The former environmental lawyer turned children’s writer, illustrator, poet, novelist, and memoirist, Sylvia Liu is a busy person (to say the least). In 2013, she won the New Voices Award for her book, A Morning with Grandpa. Later this year, an original children’s poem by Liu will be featured in the anthology, Thanku: Poems of Gratitude. Of course, she also had an essay published in Potomac Reviews’ Spring 2018 issue entitled, “Your Life in Airplane Rides.” Most recently she has been working on a speculative fiction graphic novel for middle school-aged kids. Last fall, Liu discusses these achievements and more with intern, Naki Franklin. Cephalopods, working with other artists, and how even the most commonplace of experiences can actually be a rich source of inspiration are all on that table in their discussion.
Naki Franklin: I am a fellow ocean-lover. So first things first, why do you love cephalopods?
Sylvia Liu: Every time I learned about octopuses, cuttlefish, squid, or other cephalopods, I’m fascinated by how intelligent and interesting they are. For example, octopuses have three hearts and a distributed brain, in which their arms have independent neural networks that work semi-independently from their brains. Most cephalopods, though color blind, have amazing camouflaging skills. I could go on and on.
NF: What steps did you take to change your career from environmental law to writing for children?
SL: Growing up, I always enjoyed writing and making art. While I worked as a lawyer, I took evening classes in children’s illustration and art. After I quit my job as an attorney, I focused on illustration, which led to writing my own picture books in online writing courses and communities. That led me to write novels, learning from the talented teachers and writers at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia.
NF: How have the things that you learned while working as an environmental lawyer helped you in your writing?
SL: Being a lawyer gave me skills like organization, the ability to meet deadlines, persistence, and discipline. Writing legal briefs and memoranda was also good training for writing persuasively and clearly.
NF: How did you get into writing children’s books?
SL: I started out as an illustrator and became interested in writing my own stories to illustrate.
NF: Your children’s picture book, A Morning With Grandpa, was the 2013 New Voices Award Winner and is on multiple booklists including an honorable mention on the Huffington Post’s “Best Picture Books of 2016.” Congratulations! How did you decide that Mei Mei would spend her morning with Gong Gong rather than with her dad, grandmother, aunt, or any of the other family members?
SL: The story was inspired by my dad, who did tai chi while I was growing up. One summer, we were on a family vacation in Vermont, and he taught my kid’s qi gong, another Chinese mind-body practice. That was the spark of the story. It never occurred to me to write it with another family member.
NF: On your website, it says that you will have a poem in Thanku: Poems Of Gratitude, which is expected to release in fall 2019. Congratulations on that as well! Would you say that this poem is for children or adults? And will you please give us a hint of what we can expect?
SL: It’s a poem for children. The anthology, edited by Miranda Paul and to be published by Lerner Publishing, compiles poems with the theme of thankfulness written by amazing children’s poets like Joseph Bruchac, Margarita Engle, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Naomi Shihab Nye, Charles Waters, and Jane Yolen. It will be illustrated by Marlena Myles.
Each poem is written in a different poetic form, so children can learn about forms like haikus, masks, sonnets, pantoums, and more. My form is the Tyburn, which involves a specific rhyming pattern. My topic is a little bit scary, a little bit silly, and a little bit arachnid.
NF: You have been exploring different genres this year between your non-fiction memoir, “Your Life in Airplane Rides,” published in the Potomac Review and your poem that will come out next year. What were some unexpected differences and similarities that you encountered between the writing process for children’s books versus writing for adults, writing memoirs, writing poems, or writing non-fiction?
SL: The creative act—transforming thoughts into word-form—for all genres is remarkably similar, which is to say, mysterious and inexplicable. Writing picture books and poetry is also similar because word choice, poetic devices, and economy of words are so important. Novel-writing is different from the shorter forms because it is more of a constructed puzzle. Underlying all of it, even the non-fiction, is the art of storytelling.
NF: What mediums do you use for your illustrations?
SL: I started with oils and acrylics, and now paint digitally in Photoshop.
NF: I love how your illustrations each tell their own story. In one illustration, there are polar bears walking through a city, and in another, it looks like there is a child staring at an abandoned train. What stories are these illustrations telling? Are you sending a message about the environment?
SL: Those two illustrations show a soft apocalyptic world where human artifacts are overrun by nature. There’s definitely an environmental theme: if we don’t take care of the world, it may not take care of us in the long run. I haven’t written the story yet, but I envision it as a picture book, graphic novel, or middle-grade novel.
NF: Your blog post, “My Adventure into MG Sci-Fi: The Making of an Illustration Part 1,” was such a fun read because I could tell how passionate you are about art and learning. What programs did Kathryn [Ault Noble] use to create those images? What pieces of this experience are you going to incorporate into your illustrations outside of this project?
SL: Kathryn used Photoshop to create these images. I learned so much from her and will try to emulate the way she approaches illustration in my future work. She’s very thorough in the early phases of conceptual research and investigates all visual possibilities. I learned that doing a lot of conceptual work up front makes the rest of the illustration process flow much more easily.
NF: Will you please tell me more about the middle-grade science fiction story that you worked on while being mentored by author Tae Keller? What is the story about, and when will we get to read it?
SL: My work-in-progress is set in a near-future Chinese-influenced United States. In 2053, teens can’t wait to get jacked—their brains connected to the multiweb. Hana is a thirteen-year-old tinkerer who builds automatons from junkyard scraps who discovers a Corporate conspiracy against the teens who are about to be jacked. And worse yet: her mother, a high-level geneticist, may be behind the plot. With the help of an unlikely group—scavengers, hackers, and a qi gong master, Hana must save her friends and herself while navigating new friendships and family secrets. I’m querying this story now, so who knows when it will reach the shelves.
NF: I am a huge airplane lover myself, and that is one of the reasons why I was so drawn to “Your Life in Airplane Rides.” That is such a unique and creative way to describe the major events of your life. How did you come up with the idea to make airplanes the setting for this memoir? What made you decide to write the memoir in the second person?
SL: Flying turned out to be a good way to comment on life, society, and culture, as well as very different eras. Since I’ve been flying, I’ve seen the end of the time when flying was glamorous; the smoke-filled, social phase; and today’s antiseptic experience. Thinking back, that somewhat parallels my life experience: childhood wonder, young adult exploration, and adult stability.
Writing in the second person seemed like a good way to involve the reader directly in my memories.
NF: In the memoir, you mentioned that you lived in Venezuela, California, Hawaii, DC, and you now live in VA beach. How did living in each of those places shape you? How did you ultimately end up living in Virginia beach?
SL: Living in Venezuela made the biggest impact on my life. A child of Chinese immigrants, I was born in the U.S. but grew up from ages 5-17 in Caracas. Being Chinese-American in a South American country and attending international schools meant speaking Chinese at home, English at school, and Spanish in the streets. I grew with a mélange of cultural influences (in other words, pretty mixed up). My parents instilled in me a love of travel and adventure, so I took opportunities to work and live in places like California and Hawaii while I was young, and eventually settled in D.C. for my environmental law job. We moved to Virginia Beach when my husband’s job brought him here.
NF: On your flights between 1991 and 1997, you mentioned that you found your self, “in the In Between…in the limbo of your journey.” What did you mean by that? How were those years of being a new college graduate and in law school? How did you deal with the challenges of being in that phase of life?
SL: I was referring to the time between carefree youth and responsible adulthood, though in reality, I was always on the straight and narrow. In those years, I was in law school, clerked for a federal judge for a year, and started working for the U.S. Department of Justice. 1997 is the year I got married, so I suppose the limbo was between the amorphous college years and the more defined, established years.