Describe your new book.
Alvin Ho (say it very fast five times and you'll get the pun) is a boy who's scared of practically everything. He has "so-so," aka social performance anxiety disorder, and is selectively mute in school. Not being able to talk in school is a fate worse than cooties. The boys can't deal with it and avoid him, and the girls, especially one little girl, like to take care of him, which of course puts him even further down the food chain among the boys. Horrible. To make things worse, he lives in the strange little town of Concord, Massachusetts, which is hard to spell, and where famous writers who have been dead for 300 years are still in their homes giving tours. Terrible. And if that isn't enough to freak you out, how 'bout a three-fingered piano teacher and a psychotherapist? It gets even creepier in the second book, where Alvin faces camping with his gorilla-sized dad, who digs a pit toilet and refuses to use toilet paper out in the wild!
Alvin is about the perils of childhood and how being a boy is all about survival. It's an awfully dangerous time to be alive when you must scream at the top of your lungs and run full-speed ahead with your eyes closed, but you weigh no more than a couple of squirrels and the wind is fierce. Add to that a brother who unwittingly gives faulty advice, a plucky little sister who is always one-upping you (unwittingly), and so many unattainable and sometimes conflicting goals, such as hanging with guys who don't want to hang with you, and being a gentleman like your dad, and you've got one foot in the grave.
What is your favorite family story?
When I was a child, my dad told us tales from when he was a boy growing up in a Chinese village, and they were tall tales, very tall tales, because the louder my brothers and I gasped, the more stratospheric and oxygen-deprived the stories became; but they really happened because my dad said that they did. And he told his tales so many times that I can tell them now, verbatim, but only in Chinese because that's how I heard them. Anyway, one of my favorites is about how he and his brothers used to love it whenever the Pearl River would run its banks and flood the villages. It was panic and mayhem for all, but for my dad and his brothers, they would run for the doors of their house to dismantle them and use them as rafts! Their mother and grandmother would be screaming for their lives and scurrying to save their rice supply and their chickens, while the boys would be out having a good time. They were very poor and didn't have oars, so they paddled around with their hands.
If you could choose any story to live in, which story would it be? Why?
To Kill a Mockingbird. It's summer time. Childhood is an eternity of summers strung together, and if I could specify which summer, it would be that one with Scout and Jem and Dill, in Maycomb, Alabama. Their idyll town is far from perfect or safe, especially if you're a child or an African-American, but everything that's noble and good about America is in that book. Every time I walk into it, I linger on every page.
Describe your most memorable teacher.
Mr. Nicholas was my high-school American lit teacher, on whom I had the most terrible crush. He was erudite, refined, classy in every way, and completely ignored the loud palpitations of my teenaged heart. I was devastated, but I did pay attention! He tirelessly introduced a bunch of attention-deficit, un-medicated kids in a rough Seattle neighborhood to Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Mark Twain, and other literary meteorites. He took us on field trips to see plays of Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, August Wilson. Many years later, when we reconnected, he began to send via email a constant stream of book recommendations and his critiques of titles he'd read, with the exception of my books ? for those, he expressed only unmitigated delight and enthusiasm. He had long retired from teaching and his health was frail, but his habit to nurture was unflagging. And whenever I'd return to Seattle to see family, I saw Mr. Nicholas, too, who always treated me to a great lunch and wanted to hear about my next book. Our last lunch together was last summer on his birthday. He died earlier this year. I miss him very much.
What was your favorite story as a child?
Charlotte's Web. Oh, how I loved that book, and still do! I would read it over and over. I still re-read it, about once a year. It's an intensely beautiful and heartbreaking story. Charlotte was, and still is, my heroine, and I have always aspired to be like her, just as she is described in the last lines of the book: "She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."
What is your idea of bliss?
I'm alone, at my desk, in my pajamas, writing. It's morning, and the lamp on my desk casts a golden glow to the room, like in the lonely interiors of a Hopper painting. Outside, it's raining, hard. Rain is spattering noisily like rice on the windowpane next to me. It's not only raining, everything is inky and lightning streaks an angry white finger across the sky. Thunder roars right beneath my chair. I sip hot chocolate. I move a comma. I could get struck by a hundred million volts any minute, but I'm happy.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"I'm little, but I'm old." ?Charles Baker Harris, aka Dill, in To Kill a Mockingbird.
This one line has informed nearly all of my little characters.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a Princess, but if I couldn't be that, I'd settle for being the Queen. By the time I got to kindergarten, however, I wanted to be a famous published author. How I fell from royalty to slavery in such a short distance, I'll never know. I made lots of picture books ? I was the author, illustrator, publisher, and bookstore. I was very talented then, not like I am now. These days I can only do one of the above, and very slowly at that.
Why do you write books for kids?
Developmentally, I'm seven. I went to psychotherapy for it last year, and after just a few months, I got to be seven-and-a-day. It was fantastic! But the look on my therapist's face said that if I didn't quit first, I'd F.O.B. ? flunk out badly. So I quit. It was the end of psychotherapy for me and I happily went back to being seven.
What's your clean, kid-friendly curse word substitute of choice?
I don't curse. It doesn't come naturally, and when I try to do it, I don't sound like I'm cursing at all! I just sound like an idiot. Cursing is tantamount to spitting or throwing a shoe at someone; it should be this great projectile that, when it makes its mark, splits you open like a bolt of lightning. Well, the couple of times that I tried cursing, lemme tell you, it wasn't lightning, honey. It wasn't even thunder. It was a sad little worm that fell out of my mouth, like the kind you put on the end of a hook to cast for fish, and it cried out, "Lenore's a wimp! Lenore's a wimp! Look what she's done to me! Aaaaack!" Oh, I was mortified! So I don't curse, and I can't come up with kid-friendly substitutes either. I can't even use the Shakespearean ones that Alvin loves. But I'm endlessly fascinated by those who do curse. To navigate life with a two-word vocabulary, now that's talent ? and it might be bliss, too ? imagine how easy writing would be!
What book by another author do you wish you had written?
In the Western canon, The Odyssey by Homer. In the Eastern canon, The Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en ? true tales of indomitable courage and dangerous expeditions ? in their original languages. But if I can't write in archaic Greek or classical Chinese, and I had to write in English, then The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, of course.