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Author Interview: Jack Cheng

I still haven't gotten over See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2017). So after I reviewed the book here and cooked up some classroom and book club activities for it, I just had to grill Jack about his influences and creative process. Read our interview below! 

Jack with his dog Matisse

Hi, Jack! What motivates and inspires you to write for young readers?

Getting to meet kids (both in school and through my books) who are at a time in their life when they're really starting to form their values. It's a time when they're really starting to ask the big questions about life and the people around them—the same big questions that we keep asking, I think, even when we grow into adults.

I was excited when I saw that the main character of See You in the Cosmos, Alex Petroski, was Filipino American. Is there a particular reason you made Alex Filipino American?

To be honest, I thought about making Alex Chinese American but I felt like it would've been a different novel. I would've been too tempted to bring in my own experience as a Chinese American, and I don't think that's what this novel wanted to be. At the same time, I wanted to represent an Asian American character because I had so few of those characters in my own life when I was growing up.

Can you please guide us through your research and creative process for See You in the Cosmos?

When I first start working on a book, I'm more writing to find out what it's about. And SYITC was no exception. I had a basic premise—a boy and his dog trying to launch his iPod into space—and from there it almost becomes like experiencing a dream. Characters, locations, etc. appear without me really knowing why. It's only after I've gone through a rough draft that I can then go back and try to understand what it means, what it's trying to say, and build an outline from there for future drafts.

As far as research goes, I was mostly reading Carl Sagan (the astronomer)'s books, and rewatching the original COSMOS television show. To make sure I was representing Alex's mother appropriately, I read a couple memoirs written by people who've struggled with schizophrenia. I will say that when it comes to research, I have trouble reading anything that I'm not naturally interested in, because then it just feels like homework.

 Jack's desk around the time the book came out

What really struck me about See You in the Cosmos was Alex’s voice. What’s your secret? How did you hone your voice as a writer for young readers? What are your tips for writers regarding voice?

Voice to me is almost impossible to craft, at least not in the way you can craft a sentence. It's more like listening. You're creating the conditions for the character to speak, and then you have to listen for the voice that emerges. I do think you can practice listening though. You can try to pay more attention to the way people in your life talk, and try to think: Why did they say it this way instead of another?

Who are your favorite authors and graphic designers? How have they influenced your own work?

Ah there are so many! The previous question reminds me of J.D. Salinger, who was a master of voice and dialogue. I think what's really remarkable about Salinger is the way he can convey so much just through two people having a conversation. He's more like a playwright in that way. I'm also influenced by authors like Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin (RIP), whose books have kid characters yet appeal to adults too. That's one thing I strive for: To write books that you can read as a kid and find something wonderful in, and then read twenty years later as an adult and find something different.

As far as designers, one of my favorites is comic book artist Chris Ware. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is maybe my favorite graphic novel of all time. Maybe.

If you were to visit the Philippines, would you a) visit white sand beaches and underground caves, go sailing, go snorkeling and scuba diving, etc.; or b) check out the natural wonders above ground, like the Taal Volcano, the Banaue Rice Terraces, and the Chocolate Hills. Why?

Do I have to pick one? Ah I think I'd go for b. I like being in the mountains. 

Jack backpacking in Nepal a couple of summers ago

What are you reading now? What are you working on now?


I'm currently reading
Orphan Island and really intrigued by the premise (I'm only a few chapters in). I'm working on another middle grade novel, this time with a Chinese American main character. It's much more personal than SEE YOU IN THE COSMOS, and more about my own childhood growing up in the Detroit area, as well as what it's been like for me moving back here as an adult, three years ago.

Thank you so much for this interview, Jack! I'm really looking forward to your next novel.

Comments

  1. You're creating the conditions for the character to speak, and then you have to listen for the voice that emerges.

    That's so true, and resonant.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Brilliant post. Thanks so much

    ReplyDelete

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