GalleyCat caught up with young-adult novelist Cara Chow (pictured, via) to talk about her book, Bitter Melon. Here are some highlights from our interview.
Q: How did you find your agent?
A: Back in June 2008, I found Stephen [Barbara] on a website called agentquery.com. My keyword searches were ‘Young Adult’ and ‘multicultural,’ and his name was one of over 200 that showed up on the list. The description of what he was interested in seemed to match what I had, so I sent him a query.
After reading my manuscript, Stephen wrote me a very nice letter telling me what he liked about my manuscript. He then went on to explain what was missing and asked if I would be interested in revising and resending it. I called him to get a better idea of what he had in mind. During our phone conversation, I felt strongly that he was ‘The One’ (I mean that in a professional way, of course). I felt a deep sense of trust in him and decided that he was worth another draft.
In April 2009, I sent him my new draft. He read it and asked me for another revision, which I did in two months. So in the end, I guess he was worth two drafts!
Q: How did you land your book deal?
A: What I didn’t tell you in part one was that I wrote these two drafts while I was pregnant with my first child. I finished the last draft I sent to Stephen about one week before going into pre-term labor. I emailed him my manuscript right before going to the hospital to deliver my son. I guess you could say I delivered twins!
When I returned home three days later, I got an email from Stephen titled ‘your 2nd masterpiece.’ He announced that he had just finished the manuscript and that it was ready to be pitched to publishers. I asked if we could delay that process to give me time to recuperate and adjust, and we agreed on a three month delay. In September 2009, Stephen sent the manuscript out to about 13 editors. Of the 13, 3 went to auction. At the end of the day, the book was acquired by Egmont USA. The whole process took about 2 to 3 weeks.
Q: What motivated you to write Bitter Melon?
A: Though I have a very positive relationship with my mother today, we struggled a lot when I was a teen. My mother wanted me to be the best, and her way of motivating me was by being very hard on me. Unfortunately, I was a very sensitive kid, so I took my mother’s words and actions personally. This not only strained our relationship for many years, but it also affected my confidence and self-image well into my twenties. As I got older, I realized that many of my friends and acquaintances also had issues with their parents and with success and failure. I also realized that those who didn’t have these problems could not understand the angst that drove those who did. I wrote Bitter Melon for both groups of people, to give a voice to the former while educating the latter, in a way that was entertaining and compelling.
Q: What stereotypes do you hope to eliminate with Bitter Melon?
A: That’s an interesting question because, on the surface, Bitter Melon appears to perpetuate a stereotype. My protagonist is a straight-A overachiever and her mother is a Tiger Mom. No Asian-American reader could say, ‘Gee, I’ve never met one of those!’ I’m not seeking to eliminate a stereotype because all stereotypes are based on a seed of truth. Rather, I want to flesh out the stereotype in a three-dimensional portrayal that gives dignity and life to my characters and the groups they represent.
I want my readers to identify with my characters and feel compassion for them, regardless of their backgrounds. On a separate yet related subject, I would like to add that I really love the cover of Bitter Melon. It was important to me that the cover treatment was contemporary and non-stereotypical. In addition to being both, the cover is also gorgeous!
Q: Describe your writing process.
A: I’m a poor multi-tasker, so one thing I’ve learned is to focus on one task at a time and not to do two things at once that will conflict with one another. When I’m generating material, I make an effort not to edit while I’m writing. For example, I’ll give myself freedom to describe the same thing three times in a row, knowing that I can go back later and choose the description that works best. The same holds true for dialogue, whole scenes, and sometimes whole drafts. Later, I can review my manuscript with the mindset of an editor with a surgical knife and tape.
Another lesson I’ve learned about my writing process is that I can’t be creative unless I’m relaxed. My ideas come from very unlikely sources and in unlikely forms. In order to receive those ideas, my focus has to be open. When I’m putting pressure on myself to produce or to solve a problem, or when my lifestyle is hectic and demanding, I freeze up and my focus narrows. That’s bad for writing. As I read this, I’m noticing what a tense person I am, and maybe that explains why I have only one book out so far. So I guess I need to improve in that department!
Q: What topics do you think Asian-American writers should talk about that needs more awareness?
A: Asian-Americans are probably the most under-represented group in the media. This is slowly improving, but it is still an issue. The problem is partly institutional. ’Multicultural’ is considered a genre, like ‘paranormal’ or ‘action-thriller,’ only less lucrative. Another contributing factor is cultural. Asians are generally discouraged by their families from pursuing the arts because they aren’t lucrative. I am not an expert on these matters, so I don’t have solutions to these problems, but certainly these are issues worth discussing.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Once the publicity for this book dies down, I am looking forward to spending time with my family, getting some rest, and doing the activities I used to enjoy that kept me inspired, like reading, watching movies, gardening, and hiking. I need to fertilize my creative soil before I can grow another book!