I owe you an apology, dear readers. Due to the blog hiatus I've taken for most of the year thus far, it's entirely possible that you have gone an entire five months without hearing about Kay Honeyman's The Fire Horse Girl -- and if that is so, then you have been MISSING OUT. Because while this book isn't fantasy, it features many of the things I love best from the girl-power-fantasy novels that are dear to my and so many readers' hearts (think Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, Elizabeth Bunce, Kristen Cashore):
- A heroine who's stubborn, willful, kind, outspoken, out of step with her society -- and utterly wonderful
- A plot that offers her the chance to make a better life for herself, if she has the courage to take it
- A love interest who's equally well-developed, and has an agenda of his own
- Terrific characters all around
- Tense action scenes
- Swoony romance scenes
Kay Honeyman is just as much fun in person as she is on the page, and I'm glad to have her here for a Q&A.
How did you come to write The Fire Horse Girl? I always have trouble backing up to the beginning of writing The Fire Horse Girl. My first instinct is to say that the story began to form when I heard about Angel Island. It was a slice of American history and specifically America’s immigration history I only discovered as an adult.
But, I wouldn’t have attached so strongly to that setting if my husband and I weren’t in the midst of adopting a child from China. I was not just drawn to the place, but its stories because my son would have his own immigration story. At first, I imagined all the wonderful things that the child would gain by coming to America. When I looked at the story from my perspective, my son Jack was gaining a home and a family. He would live in land of opportunity and possibilities. But when I considered his point-of-view, he was coming to a strange house in a strange country to live with strange people. It opened my eyes to the price that people pay to immigrate.
If you take the inspiration back one step further, it started with a deep love of stories in general. I used to lay the big books on my parents’ shelves in my lap and read every two and three-letter-word that I knew.
The Fire Horse Girl probably came from all of those layers of inspiration plus a lot of work and a little serendipity.
What sort of research did you do? The kind that piles up in boxes and notebooks all around the house. The kind that involves Friday night trips to the library because I really need to find out the names of ships that travelled between China and San Francisco in 1923. The kind that you have to shake yourself out of because you have a story to write.
I read novels set in China like Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord and The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. I spent hours on the Angel Island Immigration Foundation website. I read Chinese poetry and took Chinese language classes because the rhythm of structure of the Chinese language is very different from English, and I wanted to have a feel for it. I also researched the poems on the walls in the barracks at Angel Island. I filled notebooks and files with picture of the dorms at Angel Island, kitchens in 1900 China, and alleys in Chinatown. I wrote lists of details in the margins of scenes. I poured through Arnold Genthe’s pictures of Chinatown before the fire that destroyed Old Chinatown in 1906 (same year that Jade Moon was born) because I wanted to dig through the rubble that formed the foundation of the Chinatown Jade Moon would have to navigate.
I think the most important part of my research was my trip to China to pick up Jack. It isn’t that I picked up specific details that I put in the book, but it gave me a richer understanding of China and the Chinese. It gave me a peek at the rhythms of life, community, and family.
What was the most difficult part of writing or revising the novel for you? What flowed the easiest? The first draft is the hardest for me. Writing that initial version is frustrating because it never lives up to the image of the story I have in my head. It doesn’t even come close. Neither does the second or third or twenty-third draft, but in later drafts you have progress you can measure. For me, a first draft is just bad, it isn’t better than the last, or moving closer to the story I want to tell. It is just messy and so very, very wrong.
On the other hand, I love revision. It is exciting to find the right fix for glitch in the story or develop a moment into its full potential. I love watching the rough edges of a story smooth into this glassy surface that the reader can skate across.
I especially love the moment in the revision process when you aren’t guessing anymore, when you aren’t experimenting, when the story is more right than wrong. It feels like turning into your neighborhood after a long journey. It doesn’t mean the work is over, but there’s the sense that you are heading to a place you’ve been trying to get to for a long time.
How much of the book did you have planned out before you wrote it? Are you a plotter or a pantser generally? Uhhg, you had to ask. And I tried so hard to hide it. I am a pantser who tries desperately to be a plotter. I am a very organized person. I love lists and papers stacked across the top of my desk. I make multiple outlines, but the story strays so far from the outline that I’m not sure I get to claim the title of plotter. Maybe I am just a horrible plotter. Is there a category for that?
I do like one element of being a pantser/horrible plotter. I tend to have a very fluid vision of the story. I’m more likely to see why something could happen then why it couldn’t. And I have a high tolerance for revisions. I don’t have any illusions that something must happen.
Admit it: You’re a Fire Horse girl too, right? (I am an Earth Horse myself!) Even if you aren’t: What qualities do you most and least admire in Jade Moon? Are they qualities you yourself share? You are an Earth Horse! Did you know we are both hard-working signs? However, your sense of humor is far superior to mine.
I am a Water Ox – patient, dependable, determined. I would make a disastrous character in a novel because in a crisis I make a to-do list and label color-coded file folders. So, I am pretty much the opposite of Jade Moon, but I admire her strength and spirit of determination. I also admire her big dreams and the way she ignores the impossibility of them.
I come from a family of strong women. My sister is a Fire Dragon and my son Jack and my mother are both Fire Pigs. I love people with a fire inside them. They bring fresh perspective and passion to life. They aren’t afraid to burn through the old to see if there is something better behind it.
The trait I most share with Jade Moon is probably the one that gets her in the most trouble – her stubbornness. However, a little stubbornness can help you hold your own, teach eighth-grade, and write a book.
What books have been the most influential in your reading and writing lives? I open every book expecting to be delighted, and I take in some element from most books that I read. I would probably make a terrible editor, but I make a great reader.
I love Jane Austen, especially Pride and Prejudice. I love any book that looks at a society – F. Scott Fitgerald, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Mitchell.
There are also so many talented contemporary authors in YA. Elizabeth Eulberg (Lonely Hearts Club, Take a Bow, Prom and Prejudice, and Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality) creates characters with flaws that just make them more relatable and more charming. Paul Volponi (The Final Four, Rikers High, Rucker Park Setup, Black and White) packs sweeping stories into tight settings and timelines. Whole stories get threaded through the overtime of a Final Four basketball game. It is like a gritty Hemingway if Hemingway wrote about basketball instead of bullfighting. I could go on and on. The more I write, the more I find to admire in other writers.
I also keep a few books on writing at my elbow. My two favorites are Second Sight (I am unabashedly slipping it into this interview because I tell everyone how amazing it is). Since I can’t email you every time I have a minor dilemma or a major nervous breakdown, I keep it close. I also love my Synonym Finder (love, adore, cherish, esteem, prize, etc.).
What are you reading now? And writing? I just finished 52 Reasons to Hate My Father by Jessica Brody. It is always fun to watch teenagers realize that their potential soars far above people’s expectations. My first summer read is going to be Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.
I am working on a book set in West Texas. It is about Friday night football, small towns, and politics. It is full of women with sweet smiles and sharp tongues, high-stakes competition on and off the field, and a love that takes a few detours. I want to tell the story of a girl who discovers the beauty in life’s imperfections.
And what the heck, we'll do another giveaway here too, for a proper hardcover edition this time. Calculate your Chinese Zodiac sign and tell me both what you are and whether that (or any other form of astrological sign) matches your personality. (I don't think I'm a particularly notable Horse, for instance, but I am totally Queen of the Virgos -- a similarity between sign and personality that fascinates me, even as I think most daily horoscopes are bunk.)