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Author Q&A and blog tour with Jean Kwok

Dear readers,

I'm so excited today to be able to host Jean Kwok's haunting novel Searching For Sylvie Lee, as it journeys through our book blogs on its blog tour. In honour of that, check out my review now, When Still Waters Run Deep: Searching For Sylvie Lee , or click the link at the end of this post.

But that's not all.

I'm also thrilled to be able to share with you a special author Q&A with the amazing Jean Kwok herself. Her answers were so thoughtful, and I found myself nodding in agreement to lots of them. So without further ado, here it is:

Q:  Which authors have influenced you the most? 

A: There are so many wonderful writers, like Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguru, Italo Calvino and Maxine Hong Kingston who have inspired me. I particularly love Atwood’s gorgeous use of language, her ability to make the pages fly and her wild creative freedom. 
Q:  What’s a book you read when you were younger that has stayed with you?

A: As a working class immigrant child, I loved my public library – that was the place I went to escape and to dream. There weren’t any books about Chinese girls like me then but I especially identified with stories like Little Women, the Nancy Drew series and Anne of Green Gables. I loved authors like Lois Duncan and Judy Blume. 
Q:   How do you prepare yourself for a writing session? Do you have any routines or rituals?
A: I try to make my writing sessions as comforting and calm as possible. I keep bottles of lightly-scented lavender, rose and lemon room sprays by my computer and always spritz before I begin. I turn on relaxing meditation music. I do a few deep breathing exercises to relax and center myself, and then I usually begin by writing in my journal about where I am in my writing process and what I hope to achieve, both on that day and long-term. 
Q: What 3 top tips would you give to aspiring writers?
1.      Trust your body, not your mind. Your mind can be seduced by many seemingly cool ideas but when you’re working on something powerful, your gut will tell you.
2.      Be as flexible as you can when receiving criticism because sometimes, even though your first instinct will be to resist, that criticism might be right. However, that said, remember that there’s a flame in your work that keeps it alive for you and you must always keep that lit. Better a passionate, flawed being that lives and breathes than a perfectly proportioned corpse on the page.
3.      Don’t let rejection get you down. We all get rejected, all the time. The writers who make it are the ones who can take the rejection, get up and keep trying.
Q:  Do you ever suffer from self-doubt or impostor syndrome, as a writer and WOC, and how do you get over it?
A: All the time. I often feel like I’ll never be able to finish the next book or that everything I write is just terrible. I’m deeply envious of writer friends I know who grew up in supportive families, where being a writer was accepted, possibly even encouraged. My family loves me but they don’t really understand why I do what I do. 
I get over it because what other choice do I have? I’m not going to stop writing. That’s not an option. I tell myself that it’s my job to produce the work, not to judge it and I just go on. 
Q:      What advice would you give to someone struggling with writers’ block? 
A: To be kind to yourself. It happens to most writers. Sometimes it’s a matter of giving yourself permission to go on, to make time and to put your thoughts on the page. Sometimes it’s a craft issue, where you need to try to figure out where your book needs to go next. I do believe in planning and crafting a novel. If your characters have nothing to do, you could give them an event to work towards, like a revelation or a death or an epiphany. Sometimes writers’ block strikes because there’s something too hot in the manuscript, something the writer isn’t ready to deal with yet. Then you could consider removing it or changing it to something you can handle. 
For example, Searching For Sylvie Lee is inspired by the real-life disappearance of my beloved brother. I needed to make his character into a woman, so that that novel is about two sisters and the older, dazzling sister disappears while the younger shy one has to look for her. It would have been too painful for me to write this book if I hadn’t made that change, plus the gravitational pull of the real story would have been too strong.
Q:      I loved the way you rendered different languages into English in Searching For Sylvie Lee; how do you think being multilingual has enriched your writing?
A: I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to speak different languages and I wanted to offer that knowledge to my readers. While the beating emotional heart of Searching For Sylvie Lee is the disappearance of my brother, its intellectual centre is the question: how well do we truly know the people we love most? We’ve all been shocked when someone we thought we understood to the core did something completely unexpected. This problem is exacerbated within an immigrant family, where the children often adopt the dominant language of the new country while the parents remain rooted in their original language. You then have a tragic situation where there’s not only a cultural and generational gap within the same family but also one of language. 
In Searching For Sylvie Lee, the mystery is unravelled by three women who are all thinking in their own native tongues: the older sister Sylvie in Dutch, the younger sister Amy in English and Ma in Chinese. The entire book is written in English, of course, but I try to simulate each of the languages. When we perceive Ma through English-speaking Amy’s eyes, we see a beloved woman who can only speak broken English but when we enter into Ma’s mind in her own chapter, where she’s thinking in Chinese, we realize that Ma is a profound, intelligent woman. That version of Ma is one that her own daughter doesn’t see. Thus in Searching For Sylvie Lee, I wanted the reader to become trilingual for the course of the novel, so that the reader is the true detective. In the end, the reader is the only one who knows everyone’s secrets.

Q:      Is there a language you feel most comfortable expressing yourself in?
A: Chinese was my first language and the only one I spoke until I moved to the US at the age of five. I then learned English and when I fell in love with a Dutch man and moved to the Netherlands as an adult, I started speaking Dutch as well. I also took eight years of Latin in school. However, with all of these languages, English is definitely the one I love most.
Q:     What’s the most important thing you have learned so far as a writer?
A:  To trust myself, no matter what.

Thank you so much to Jean Kwok for answering these questions for us!
If you haven't already, check out my review: 
Searching For Sylvie Lee is published by John Murray Press and is now available in the UK.

Let me know what you thought of my review and this post by leaving a comment on whichever platform you follow me on! 



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