An interview with Wendy Shang, author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu
Wendy Shang’s debut novel The Great Wall of Lucy Wu was a joyous discovery last year – second only to finding Wendy herself. Her novel has earned many prestigious distinctions, most notably the 2012 Children’s Literature Award from the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is about a spunky 12-year-old girl whose perfect school year is utterly ruined by the arrival of her grandmother’s sister from China. Warm, quirky, honest, it’s the perfect read for upper elementary school kids who enjoy introspection by way of their funny bone. Some of our GOS fans were lucky enough to meet Wendy in person at our live launch on June 19. For those of you who missed it, here’s why she’s fabulous!
Wendy, can you start by giving us a little background about yourself. What you were doing, for example, when the writing bug bit you. (And also, the origins of your unnatural attachment to Gummy Bears.)
The writing bug hit while I was in the throes of being a mother to a 6-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 6-month-old. I had left my legal career as a juvenile justice attorney for the American Bar Association, and I was starting to suspect that I needed something just for me. Around that time, I received a postcard for a high school reunion, and it caused me to ask myself what is it I wanted to do that I had not done yet. The answer was, write a children’s book.
On the advice of a friend, I signed up for a course on writing for children at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. I had the good fortune to be taught by Mary Quattlebaum, who not only taught craft, but gave us an understanding of the industry. The class started with about 20 students, and by the last class, there were only 7 of us. I never missed a class, even though it was a 45-minute drive in rush hour traffic to get there. I was in the right place.
Oh, and I don’t think my attachment to Gummi bears is unnatural. I just find the rest of the world oddly dispassionate on this subject.
How would you describe Lucy? How did you first discover her as a character? What is it about her that makes her a strong girl?
The first word that comes to mind for Lucy is twelve. Twelve the age I remember most strongly from my childhood; it’s such a great age! You’re leaving childhood behind and just edging up to young adulthood. You’re grappling with questions of how you’re going to live your life, and you have these wonderful, strong opinions.
It took me a while to discover Lucy; I knew what kind of situation I wanted to write about – a girl struggling with her Chinese identity. But at some point I discovered Lucy had all these sarcastic thoughts that I could share (hello italics!), and she just grew from there.
Lucy spends a good part of the book figuring out the right way to treat people, particularly Talent, a fellow Chinese-American student from school, and Yi Po, her great-aunt. What makes her a strong girl is that once she figures out the answer to her question, she’s unstoppable in her desire to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences.
This novel is about a modern Chinese American family and yet it appeals to kids of all cultural groups. In other words, you managed to make the culturally specific into the culturally universal. What’s your secret?
I wish I could say that I had some secret, or that it was even intentional on my part, but I think the reality is that we are more alike than we are different. I *love* getting letters from kids that say, “I’m not Chinese, I’m [insert identity], but I totally relate to Lucy.”
There are so many laugh out loud moments in this book. My favorites: the vomit scene in the restaurant, and, of course, her room-division tactics against Yi Po. We often get soulful books about cultural clashes for bicultural kids, and yet you went with humor. How did you come to choose that voice, that format? What are the pluses of going with comedy? The challenges?
I tend to have a fairly humorous (that’s humourous, for your British readers) outlook on life, which really came to fore while I was writing LUCY. I tend to be the person who is quiet but whispering funny asides to the friend next to me, so writing gave me a chance to share my humor in a broader way.
But humor is hard. Did you know that The Simpsons has 20 writers on staff? That’s one writer for every 80 seconds of a 22-minute show! I talked to Kathy Erskine about this once, because I was really taken by her funny moments in Mockingbird, which is a pretty serious book. She said that funny moments are harder than sad moments because sad events are more universal.
Family relationships start to get strained for most of us as we head into our early teens. You do such a great job of bringing those conflicts up for Lucy without beating us over the head with family dynamics. Which of those relationships did you enjoy exploring the most?
I loved writing the scenes between Lucy and her sister Regina because sibling relationships are so unvarnished. We’ve all said things to our siblings that we would never dream of saying to another human being, and at the same time, it can be a fiercely loving relationship.
I love that Lucy is an athlete – and that this skill is both her problem and her solution. Were you an athlete as a girl? (Your last scene at the basketball game is so exciting and precise, I want to think yes.) How did you come to choose basketball as Lucy’s skill?
In the early stages of the book, I was drawing on a lot of personal experiences and memories to bring Lucy to life. At some point, I wanted a clear demarcation that this is Lucy and this is me, so I made Lucy a short basketball player because I am neither. I was the tallest girl in my class well into 7th grade, and my best tactic on the court is to play so badly that the opposition falls down laughing.
What are your next projects?
I have been working on a historical novel (set in 1972, be still my heart!) which was inspired by my dad. My dad was sometimes a mystery to me growing up, but one thing that he did that I understood completely was he let a girl on my brother’s baseball team in spite of opposition from the other parents. I’ve always wanted to write about that.
What are the challenges for you of writing a second novel compared to the first?
To me, the first book was a dream – there was nothing to lose in the pursuit and everything was gravy. With the second story (I can’t even call it a book), I’ve struggled with self-doubt. Do I have enough in me to write a second book? Can I make a go of this as a career? But I know this: I can’t not write. I spent a long part of my adult life trying to figure out what it is that sets my heart on fire, and this is it.
Finish this sentence for me. Strong girls _____________________________.