When A Map into the World found its way to my desk last year, I had to remind myself to breathe. This gem of a book captures feelings of love and friendship in a way that crosses generations and speaks to each of our hearts. What else had she written, I wondered? Her memoir for grownups, The Latehomecomer: a Hmong Family Memoir, caused quite a stir when it was published in 2009. She followed that book with a book about her father, The Song Poet. If you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend that you do so. Kalia’s language is not only lyrical and soul-touching, but her vision is piercing, her storytelling astute. Her newest picture book, The Shared Room, will be released in June. It is the story of a family’s grief at the loss of a child, a sister, a daughter. It is a book that will help you when your own need to grieve presents itself. The Shared Room will encourage your children to develop their own empathy. We are fortunate that Kalia generously answered our questions about the work she does and how she does it.
What does your workspace look like?
I have a white desk before a white framed window. There is a big firebush on the right side of the house and it is so big and tall that it now tangles with my perspective of the world outside. In front of me, there’s a quiet street. The house across the street is well-tended but mostly empty; its owners live on a farm in a state down south and visit only once or twice a year. Our mutual neighbors, a lonely father and son, take care of their yard. It is lush, an even green. My own yard is not so lush or so green. The dandelions love my yard. They flourish here among the grass: yellow blooms, low to the ground. I stand at this desk or I sit before it and I write whenever I can.
What mementos do you have near your writing space?
There is a picture on the wall to the right of my desk. It was a wedding gift from a mentor of my husband’s, whose husband, Peter Leach, took it at the Japanese garden at Como Conservatory—when they heard that I loved the place. There’s dark water reflecting the tangling of tree limbs, bare bark, rising from green growth among big rocks, set against a backdrop of darker green. In the mirror of the still water, tree debris float like speckles across ancient glass, there is a touch of sky, against its light, we see the reflection of the limbs. I know the garden well but I do not know where this photo was taken and I like it that way. There is a touch of mystery, a story that I don’t know even as I love what I can see, what it remembers, what it recalls.
What are your writing tools of choice?
I journal before I write. I write on my laptop. My journaling is for me. I use up notebooks, some actual diaries and special books I’ve received as gifts, but I’m not choosy. I’ll happily take up a regular notebook and work my way through, line by line, page by page. I write with the everyday pens I find littered about the house, the free ones that I receive at writing conferences, the few from college presidents given to me as gifts, the many from older men and women who come to my readings, ask for my signature, and give me as a token of their generosity, the writing utensils from their purses and pockets. There is no greater satisfaction for me than to see a pen’s ink run out in my hands, to see the words fading into the impressions I’ve made on the paper. I journal the mundane details of my life, upload all manners of feelings and thoughts that cloud my head, shift my focus, and store my problems away before I tackle the work of actual writing on the laptop. Journaling is my way of meeting the world as I know it before journeying to worlds unknown to me.
Do you have a routine or a ritual about writing? A certain time of day, a way you begin? Do you write every day?
Before I had children, there were things I loved to do in the mornings. I liked to water my collection of orchids, my vines, the growing things around me. I made a cup of hot mint tea and admired the things outside of my windows, one at a time. When I made it to my writing space, I turned on my feet warmer (I work in Minnesota!) and then I opened my journal and I started there, then transitioned to my laptop. I sipped from the hot cup, watched the steam rise and rise and rise and the words flowed from my fingers just like air.
After I had children, the overwhelming feeling was of exhaustion and while time stopped at all hours of the night with the most immediate child in my arms, each time I made it to the page at all, whether only to my journal or that and the laptop, all I could do was ponder the sweet, gift of sleep. I was so tired all the time. To stay up, I shifted the mint tea into Earl Gray. I turned off the feet warmer. I cracked my neck. I hunched over my desk and I made myself work. Writing became hard work. All the rituals and routines I’d loved were replaced but the elements I needed to ensure work could be done.
Now that the children are bigger (a six-year-old girl, identical twin boys who are four) I’m somewhere in between giving into what I love each time I write and doing the work I need to do to ensure that the people I love are supported by the work I do. I have discovered that the only ritual I need is the journaling before the actual writing, the departure from where I am physically, emotionally, intellectually into the place I want to go on the page.
How does an idea gather energy for you to turn it into an essay or book?
Every essay I have written or book I’ve worked on first began as a feeling I carried at some state of the world, some lived experiences, some story someone shared that pierced me. I carry it for hours, days, months, sometimes years until there is no more room inside of me to house them anymore. Then, I turn to what I know to oust these feelings into the page, offer them to the world in the hopes that they will find a home elsewhere, live as a brethren and a friend—not one more thing I must carry. Each thing I write first began as occupied territory inside of me, a feeling that holds my heart tight and squeezes and squeezes until there is rupture/rapture.
You have now had two picture books published. How do you go about this kind of writing in a way that is different than writing memoir or biography or the essays you write for The On Being Project?
Picture books are an offering to enter into a gentler space. They are a confined form; all I have is 32 pages to do the work of the story. They are collaborative. The words I write must have the ability to conjure up not only a setting and characters, but a story in the mind of another artist. Where I begin is only that: a beginning.
When I write for adults, it is very different. I have more room to play in experimental forms and page numbers. I’m not relying on another’s artistic contribution to make the book whole. I am in charge of the descriptions that will evoke setting, characters, and the story in my readers. I am in charge of the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story (of course with the assistance of editors, copy editors, and the publishing team).
So, when I write for children, I have to write with a lighter hand, a more restrained hand, but also one that can fly at a moment’s notice. I have to leave room for the illustrator to enter with their imagination and their contributions. I have to remember that the world of children is a tender thing. I have to think about the work of a page turn very differently than I do in the world of adult writing; adults are chasing stories, caught in the grip of language, children are curious beings, their page turns are more like the ending of a line of poetry; it is a leap of faith, a space where anything is possible. It is a fact in the world of children’s literature than anything can happen to a child at any point in time; time and space are not governed by simple knowledge; every children’s book author is making fire, blowing, blowing, gentle breath into embers, pushing kindling close, hoping to light a fire forever. It is a different responsibility entirely.
What is the process you go through to find the right words for a picture book?
At first, I play with a story. I begin somewhere and I take it all the way to the end. I can do this with picture books because they are a shorter form. Once I have the first draft, I read it and see if I’m moved by it. If I am, I share it with trusted family and see if they are moved by it, too. I’m not looking for edits at this point. I’m not editing myself. I’m looking for emotional honesty, hoping to connect and to build a strong emotion, to see if story I’ve written is alive. Once I determine that there is indeed the spark of life, then I share it with a professional, an editor or an agent, and see how they feel. If they are in, then we are in. We have something to work with and work from, to direct and to produce. I’m not married to the particulars of my first drafts, but I’m definitely looking at the draft to see if I can commit forever. Once I commit, I will do everything within my power to make it the most healthy and beautiful and life sustaining thing I can.
Do you picture your audience while you are writing your books? Are you aware of the readers with whom you’re sharing your mind and imagination?
I don’t picture my audience when I’m writing at all. I don’t think about them seriously. I know they are out there. I know they can be anyone. I want to keep that surprise alive in my writing. I want an old man to pick up one of my picture books and see his long lost grandchild peeking from the pages. I want a little girl somewhere to meet one of my stories and find some dream that they’ve had but couldn’t quite articulate. I want that magic to permeate into my process so I never limit my audiences to the folk I can imagine would be interested in my work.
With that said, I do take very seriously my responsibilities as a writer, my obligations to my readers. I want to ensure that the mind and the imagination they are tangling with is as pure and as unadulterated as possible, the real deal.
What have you discerned about the illustrator’s role in creating a picture book?
Illustrators are magicians and wizards and witches and fairies and they have power like ghosts to haunt, like vampires to suck blood from ink, the sacred ability to transform the world of a writer’s story forever and always. An illustrator is carrying the other side of the pole. Between us is a boiling cauldron of melted gold seasoned with pearls, diamond, and all manners of preciousness. We are balancing that treasure between us. We have to walk in-step, keep our balance, hold our end of the bargain, and make sure there’s no tripping. I have so much respect and trust in illustrators and their talent. They make books beautiful. I’m so thankful they are in our world. But do I understand them? Not really. I also prefer it this way: to preserve the mystery and the magic of their process.
Kalia, thank you for sharing yourself with our readers. I know they will grow to love your books as much as I do.
Intrigued? Please visit Kao Kalia Yang’s website for more information and a selection of her books.