After reading and examining Where the Mountain Meets the Moon last month, we StorySleuths had some questions about writing process and writing techniques that we couldn’t answer from the text itself. So we asked author Grace Lin if she would answer our questions for us, and she graciously agreed. We’re grateful for her responses, which we are posting below, as they gave us insight into the special considerations and challenges she faced in writing Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
1. Were all of the stories based on traditional folktales or did you write some from scratch?
The stories were a hybrid. A lot of them were based on traditional tales that I tweaked here and there, embellishing myths that were little more than a line. For example, at Chinese New Year, it is common to find pictures of two plump children dressed in red decorating doorways. These children are called Da-A-Fu. Why? I researched and only found a very short summary of them: they were two spirits transformed as children sent to destroy a green monster that was terrorizing a village. There were no details of how or why or what village, but it was enough to spark my imagination. So with that, I created the twin characters of A-Fu and Da-Fu in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon who destroy the Green Tiger.
2. At first it seems like the stories are independent stand-alones but clearly they are tightly interwoven--seemingly unimportant details become significant, minor characters reappear in larger roles--what process did you use to weave it all together?
Not a very organized one! Every time I wrote a story I would think, does this have a purpose with the rest of the plot? If there were at least 2 threads that could tie it to the larger story then I kept it. If there weren’t, I cut it. It was really just a lot of obsessive thinking.
3. We were so taken by the ending. We always hear that refrain that the ending should be a surprise, and yet inevitable. When Minli got to the old man and he would only answer one question -- wow! Of course! It was just perfect. We wonder at what point you knew what the ending would be.
I knew the ending about the questions before I wrote the book. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is very loosely based on a folktale called "Olive Lake," though I changed it quite a bit. In the folktale, the main character is only allowed to ask the God of the West a limited amount of questions, so the structure was already there! All the additional ending elements--Fruitless Mountain turning fruitful, etc, I had planned before I started writing as well--I like to have kind of an end goal so I know where I am going when I write.
However, one also has to be flexible as they write too! For me, all the storylines with the Book of Fortune and the Secret of Happiness came pretty late and those, I think, are the real heart of the ending.
4. What was your revision process like?
I actually enjoy revision. It's writing the first draft, that initial output, that kills me! And my editor, Alvina Ling, is not only my editor but a great friend so I really trust her opinions on my writing...and she understands when my writing is quite rough.
But I don't really have a clear organized process. I write the first draft the best I can, send it to Alvina and wait for her response. Usually she has a really good idea of what to do with it and then I get to work. I like the retooling of the story; I feel like revision is when the story really starts to sing. After my first draft of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon she told me I needed at least 10 more chapters and I should show the parents' side of the story. I cringed at the 10 more chapters but showing the parents' side was an idea of genius!
5. What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
This was a very emotionally challenging book for me. I think the best way to explain why would be just to direct you to the speech I read at the Josette Frank Award.
6. Could you share one writing tip that you learned in the process of writing Where the Mountain Meets the Moon?
With Where the Mountain Meets the Moon there were so many story lines that I was afraid that things might get lost on the reader. So after each major change my editor had other people in house read it and I had other friends read it to make sure things were clear. I really learned the value of a fresh reader! Sometimes it's important to have someone who knows nothing about the story, someone who is not even a writer, read the story, just to make sure it hangs together--though I would suggest using them only towards the end—when you are fine-tuning, not at early draft stage!
Many thanks, Grace, for your writing and for your articulate explanations of how you researched, structured and created Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. We are looking forward to reading your books that are currently in the works—especially the two companion books to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon—Return to Sky and Needle at Sea Bottom!