Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Playing Hookey and Lovin' It

It's so hard to pull away from my morning writing routine. I needed a kick in the pants, a kick my daughter --who is home from college--gave me when she asked me to spend the morning with her. I felt as if I were playing hookey...and gosh but it was fun.
Anyway, while I was running around, some fun book stuff happened. Carrie Runnals posted an interview about My Half of the Sky on her website and is holding a drawing to give away a free copy. Also, the Milpitas Public Library asked me to be part of their grand opening ceremony in January.
What fun stuff is happening with you?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Holiday Writing Ideas?

My mom is calling with thoughts on the holiday menu. And I'm wondering how my fictitious mother makes kimchi.
My daughter's teacher is asking for a festive party. And I'm wondering if my character should celebrate the star festival early with his girlfriend.
My husband even stayed home so we'd have our own little pre-holiday time. And in the back of my mind I'm wondering how the wounded elder brother can reunite with his girlfriend.
My point is, despite exciting and important events, stories don't go on holiday. Your brain keeps thinking of the next plot twist or dialogue.
I may not have time to sit and meditate and write out my pages, but over the holidays I'm committed to writing down at least a thought a day--or whenever one pops in my head. I'm also pondering the thought of carrying around a miniature tape recorder to catch the thoughts when I have them. (Then again, perhaps that will be as engaging as watching someone text message during dinner.)
Any other ideas for writing through the holidays?

** Beautiful Boy by David Geff, is a story that will stay with me a long time. It's about an intelligent, talented, sporty, handsome boy. He's on the water polo team and swim team, is lead actor in school plays, is the brightest boy in his classes. Then he goes to France for a summer abroad where there's no age limit for alcohol consumption. When he returns home, he has enjoyed drinking so much that he decides to try something more. Marijuana. Then Meth.
He goes from being the bright star of the family to an addict. With the snap of a finger. Geff describes his son's addiction as well as research that shows some people's brains are wired with a tendency towards addiction. (I wanted to haul all my children off to have their brains examined.) A fascinating--albeit frightening--book.

Friday, December 5, 2008

I'm Done, I'm Done, I'm Really Done

Those are the words I've been hearing all week, while my youngest worked on a six-paragraph story for school. She managed not to even approach the assignment until the last moment. Then she sat down, spewed out six paragraphs and was ready to e-mail it off to her teacher.
"Do you mind if I check for spelling?" I asked.
"Oh, there aren't any red lines under the words so I'm good."
"Do you mind if I look it over for other things?" I suggested. "Like grammar."
She heaved a big sigh, but she printed out a copy for me. I went through the story with my normal editorial pen--not clear where the character is standing, this character has conflicting thoughts in the same paragraph, this place isn't well described.
"I didn't ask you for that kind of help," my daughter moaned with each mark of my pen. "Just look for grammar stuff."
So, I just looked for grammar stuff. She corrected that, sent it off to her teacher and then wanted to know what I thought.
"I told you what I thought," I said. "And you didn't want to hear it."
That night as we were reading together and tension over the story had dissipated, she asked, "When you write a story, do you just write whatever comes to your head and send it to an editor?
Wouldn't that be fun?
It dawned on me that my daughter was trying to understand this writing thing. And that really her experience was not too different from what we've all gone through--procrastinating, wanting to be done, wanting to rush off our "done" manuscript to an agent, wanting the agent to think that manuscript is perfect.
How do we get these tendencies? Get over these tendencies?

**I just finished reading a beautiful story, The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani. The story revolves around a spirited young girl on the brink of womanhood in 18th century Iran. Her father dies suddenly, and she and her mother are left at the mercy of the father's distant half brother and miserly wife. High drama. On top of all that, interwoven in the story are wonderful ancient Persian folktales. A lovely book.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Shaking my limbs

I feel as if I'm just emerging from a pool of family and food and thanksgiving. It was warm and reassuring and nurturing. And it's hard to get my limbs moving again.
Over the holiday, I read Sipping from the Nile by Jean Naggar. She writes about a part of history I was only peripherally aware of--the Suez Canal Crisis of the late '50s when Jews were persecuted and pushed out of their homes.
Naggar grew up in Egypt in the kind of fairytale existence we only dream of: surrounded by caring extended family, living in a mansion with cooks and servants and dressmakers, constantly hearing a handful of languages and understanding them all, never wanting for anything.
Naggar details her "ivory tower" livelihood, as one of her relatives referred to it. I loved hearing about all the Jewish traditions, as well some of the superstitions of the time. One of those superstitions was whenever Naggar went on a trip--which she often did, and was in fact one of the first to ride in the revolutionary Comets, the first jet-propelled airplanes--she drank water from the place she was leaving from. That would ensure her safe passage back. She often sipped from the Nile. Unfortunately, this superstition didn't always work. Naggar's "ivory tower" started crumbling in 1956 with the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Jews were suddenly the target of hate. All they wanted now, after centuries of building a successful livelihood in Cairo, were exit visas to someplace safe.
It was a fascinating--and poignant--peek into a part of history we don't hear much about...
Read any good books over the holiday?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Traditions Are Great... Until They're Not

Tuesday, I spent a wonderful morning with Jill Ferguson's
Asian Literature class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. They are reading My Half of the Sky as part of their class, and invited me to join in on the discussion. After answering their questions--How did I think up the idea? How did I get in the head of the character? Why did I go to live in Japan? How did I get published?-- I asked them, following the theme of the book, to tell me stories of times when they questioned or went against a tradition.
This was certainly the right group. As musicians, they were often in the position of having to buck the norm. Several students said their parents wanted them to get a four-year liberal arts education, to become a doctor, to pursue a degree that would be more secure. They had to convince the parents that no, they wanted to play music. One student actually quit high school to study voice. She didn’t get flack from her parents, but from the public school system. One student said her parents were from Russia, and all the time growing up she had wanted to celebrate holidays like her friends in the US, but her father wasn’t interested in celebrating those foolish American holidays. He finally relented. Now she celebrates all the holidays. (My partner in joy. )
What made me laugh, though, was that at the end of this enlightening discussion, this man whose parents had wanted him to be a doctor instead of a pianist, raised his hand and said, "But I like tradition."
Everyone agreed. Traditions are fun--like everyone sitting together to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. But what happens when those traditions become barriers?
I shared the story of when we arrived here ten years ago and were in need of furniture. I knew that my mother had a wooden bed in storage in her garage, a bed that my great-great grandfather had built. So I called her and asked if we could have that bed for my daughter's room. "No," she said . "That's your brother's bed."
My brother lived in Germany at that point.
My modern-minded, women's libber of a mom said that the bed had been handed down through the male lineage. But if I called my brother and he said it was okay for us to use, we could have it. I called him, the whole time thinking this was ridiculous. Of course he'd say I could use the bed. But you know what he said?
"No, that's my bed."
That bed, ten years later, is still in storage in the garage.
We all had a good laugh and everyone agreed that traditions are great...until they're not.
Do you have an example to share?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Follow the Qi of the Day

My thighs are aching. I hobble up and down the steps. Put my hand out to ease myself down into a chair. You'd think I'd spent a week skiing. But, actually, I just took my first Taiqi class.
I've always been intrigued by Taiqi. The first time I went backpacking in China, I followed my shoestring guidebook, getting up at 5am to rush to the People's Park in Shanghai to watch people perform. It seemed like the whole neighborhood had come out to participate, and I felt like I was watching a silent ballet. Their movements were fluid, like a wave, as they picked up an imaginary ball and moved it up, then down, from side to side. My Father-in-law practices each morning at the local elementary school in the village. He and my husband often said that I should pick up the practice. That it's healthy, would be good for my back. "Someday," I thought.
A couple of months ago, I was up the road picking blackberries and I ran into a man I'd never seen before-- a neighbor-- who said he taught the martial arts, including Taiqi. I told him I'd always wanted to do that, but never had the time. He said of course there's time. That he'd arrange a class up here.
This last Sunday I finally made it to his class. I felt like a kid who'd put on a pair of ice skates for the first time, wobbling this way, falling that. The movements aren't difficult. To do them correctly--synchronizing the movement with breathing and balance--feels impossible.
What intrigued me more than the movements, though, were the ideas. The idea of harnessing the energy (qi) of the universe, bringing that energy to your body, your life. The idea of thinking and moving not in a solid forward movement, but forward and back, from side to side, depending on the situation. The idea that the body follows the mind. So if you focus your thoughts, your body will find its way there.
For me, these are great gifts to take with me into the holiday season--a season full of shopping and decorating and parties and vacations. A season when my forward writing momentum comes to a grinding halt....and I often feel frustrated. This year, I'll bend my aching legs, pick up the imaginary ball, take a deep breath and try to follow the energy, the qi of the day.

**A great writing opportunity: Martha Engber, a journalist, playwrite, Pushcart Prize nominee, and author of Growing Great Writers From the Ground Up, is holding a workshop on character development Sunday, November 23, 10-2, Books Inc., 301 Castro St., Mountain View.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Speaking of Books and Reviews...

I have some fun news to end a long week of writing. Midwest Book Review gave My Half of the Sky the following 5-star review:
"A lot is expected of a young Chinese girl. My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin is the story of Li Hui, a young girl who has just achieved marriageable age. She seeks to make the most of herself, but the expectations all around her make it difficult, as her parents seek to use her as pawn to their advantage, she is faced with what she believes to be true love. She must balance career, romance, and family, all to somehow make everyone happy, a tough endeavor indeed. An engaging and entertaining read from beginning to end, "My Half of the Sky" is a poignant tale of the modern Chinese woman, and recommended for community library collections."--Midwest Book Review.
Happy weekend!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tis the Season

This is one of my favorite times of the year--when it's cold and rainy. (No, I'm not pining for my hometown of Chicago. ) When the weather outside is unfriendly, though, I get to sit on the couch, the sound of rain on the roof, a fire in the fireplace giving out warmth, and just read. I've read some fun stuff this past month...

The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly took me a really long time to get through because it was so rich, the words so full of poetry, so lovely to savor. The story takes place in Burma (Myanmar), and is the tale of a young political dissident singer/songwriter in prison, in the lizard cage. Connelly does an amazing job of putting the reader right there in the hot prison cell--I've never felt so hungry or beaten or thirsty or dirty. It's a beautiful book with a poignant ending, winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers and a finalist in the Kiriyama Book Prize. And, I have to brag a bit....My Half of the Sky is alongside The Lizard Cage as required reading at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Somebody's Daughter by Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a touching story about an adopted Korean who travels from America to Seoul to try to learn about Korean culture (because it wasn't discussed growing up), to learn the language of her biological parents, to try to find her mother. The story is at times very humorous, at times very sad. The ending is not warm and fuzzy, but very thought provoking.

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris. I had the chance to do a Salon with Zoe at the Book Group Expo two weekends back. Her story takes place in the Middle East. It's a murder mystery with the fascinating backdrop of a life and culture foreign to anything I could imagine. An interesting read.

Blood of Paradise by David Corbett. David was also part of the Salon at Book Group Expo. In fact, he was the moderator. But, I first met David when he was one of the keynote speakers at East of Eden. I bought his book, started reading, and realized right away that this is normally not the kind of book I read. It's the story of a young American man, living in El Salvador and working as security for a water company. It's peppered with thugs and violence and macho soldier types. But I was drawn in not only by the main character (who is not too macho), but by the history and culture of El Salvador.

As I'm on a roll with Salon members, the third party in our Salon was John Nathan, author of Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere. I've already talked on and on about this book. I loved it. It was fun to hear of all the places in Japan---twenty years before I got there. For anyone it's an interesting peek into Japan during the 60s, the world of a filmmaker, author, and translator.

Dewey by Vicki Myron and Brett Witter. My book club is reading this, and thus so was I. This is also not the type of book I normally find myself picking up. It's got a cute cat on the front and looks so warm and fuzzy from the beginning, you might as well buy a Hallmark card as a bookmark. I was pleasantly surprised, though. Myron discusses her battle with cancer, the loss of her brothers from cancer and suicide, the struggle to keep her marriage going with an alcoholic husband, the struggle to keep communication going with her teenager. And in the midst of all of these struggles came healing in the oddest form--a cat. A fast read. A fun book.

Finally, I want to tell you about a book that comes out next week by author, Jean Naggar: Sipping From the Nile: My Exodus From Egypt.
As I haven't read it yet, let me share what the publisher, Stony Creek Press, says. "Powered by the explosive impact of the Suez crisis this memoir brings to vibrant life the elegance and serenity of a life bathed in the customs and traditions of a community held together by a common past and faith. It is the story of an exotic childhood spent in the opulent surroundings of Giza, Aswan, Zamalek, the Gezira Sporting Club and the Alexandria beaches of Sidi Bishr, in a world that seemed as if it would endure forever but was in fact about to explode."
Jean is witty, intelligent, and inciteful, so I imagine her book will be the same. If you have a chance, read it with me....

Thursday, October 30, 2008

No Longer Hearing Voices

Normally, as I go throughout the day at various tasks, one of my characters will talk to me, telling me what is going to happen next in my story. But this past weekend my brain was silent. I assumed it was because I was on sensory overload from the amazing Book Group Expo.

What a spectacular party Ann Kent, Susanne Pari and Kathi Kamen Goldmark arranged.I met tons of booklovers. I had a wonderful time doing my Salon (and was thrilled when several people came up and said it was the best Salon they'd been to all weekend.) I met authors I'd only conversed with online, or I'd seen before and hoped I'd run into again, or whose work I loved, but never thought I'd get a chance to say so in person. And I came home with a huge stack of books to read.

So, definitely, I was on overload. I waited for my voices to return. And waited. Then this morning I took a walk. That's when I started thinking, "Maybe I made a wrong turn last week. Maybe there's something wrong with that last chapter."

On the other hand I loved that last chapter. It was funny. It was real. It was full of tension.

Still, if I couldn't hear my characters....

I went home and started cutting. Oh, that was painful. What a great chapter that was. I took out a piece and moved it to the end. (Surely I could use it sometime). I took out a little more. And a little more.

What was interesting--more than the pain of having to remove what I had so carefully constructed--was that with each cut I made on the computer, I made a similar cut in the soundproofing material covering my brain this weekend.

I've got my voices back. Yeah!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Happy Hungry Ghost Festival...and Halloween

We celebrate lots of holidays in our Chinese/American household. It's always enlightening to learn about and try to explain why you are celebrating a certain day. "Because we just do," doesn't quite hold it for long.

What I find interesting is that although the dates are never the same, most of--and I know I'm leaving some major ones out on both sides--but most holidays serve a similar purpose no matter what country.

Thanksgiving, for example, is similar to the Chinese Mooncake Festival, a time for the family to gather and give thanks for the great harvest.

Christmas is like Chinese New Year, when families gather and children are given red packets of money.

Valentine's Day is Like "7th Day 7th Month Star Festival" in which couples recall the loyalty and love of the two stars--the weaver and cowherd--separated by the Milky Way and only able to meet one night a year.

And Halloween is similar to the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Well, first let's talk Halloween. To the Celts, October 31st marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, and ghosts returned to earth. To commemorate the event, they built huge sacred bonfires, sacrificed animals, and wore costumes.

Over the years, the Romans got involved, as did the Christians, changing the holiday around a bit. So when I was a kid, we didn't have bonfires (although in Chicago that would have been nice). But Halloween was still only celebrated for one day a year. Since returning to the US, I've noticed that Halloween gets longer and longer each year with parades and parties and celebrations. In our neighborhood, the fun starts tomorrow. And my daughter, who goes to University at Halloween Central, already has four outfits ready for the festivities.

Like the ever-evolving Halloween, the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival lasts a month (7th Lunar Month), and the Chinese believe that during this time the gates of hell open. Ghosts roam the streets of the living. Unlike Halloween, children are to stay off the streets, lest they be snatched up by hungry ghosts. And while candy isn't part of the picture, everyone enjoys the treat of traditional Chinese opera performances all day long, all month long (At least in Singapore.) At midnight on the 30th, the ghosts return to hell and the gates are shut behind them. People prepare glorious meals for their ancestors, and burn joss sticks as well as paper money and accessories in a huge send-0ff bonfire.

So, Happy belated Hungry Ghost Festival....and Happy Halloween. Enjoy a safe time, and chase all those nasty spirits away for the year.

**Not only does Halloween get going this weekend, but it is also the time of the amazing Book Club Expo. ( The cost is a reasonable $65 for two days of listening to a great line-up of authors: i.e. Brian Copeland (Not a Genuine Black Man, Silicon Valley Reads 2009), Masha Hamilton (The Camel Bookmobile), Nicole Mones (The Last Chinese Chef), Gail Tsukiyama (The Samurai's Garden), to name a few. I'll be there Sunday at 3pm as part of an excellent panel: All Abroad--Living and Writing Elsewhere. So, in between parades and boo bashes, come to the Expo.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

When the GPS Fails....Follow Your Heart

I'm terrible with directions. You'd think that having traveled throughout Asia and parts of Europe and America that I'd be like a girlscout with a compass. Not so.
It's not that I don't mind being lost. I hate it. I guess it's just that I figure somehow I'll make it from point A to point B.
Not everyone is so forgiving of my navigational challenges, though. So, after years of trying to instill a sense of direction in me and failing, my husband went out and bought me a GPS.
Oh, I love my GPS. It warns me when a turn is coming--all in a handsome British accent. When I miss the turn, that brilliant Brit re-configures the route. I haven't been lost once in the year that I've had the thing. Not once.
Until this past weekend.
On Saturday I drove up to San Francisco to volunteer at the National Kidney Foundation's 20th Annual Author's Luncheon. (Despite our horrible economy, there were 1200+ guests in attendance, which was a heartwarming thing to see. ) Five wonderful authors talked about writing, including Tobias Wolff who spoke about how he didn't grow up reading the greats and wanting to be like them, but grew up reading these unknown dog stories and wanting to write something as fascinating. Andre Dumas, (The House of Sand and Fog), said he wasn't aware of theme and other literary tricks, but he just wrote.
At the end of that inspirational afternoon, I pulled out of the parking lot to head home. I waited to hear that clipped British voice telling me where to go. After I'd driven several blocks in an area I didn't recall coming through, I looked over at the GPS screen. A little blue light flashed, 'Your GPS Signal was lost."
"Oh," I thought. "Well, I'll just back track."
But then the street I came in on was a one-way.
I drove around, looking for someone I might ask directions from. But the surroundings got less and less conversation-friendly, as people bumbled into the middle of the street in undershirts and baggy pants. This definitely wasn't the way.
It dawned on me that although my dear co-president of the Kids Can Write camp, Sue Oksanen, insisted the city is only 49 square miles, it felt larger. I could get lost for hours. At that moment of despair, I followed what looked like the right road. Then I heard my British buddy say, "In 300 yards, make a right turn."
Yes! I was headed the right direction. And My GPS was back!
I was thrilled.
This familiar episode of stumbling around in the dark, unsure of where to go next, reminded me of writing. I'm often asked whether I do outlines or just write. I do both.
With My Half of the Sky, I didn't start with an outline. I knew where my character was going to end up. I just wasn't sure how to get there. So I started writing. And writing. And writing.
Midway through the project Plot Consultant and friend, Martha Alderson (, tried to help me plot out--scene by scene-- what was going to happen. That was IMPOSSIBLE. There were so many twists and turns I didn't know of yet. I needed to keep fumbling along. Still, the exercise was helpful in illustrating where the characters had come from, where they were headed, what actions were in store for them when.
So these days I do a combination. I map out a vague journey, create a basic GPS to follow. (Thus when I hear my Handsome Brit telling me I'll have to turn in 300 yards, I can write accordingly.) But when that trusty GPS fails--and it always does-- I resort to my tried and true method of trust. I trust that I'll get from point A to B. Somehow.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I Dare You

A book club gathering, a talk to give, two classes to teach, a theater program to edit--oh, but it's coming up on that time of year when surely I have no time to write. I mean, I can't do everything, can I?
When I get in this frame of mind, I’m reminded of a time when our family was visiting my mother in that foreign country, southern California. I say foreign, because while the weather was sunny and warm during the daytime, the “natives” had decided-- since it was technically almost winter-- that they must be bundled up in sweaters and parkas. And since noone in their right mind would swim in the winter, the management of my mother’s condominium had turned the heat off in the pool.
However, we are a family of swimmers. My four children insisted we at least go down and sit in the always-heated “cajuzzi”, at least gaze at the 50-degree pool. But, you can only sit in a hot tub for a few minutes without feeling like a steamed fish. I soon got out to get towels and call it a day. My eldest son followed. But, rather than grab a towel, he ran over to that freezing pool and jumped in.
“What are you doing,” I shrieked, looking to the fence for the life-saving equipment.
“Come on in, Mom, “ he called. “It feels good."
Who was he kidding? How could swimming in melted ice feel good?
“I dare you,” he taunted.
"It will be miserable," I rubbed my shoulders, wanting to ignore this dare. But, I took a few tentative steps towards the ice bath. I jumped in.
It was.
“You have to keep swimming,” he coached.
I did. And I enjoyed so much, he had to coax me out of that ice bath as well. My skin was so cold that the jacuzzi water burned.
Ever since that experience, the ropes around my heart have loosened. My son had been right. After the initial shock, that freezing water I’d so feared felt wonderful. Why had I waited so long to jump in?
That ice-cold water knocked down boundaries I’d created over the years—and not just regarding “the proper” temperature for swimming. When my children were babies, I set up a writing goal of 200 words/ arbitrary beginning that soon became The Law. The Law was the pinnacle of achievement. Rather than pushing harder as my babies became children--and I had more free time-- I forgave myself when I didn’t make my daily goal. I mean, geez, I'd think, comforted by the sound of the Golden Oldie playing in my head: you know the song--"I can't do everything."
These days, when I catch myself humming that tune , I remember my trip to that foreign land.
I remember my son, saying, “I dare you.”
I remember that ice bath waking my soul.
And, most of the time I remember to stand up and jump right in.

**Plot Consultant Martha Alderson has set up an inspirational blog on writing.

**Author and humorist, Lynn Walker, has set up a blogspot on easy recipes.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Plunk and Play Method

My youngest daughter is a piano player. Oh, she's not the willing sort. In fact, many times she's wanted to quit. (And, in fact, for a year she did.) But whereas when my other three children quit, they never returned to even look at the keyboard, my youngest was always drawn back to the piano. When she was angry or sad, plunking on the ivories revived her spirit. So, just recently the whole family begged her to start lessons again.
The funny thing--and I watch it every week--is she will moan and groan about the new piece her teacher has given her. When she does finally sit down, she'll spend many agonizing hours figuring out the different parts of the song. After a couple of days, though, she'll be whizzing through that song, playing it as if the notes were an extension of her soul.
Until the next lesson. Then the process begins again.
I was reminded of this process on Sunday night as she played the latest Russian waltz. I hate Sundays (It means the end of playtime.) But this past Sunday was even worse, because I was at a juncture in my story in which I didn't know what to do next.
Monday I got up thinking of my daughter struggling with her new piece and how she eventually figures it out. I sat down at my computer. But instead of opening the story and beginning at the beginning of the chapter --my normal routine-- I wrote down whatever was inside my head. Some thoughts were for the beginning of the chapter, some dialogue was for the end, and some stuff didn't even go until the end of the story. It felt strange--a lot of plunking here and there. But, Tuesday, when I went back to make sense of all the parts I'd plunked down, I was whizzing away. Whereas I normally need all the time the kids are at school to reach my daily writing goal--this week, with this new process--I zoomed through the material. My soul was singing. I actually got up and did a little dance.
Okay, to be honest, this wasn't an entirely new process. I've taken workshops on letting your conscious flow through your fingers, writing whatever comes to you. But that always seemed a little New Agey for me. Besides, if I wrote whatever came to mind, there would be so many random thoughts involved-- we need more dogfood, Book Club Expo is right around the corner, I loved John Nathan's book on Japan --that I'd never get to my story.
I tried a modified version of this stream of consciousness writing with My Half of the Sky. But again I was almost afraid of it--more prone to sticking to some school lesson I must have been taught and which was now a part of my genetic make-up: begin at the beginning. But this past week, after whizzing through my writing --and even having enough time to go buy dogfood before school got out-- I've now been converted to the Plunk and Play method.

**Congratulations to my dear friend, Becky Levine. She just landed a contract with Writers Digest to do a book on the value of critique groups. It's due out end of next year. Yeah.

**The 20th Annual San Francisco Authors Luncheon ( is October 11th from 10am. Yours truly will be helping out with this function which benefits the National Kidney Foundation. This year's featured authors are Tobias Wolff, Nancy Snyderman M.D., Curtis Sittenfeld, Jacques Pepin, Diane Johnson, and Andre Dubus III. It should be a great luncheon. Come say hello.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Charming Scene from Old Singapore

Last night I was honored to speak for a group called China Hands. Four couples started the group fifty years ago, four couples who had a connection with China--either they'd been born there or had lived/worked there. One of the founders mentioned that her parents were married in China and, afterwards, took a holiday around the world, stopping in Singapore for a stint. This must have been around the 1930's. Her parents saw five oxen on the front lawn at the Raffles Hotel. Five oxen? An auspicious number? A holy animal? No, they munched on the yard all day long and kept the grass short. They were the official grass cutters.

**Yesterday, I received a note welcoming me to the Book Group Expo in October. I will officially be there on Sunday the 26th from 3-5:30, but I'll be roaming about all weekend, as there's a whole line-up of exciting authors attending: Masha Hamilton, Gail Tsukiyama, Brian Copeland, Nicole Mones, to name a few. Check it out. Come by and say hello.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A fun forum...a fun site

This weekend I'm doing a forum on Witty, intelligent writer, Cliff Garstang is the moderator, asking questions not only about My Half of the Sky and the characters involved, but about societal issues, travel experiences. If you have a chance please drop by --ask a question, make a comment, take a look around the fun site.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Mooncake Festival to Remember

Last night was the Chinese Mooncake Festival. Many folktales revolve around the festival, when the largest moon of the year peers down orange and round and harmonious. This is a time of family gathering, a kind of Chinese Thanksgiving. Our family, busy with school starting and sports and friends, celebrated in a different way this year. By accident.
Some friends invited us on a hike in their backyard. A hike in the backyard, you think (as I did). Why, that will be fun. That won't take too long. Only my husband and my youngest and I were interested though. We left the others at home and went off for this beautiful, short hike around 4:30.
“It's a bit rugged at first,” our friends said. (But they were bringing along their five-year-old. How bad could it be? )
I felt like we had entered the world of Tarzan. Dirt crumbled and rocks slid from underfoot as we made our way down the mountain. I grasped onto vines and branches to keep my footing. My legs trembled from weariness.
At the bottom was a beautiful reservoir where the kids swam. What an amazing world we had entered. Just from our friend's backyard. In the back of my mind, though, I kept wondering how in the world we were going to pull ourselves back up.
“There's an easier path home,” our friends assured. I held onto that word, “easier,” like dessert after a month of avoiding sweets.
We lounged around the reservoir until the sky started to turn grey. Our friends suggested we better get going. They'd never stayed down there so late. We exchanged stories about people getting caught in the dark at campsites (or as in my case) in my own neighborhood. We giggled about having to get down on hands and knees to find our path home. Then we headed off on the easier path.
Oh, that was nice. A wide road, no tree trunks to balance on, no branches to hold onto. We were reveling in the ease of it all, thinking of dinner. (The five-year-old had his pasta with red sauce already planned. ) The sky was getting dark fast.
"We're almost there," our friend said, leading us off the wide road to another narrow path, a shortcut that would lead to an offshoot into the back of someone else's property. We walked along this narrow path, hugging the mountain, as the other side dropped off into oblivion.
Just as we were about to lose all light, just as we should have been to the end of our journey, our friend called out to his wife, "Did we miss the cut off?”
He was sure we had gone past the cut off that led to the property we could exit from. So we stumbled our way back. But no, there was no cut off there. We tried moving forward again. The surrounding got darker and darker, as though we had entered a cave. My youngest thought she heard a sound Was there an animal out here? She accidentally kicked a rock and we heard it thump, thump, thump, thump all the way down the cliff.
“I just want to go home,” she whispered grabbing onto my waist.
It was so dark. We were hungry and cold. We had no idea where we were or where we were supposed to be. I was ready to get down on my hands and knees.
Just then a huge spotlight shone through the trees. A rescue helicopter? Had one of our sons called help for us?
The moon, the roundest, brightest moon of the year, shone down like a flashlight, giving us light and hope to move forward. Then came another spotlight--this one a flashlight--from a neighbor who had come to show us the way. What a difference all that light makes.
It was as we were walking home by the light of the moon that my husband and I realized we had been wanting to do a full-moon hike for a long time, and--by the way--isn't it almost the Mooncake Festival?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Some Words of Wisdom from East of Eden

The East of Eden Writers Conference this past weekend was a grand celebration. The messages that were reinforced by the keynote speakers:
1) Writing takes time,
2) It's painful,
3) In the end, you just have to sit down and do it.
Karen Jay Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Club, said that when her children got to schooling age, her husband wanted her to go get a job. She wanted to try writing, so she asked him to allow her a year to see if she could write a book. At the end of that year, she went back to negotiate another five years.
Hallie Ephron, author of many books including the Dr. Peter Zak mystery series, said that while everyone says you have to love writing in order to do it (as money is definitely not a motivating factor), she hates writing. It's painful. It's miserable. (She loves re-writing.)
Brian Copeland , author of Not a Genuine Black Man—the choice for Silicon Valley Reads for 2009—said he loved writing, but it's hard to get going. He has his own method, and it's the only method that works for him. The AIC principle. A** In Chair.
It was reaffirming to hear other authors going through similar struggles. It was fun to see old faces and meet new. And now it's back to the chair.:)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

It's Party Time!!!

I love writers' conferences--a gathering of like-minded people eager to share ideas and writing tips and contacts and good books. My favorite kind of party.

Tomorrow I'm heading down to Salinas to do a workshop on editing at the East of Eden Conference. I'm sure I'll come back jazzed and with an armful of books. I've already cleared off my bedside table in anticipation. Of the books cast aside, I wanted to let you know of some great ones I've enjoyed this past month.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated from Japanese by Megan Backus.) This is the story of a young Japanese woman who loses her grandmother (her primary caretaker) and goes to live with a boy and his mother. It addresses the subject of loneliness and reads like poetry. The book was the winner of two of Japan's most prestigious literary awards and is currently in its 57th printing.

**Kitchen is also on the required reading list for the Asian Lit class at the SF Conservatory of Music along with yes, yes, yes, My Half of the Sky. Yeah!

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez : In 2002, Deborah Rodriguez ventured off to Afghanistan with Care for All Foundation, an emergency and disaster relief organization. She knew nothing really about emergency and disaster relief--she is a hairdresser by trade. But she had a generous and brave spirit. When all the doctors and nurses had gone, she stayed behind to to build a beauty school and salon (something the Taliban had outlawed). She encountered the Taliban, women in arranged marriages, bombings, cultural divides--and all with great humor and grace. This was not only enlightening, but fun to read.

The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff: I'm often at a loss when it comes to short stories. Like pure poetry, I know there's a message there...but perhaps I'm just not getting it. Not so with these stories.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Cool Breeze From Afar

My brother lives in Denmark and my sister in Illinois, so whenever either of them comes to California, it's a reason for a reunion. Last week, they both landed in southern California where they picked up my mom and then drove up to see us.
It was a long, hot car ride as my mom's air conditioning didn't work. In fact, before braving the desert-like heat on the drive up, my brother had stopped in at a mechanic for an estimate. After hearing the mechanic's busy schedule and outrageous prices, they decided they could live with a little sweat rolling down the back of their necks.
Having family come in is always an expansion of the heart and mind. When we get a heat wave, my sister says, 'Well, at least it's not humid like Chicago."
When my kids complain about our old van, Mother pipes up about how her car has aging difficulties as well. The windows don't work. Dashboard lights flash on randomly. And then there is that air con thing.
And when I tell my younger son who has just done a cool experiment in science class with dry ice that no, I don't want to drive 45 minutes to find more dry ice, my brother and sister both chime in, "Why not? That's not far."
"But the gas prices are terrible," I counter.
"Life is good, " my brother reminds me. He says in Denmark, a gallon of gas is close to $8, there is a 25% tax on things, and an inexpensive restaurant meal is $25/person.
That is how we found ourselves circling around an industrial area in my mom's hot car, looking for this place that sold dry ice. No, my dear son--a chip off this block-- didn't know the name. No, he hadn't written down the phone number. We just had this address which turned out to be a darkened building. We decided to try the Great Mall which was down the block.
Oh, my gosh. What a huge place. One square mile of shop after shop after shop. (none of which sold dry ice.)
Overwhelmed (how many shoe shops does one need in one square mile?) we gave up and decided to come home. The traffic was bad. The heat was unbearable. My brother was driving, and he reached over and fiddled with the heating/air con dials. Suddenly a blast of cool air filled the car.
Cool air. Wow. Where did that come from?
"I thought the thing was broken," I said.
"Well, she said it was broken," my brother pointed at my sister. "Next time I'll know better than to believe--"
"Well, mom said it was broken," my sister said.
"How did you get it to work?" I asked
"I just pushed the air con button on," he said. "She hadn't had it on."
So the air con button hadn't been pushed on. And Mother assumed when no cool air came out that the whole air con was broken (after all, it is an old car.) And the story was spread to the point that everyone believed it--even the mechanic. Until one person came along and tested the whole "it's broken" theory.
We all got a nice laugh out of that....
And I've been fiddling with the air con dials in my car ever since, hoping the same theory will work for me.
But perhaps I better just go see that mechanic.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wikipedia Set Me Straight

In 1992, I was invited to present a paper at Vietnam's 1st Women's Conference in Hanoi. ( My topic--no surprise--was how culture and the stories each culture tells shape attitudes towards women. ) It was an interesting weekend, not so much for what we accomplished as for the friendships we made with women from all over the world.

One particular woman I met was an energetic and kind young Vietnamese named Miss Ha. We had such fun talking with one another and trading stories, that when she offered to guide me to a beautiful part of the country--Halong Bay--I wrapped the rest of my time in the country around this plan. She said she would have to take a day off work, but not to worry. Just to go ahead by myself. She and her husband would meet me in a certain hotel lobby at 2pm.

So off I went in a battered old taxi. All I had was the name of the hotel and her name: Miss Ha. I reasoned that there couldn't be too many hotels by the same name in a small village and certainly nobody else by the strange name of Miss Ha.

After riding on a dusty road for several hours, I arrived in this amazing place where black rocks jutted out of the emerald green Halong Bay. There were different names for the rocks and stories behind each of those. I was mesmerized. I needed to find Miss Ha and her husband so we could go out in a small wooden boat and explore.

I went to the designated location, an old colonial style hotel with a wide open-air lobby and a lazy ceiling fan stirring up a breeze. A man and two women were chatting behind the counter, laughing. Miss Ha wasn't there. I walked out to the back where there was a garden. But Miss Ha wasn't there either. I checked my watch. It was 2pm.

"Can I help you?" the man behind the counter asked.

"Yes, " I said. "I'm looking for Miss Ha."

"Which Miss Ha?"

"I don't know," I said. "She's with a man, her husband."

They exchanged looks.

"Miss Ha is a very common name in our country," the man explained.

Despite my predicament, I had to laugh. Just because I'd never heard the name, I'd assumed it was rare. Here it turned out that it was the equivalent of Smith or Jones. (Or so I thought)

As luck was on my side, Miss "Jones" came running up the path with her husband just as I was leaving. They'd been caught in traffic. "What is your full name?" I asked before we went further. "Nguyen Thanh Ha," she said. Great. Now I knew (or thought I did.) We had a wonderful time together wandering around the Bay, and have been corresponding ever since.

Last week, though, I was working on a Vietnamese fairytale that she told me, and I needed some common Vietnamese names to work with. I went to Wikipedia. Turns out --as I had learned so many years ago--that Ha is a very common name. But it's not a common last name. It's a given name. So when I went walking into the lobby, I'd been asking for Jane.

All these years, my friend probably assumed I knew I was addressing her letters as Miss Jane. I always assumed that she had taught me her name from given name to surname as we do. It took Wikipedia to set me straight.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Lost At Orientation

I've been told that this is the toughest thing I'll ever do....that it's like mourning a death. But actually I was unconcerned, feeling fine until about a month ago when my youngest woke up crying .

"What's the matter?" I asked her.

"I don't want jiejie to go away," she said.

"Go away?" It was a Sunday. My eldest daughter hadn't mentioned she was going anywhere that day. "Where's she going?"

"To college," she said.

Oh. Yeah. That thing.

Recently, I took my daughter to That Thing. It wasn't the pull-up-to-the-curb-and-drop-off- type of trip I remember from "my day." I--along with a multitude of other parents--was asked to stay at the college for two days and undergo orientation along with our children. I stayed in the dorm and ate at the commons and got lost looking for the right buildings. Just like in the old days.

The first day the Administration told us how wonderful our students were, what a fine school it was, how grand the experience would be. I was feeling great, patting myself on the back at our good fortune.

The next day, however, the Administration took us down reality lane--about DRINKING (49% of students binge drink, but that's not too bad compared with Harvard which has 44%) , DRUGS (a "small percentage" of students do hard drugs: 10%), RAPE (1 in 4 women in universities should expect to be assaulted in some fashion). And by the way, if you're feeling sad, apprehensive, having trouble letting go, that's normal.

I felt miserable. What was I doing thrusting my dear little one out into this crazy world?

Fortunately, my husband showed up. The voice of reason. He said not to worry. Everything would be alright. He had brought our daughter's belongings--two suitcases full of clothes, bedding, hangers, etc.

We thought we'd perform a last parenting-type duty and set up her room while she went off to register for classes. He made the bed. I unpacked her suitcases --the whole time thinking why does she need two full suitcases worth of clothes for six weeks of summer school? I ended up only unpacking one suitcase and just sliding the other under the case. I noticed she'd left her cell phone on her desk where I put photos of her friends and family. The room looked cozy and fun. She'd be thrilled....

If we could find her.

She wasn't at the class registration area. She wasn't at the dining hall. She wasn't soaking up sunshine on the grass. Where was she? The statistics regarding assualt ran through my head.

"Well, she's got to have gone back to her room," my husband reasoned.

"No, if she were there, she would have called us," I pointed out.

We wandered around and around til my feet felt disembodied from my legs and the Administration was ready for us to leave. This was horrible. Where could she be?

"Surely, she's fine," my husband said.

We slogged our way back to her room, ready to give her room key to her roommate. My eyes stung. Would I not even get to say, "Goodbye?" I knocked on her door. The roommate answered. But, lo and behold, surrounded by a mountain of clothes on her bed was our daughter.

Why hadn't she called? She was busy.

Busy remaking the bed (My husband had used the boring sheets.)

Busy unpacking the suitcases (of course she needed all those clothes).

Busy reorganizing the stuff I'd unpacked (I had done it wrong.)

I had to laugh. With that kind of focus and determination, she'd be just fine. And if she was fine, I would be too. (sniff...sniff.)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Still in Awe

Last night, we went to an Opening Ceremony's party. The party consisted of friends I don't often see (except when dropping off/picking up kids), so I was thrilled to sit down and hear about what was going on in their lives. Then the ceremony began--and I might as well have been sitting in my own living room for all the socializing I did. What an amazing event. Gone was all the banter about pollution , visa crackdowns, and freedom issues , as we all sat mesmorized by Zhang YiMou's amazing production. If you missed it, go to

When the last of the fireworks went off and a burning image of the rings went across the screen, we finally got up to go. One guest, pointing out the ceremony's meaningful display of tradition juxtaposed with modern technology, said, "Jana, that's what your book is about." A thrill ran down my spine, as if those 2008 drummers had given their final ba-boom.

Speaking of the book, some fun things have been happening. I was invited to Book Group Expo 2008 (October 24-26) in San Jose ( Also, a great literary blogspot posted a review:

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Fun Contest

Just today, a dear writing buddy of mine--Becky Levine-- posted an interview she did with me on her blogspot If you venture on over by July 28th and leave a comment, she'll enter your name to win an autographed copy of the just-released paperback of My Half of the Sky. Good luck. Happy reading.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Writing Muse--And Other Contributors--Call To Me

Recently, I received a note from another writer, saying, “I can't muster any enthusiasm for my project. I just want to quit. What do I do if I'm just too tired to write anymore?”
My thoughts? Just quit.
While there is something to be said for having a regular schedule, for writing something--anything--everyday, there is also a point of manuscript overload. When you just can't get excited about your project anymore. When you dread having to drag yourself over to the computer desk. When you'd rather have a mammogram. I believe that's that's the time to back off for a couple days and do something you enjoy. Reading, hiking, playing Scrabble, camping. The writing muse—and others-- will come tapping on your shoulder. I've had it happen many times.
In fact, just this morning, after a few days of camping, I woke up at 4am with plot ideas in my head. Okay, maybe I also woke up at 4am, because I'd left a bunch of lights on in the house for my eldest daughter when she came home from the opening of the Batman movie. And the lights were still on.
I got up to see if she was home. She wasn't. I called her. Surely the movie hadn't gone on for THAT long. When she didn't answer, I texted her. Oh, why had I let her join her friends in such frivolous nonsense? What is wrong with seeing Batman for its second or third showing in the light of day?
As I was fretting over what to do—who did you call at 4am to see if they'd seen your daughter--she called me. She and her friends had stopped for something to eat after the movie. She promised she'd be home soon. That she'd wake me up. So I went back to bed. Only now I worried that perhaps it was TOO late for her to attempt driving home. So I went back downstairs and called her.
“Do you want me to come get you?” I asked. “Are you too tired?”
She said she was fine. That if she got too tired she would pull over and call. I said okay. But I didn't head back for my bed. I knew I couldn't go back to sleep—even if I wanted to. I sat down at the computer and wrote in my journal, checked my e-mail. There were those plot ideas I should probably tackle, but I was concentrating too hard on listening for the sound of a car engine coming up the road. Moments later, my daughter pulled in. The movie had been great. She was tired. Goodnight.
I debated returning to the computer—doing some work on my story. But I thought bed sounded like a fine idea. I would get to the rest of my ideas later. I closed my computer and went upstairs to sleep.
I had just pulled the covers up around my shoulders when I heard a baby's cry outside my window. I listened again. “Meow.” Our cat. I went down and let him in, gave him some food. Then I went back up to bed. Again, I had just settled in when I heard a whining noise. Our dog, wanting to go out. So I went back downstairs and let him out. I returned to my bed. Finally. I put my head to the pillow. Then from outside the window, I heard barking. Our dog. Probably barking at wild boar which like to grovel in our yard—but still barking loud enough that the neighbors would not appreciate this.
I smiled. While maybe I wanted to sleep—to continue this vacation from writing—my writing muse, and various other contributors, had other things in mind.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Characters Just Need To Be...Well, Characters

Recently, I was at the Tech Museum with my youngest daughter, when my cell phone rang.
“Hello?” I said while watching my daughter make a computerized metal sculpture of her head.
“Mom?” a voice over the line whispered. It was my loud teenager. He never whispered. “Mom, there are these people here at the house. They say—they say they used to live here. Wyatt or something like that.”
“Of course--” A loud crackling assaulted my ear. .
“Just a minute,” my teenager called out in a cheery voice, obviously talking to our visitors.
The Wyatts had built our house back in the 70's. I was the first to go looking for them five years after we moved here. We wanted to build a downstairs, to fill in the spaces around the stilts our house rested upon. But the county had no record of our foundation. No building plans. We would either have to find the original plans or pay for a dozen inspections. I got on the internet, searched them down, and wrote them a note. Within a week I not only had the plans, but the ORIGINALS with a note saying, “When you're done, please send them back.” I was blown away by their immediate generosity and trust and willingness to help out. They've stopped through a couple of times since then—and I was glad to know they were back.
There was more crackling on the telephone line. “What did you say?” my son whispered.
“They're wonderful people.” I said. “Don't worry.”
Later in the afternoon, when my brain felt as heavy as a metal sculpture from information overload, I dragged my daughter away from some new friends at the museum—she finds friends everywhere-- and on home.
“So, did you have a nice time with the Wyatts?” I asked my teenager.
“Who?” he asked.
“I thought you said the people who lived here stopped--”
“Oh, those guys,” he said. “It was the daughter and son-in-law.”
“Were they just passing through?” I asked.
“I don't know,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, do they live around here?”
“I don't know.”
“Did they have lots of fun stories to tell?”
“I don't know.”
“Well what did you talk about?”
“Talk?” he said.
“You did talk to them, welcome them,” I said, feeling like I was speaking an alien language.“Right?”
“I said to just go ahead and look around and I went back to the office to work on the computer.”
Oh gawd. I was already forming another note in my head—one of please come see us again.
“What were their names?” I asked, looking for a pen.
“Names?” My teenager gave me his sheepish dimpled grin.
“You didn't even ask their names?!”
“They had a black G35,” he said.
“A what?” Was this a new kind of dog?
“You know,“ he said. “A Lexus.”
But of course. A car.
“Too bad it was a four-door,” he lamented. “The two-door is much sicker.”
“You noticed their car, “I said. “But not them?”
He offered that dimpled grin again.
“Too bad your little sister wasn't here,” I said.“She would have given them a tour, and invited them for dinner and a sleepover.”
“Well, at least it wasn't Poaji,” he countered. “He would have called you and put the phone in the middle of the living room—on speaker—so you could talk to them. At least I invited them in.”
Ha! I couldn't stop laughing. I guess there's a multitude of possibilities for the definition of the word “invite.” Depending on the character interpreting that word. Which brings me to the point of this little story.
We often worry about giving our characters lots of baggage—divorce, child abuse, bankruptcy, alcoholism, history of failure, etc, etc. etc. But, as my kids remind me (again and again) the bags need not be filled with too much history for the characters to be so diverse in personality, interests, use of the English language. :) The characters just have to have their own personal wants, interests, goals. They just need to be fresh, believable, possessing their own unique peculiarities. They just need to be, well, characters.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A strange--but fascinating--kind of procrastination

My Half of the Sky appears in paperback this month. YEAH!

While I'm working on a WWII/Korean War story set in Korea, this past month--for some strange reason-- India has been where my focus has been.

I read two fascinating books:

A Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar (Adult Fiction). A heart-wrenching story of two Indian families—an upper-class Parsi family and her domestic servant from the slums. The descriptions are so poetic, so vivid you feel you are right there, lifting your sari so as not to step in the muck sliming down the streets or feeling the thwack on your face from a drunken husband or the pain in your throat from so much anger. A lovely story.

A Cave in the Snow: Tenzin Palmo's Quest for Enlightenment by Vicki Mackenzie (Adult non-fiction). A westerner, a woman from London, decides at an early age that she is Buddhist, wants to become a nun, wants to attain enlightenment. So she earns passage to India only to discover that the best hope for women is to be reincarnated in a man's body. That enlightenment doesn't come to women. She sets out to prove that wrong, living in a cave at the top of a mountain for twelve years.

This past weekend, The Indian Women's Business Council ( invited me to a screening of a new documentary,

The Sky Below by Sarah Singh. (

It was an amazing movie. The documentary, filmed by Ms. Singh on location in India and Pakistan, delves into a part of history that existed on the faint outer edges of my knowledge—the Partition of India in 1947 into a country of Muslims (Paskistan) and a country of Hindus (India).

The movie explores not only the memories of that nightmare (in which between 1-2 million people were killed in 3 months, and 15 million were wrenched from their homes) but the ensuing fallout. A fallout that continues haunting us all today.

Now, it's time to return to Korea.:)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bobbing Coconuts

I was reminded of an event which occurred in Indonesia many years ago. Last week, a friend was visiting from the east coast, so we took her to the see the beach near Santa Cruz. My kids played with boogie boards in the water. My friend and I walked along the shore. Suddenly, my friend stopped. She had heard a woman say something. That same woman ushered her children—and all the children in the vicinity-- out of the water. What was wrong?
“Shark,” she cried.
I raced down the beach to where my children were jumping over waves and splashing one another, oblivious to the danger. By the time I got to them, they were the only ones left in the water.
“Get out,” I wheezed. “Of the water. Now.”
“What's the matter?” my daughter asked.
“Shark,” I said. “A lady spotted a shark.”
“Sick,” my son said. “Where?”
It was about this point that I was reminded of a similar event that occurred on Bintan, an island about an hour away from Singapore. While our family went off swimming in the coral, our neighbors stayed back at their hut, singing and laughing and drinking heavily. When we came back to our hut to shower off for dinner, one of the neighbors—Mrs. Suzuki-- came rushing up to us. Had we seen her husband? He went for a swim and never came back.
We joined the search for Suzuki-san. By this time, the shores were empty of people, everyone else having gone off to shower and get dinner. Then one of the men spotted Suzuki-san.
“Look!” he said, rushing into the water in his clothes. “He's way out there. Only his head is visible.”
Wow! We all stood along the shore—at least a dozen sober adults—while the friend swam to meet him.
“You can do it,” we called out. “Come on. You're almost there.”
I'm almost where?” A voice rang out from behind us.
After waiting at the restaurant so long for his buddies to show, he was walking back to see what the holdup was. He wasn't drowning in the middle of the dark waters. So who was out there? The friend swam the extra yards to rescue the person. He reached out and grabbed onto nothing more than a bobbing coconut.
Needless to say, there was no shark. When my son asked me where the shark was, we all scanned the waters.
“There it is,” my daughter said. “There are two of them.”
“See,” I agreed. “There they--
“And they're normally called dolphins.”
Another bobbing coconut.
“Oh, mom,” my son said, sinking to the sand. Please tell me you didn't run down the beach yelling 'shark.'”
I hadn't. Thankfully. I had left that job to the shark spotter. But I empathized. I can spot sharks—or bobbing coconuts—wherever I go. Especially in my writing life.
What if I sit down to write and can't think of anything?
What if I get all the way to the last chapter and can't finish?
What if I finish and my agent doesn't like it?
What if my story is published and no one wants to read it?
If I let myself go, I can imagine my waters dark, scary, infested with all kinds of terrible creatures. The trick—which I must remind myself over and over—is to go step by sandy step, watch the water lapping just in front of me, and don't listen to the shark spotters. Because most of the time, those sharks...well, they are normally called dolphins.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Already Plotting My Escape

I must apologize for starting up this blog and then disappearing, but I'm just awakening from what feels like a dream—the end of the school year award ceremony after ceremony after ceremony. It just went on and on and on. It's not that I don't appreciate jobs well done. But on the other hand, well, it kind of depends on the job.
I remember when we first moved here from Singapore—a very parochial school system in which my children were caned for wearing the wrong color socks or having hair which surpassed regulation length. A place where you never got an award. I was so appreciative of the loving atmosphere of the American system.
Then there was beach clean-up day.
This event was talked up for over a month. We shepherded the kids to the beach where they picked up garbage for about a half an hour, then ate lunch and played in the sand. The following day, each child was presented with a gold-bordered certificate which proclalimed “Community Service Hero.”
Since that time, I've been a bit wary of awards. I try to avoid the ceremonies as much as possible, congratulating the recipient when he/she comes home sporting a gold medal for jogging 10 laps or carrying a million-word-reader certificate or bearing a trophy for the player with the sweetest smile. Still this year I managed to get roped into three awards ceremonies, as well as one new one: a high school graduation.
While I think the awards ceremony is a tradition gone berserk, I'm certain the graduation ceremony hasn't changed since the 12th century when it was invented for graduating monks. And perhaps back then only ten people were fortunate enough to be so honored. The reading of their names was a regal moment. Those names would be on the lips of everyone in the village for days, years to come.
The way it worked in our situation, after several of my children and I had spent six hours reserving our seats in the 90-degree sun, was that four hundred and fifty students came out four-by-four to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance. This tune, I learned, was written in 1901 certainly for another group of ten graduates. It's not a difficult—or long—song. So it was repeated ad nauseum (and it still echoes through my brain days later.) Then we listened as each of the four hundred and fifty graduates had their names pronounced—or mispronounced—or drowned out by air horns. Granted it's hard to clap for ninety minutes straight. But the small spattering of applause here and there with the reading of each name was so uninspiring. So deathly dull. Is there some law that says graduations must be this way? Is there some significance to this event that I'm missing? Cause I'm already plotting how to avoid the next three graduations. :)
On a more exciting note, my dear friend, Becky Levine, is holding a contest to give away a copy of one of the first paperback copies of My Half of the Sky. The paperback will be released July 1st. Yeah! So be sure to stop by her blogspot ( .

Monday, May 19, 2008

You want me to do what?!!

I have a teenage son. He doesn't say too much, a sizzle here or there. But then he bursts forth with a real need. Today. Right this second. Now.
Most recently, I heard mumblings about friends who were on the Water Polo team. Then, last Monday, he said, "I need a water polo ball. I want to practice for the team. When can you pick me one up? Today? Tomorrow?"
So, I raced off when I had half an hour of free time between one appointment and the next, and stopped at Big Five. I wasn't quite sure what a water polo ball looked like, but surely it couldn't be that hard to find. The store had an entire wall of balls--beach balls, volleyballs, softballs, hardballs. Then, I saw them in the corner. Water Polo Balls. I could identify them clearly, as written prominently across the box were the words, "Women's Water Polo Ball."
I looked along the wall further for more that said "Men's Water Polo Ball." But there weren't any. Surely men's and women's water polo balls couldn't be different...could they? I searched out an assistant to ask (which was harder than locating the ball.) I finally found a young woman loitering near the cash register, popping a wad of gum. I asked her if she was an employee. (Or daughter of?) Could she help me?
"What's the difference between a men's and a women's water polo ball?"
"They're both about the same," she said.
It was then I noted that--not just on the box--but written across the face of the ball were the words, "Women's Water Polo." Hmm. This might not work.
"Let me see if we have any men's," she said.
I assumed we would walk back to the wall of balls and look together. Or that she would disappear into the back room and come out with one ball which hadn't yet been put on display. But, no. Instead she chewed and popped her way over to the computer and typed in a bunch of stuff.
"All we have is two women's water polo balls," she said.
"Oh, you have more than that," I nodded to the back wall. "I was just over there. You've got a good supply."
"No," she said, pointing to the flashing cursor underneath a column. "We only have two."
I had to laugh. Here, this young woman--without even investigating the physical evidence --put all her faith in whatever the computer said. Me? I'm not that computer confident. A computer has always been a typewriter with pizzazz. So, when friends mentioned I should have a blog, I arched my eyebrows and tried not to be offended. A what?
Fortunately, my friends are much more savvy than I. Bookstore owner, Paul Stone ( has been holding my hand the whole way. Last week, I--We-- got the blog up and I sat back with a sigh, thinking, "There. Now I can rest for a while. Perhaps take a hike in the woods."
But no.
As soon, as writer/editor, Becky Levine spotted my blog on the internet, she "meemed" me. Again, when I heard that word--which I'm still curious as to the origin--I arched my eyebrows.

But the rules of meeming are pure and simple.

1. Each player answers the questions about him/herself.

2. At the end of the post, the player then tags 5-6 people and posts their names, writes on their blogs to let them know they've been tagged.

3. Each player lets the tagger know when he/she has posted answers.

What were you doing ten years ago?
I was trying to get cool, I'm sure. We lived in Singapore--a degree away from the equator--and no matter what we we did, profuse sweating was always part of the program.
Seriously, in between mommying for three young children, I freelanced for magazines/newspapers on a variety of topics--from where to shop in Singapore to the way the islanders on Pulau Aur tricked the Japanese into leaving them alone during WWII. I had also started working on my first novel.

What are five things on your to-do list today (not in any particular order)
Just five????
write this blog entry
write in my journal
write three pages of the sequel to My Half of the Sky
edit with co-author HD Chai the latest draft of a historical fiction project about a young boy growing up in Korea and surviving WWII/Korean War
Find a men's water polo ball

What snacks do you enjoy?
It be easier to say which snacks I don't enjoy. I don't enjoy nachos covered in plastic squeezed-out-of-the-tube cheese, cheetos, doritos, Durian fruit, winter melon, pig's feet...and that's about it.

What would you do if you were a billionaire?
Money equals time not spent looking for the best bargain on shoes, the least expensive meal. Time to do all the things I've been saving up for or putting aside. More traveling would be a definite. I'd take the kids out of school and we would just travel the world, one country at a time. Also whenever my husband and I thought of an idea (we're always coming up with things) we'd get people to work on them right away. Until that billion arrives in the mail, though, I'm waiting for the clones.:)

What are three of your bad habits?
Only three?
Drinking too much coffee
Sitting in front of the computer too long--and foregoing a hike in the woods
Waiting for the clones to clear up the living room and fold the laundry and organize my office and clean out my closet and ...

Who have you tagged?

I'm hard-pressed to think up five people who blog. So, let's make it, two. Two fantastic writers:

Terri Thayer

Cliff Garstang

What People Are Saying About My Half of the Sky

My Half of the Sky was the BookSense Pick for August 2006 as well as a Forbes Book Club Pick.

"McBurney-Lin tells a wonderfully entertaining story with the traditional coming-of-age theme (which is experienced universally)...weaving in the cultural challenges of growing up in China's rapidly changing social system."
Mary Warpeha, co-President of the Minnesota Chapter of US-China Friendship Association
March 2010

"The novel ...includes many of the tales and the folk ways of the people living in the rural areas of South China, still followed provincially. The story takes place in current China, but could relate the dilemma of any young woman in rural China through the ages."
Kitty Trescott, National Board of the Midwest Region of US-China Friendship Association. March 2010

"A lot is expected of a young Chinese girl. My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin is the story of Li Hui, a young girl who has just achieved marriageable age. She seeks to make the most of herself, but the expectations all around her make it difficult, as her parents seek to use her as pawn to their advantage, she is faced with what she believes to be true love. She must balance career, romance, and family, all to somehow make everyone happy, a tough endeavor indeed. An engaging and entertaining read from beginning to end, "My Half of the Sky" is a poignant tale of the modern Chinese woman, and recommended for community library collections.
--Midwest Book Review November, 2008

“It is a rare women’s novel that sensitively describes the life of a young educated woman in modern-day China in its full complexity, without resorting to unnecessary sentimentalism. Jana’s deep knowledge of the realities of life in China and Singapore makes the reading extra rewarding. In fact, with every new page the novel gets harder to put down and you find yourself gobbling it up before you know it. Finally, the author has given a voice to the Li Hui in all of us, as we struggle for the golden middle between tradition and the modern momentum of our world.”
Isabella Sluzek
Friends of the Museum Book Review 2008

You'll be rooting all the way for Li Hui as she struggles, ahead of the curve, to be her own woman in an emerging, modern China. Jana McBurney-Lin's My half of the Sky is a beautiful, witty, touching debut novel.
Thomas B. Sawyer
Head Writer TV Series "Murder, She Wrote,"
Author - The Sixteenth Man

A complex and mesmerizingly original tale of a young Chinese woman caught between the modern world and the pull of her ancient culture. McBurney-Lin’s intimate portrait of China sparks with insights and is peopled with characters so rich and alive, they seem to breathe on the page. Dazzling and unforgettable.
Caroline Leavitt,
Author - Girls in Trouble

McBurney-Lin's debut novel is a gift. Li Hui is a memorable heroine, a young woman torn between her heart and her culture.Her daunting journey is a trip into China's complicated soul, and a deeply moving exploration of love, honor, duty, and loss." Frank Baldwin, Author - Balling the Jack

My Half of the Sky is a wonderfully-crafted story that was obviously written with a piece of McBurney-Lin's heart. A masterpiece."
Lee Lofland, Author - Howdunit: Police Procedure and Investigation

My Half of the Sky heralds the arrival of a fantastic new storyteller. With artistry and precision, Jana McBurney-Lin's clear-eyed prose takes the reader on a new journey into a past world that speaks to a modern sensibility, a modern world, a modern woman. This is a book to be treasured.
Emily Rapp, Author - The Poster Child

Through vivid descriptions of sights and smells, Jana McBurney-Lin's My Half of the Sky is a haunting, emotional journey of what it means to be an honorable female in modern China. Jill Ferguson, Author - Sometimes Art Can't Save You