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Classical Jazz 2005: Home

An Interview with Children's Writer
Haemi Balgassi

by Debbi Michiko Florence

Haemi (rhymes with Emmy) Balgassi is the author of poems, articles, short stories, and a young adult novel and a picture book. PEACEBOUND TRAINS is a historical fiction picture book, illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet (Clarion). The story is based on Haemi's grandmother's perilous escape atop a train during the Korean War. TAE'S SONATA (Clarion), a contemporary novel for teens, is about a thirteen-year-old Korean-American girl's quest to find a balance between her American life and her Korean parents, amid a crush on a popular boy, losing her best friend, and dealing with school. Haemi lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two daughters, and two cats and a dog. For more about Haemi and her writing, please check out her fabulous web site.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I knew fairly early — in elementary school, third grade. The teacher assigned a book report type project — we kids had to create an original book jacket for the book we'd read, complete with flap copy. It got me to thinking about how books get to be books (I'd never thought about it before!). For the first time, I was aware of the existence of the person who writes the story that becomes a book, and thought that he/she must have the coolest job in the world.

Your first book was a picture book, PEACEBOUND TRAINS (Clarion). What inspired you to write this story? And how did you decide on how to tell it?

The inspiration came from my grandmother and mother, and their wartime experiences — specifically, the story of their harrowing rooftop train ride in the first winter of the Korean War. Though they survived to see peace, they both lost something of themselves to the war — even beyond the immense loss of my grandfather.

After experimenting with a few early drafts, I decided to present the story as close to how I myself first heard it — have the grandmother character open for her young granddaughter the door to a painful but important family history. I think, too, that Sumi, the granddaughter character, makes the story more accessible for young readers because she, like they, lives in a contemporary world. As Sumi learns about the Korean War and what her family went through, so do the book's young readers.

Did you have any say on the illustrator or the illustrations of PEACEBOUND TRAINS? I thought Chris K. Soentpiet did a wonderful job. What is the working relationship between an author and illustrator?

Dorothy Briley, the late editor-in-chief of Clarion Books (and editor of PEACEBOUND TRAINS) called me a few weeks after offering a contract, with news that she had found the perfect artist to illustrate the book. She said that she would be sending me sample illustrations of a book the artist had recently completed for Clarion. A few days later, I received full color copies of artwork from THE LAST DRAGON, a picture book illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet. I was blown away, to say the least. I considered myself (and still do!) immensely fortunate to have such a talented artist illustrate PEACEBOUND TRAINS. Chris went on to be awarded the Society of Illustrators Gold Medal for his stunning artwork in PEACEBOUND TRAINS. He was the youngest artist to be awarded that honor, and the first Asian American.

Can you tell us about your journey and first success as a children's writer?

I think my first children's sale was a young adult story to Byline Magazine. Hopscotch Magazine for Girls was the first official children's publication to buy my work. I actually started out writing for adult readership publications, and didn't venture into the children's field until a couple years into my freelance career. I felt drawn to children's literature because, as a young mother, I found myself immersed in it.

Your second book, TAE'S SONATA (Clarion), was a novel for young adults. How was writing a novel different from writing a picture book? Do you have a preference and why/why not?

They were very different experiences, but I think the reason has more to do with the difference in the stories, than the formats. I recently finished another novel, and the experience of writing it was entirely different from that of the other two. Do I have a preference? I don't think so... but, I think writing a successful picture book can be more difficult in some ways - a more intimidating task. It's an unforgiving format, with no elbow room whatsoever... the author needs to find exactly the right fit. To use a gymnastics analogy, if novel writing is like the floor exercise, picture book writing is the balance beam.

As a Japanese-American, I could relate to Tae's conflicting feelings about her heritage and wanting to blend in unobtrusively with American classmates. Were you at all like Tae when you were growing up?

Unfortunately, I was just as pitiful at volleyball (and gym in general) as Tae. And, like Tae, I wasn't a natural math wiz — still not! We both had teachers who expected us to be, though, because of the stereotype that Asians are good at math. And, I really did have a social studies teacher who expected me to know all about rice paddies (when I had never seen a rice paddy in my life - still haven't, actually, except in movies). Tae's mom is definitely based on my mother (who still can't do without those bookstore trips into NYC). Tae's best friend, Meg, was inspired by my middle school best friend.

Where did you grow up? And how does that affect your story settings?

I grew up in Seoul up to age seven, and western Massachusetts thereafter. With the exception of the South Korea scenes in PEACEBOUND TRAINS, I think that my stories are more likely to be influenced by my New England upbringing than the Korean (at least, setting-wise). An example is "Portraits," a young adult story that appeared in Cicada, the YA arm of the Cricket Magazine Group. The story resembles (more than the two books) my writing style in the previous works that appeared in adult readership publications. Also like those stories, "Portraits" does not feature a Korean (or Korean American) theme or characters. Aside from a poem, PEACEBOUND TRAINS and TAE'S SONATA are the only published works of mine that feature Korean (Korean American) themes and characters.

How has your cultural background/history influenced you as a writer?

Well, they, without question, influenced the stories behind PEACEBOUND TRAINS and TAE'S SONATA. And, I have no doubt that I will continue to create characters inspired by my being Korean American. Not exclusively, however.

You have a wonderful web site (www.haemibalgassi.com). Did you create this yourself? What motivated you to have a web site?

Thank you! Yes, I did build it myself. I use a simple text editor (Notepad) to hand-code the HTML - not because I dislike more sophisticated editors, but because I find it relaxing to do it myself. What motivated me? At the start, it was a way for me to enjoy and celebrate my book sales before the books actually came out (PEACEBOUND TRAINS took three years from the time I submitted the manuscript, to the book actually being published and released). Now, the website acts as a virtual bridge to my readers and potential readers. I offer printable curriculum for educators, and a student writing contest which I'm pleased to say has been warmly received by students and teachers alike (homeschoolers, too). The website is a family affair as well. I introduce my husband and daughters, including my teen who recommends good reads in her "Good Book Pick" column.

What inspires you?

My girls, my husband. Good books! Sometimes, bad ones, too. Writer friends : )

What's the best thing about being a writer?

The writing — the creative process. The sense of satisfaction upon successfully completing a story.

What's the hardest thing about being a writer?

The writing — the creative process! For me, getting down the first draft. (Revising, I love.)

What is your typical work day like?

Right now, there is nothing "typical" about it (sigh). My IDEAL work day would be to write/produce a solid number of pages every day — say, 4 manuscript pages, or 1000 words.

Can you tell us what you are working on now?

A picture book story that is nearly finished. Another pb that is in the idea-stage. Middle grade novel that is about 25% complete.

What do you do when you're not working/writing?

Enjoy my family — especially my girls, who are growing up so, so quickly.

Do your children and/or children's friends influence your writing?

Oh, yes. I love to listen in on their dialogue — uh, I mean, conversations ;)

My four year old constantly reminds me that the world can look very different (often, marvelously so) through a child's eyes.

Interview © Copyright 2002, by Debbi Michiko Florence
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For more about Haemi, check out her web site.