Introducing Justine Laismith who has recently signed her middle grade fantasy novel set in modern day rural China called Secrets of the Great Fire Tree with RCP. It is slated for release in November of 2018 under the imprint RadiantKids. Get to know Justine Laismith as an author.
1. First, tell us a little about yourself. When did you want to become an author? What inspires you to do what you do? Who are you?
I first wanted to be a writer when I was seven. However, I never did well in English Language or Literature at school. This discouraged me. When it came to choosing subjects, my teacher expected me to take the Arts subjects, because “girls are better at them, while boys are better at Math and Science.” So I chose the Science options to prove a point. Nevertheless, I wrote poems and stories as and when they came to me, but these were for my eyes only. On rare occasions I shared them with a couple of close friends.
A few years later, a local boy, not many years older than me, made me cry. Afterwards, I knew I wanted to be like him. He made me cry with words on a page. Over the years, even though I pursued a Science career, the enjoyment of turning blank pages to words never left me. I channeled this into my work and wrote scientific papers on my research. After some years, I took a career break. With a break from science, the logical side of my brain took a back seat and let the creative side of my brain dominate. I started writing fiction again.
My writing inspiration comes from what I see around me, with a simple “What if?”. Then I try and answer that question.
2. What are some quirky and or unique aspects about you and your writing?
I grew up in Singapore, a country proud of its multicultural identity. This exposed me to a plethora of languages and Chinese dialects. While I call myself bilingual, I can understand, to varying degrees, Cantonese, Hokkien, Malay, French and Japanese. I am also part-Paranakan, which is a unique blend of two cultures: ethnic Chinese people who speak and practice Malay customs. When I wrote Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, I have subtly incorporated all these diversities.
3. RCP “was founded in 2016 to showcase quality fiction, diverse stories, and unexpected protagonists.” What does that mean to you?
I grew up reading books like Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. These took me to a world I never knew. I also read poorly English-translated books of Chinese stories, books highly rated in their original language but clearly lost in translation. For an English-speaking Chinese girl living in tiny Singapore in the Far-East, these reading experiences sent the message that good English books are only made up of authors and characters from traditionally Western culture. If I wanted to read books in English, I had to settle for stories I could not directly relate to. In other words, I had to read them as an outsider. At this point, I lost interest in reading.
Over the decades, globalization and immigration has resulted in several third-culture kids, never truly knowing their roots, nor knowing their mother-tongue at the same level as a native. By showcasing the stories and voices of protagonists from your conventional western worlds, RCP is filling a gap for readers seeking identifiable characters. At the same time, diverse writers can tell a story that, although is in a setting familiar to them, is not the traditional western backdrop. With good narration and an intriguing plot, they will take their readers along. In doing so, they open the readers’ eyes and break down the cultural and language barrier.
4.What do you think makes a great middle grade fantasy? How do you think your piece Secrets of the Great Fire Tree fits into or varies from that description?
I like stories that take me to a different world, but with links to our own world to make it relatable. This is why Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is set in modern day China. I decided to use superstition as a gateway to fantasy because they are deeply-rooted in many traditions. Pushing these boundaries allow me to be creative with something we practice out of habit; never questioning but no longer fearing the consequences. However, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree deviates from middle-grade fantasy because it is also, in part, a realistic fiction. Left-behind children is a reality in China, the flip-side of economic growth in the cities.
5. How has writing affected your outlook on things? Has it made you take chances or see things in a different light?
I now pay a lot of attention to my surroundings and how it makes me feel. Then I challenge myself to describe it in words. When I watch a movie or show, I don’t just take a seat and enjoy the ride. I think about what makes me root for the characters, or hate them. I also analyze how and why two personalities who started off with nothing in common come together as the story develops.
6. What are you most excited to share when it comes to Secrets of the Great Fire Tree? Ex). The world, the characters, a specific scene?
I am most excited about sharing the rural life in China. As I mentioned earlier, I see myself as a third-culture kid, who never really knew her roots. When writing this book, I carried out a lot of research and even traveled to China. China holds a quarter of the world’s population and consists of over 50 ethnic minorities. Naturally, I cannot tell everything in one story, but I hope I managed to give a flavor of this fascinating culture.
7. Finally, do you have any advice and or tips for aspiring writers out there, especially women and those writing middle grade fiction?
Writing is a journey. Enjoy it. Turning a blank page into words that tell a story is special, because you’ve created something new. Once I was told by a consultant that women don’t give themselves enough credit for their achievements. So this is especially for women writers: don’t be daunted by the fear that no one will like your work. Write what is in your heart. That passion will come out in your story and someone, somewhere out there will love it and feel glad that you wrote it.