I love historical fiction. But in order for me to love it, it has to be done right – full of writing that transports me back to the time period in which the book was set, characters that are a real and as flawed as me and you, and a book that is so smart, you actually learn a thing or two from it.
For me, Kay Honeyman’s debut, The Fire Horse Girl, is a historical fiction done right! I loved it(and you would know that if you read my review that posted yesterday). So much so, that I had to reach out to Kay to see if she would be willing to answer some of my burning questions.
Luckily for me, she was willing! Below are all of Kay’s answers to all of my burning questions!
BookBandit (BB): Can you tell us a little about yourself, and your path as a writer:
Kay Honeyman (KH): I have loved books since the moment I found their stories tucked between the pages. I know writers who grew up with a pen in their hand and their own story in their head. I grew up with a book in my hand and hundreds of stories in my head. So I have always loved reading, but my love of writing came later, when I was teaching.
In my first years as a teacher, I would assign writing. My students would write and I would grade it. I looked down from my perch once all the i’s were dotted and the paper was filled with double spaced lines of words. I covered their papers with corrections and handed them back expecting light bulbs to go off around the classroom. My students looked at the grades then slide the paper in to their backpacks between a science test and a history worksheet. I realized that I needed to get in the trenches with them. I needed to dig in when the writing was messy and help them fix it.
Turns out, I love it in the trenches! I love peering over their shoulders at a sentence that just isn’t quite right and trying to fix it. I loved moving paragraphs, coming up with better words, brainstorming possibilities. Writing is hard. I spend more time cleaning up than creating, but that is okay because somewhere, buried in the mess are the bones of a story.
BB: What was the inspiration for your debut novel, The Fire Horse Girl?
KH: I started The Fire Horse Girl while my husband and I were waiting to adopt a child from China and this story stayed my constant companion through the process. I started it when we were in line, waiting for a match that turned out to be our son Jack, and I sent the last draft of the acknowledgments and end notes on the day that we were matched with our second child Lily.
While waiting for Jack I started to think about what coming to America would mean for this child. As everyone says, it is a wonderful opportunity, but it made me aware of the other side of immigration. Jack would leave everything he knew for the promise of a life and family with us. Promises can be complicated things. They get made and broken and made again before they are filled. They take faith, hope, and a deep love. So does adoption, and so does immigration. I wanted to tell that side of immigration stories – the price people pay to come to America.
BB: I read on your website that you, like your main character Jade Moon, like stories. What is your favorite Chinese or Chinese-inspired story/legend/folktale? Why?
KH: Of course, I love the Cowherd and Weaver Girl story, but my favorite in the book is probably the one about the woman who wove the cloth that turned into a beautiful Eden for her and her loyal son. It stays with me because her act of creation took faith and sacrifice. Writing a book is not that dramatic, but it feels that dramatic sometimes.
The story I love that is not in the book is called The Butterfly Lovers. It is kind-of Twelfth Night with a Romeo and Juliet ending. A girl disguises herself as a boy and attends school. She falls in love with her schoolmate. When she has to return and marry a wealthy man, she tries to tell her friend the truth, but he doesn’t learn about her love until it is too late and she is promised in marriage to another. The boy dies of depression. The girl visits his grave. She is struck by lightning (or the tomb opens and she jumps inside depending on the version). The lovers are turned into two beautiful butterflies and fly away together. Now, that is an ending!
BB: What kind of research did you do to create such a smart, powerful story?
KH: I did a lot of research. I read Chinese poetry to get a sense of the rhythms and structure of the language. I spent many hours on the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation website (http://aiisf.org). They have a wonderful collection of stories and interviews from immigrants past and present on their Immigration Voices page. I read everything I could by Judy Yung and Erika Lee. Both have written fabulous books discussing the Chinese immigration experience.
The research was important to me. I think the broad strokes of this story belong to everyone. I see kids in my school in my classroom struggling with their identity. Just like Jade Moon, they are living between the boundaries of labels that squeeze and pinch. But, the specifics of the story, about Angel Island and immigration are not mine, and I wanted to make sure that I got them right.
I did the kind of research that weaves through your life until everything you hear seems to relate to China and immigration. It is the kind of research that causes you to spout out interesting facts about San Francisco in 1923 to innocent bystanders in the checkout line at the bookstore. It is the kind of research you do when you are telling a story where the specifics are not yours, but you can feel for the people who went through this and you want your story to ring true for the families that have been through this and resonate with readers who haven’t.
BB: If you had to choose one character that you see yourself most in, who would that character be and why?
KH: It is hard to choose one. Some of my best traits are in Nushi and Mrs. Ying. Some of my worst are in Sterling Promise (although I’m not as clever or driven) and Harry. In middle school I was more like Spring Blossom, and I really hope I have a little of Neil in me for when I get in a tight spot.
But you said to pick one, so I think I am most like Jade Moon. I come from a family of Jade Moons. It is one of the first things that drew me to the Fire Horse sign. When I read the description of a Fire Horse girl – strong-willed, stubborn – it surprised me that this would be a curse. I like a little spirit in a girl. I’m with Neil, you can’t tell a fighter not to fight, but you can teach them how to pick their battles.
BB: What was the hardest part about writing The Fire Horse Girl? What was the easiest?
KH: I have a lot of trouble with good-bye scenes – like when Jade Moon is saying good-bye to Nushi. I think the first draft of that said something like – And I waved goodbye. I feel like I am leaving that place and that character. Little did I know I would be revisiting it in edit after edit.
It was hard to let go of some of the historical details sometimes. I think I am very lucky that my editor, Cheryl Klein had a good sense of the balance between showing the true world and burying the story in minutia. I wrote the first chapter with all of this fabulous research about Chinese New Year traditions. Thankfully, Cheryl cleaned that up for everyone.
BB: If you were to have written a poem that ended up on the walls of Angel Island, what would your poem say?
KH: I wrote a poem for Jade Moon. I can’t follow the exact structure of a tibishi poem because it would take a much deeper understanding of the Chinese language than I have. Written in the classical style they would have the same number of Chinese characters (seven or five) in each line. There are rules for the tones and rhymes in Chinese poetry. But if I were writing a tibishi poem for Angel Island, it might say something like this:
Waves crash against this rocky shore of broken promises.
As I strain to hear muffled voices from the past.
Words scratched in soft wood by hands wet with tears
Form lines that thread into the present.
BB: Jade Moon’s zodiac is a Fire Horse. Do you think one’s zodiac sign affects one’s personality? How does it affect Jade Moon’s personality and life?
KH: Zodiacs are fascinating. I think we can see in them whatever we want. My son and my mother are not related by blood, but they were born sixty years apart, so they are the same Chinese element and zodiac (fire boars/pigs). The two of them are astonishingly similar. On the other hand my husband and I have the same sign, but it manifests itself in very different ways.
Jade Moon is a Fire Horse partly because she is strong and stubborn. But I think in a way, the Fire Horse girl sign made her strength and stubbornness necessary. When I was writing, I didn’t worry about her sign as much as I thought about how people would treat her and how she would react to that treatment. I think Jade Moon uses her sign sometimes as a convenient explanation for what she does.
BB: What are some of your favorite YA reads?
KH: I read and admire so many YA authors.
The last book that I read is usually one of my current favorites because it is the world that I’m still dwelling in.
I just finished two great reads – Meant to Be by Lauren Morrill. It is about a romance on a school trip to London and it would be a great read for fans of Stephanie Perkins’s books (which I am). I also just finished 52 Reasons to Hate my Father by Jessica Brody. I love her books and I am getting ready to read her new novel – Unremembered.
I love books like Okay for Now by Gary D Schmidt and Malcolm in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork because they offer original characters in unique but relatable situations.
If I want something raw and intense I grab a Paul Volponi book like Black and White or Riker’s High. If I want to relish how special everyday moments can be, I read Justina Chin’s North of Beautiful or Return to Me. When I want a character I know I can root for, I reach for an Elizabeth Eulberg story like Revenge of the Girl with a Great Personality.
BB: What advice could you offer to aspiring writers?
KH: Read and enjoy stories. That would be my advice for anyone, but especially aspiring writers. Practice being open-minded and develop a sense of curiosity.
Reach out to YA authors. Go see them at bookstores and conferences. Writers are so accessible these days. I’m always inspired when I get to meet or hear an author speak.
Find a story you love and tell it. Don’t let doubt or ego get in the way.
Remember that writing is never all bad or perfect. It is somewhere in between and your job is to push it until it’s as good as you can get it.
For more information about author Kay Honeyman and her debut The Fire Horse Girl, check out her website here.
I just want to say THANK YOU! to Kay for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions, not only for me and this blog, but also for all of my readers! I hope everyone will run out and read The Fire Horse Girl, I promise you will not be disappointed!