I was lucky enough to read an ARC of CILLA LEE-JENKINS FUTURE AUTHOR EXTRAORDINAIRE by fellow 2017 middle grade debut author Susan Tan, and I just fell in love with Cilla's spunk and honesty and charm. This wonderful novel just hit shelves last week, so pick up a copy at your local bookstore and read on for a fun Q&A with the author!
Priscilla "Cilla" Lee-Jenkins is on a tight deadline. Her baby sister is about to be born, and Cilla needs to become a bestselling author before her family forgets all about her. So she writes about what she knows best—herself! Stories from her bestselling memoir, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire, include:
- How she dealt with being bald until she was five
- How she overcame her struggles with reading
- How family traditions with her Grandma and Grandpa Jenkins and her Chinese grandparents, Nai Nai and Ye Ye, are so different
Debut author Susan Tan has written a novel bursting with love and humor, as told through a bright, irresistible biracial protagonist who will win your heart and make you laugh.
Hi Susan! I'm so happy to be chatting with you today – especially since I was an early reader and supporter of your debut novel. First things first, when and how did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Hi Jodi! Thank you so much for having me here (and for being such an enthusiastic supporter of Cilla!). I’ve always loved books, and as a child, I often had my parents transcribe stories so I could illustrate them and make my own picture books. But, I don’t think I truly realized what I wanted to do until seventh grade, when my middle school yearbook assigned every student a “most likely” future. I was deemed “most likely to be a children’s book author.” Something clicked when I saw that, and from then on, that was what I wanted to do. I lost track of this desire a bit in graduate school, when I thought maybe I wanted to be a children’s book scholar instead. But my mind wouldn’t let my earlier dreams go, and pretty soon, I was working on my children’s book every night! So all of this is to say: 1) I knew I wanted to be a writer for a while and 2) paths and ambitions can diverge and get side-tracked and that’s okay and 3) well done Concord Middle School yearbook committee!!
How long did it take you to first-draft your book?
It took about nine months to write the very very first draft of Cilla. However, it then took more than a year and a half of revising before it was ready to be sent off to agents.
Can you tell readers a bit about your journey to getting an agent and landing a book deal?
First, I should say that I was exceptionally lucky in getting my (fabulous) agent, Dan Lazar. I’d known that Dan was one of my top choices for an agent ever since reading Timmy Failure, a hilarious middle grade series by Stephan Pastis. It’s a funny, fabulous read, which I’d highly recommend. And as I read it for the first time, I was particularly struck by its ability to balance humor and poignancy. Timmy Failure beautifully juxtaposes the funny and the touching, and I knew that I wanted my own book to have this kind of balance and feel. From there, it was easy to Google and find out who Stephan Pastis’ agent was, and another bout of research about what Dan was looking for in manuscripts showed that my book would be a good fit for him.
I didn’t send my manuscript out right away, though. In part, this was because I wrote Cilla in grad school, and knew that in its early days, I simply didn’t have time to query. This was actually one of the best things for the manuscript, as it meant that I spent a lot of time revising and then researching how to actually go about the process of querying. (For this, I’d highly recommend reading Query Shark, a blog written by a literary agent who critiques submitted queries, and does a fabulous job of explaining an agent’s thought process, and what agents are looking for). I never submitted to Query Shark, but I read all her archives, and ultimately spent about two months writing and revising a query letter in my nights after work.
So, by the time I got to submitting, I’d spent a long time learning about and preparing for the process. And again, I was very lucky to get positive responses, and ultimately, to in fact choose Dan to represent Cilla. I then revised my manuscript about three times with Dan, before going out on submission to publishers. It was nerve-wracking, but Dan was with my every step of the way, and highly recommended my amazing editor, Connie Hsu. So, this whole experience has been a really positive one for me, and filled with supportive people at every level!
Your main character has a mixed Chinese-American heritage. She often explores questions regarding race and identity, family, connection and belonging. I loved the scenes when Cilla compared family traditions with each set of grandparents. Were any of these experiences rooted in real-life events in your life?
Thanks for your kind words! These scenes are near and dear to my heart, and the core of each is definitely rooted in real-life experiences, even as the events of the book themselves are fictionalized. So, to give an example, there’s a chapter where Cilla makes cookies with her Grandma Jenkins (on the Caucasian side of her family) and a few days later makes dumplings with her Nai Nai (Chinese for grandmother). For me, these scenes were rooted in the deep commonality and love I’ve found cooking with the two sides of my family. Interestingly, though, I never made dumplings until I was in my 20s, with my aunt, cousins, and their children! However, the act of cooking as a family - and all the stories, jokes, and memories told and made in a kitchen - is something I’ve valued all my life. And as a child, this kind of family activity was absolutely one of the ways that I compared my two families, and thought about the similarities and differences between the two (which was simultaneously positive, affirming, and delicious. So really, the best kind of discovery).
While reading your book, there were so many moments when Cilla said something that made me laugh, or tugged at my heartstrings. Her voice is fresh, authentic, spunky, and completely lovable. What was your experience like in writing Cilla's character – did her voice come easily to you? I'm curious if you felt "Cilla talking to you" throughout the drafting process, because she has such a strong and unique voice!
Haha - thank you! I feel a bit funny saying this, but Cilla’s voice often makes me laugh, and frequently takes me utterly by surprise. I’m actually not sure where this voice comes from. I think in part it’s me channeling a more relaxed, sillier, side of myself. Cilla’s voice comes to me quite easily, and in fact, I love walking through the world and imagining what Cilla would think about what I see. I find it rejuvenating to imagine this confident, outgoing character for whom everything is new and exciting. So, all of this is to say that how I get Cilla’s voice is a bit of a mystery to me, but it’s an absolutely wonderful space to occupy.
Tell us a bit about your writing process. Are you a morning writer? Nighttime? Pantser or outliner? Do you have any strange writing quirks?
I’m actually quite flexible with my writing routines. For me, what matters is time. I usually need about half an hour to just sink in to my writing. That’s when I’m most easily sidetracked, and when my own fears about writing (is this any good? Will people like it? Is the story doomed? Etc) are at their most pronounced. I usually need about 30 minutes to “write through the fear” as I like to term it, and if I can do that, I lose myself in the story and voice, and my own thoughts and worries are quieted. So, I usually like to write in bursts of a few hours. Morning is nice just because then you get to spend the rest of the day feeling very accomplished! However, writing at night can be a lovely thing, and I actually wrote most of Cilla at night, in bed, on my ipad.
In terms of outlining or not, when a story comes to me, I usually know the beginning and end, but very little about what happens in the middle. So it’s a weird mix of both, that can be both really fun and quite frustrating. It’s nice to know that you have a direction, but equally, flexibility in getting there. But on a bad writing day, of course, I wish with all my heart that I was an outliner!!
What authors and books inspire you? What middle grade novel is at the top of your TBR pile?
This is such a hard question! Off the top of my head, I’d say Grace Lin, Gene Luen Yang (especially American Born Chinese and Boxers and Saints), Rita Williams-Garcia, Susan Cooper, and Ursula Le Guin. And I’m SUPER behind with my TBR pile! But right now I’m lucky enough to be reading advanced copies of books by my fellow seventeen debuts, which has been the greatest privilege and treat! Next up is Carmer and Grit by fellow Bostonian Sarah Jean Horowitz!
What writing advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Write, write, and revise! I firmly believe that with writing, you learn through doing. And remember that revising is as important as the initial writing process. I imagine rough drafts as the initial seeds and energy of a story. By the time the final rolls around, I’ve pretty much changed or tweaked every sentence. But, the vision is still the same, and in fact, I think good revision should clarify and magnify your initial vision and energy. I’d also recommend reading widely, and loving the genre you’re writing in. (So don’t write YA if you hate it!). And to all aspiring writers, I always recommend Stephen King’s On Writing.
How should teachers contact you if they wish to schedule a Skype Classroom or in-person visit?
The best way to contact me is through my website: www.susantanbooks.com. I also want to note that I love working with classrooms (I teach college classes now, but have a lot of experience with younger students). So please feel free to be in touch!
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m working on copyedits for the second Cilla book, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book is a Classic. I’ll have to wait to see what’s next, though I think it will be a middle grade mystery. And of course, I’d love to write another Cilla book it the opportunity arises!
Lighting Round Questions!
Best thing about Boston? The Make Way for Ducklings statues!
Oddest job you’ve ever had? Preceptor at the University of Cambridge. This means I sat in a stuffy room, wearing a formal black robe, while overseeing undergraduate exams. It was a very strange experience, though I got A LOT of reading done.
Writing session must-have? Caffeine! Either green tea or chocolate covered espresso beans.
Favorite past time? Reading!
Book you could read over and over again? Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet
Three words that describe your debut novel? Energetic, curious, joyful