I’m a child of the Chinese diaspora, born in Thailand, grew up in Hong Kong, and emigrated to the U.S. when I was 15. When I graduated from University of California, Berkeley eons ago, I was confronted with the question all English majors faced. How am I going to earn a living? I went into journalism, a field that allows me to write and earn a decent living. After five years I realized my knowledge base was too narrow. I went back to school and got a masters in International Affairs at Johns Hopkins. The degree led me to a position at the World Bank, where I became the loan officer for Somalia.
When Somalia exploded into civil war, I was quite shaken up. I wanted to write about it. Instead of a history book, I turned the story into a spy thriller, NIGHTFALL IN MOGADISHU. And thus began my real career.
Since leaving the World Bank, I’ve been a writer and caregiver to elderly parents. My second book, JOURNEY ACROSS THE FOUR SEAS: A CHINESE WOMAN’S SEARCH FOR HOME, is a true story of my mother’s life. While taking care of her, I recorded her life stories and wove them into a memoir. It’s about her struggle to get an education for herself and later for her children. For the sake of their education, she uprooted herself and brought the family to the U.S. Because of her courage, my siblings and I are living out the American dream.
I’m now working on my third book, hopefully to be published this fall. It’s about caregiving for elderly parents. It’s a comedy that captures the humor and gravity of seeing your parents through their last years.
What inspires you to write?
My mother was a great storyteller, and she loved to tell stories about her life. She could turn any trivial incident into high drama. I must have gotten the habit from her. Whenever something happens to me, I want to spin it into a story and write it down. My experiences often don’t make sense until I’ve gone through this process.
I write to understand. My two books were both inspired by the urge to understand the great mysteries of my life. I felt I couldn’t die in peace until I could say, I understand. The first great mystery was my job, which took me to war torn Somalia, and the second was my mother, who helped me understand the significance of a life well lived.
Tell us about your writing process.
I start with putting down an outline on a regular word processor. As I write, the outline keeps evolving. It bears no resemblance to the original after a while.
In my first draft I throw out my ideas as fast as I can, because I’m eager to find out what exactly I want to say. The message crystallizes only after I’ve said everything I want on the subject.
Then the fun part starts–the polishing. Usually by the second draft, I’d let my group of fellow writers give me feedback. Afterwards, it’s more polishing–four, five six times until I can’t look at the manuscript anymore .
I’m not consistent with character sketches. Sometimes I write them down, but most of the time they’re just in my head. I plant episodes in the outline to bring out the character. So in a way the outline also serves as a character sketch..
For Fiction Writers: Do you listen (or talk to) to your characters?
I like to put myself in my character’s shoes and imagine what he’s thinking and feeling. Once the character takes shape, he’s as organic as a real live person. The writer can’t dictate to him. He dictates to the writer.
Sometimes I go to a mirror and act out a scene as though I’m the character.
What advice would you give other writers?
Don’t try to go it alone. Get feedback on your manuscript by joining a class or a group where writers critique each other. (Nowadays you can do it online from the comfort of your home). There are also local writers clubs. Find a good one and it can be a great resource for sharing ideas and information and making friends.
How did you decide how to publish your books?
My first book NIGHTFALL IN MOGADISHU was a self published print on demand. That was back in 2000, when POD just came out. I decided to go with it after getting nowhere with traditional publishers. It’s now on Kindle and still selling.
My second book JOURNEY ACROSS THE FOUR SEAS, was published by a small press. I thought it would give me more “prestige.” I’ve since discovered it offers no advantages over self publishing, only disadvantages. I lose my copyright for the duration of the contract.
I plan to go back to self-publishing for my third book. It will be an ebook and a paperback POD.
What do you think about the future of book publishing?
The innovations of recent years have made it possible for me to become a published author. I hope this trend continues to increase opportunities for authors and readers.
Bookstores, which are suffering from this revolution, will have to find a new business model. Those who do will survive and thrive.
What do you use?
Professional Editor, Professional Cover Designer
What genres do you write?
biographies/memoirs, spy thriller, mainstream
What formats are your books in?
Both eBook and Print