If, like me, you’ve seen some lush pics on social media about The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, you’re probably curious about the author behind this Chinese-Australian book which has been described by Alice Pung as “a book with a huge heartbeat and so much love infused on every page.” And so I bring you my interview with Wai Chim who I have dubbed my new favourite human!
NLK: Do you think living in a few different countries (USA, Japan and Australia) has impacted the way you view life and consequently, your writing?
I definitely think my unique set of experiences living overseas has changed my personal outlook and my understanding of how the world ticks. I grew up in very multicultural New York where I went to a high school that was about 75% Asian-American; and then I went to uni in the South which had a very different demographic and makeup. It was the first time I was exposed to tailgating and country music (the New Yorker in me was aghast, but that just goes to show how biased we can be).
After I graduated from uni, I lived in Japan where I ‘looked like’ everyone else but I was such an obvious foreigner and subjected to those types of prejudices – I often tell the story of how one my Japanese students commented on how well I used chopsticks even though my face shows I’m Chinese! Now I’ve come to Australia and there’s another set of cultural biases and assumptions to work with.
Ultimately, all of this means that I’ve always seen myself as an outsider and have never sought out a ‘tribe’. And that’s where I position myself as a writer. For me being a writer is about being an observer of people and interactions where you’re often on the fringes, influencing and shaping but not being quite an active participant.
NLK: You studied English and Economics at Duke University in the States, that is a strange but wonderful combo. What made you undertake further studies in English and Creative Writing?
I think the English and Economics was a result of feeling like I needed something analytical to balance the creative – and I definitely still feel that.
My day job now is as a digital producer/web developer where I solve problems by writing code and dealing with data and systems; meanwhile my writing is about being creative, emotional and expressive.
I completed a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing mostly because I really wanted to be a writer of my own work and needed some more industry understanding of how to go about that process and how to hone my craft. I think I learned a lot in that time and I’m very grateful to my instructors which included Kathryn Heyman, John Scott and David Brooks.
NLK: Can you please tell us about the books you have written? Do you have a favourite genre to write? A favourite age range to write for, too?
I’ve written a range of kids and YA titles starting with the Chook Chook series which is for ages 7-9. I’ve also contributed a title called Shaozhen to the Through My Eyes: Natural Disaster Zone series edited by Lyn White; that’s aimed at readers from 10-14. But my favourite genre is definitely young adult. My two YA titles are Freedom Swimmer and my most recent release, The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling which is for older YA readers (14 and up).
All of my books are about Chinese culture and explore themes of growing up and family. I’m definitely a fan of contemporary young adult and I’m thrilled to be adding my titles to the plethora of amazing #LoveOzYA talent.
NLK: What books did you read as a kid? How did they impact your life?
I grew up with no biases and always just read what I liked so that means my favourite childhood reads ranged from Peanuts cartoons and The Babysitters Club to the Black Stallion and Where the Red Fern Grows.
I think I mostly liked books for their subject matter, I loved dogs and horses as a young girl so anything that featured those two was picked up. I was lucky that my mum was very supportive of me reading books even though she couldn’t read or write English herself.
NLK: When did you decide to become a writer? What was the inciting incident (sorry, cheesy pun)?
I was in Japan, trying to figure out ‘what to do with my life’. Creative careers hadn’t really been a part of my stricter Asian upbringing so I had never really considered the joys and possibility of the arts being anything more than a hobby. I finally realised that writing was my single constant through everything; ever since I was about 11 I had always kept a journal or some notebook of scribblings. Not too long after this, I moved to Australia and began my creative writing studies and joined the writing community.
NLK: I have been so impressed with all the marketing you’ve personally done for The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling (btw, the cover is so lush), do you have any marketing tips for authors? What is the number one thing authors should do to market their book?
The cover is amazing and Romina from Allen & Unwin did SUCH a good job on it and I am so indebted to her genius!! ❤ The title was largely driven by my publisher and editor, so I’m really blessed to have such a powerhouse team that know what they’re doing. 😀
I will say, from a marketing perspective, the important thing for authors to think about is ‘what value‘ they can give their audience. Marketing is about building a strong enough relationship with a portion of your readership so they’ll help amplify your presence because they want to support you! I feel the easiest way to do this is to give something of value that builds goodwill – and it doesn’t have to be monetary! It could be liking or commenting on readers’ posts with your own love and support and genuine interest in their work, it can be creating amazing/funny/witty content (outside of books) that they’ll want to share and consume or being a good online friend/acquaintance. Or it could be doing giveaways and contests etc.
This seems a bit airy-fairy but I genuinely think that this is the crux of a successful marketing strategy, rather than create X posts per week or have a newsletter or post at 6 am on a Thursday for most traction etc.
NLK: Can you please tell us about your journey to publication?
I actually came out of an old school slush pile, before online submissions and pitch wars became more of the norm. I saw a tweet that said UQP was taking submissions, followed some online instructions and sent a pile of paper to their PO Box. About 10 months later, I was signing my first contract to publish Chook Chook. That was in 2011.
Since then I’ve published six books with two different publishers and have also obtained an agent. Before I submitted to UQP, I had done some submissions rounds to smaller publishers and with different manuscripts. So what they say about drafting and redrafting and putting yourself out there is very much the way to get it done.
NLK: You tackle some big issues in your books? How important is it to you that you address such issues through fiction?
Fiction is an the safest way, I think, to explore some really heavy stuff. You can build a real sense of hope in rather bleak situations and we as a society so desperately need that right now.
NLK: Do you have any writing advice for newbie writers?
Be KIND to everyone you meet. Work really really hard. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and as much it feels like the worst, know that it will be okay. Develop resilience. And know that I believe in you. 🙂
About Wai Chim
Wai Chim is the author of The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling. She is a first-generation Chinese-American from New York City. She grew up speaking Cantonese at home and absorbing Western culture through books, TV and school. She spent some time living in Japan before making Sydney, Australia, her permanent home. Her previous books include the Chook Chook series and Shaozhen, part of the Through My Eyes: Natural Disaster Zone series. Her novel Freedom Swimmer was shortlisted for the inaugural Readings Young Adult Book Prize and the Sakura Medal, and was a Children’s Book Council Notable Book. In addition to writing, Wai works as a digital producer/web developer for The Starlight Children’s Foundation.
Connect with Wai Chim
About the book (From Allen & Unwin)
A novel about growing up in a migrant Asian family with a mother who is suffering from a mental illness, from the highly commended author of Freedom Swimmer. Anna Chiu has her hands pretty full looking after her brother and sister and helping out at her dad’s restaurant, all while her mum stays in bed. Dad’s new delivery boy, Rory, is a welcome distraction and even though she knows that things aren’t right at home, she’s starting to feel like she could just be a normal teen.
But when Mum finally gets out of bed, things go from bad to worse. And as Mum’s condition worsens, Anna and her family question everything they understand about themselves and each other.
A nourishing tale about the crevices of culture, mental wellness and family.