Q: Your website notes that In the Beautiful Country was inspired by your childhood. Can you say more about that, and about how you created your character Anna?
A: I think of the main character, Anna, as my proxy. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom in fiction writing (as opposed to writing memoir) but I found that staying true to what I remembered about my childhood allowed for much more emotional engagement on the page.
That’s why my approach to writing this story is to adhere as much as possible to “what actually happened.”
My family really did immigrate from Taiwan and settle in Los Angeles County. That first year in America, I went to my parents’ fast food restaurant every day after school. And I didn’t even bother changing the names of the various townspeople we met that year: Terry, Don, Nick, and Tony.
But even though I thought of Anna as a stand-in for myself, I also saw her as “other,” which allowed me to have much more compassion for her. So there was always this tension, a sense that here I was trying to represent myself on the page, while knowing all along that Anna was a fabricated persona.
Q: Why did you decide to write the novel in verse?
A: In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what I was trying to write. All I knew was that the basic elements of the story–all the events surrounding my family’s first year in America–kept haunting me.
I tried writing a memoir and floundered. I came across the Little House on the Prairie books but I didn’t like telling the story in third person. I even reworked everything into the second person point of view and scrapped that after three months.
Then I discovered Thanhha Lai’s book Inside Out and Back Again. It was a revelation. I found my voice and from there it only took four months to write the story as a novel in verse.
Q: The author Gene Luen Yang called the book “Vivid, heartbreaking, and hopeful in all the right ways.” What do you think of that description?
A: I think it’s a wonderful description of the book in a blurb-y kind of way! Gene Yang was very kind to read the manuscript and provide such an intriguing and succinct commentary. It's funny because when I was trying to come up with a mission statement about the kind of books I want to write, I chose a bunch of “h” words too: honest, healing and hopeful.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: I’d love for people to leave with a greater sense of compassion and understanding. And as much as I'd love the Asian Pacific American community to embrace this book, I want people who are nothing like Anna–an immigrant girl from Taiwan, growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s–to see themselves reflected in her experience.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: In the Beautiful Country is actually the first book of a two-book deal and I just turned in the second manuscript a few weeks ago. Book #2 is a continuation of Anna’s journey. And yes, it’s inspired by the events of my childhood.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Thank you for hosting me. It’s been such a joy to share about my work! Find out more at janekuo.com.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb