National Book Award Winner Cynthia Kadohata on Self-Editing: “It involves a lot of flailing around.”

By Maryann Yin Comment

cynthia_kadohataNewbery Medal winner Cynthia Kadohata now adds “winner of the 2013 National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category” to her list of achievements. Kadohata earned this honor for her middle grade novel, The Thing About Luck. Throughout her career, she has also written adult novels and short stories. We caught up with her to learn more about her secrets to success. Check out the highlights from our interview below…

Q: How do you self-edit?
A: I try to find my deepest, often hidden feelings about what’s working and what’s not. This is difficult because I do lie to myself without being aware that that’s what I’m doing. For me it’s mainly a matter of finding the path to being honest with myself, which is not always a path I enjoy walking down. It’s not an orderly process. It involves a lot of flailing around.

Q: How do you combat writer’s block?
A: ACK!! I hate thinking about writer’s block! I don’t have writer’s block much, knock on wood, but if I do I think it’s usually because I haven’t done enough research and am therefore unable to create a fully realized world. So I read more about my subject matter, interview more people, etc. It also helps to read fiction, which creates a kind of writing rhythm in my head.

Q: How did you land your first book deal?
A: In 1982 when I was almost 26 years old, I decided I wanted to write fiction. I’d majored in journalism in college, and I’d always assumed I would write nonfiction. But I started sending a new short story out every month to The Atlantic and received very encouraging letters back. I’d read a quote by Ann Beattie, if I remember correctly, and she said that when you’re starting out she believed in quantity over quality. That made a lot of sense to me, because I felt I would learn much, much more and much, much more quickly if I completed many stories rather than a few. I had a rule that I had to finish every story I started. About two years later, a friend suggested I try The New Yorker. So I sent them a new story every month as well, and like The Atlantic they were very encouraging in their rejection letters. In 1986 The New Yorker finally bought a story – one The Atlantic had turned down. Then The New Yorker bought three more. An agent read the first three of the stories and wrote to me asking if I would like to meet. I went to his office, he became my agent, and he suggested I weave my stories into a novel, since the stories had the same characters. When I’d written half the book, he held an auction and sold the (incomplete) novel. It was published by Viking in 1989. So it took seven years from the day I decided I wanted to write fiction to actually getting a book published.

Q: What are your thoughts on the diversity of the children’s books available today?
A: I don’t know the actual statistics about diversity in children’s books today, but it does seem like a fantastic time compared to when I was starting out. There were few Asian fiction writers getting published when I was starting out, and my relatives would say to me repeatedly, “Don’t write about Japanese. Nobody cares about them.” So to be in a situation today where I can write a book with Japanese American characters seems miraculous to me, and I’m thankful I’m writing now rather than in, say, the fifties. Also, writers of color have more freedom today when it comes to subject matter. In the eighties, I once had a writing teacher who said it was gimmicky to write about Japanese Americans living in Arkansas (where I used to live) unless the story was ultimately about racism. He said there MUST be a confrontation between the J-A characters and some white characters, and at that time I had no white characters in what I was writing for the class. I’m not saying nobody still thinks like this teacher, but I do think it’s rarer today.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: Right now I’m working on a novel about a troubled 12-year-old Romanian boy adopted at age eight by an American family. The family is in the process of adopting a second child, a baby from Kazakhstan. I adopted my beautiful and much-adored son from Kazakhstan. He plays ice hockey, so I expect I’ll write a hockey novel one of these days! The adoption book will be published in 2014.