Today we welcome author Kim Fu to the blog to celebrate the release of her debut novel, For Today I Am a Boy. This novel has received a great amount of pre-publication praise and recognition. In the time leading up to today (its publication date), Barnes and Noble has chosen this remarkable debut as one of their selections for this year’s Discover Great New Writers program. We are very excited to have Kim join us today. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy our conversation!
For Today I Am a Boy is a literary novel about a Chinese immigrant family with many secrets. The Huangs have four children. Peter, their only son, is bound to grow up in his father’s image. However, Peter is convinced he is a girl. Can you introduce us to your characters and tell us a bit about their story?
The four sisters are Adele, Helen, Peter, and Bonnie. The book begins with their shared childhood in small
town Ontario, under the thumb of their oppressive father. At the first opportunity, each of the girls strikes out on her own, running as far as Montreal, Los Angeles, and Berlin. It’s primarily Peter’s story, from Peter’s perspective, as his journey is the hardest. Peter faces a series of bullies, mentors, and lovers, but it’s ultimately Peter’s distant, far-flung sisters who define him, and make a new, happier life possible.
Your novel tackles several hot topics, including identity, gender, and culture. For Today I Am a Boy is certain to be a popular 2014 book club pick. What does it mean to you to know that these discussions will be taking place? What message do you hope readers get from your novel?
I’m not sure the novel has any one, central message. I do hope it gets people talking about the way different identities intersect, and that every discussion ends with a broader sense of understanding and empathy.
Notable authors such as Justin Torres, Junot Diaz, and Patricia Engel have written coming-of-age stories about immigrant families based on their own personal experiences. Having come from an immigrant family yourself, how have your experiences influenced your fiction?
I grew up in a neighborhood that had a high Chinese immigrant population. While my parents were relatively open-minded, I witnessed a particular strain of conservatism and silence in other families around us. The father in the novel is the clearest reflection of these experiences; on the surface, he strains desperately to fit into white, North American culture, but emotionally abuses his children within a framework of traditional Chinese values.
Finding a character’s voice is difficult for some authors, but comes easy for others. Many reviewers have praised you for your portrayal of Peter. Did you use a specific process to capture Peter’s voice or did her voice come naturally? Who are some of your favorite authors that inspire your writing?
Peter gave voice to some of my own struggles and feelings about gender, and I did a lot of nonfiction reading on trans experiences, but it was the family dynamics that really brought Peter to life. The characters are products of one another; the Huang family came to me all at once, and their relationships dictated everything else, from the years they were born to the trajectory of the plot.
The writers I find most inspiring tend to be daring and audacious, like David Mitchell, Margret Atwood, Karen Russell, and Gillian Flynn. They attempt things that are difficult and a little bit ridiculous — they risk failing spectacularly. They’re the only ones who could write what they write.
Many of our readers are aspiring writers. Can you share with us a bit about your journey to publishing your debut novel? What advice do you have for aspiring writers who are struggling to get their work published?
I’ve been very lucky. I did an MFA, and one of my professors there cold-recommended me to my top choice of agent — they didn’t actually know each other — who agreed to talk to me and read my work, and eventually to represent me. MFAs aren’t for everyone, but I think most aspiring writers would benefit from seeking out mentors, getting feedback, and building a network of writing peers. Basically, your writing will improve and your career will advance much faster if you involve other people. Writing alone in your house and sending big yellow envelopes out into the void might get you there eventually, but it will be a longer, lonelier road.
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