Interview: Children’s Author Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park is the winner of the 2002 Newbery Medal for A SINGLE SHARD (Clarion, 2001). Linda Sue Park’s additional award-winning titles include SEESAW GIRL (Clarion, 1999) and THE KITE FIGHTERS (Clarion, 2000). Her latest title is WHEN MY NAME WAS KEOKO (Clarion, 2002). This interview was conducted via email in March 2002.

What role did books play in your childhood? What were your favorites?

Linda Sue ParkI was a maniacal reader. It was by far my favorite activity. I read indiscriminately–from series like NANCY DREW and TRIXIE BELDEN to the award winners and everything in between. I was also a RE-reader; I’d read my favorites over and over. Among the authors whose books I re-read were Charlotte Zolotow, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Elizabeth Enright (the Melendy family books), Rumer Godden, E.L. Konigsburg…One of the first books I remember reading several times was the big book of Greek myths by the D’Aulaires.

Who are some of your favorite authors today?

These days I’m more of an individual-title reader rather than an ‘author’ reader. But for body of work, I greatly admire Katherine Paterson, Lois Lowry, Richard Peck, and Robert Cormier — among many others.

When did you first decide to become a writer? Were you a child who scribbled your own short stories, or was it something that came to you later in life?

I did indeed start scribbling stories and poems when I was in kindergarten. I don’t remember a conscious decision to become a writer. It was the only thing besides reading that I really wanted to do–and one of the few things I was any good at!

What inspired you to write professionally?

Again, I can’t recall any particular moment of inspiration. But every school or ‘career’ decision I’ve made has revolved around reading and writing. I majored in English so I could read and write all the time in college. My first real job was in public relations, as a writer.

Once, while I was living in England, I took a temporary job as a secretary in an advertising firm. One of my responsibilities was to sort through the material handed in by copywriters. I took a look at what they were doing and thought it looked like fun…so I wrote some stuff and added my efforts to the stack. In the client meeting, they chose my copy! The next day I had a new job as a copywriter. Same pay, unfortunately. I have written poetry all my life and still love reading and writing it. It wasn’t until 1997 that I decided to try writing a book for children.

Why did you elect to write for children and teens?

With most of my longer fiction work, I’m never sure what I’m writing when I start out. I just write and see where the story takes me. Only when I’m well into the project do I start thinking, hmmm, this is shaping up to be a midgrade novel…or a short story for the adult market…or whatever.

When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park

My picture books are of course written with young children in mind, but attention to story and language comes first in any case, and considerations of ‘audience’ are a distant second.

For me, it’s difficult enough to write something that pleases *me* without throwing any other factors into the pot! But fiction for young people suits me because it forces me to write ‘lean and clean.’ No lazy sentences, no ‘fat’, no extraneous verbal matter. “It’s the story, stupid” — even more so, I think, for young readers than for adults.

Finally and importantly, I read so much when I was at ‘midgrade’ age that I think the structure of those books got sort of ‘hard-wired’ into my brain. I seldom have to think consciously about chapter breaks, scene length, pacing, things like that, while I’m writing. I just know how they should ‘feel’ because of all those years of intensive reading.

What encouragement helped you along the way?

My parents were always very supportive of my efforts to write when I was young. I had a couple of influential teachers (Mrs. Gilchrist and Mrs. McElroy in elementary school, Mrs. Merritt in high school). Later, my husband became my principal cheerleader–a role he still plays!

Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication?

I started out by retelling some Korean folk tales–and submitted them willy-nilly, doing absolutely everything wrong! While I was waiting for responses, I began work on what eventually became SEESAW GIRL. I learned a lot in the interim, and my submissions of that manuscript were much more professional. I sent a query and three sample chapters to six targeted houses. All six requested the full manuscript, which was eventually accepted by Dinah Stevenson at Clarion Books. I want to emphasize that when I first started submitting, I was in the same boat as most people are: I had no agent, no contacts in publishing, I didn’t know any other children’s writers, I had never heard of organizations like SCBWI! As a result, I made a lot of mistakes at first. But the one thing I did right was to make sure that my manuscript was as well-written as I could possibly make it. And in the end, that was what counted.

In 2002 CHILDREN’S WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS MARKET edited by Alice Pope (Writer’s Digest Books, 2002), you wrote about the importance of reading to those who want to write for children. Do you suggest reading books similar to those one hopes to write, recent books, award-winners, a wide variety? What, if any, questions should the writer be asking herself as she reads others’ work?

I tend to read a wide variety of books, mostly those of the type I’m interested in writing–hardcover trade titles (as opposed to mass-market series–although I read some of those too!). I also usually read ‘extensively’ rather than ‘intensively.’ I don’t often read for ‘technique’ purposes; I read for enjoyment and entertainment. But by virtue of the sheer *quantity* of books I read, the technique soaks in subconsciously. And comes out that way too, when I write.

I certainly enjoyed your Newbery winner, A SINGLE SHARD, but actually my favorite of your books is your first one, SEESAW GIRL. I think it’s Jade Blossom’s spirit that captures me. Could you share with us how this character and story found you?

Seesaw Girl by Linda Sue ParkWhen I was ten years old, I read in a book (Francis Carpenter’s TALES OF A KOREAN GRANDMOTHER) how girls in aristocratic families were almost never allowed to leave their homes. This made such an impression on me that, twenty-seven years later, it became the basis of SEESAW GIRL. I wanted to write a story about a girl with a lot of curiosity might cope in those conditions. I think that change in society occurs in small increments–that ordinary people take small steps, one or two at a time, until the community is ready for a big change, for a Gandhi or a King to come along. I wanted Jade Blossom to be one of those small-steppers.

In Young-sup and Kee-sup, the brothers of THE KITE FIGHTERS, it’s easy to see behavior dynamics still very applicable to siblings today. Could you talk about the story behind this story? Do you fly kites?

The Kite Flyers by Linda Sue Park I do fly kites. My family vacations at the beach almost every year, and my father always brings along a kite or two. THE KITE FIGHTERS is a tribute to him in many ways: He was the one who told me about the sport of kite-fighting, and he is himself a second son. So it was a special thrill that he ended up doing the interior chapter-heading decorations for KITE.

Could you share with us a bit about your poetry background? Did this experience in any way lend itself to your efforts as a novelist?

I think of poetry as language at its purest. I wrote poetry for many years before I tried my hand at fiction. There’s no doubt in my mind that my experience with poetry contributes invaluably to my fiction work, because in addition to the Big Picture, the story itself, I am fascinated by words. I work as hard at sentence level as I do at story level–with imagery and sound and trying to make sure that every single word is the best one possible. The challenge is to make it whole, seamless, so that story and language aren’t separate concerns, but work together to enhance each other.

What are the greatest challenges to you as an author?

Ideas! My greatest weakness–I think for novels, I average one idea a year at most! There are of course innumerable things worthy of a novelist’s attention, but for me it’s a question of feeling utterly captivated by an idea. I have to feel *obsessed* about something to want to spend so much time writing and thinking about it. Ironically, this paucity of ideas has one advantage: Once I get an idea for a book, I have to finish it — because I know another one isn’t going to come along for a long time!

What do you love about it?

The ‘building’ process: Finding exactly the right words and putting them in the right order. This is probably a result of my early and continued love of poetry. And then putting the right sentences together into scenes, and putting those scenes together into a story with just the right pace and tension. It’s so challenging–and so satisfying when you’ve done it.

Children’s books published by U.S. publishers that are not set in the United States or Europe are rare. Why is it important for American children to read stories set abroad?

A Single Shard by Linda Sue ParkIn the last couple of generations, our world has gotten dramatically smaller, and the popularity of the Web has accelerated that process. A kid can now ‘chat’ with someone halfway around the world as easily as with the kid next door! So paradoxically, their worlds are getting bigger at the same time: They need to learn more about the world, about other places, their cultures and traditions. To me, this is the most wonderful part about writing stories set in diverse locales and times: the opportunity to explore how people are different — and more importantly, how we are alike. If young readers can find common ground with a character from 12th century Korea, perhaps they will find it easier to come to a better understanding of those around them.