Thursday, March 17, 2011

Interview with Cara Chow

Hi Cara, Welcome to Anna's Book Blog! I'm glad to have you here. To start off can you tell the readers a little about yourself?
Thank you for inviting me!

I am a writer, and my debut novel is Bitter Melon.  Like my main character, Frances, I grew up in the Richmond District in San Francisco, but I now live in the South Bay portion of the Los Angeles area.  I’ve been living in Southern California for over twenty years now, longer than I’ve lived in San Francisco.

Bitter Melon is your latest release, can you tells us a little about it?
Bitter Melon is a Chinese-American, coming of age, love-hate, mother-daughter story.  It is a story about a 17 year old girl who rebels against her Tiger Mother.

What is your writing day like?
Before I had my son, a typical writing day consisted of teaching Pilates part-time and writing when I wasn’t teaching.  After I had my son, a typical writing day consisted of writing whenever my son was asleep or whenever I had childcare.  Often times, this meant writing on weekends and really late at night.  Now that Bitter Melon is out, all of my writing time is spent doing publicity.  The good news is, I now have consistent childcare, so I look forward to working on the next book during consistent, reasonable hours in which I am actually alert!

What type of research did you do for the book?
I tracked down my high school speech coach, Mrs. Willson, and asked her questions about the scheduling and structure of speech competitions.  This was important for the plotting of the scenes in which Frances competes.  I also consulted my mother on all things Chinese of which I was unsure.  She helped choose Frances’s Chinese name and last name.  She also knew the name of the local Chinese newspaper in San Francisco.

When you’re not writing what kind of books do you like to read?
My reading diet is probably one part fiction per two parts non-fiction—ironic, considering that I’m a fiction writer!  When it comes to fiction, I’ll read almost anything that a fellow reader recommends enthusiastically.  This may sound weird, but I also like to read children’s picture books.  When it comes to non-fiction, my taste is pretty eclectic.  I really like to read about cognitive science, or neuropsychology.  I’ll read any book by Jared Diamond, who combines anthropology, geography, archaeology, history, and ecology.  I also love reading books about linguistics.  And cookbooks and gardening books.  And memoirs.

Now that I have a small child, I spend a lot of time reading books like Hippos Go Berserk—over and over and over again.

Since Bitter Melon's release, what has been your most memorable moment?
I have two most memorable moments: the two readings I did in San Francisco in late February.  The first one was at the Presentation convent, home of the retired sisters who taught at my alma mater, Presentation High School, upon which St. Elizabeth’s (Frances’s school) is loosely based.  Three of my high school teachers attended this event: Ms. Pic, Sr. Pam, and Mr. McGuire.  I hadn’t seen Ms. Pic or Sr. Pam in twenty years.  I was particularly close to Mr. McGuire, my sophomore English teacher.  We wrote the Senior Jinx together during my senior year.  I deeply admired him, so much so that I had a crush on him when he taught me.  After the reading, Mr. McGuire said to me, “I wish that Mrs. Willson were here.  She’d be so proud.”  Later that evening, Ms. Pic and Mr. McGuire joined my family for a late Chinese New Year celebration, during which they met my husband and son.  These were the people who helped mold me when I was young.  It meant so much to me to share with them not only my book but also my family.

The second reading was for my mom’s holistic senior health class.  I read to a group of seniors, one of whom was so hard of hearing that I had to speak into a special mic that was hooked up to his hearing aid.  I was a bit more nervous this time because I wasn’t sure if my audience would connect with the book.  The connection between senior health and mother-daughter fiction was tenuous at best.  I agreed to do the event as a favor for my mom, who was trying to do me a favor by booking me a gig.  I was also nervous because my mom was in the crowd.  The mother in my story is very difficult, even cruel at times.  I was unsure about how people would interpret that, including my mom.  Fortunately, everyone took it the right way.  My mom saw to this by raising her hand during the Q&A and announcing that this is purely fiction and that the character of Gracie is not at all based on her!  Everyone was very engaged with the book, and I think my mom was very proud too, very much like my teachers at Presentation.

Both events felt like a homecoming to me.  They were very special and memorable, very much worth the airfare and going through TSA plus the plane rides with a screaming toddler.

What are 3 things that are "must haves" for you when you sit down to write a book?
#1: Coffee.  It’s a terrible addiction of mine.  If you’re a young, aspiring writer reading this, don’t emulate me.  When I’m not super-stressed and exhausted, I downgrade to tea.

#2: The American Heritage Dictionary, all 50 pounds of it.  Others use online dictionaries, but I still rely on 20th Century technology like bound dictionaries and phones that only make phone calls.

#3: Childcare.  Actually, this should be #1. 

What or Who inspired you the most when writing Bitter Melon?

My mother was also a source of inspiration because she really supported my writing.  Not only did she supply me with good cultural information, she was also an endless source of encouragement.  Many times she said to me, “There are two things I want for you.  I want you to have a baby someday, and I want you to finish and publish your book.”  She respected my writing so much that she could mention it in the same sentence as a baby.  Many times she flew down from San Francisco to my home So Cal to babysit my son for weeks at a time so that I could do revisions for my editor.

What is your favorite thing about Bitter Melon?
The changes I made to the manuscript, especially between 2009 and 2010.  After years of struggling with the story and feeling stuck off and on, I hit a point where my creativity took off and my thinking became more flexible.  It was a very empowering feeling.

If you can tell us, what is up next for you?
Rest.  Seriously.  More sleep, more time with my family, and more time to do the fun things I used to do that inspired me, e.g. reading, watching movies, taking photos, gardening, and hiking.  I need to fertilize my creative soil before I can write another book!

by Cara Chow

Out Now

What would you do if your mother planned every step in your life...and demanded you follow?

Frances has one job in life. To get into Berkeley and become a doctor so that her mother's ambitions for her will be realized. And Frances doesn't think there's anything wrong with that - until the day she accidentally steps into a speech class.

Frances turns out to be a natural at debate and public speaking. But to win in competition, Frances needs to say things she really believes - and to hide what she's doing from her mother. And once Frances steps out beyond her narrowly prescribed life, she begins to question many things about the way she is raised. Frances knows she must be obedient to her mother, who has sacrificed so much for her education. But how much is Frances living out the life her mother wants her to have, instead of the life that's right for Frances?

Where to Buy:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Borders | The Book Depository

To learn more about Cara, check out her website.

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