Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bookshelf: Meet Paula Yoo

Paula Yoo is an acclaimed children’s book author and novelist, TV drama screenwriter, and musician. Her debut novel, GOOD ENOUGH, was released in February 2008 from HarperCollins. She is also the author of the children’s non-fiction picture book, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story (illustrated by Dom Lee), published by Lee & Low Books in 2003. She has written for TV shows such as The West Wing, Tru Calling and Hidden Palms, is a freelance violinist and holds degrees from Yale University, Columbia University and Warren Wilson College.

INN: What was your inspiration for Good Enough?

PY: I had never written a book before based on my own life because a) I thought my life was boring and b) I really, really hated high school! But when a TV show I was working on got cancelled, I found myself unemployed. I decided to take advantage of the free time to write another novel – I had written a couple YA novels plus one adult novel in earlier years but they weren’t quite “ready” to submit to publishers. This time, I sat down in front of my computer and wondered what to write… and a viola joke popped into my head. I wrote it down. And then I started thinking about all my violin auditions, orchestra rehearsals, and violin lessons during my high school life and how much music means to me. (I currently still play the violin and am a professional freelance musician when I’m between books and TV show jobs.)

So I started writing about an All-State orchestra audition which led to all these stories about my high school life. To my surprise, I discovered I actually never hated high school – all the events that I thought were horrific made me laugh, and as an adult, I could finally see all the positive stuff that happened to me in high school… and learned to laugh at all the embarrassing stuff! So ironically, my high school life inspired Good Enough. They say you should “write what you know” and “write from the heart.” This was the first time I truly wrote about what I knew and I wrote from my heart, and it wasn’t a surprise when Good Enough became the first novel to be accepted for publication. All my previous attempts at novels didn’t succeed because I hadn’t learned yet how to write from an emotional center.

INN: If you were asked to write a book featuring a minor character from Good Enough, who would it be and why?

PY: Ooooh, this is a fun question! My gut reaction is Samuel Kwon because he is so much more uptight and logical than Patti. It’d be fun to see him loosen up and learn to live life… he definitely makes baby steps in that direction, thanks to Patti.

INN: I believe you're a part of the Fusion coalition, a group of Asian/Pacific-American authors writing young adult and middle school fiction. What else can you tell us about Fusion?

PY: FUSION STORIES is a collective of several Asian American children/YA authors who banded together to support each other and other Asian American writers in honor of this year’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (May 2008). It was the brainchild of YA novelist Justina Chen Headley (Girl Overboard) to provide a resource for librarians, educators, parents, and readers of the wonderful variety of Asian American writers out there for children and teenagers.

FUSION STORIES includes the following authors: Cherry Cheva (She’s So Money), Justina Chen Headley (Girl Overboard), Grace Lin (The Year of the Rat), An Na (The Fold), Mitali Perkins (First Daughter: White House Rules), Janet Wong (Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer), Joyce Lee Wong (Seeing Emily), Lisa Yee (Millicent Min, Girl Genius), David Yoo (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before), and Paula Yoo (Good Enough). For more information, you can check out our website at

INN: What contemporary authors are you reading right now?

PY: I read ALL THE TIME. Adult books I’ve read recently include Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher, Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing In the Rain, and Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End. I just picked up Max Brooks’ World War Z because I’m a huge zombie fan! ☺ As for YA books, I’ve been catching up on some friends’ books, including C. Leigh Purtill’s All About Vee, Michael Reisman’s Simon Bloom, the Gravity Keeper, April Young Fritz’s Praying at the Sweetwater Motel, and Kerry Madden’s Jessie’s Mountain.

Because I also write children’s picture books (my debut was Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story by Lee & Low Books, 2005 and my next book with them is a biography on the actress Anna May Wong, out in 2009), I also keep up with a lot of picture books, too. My favorite authors are also my friends, and I am eagerly looking forward to their new books – Kelly DiPucchio, Lisa Wheeler, Hope Vestergaard, Carolyn Crimi, and Janie Bynum.

INN: How has your love of music impacted your writing?

PY: Music helped me become a better student over the years. Learning how to sit quietly for three straight hours in youth orchestra rehearsals helped me endure really long lectures in high school and college classes! Learning to sight-read music on the spot helped me learn how to think on my feet better in the classroom. And so on… I strongly advocate music education for all children as a way to help them become better learners. As for writing, I would say music helped me specifically in the following ways: as a violinist, you have to be very sensitive and know how to phrase the music in a way that makes sense but also sounds lyrical and pretty. That instinct spilled over in my writing as I read my sentences outloud, gauging the “poetry” and flow of how the words sound.

There’s also something subconscious that happens when I play my violin… it’s hard to explain, but when I have writers’ block, I’ll practice my violin and then afterwards, I can write again! Plus, I tend to write a lot about music anyway… but not all my books are about music or the violin, of course. But what they all share in common is that my characters have a PASSION for something – be it music, sports, science, whatever… the passion I have for music spills over into my writing and I’m interested in writing about characters who feel passionately and strongly about something – or someone – in their lives.

INN: Any advice for teen writers?

PY: Read, read, read! Write, write, write! Add water and stir! Seriously. Read as much as you can, study what you read, and learn from those authors. As for writing, you just have to keep writing. Don’t censor yourself, don’t be afraid to spill your guts on the page. And have a tough skin – be willing to take negative criticism constructively, figure out your voice, figure out what you want to write about, learn how to structure a story where the character is on a journey of discovery, raise the stakes and keep the story compelling and filled with conflict… and be ready for lots of rejection because that’s what you need to become a better writer.

I am so grateful I got rejected a lot because it made me a better writer and I could not have gotten published had I not been rejected first and learned from my mistakes. Also, the rejections also taught me what I needed to stand up for – I didn’t always agree with the rejections and stood up for what I believed DID work, and eventually an editor agreed with me! So you also learn from this business what you should defend in your writing as well. Go for it! ☺

Thank you, Paula!

You can buy Good Enough by clicking where it has eight five-star ratings. Visit Paula at!

1 comment:

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Great interview! Paula Yoo sounds like a totally cool person to visit with!

Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Chapter 1 is online!