Sweet Sixteener Shannon M. Parker recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Stacey Lee about her YA historical debut novel, UNDER A PAINTED SKY (March 17, 2015 from G.P. Putnam’s Sons).
Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys. She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul. A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall. After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain. She plays classical piano, wrangles children, and writes YA fiction.
Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush.
Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.
I was so moved by this book. Andy and Sammy drew me in instantly, both escaping a unique form of injustice as they head out, completely unprepared, for the Oregon Trail in 1849.
Shannon: There is SO MUCH TENSION in this book! Was all this tension created naturally as the story unfolded at your fingertips or did it build in the revision process with your editor?
Stacey: I wish I could say it was all on the page from the start. Actually, tension is my Achille’s heel. Knowing that, I scour my MS for places to inject more tension. I think of a movie director with his megaphone saying, “More anger! More sex! More more more!” It helps. It took many revisions, at least twenty or thirty, to get the tension to where the story started to really move. That part of the writing process requires the most patience from me.
Shannon: Your characters are gorgeous and your descriptions are indicative of your layered writing throughout. Did these characters come to you fully formed? Were they based on historical figures or people you know?
Stacey: Thank you! My characters come to me about 80% formed. I definitely try to base my characters on actual people. It gives me an instant visual, and a personality to work with, and is much easier than making someone up.
With Annamae, I knew I wanted a tough, sensible character as a counterpoint to Samantha’s city-girl softness. The challenge with her was to build in some vulnerabilities. The more complicated you make a character, the more human they become.
Shannon: Music plays a dominant role in your book with Sammy playing and guarding her pristine violin on the harsh Oregon Trail. What is your own experience as a musician and how did this influence Sammy’s character development?
Stacey: I played classical piano for 18 years, violin for four years, and a bit of flute. Practicing an instrument was as important as doing homework in our household. An instrument teaches so much – not just music, but discipline, order, language through sounds and pitch, math through tempo. In the old days, playing a musical instrument was one of the primary forms of entertainment. The typical girl would probably not have been allowed to play the violin mid 19th century, but Sammy did not have an ordinary upbringing.
Shannon: I’m fascinated by the Chinese beliefs and teachings you weave into this story through Sammy’s memory of her father. Was this difficult to do? Create such a fully formed character on page when he is not even alive during the timeframe of the novel?
Stacey: I don’t think it’s any more difficult than writing what’s happening the moment. It does take a bit of planning, as you want to space out the flashbacks so they don’t all come at once, as well as put them in when they are emotionally relevant so they appear seamless. A flashback is a great way (and in the case of a dead person, one of the few ways) to give character moments, situations that reveal character. They’re little stories in themselves.
Shannon: You are a fourth generation Chinese-American whose ancestors have roots in the American west. Were your relatives lured by the Gold Rush? What family legends survive and were these stories the genesis of your book idea?
Stacey: My relatives were cigar manufacturers in San Francisco, CA, and probably had a hand in the opium trade, as well. My mother remembers her father taking her to opium dens when she was a little girl. The first generation to arrive certainly might’ve been lured to ‘Gold Mountain’ –what they called the gold rich fields in North America, but more likely were looking to escape horrible living conditions in China, which was experiencing drought, famine, and civil war. Unfortunately, the old-timers didn’t pass down their tales.
Shannon: The language in your book–dialogue, descriptions and reflections—feels very authentic for 1849. Can you share your process for “living” in this time period as you wrote? And what type of research did you conduct to achieve this authenticity?
Stacey: I read lots of pioneer diaires! Actually, the first draft I wrote was too-period in language, and it was a non-writer friend who told me it wasn’t working for her. I took out a lot of the period speak, to make the language more accessible, and used a more contemporary sentence structure (active vs. passive voice), though with hopefully enough touches like word choice to make it feel authentic to the period.
Shannon: Can you share your path to publication and any advice to writers reading this interview?
Stacey: It took about six months to get out a first draft. I decided at the last minute to go to a conference. I literally had to drive my manuscript up to the organizer’s mailbox in order to get it in on time to be considered for critique. The manuscript ended up winning the conference award, and after more polishing, I got an agent. However, getting it sold wasn’t easy. We got about 25 rejections before sale (took almost a year), and my publisher asked me for a substantial revision before they bought it, too. Writing isn’t for the timid; there’s a lot of waiting, a lot of revising, and a lot of heartache (and it doesn’t end when you get a contract). You must love to do it, and if you do, then it’s absolutely worth it.
Lightning Round Questions:
Favorite writing snack?
Big brother, little sister, in the middle, or one and only?
Middle of three girls.
Music to write by?
I need quiet when I work. Mostly because I’m too tempted to get out of my chair and dance around.
Favorite Broadway musical?
A band you loved when you were 16 that you still listen to?
Do you write longhand or type?
Both. I brainstorm longhand.
You can also read the Shannon’s full review of UNDER A PAINTED SKY on Goodreads.
About the Interviewer:
Shannon M. Parker lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and sons. As a young adult, restlessness drove her to backpack throughout dozens of countries, adventures she found less intimidating than high school. She has since devoted her life to education and holds degrees from three New England universities. She is often busy rescuing dogs, chickens, old houses and wooden boats. Shannon has a weakness for chocolate chip cookies and ridiculous laughter, ideally, at the same time. In her debut YA contemporary novel, THE GIRL WHO FELL, a high school senior mistakes her boyfriend’s physical and mental manipulations for devotion, only to discover the truth when it may be too late.