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An Interview with Lisa Yee

By Debbi Michiko Florence

Lisa Yee is the author of Millicent Min, Girl Genius, Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time and So Totally Emily Ebers. Winner of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award and Chinese American Librarians Association Book of the Year, her other accolades include USA TODAY Critics’ Pick, ALA Notable Book, Junior Library Guild, and 1st place wheelbarrow race (7th grade). She was recently named the 2007 Thurber House Children’s Writer-in-Residence.

You’ve had a fascinating journey to Author.  Can you tell us about it?

I always knew I wanted/needed to write. In what form was the question. Though I’d always dreamed of being an author, I didn’t take a direct path.

I dual-majored in Humanities and English at USC. While there, I interned at KCET, the L.A. PBS station, and worked on an interactive kid’s magazine. Out of college, I was a copywriter, then associate director of a creative think tank. Then, I moved to Doyle Dane Bernbach, where I was an account executive for 7-Up Foods. I missed the creative, so I returned. My jobs included writer/producer for Walt Disney World, where I worked on television specials. I also worked for Disneyland Paris as the video production supervisor. Then, my husband and I opened our own creative services company, Magic Pencil Studios. I was the creative director.

Yet, all this time, I really, really, really wanted to write children’s books. I was featured in a Wall Street Journal article about career-obsessed women who scheduled their pregnancies around big work projects. And that made me sad. I wondered who/what I had turned into. So I began to write at night.

Editor Arthur Levine pulled me out of the slush pile. And a new career was born!

What fun to read all three of your novels: MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENUIS; STANFORD WONG FLUNKS BIG-TIME; and your newest, SO TOTALLY EMILY EBERS.  Each is a stand-alone novel, but all cover the same summer from different points of views.  When you wrote the first book, was it your plan to write books from other points of views?  How did these come about?

Initially I wrote MILLICENT MIN as a stand-alone. But when I was trying to figure out what to write for my second novel, my daughter (then age 11) would stop in and say snide things about boys. She hated them – thought they were hideous and uncouth. So I decided to write a book about a boy, to show her she was wrong.

I had fallen in love with Stanford Wong in my first book, but I wasn’t interested in writing a sequel. So I wrote about the same summer, all from Millicent’s enemy’s POV.

The third and last of the trilogy, SO TOTALLY EMILY EBERS, was something a lot of fans asked me for. And it made sense to complete the stories. I had a blast exploring the lives of these three kids. And along the way I learned so much about them I didn’t know when they first appeared on the page!

Was it difficult to write three books covering the same time period?  How did you keep everything straight?

I made calendars where I could see overlapping scenes. And I cloned the manuscripts and cut and pasted anywhere the characters were in the same room, on the phone, or shared scenes. It was quite a bit of work, but I knew that if I got it wrong, readers would be quick to point it out!

Millicent, Stanford, and Emily are all fantastic characters.  Even though the books cover the same time period, you do a great job of making each book fresh with specific issues for each character.  How do you get to know your characters so well?

Millicent I knew. She came to me fully formed and it was surprisingly easy to write in her voice. I think I sat up straighter when I wrote her book. (She’d have good posture).

The depth (and pain) of Stanford's life came as a surprise to me. As I began writing his book, he revealed himself to me and I really grew to love him. I’d cry when I wrote sad scenes and blubber, “Stanford, I am so sorry to do this to you!” Although boys and girls are very different, I believe they share the same emotions. Only girls are allowed to show them. So I imagined what it would be like for this jock who everyone was quick to stereotype.

Emily also surprised me. On the surface she’s so happy and bubbly. Yet, I knew her parents were recently divorced, and that can take a toll on a child. She wouldn’t be one to burden someone else with her fears and problems. That’s when I came up with the idea of her writing letters to her father that she never mails. Although the letters are lighthearted (at least in the beginning), an astute reader can see through her guise of cheerfulness.

Each book made me laugh out loud.  (Particularly embarrassing when I was recently reading EMILY EBERS alone at the coffee shop.)  You’ve given workshops on writing humor.  What makes effective humor writing?

You need to start out with the funny gene. Either you have one (or more), or you don’t. When I teach humor writing I tell my students, “I can’t teach you how to be funny, but I can teach you how to be funnier.” Then we take it from there.

For me, all my humor is character-driven. What’s funny for one character, would not work for another. It has to ring true. I always go for poignancy in humor. There’s a book called MORTIFIED that’s hysterical. It’s culled from the diaries of adults – written when they were kids. We took ourselves sooooo seriously then. And it’s funny, though in the moment, things might have looked tragic.

What do you love best about Emily?  Millicent?  Stanford?

I love Emily’s heart. Millicent’s vulnerability. Stanford’s loyalty.

What is your writing process?  Do you outline or just dive into writing a story?  Do you have a writing group?  Do you resort to chocolate?

I won’t begin anything until I’ve outlined it. To me outlining is the hard work, but necessary. It gives me a roadmap – though I don’t always follow it. Once I’ve outlined, I write, and that’s the fun part. .

I don’t have a writing group, but I do bounce things off of my kids. (Ouch.)

Studies have proven (well, all the studies I’ve conducted) that chocolate is an integral component of the writing process. Without chocolate your adjectives have less verve.

Your first novel, MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS, won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award.  How did you find out that you won?  How did that feel? 

I was creating names for lobster cocktails (I used to write menus for Red Lobster) when I got a conference call from all these people at the SCBWI. Steve Mooser started telling me about the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. It was very confusing. I thought that maybe they were calling every member to tell them about it.

Then when I found out I had won, I was stunned for two reasons: 1) I didn’t even know my publisher had entered the book, and 2) Because I didn’t set out to write a funny book. To me, I had written a novel about a girl who was lonely.

 

You do great school group presentations! (I was lucky enough to see you in West L.A.)  What advice can you give to authors about giving a good presentation?

The students are already hyped because they get to get out of class, so they’re eager to hear what you have to say. The more honest you are, the more they appreciate it.  Whatever you do, don’t lecture them. Engage them. Open a dialogue. Have fun. And wear jeans. Kids like it when you look like a real person.

 

What do you like to do in your spare time (even though I understand “spare time” is a rarity)?

I like to make things like collages out of found objects. I also like to blow up Peeps. Lately my son and I have been going geocaching. That’s where you log in here and treasure hunt. I also read while I’m on the elliptical machine, and

Wow! This is actually funny/sad. See that incomplete sentence above? I just left it there hanging. And now, a week later, I returned to find it. Just goes to show that I don’t have a lot of spare time. However, if I did have any spare time, my dream would be to take a nap.


What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on a novel about a semi-Goth girl whose mother runs a charm school for would-be beauty queens in Florida. After a particularly bad argument with her mom, the girl runs away with her two best friends to Los Angeles. There, she tries to find her father who doesn’t even know she exists.

CHARM SCHOOL DROPOUT is scheduled fall 2008, Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic.

How can fans and teachers/librarians contact you?  Do you have a web site?

My website is lisayee.com and there’s an e-mail link there for anyone who’d like to contact me or send me presents. I am also an avid blogger and can be found blathering about authoring, and Peeps, and books, and spleens being ejected out the nose, and other fascinating subjects at lisayee.livejournal.com.

Interview © April, 2007 by Debbi Michiko Florence
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For more about Lisa, check out her web site:

LisaYee.com

You can also read her blog at LiveJournal:

lisayee.livejournal.com