Dr. Virginia Loh-Hagan is a multi-published author, professor, researcher, former K-8 schoolteacher, and public servant. She also throws a mean party.
For what age audience do you write?
I write for all ages and audiences and in all genres. However, I am published in the picture book and middle-grade novel genres. I mainly write about the Asian-American experience. In addition, I have academic publications about children’s and young adult literature.
Tell us about your latest book.
My latest book, co-authored by Helen Foster James, is entitled ‘Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to America’. It was released in May 2013 by Sleeping Bear Press. It is about a Chinese immigrant named Lee who becomes a paper son in order to come to the United States; he has to endure a long detention and intense interrogations at the Angel Island Immigration Center. As part of my work at the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, I am developing a unit using this text; this unit will be aligned to CCSS and will be available for purchase.
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
I hope readers will learn about the Asian-American immigration experience. Not many people know about Angel Island or the paper son system. Yet, the Angel Island Immigration Center, which is also referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West,” processed at least 175,000 Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. Many Chinese-Americans today are descendants of those processed at Angel Island.
The history of the Angel Island Immigration enter is also significant in regard to racial politics and social justice, as the Chinese were highly discriminated against during their detainment at Angel Island. For example, the Chinese were subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the only law in American history to deny citizenship based on ethnicity. They overcame complex adversities and trials to become American citizens. Yet, their experience is not part of the mainstream curriculum. It is my goal to include the history and contributions of marginalized groups, such as Chinese-Americans, as part of the mainstream American narrative.
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
Revising and Rewriting. “Real” writers know that the first draft is not the final draft. Before I submit anything to my editor, my manuscript has already undergone 100 rewrites and critiques. Then, my editor provides 100 more requests. Writing is more about revising and rewriting than anything else. That first draft is easy.
Henry: So true. Writing should really be called Rewriting.
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
Grow thick skin and learn to be humble. If you want praise, have your family and friends read your work and tell you how wonderful it is. But, if you really want to work on craft and create a good story, you have to be open to harsh feedback. You are not being kind by being nice…I want honest, constructive, and critical feedback. That’s the only way I will grow as a writer.
Henry: So true. Darnit. ‘Tis better to give than to receive…
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
Having readers, young children, tell me that my story inspired them or that they were able to see themselves reflected in my stories. This is especially important for me as a multicultural author. I want ALL readers to feel like their stories belong in books.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
This goes along with growing thick skin and learning to be humble—find yourself a strong critique group. Critique groups are good for three reasons. First, they provide you with feedback. Second, they hold you accountable for writing. (You have to create deadlines for yourself.) Third, they provide you with support and encouragement.
Henry: So true. I’m a member of two critique groups, and find them invaluable.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
Ben Franklin: “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing.”
Henry: Nice. I also like “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write?
I am a nocturnal creature, so I am most productive after midnight.
Henry: Hmmm. Do you haunt, drink blood, or consult entrails when you write?
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
Dragons! My first book with Candlewick Press was entitled, THE JADE DRAGON. I was born in the year of the dragon. I think dragons are the coolest. Enough said.
Henry: It’s hard to argue with dragons (figuratively or literally). My favorite is Tolkien’s Smaug, chiefest of calamities!
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I am a big fan of TV and movies. Right now, I like all things British and seem to have a propensity toward violent shows. I also love eating—I am on a quest to find the perfect hot dog. I am quite obsessed with the piano. I’ve been taking weekly lessons for about 5 years as an adult. I have three pianos in my house and three tall bookshelves full of piano music. Obviously, none of my hobbies involve physical activity—I hate sweating. My husband says I am allergic to exercise.
Henry: Exercise is for those who aren’t creative enough to think of an alternative. Regarding the quest for the perfect hot dog, visit Hot Dog’s in Chicago. Three pianos!? That reminds me of a quote from Charlie Sheen in Wall Street: “How many motorboats can you ski behind?” Virginia failed to mention that her two cute dogs also take up some of her non-writing time.
This interview is also posted to the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.