A couple of weeks ago I read and reviewed Andrew’s début novel, Crossing. This young adult novel is receiving a lot of favourable attention and commentary. Since then I’ve had the distinct delight to chat with Andrew over email about the book and his writing. Keep reading to find out what he had to say!
I am positively thrilled that my novel is finally reaching an audience. After writing in the dead of night for many years, and dealing with the self-doubt that likely attends just about every fledgling author at some point, it is immensely gratifying to finally have readers who are (hopefully) enjoying what has been a huge labor of love. Crossing is about a Chinese immigrant teen – Xing – growing up in an all-white community. His existence is a lonely one, and at one level the novel works as young man’s desire to find a place of acceptance, a place to call home. Students at his school start to mysteriously disappear, and the whole community is flummoxed by the events. Xing, however, on the periphery of society observes certain things which, while terrifying him, also might suggest who the perpetrator is. As the identity of this person becomes slowly apparent to Xing, a noose of suspicion begins to enclose around him.
I worked for a few years with immigrant teens in Manhattan’s Chinatown. What really struck me was how acutely they felt isolated from society at-large. Shoved out of the way, really. And they shared a real disenchantment with America. One Sunday, a group of us – we were traveling in upstate New York – decided to attend church. It turned out to be an all-white church and I still remember the cold looks of suspicion and icy stares cast our way throughout the service. Just because we were Chinese, just because we looked different. Those cold stares haunted me for a long time afterward. It got me thinking: what if an immigrant teen had to grow up all alone in this kind of community? And what if something terribly, mysteriously awful started to happen in that community? Xing didn’t start out being “unreliable” as a narrator. But I have very little control over my characters, especially the protagonist. Xing had a will of his own, and he did not like one bit being portrayed in a cutesy and charming way – every time I wrote him that way, he lashed out at me on the page. I began to “not like” him a little, to suspect him, even, and eventually I saw that he might have some hidden agenda – one hidden even from the writer. So, in answer to the question, I didn’t start out thinking Xing was unreliable, but once he took on a life of his own, suspicion (both towards and emanating from him) became part and parcel of his very being. Part of the joy (and challenge!) in writing Crossing was figuring out Xing: why was I suspicious of him, why did I consider him to be unreliable? He was an intriguing dude to deal with, to say the least.
There are certain joys that come with writing. Certainly, the very act of creation – of a character, a moment, a world – is a thing of beauty, and, when it comes together well, is immensely satisfying. But I think for me, one of the matchless pleasures comes after publication when somebody reviews your book or sends you an email that really demonstrates that (s)he just got it. Not the flashy or obvious points of the book, but the nuances, the subtle touches that only an empathetic and sensitive reader would get. Let me give you an example. One reader told me that he was immensely touched in the Chinatown scene when Xing’s father, instead of getting furious at Xing (those who’ve read the book will know this reference point), was instead gentle and understanding. This really got to the reader, made a impression on him, and he took the time to let me know. As a writer, you write for yourself, to make the words meaningful and significant to you without worrying so much about the mass readership. So it’s gratifying to hear when someone is, in fact, pulled along as well.
Miss Durgenhoff is my favorite, in the sense that of all the characters I’d want to spend the day with, it would be her. Although I delight in the three-dimensional complexity of Xing and have a (not-so-secret) crush on Naomi, it’s actually Miss Durgenhoff I’d love to meet in real life. She has an aspect that draws me to her. There’s something about the softness and sweetness of her soul that, because of the circumstances of her life, would have, for other people, turned to bitterness. Kathryn Stockett said “When a person has that much sadness and kindness wrapped up inside, sometimes it just pours out as gentleness.” That’s Miss Durgenhoff to a T, and I can easily see why the lonely Xing would find such warmth and comfort in her. Plus, if I did meet her, I know she’d cook me up a feast.
It was a lonely journey, let me tell you. Because I was working full time, the only part of the day when I could write was at night. I burned many a midnight hour, tapping away into the wee hours of the morning. Virtually every time I sat down, I had a dozen reasons why I should instead be sleeping or watching TV or reading or . . . But I really felt that I was creating a novel that was both unique and tantalizing, and as Xing took shape and I grew to be intrigued by him, I realized this was a person I wanted the world to know. That kept me pushing on through the years. After a decade – yes, it took me that long – I can honestly say that it was more perspiration than inspiration that got me through.
I’m actually quite intimidated by authors. And I tend to think (and yes, perhaps I am guilty of stereotyping here) that authors make bad conversationalists. They tend to be more observers and listeners, students of life and the world rather than verbose analysts. Truth is, I think I might want to avoid a long, drawn-out, and awkward lunch with an introspective bore. But maybe just so that I could solve the mystery once and for all, I’d have lunch with William Shakespeare. I’d ask, “Bill, level with me. Did you write all the plays or not?”
At the moment, I have the opposite of writer’s block: two stories have tumbled into my head and heart, and both, apparently, are jostling to be written before the other. They are completely different genres involving drastically different writing styles: one is literary romance (this caught me by surprise) and the other is a YA novel with a neat spin on the dystopian genre. It’s a bizarre experience; if I spend too much time on the one, I feel unfaithful to the other. Both are flowing so well that I dare not put either aside out of fear that that might somehow dry up the creative stream.
Crossing is not meant to be a “message” novel, one that teaches you a “life lesson.” I’ve found that “message” novels are often preachy and didactic, and I tend to avoid them like the plague. So one of the last things I wanted to do in a novel with such strong racial overtones was to come across as preachy. What I do hope readers take away fromCrossing is a sense that they’ve crossed over and stood in someone else’s shoes and lived inside his skin for a few days. To feel his fears and the fragility of his hopes, to really understand someone so different from themselves. And that’s one of the reasons why this novel is a thriller – it’s difficult to really get to know a character in stasis – you need to see them in conflict, in moments of uncertainty, in naked fear, dealing with irrational thoughts, before you really get a feel for them. Hopefully, Crossing succeeds in snagging readers into its pages and into the life of a Chinese immigrant teen named Xing Xu.