Born and raised in Wuhan, Ying Chang Compestine now lives in California and is the author of 20 children’s books, cookbooks, and novels. She has been featured on US television programs as well as in magazines and newspapers. Compestine visits schools throughout the world to share her journey as a writer, how her life in China inspired her works, and the challenges of writing in a second language.
She was back in China last week, with a book tour that included school visits to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin, and the Canadian International School of Beijing (CISB). At Shanghai American School, Ying was welcomed by students playing music from the time of Emperor Qin. On her visit to CISB, Beijing Star Kids Bookstore Merchandising Director Alex Goh and his assistant surprised her with a delightful skit in which they dressed up like terracotta soldiers. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Compestine when she was in Beijing.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I loved writing as a child and wrote my first short story when I was 8 years old. The real drive for me to write came years later when I lost my father to cancer. I had been living in the US for some time and I felt as if I had lost touch with China. I began dreaming about my homeland and realised just how much I missed it. It was 20 years ago that I wrote my first book and I found that writing helped keep me close to China. It still does today.
At any given time, I am working on multiple books – often a cookbook and a few fiction stories. Writing fiction and non-fiction simultaneously works well for me; it gives me balance in my creative process. I have started over 100 books, but not every project works out as planned. Writing a book is like building a house; you need a solid foundation and all parts have to work as a whole. I may have an exciting beginning and a satisfying ending but if I can’t find a way to connect them into one structure, they stay in my filing cabinet.
You co-authored Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier with your son Vinson. How was that process? Do you plan to co-author any other books in the future?
When Vinson was born, I was teaching at a college and I wanted to share my experiences of growing up in China with him. That is why I started writing my picture books.
Vinson had always helped me with my writing even when he was in middle school, but the co-authoring was much harder than I had anticipated. He was a teenager and wanted to be with his friends, which made it a big challenge. We wrote out a contract; every day he would work with me on the book for five hours. After that, he could go off and be with friends, watch TV, have fun. If he was distracted before those hours [were up], he would be fined. It sounds tough, but I needed something to make sure the project would move forward. It was a bittersweet experience and, in the end, an incredibly rewarding experience for both of us.
My husband had to calm the stormy seas at times, but what saved us during particularly stressful periods was cooking. After the completion of the book, Vinson wrote an essay for school. In it, he described how sometimes there were issues with me as his mother about study, playing video games, going out too much, but that the minute we both stepped into the kitchen we could set aside all those issues.
When visiting schools, I am always moved by how much the students talk about their love of the friendship between the two boys in Terra-Cotta Soldier, Ming and Shi. It was Vinson who brought to the book an understanding of the extraordinary bond that can occur between boys.
Vinson and I recently held a book signing at a school in New York. He told the students that he learned two key lessons from writing the book: how to manage his time and how hard work really does pay off. Right now he’s studying computer science and business at the University of Southern California. Perhaps once college is finished, we will talk about co-authoring a new book.
You have traveled extensively. What is the most fascinating country you have visited and why?
I have traveled to Africa, Siberia, and Machu Picchu and seen some amazing sights, but every time I come back to China it feels so exciting. I feel like both an insider and an outsider, but I am always made to feel at home. Often my trips combine work with seeing friends and socializing. The way I relate to my Chinese friends is very different from how I relate to my western friends, so sometimes it takes a little adjusting.
You have written many books about healthy eating and food choices. Do you think China is embracing a healthier lifestyle?
The introduction of the non-smoking policy has certainly made restaurants, hotels, and bars more enjoyable. There are more healthy choices in the first-tier cities, especially in Shanghai and Beijing. Outside of these cities, there is an increasing problem of obesity, especially among younger children. Meat makes up too much of the diet for many people. Increased affluence can lead to poor food choices for many families, where people just don’t know how to choose and prepare good quality food.
I have a passion for food and literature; I try and bring the two together in many of my books. My recipes act as metaphors in my fiction and every picture book also contains a recipe. Our bodies are precious and should be cared for; that means eating healthily and exercising.
One of my messages to students is that everybody should be able to cook five healthy meals. A sweet moment was when a boy asked me to sign my new cookbook Cooking with an Ancient Accent. He told me he was buying it with his own money and he was going to cook the recipes in the book for his mom.
What is your favorite book?
I enjoy reading modern Chinese literature; I learned about the structure of writing from Chinese prose. I also learned a great deal from reading Charles Dickens. It has been hard for me to write in my second language, English. I sometimes re-write a sentence hundreds of times. I feel the strength of my writing is in my structure. This was particularly hard when I was co-authoring with my son. It took some time for him to realize the importance of rewriting.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what book would you want to have with you and what food would you happily eat every day?
The book I could read over and over would be Gone with the Wind. Written by Margaret Mitchell and published in 1936, it’s a historical novel set during the American Civil War. Banned in China when I was a little girl, the characters and the descriptions make it one of my favorite books of all time. Some of my friends have compared my determination and stubbornness to the main character of Scarlett O’Hara.
I could eat broccoli every day, but it would make me even happier if I could have some seaweed salad along with it.
My children’s books have won many awards and become required reading in many schools in the US. However, none have yet been translated into Chinese. I have met a few Chinese publishers in Beijing on this trip. I hope that soon I will see my books in Chinese.
At the Shanghai American School, lovely twin sisters went home and told their mom that she should read Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier. What the girls didn’t know was that I had arranged to meet with their mother a month prior. She is Tracey Trench, the head of Creative Development at Oriental DreamWorks. I had a great meeting with Ms. Trench and she is reading the book now. I hope I can see this story on the big screen someday.
I love to visit schools and to encourage students to write. For me, indeed for anyone, writing is a life lesson. You give the best you can and everything you have to make your project the best it can be. I look forward to returning to Beijing and visiting more schools next year.
To find out more about Compestine, visit her website.
beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent Sally Wilson moved to Beijing in 2010 from the UK with her husband and son. Her daughter was born here in 2011 and both her kids keep her happily busy. In her spare time, Sally loves to stroll through Beijing’s hutongs and parks. She is a (most of the time) keen runner and loves reading: books, magazines, news, and celeb websites – anything really. Sally is also a bit of a foodie and loves trying out new restaurants.
Photos courtesy of Ying Chang Compestine