Haemi Balgassi is the author of two award-winning books: PEACEBOUND TRAINS, illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet (Clarion, 1996), a picture chapter book, and TAE’S SONATA (Clarion, 1997), a novel for young adults. This interview was conducted via email in June 2000.
Your first book, PEACEBOUND TRAINS, is centered around Korean characters caught in the turmoil of the Korean war. Your second, TAE’S SONATA, centered around a Korean-American girl in today’s United States. Could you share a bit of your own family history as related to these stories? Were aspects of either book inspired by real-life events?
PEACEBOUND TRAINS is inspired by my mother’s and grandmother’s experiences in the Korean War. Just like the family in the book, my grandmother and her young children (including my mother, who was then only five years old) fled war by catching a perilous wintertime ride on the roof of a southbound freight train. The memory of this harrowing journey has stayed with my mother all these years.
TAE’S SONATA is inspired by my own middle grade years. Like Tae, I struggled to find a balance between my Korean (home) and American (school) identities. In writing TAE’S SONATA, I drew from my childhood memories of taking piano lessons, and attending a Korean church here in the United States. Many of the characters are based on people I really knew. For example, Tae’s mother is based on my own mother, and the teacher who assigns South Korea to Tae and Josh is based on my high school geography teacher.
Chris K. Soentpiet illustrated PEACEBOUND TRAINS. How did his vision of the story coincide with the one in your mind as the author?
Chris brought PEACEBOUND TRAINS to life in a way that went far beyond my expectations and hopes. His stunning paintings enrich the text and inspire readers to care about the characters. His decision to close the book with a portrait of the grandfather is brilliant, and one that I didn’t anticipate. In my opinion, it makes the ending much more powerful.
It must be difficult to make a subject as complex as war come alive so vividly for young readers. Can you tell us a bit about how you framed the story in PEACEBOUND TRAINS?
I considered telling the story directly from the time of the war, without the present day characters. After a couple drafts, I realized that the story would work best if I introduced it to young readers the way I myself first heard it – i.e., through my grandmother’s words. So, I created Sumi, the young present day character who helps bridge the gap between today’s readers and the distant war. Sumi, in essence, represents the reader. Just as Sumi becomes enlightened by her grandmother’s story, so (I hope) do the readers.
TAE’S SONATA touches on peer relationships, family relationships, and young romance. Many authors say they develop personal relationships with their characters. How did you and your protagonist, Taeyoung, get along?
Tae was very possessive of my time. Her voice consumed me… I felt that I couldn’t rest until I wrote her story. It wasn’t always easy, though. Tae brought back some painful memories of my adolescence that I thought I’d buried years earlier.
How do you go about researching for your books? Do you do it all in advance or as questions arise? What types of sources do you turn to?
For PEACEBOUND TRAINS, I interviewed my mother and other family members who lived through the Korean War. I also read many books on the Korean War, and watched historical documentaries to get a visual feel for that time.
For TAE’S SONATA, I observed contemporary middle grade students, and relied on my own memories from that age.
What sorts of books did you enjoy as a girl? What are some of your favorite books today?
Like so many from my generation, I grew up on Judy Blume’s novels. I lived on books of all types… everything from Nancy Drew mysteries to historical novels like Carol Ryrie Brink’s CADDIE WOODLAWN and Scott O’Dell’s ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS.
I must have read Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN a dozen times or more. And, I loved the Mary Poppins books (still do!).
Contemporary children’s books I love include Dyan Sheldon’s THE WHALE’S SONG (illustrated by Gary Blythe) and Karen Cushman’s THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE.
What inspired you to write for children?
My daughters inspire me to write for children… and, the girl still inside me whispers in my ear, demanding that her voice be heard. I write for children because I was a child myself when I fell in love with books and stories. Back then, as now, a good book made my heart soar. I hope young readers will feel that way about my books.
What advice to you have for aspiring young writers?
My advice is one echoed by children’s writers everywhere: Read, read, read! Then, read some more. The best writing is born from a deep love of reading.