Author photo: Andrea Cheng
In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Andrea Cheng, award-winning author of books for children and young adults.
Cheng’s first novel, Marika, was selected by the city of Cincinnati for “On the Same page,” a citywide reading program. Honeysuckle House, Anna the Bookbinder, and Shanghai Messenger received Parent’s Choice Awards. Grandfather Counts was featured on Reading Rainbow. Where the Steps Were, the first book that Cheng has both written and illustrated, received starred reviews in both Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus. The Year of the Book, a Junior Library Guild selection, was reviewed in the NY Times and was followed by The Year of the Baby (2013 May). Cheng’s most recent title is Etched in Clay.
Some of Cheng’s books draw on her background as the child of Hungarian immigrants as well as the background of her husband, the son of immigrants from China. Others draw on the lives of her children growing up in inner city Cincinnati where she and her husband now live. Andrea studied Chinese at Cornell University where she received a Masters degree in linguistics. She and her family have traveled to both Budapest and Shanghai to get to know their extended families.
Which came first, story or location?
I think character comes first in my writing, followed by location, atmosphere, etc. Plot or ‘story” come later. I usually start with a character at a particularly salient moment in a specific place, and go from there.
Cover art: The Year of the Book, by Andrea Cheng
What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I have to have spent a fair amount of time in a place before I can evoke the atmosphere. I have to know how it smells and tastes and looks and feels.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Everything! I think I focus a lot on language, the way people talk. I think it would be very hard for me to write a story that takes place in a location in which I cannot speak the native language of the people who live there.
Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
This is from my chapter book called THE YEAR OF THE FORTUNE COOKIE, coming out with Houghton Mifflin in May 2014. It is for grades 3-6. The main character, Ana Wang, is in Beijing:
It starts to rain. The sky is almost dark, and the air smells like gasoline and charcoal. We turn down an ally and wind our way behind some buildings. “This is my home,” Fan says finally, opening a door with her key.
Inside the light is dim. Her brother is watching television and her mother is cooking on a hot plate. “This is my friend from America,” Fan says.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I have to have spent time in the place and I have to understand the language of the people there. The more time the better.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I just read Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, Lowland. Although I think the book has some problems, I love her sense of place.
Next month’s Location, Locution: Jill interviews James Ferron Anderson – weaver, glassblower, soldier, and now writer.
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JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.
Author photo: J J Marsh
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- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Paulo Coelho, on the monuments that immortalize cities
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Liza Perrat on writing a location to life
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Award-winning author Steven Conte, bringing location to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Booker Prize-nominated author AD Miller, on bringing a location to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Expat author JJ Marsh on bringing a location to life through writing