A Step from Heaven grew from a need to express some of the longings and frustrations that I felt as an immigrant growing up in America. Many people ask me if this novel is autobiographical and I always respond by saying yes and no. As with all writing, the novel draws on past emotions, but the story is not my life. What the protagonist and I do share are some of the feelings of yearning, joy, and shame that come with trying to negotiate a foreign culture.
Learning to Write
I love to read. As a child, books were my cultural teachers. They helped explain concepts and traditions specific to the United States that I couldn't ask my parents. Things as ordinary as eggnog baffled me. What was it? After reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's, Little House in the Big Woods, I knew. Her story allowed me to taste eggnog even though I had no idea how to make it or where to find it. I remember reading books and falling under a spell, stepping into another world, becoming another person. More than television or movies, I could identify with the protagonist simply because she or he was not portrayed for me. While there might have been descriptive passages about what the character looked like, the beauty of a book stems from the way in which readers can overtake words. It's harder to do that in movies and television because the image is so present. Words have built in spaces for the reader to make themselves cozy.
Some people have always known they were meant to write. I never thought about it simply because the possibility didn't occur to me. I was a reader, and coming from an immigrant family and community, one aspired to be a doctor or lawyer or some other professional. It wasn't until I took a class in children's literature that I explored the possibility of writing. I realized, after writing a picture book story, that I loved writing. I loved the process, the thinking, the freedom and creativity. I could create my own world. Wild!
Only after starting an MFA program did I experience the realities of writing full time. All the elements that made writing so fantastic were still there, but along with the thrill was the discovery of the day to day process. Writing, revising, editing, rewriting, re-revising, cutting, chopping, crumbling, all of that was also writing. There are times when the words come to me as though spirited through the skies by writing fairies and there are times when I wander around my office picking lint off books. Through it all I try to keep the words of a good teacher in mind. He said in a lecture once that inspiration and the muse were all a hoax to legitimate writer's block. While writing often does occur in spurts or in "inspired" moments, it is the hard work, the making your butt stay in the chair even though the only tapping going on is your feet, that get you to those glorious moments. To say that you will write only when the feeling moves you invites in writer's block. His words are hard to live by, but I believe they are true. So every day, I go to my office, sit in my chair and I try to write. Some days are better than others and some days I wonder if I shouldn't be bagging groceries somewhere. All this is to say, writing is hard, but what other work lets you create a world and people of your own making. I have found no greater joy than stepping into a half complete story and asking my characters, "What's next?" I could not imagine a better way to live.