Lit Youngstown’s summer intern Danny Gage asked children’s author Janet Wong a few questions about her work and writing life. Janet will be a featured writer at the online 2020 Fall Literary Festival September 24-26.
DG: Do you think that being a lawyer, specifically at Universal Studios, is why you have an eagerness to write for children, as well as even teach them poetry? Did the setting you worked in as a lawyer make the career shift easier?
First, it makes me kinder and more compassionate. I became ashamed of the way that doing my job was turning me into a mean person. Not every lawyer does mean things, but I did. In my job as Director of Labor Relations at Universal Studios Hollywood, I needed to fire a lot of people—and the sad part was that it started not to bother me.
Second, my legal experience makes it easier for me to deal with publishing contracts. A lot of writers sign whatever contracts come their way. We’re so used to being rejected, that when someone is willing to publish our work, we’re practically willing to give it away. It isn’t fun negotiating a contract (and it’s even less fun to read one), but more writers need to stand up for better deals.
And third, viewing things like a lawyer makes the revision process less painful. We all know the feeling of falling in love with our own writing and thinking that the draft we just wrote is the best thing we could possibly produce. Lawyers are constantly forced to think of other angles. When negotiating or arbitrating or litigating, you have to anticipate what the other side will say. You have to consider other approaches that might be perceived as equally (or even more) legitimate. When we, as writers, force ourselves to start a new draft by imagining other angles, we expand our options.
I like to tell young writers, “Don’t try to make each draft better. Just try to make it different, to give yourself a choice. Ultimately you might still prefer your first draft, but in that case, trying another angle has reinforced how brilliant you are!
While in college, you studied art in France at the Université de Bordeaux. That must have been an experience. Do your experiences in France still reside with you, and if so, how have they been translated into your writing?
Living in France was a dramatic change, mainly because it opened my eyes to art, but it was pretty must just an extended year-long vacation. That being said, when you live in another place—somewhere very different from where you grew up—it obviously changes who you are.
For me, the biggest physical change in my life involved moving from the West coast to the East coast (Connecticut, where I attended Yale; and Princeton, NJ, where I live now). For someone else, moving from an urban to a rural environment (or vice-versa) just 100 miles away might be a huge catalyst for creative growth.
Artists and writers have moved all over the world for centuries because they know that this will shake up their ways of thinking. Actual travel nowadays is pretty difficult, but luckily virtual travel is as easy as clicking away on your computer. We can surf the web and visit sites that offer a new perspective to us. Read blogs written by people in other countries. Or spend a week diving into another country’s art by visiting museums and galleries virtually. Many of us feel “stuck” sometimes; we can open new worlds with a few clicks.
You say that A Suitcase of Seaweed is the own favorite of your own works because it touches on all sides of your heritage. Can you see yourself creating another book that will become your own favorite that possibly discusses your evolution from lawyer to writer, or is A Suitcase of Seaweed permanently etched in your heart as a favorite?
Every other new book of mine becomes the new favorite! I’m super excited about the next book that I’m doing with Sylvia Vardell, to be released in January 2021. It’s called HOP TO IT: Poems to Get You Moving, and it contains poems by dozens of poets, both established award-winners and new poets. While many of the poems are explicitly about movement—and get kids jumping, running in place, or dancing—a number of these poems address current topics such as COVID and getting out to march or exercise your voice. Please look for it on Amazon in January or pre-order now by calling QEP Books (the main distributor of this book).