleine L’Engle and so many others.
Do you have any favorite children’s or young adult books and authors now?
I have to say that I’m not great at keeping current of YA authors now. I pick up books pretty randomly. I love Jackie Woodson’s work. Chris Lynch, Brock Cole, Jack Gantos, Kyoko Mori.
Are there any titles by other authors that you think would make good companions to A STEP FROM HEAVEN? What do you like about them?
In terms of an immigrant story, I would definitely recommend Sandra Cisneros’ THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET. Her vivid language and imagery are just amazing.
My inspiration for STEP came directly from her. Also, Maxine Hong Kingston’s THE WOMAN WARRIOR sits high on my list of amazing books. The way Kingston weaves together family tales, myths and teenage yearning is wonderful.
Could you give us any insights into the story behind the novel?
I started out writing the novel as a way to capture memory. At first, they were my own memories, like getting my haired permmed before immigrating to the States, that I wanted to write down and then slowly, as all books tend to do, the story took on a life of its own.
In terms of structure, I chose to go with short episodic pieces like Cisneros in MANGO STREET, because of the way they captured memory. I wanted the reader to feel like they were reliving Young Ju’s childhood with her. Memory comes 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.
How did the manuscript change in the course of rewriting and editing?
There was a lot of cutting. And a lot of shuffling. The pieces were not written in a consecutive order.
At the time, I was in an MFA program and the feedback from advisors and other students would send me back to certain pieces to rewrite and edit. Other times, I would write huge amounts without looking back.
It was all 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, character motivation, etc.
Then the pieces started to move around. I knew at some point that I wanted the voice to grow. It seemed like a daunting task at first, but an advisor was really great at pointing out the gaps and also in helping me find the core of Young Ju’s voice that gets carried over into all the pieces as she grows.
Then, of course, 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 honed in on the family and cut all that was extraneous to the family’s story. So other characters and scenes specifically the ones where YJ is in school and at church were taken out unless they shed some light on the family dynamics.
What were its biggest challenges and rewards?
One of the biggest challenges occurred at the beginning of the writing process for STEP. 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 could 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 middle grade 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 to STEP, I was ready to do the hard work. And this time I knew I could do it.
Could you tell us a bit about your path to publication?
I was incredibly fortunate to have a very short path to publication. My advisor, at the end of my MFA program, said that the book was ready and that he would introduce me to his editor. Sure, I said and off the manuscript went. Stephen called me within days of receiving the novel and the contract was signed a week later. Short and sweet.
What reactions to your work have you received from teens?
Teens pick up on all different parts of the novel. Some, mostly boys, really empathize with the plight of Joon. They see the brutality that he faces as a boy who must grow up strong and the quiet rebellion that ensues. Others want to know why Uhmma, the mother, didn’t leave. The reaction also varies if I speak with ESL classes. These are newly arrived immigrants who share so many of the same issues that YJ faces. The idea of translating for their parents and of being ashamed of their different language and customs stands out for them.
Do you have any interest in writing for younger audiences?
I would love to write for a younger audience. There is one book that I started but never finished that deals with two boys and some of their antics. At first I thought the book would be fun and light hearted but half way through the book, one of the mothers started to become depressed.
Sometimes writers have no control over what characters want to do.
I would also love to do picture books, but I don’t think I’m very good at them. Picture book writers do not get enough credit for the work that they do. Like poetry, a good picture book makes every word count.
For you, what is the hardest part of being a writer?
Motivation and discipline. Trying to write five days out of the week as though it is a regular job is hard when there is 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.
What do you love about it?
I love being lost in the story and the characters. Of looking at the clock and realizing that fours hours blinked away. It’s so amazing when I can get into the story and that is all I want to think out. Words and sentences and phrases stream through my mind when I’m running or cleaning the house. Or when I start to cry because something bad is going to happen to my character. Another perk of being a writer is that you can work in your pajamas. Love that!
Where do you work now? How is the space conducive to triggering your imagination?
When I first started writing, I worked in the study. That worked for a while until my husband decided he was going to go back to school to get his Ph.D.
Now, instead of kissing me good-bye for the day, he would roll out of bed, stay in his pajamas and go to the study with me. Ugh.
I moved my desk to the bedroom and then to the living room. But still, just having another person in the house, stomping around, using the phone, etc, drove me insane. Actually, more hostile than insane.
We eventually decided to do what many other writers have done in the past, go to the shed. We bought a Home Depot gardening shed, popped in a sunroof and some windows, and an instant office was erected in the backyard. There were no distractions, no Internet, no phone. I was finally left in peace.
What advice do you have for aspiring young authors (children and teenagers)?
Read, read, read. As you are growing, your interests and style of writing will change. Read to familiarize yourself with other authors, read to understand craft, and read to inspire yourself to write. Write stories, write characters, write plays, write in your journal. It doesn’t really matter just as long as you are keeping that creative side of you full.
What about adult writers interested in breaking into children’s books?
Some people get into writing for children for the right reasons and others for the wrong reasons.
I’ll start with the wrong since that is a shorter list. Writing for children is not easier than writing for adults. Nor is it a vehicle for teaching a lesson or moral. Some of the worst books out there for kids are the ones that preach. No one likes a book, unless it’s a religious story, which tells you what is right and wrong. Kids, like adults, want to think and feel and come to their own conclusions.
The best books and writers create stories that leave room for the reader to understand a character and their motivation. You are heartbroken when a character makes a decision that you feel is wrong, but you understand why they chose to act in the way that they did. That type of empathy is so much better than some story that bluntly hits you over the head with a moral lesson.
What do you wish you’d done differently during your apprenticeship, the time you spent before publication, growing as a writer? Why?
I wish I had more time to take classes. I went to a low residency program and the only time I was able to take workshops from some of the teachers were during the two week residency period every semester. Craft classes can be so eye opening. While it is valuable to figure out issues on your own, having a brilliant teacher explain them to you can feel like lightening striking.
A STEP FROM HEAVEN was a finalist for the National Book Award. Congratulations! How did you find out, celebrate? What has that experience been like for you?
When the finalists were announced in October, my partner, James and I were trekking in the Himalayas. I hear Stephen, my editor, was pulling out his hair waiting for me to respond to his email.
When James and I finally got out of the mountains, we had to travel through two villages before we could get internet access. When we finally got through, James and I were jumping and whooping it up in this tiny internet café.
The whole experience has been kind of unbelievable. Nobody expects a first novel to get that much attention, let alone nominated for such a prestigious award. Being at the awards ceremony felt like I had somehow crashed a party. Who let me in with all these amazing writers?
Is there any downside to having such an acclaimed first novel? Sometimes, Newbery winners speak of how difficult it is to write the next book after the award. Do you feel any such pressure?
I haven’t quite figured out if that kind of attention to the book has affected me at all. I don’t feel like it has, but I’ll get back to you when I get stuck on the second book and I start banging my head with that heavy bronze medal.
What do you see as challenges for the upper YA market? What ways would you suggest that the industry face them?
I think the biggest challenge for the upper YA market is the readership and defining what is YA. Readers read up. The readers who are in the target market for upper YA are high school and older. However, if you look at the readership, you’ll find that it’s mostly middle school.
The students in high school want to read adult books and middle school students want to read more sophisticated YA.
This creates a dilemna for the publishing world who can’t seem to get their target audience to read the books that were intended for them and not necessarily for younger readers who might not be ready to grapple with some pretty difficult emotional issues in novels. I don’t know that there are clear strategies for changing this trend. You can’t control readers and they will read what they want whether or not they understand everything in the book.
Do you have any particular thoughts on the growing number of Asian and Asian American children’s authors being published today?
I wish there were more. I think there is a real gap in representation from Asian American authors in the publishing field in general but also particularly in the children’s market. The more voices out there the better.
I think when writers go into schools, they allow chilodren to imagine that this could be them. This could be an opportunity for them to make their voices heard. If more Asian American writers visited schools, I think more Asian American children would dare to dream of becoming an artist.
You are working with Front Street, an exciting new press that has offered some great YA novels. What can you tell us about this experience?
Front Street has been amazing. From the beginning, they were completely supportive and nurturing. Stephen is a great editor and he has an incredible team: Nancy, Joy, Helen, who all help to make beautiful books. Having such a small house makes everything more personal and fast. If I have a question about the business end of publishing, I just have to email Nancy and she gets back to me in the same day. That just doesn’t happen in bigger houses.