Interview: Crystal Chan

Crystal Chan debuted in January with Bird. I caught up with Crystal a few weeks ago and she was gracious enough to give me some time for an interview. While I hadn’t read Bird at the time of the interview, I have completed and reviewed it.

This summary appeared on Amazon.

Gr 4–6—Jewel never met her brother. On the day she was born, he tried to fly off a cliff and died. Her Bird-coverparents believe that Grandpa’s nickname for his grandson, Bird, caused a bad spirit, a duppy, to trick the boy into believing he could fly. Twelve years later, Grandpa has still not spoken a word and Jewel is fed up with her moody parents and unloving household. She meets a boy who calls himself John, her brother’s real name. They share their hopes and dreams and Jewel opens up about visiting the cliff to bury her worries as small stones. Grandpa thinks John is a duppy in disguise, come to cause more harm. Jewel is a multilayered, emotional character who struggles to come to terms with her family’s issues. The mixture of superstition and science creates a wonderful juxtaposition in this powerful story about loss and moving on.—Clare A. Dombrowski, Amesbury Public Library, MA

Your website tells me that you enjoy public speaking, performing and writing. What are your passions? What do you enjoy sharing with audiences?

I have a lot of passions – for starters, I have a pet turtle, and I love biking around Chicago, especially in the winter (though this winter was too snowy for biking). I also love flower arranging, origami, and I just got into calligraphy. Oh! And I love overhauling my bike – taking it all apart, piece by piece, cleaning it, then putting it back together.

With audiences, I love sharing stories, plain and simple – stories about how Bird came to be, stories IMG_7240-revised-241x300about growing up mixed race, stories about life and the lessons it holds. Every time I speak to an audience, large or small, I consider it a success when there’s that moment in my presentation when everyone’s focused on the same image, we’re all breathing in that same breath, we’re all as present as present can get.  With books, the sharing of a story is one-on-one: your book and the reader. With audiences, storytelling takes on a collective experience. I love them both.

I did a lot of digging on your website! It opens with the quote “imagine beyond boundaries”. What boundaries or limits do you work to overcome?

Growing up as a mixed-race kid in Wisconsin in the 80’s, there were a lot of boundaries. Take, for instance, on application forms there would inevitably be that section that said Your race: check ONE box – and then I’d have to choose what race I was in that moment: Chinese or White. I couldn’t check both, which was the only truth. So I had to choose one and deny a large part of myself in the process. And that’s just a form, a piece of paper. In person, I’d get the What are you? question a lot – why am I a what when everyone else is a who? Why does it matter? Limits like that.

Obviously, these kinds of limits hinder us from being fully ourselves, from being as dynamic of a society as we can be.  The problem with these racial boxes and labels lies first not in laws or “–isms” but in imagination. Case in point: we have a mixed-race president who we say is Black. (shaking head) It’s just so hard for us to imagine beyond these boundaries, these labels of ours. I encourage people to continue to stretch their imagination, because if you can’t envision it, you can’t build it. So I wrote about two kids – one who’s multi-racial, the other a transracial adoptee – who don’t fit into boxes, and to hopefully continue that dialogue.

What are some of the things you’ve experienced as a debut author that you weren’t quite expecting?

(laughing) There’s been a lot! First of all, I got my agent pretty quickly – in a couple weeks’ time, which is very short in the publishing world. More importantly, I honestly wasn’t expecting that anyone would care about what I wrote; when I was writing the draft, I was purely writing for myself. I thought Bird was too dark, too different for publication. There were no vampires. On a deeper level, no one understood me growing up mixed-race – that word mixed race didn’t even exist for me back then, there was no vocabulary to describe someone like me – so why would anyone connect with my story? I’m actually still surprised that Bird has sold in eight countries and that my isolated experiences are translating into a universal experience. That’s pretty trippy.

What can you tell us about Jewel, the protagonist in Bird?

Jewel’s this smart, passionate, curious kid who’s just not seen for who she is. Her mom wants her to be a (secular) teacher, her Dad tries to feed her his Jamaican belief system, and all the while they don’t understand her passion for geology, her spirituality – and nor does she feel comfortable sharing with them her experiences at the cliff where her brother died. It’s like she’s a giant and her parents are trying to shove her into a small Tupperware container.  She’s ripe for bursting out – and her meeting of John sets everything in motion.

Was she easy to write?

Sure was. Her voice popped in my head and she started prattling away. My job was to dictate.

What superhuman qualities do you wish you possessed?

(laughing) Oooh, good question! The superhuman quality that I’ve pined for for years has been what I call the Delivery Man Superpower. That’s where you see a delivery man with, oh, say, pizza in his arms, ready to go to someone’s house, and you go up to him and say, “I think that’s for me,” and he says, “Okay,” and just hands it over. Thai food, sandwiches, ribs, you name it – all you have to do is suggest to the delivery man that it’s for you, and it’s yours. I’ve seriously thought about this for years.

What process do you use to get to know your characters?

I let them roam around a little for the first couple chapters, just let them do what they want. After that, I start a separate document and create a character profile: what this person’s wants, fears, secrets, etc, are.  Usually whatever profile I make, they go off the charts, anyway, so it’s a loose guide.

Have you hidden any special details or symbols in BIRD that readers should pay attention to? (It’s OK if you didn’t; I can just drop this question.)

I really like how it turned out where Jewel’s main natural element is the earth while John’s element is the sky. Grandpa has his element, too, but you’ll have to read the book to find that out. J

What are some of the things we can look forward to from Crystal Chan?

I’m working on a YA novel now that is different. Quite different. But I think that whatever I write is going to have layers of emotion. I like that, delving into the muck of the heart, seeing what’s down there, what can be brought to light.

What does diversity mean to you?

I don’t know. I don’t really like that word – it conjures up images of everyone of different colors holding hands and singing. Diversity is hard work, plain and simple, and it means giving up a bit of your defined world (your boundaries!) to be able to let others in, to see the “other” as just as human as you are. I’ve been in “diversity groups” where people are different races, yes, but they’re all of the exact same political leaning and religious bent, they all have the same hobbies and interests. I’m not sure that’s diverse, I’m not sure that diversity is going to get us where we want to go. Personally, I think the word is too small, or at least how we’re thinking about it is too small. Again, this is where imagination comes into play. Just the fact that you’re asking this question (and I’m glad you are) raises the fact that there are many, many different ways to even define the word, and that people who use this same word can be actually meaning different things.

What makes you shine? What do you do that you feel is vital and gives you energy? What delights you?

I live in Chicago and am literally across the street from Lake Michigan. I spend a lot of time out there – summer, winter, it doesn’t matter – and I get a lot of juice doing that. Also, I meditate/pray on a regular basis, which helps give me my grounding. I love being spontaneous with my friends – last winter I went out and made snow angels with a girl friend of mine, and then later a couple of us played pirates on the playground. It was totally awesome and liberating to break out of the “adult” box. (those boxes again!) In general, there’s obviously a lot of output as a writer, so I have to be careful that I’m putting enough gas in the tank, so to say. There have been times when I’ve needed to scale back on the writing/marketing of it all and just really make sure that my heart and inner life are well nourished – for writing is simply your inner life unfolded onto paper.  That’s really all it is.

Crystal, it is a pleasure getting to know you. Wishing you much success!


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