“I grew up in an African-American neighborhood in San Francisco, and went to school in Chinatown. The children’s librarians would give me their best book, and it would be something like Homer Price and His Donut Machine. In those books every kid had a bicycle, and everyone left their front doors unlocked. I lived in one ghetto and went to school in another ghetto. Nobody I knew had a bicycle, and everybody had at least three locks on their door. So these so-called realistic books seemed like fantasy to me.

“At that time, there were a few books about Asian-American children, but they were written by white authors who had maybe done a few interviews – they did not live in Chinatown and did not know the culture. I never could get into those books. Instead I read fantasy and science fiction, because in those books children are taken away from our everyday world, go off to another place where they have to learn strange new customs and even a new language, and they talked about adapting. That’s something I did every time I got on and off the bus. So to me, fantasy and science fiction were much more realistic.”

“I must seem like a dinosaur, but I really believe that in storytelling there are things that pull people along a certain path with you. I learned how to write from two science fiction writers, Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton. I loved how in three paragraphs Heinlein could create a character you wanted to travel across the galaxy with, and I loved Andre Norton for the worlds she could create – especially worlds on the edge of change. So I like the old-fashioned story arc.

“I say this despite having studied with John Barth, writing experimental pieces in a seminar. I did my dissertation on William Faulkner, so it took me years to learn how to put in commas again! But eventually I realized I didn’t belong in the avant garde. There’s a story by John Fowles called ‘The Ebony Tower’, in which he talks about art: he feels that artists have moved into a dead end. (One young critic goes to meet a Picasso-like artist who is very modern and yet somehow manages to link to the energy and vitality of the past, and this young guy is trying to understand how he did that.) I was feeling that way about a lot of experimental fiction, so I started getting back to my roots, which was traditional storytelling.”

Dragonwings was historical fiction but won some awards. I can translate Chinese, but only very painfully. It takes me about an hour for four words, specially if it’s Classical Chinese! My parents still speak Chinese at home, but I’m one of those kids who didn’t know the background. With Dragonwings, it’s more than a narrative device when I have the story told from the viewpoint of an eight-year-old boy. I was really that boy. If there was meat on a plate, I had to be told that it was roast duck and prepared in a special way. If there was a picture on the wall, I had to be told it was a kitchen god. So (for the sake of these kids) I really try, in every one of my stories, to have some person who doesn’t quite know the milieu. He’s the point of view, so the audience can connect with that person and learn along with him.”

“Originally, the adaptation of Dragonwings appeared as a school play, so I had to condense a 250-page novel down into about an hour, and we could only afford five actors. Now there are plans to make it into a movie, and all of a sudden there’s a cast of several hundred! Cartoon Network is also planning to do Tiger’s Apprentice as a TV movie. I’m sure they’ve made changes, but the script was done by David Magee, who was nominated for an Oscar for Finding Neverland.


“I’m working on the third book after City of Fire. But I also have a book that’s in galleys, about my memories of Chinese New Years. There’s something about the smell of cordite that just makes me nostalgic! A child’s ankles are smaller, but you’d be ankle-deep in red paper in Chinatown. And there’s one other book I’m doing, about my grandmother. She was a wonderful person, a very strong personality, but when we went shopping she had very liberal ideas about the rights of a customer!”