Assistant+Principal+Galen+Rosenberg+and+school+librarian+Gordon+Jack+sit+with+Young+Adult+novelists+Stacey+Lee%2C+Mitali+Perkins%2C+James+Brandon+and+Nya+Jade+to+discuss+their+award-winning+titles+and+writing+craft.+The+Q%26A+session+was+held+on+Tuesday%2C+March+3%2C+in+the+Eagle+Theater.

Kaavya Butaney

Assistant Principal Galen Rosenberg and school librarian Gordon Jack sit with Young Adult novelists Stacey Lee, Mitali Perkins, James Brandon and Nya Jade to discuss their award-winning titles and writing craft. The Q&A session was held on Tuesday, March 3, in the Eagle Theater.

A peek into the writer society: Writer’s Week Q&A

March 3, 2020

Happy 35th Writers Week, Los Altos! Taking place from March 2 through March 5, 2020, Writer’s Week is a time to honor the humanities and amazing writers who have impacted the community at large with their works. The Talon conducted a short Q&A with a few of these writers, allowing you a peek into the writer society.

Note: These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Stacey+Lee

Courtesy Stacey Lee

Stacey Lee

Stacey Lee is the author of “The Downstairs Girl”, a novel that follows the life of 17-year-old Jo Kuan, who anonymously writes for a newspaper column and attempts to challenge societal gender and race norms when her column gains popularity.

Q: Who/what inspired you to become a writer?

A: I don’t think I had anyone inspiring me to be a writer; writing was just something I did naturally ever since my first hello kitty diary. I loved reading stories, listening to stories, and making up stories. I had a somewhat “typical” Asian American upbringing where my parents wanted me to take on a serious profession, relegating writing to “hobby” status. So I think for me, the writing bug was always there.

Q: How has writing and being part of this community impacted you?

A: It’s fulfilling. I love creating stories for readers to get lost in because I always considered books to be the best possible escape.

Q: What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

A: Definitely it was my fear of speaking in public. But being an author nowadays is different than how it was when I was growing up due to factors like changes in the publishing industry and social media. Authors are required to have a public face. I overcame this challenge (and am still overcoming it, to be honest) by just doing it. Every time I live through a public speaking event, it reinforces not only that it doesn’t kill me, but most of the time, I end up enjoying it!

Q: Who is your favorite writer at the moment and why?

A: Really loving Neal Shusterman at the moment; I’m at the end of his latest dystopian series, SCYTHE, and it’s so full of interesting political intrigue, philosophy, conflict, heroes to root for, bad guys to hiss at. His work is fabulous.

Q: What do you hope to bring to the Los Altos community by participating in Writer’s Week?

A: I’m here to connect with the future! I’d love for students to see that being a writer is pretty awesome. The more we value storytelling, the better our society will be. Storytelling creates empathy, and the world needs more of that.

Q: If you could recommend one book to Los Altos students, what would it be?

A: That is a really mean question, but since I am right now enjoying THE SCYTHE series I think you can’t go wrong there. Ok, here’s another one, my favorite historical fiction series is BLOODY JACK by L.A. Meyer.

Q: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

A: Don’t quit on your worst day. Take another day to think about it.

Nya Jade

Courtesy Nya Jade

Nya Jade

Nya Jade is the author of “The Year of Four”, a fantasy novel that follows the life of Phoebe Pope, a shapeshifting teenage girl who is training to become a spy. 

Q: Who/what inspired you to become a writer?

A: I’ve always written in some form or another. I started as a singer-songwriter and loved sharing stories through music and lyrics. Then one day I decided to try my hand at writing novels. Although I experienced a learning curve moving from three minute songs to three hundred page books, I loved the challenge. I drew inspiration from all the authors I’ve enjoyed reading over the years.

Q: How has writing and being part of this community impacted you?

A: The writing community is wonderful. I love attending conferences and being in the company of other writers. I get to tap into a deep well of creative energy. And there’s something magical about having an idea and getting to see it live in the pages of a book. I’m filled with gratitude for every interaction I have with readers. It’s always great fun to hear a reader’s perspective on my world and the characters that inhabit it. I find that I learn from it.

Q: What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

A: For awhile, I convinced myself that I couldn’t write a sequel to my first book—that I’d run out of ideas. I managed to overcome it by thinking of the book as a new standalone. This actually worked! It released the pressure I’d put on myself to top the previous book. Instead, I enjoyed the process of writing a new adventure that happened to star characters in a world I already knew. Feels like I tricked myself into getting it done.

Q: Who is your favorite writer at the moment and why?

A: Pakistani-American author Sabaa Tahir! I’m in love with her “An Ember in the Ashes” series. It was my first exposure to supernatural characters such as the jinn (as well as other creatures) she pulled from her background. It all made for a wonderful new world. I raced through “An Ember in the Ashes” and had to take my time with “A Torch Against the Night”, which was a much more intense read. I have yet to start the third installment but cannot wait to see what happens next.

Q: What do you hope to bring to the Los Altos community by participating in Writer’s Week?

A: I hope I bring a sense of enthusiasm for all things writing! I’m such a big fan of storytelling and believe that we all have stories within us that can be shared. So I want to be a source of encouragement and support for anyone who wants to pursue this path.

Q: If you could recommend one book to Los Altos students, what would it be?

A: The Alchemist by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. I read it many years ago as a student at Stanford and it’s stayed with me. I love the idea of each of us having a “Personal Legend”—something we want to accomplish. And how the world around us shapes our path toward getting there. I thought Coelho did a great job of using his character Santiago’s journey of following signs to illustrate this point.

Q: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

A: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” This quote is attributed to Oscar Wilde. Whether or not he meant it for authors, I’ve taken it as a great piece of writing advice. As an author you can only write with your own authentic voice. It’s easy to want to imitate [insert famous author here], but at the end of the day, it’s not you. They say there are no new stories/plots out there, only new ways to write them. So I hope to always write in a way that’s true to me.

James+Brandon

Courtesy James Brandon

James Brandon

James Brandon is the author of “Ziggy, Stardust & Me”, a novel set in 1973 about a gay teenager with a great deal of stress going on in his life, and his incredible imagination that helps him cope.

Q: Who/what inspired you to become a writer?

A: What really inspired me was the fact that queer history isn’t taught in school and, having been out for over half of my life, I didn’t know my own history. I was ashamed of that so I decided to write about our history so everybody else can learn too.

Q: How has writing and being part of that community impacted you?

A: It has me a deeper sense of belonging that’s allowed me to hear my voice more strongly and more authentically because I’m with people who have had the same experiences as me.

Q: What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

A: The thing I constantly deal with—and that I think we will always deal with—is rejection. You think that you’re just going to get everything in life and it’s really hard when you don’t. I’ve learned over time that the things you don’t get are always the things you need, but the things you do end up getting are the things you actually want.

Q: Who is your favorite writer at the moment and why?

A: I would say Jason Reynolds because he uses poetry and prose in a way like no other writer and he’s incredible, he’s an inspiration.

Q: What do you hope to bring to the Los Altos community by participating in Writer’s Week?

A: For me, it’s about bringing an LGBTQ+ perspective to young people who identify on the spectrum. They can see themselves on the page and the stage.

Q: If you could recommend one book to Los Altos students, what would it be?

A: “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

Q: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

A: Find your voice, trust it, hone it, live it authentically and just keep writing.

Mitali Perkins

Courtesy Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins is the author of many books, but most recently “Forward Me Back to You”, the story of two friends who meet on a service trip to Kolkata, and face their trauma together.

Q: Who/what inspired you to become a writer?

A: I read a ton. When I was a kid, I came to the United States, and I was the only Indian person in a high school full of white people. I was reading all kinds of books because I loved the heroics. I could see myself overcoming all those obstacles.

Q: How has writing and being part of this community impacted you?

A: Right now, I’m at the stage where I’m getting to mentor younger writers and judge the prizes—I judged the National Book Award last year. It was really fun being a part of the whole community celebrating all the stories that are being created. So I love that.

Q: What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

A: Twenty-two rejections between book one and book two. Twelve years of waiting, hoping and praying that I could hang in there. But that was when I realized how much I wanted to be a writer. So I didn’t give up and kept going. So I think that was one that was realized that this was what I was intended to do.

Q: Who is your favorite writer at the moment and why?

A: All my favorite writers are dead, and I reread seasonally around the clock. So I read books like “Little Women” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” seasonally. I just love the books that I used to love as a kid. They give me joy, and when I reread them I find all these new layers in them. I change and so I get something out of the story. It’s different every time.

Q: What do you hope to bring to the Los Altos community by participating in Writer’s Week?

A: I never dreamed that, as an Indian American, I could be a writer full-time. I never saw that because the models were all people in tech and STEM. And so I would love to be able to model as an Indian American, a vibrant, fun life. I love being a writer. So it’s giving an option of someone in the arts who’s living as an immigrant.

Q: If you could recommend one book to Los Altos students, what would it be?

A: This is not a popular answer, but I would say to read the Gospel of John from the Bible to see what a great storyteller Jesus was.

Q: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

A: It’s from Anne Lamott, who says that your first draft is going to suck big time. Just get through it, and then you can always make it better.

Jenn Alandy Trahan

Courtesy Jenn Alandy Trahan

Jenn Alandy Trahan

Jenn Alandy Trahan is a lecturer for the Stanford Creative Writing Program and former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction. Her fictional work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine and she is currently writing her first book.

Q: Who/what inspired you to become a writer?
A: My third grade teacher, Marilyn McElhaney, at St. Basil School in Vallejo, California.

Q: How has writing and being part of this community impacted you? 

A: I’d like to quote one of my literary heroes, Adam Johnson, on the Stanford Creative Writing Program: “there’s no better place to write or to be a writer.”

Q: What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

A: I’m a brown, I’m a woman, and I have tattoos. I can’t help that people immediately pigeonhole me when they see me. I’m not sure if I will ever overcome this challenge even if the Bay Area is supposedly the most liberal, most “woke” and tolerant region of the country. But I coexist with it, with the microaggressions, with all of it.

Q: Who is your favorite writer at the moment and why?
A: I recently read “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” by Anthony Veasna and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. It feels like a masterclass on the third-person-omniscient point of view. I love the story so much that I want to reach out to Anthony and ask if he would be down to visit my fiction class next quarter.

Q: What do you hope to bring to the Los Altos community by participating in Writer’s Week?
A: I hope to bring diversity to the table, and I’m not just talking about the shade of my skin tone. I’m a first-generation college student who grew up middle-class in Vallejo, California, a city more known for its rappers than its Faulkners. My net worth is like, zero. By all accounts, I shouldn’t be a writer, but here I am. If there are students out there who have people telling them that they shouldn’t pursue a career because of factors like these, I hope that those students remember we only get one life, and we should chase our dreams regardless of the odds that are working against us.

Q: If you could recommend one book to Los Altos students, what would it be?
A: “A Prayer for Travelers” by the inimitable Ruchika Tomar, a gorgeous desert noir novel that also happens to be a finalist for the 2020 PEN/Hemingway Award.

Q: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?
A: From Elizabeth Tallent, a literary (and life) heroine of mine: “If you want to achieve greatness, stop asking for permission.”

Donia Bijan

Courtesy Donia Bijan

Donia Bijan

Chef-turned writer Donia Bijan published a 2011 memoir about the intertwining of her culture and passion for culinary and later published a debut novel, “The Last Days of Café Leila”, which is about a daughter who returns to her childhood home.

Q: Who/what inspired you to become a writer?

A: Reading literature has always been my greatest inspiration. 

Q: How has writing and being part of this community impacted you?

A: I am a chef by profession and have always reached people through food. When I started writing, I was blown away by the ability to move people through words. It was incredible to receive letters from my readers who wanted me to know that my story was also their story.

Q: What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

A: When I followed my dream to become a chef, I was one of a handful of women in the industry. My challenge was to work twice as hard as my colleagues with every intention of standing shoulder to shoulder with the world’s best chefs, male or female.

Q: Who is your favorite writer at the moment and why?

A: If I had to [pick one], it would be Alice Munro, the great Canadian short story writer. No one can say so much in so few pages and leave the reader in a state of wonder.

Q: What do you hope to bring to the Los Altos community by participating in Writer’s Week?

A: Every year, I look forward to sharing my passion for writing but also hearing from the students. We talk about exile— what it means to lose one’s sense of belonging and what it takes to restore it. I’ve realized that we truly can’t live without stories.

Q: If you could recommend one book to Los Altos students, what would it be?

A: “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a novel that explores the idea of home, race and relocation with great empathy and wit. 

Q: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

A: From Ernest Hemingway: “To write one true sentence every single day and to not get up from my desk until I’ve written that sentence. Then, chances are that another sentence will follow and another after that.”

Kaitlin+Solimine

Courtesy Kaitlin Solimine

Kaitlin Solimine

After majoring in East Asian Studies at Harvard University, Kaitlin Solimine published “Empire of Glass,” a novel that explores how China has changed in the last fifty years.

Q: Who/what inspired you to become a writer? 

A: Living in China and experiencing life outside the United States as a high schooler.

Q: How has writing and being part of this community impacted you? 

A: I’m grateful for the supportive community of writers I’m a part of. Specifically, I have found that other mothers have been deeply impactful in inspiring me and providing critical feedback and connections.

Q: What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career and how did you overcome it? 

A: I lost my literary agent when I had completed the final draft of my novel and needed to find a new one while I was five months pregnant. I cried for ten minutes, went for a walk and reminded myself that I could pick myself back up and find a good home for my novel. The book was published two years later!

Q: Who is your favorite writer at the moment and why? 

A: I always find myself returning to: Harumi Murakami, Milan Kundera, Annie Dillard, Joan Dideon, Sylvia Plath, Pessoa and Mary Oliver.

Q: What do you hope to bring to the Los Altos community by participating in Writer’s Week? 

A: I’m always inspired by the engaged and insightful students of Los Altos. I’m excited to meet new students and hear what it is that they’re excited about in the modern world, as well as the ways in which they encounter new literature and ideas.

Q: If you could recommend one book to Los Altos students, what would it be? 

A: “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard.

Q: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you? 

A: The fame, the publishing path and the audience are irrelevant. You do it because, at the end of the day, you love writing.

Kate Crane

Courtesy Kate Crane

Kate Crane

Journalist Kate Crane has written for Dow Jones, Time Out New York and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. She is currently writing a memoir called, “What Happened to Eddy Crane?” about her father’s murder and her struggle to come to terms with it.

Q: Who/what inspired you to become a writer?

A: I knew I wanted to write stories by the time I was five. I wrote fairy tales about my grandfather’s garden (in a notebook) and a teen love story (on a blue typewriter that I still own). But I didn’t think that I was good enough until Paul Barker, my high school AP English teacher, held up my work once in front of our class. His encouragement changed my life.

Q: How has writing and being part of this community impacted you?

A: In my New York life, I was attached to both the city itself and my communities, plural. In the Bay Area, I‘m deeply attached to the open space preserves that surround us, and I feel more isolated, but it’s the place where I sold my book. In some ways, I feel more alive as a writer than I did in New York. I don’t think I fully understand yet the ongoing ways in which California shapes me.

Q: What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

A: In 2016, my best friend died in a car crash while I was working at an extremely demanding startup and writing chapters for my book proposal. The next six months were a blur. In order to survive, I had to believe in God and my adoptive dad. I walked countless miles in open spaces and writing one sentence at a time. 

Q: Who is your favorite writer at the moment and why?

A: Damon Young and Alexander Chee. Damon is one of the funniest writers in America, and he brings humor to darkness in a way that is imperative and very difficult to pull off. Alexander is the finest imaginable prose writer. The beauty of his essays…Just go read one.

Q: What do you hope to bring to the Los Altos community by participating in Writer’s Week?

A: I would like everyone to know that if they want to write, they can write. Commitment matters as much—if not far more—than raw talent. Beyond that, I hope to encourage students to follow their own path. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s to be worthwhile. 

Q: If you could recommend one book to Los Altos students, what would it be?

A: “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. This phenomenal 1952 novel telegraphs the depths and complexities of blackness in America. It is an essential read.

Q: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

A: Jim Knipfel, an author best known for “Slackjaw,” says it’s possible to write 500 words on absolutely anything. This has been a key, countless times, to unlock my stuck mind.

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