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YA Writer to Watch Out For: Ellen Oh

This was originally posted at Into the Wardrobe on May 24, 2009.

Today, I have the privilege of interviewing blogger and YA writer Ellen Oh. I first came across Ellen's popular blog Hello Ello while I was doing research for my interview with Ingrid Law. (Ellen's oldest daughter had interviewed Ingrid.) I checked out Hello Ello and really liked what I saw and discovered that Ellen had written Seven Kingdoms, a young adult fantasy set in ancient Korea. My interest was further piqued and I immediately emailed Ellen to let her know that I thought Seven Kingdoms sounded AWESOME. Alas, Seven Kingdoms is not yet a published book. But I think it's only a matter of time before we see Ellen's work on bookstore shelves. And the wait will be well worth it.

Ellen, can you tell us a bit about your Asian American heritage?

I'm an American Gyopo - which is the Korean term for any person of Korean ethnic descent who lived the majority of their lives outside of Korean and doesn't hold Korean citizenship. And while I do not speak Korean well - I am barely conversational and nearly illiterate in Korean - I am not a banana. I do not try to pretend to be what I am not. I am proud of my heritage. I embraced my cultural roots and appreciate where I come from.

Do you celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month? How are you celebrating it this year?

This year I am celebrating it by highlighting Asian authors on my blog and at the Enchanted Inkpot - a MG/YA fantasy {blog}. I started early with Cindy Pon and will be interviewing Grace Lin next, whose new fantasy novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is simply spectacular. I also hope to continue to highlight Asian authors and raise their profile with the general public.

What inspired you to write Seven Kingdoms?

Well, it all started with Genghis Khan back in 2000. Time magazine named him man of the millennium and I went out and picked up a biography on him. Surprisingly, I learned more Korean history in a biography about a Mongol than I ever learned in school. It made me really curious about ancient Korea. However, trying to find history books was nearly impossible. The library and bookstores here in the States only went as far as the Korean War. That meant I had to rely on the internet and my Dad to learn about Korean history. My dad was awesome! When he found out I wanted to learn about Korea and write about it, he went to the Korean consulate and borrowed and bought books from them that I couldn't get on my own. I also bought lots of books off the internet from a Korean distributor. When my husband saw how much I spent on books, he told me I'd better be writing the great American novel.

All that research was worth it. I was fascinated by the Three Kingdoms Period and it became the basis for my Young Adult novel, the Seven Kingdoms.

What kind of work are you now doing on Seven Kingdoms?

I did a major rewrite, changing my novel from a male POV to a female POV after I got back editor comments. Since they were comments from editors who wanted to see a rewrite, I took them very seriously. I am now working on another major revision.

Why are you writing for young adults?

Because nearly all my favorite books are ones considered to be for YA. And quite frankly I enjoy reading YA and MG books so much more than adult books.

Why are you writing fantasy?

I grew up reading fairy tales (remember the Lang red, orange, blue, green fairy books?), mythology, folktales and legends. Then I fell in love with the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings. But I think what sealed my love for fantasy was Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series.

Do you have a particular writing process or any writing rituals?

The only process I have is that before I start a book, I begin researching the idea extensively. I then outline the whole story and having written 3 books, I can tell you that one odd thing I do is that I like to write the conclusion to my stories first.

What is your definition of a “bad writing day”? How do you deal with bad writing days?

A bad writing day is a day where no writing gets done. Hey it happens. Can't worry about it. You just pack it up and hope that the next day you will make up for the bad one, and it usually does!

Was it difficult getting an agent?

Well when I wrote my first book, it was based on Ancient Korea and based on the idea that one of the ancient Kingdoms of Korea was the forefather of the Yamato nation of Japan. As I workshopped the MS in writing classes, I had published writers and others in the publishing industry tell me that I would never get a novel based on an obscure period of Korean history published as a new author. They so discouraged me that I put that book aside and began writing a novel based on World War II instead. I queried that novel and got quite a bit of interest in reading the MS, but all the agents rejected it, giving me comments that made me realize that I had a structural problem in the novel. I immediately stopped querying because I realized I'd have to do a major overhaul on the novel, but instead of revising, the idea of Seven Kingdoms came vividly in my head and I realized I didn't care what anybody said, I wanted to have my first published novel be about ancient Korea. And that book just flowed out of me. When I was ready to query, I did a lot of intensive research to see what agents would most likely be interested in my novel. I looked at the books they represented and the deals listed for them on Publishers Marketplace. I queried approximately 30 agents and had several requests for partials and fulls. Fortunately for me, Cindy Pon encouraged me to query her agent, Bill Contardi, who had just sold her YA fantasy novel. She thought because of her book, he would be interested in mine. She was absolutely right and I'm really fortunate to find myself represented by him. And the other agents who were reading my MS were incredibly gracious and lovely when I told them about my offer. So I was very lucky to find my agent, but I do want to stress how much research I did to make sure that I was focusing my agent search on the right type of agent for me. It is not an easy thing to do, but Verla Kay's Blueboards are one of the best places for a writer to find out just that kind of information. The community is wonderful and caring and I'd be lost without it.

What kind of teen reader were you? What were your favorite books? Who were your favorite authors?

It is hard to remember that long ago! And honestly, I am jealous of teen readers now. We had great books when I was young, but there seems to be so much more now! My favorite authors then were Harper Lee, Ursula LeGuin and Alexander Dumas. To Kill a Mockingbird and The Count of Monte Cristo are still my favorite books.

What are your favorite Asian or Asian American young adult books?

I gotta tell you that I am in love with Grace Lin's new book that I mentioned earlier. She is an amazing writer and When the Mountain Meets the Moon is a book everybody needs to buy cause they will love it. I love Cindy Pon's book Silver Phoenix. I also enjoyed Nahoko Uehashi's Moribito series. And of course I can't forget Linda Sue Park's Single Shard and When My Name Was Keoko. I also have to mention Sook Nyul Choi's Year of Impossible Goodbyes. And one of my all time favorite books, which is not YA is When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holth. Love that book!

What young adult books are you reading now?

I am currently reading Erica Kirov's MagicKeepers for my interview with her this month on Enchanted Inkpot. I also have waiting for me Skin Hunger and Watersmeet.

Why do you think there is the misconception that young adult books are not as deep or as complex as books for adults? What is your response to this misconception?

You know, that's a good question. I think it is just this belief by grown ups that younger readers need to read simple stories told simply. They underestimate younger readers and forget that when they themselves were young, they were probably reaching for adult books because there wasn't the variety of YA books that we have now. Everyone says we are in a golden age of children's literature and it is glorious! It is a great time to be a young reader. But lots of what is categorized YA could just as easily be an adult book title. The stories are complex, the writing excellent. I think it is ridiculous to think YA is not as rich as adult titles. It is in part misconception, and it is also bias.

What are your dreams for Seven Kingdoms?

Well my first and foremost dream is to hope to see it published. I've gotten many emails from Gyopos from all around the world who tell me they heard about my book through my blog or my website or word of mouth and their first question is "when can I read it?" I get emails from people begging me to let them read my book now because they've never read an English Korean fantasy book and I'm like, "thanks for being so excited about my book! Let's hope I get it published and then you can read it!" I once got an email from a little boy who told me his Mom had shown him my website and how cool he thought my book was going to be and thanking me for writing. That one really got to me cause I realized he was looking for a book that he could relate to. I knew that Korean Gyopos would be interested in my book, after all, how many other ancient Korean fantasy books are there? But I do hope that if I get published, that non-Koreans will be interested in my book also. And that Korea isn't the forgotten country in between China and Japan.

I really thank Ellen for sharing her writing journey with us. I truly look forward to reading Seven Kingdoms!!!

To end this interview, here are the seven icons for the kingdoms in Seven Kingdoms. Virginia Allyn illustrated these icons, as well as the map of the kingdoms (shown at the beginning of the interview).

Guru is represented by the mounted archer.

Oakcho is represented by a Korean pavilion.

Hansong is represented by a hanbok (the Korean national dress).

Tongey's symbol is a waterfall.

The icon for Jinhan shows the famous Shilla (one of the real kingdoms of ancient Korea) golden crown.

Kaya is represented by the kayagum (a stringed instrument).

And lastly, Kudara is represented by the famous seven-branched sword of Paekche (also a real kingdom in ancient Korea).


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