Saturday, August 6, 2016

Author Interview: Sophia N. Lee

The blog features Ms. Sophia N. Lee, author of What Things Mean (Scholastic 2016). It is her first book intended for young adult readers.

What Things Mean is the winner of the Scholastic Asian Book Award. 

In this interview, Ms. Lee talks about her favorite Filipino writers, the YA novels she loves to read, and her dreams for herself as a writer and Filipino creative. She has some interesting ideas on marketing Filipino books and Filipino writers. While she addresses publishers and book stores to take these ideas with a grain of salt, libraries and librarians need to listen up as well. Our schools are communities where children and young people spend most of their time in. Libraries are places, in Ms. Lee's words, where a community of readers is nurtured. 

a. What is your favorite YA book?

I don’t think I could narrow it down to just one, because the more I discover, the more my love for this genre goes. There are just too many titles that I love!

The ones that are top of mind right now are So B. It by Sarah Weeks and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – these two books are just so beautifully written for me. Whenever I come across them, I have to resist the urge to highlight whole passages of text that I wish I myself had written. Reading Eleanor and Park always makes me breathless – it reminds me of how all-consuming it can be to fall into these fictional worlds.  

There are some old, old titles that I loved from when I was a younger reader. I love Nancy Drew, of course – especially the ones ghostwritten by Mildred Wirt Benson. There was this one Sweet Dreams book that I kept on rereading – Love Match by Janet Quin-Harkin. I loved it because the main character was wonderful – Joanna was this tomboy/late bloomer who was falling in love for the first time. But what made the book more special was that she had such a crazy, funny family too, and their humor made the book such a fun, memorable read. 

b. Who are your favorite YA authors?

Rainbow Rowell and Sarah Weeks have to figure in this answer too – I feel like I would happily pick up any book written by them, because I love their style of writing. I also really like Laurie Halse Anderson. For me, it’s so amazing how these writers are able to bring truth and light and heartbreaking humor in their depictions of grim situations – highlighting abuse in Eleanor and Park, rape in Anderson’s Speak, and mental disability in So B. It.

There are those who don’t write YA specifically, but who have created some really wonderful YA protagonists – I love Nicole Krauss’s Alma Singer in her book The History of Love. I love how Anna Quindlen created the character Maggie Scanlan in her book Object Lessons. I am in awe of how Ursula Hegi built her young unnamed female protagonist in her short story The End of All Sadness.

I’m just discovering so many Filipino authors that I love too – I love everything by Kerima Polotan and Katrina Tuvera, Susan Lara and Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo. I love the writing voice of Ian Rosales Casocot and Dean Francis Alfar. I have just discovered Nikki Alfar, Andrea Pasion-Flores, and Romina Gonzales. I love the humor and style of Luis Katigbak. Like I said – I don’t think I can commit to just one. The list of favorites just keeps growing!

The launch of What Things Mean is today at 2PM at National Book Store Glorietta, Makati City

c. Is your book, What Things Mean, autobiographical?

What Things Mean is a work of fiction. None of the people or events in the book are based on real life. That being said, I would say that I imbued my main character, Olive, with a lot of traits, quirks, and yearnings that I myself had as a younger girl. I felt that was the most intuitive way of creating a young adult protagonist that would come across as fully fleshed out. 

I am similar in that we both have dark skin and curly hair, we both are rather quiet, and have a tendency to retreat into the world of books. Like me, Olive is very much into looking for the meaning of things too. 

But we are also very different. She is probably a more patient, forgiving person than I am. I think that she’s deeper and more mature than I was at that age too. I like how, as the writing of the story progressed, she became this person that was different from what I initially imagined she would be.  She was stronger than I first imagined. She handled her obstacles more gracefully than I did at that age. 

d. Where do you see yourself as a writer five-ten years from now?

I see myself still writing. I would love to be teaching too, and talking to a lot more people in the hope that it will convince them to write their own stories too. 

e. What does PH publishing need to do to support YA writers and the growth of YA lit in the country?

I think it would be great if our publishers invested in marketing our books more. There are so many great titles already out there, but they go undiscovered by many because we aren’t talking about them enough – and I believe that readers here will want to talk about them. My own experience trying to promote my book is still pretty limited -- I just launched my book in Singapore last May, and I’m launching What Things Mean in Manila on August 6, but when I come across readers and book bloggers here, I find that they are always excited to talk to me about my book, and to promote new Filipino authors and stories. 

We need to find new ways of reaching and interacting with the readers too. I think it’s so great what our local romance authors are doing, led by the very capable Mina V. Esguerra. I’m a fan of their work, and I think it’s so awesome how they are constantly creating new ways for their readers to connect with them. They’ve done so many exciting things – from podcasts, live theatrical readings, blog tours, and even whole-day events called #feelsdays that immerse readers and would-be readers into the worlds they’ve created. I think that’s what YA authors and publishers need to do too – we need to nurture the community of readers and make them excited to immerse themselves in the worlds of our stories. 

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