A young adult Western Thelma and Louise, in which a Chinese girl and a house slave disguise themselves as cowboys to run from the law, seek revenge for a murder, and find freedom in the California Gold Rush frontier.
“I cradle the Lady Tin-Yin to me, her warm wood as comforting as the touch of an old friend. Then I pick out Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Father loved any instrument he could strum—banjo of course, guitar, harp, even washboard if that was the only thing available. Lady Tin-Yin understands my sorrow like no one else, singing my pain through mournful triplets, filling my speck of the world with a poem of aching sound.”
UNDER A PAINTED SKY draws on your heritage as a fourth-generation Chinese-American. How much and what kind of research did you do to write your novel?
I spent a lot of time in the children’s section of the library for starters. There are a lot of great videos made for children (which I find entertaining) on the Oregon Trail and pioneer life. Eventually, I graduated to the big kids section, where I read a lot of pioneer diaries. I also spent a lot of time on the National Park Services website where they have a great map of the Oregon Trail, and even spoke to a National Parks Ranger who was an expert on pioneer life.
My favorite part of the novel is the way “big themes”–religion, gender, ethnicity, racism, sisterhood, just to name a few–are woven into a compelling plot so gracefully. It made me wonder where you started, and how the other themes worked their way in.
I knew I wanted to write a book with a Chinese American heroine back when the Chinese were starting to arrive in America in significant numbers. The other themes grew from there as I developed her story. As a Chinese girl in 1849, Samantha would’ve faced overt racism and gender inequality. Annamae the runaway slave was there at the beginning too, and it was a natural process to let the two characters develop each other.
The frontier you describe in UNDER A PAINTED SKY is stunning, and the reader is completely transported. Did you do any locational research?
Yes. I live in Northern California which is steeped in history about the Gold Rush and the western expansion. I took weekend trips up to places like Coloma where gold was discovered, old mining towns now ghost towns, and Carson’s Pass, where the pioneers forged a treacherous stretch of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Visiting those areas were truly a step back in time.
Sammy’s perspective is shaped by her father’s teachings, many of which are based in Chinese philosophy and lore. How do you think that helps or hinders her throughout the course of the novel?
We each come into our lives with our unique perspectives and Sammy is no different, really. She struggles to reconcile her Chinese beliefs with her Christian upbringing, and since she is constantly facing issues of life and death, those competing philosophies give her much trouble.
I can’t resist. In the vein of Ginger vs. Mary Ann: Cay or West?
You’re a four-time Pitchwars mentor, and a winner besides. What would you say to aspiring authors, especially teens, who are trying to hook an agent?
My father constantly told me when I was growing up, don’t get discouraged. I would always roll my eyeballs, but as I grew older, I see that was pretty good advice. Life will hand you disappointments, rejections and criticism. But don’t get discouraged. Let those things make you stronger.
Stacey loves papayas, baubles, chocolate peanut butter anything, taking walks, nature shows, Spanish guitar, funky dancing. And if you ever wrote her a letter with pen and paper, she probably still has it.