Published March 16, 2022

Traci Chee (A Thousand Steps into Night) discusses her new YA fantasy novel, a Japanese-influenced fantasy brimming with demons, adventure, and plans gone awry. In conversation with Emma Ito. Read the transcript from this event below.

“A dark fantasy with welcome moments of levity, this story will charm fans of Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. A captivating read rich in atmosphere.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

In the realm of Awara, where gods, monsters, and humans exist side by side, Miuko is an ordinary girl resigned to a safe, if uneventful, existence as an innkeeper’s daughter. But when Miuko is cursed and begins to transform into a demon with a deadly touch, she embarks on a quest to reverse the curse and return to her normal life. Aided by a thieving magpie spirit and continuously thwarted by a demon prince, Miuko must outfox tricksters, escape demon hunters, and negotiate with feral gods if she wants to make it home again. But with her transformation comes power and freedom she never even dreamed of, and she’ll have to decide if saving her soul is worth trying to cram herself back into an ordinary life that no longer fits her… and perhaps never did.

Thanks to our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop.

Sponsors

Dominion Energy

Virginia Festival of the Book staff, volunteers, partners, and attendees appreciate all of our sponsors. It is their crucial support, along with individual donors, that allows us to present the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book almost completely free of charge. We appreciate the generous commitment from our Premier Sponsor, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and these major sponsors: Michelle and David Baldacci, Dominion Energy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Transcript

EMMA ITO: Welcome, everyone. Thank you guys so much for joining us this evening. My name is Emma Ito, pronouns she/her/hers, and I am the director of education for Virginia Humanities, and I also have the honor to welcome you all on behalf of Virginia Humanities, which is the producer of the Virginia Festival of the Book. Yay, very exciting. So, this evening, if I could ask everyone to please silence your cell phones, and you can tweet about us. Just silently tweet about us. And our hashtag tonight is #VaBookFest or #VaBook2022. 

I’d also like to thank your sponsors for this evening, Dominion Energy and the Friends of Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. And although the Festival is free of charge, it’s not free of cost. So, if you’re feeling particularly kind this evening, we’d love for you to support our Festival programming with a donation by visiting VaBook.org. Your support ensures that we may sustain the Festival for many, many more years. We also will have evaluations for the evening’s program, and we love the information that it provides. So we really appreciate it, if you could fill these out. And you can complete it online at VaBook.org/feedback, or there’s a QR code on the back of your program. So a little bit easier there.

And we are being careful with COVID, so if you could please keep your masks on at this event. I know that I do not have mine on, but Traci and I have been tested, and I promise we’re all good. And we will be putting them back on for the book signing after. Which, by the way, please support our wonderful author this evening by buying her book. And our local booksellers—thank you so much to our booksellers in the back, the New Dominion Bookstore. And you can purchase a book today. Yeah, thank you. Thank you, booksellers. And we will be doing a book signing after the program, so we will be up here so you can file up and get a book signed.

So this evening’s program, A Thousand Steps into Night with Traci Chee. Traci Chee is a bestselling and award-winning author of books for young people, including A Thousand Steps into Night, a Japanese-influenced young adult fantasy, Walter Award honoree and National Book finalist We Are Not Free, and the instant New York Times bestseller and Kirkus Prize finalist The Reader. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, egg painting, bonsai gardening, and hosting game nights for family and friends. She lives in California with her fast dog.

TRACI CHEE: Thank you. Thank you, Emma, for that introduction. I’m going to be speaking a little bit, and then we’re going to have some back and forth between Emma and I, and then we’re going to open it up to audience questions at the end. So if you think of a question that you would like to ask, please secrete it in your mind and bring it out later. Just a little bit of a content warning. In this talk, I do have a very brief mention of sexual assault. So if that’s triggering for you, I’d just like you to be aware.

That said, thank you so much for being here tonight. I’m so excited to be talking to you about my latest book, A Thousand Steps into Night. As Emma mentioned, it is a Japanese-influenced feminist folktale that, after my very brief detour into historical fiction with We Are Not Free, I like to call my jubilant return to fantasy.

This is set in an oppressive patriarchal society. This story follows an ordinary girl named Miuko, who is cursed one very ordinary day to become a demon. Cast out from her village because no one wants a demon hanging around, she embarks on a journey to remove her curse and restore her human soul. But much to her surprise, she discovers that there’s power in exile and stepping outside the boundaries that have defined her entire life. Because outside of those boundaries, she has something she has never had before: freedom. The freedom to be who she is, to go where she wants, to define herself on her own terms. But freedom like that can come at a cost, and she’ll have to decide if the power of being a monster is worth the sacrifice of losing her soul.

So the idea for this book came from two very different inspirations. On the one hand, the world and the magic of A Thousand Steps was very much influenced by my connection to Japan. In 2017, my family and I took a vacation there. For all of us actually, it was our first time going back since our family immigrated to the United States more than a hundred years ago. So that made it really, really special.

Even more miraculously, though, and this doesn’t have so much to do with the book as with my love of my family, is that eight of us spent three weeks traveling across five cities in Japan, and at the end of it somehow we all still liked each other. I mean, can you imagine? All eight of us. And there were like no big fights, no major meltdowns. Everyone just kind of managed to be chill on a family vacation. I mean, it had to be magic, right?

But besides being one of the best and most meaningful vacations of my life, it was also where I discovered the initial seed of what would later become A Thousand Steps.

So I grew up in the United States in California, where there tends to be here a pretty big divide between the everyday world and the spiritual one. And I think one of the most obvious examples of that is, in order to worship, we tend to go to a church or a temple or a synagogue. And it tends to feel a little more removed, right? A little bit more grand than our everyday lives.

But what I noticed while I was in Japan was that divide seems quite a lot thinner, sometimes almost translucent. We’d be walking through like an outdoor shopping mall, and right around the corner there’d be this Buddhist temple. Or we’d be on a sidewalk, and there’d be a particularly large tree, and in that tree would be a little shrine to a spirit. Or one of the things I was most struck by is that I kept seeing these little stone statues. I learned later by googling that they were Jizo statues, and Jizo is the guardian of children and travelers. And people would put clothing on these statues. Like little aprons or hand-knitted hats. And I was just so struck by how the world of the mundane and the spiritual felt so, so close. Like so humble and so intimate in a way that they aren’t really here in this country.

And of course, that made me think about Japanese folktales which I’d grown up reading alongside Western fairytales. Stories of dancing tea kettles and tongue-cut sparrows and boys who are born from peaches. Of course, I was also at the time growing up with Studio Ghibli movies and completely obsessed with My Neighbor Totoro in particular and also Kiki’s Delivery Service. Those were the movies that my mom let me watch when I stayed home sick from school.

There was something really strange and curious and wonderful about these stories. It felt like so accessible, like anyone, even totally unexceptional me, lying in bed and drinking chicken noodle soup—like even I could find like a magic tea kettle or meet a forest spirit or be a delivery witch. And that’s something I really wanted to capture in the world of A Thousand Steps. The feeling that encounters with the extraordinary can happen to just about anyone, no matter how ordinary you are. So that’s one inspiration.

And then the other big one, which is a lot harder for me to talk about, not because I don’t have anything to say about it but because I kind of have far too much to say about it. Unlike where I can point to this family vacation or I can point to these Japanese folktales. The other big inspiration is my entire lifetime, with all the restrictions and frustrations and, yes, occasionally rage that come with being a woman in the United States of America.

You see, the second big inspiration for this book, my little patriarchy-smashing fantasy story, isn’t just one thing. It’s many, right? It’s being in elementary school and having my dad videotape TV specials on defending yourself against sexual assault. Or it’s being at a seventh-grade dance and being groped and then me getting in trouble for trying to defend myself. It’s being in high school and learning to hold my car keys in my fist. And it’s so many small things too, right? The microaggressions, the catcalls, the patronizing comments. It’s the innumerable acts of sexism that tell us what we should look like, how we should act, and who we should be.

And for me, that is the beating, searing heart of A Thousand Steps. I mean, yes, it is a romp through a magical, made-up world populated by magpie spirits and malevolent demons, but I also hope it interrogates our Western patriarchal structures, our own hierarchies of power, with a kind of blazing incisiveness that I think speculative fiction does at its best.

In this book, I wanted to illustrate and call out a spectrum of sexist behaviors. From there’s the benevolent sexism of the lugubrious priest who believes Miuko, the main character, and indeed all women are so weak they must be sheltered, coddled, and infantilized. And then there’s also the abusive demon prince. Handsome, yes, but literally a demon who seeks to isolate, dominate, and control Miuko even as she comes into her own power. I wanted to show that it’s sometimes women who sit closest to power who fight the most aggressively to protect it. And I wanted to show that sometimes all it takes for a woman or any person to be considered a monster is to step outside of the box society has put them in. Such courage is threatening in Miuko’s world and in ours because it means we don’t need these categories or the institutions that uphold them.

But people who benefit from institutional power always retaliate. So I’m a cisgender woman, and by American standards conventionally feminine. But for daring to do something as simple as my own grocery shopping, I was once pointedly ignored by a teller, who refused to even look at me, much less speak to me, even though I was the one who greeted them, I was the one who loaded my groceries onto the belt, I was the one who paid for them. Instead, this person only addressed the white man who was with me, as if I didn’t exist, as if I couldn’t exist. Not in their society.

Now whether this was because I am a woman or an Asian American or an Asian American woman, it was clear that to this teller doing my own grocery shopping was somehow an egregious overstepping of my role, and I needed to be put in my place.

So too in the world of A Thousand Steps, for speaking her mind Miuko’s mother is derided and ostracized. For riding a horse, Miuko is spat upon. And maybe these seem like exaggerated examples, but I also can’t help thinking of how dangerous it can be for a person in this country to walk into a public bathroom, to wear their own clothes, or to love the person they love. To be different, to defy conventions, expectations, and traditions in our culture is to make oneself a target of ridicule, harassment, and assault because society treasures its categories, and it will rant, violently sometimes, to defend them.

And for me, that begs the question what do we do about it. In the book, Miuko turns into a literal monster, a demon who can drain the life from anything, normal or spirit, with a single touch. I mean, she can kill gods if she wants to. She can certainly dismantle a patriarchy.

Throughout her adventures, however, she tries so hard not to use this power. And not just because going full demon means she’ll lose her humanity and all the foibles she’s finally learning to love about herself. It’s also because she understands instinctively that if fear and violence are the problem, they may not necessarily be the answer. Or certainly not the only answer.

And that’s a question I myself continue to struggle with. How do we unmake the violent, oppressive structures that have terrorized our entire lives without resorting to violence and oppression ourselves?

One possibility, and the one I venture in this book, is the reimagining of our heroes. Maybe they aren’t exceptional. Maybe they don’t act single-handedly. Maybe they don’t win by force. Miuko’s story is in part a rejection, right, of that lone hero’s journey. I’m going to come in with my sword, and I’m going to save the day, and it’s just me, and I’m so great.

For Miuko, her strength lies in solidarity. Although she’s awkward and unsure of herself, throughout the novel she reaches out again and again and again, and she asks for help. She helps others. She listens, empathizes, learns, and forms relationships with allies across the mortal and spirit realms so that when she finally reaches the showdown with the big bad, she isn’t alone.

For me, her true power doesn’t lie in her supernatural abilities, although to be honest, they are pretty great. It lies in her ability to forge connections. It lies in the people at her side.

I know maybe this isn’t what everybody expects out of a fantasy heroine or a feminist, patriarchy-smashing adventure story. But I hope that by defying those expectations, this book encourages us to interrogate ourselves and our society to reimagine who we can be and what our world could look like if we were to rid ourselves of the oppressive institutions that currently shame us. And I hope A Thousand Steps offers another vision of what courage, power, and patriarchy smashing can look like. And I hope it looks something like humility, solidarity, and collective action, where even the most ordinary of us can be heroes. Thank you.

EMMA ITO: Wow, it’s hard to follow that up because that’s amazing, right? How do I even talk here? So I loved that you talked about the solidarity piece because you can really see that. For those of you who have read this book, you see this coming through through Miuko, through all of your characters.

But as you were talking, I actually have a question that I’m really curious about. So when you went to Japan, did you already know you were going to write a book then? Or did you write it—did it just come to you?

TRACI CHEE: Oh, no. I had no idea. I mean, I was in the middle kind of The Reader trilogy. So I was like I had to write that book. But did I know—did I go there with the intention of being inspired? No. No, I did not. I went with the intention of having a good time with my family. And as with a lot of things, for me inspiration starts like this tiny little thing, like this observation about the normal and the spirit worlds. And then it just kind of slowly percolates in the back of my mind for years and years and years until I pull together more pieces like pulling in the Japanese folktales or pulling in I want to critique the American patriarchy. And then I mush it all together and eventually I’m like, oh, this could be a book. So that’s how it came about.

EMMA ITO: That’s awesome. That’s so magical and perfect. So let’s talk a little bit more about like the folktale aspect. Because I’m also Japanese American and I also grew up with Momotaro, Peach Boy, and also Western folktales. So how did that blend go into your book? Do you see a blend there, or did you pull more from Japanese folktales? And on top of that, did you have to do more research, or were you going off what you remember as a kid?

TRACI CHEE: Yeah, so the research aspect was—I dug out all my old like Japanese children’s tales. And then I also started doing research into ghost stories and folktales from the Edo period. So I’d get collections of those and I’d flip through them just to kind of see what came out and see what inspired me. And what really struck me about them is that Japanese monsters are weird. They are very strange. I feel like I grew up with a lot of Western monsters like witches. But there’s something so weird about Japanese ones. Like there’s the Kappa, who’s this pretty common, kind of turtlish, has a cup or bowl of water on its head that it can’t let spill. And if it spills, you defeat it. So there’s like one fatal flaw, and it can’t let this bowl or water spill.

Or one of my favorite folktale pictures from my research was—I forget the name, but it looks kind of like a praying mantis. And what it does is, as you pass by, it cuts your hair. That’s all it does. It’s a little haircutting monster. I found that so enchanting.

So in A Thousand Steps also you’ll find weird little creatures going about their business. Not necessarily malicious, not necessarily benevolent, but like living kind of side by side with humans.

I think the influence of Western fairytales is kind of of the broader influence of Western storytelling, which I grew up with and absolutely love. So I mentioned the hero’s journey in this talk. I plot all of my books, including We Are Not Free, by the hero’s journey, which is this very classic like the hero gets invited into a special world, they have a special role, they do some fighting and swashbuckling, and then come back changed. It’s very, very common in Western storytelling. So I used that too for this book.

So it has this influence from my Japanese heritage, but it absolutely has influence from my Western heritage as well.

EMMA ITO: That’s so cool. Also, it’s not really a spoiler because it’s pretty early in the book, but one of my favorite pieces that you wrote was about this awesome kid. It’s a little smoked kitten. Is that based on anything, or it just came out to your head? It’s a wonderful character, so you’re going to read about it if you haven’t yet.

TRACI CHEE: Thank you. I’m so glad you liked that character. No, I mean, it was inspired by the feelings of these folktales, but that one came from me. It’s actually kind of a mainstay from one of my very, very early drafts, where the main bad guys—that demon prince I mentioned—and he’s kind of grossly infatuated with the main character Miuko. So in an early draft, to kind of woo her, he was sending her gifts, thinking like, “Oh, this is nice.” But he’s a demon, so his version of nice is actually pretty horrible. So this smoked kitten so cute, so wonderful, terrible in disguise. And when you get there, you will find out why. It’s kind of a holdover from that draft.

EMMA ITO: Nice. Well, so since we’re talking about the content of the book, of course you have these amazing women characters—multiple amazing women characters. So were there some real-life inspirations for those characters?

TRACI CHEE: Yeah, thank you. It was really intentional to try and have more than one female character. This is a common thing in film, the Bechdel test. Have you heard of this?

EMMA ITO: No.

TRACI CHEE: Okay, so in film—I’m pretty sure it’s from film—the Bechdel test is like is there more than one female character in a scene talking together not about a man. That’s it. And for a very long time and I’m pretty sure probably still now, it was unfortunately a very high bar. So, I tend to write these fantasy stories, and I grew up reading these stories about young men usually. So, my instinct, unfortunately, is to go there and populate it with young men. Miuko’s best friend and high spirit and traveling companion and thief is a boy. So, I was like I need more girls in there. Right, intentionally, if she’s going to be a powerful woman, she cannot be the only one. 

So, I was like what about this woman of power and this woman of power and this woman of power. They were not particularly based on real people, although I do have a wonderful kind of plethora of strong women in my life. But it was more about we all have different strengths, and we all bring them to the table when we form relationships with each other. And so, I really wanted to show she can have a relationship with—I feel a girly girl is a little bit patronizing. But you know, a more feminine person. Or she can have a relationship with a person who’s nonbinary. And I really wanted to try and get that range in there because, if we’re going to make change, it’s going to be with people who aren’t like us and don’t share our experiences necessarily. So that was important.

And then also, I want to shout out my group of high school friends—mostly women, mostly girls, one boy. And we were like known in our very small high school but not popular. You know what I mean? Like people knew who we were because we were the geeks. We were the nerds. So they could know my name, but were we liked necessarily? I don’t think so.

And the reason I’m bringing this up is because those girls that I grew up with were so inspiring. They didn’t care about being popular. They cared about getting good grades. They cared about excelling in sports. One of them was like a junior Olympian. They cared about doing musical theater. They cared about—you know, for me, it was video games. But we can’t all be junior Olympians. So every one of them was like kind of doing their own thing, growing into the people that they were supposed to be. And to be among them, to have friends like that who were like, just by virtue of being themselves, pushing me to also figure out who I was and what I believed, and what I liked, and what I wanted—it was incredible to grow in that kind of atmosphere.

So I feel like that’s certainly an influence on this book as well, to be together and to inspire each other. And I’m going to brag: we have grown up, right? I am an author. Many of them are doctors, and one’s a CIA agent. They’re teachers. They’re nurses. Like they are so, so accomplished in their lives, and it’s really, really incredible. And so just like a shout out to finding your people because it really, really makes a difference.

EMMA ITO: I love that so much because I feel like everything you’re saying really bleeds into the realness of the characters. One of the things I love about Miuko so much is that she’s really clumsy. That is who she is. But it’s part of her character, and it’s actually a strength later. So I can kind of see, even as you talk about that, like these are real people that you’re talking about. But your characters feel very, very real.

TRACI CHEE: Thank you.

EMMA ITO: Yeah, so one of the other questions that I wanted to ask you about in thinking about the world building part, you have a really beautiful, incredible, detailed world, as well as detailed characters. And you have your own language in this book. So what was that process like? I mean, that’s a lot.

TRACI CHEE: Yeah, this speaks to me being a nerd, I think, because I’ve always loved fantasy. So I grew up reading J.R.R. Tolkien, who very famously invented many, many languages for the Lord of the Rings series. So I was like I want to do that one day. Unfortunately, I am not a linguist. And so I enlisted the help of another wonderful female friend, my friend Ariel Macken, who was a linguistics major in college and now she’s also a writer.

And I was like, “Hey, Ariel. Do you want to help me make a language?” And she was like okay. So she’s the one who kind of guided me. Like, okay, we’re going to develop the syllabary, and we’re going to start putting together basic grammar, and we’re going to build words. And I was like they have to be like character names, and they should feel a certain way because the world feels a certain way. But it was so early on in the process too that it was baked into the story from the very beginning.

And also, it was so much fun. So, I got to do things—I keep gesturing to the speech as if it’s my book. But so I got to do things like let me add split codes or make up this fake etymology to tell you about—again, that nerd thing, right?

EMMA ITO: Wait, so were you the kid that was already inventing your own language?

TRACI CHEE: I was not inventing my own language as a kid, but I was trying to make video games with like magic spells and weapons and that kind of stuff. I didn’t invent my own language, but I had a video game in my head.

EMMA ITO: That actually—so that’s one of my questions. Is I’m a big video game nerd, and I definitely got video game vibes from this. So were there other forms of media that helped inspire this, or that you kind of wanted to bring into this world?

TRACI CHEE: Yeah, I would say mostly Ghibli films. Like Spirited Away was a huge influence on it. I think you can get Princess Mononoke vibes from it as well. I forgot one—oh, Howl’s Moving Castle, which I actually had—I didn’t know it was a book because I saw the movie first. And then once I realized it was a book, I was like I’m going to go read that. It’s by Diana Wynne Jones, and it was one of two books that I could read while I was writing this book. For some reason, if I tried to read anything else, it would mess with the voice. So I could read Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. And they’re so, so different. Like one is a fantasy adventure for children, and one is a literary thing about Abraham Lincoln and some ghosts in a graveyard. And for some reason, that really strange combination—I was like this is it. This is the voice of this story. So that was another big inspiration.

EMMA ITO: That’s awesome. So that’s really interesting, by the way, that you could only read two books at that time. Was that weird? I’m assuming you’re a pretty big reader as an author.

TRACI CHEE: Most of the time. I mean, there are times when the writing is just tricky. Because if I’m reading something that’s too good, I’ll like kind of start trying to copy it unintentionally. I’ll slip into that voice, or I’ll include a character that’s like this character. So sometimes when I’m writing, I can’t read anything. And then when I’m off deadline, I’m like please give me four books in a day. I will shovel them all into my mouth right now. So it goes off and on.

Although I was a judge for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last year. And that just kind of taught me you do it. You just read anyway, and you’ll be fine.

EMMA ITO: Wow, that’s really interesting. So that actually brings me to a question of like how do you get into the headspace to write? Other than not really reading too much?

TRACI CHEE: Yeah, so I think I’m a big fan of ritual. I know not everyone is like this. I know writers who are like, “I don’t know where I’m going to go today. I don’t know when I’m going to write. I don’t know when I’m going to start.” And for me, I’m like I’m going to get up in the morning, eat breakfast, I’m going to do my Wordle, I’m going to get a cup of tea, I’m going to go to work. I’m going to sit there for fifteen minutes to a half an hour messing around on social media, and then I’ll get to work.

That ritual, though, really does help me get into that headspace. Another thing that I’ve been doing lately that I find really, really helpful is that I set my intentions before I start to type. And I normally type on a computer because my fingers are faster than my penmanship. But I will open up my journal, I will date my journal entry, and I will say what are my intentions for this writing session.

And because things are hard these days, right? A lot of times—like patience. I’m going to be patient with myself. I’m going to let the words come when they come. I’m not going to get too stressed out if I run into trouble. Or it’s like sometimes instead of patience it’ll be kindness. I’m going to be kind to myself because things are hard enough as they are. I don’t need to add that extra pressure. So those really helped me.

And then also sometimes it’s like I’m going to real nail the knife choreography in this scene. So sometimes it’s much more craft-based. But I find that really, really helps me to stay on track and not let my anxious, stressed-out brain derail me too much.

EMMA ITO: Nice. So can you talk a little bit about healing and resistance in this book? And actually like even as you’re talking, it’s making me wonder too. Do you feel like there was some process of healing and resistance for you as a writer writing this?

TRACI CHEE: I love this question, and I’m not sure that I know the answer. Because there’s so much, right? I certainly felt that aspect of resistance. Because this is the most political fantasy that I’ve ever written. And I write it intentionally like I’m going to call out these things. It will not be subtle. Because this was at a time—and I think we’re still there in our country—when maybe subtlety is a little overrated, right? Maybe things do need to be in their face. Maybe we should be making these calls a little bit louder, right? For me, that was sort of that aspect of resistance and I’ll say rage.

Healing? I don’t know if I’ve gotten there yet. It was such a wonderful thing for me to grapple with that question that I mentioned of like what do we do. Like these systems are so big, and if we’re not going to have a violent uprising, how are we going to change them? How is that even possible? They’re so big, and we’re so small. This is a glimpse of like my head.

And so I don’t know if I’ve gotten to healing, but it was really good for me to grapple with that question of like, oh, it is in the people. It is in those little, everyday connections. Maybe that’s where the magic happens. Maybe that’s where the power is. I hope, you know what I mean? Like I don’t know if I have healing, but I certainly have hope in the impact—those small connections, those small links between people.

EMMA ITO: Yeah. And you can definitely see that too. I was thinking too of like familial healing and her relationship with her father and her lack of relationship with her mother. So that was all just kind of thinking about how was that for you writing that.

But so, okay, I’m realizing it’s 7:40. I do want to leave us some time for audience questions at 7:45. But I do want to ask one—if I have time, two—but one question that I was kind of chatting with you about earlier, and what is a terrible piece of writing advice. So we talk about good writing advice all the time, but what is a terrible one? What is one that does not work? That people love to tell you.

TRACI CHEE: Well, let me tell you. Let me take up the last twenty minutes here. No, here’s the thing. Writing is so personal to every different individual. There are a lot of people out there who will say you have to write this way. If you’re going to be a writer, you have to sit down every day and write for an hour. And I think, but do you? Because I don’t. I take weekends off, thank you very much.

And then there are people who are like you cannot use the passive voice. And I think, but why? Passive voice is so juicy. And like there are people who will say you absolutely cannot use the second person, right? But then I have a whole chapter in We Are Not Free that is written from the second person, the you.

And that’s the thing. I feel like rules like that and advice like that is so stifling to creativity. I understand why they’re there, and we should know the rules. But also we should break them. And I think knowing how to break them and when to break them is one of the most exciting things about being a writer for me. It’s like I don’t know if that’s been done. I don’t know if I can tell a story this way. But let’s see. I don’t know if I can—I was going to spoil this, I’m sorry. There’s a twist halfway through this book, and I was like I don’t know if I can do this, but I’m gonna.

So there’s so much writing advice that is really didactic, and you don’t have to listen to it. I think learning—maybe you try it out. Maybe it doesn’t work for you. That’s okay. Maybe you try something else. Maybe that does work out. I think that process is so much more valuable than “you can’t do this, you have to do this.”

EMMA ITO: This is very much in theme with your main character, doing what works. Okay, let’s see. It’s 7:41, so I might slip in one more question. I’m really interested in what you think about genre in YA right now. YA, in my opinion, is incredible right now. It feels like the most incredible it’s ever been. So what do you think about that, and do you feel like this genre has kind of a special role in what’s going on in the world right now? For any age group.

TRACI CHEE: I love what’s being written and published in YA right now. I feel like for the past five, ten years it’s been on the forefront of this movement towards diversity and inclusion that I think is so valuable. We’re seeing so many more stories told in children’s literature than I think we are in the adult. I mean, they’re getting there, but they’re behind us. They’re behind us in this. And I think that is so exciting. And that means too that people are really going to push more  boundaries in YA, and that’s wonderful.

She doesn’t need a shout out, but Sabaa Tahir just published All My Rage, and she hit The New York Times bestseller list, and she’s the first Pakistani American author to hit it for a fantasy and for contemporary. That’s so amazing, right, to see these stories being told. And so to be a part of that and to be among people like Sabaa is so exciting and so invigorating.

I forget the rest of your question.

EMMA ITO: I’ve already lost it. Do you feel like the genre plays a special role right now? The escapist but also talking about very real issues.

TRACI CHEE: Yeah. This is one of my favorite things about writing for young people—is that it’s a really dynamic age. Like I remember feeling like so many things are possible and I could be so many things, and I could make so many changes. I remember that feeling. And as I observe young people now, they’re actually doing it.

A quick flashback to my senior year of high school. It was like 2003, and we were on the cusp of going to war with Iraq. That’s how old I am. And I was like I don’t want to do that. I don’t like war. And so my friend and I found out the morning of that there was going to be this national student walkout day in protest of the war. And I was like, okay, yeah, let’s do that. That’s something, right?

So we did our little ten-person walkout ahead of school. We all got detention. We came back in time to take our English test because that’s what kind of protesters we are. But then I think about now and seeing the national organizing that’s going on among the young people. I mean, it’s so incredible and so inspiring.

So I get inspired question, but young people are awesome, and they’re making big changes. So I think it’s really special to write for that age group.

EMMA ITO: So, okay, one last question and then we’re going to turn it over to—sorry guys. But just a quick one. What are some book recs that you might have, or some books that you read recently that you love?

TRACI CHEE: Okay. Shout out—if you like A Thousand Steps into Night or if you like this idea of Eastern-inspired folktales, please check out The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh. It is a retelling of a Korean folktale about a girl who falls beneath the sea and high jinks ensue. But it’s so good, and it has also got that like feminist spin on it that I really, really love. It’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh. I see some of you with heads nodding, and I love it. Thank you.

EMMA ITO: Any other recent books?

TRACI CHEE: I would say—this one came out last year but similar in this like kind of folktale vibe is Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim. Again, based on a folktale. Again, like has this really cool thing where the character becomes voiceless for a little while but then discovers her power while she is voiceless. And like that kind is one that came out last year. Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim. And the sequel is coming out this year.

EMMA ITO: There’s some really good recent retellings, I feel like. Okay, so now I’m going to turn it over to you guys. We have about fifteen minutes for audience questions, and I’ll repeat them here for the microphone as well. Yes?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Have you ever had an experience of having your book banned?

EMMA ITO: Okay, so she asks have you ever had an experience of having your book banned.

TRACI CHEE: Not to my knowledge. But there are so many book bannings going on in the country right now that I don’t have a good way of knowing if it’s on any of those lists. My books I think can fly under the radar a little bit because they are written by a cisgender heterosexual woman, and they’re not overtly about LGBTQ things. But I do have those characters in there, and so they could end up on those lists. We Are Not Free could end up on many lists because it’s about the Japanese American incarceration of World War II and is explicitly about racism in this country. It also uses some language.

So not to my knowledge, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find some of my books on there.

EMMA ITO: Yes?

[Question from audience member inaudible]

EMMA ITO: So, sorry, I am very bad at listening. So you said We Are Not Free—did you hear some of that?

TRACI CHEE: Nope.

EMMA ITO: Just be loud. You got this.

[Question from audience member inaudible]

EMMA ITO: You’re doing great. So it’s very personal.

[Question from audience member inaudible]

EMMA ITO: Okay, so do you have a friend or family member that kind of told the story about We Are Not Free to you?

TRACI CHEE: Is that it? Okay, thank you. I love that question. I don’t take offense to being called only kind of young. I understand. I understand. But yes, thank you so much for bringing that up about We Are Not Free because that is the most personal book I have ever written. And I didn’t realize it until I was writing it. I was like The Reader trilogy is so personal. It’s so much about grief and loss. But We Are Not Free—I started the research for that book by interviewing my family members who had been incarcerated in the Japanese American incarceration camps. And that changed everything. That made it so intimate and so personal.

So even though my grandparents were not alive, from the interviews I did at this time, right, my grandma was thirteen when she was sent into the camps, and my grandpa was sixteen. They actually met and kind of fell in love during this time. So yeah, in each kind of bit of that book, in each chapter, I tried to have a little kernel of this is part of my family story.

So an easy example of that is, in the second chapter, it’s from the point of view of a boy named Shig. And he is kind of our window into the mass eviction of Japanese Americans from the West Coast in World War II. And that chapter is inspired by a photo of my grandfather as he was sitting on the steps across from the civil control station, and in front of him are these piles and piles and piles of luggage from his neighborhood as they are being kicked out of their homes. And like that photo hung in the Smithsonian Museum for a while. And I actually didn’t know about it because I spent a lot of that time—sorry, this is going to be a little story, but I really like it.

My family and I went to go see that exhibit while it was up. I spent most of that time locked in the bathroom because I was in middle school and fighting with my mother. But she does like to tell the story about how she saw that photo of him. And it’s like this blown-up photo so everything is like life-sized. And he was like, “Oh hey, that’s me.” Which is amazing. And then I found it for her years later and gave it to her as a present. But yeah, every single chapter I tried to put a little bit of my family history. Thank you for that question. 

EMMA ITO: So good. And the public historian in me has to encourage you all to make sure that you talk to your own families about their history and maybe do oral histories with them. Just a suggestion.

TRACI CHEE: Yeah, that experience of interviewing them was one of my most previous memories too, right? Because I got to hear those stories, I got to hear those experiences from them. It was so wonderful to ask and then hear about what they were like when they were young, so yeah.

[Question from audience member inaudible]

EMMA ITO: Why did you choose this time period for the story?

TRACI CHEE: Thank you for that question. I knew that I didn’t want this story to be set in a fictionalized fantasy version of samurai times—like the Warring States period in Japan. Because there is really no samurai. She’s a little girl. She’s not running around with a samurai sword. So it was like, okay, not that period. And so I selected kind of like the Edo period, which is during this time of long stability in Japanese history. But also during that period of long stability, their society became more and more and more rigid. So like you couldn’t change your class, right? So you had to obey these very, very specific rules. And that rigidity was really, really important to me in building this fantasy version of it in A Thousand Steps into Night. So thank you. Thank you for that question.

EMMA ITO: Yes?

[Question from audience member inaudible]

EMMA ITO: How do you start the physical writing or storytelling process?

TRACI CHEE: Physical writing? Oh, thank you for this question. So like I said, it just kind of sits in there for a very, very long time. And then I’ll scribble in my notebook a little bit and like write down an idea. And then let it sit. It’ll just sit in there for a little while, and then I’ll scribble on it more. Until I can like come up with some—like the shape of a story. Like I like to know, okay, here’s the beginning-ish, here’s the middle kind of, here’s a showdown maybe, and then here’s where I end up.

So once I have that basic shape usually, that’s when I can start figuring out, okay, who’s my main character? What are they like? What does the voice of the story sound like? And I find more and more that I need to find that storytelling voice. So a lot of times my initial attempts are like I’m going to write my first chapter ten times. I’m going to write the first chapter twenty times. In order to figure out exactly how I want to tell it, where I want it to start, what the characters are like. So I do a lot at the beginning. And then it usually becomes easier as it goes on, but not always. Thank you.

EMMA ITO: Yes?

[Question from audience member inaudible]

EMMA ITO: That’s a great question. So she asked—this is a really cool title, which it is, so how do you find the title? A creative title.

TRACI CHEE: Thank you. Boy, it’s hard. It’s really, really difficult, and I’ve been really lucky in that A Thousand Steps into Night just kind of came to me. And part of this was actually the language because like there’s a main road the main character follows throughout the book, and it’s called the Thousand-Step Way. Because I thought this combination of syllables goes good together, right? And I was like, okay, a thousand steps, and then she’s also like slowly turning the blue of the night sky. And I was like “into night”—I’ve got it, “into night.” So that’s how that one came about.

We Are Not Free came about because it was something that one of my relatives had said during my research as I was interviewing her. And she’s like telling me about this experience where she thought to herself, “I am not free.” And I was like that’s a title. That’s a title right there. So that comes to me sometimes. But like for The Reader trilogy, it’s like The Reader, The Speaker, The Storyteller. And my publisher and I went around and around and around trying to settle on a title for that one. And it was like let’s pull out these words that kind of have to do with the themes, or like let’s find one sentence that maybe we can take out a part of that sentence. So just kind of putting together these different combinations was really, really helpful.

EMMA ITO: Yeah, in the back?

[Question from audience member inaudible]

EMMA ITO: How long did it take you to write the most recent book?

TRACI CHEE: Oh, okay. Here’s the thing. It took me three months to draft A  Thousand Steps into Night, but then many, many, many, many more months to like revise it and draft it again and draft it again. But the thing is, like, don’t let that three months fool you. Because that just comes after years of practice writing novels for a living. The first novel I ever completed took me eighteen months. And then like thirty-six drafts after that. So it takes a very long time.

[Question from audience member inaudible]

EMMA ITO: How did you decide the main—

TRACI CHEE: How did you decide the main character is the question. Thank you for that. Oh, man. I think that sometimes the main character will just come to me, right? That’s what happened in The Reader, the first book that I wrote. And then sometimes I know I want to write about a certain type of person. And so for A Thousand Steps into Night, I knew I wanted to write about someone who is not good at a lot of things, and I wanted to write about someone who was not very adventurous. Kind of like Bilbo, right, from The Hobbit, who’s like, “No, I’d rather just stay home, thank you.” That’s the kind of character I wanted to start with.

And then also the clumsiness aspect came from me. I do not have great body coordination or posture. So, I normally have like a kind of person I want to write about. And then as I go through the story, I learn more and more about what kind of person that really is and what I really want to do with that story. So I really discover them as I write.

EMMA ITO: What a great question. And I think is probably the last one, so.

TRACI CHEE: You better make it good.

[Question from audience member inaudible]

EMMA ITO: Ooh, are you writing any books right now?

TRACI CHEE: Oh dear. So, you remember when I said sometimes it does not get easier as you go along. Yep, that is right now. I am writing another fantasy, and it is the hardest book I have ever tried to write. It is fighting me every single step of the way, and it is utter garbage right now. I can’t talk about it, it’s so bad. I’m a chapter and a half from the end, and then I’m going to turn it into my editor and say, “Sorry, here’s some garbage.” And then hopefully she’ll get back to me with some notes on like here’s how to grow some flowers from my garbage maybe. So that’s where I’m at in the process now. Thank you.

EMMA ITO: That was a great question. Okay, that was a quick one. So we have two minutes. So I think you are actually the last question. Yes?

[Question from audience member inaudible]

EMMA ITO: So, did you always know that you wanted to be a writer, and how hard or what was your process for writing your first book?

TRACI CHEE: Okay, I might only be able to answer the first one, but if you come up here during the signing, I’ll answer the next one. So I did not always know that I wanted to be a writer. Because when I was a little kid, I wanted to be like a veterinarian. I wanted to work with dogs because I love them. But like even though I was a reader and I loved that—and whenever we had—like you mentioned creative writing assignments in school. Like I loved doing that. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a writer until I discovered video games actually. I discovered Final Fantasy VII when I was in middle school, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is such a good story, and I get to be in control of the characters, and I get to move them around. I get to be immersed in this whole world, and it’s just so wonderful. I want to be a video game designer.”

And then I looked around and realized I had no idea how to be a video game designer, and I didn’t know if it was a real job. Like it was the nineties, so I didn’t have like—yes, I’m old, I know—so I didn’t have like coding classes or animation classes that I could take. I had no idea how to start, except I had a pencil and a paper and a brain, and that was all I needed in order to write a video game story. And so I started doing that, and I was like, “Yeah, look at this complete rip-off of Final Fantasy VII that I’m making up all by myself kind of alone in my room.” And then it was like I kind of like this. I kind of really enjoy the writing. So forget the video game part. I’m just going to write stories .so by the time I got to high school, I was like this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I didn’t. I thought I should become a teacher at one point, and that was a big mistake, so I went back to writing. So not the whole time, but I found my way here. Thank you for that question.

EMMA ITO: Well, thank you guys so much for being here. Thank you, Traci, for all these amazing answers and conversation. And please thank you also to our wonderful booksellers in the back, and please support Traci. Buy her books, come up here and get a signing, and line up nicely, and maybe I’ll see you guys up here.

Partners & Sponsors  |  View All

With generous support from Michelle and David Baldacci

Cornell NEH Virginia Public Media - NPR & PBS Charlottesville Albemarle UVA CHO
CLOSE