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Author Interview: Paula Yoo

This was originally posted at Into the Wardrobe on November 15, 2008.

The AMAZING Paula Yoo is the author of the young adult novel Good Enough. In this very enjoyable read, honor student and violin player Patti Yoon shares her worries, uncertainties, frustrations, fun, hopes, and dreams during her senior year in high school. (Click here for my review of Good Enough. I thought it was SO GOOD!) Paula is also the author of the children’s non-fiction picture book, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story (illustrated by Dom Lee).

Paula holds a B.A. in English (cum laude) from Yale University, an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. She is a TV drama screenwriter and her TV writing credits include NBC's "The West Wing," FOX’s "Tru Calling," and The CW’s "Hidden Palms." She has taught English and music and written for The Seattle Times, The Detroit News, and PEOPLE magazine.

As a professional freelance violinist, Paula has been concertmaster of the Detroit Civic Symphony Orchestra and a member of the Santa Monica and Torrance Symphony Orchestras. She has performed numerous classical chamber music recitals throughout the LA area, including concerts with the Los Angeles Chamber Players, and has performed with rock acts, including Arthur Lee of Love, Spiritualized, The Dilettantes, and Random AOK.

Welcome to Into the Wardrobe, Paula. :o)

You have worked as a journalist, freelance musician, English and music teacher, and tv screenwriter. Can you tell us about your road to publication as a children's and YA writer?

I have always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little kid. My first "book" was written when I was in the 2nd grade! It was called - don't laugh - "The Girl Called Raindrop." I was so proud of it that I submitted it to HarperCollins (back then, they were known as Harper & Row). I received a very nice letter from them saying that I was "talented" and should consider trying out for their writing contest for children ages 7 to 10. However, I was so upset they were rejecting "The Girl Called Raindrop" that I tore up the letter! I thought, "I'm not a CHILD writer, I'm a REAL writer!" LOL!

My first children's book was a non fiction picture book biography on Dr. Sammy Lee, the first Asian American to win a gold medal at the Olympics in 1948 for diving after facing much racial discrimination. I submitted it to the Lee & Low Books "New Voices" contest because I loved their books and thought it would be a good entry for them. To my delight and surprise, they called to tell me I had won, so that is how that book got published.

My first YA novel GOOD ENOUGH was written between my TV jobs. I was unemployed and took advantage of the free time to work on a new novel. I wrote about my life as a teen violin geek. I literally wrote this novel in five weeks straight. It just poured out of me. I then revised it and sent it to my agent and he submitted it to yes, HarperCollins, and they finally decided I was a "real" writer and not a "child" writer and published it! :)

Which is the hardest for you: performing music, teaching, writing for tv shows, writing for newspapers and magazines, or writing for children and teens? Why?

The hardest thing, honestly, is everything. I tend to stress equally about all my different projects. For example, if I'm performing music, I always worry about making a mistake - playing out of tune, missing a note etc. When I'm writing, I always worry about subpar writing - is this description too cliched? Is this character not sympathetic enough? Is the plot not plausible? etc. When I was in journalism, I was always paranoid about spelling the subject's name wrong or not getting the exclusive info in time for my editor's deadline. Each of these jobs are equally hard and stressful - but you know what? In the end, the rewards far outweigh the stress!

What books and/or authors have influenced you the most as a writer for children and teens?

My favorite and most influential books growing up included: Charlotte's Web by EB White, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by EL Konigsburg, Harriet the Spy by Louis Fitzhugh and everything by Judy Blume!

What are your biggest challenges and rewards from being a writer for children and teens?

The biggest challenge is making sure I write from an authentic teen and/or child point of view. I'm still very much a kid at heart because I'm open to new experiences and love learning new things and having adventures. But the grown-up me has unfortunately gotten a little cynical and suspicious, and sometimes that spills over into my writing. So I have to be careful and make sure - is what I'm writing from an authentic teen/kid voice or from a sarcastic and cynical 30something grownup? hahaha! The reward is simple - meeting my readers. I can't tell you how moving it is to have a child or teen tell you in person or via email about how your books made them laugh and escape the harsh realities of life for a little while. Although I don't have children, they say it takes a village to raise a child, and I find it very fulfilling and rewarding to help make a child or teenager's life more enjoyable by making them laugh and have fun through reading one of my books.

If you could choose only one, which would you choose: for all your books to be award-winning, or for all your books to be bestselling? Why?

OMG these questions are really hard! What a fun and difficult question to answer! Can I cheat and say both? LOL! Let's see, if I choose "award winning," that means I want my books to be well-written. If I choose "best selling," that means I want my books to connect to the largest possible audience which might mean sacrificing some literary quality. Given that I will never sacrifice my desire to write to the best of my abilities, I can safely say I would want "best-selling" because I'd love for my books to reach as many kids as possible to make them laugh and not take life so seriously! I'll just have to make sure they're well-written. :)

What children's or YA book would you like your work to match or surpass (in terms of writing, impact, popularity, sales, or awards)?

If I could ever write anything as beautiful as Charlotte's Web or Bridge to Terabithia, I would be so happy. I don't think I could ever be "good enough" (haha) but I will try my hardest to be the best writer I can be.

How do you feel about Good Enough being nominated for a Cybils award in the Young Adult Fiction category?

I was surprised and honored! It's amazing how influential and powerful book bloggers are - it's all about word of mouth when it comes to getting books distributed these days because the large bookstore chains do not always carry your book due to too many complex reasons to get into here. So YA and children's book authors depend heavily on word of mouth and awesome indie booksellers, teachers, librarians, and book bloggers to help get the word out on our books. I'm very grateful and thankful for the Cybils' nomination.

What do you want readers to take away from Good Enough?

I hope readers will find GOOD ENOUGH not just funny but also take the message/theme to heart - it's about learning the difference between being successful and being happy.

In Good Enough, the main character Patti Yoon shares three of her mother's recipes incorporating Spam in Korean food (Spam bi bim bap, Spam kimchi ramen, and Spam kimbap). Can you please share one more Spam-Korean food recipe with us? :o)

Oooh, your questions are really creative and great! Let's see. My book has Spam sushi/kimbap rolls, Spam ramen, and Spam bi bim bap. Okay, off the top of my head here ... I am brainstorming... if I was starving and had only SPAM to eat, I would scramble eggs and eat it with fried SPAM slices. Or maybe I'd try to create a Hawaiian pizza - what if you put fried SPAM and pineapple slices and mozzarella cheese on top of a pita bread and toasted it in the oven? OMG!!! I am totally going to try that this weekend. I honestly just made that up on the spot. :) I am a SPAM genius!

I love "The West Wing"! It is still one of my favorite tv series because it's intelligent, fast-paced, and thought-provoking. What was it like writing for the show?

Thank you so much for your kind words. It was an honor and privilege to work for Aaron Sorkin on this wonderful show. It was also very intimidating because we had such a huge writing staff of incredibly intelligent and hilarious writers. The amount of brainpower in that room was overwhelming at times. But at the same time, the amount of silliness was just as overwhelming, so I think that's what kept our show intelligent but not pretentious - Sorkin really wanted his characters to be noble but not full of themselves. He valued humor as much as intelligence, and I think that balance made the show so realistic and not intimidating to the TV viewer. It was also a lot of hard work because you did a lot of research to make sure you were accurate with the facts because you were writing about the White House!

What's in heavy rotation on your iPod these days?

Actually, I just bought an iPhone so instead of listening to my iPod, I've been playing a lot of Solitaire and Video Poker. But on my iTunes, I recently bought the new Oasis album which I love. I'm seeing them on Dec. 4th at the Staples Center in LA! And I also have been listening quite a bit to the new Journey CD which of course features the amazing Arnel Pineda!!!!! I love his Cinderella rags-to-riches story and am so proud that a Filipino is the lead singer of one my all-time favorite rock bands!

What children's or YA book are you currently reading?

I met Ingrid Law recently and loved her novel SAVVY. I also just read THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins - wow. wow. wow.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a new YA novel and hope to have it ready soon to submit to my agent. Fingers crossed it will sell! That's the thing they don't tell you about publication - just because you have a book published is no guarantee your next book will be published. It's like starting all over again! Hopefully this next one will sell. Otherwise, I'll just write another one. :) I do have a new book coming out in May 2009 - it's a picture book biography on actress Anna May Wong from Lee & Low Books called SHINING STAR: THE ANNA MAY WONG STORY and it's illustrated by Lin Wang.

Do you have a message for your readers in Asia? :o)

Thank you for reading my book! I'm honored to know that this American and Asian American novel has universal appeal. My message to my readers in Asia is the same to my American readers - keep reading books because in this day and age of the Internet, twitter, facebook, cell phones and texting, we need to slow down and savor life, and what better way than to get "lost" inside the world of books? Thank you very much!

Thank YOU, Paula!!!


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