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Author's Corner

Author Laurence Yep

Laurence Yep was born in 1948 and has been writing since he was 18 years old. His first short story, published by a science fiction magazine, earned him a penny a ward. Today, he's known as the premier Asian American writer, and his books have earned many awards, including two Newbery Honors: Dragonwings in 1976 and Dragon's Gate in 1994. The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty & the Beast Tale is Laurence Yep's newest picture book illustrated by Kam Mak. It is another example of his wonderful way of retelling Chinese folklore in a new and exciting manner, and is an extension of his exploration of the "common human thread" that exists among all the various cultures in the United States.

"I've Always Been Partial To Dragons..."

QUESTION: Why did you choose the Beauty and the Beast story for The Dragon Prince over any other fairy tale?

ANSWER: I've always been partial to dragons, and I became fascinated by the psychology of a woman who would marry one.

QUESTION: When you were doing research for The Dragon Prince, how many Chinese versions of the Beauty and the Beast tale did you discover and how did you decide which version to concentrate on?

ANSWER: I found over fifty Chinese variations listed for the Beauty and the Beast theme. The Beast varies form region to region, but I wanted to concentrate on the southern Chinese ones that described the Beast as a dragon. Fortunately, I was able to find three variations and I had them translated so I could study them.

QUESTION: How does the Chinese version reflect the Chinese culture?

ANSWER: The version I concentrated on emphasized the filial piety of Seven (Beauty), first to her family and then to her surrogate mother, the old woman who saved her. "A Common Human Thread..."

QUESTION: It's been said that Chinese history and mythology are foreign to contemporary American culture, yet these are the themes you most often explore in your books. Could you describe the process you use to make the foreign become familiar?

ANSWER: I grew up among African Americans but went to school every day in Chinatown. With that dual perspective, I learned that there was common human thread, despite the cultural differences. Seeking that thread, I approach Chinese mythology and history like an actor looking for the subtext in the lines of a script. "Each Writing Project Has To Bring New Challenges..."

QUESTION: In 1976, Dragonwings was named a Newbery Honor book. How did this affect you career? Did it change your approach to writing?

ANSWER: The Newbery Honor, as well as other awards, gave me the courage to quit teaching and write full-time instead. It also made me set a standard for myself. I didn't want to keep repeating what I had done. Each writing project has to bring new challenges or it's not worth doing.

QUESTION: The characters in your novels have wonderful names like Otter, Foxfire, Moon Shadow, and Windrider. In Dragonwings, you described how Chinese people have more than one name or nickname, and that these names change at various stages of their lives. Could you elaborate on this a bit more and also explain how you chose the names for some of you characters?

ANSWER: At birth, Chinese will receive a formal name and also a nickname that the family will use. Then, at every stage of life, a person can receive a new name. It can get confusing when you read Chinese history because an individual can go by several names. My parents and their generation had very colorful nicknames. I used those principles in naming some of my characters. Other colorful names come out of Chinese novels like The Water Margin.

QUESTION: Eighteen years after Dragonwings, your first Newbery Honor book, Dragon's Gate was named a Newbery Honor. Was this second experience different from the first and how? Do you feel you've come full circle in some way?

ANSWER: The second Newbery Honor was even more surprising than the first; and it was especially gratifying because I think it's unusual to win them that far apart. But I don't think I've come full circle. I don't think that's possible when you're dealing with children's literature. Tastes and standards change over the years, and children's literature is like a wild river that is constantly in motion, constantly changing its course. Many of the writers who began writing when I did are no longer writing for children. Somehow, though, I'm still managing to stay afloat. "Facts that I could Not Gloss Over..."

QUESTION: There are some hard-hitting facts about the history of the building of the transcontinental railroad in Dragon's Gate that are far from romantic. Could you tell us some of your feelings on this subject and why you explored it so thoroughly in you book?

ANSWER: I began writing Dragon's Gate at the same time that I began Dragonwings, but it took some 20 years to finish Dragon's Gate. I think one of the reasons why it took so long was that I had to mature as a person and as a writer. The building of the transcontinental railroad was so monumental, and there were facts that I could not gloss over, but I needed a lot of time to gain the necessary perspective to write the story.

QUESTION: Child of the Owl was your first exploration of the modern Chinese American experience, and in the sequel, Thief of Hears, the girl, Stacy, is not only Asian American but part Caucasian as well, and she is not seen by others as a "real" American. How do your own experiences contrast with the experience of these characters?

ANSWER: Thief of Hearts grew directly out of the classes I taught at U.C. Berkeley. There was one student of mixed ancestry who said there were no books that addressed her situation. Interracial marriages have become more common, not only in Hawaii and in California, but across the country. She made me realize that there was an entire generation of children whose problems were not being addressed. Because I grew up in between cultures, too, I identified with that student and with the characters in these books. "Chinatown as A Magical Place..."

QUESTION: Currently, you've been working on a new book, The Imp That Ate My Homework, scheduled to be published in the winter of 1998. What will this book be about?

ANSWER: My grandmother saw Chinatown as a magical place, a place where mischievous imps lived, and when they wanted to they could make trouble for you. In The Imp That Ate My Homework, I'm trying to ask what might happen if there were not only imps but heroes like Chung Kuei in Chinatown. Chung Kuei was obsessed with battling imps, and in Asian art he is often portrayed humorously. In my older fiction I've tried to deal with the gritty realities of Chinatown, but in this book I'm trying to go back to some of my earlier feelings when I used to see Chinatown as a magical place, just as my grandmother did. "A Landscape that keeps unrolling..."

QUESTION: What are your future writing projects and what do you hope to accomplish in the next millennium?

ANSWER: After 20 years of research, I've come to think of Chinese America as a Chinese scroll painting. It's a landscape that keeps unrolling, and I keep seeing some of the landmarks and people as they emerge. I plan to expand the Young family saga that was begun in Serpent's Children and continued in Mountain Light and Dragon's Gate. The new books will be about the next few generations up to World War II. I'm also following The Case of the Goblin Pearls with more stories about Auntie Tiger Lil and contemporary Chinatown. And I'd like to explore the magic of Chinatown in more chapter books. Also, I have a filing cabinet full of folklore, and I've been thinking about teaming up with an artist to create picture books out of a lot of these stories. And every now and then, the Monkey King and his dragon friends tug at my sleeve and tell me not to forget them either.

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