Crystal Chan grew up as a mixed-race kid in the middle of the Wisconsin cornfields and has been trying to find her place in the world ever since. Over time, she found that her heart lies in public speaking, performing, and ultimately, writing. She has published articles in several magazines; given talks and workshops across the country; facilitated discussion groups at national conferences; and been a professional storyteller for children and adults alike. In Chicago, where Crystal now lives, you will find her biking along the city streets and talking to her pet turtle. Bird is her first novel.
In her interview with Mandy Marksteiner, Crystal shares some of her best secrets about staying creative.
Click here to listen to the Interview with Crystal Chan.
Read the complete transcript below:
An Interview with Crystal Chan, author of Bird
Crystal Chan: This is my debut, as you said. I was born and raised in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “Bird” is set in a rural, very small town in Iowa. It’s about a girl who is really struggling to find her place in the world, especially when her parents, her family members really don’t understand her passions, her desires.
There’s this whole backdrop of her not being seen because her brother was born on the same day. I’m sorry. Her brother died on the same day that she was born.
She’s always kind of lived in the aftermath of that and a lot of unresolved grief and blame and shame in the family. She’s struggling to find out who she is. She meets this boy named John which is creepy in the story because her dead brother’s name is John.
She finds this boy in a tree on the night of her 12th birthday which is the anniversary of her brother’s death. Her meeting of this boy, John, sets everything else into motion.
Mandy: It was a great book. I loved reading it. How long did it take you to write “Bird”?
Crystal: It took about two and a half years. I was doing some edits on a different book at the time that hasn’t gotten picked up quite yet. I was doing edits on another story. It took me maybe about six months to do, maybe six to nine months to do the first draft and then the rest of the time doing the edits.
Mandy: Bird has been published in all kinds of countries. What are some of the countries that it’s been published in so far?
Crystal: Right now, it’s been published in eight countries. [laughs ] We’ll see if I can remember all of them. Yeah, it’s be really cool to see Bird fly around the world. It’s in Australia, Brazil, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Romania and Turkey. I think that’s eight. I don’t know, I wasn’t counting. There’s also an audio book version in the US, as well.
Mandy: That’s right and the actress that’s playing it…
Crystal: The actress is Rue from “The Hunger Games.” I was, like, totally blown away when the producer from the audio book company contacted me initially and said do you want to have a role in selecting the actor or actress, which is weird because as an author you basically sell your words.
You really don’t have any say over the cover…There’s so many things outside of your control, so for this producer to ask me if I wanted to give my input on the actress or actor, I was really honored that I was being part of this process, as it’s not expected of them to do.
Mandy: Was she your first choice?
Crystal: Yes. Yes. It was funny because I was told I was going to be sent a couple of voice files of different actresses in LA or whatever, and then I would give my preference. I was expecting voice files to listen to, and instead I got a bio, like a written bio, and the producer’s like hey, what about this one?
That was the first and only one that she gave me. She said I don’t know what our budget is, but it would be really wonderful to make an offer and see what happens.
I didn’t even recognize Rue because it wasn’t Rue, you know it was her headshot, her business headshot.
Mandy: Wait, what is her name again?
Crystal: Amandla Stenberg. Her name wasn’t Rue so I didn’t really recognize her at all. I was looking down Amandla’s bio and at the very end it says and she played Rue in “The Hunger Games.” I was like Oh my God! They’re trying to get a movie star. Oh my God!
In the beginning I was just honored that they would consider doing something like that, and just thinking that big. I’m like oh but she’s a movie star, what would she want to do with an audio book.
It was really an honor when Rue came on board. Rue…when Amandla came on board. I found out later on through the grapevine…through the producer that Amandla took the project on not because of the money.
I mean, I can’t imagine the publisher being like, “Here’s three million dollars for your audiobook.” But she took the project on because she loved the story so much, and she herself is biracial. She is either half Black, half Scandinavian or Norwegian or something like that.
I was told that she took the project on explicitly because of the book itself, which was the deepest honor I could ever have possibly imagined. It was really amazing.
Mandy: When I hear this, and the countries it has been published in and the fact that you have this actress doing the voiceover and that she just seems perfect for it. It seems like this book came from such a deep place and was able to touch so many people.
Everyone seems to be saying that its really moving, and really touching. It’s probably because you were honest in your book. What aspects of your life went into this novel?
Crystal: Quite a bit. Quite a bit. In creating the story, I put enough of my own self into Jewel, the protagonist, the main character, enough so that I would be able to identify with her, but not enough so that I would over‑identify with her and it would become my personal story.
It’s kind of like, with every one of the characters, there’s a bit of myself in all of the characters so I can connect and I can relate. I can have a sense as to, “OK, if this person has this problem or burden or something like that, how would they respond?”
Then I can tap into my own life experience and say, “I have this burden” or “I’ve had this life experience.” This is how I would respond. But for instance, Jewel wants to be a geologist. Well, I like rocks, and I like looking at rocks, but I’m not a scientist.
I would make a really bad scientist, actually. She thinks of the world in terms of a very spiritualized place in the sense that she feels that the earth talks to her. There’s a bit of myself in that. I spend a lot of time out at Lake Michigan and I spend a lot of time outdoors.
On the other hand, she is a scientist. She knows the geological history of Iowa. In creating the character, I really needed to make sure, yes, there’s enough of myself in there where I’m able to really identify with the characters and follow them through their trajectory and their growth, but I also needed to be able to make them different enough so that I’m not making this an autobiography.
Crystal: They are their own characters with their own lives and problems.
Mandy: How did you go about making this into a work of fiction. What was your process?
Crystal: It was kind of funny because the story kind of came to me. I didn’t sit down one day and say, “Let me think about this.” The roots of it originated at this writers conference I was at.
One of my favorite authors, Kathi Appelt, was speaking. She had just come out at the time with her newest book at the time called “Keeper,” which is about a girl who thinks her mother turned into a mermaid because her mother was lost at sea.
She goes out in a little boat in search of her mermaid mother. I remember just being fascinated by that idea of somebody who thinks there’s something else, or somebody who thinks that somebody else is something else.
After the conference, I was home, sick and was in bed, because I overextended myself from attending this conference. I just finished this story. I was fretting, because I was like, “Oh my gosh maybe…what if I never have another story idea again, ever? What if that’s it? What if I never think of anything else?”
I was lying in bed. I was, actually annoying myself. Because I’m like, “Crystal you’re sick. You should be asleep right now.” I was worrying about this for hours.
Finally, I said to myself, “Self, you’re either going to go to bed, because you’re sick. Or you’re going to get out of bed and write your next story. But you’re not going to lie in bed thinking about not writing your next story.”
I’m like, “Well. Well.” I went back to that idea of keeper and this whole somebody thinking that they’re something else. I was like, “Well. What would that look like if a boy, thought that he was a bird? What would happen?”
Right at that moment, I saw this image, in my mind. This little boy with his arms stretched out wide, at the edge of a cliff and jumping, because he thought he was a bird.
I remember gasping at the time. In my mind’s eye, I saw the boy fall through the sky. At that very moment, a girl’s voice, like a voice‑over, kind of pops into my head saying, “Grandpa stopped speaking the day he killed my brother John.”
She just started talking to me. Just talking. At that point, I got my butt out of bed. Fired up my computer. That’s how I wrote my first chapter. It was basically just a transcript, of what she was telling me. It was incredible.
Mandy: Seems like it came straight from your subconscious and you were there for it.
Crystal: Yeah. [laughs] I’m sick in bed, lying in wait for this voice to come.
Mandy: When I read that first line, myself, it was almost too much for me. Bird is the exact same age as my son. I’m thinking…
Crystal: Oh my gosh. Wow. Yeah. I didn’t even think about that. That would be a shocker.
Mandy: This is a shocker. Basically what you’re saying is this awesome idea just kind of came to you?
Crystal: It fell in my lap.
Crystal: Quite the gift. Let me tell you.
Mandy: When it came to your lap, you got out of bed and wrote it down?
Crystal: Yeah. That’s basically what it was.
Mandy: That’s awesome. What I wanted to talk to you about was creativity. What you do to stay creative. I consider you to be a highly creative person.
Crystal: Thank you.
Mandy: You’re welcome. It’s true. Do you have a writing routine?
Crystal: A writing routine. When I sit down at a computer, especially when I’m going through the first draft, even with the subsequence added, especially with the first draft, and you just got to get it all out. That can be difficult sometimes.
What I do is when I sit down at the computer, my goal is to write 500 words. I just keep writing until the 500 word quota is met. Then I can relax and stop writing if I wanted to.
I find that 500 words for me is doable. It’s not, “I’m going to write a chapter in a day,” kind of a thing. It’s doable, for me. It’s a very human goal. It’s not some kind of a super‑human thing.
What I find is, usually when I hit my 500 word count, I still want to keep going. I’m not done yet because I’m in the middle of something, or I’m on a roll, or whatever.
That 500 words is that kick in the butt to be like, “OK come on Crystal you got to be doing this.” Like I said, usually I just keep going from there.
Mandy: Do you have any habits or routines outside of writing that help you stay creative and help you keep writing?
Crystal: I get a lot of creative juice going to Lake Michigan. I literally live across the street from Lake Michigan. I’m blessed in that sense. I sit out there for a long time. It sounds kind of weird, but I talk to the lake and it talks back. In that sense there’s a lot of “Jewel”.
Myself in Jewel where she’s like, “The earth talks to me.” There’s a lot of wisdom and comfort I find in being outdoors and outside. A lot of stillness where I’m able to quiet my mind.
Ironically, it’s in that quieting process that I get the energy and the juice to go back, to my house and write words. It’s kind of this cool cycle of silence and words. Then silence again and more words.
Beyond the lake, I have memberships at different Museums in Chicago. Sometimes when I can’t write, don’t want to write or I’m too tired to write, I find that having exposure to different types of art, is important.
I have a membership at the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Chicago. Especially when I’m in my writing phase and I go to the museum, it’s one of those things where I identify with the artist, the visual artist. In that they are turning themselves inside out to create this piece of art.
Then putting it out into the world to be critiqued, condemned, praised and everything in between. They’re kind of naked sitting there with their masterpiece on the wall.
I identify in that process. I look for different ways to connect with different types of art in different mediums. Whether it be music, visual art or theater. I find that also helps keep me flexible in an artistic sense.
Mandy: Is there anything that you consciously avoid doing so that you can be creative?
Crystal: Yes actually. I don’t have a TV. I’ve never owned a TV and I like that. It kind of makes it difficult sometimes when people are talking about TV shows or whatever. I find that, if had TV and watched TV on a regular basis, and I would have no time to write. I find that being so passive for me, sitting in front of a TV screen and being fed material, actually sucks the creativity out of me. I don’t have a TV.
I do miss it when the Olympics comes on, but in general, I don’t even think about not having one. People are like, “Well, what do you do with your day if you don’t have a TV?” I’m like, “What is there not to do? There’s so many things to do.” That’s number one.
This is a harder one. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep it like this, but I don’t have Internet at home. I have my day job.
My day job is wonderful and flexible, and I get a lot of my online research for my books either on my day job, or I go to the library on the weekends, or I go to an Internet cafe on the weekends and do my research there.
I just find, when I know when I’m at work, I know that all the time I’m thinking, “Did anyone email me?” I’m always checking my work email even. “Has an email come in yet? Do I need to respond to anything?” Which is fine, because it’s in the workday.
That takes up so much energy in my brain that I find that when I go home and there’s no Internet that I can be fully present to my story, to my characters. I can focus on these issues.
I can really delve deep into like, “What are some of the themes that are coming out of the story? What are some of the issues? What would this character really do?”
I can really focus on what’s going on, be present in myself even. I find that, obviously many, many people have Internet at home, so maybe I’m have a really weak [laughs] stamina, or fortitude, or whatever it is, but I can’t really focus very well. Those two things I do consciously avoid doing to really…
Mandy: No, I don’t think you have a weak fortitude at all, because I have Internet at home, and I can get just a little obsessed with the Internet. I think a lot of people do.
It’s just one of those things that tons of readers. I won’t be writing anything, because I’ll be on Facebook the entire time. It’s kind of impressive that you have the self‑knowledge to actually not have it at your house.
Crystal: Like I said, I just know how I am at work.
Mandy: When did you stop…
Mandy: When did you decide to not have Internet?
Crystal: I don’t know if it was a conscious decision. There was one point about seven or eight years ago where I had Internet because my housemate had Internet, but then we all moved. Then it was just a matter of money.
I was like, “Oh my gosh. How much money am I going to be spending a month on Internet?” At that time, money was really tight. So I was just going to see if I could go without. It was kind of like TV. I just never looked back.
Mandy: What is your day job, and how does that affect your creative life?
Crystal: I love my day job. My day job is at a retreat and conference center here in Chicago, and we are basically the affordable Hyatt for non‑profits. We provide overnight accommodations and meeting room space for nonprofits.
Habitat for Humanity comes here for their training. Buddhists come here for their sittings. Christians come here for their retreats. Quakers come here for their circles. If you’re a 501(c)(3), you can come on in.
Our rates are really affordable, and we’re right in the middle of the city. I do the event planning with these group contacts, and so it’s actually an exceptionally boring job. It’s, “How many singles? How many doubles? How many vegans? How many vegetarians? How many meals? How many chairs in a circle?” The logistics are just very nitty‑gritty.
I find that this is a perfect job because my job ends at precisely 5:01 PM. I don’t take anything home emotionally or physically. It’s boring [laughs] . I say that in the kindest way possible, because it’s wonderful, because it leaves me with creative energy when I go home, to write.
It’s not like one of those jobs where I go home and I’m just exhausted and I need the rest of the night to recover from the day. It’s not one of those jobs. It’s a job where at 5:01 PM, I’m skipping out the door. “Now I get to write my manuscript and work on my characters.”
In that sense, it’s awesome. I have had a number of people say to me, “Oh, now that you’ve published your book, you’re going to quit your day job, right?” I can’t imagine doing that.
I think that would be one of the biggest creativity killers, actually, would be for me to quit my day job, because my day job pays my bills. It’s my main source of income.
For me to be tied to advances and royalties would actually make me write stories thinking about, “Am I going to be able to sell this? What would the audience think? What would my editors think?”
Mandy: So it would add a lot of stress to it.
Crystal: Number one, it would be a lot of stress, but number two, I wouldn’t be able to take as many risks with the story. It’s like, “What if it doesn’t sell?”
For instance, one of the stories I’m working on right now is young adult and kind of edgy, and I love it. I’m making it edgy, and I’m not worrying about if it’s going to sell or not. I’m just worrying about the story.
Maybe it won’t sell, and that’s OK, because I have a day job and I can still pay my bills. You know what I mean?
In that sense, I have artistic freedom to really focus on the art of the story and let the market determine what it will. In that sense, I feel that my day job is just giving me utter independence to write without money worries.
Mandy: That sounds really good. I don’t believe that there’s creative people and non‑creative people. I think that every person can reach their own optimal creativity, and they have something.
Some people just go for it. They just really tap into that, and other people don’t know how. I was wondering, what does it mean for you to be creative? Have you ever had times when you’re just not?
Mandy: Can you explain when you feel like you are totally in the creative zone? what is that like for you? What is it like when you are not?
Crystal: For me, being creative means I can fully be myself. I can write what I want to write without filters, without the negative voices in my head saying, “You can’t do this. You shouldn’t be writing that.”
For instance, with “Bird,” the opening line is, “Grandpa stopped speaking the day he killed my brother, John.” Jewel launches into her story and her backstory about how her brother died.
It was basically this five‑year old boy who jumped off a cliff, thinking he could fly. The first chapter is kind of gut‑wrenching, about how this kid, Jewel, isn’t seen in her family because there’s all this unresolved grief in the family.
Even when I was writing it, I was thinking, “God, this is depressing.” [laughs] “Oh my God, no one’s going to want this.”
So I finished the first chapter and right after I finished the first chapter, I called up my critique partner, my writing partner, and I said, “Stacy, I started another story. Do you want to hear it?”
She’s like, “Of course. Read it to me over the phone.” I’m like, “Stacy, no one’s going to read this. No one’s going to want this. No one’s going to buy this. This is so depressing. Oh my God, this is awful.” She’s like, “Well read it to me.”
I read to her the first number of paragraphs, and at a certain point I even stopped myself, like, “Stacy, this is awful, isn’t it?” She’s like, “Keep going, Crystal. Keep reading.” I was like, “Really?” She’s like, “Yeah. Keep going.”
I think that’s part of the creative process is to, I mean, you always have these doubts in your mind like, “Oh, this won’t sell. Oh, people won’t like this. Oh, blah blah blah. It’s too dark. It’s too depressing.”
I think there has to be this override button. Everybody has those voices, but you have to be able to push that override button and continue writing that story.
Continue with that creative work, whatever it is. I think there’s a certain sense of conscientious liberty like, “I’m going to write this no matter what anybody else thinks. I’m going to create this project no matter what my critical voices in my head say.”
I think being able to cultivate that sense of freedom, a stubborn freedom. “I’m going to do this. I’m going to write this.” I think is one of the things that opens the doors to your creative self.
Mandy: I was just thinking of the character Jewel. How a lot of the times in the book, she longs to be able to talk about her feelings and talk about her brother. She wasn’t able to do that with her family members, and it almost seemed like a creative thing for you to be able to take that hurts and talk about it.
Mandy: Is there anything you do to actively get in touch with your feelings, or your own pain, or your background, or anything like that? Do you do that yourself?
Crystal: I spend a lot of time journaling and writing. I do meditate and pray. I think that all of those things are really helpful in surfacing the emotions that are going on, and I value being honest with myself.
It’s one of the things that people want you to be honest with other human beings but humans. We lie to ourselves all the time.
So I think that just being honest with myself, saying, “Yes, I feel hurt. Yes, I feel sad. This upset me,” instead of like, “Oh, everything’s fine. I’m fine.” You know, that kind of a thing. “I’m happy. Life is great,” when really your life is falling apart.
I think that the first step is really just being honest with yourself before you can even be honest with other people.
And I feel that those times of contemplation, or meditation, or sitting out at the lake or, you know, things like that. It’s like layers of an onion where you just keep pulling them back and pulling them back and getting to the core of, you know, whatever you’re feeling inside.
Mandy: How did you decided to have your main character, Jewel, have a Jamacian, a Mexican, and a White heritage?
Mandy: How did you make that decision?
Crystal: She made that decision for me. [laughs]
Mandy: How did she do that?
Crystal: That’s what she was, when the first chapter when she was talking, she was just like rambling on. Like, ” This is my life, this is my family,” blah, blah, blah.”
And I just knew she was Jamaican, Mexican, and White. That was just what she was. It’s like…even for me why am I Chinese and White? I just am. Why is she what she is? She just is…it wasn’t a decision on my part. That’s just what she was.
Even at a certain time I had a difficult time connecting with Jamaicans here in Chicago, which is funny, because there’s a really strong Jamaican community but the Jamaicans that I met didn’t really want to be interviewed.
I was having a hard time finding enough Jamaican Americans here in town. My friend knows a lot of Haitians in Chicago and he said, “If you change her ethnicity to be Haitian, Mexican, and White you’ll be able to…”
I could connect up with a lot of people. I really appreciated that but, I said, “I’m sorry she’s Jamaican.” As hard as it is finding these interviewees that’s just what she is. And so, it took a lot more effort to kind of make that work and to that research and verify facts and everything. But, that’s what she is.
Mandy: You did a lot of interviews but what else did you do? What other kind of research did you do to really get in touch with your characters to make it real?
Crystal: For the Jamaican part…
Crystal: …for the Jamaican part, there’s a couple of food scenes and I’m a foodie ‑‑ I’m so a foodie. I of course went to a number of Jamaican restaurants and pulled of some Jamaican recipes.
My friend, who is like this amazing cook, she and I spent an afternoon making and cooking these Jamaican dishes. At the same time I was setting with a pad of paper and pen writing down what this food smells like as it’s cooking.
What it sounds like. What does it look like as it’s cooking. There’s a lot of food research. I also did a lot of research online to get into the different cultural aspects, belief systems.
I checked out college textbooks on Jamaican belief systems, went on to Jamaican news websites, forums. Basically, you name it, and I was interested in it. I did find a couple of Jamaicans to interview and then I had two Jamaicans read the book cover‑to‑cover and give me input on that.
Which was important to me, because as a biracial person I am often misrepresented often, it was really important. Culture has always been really important to me. Race has always been really important to me and I just really wanted to do it right and I hope I did.
I also…my best friend the chef who helped me out, she’s also Mexican American, I pumped her with questions. I did a lot of research online for the different Mexican elements that are in the story.
Like I said, I’m not a scientist at all, and so these kids wanted to be a geologist and an astronaut. I’m like, “Oh, my gosh. I have scientists in this family.” I started out ‑‑ for the geology part ‑‑ getting a college textbook on Iowa’s geological past. Finding out what sort of trees grow in Iowa. What are the rocks there that you’d be able to find.
What sort of Indian tribes because I found arrowheads in one of the scenes. What would be some of the Indian tribes that would be living in that area. Then for John, the astronaut. [laughs] I started out with, “Astronomy for Dummies.”
Crystal: And then moved on from there to different sites like NASA’s website and Hubble’s website [inaudible 0:36:25] . That took quite a bit of research. And John, being a Black boy adopted by White parents, he’s a transracial adoptee.
I’m not a transracial adoptee. There’s actually a lot of identity issues that are similar between transracial adoptees and mixed race kids, but…I hopped on to a number of transracial blogs and was really kind of surprised at the level of anger and angst that adult adoptees have.
And a lot of their unanswerable questions that they just have to live with. A lot of that research also went into the manuscript.
Mandy: Yeah, it seems very honest and I can say it seems like you were just facing all those hard questions head on all the time. Let’s see…one other question I want to ask is, could you tell me about your experience with storytelling?
Crystal: I was involved in this thing called, “Forensics,” in high school. Forensics, at least at the high school level, is a competitive theatre, competitive drama thing. Schools compete against each other in different categories.
One of the categories that you could compete in, like poetry reading, or play acting, one of the categories was storytelling. As a sophomore in high school I was like, “Oh, what’s this storytelling category,” really found my groove with that.
So, for the next three years in high school I participated, I competed in competitive storytelling and I did really well. I did really, really well. Then in high school I had a couple of professional storytelling gigs with schools and at this festival.
I really just loved it. Besides the official storytelling I’ve always loved telling stories. Whether it be in the written mode or the verbal mode there’s always that moment when you’re telling a story.
Especially verbally, when you’re telling a moment verbally and it’s like you have everyone breathing the same breathe. Waiting for the same line to drop and the, “What happens next?” Everyone is kind of waiting and listening.
Everybody is a present as present can get. I think that there is this communal energy that’s just…for me in the moment intoxicating. Sharing that story whatever it is. That’s something that I really value.
Writing is just a different format. It’s the same principle of pacing and when you’re going to reveal certain things. When you’re going to hide certain things. It’s just a different medium.
Mandy: Great. Well, is there anything you want to say about writing or creativity before we end this call?
Crystal: I guess I was really surprised at how much I loved writing this book. This book was really special to me and it was not a hardship at all at any point in the writing process. It all just kind of came out and it’s quite a gift to be able to write it. I really enjoyed it.
Mandy: Thank you, Crystal. I am really happy for all the success you’ve had with this book and I can’t wait to see what you do next. Will you tell everybody what your website address is?
Crystal: Yes. It’s www.crystalchanwrites.com. It’s C‑R‑Y‑S‑T‑A‑L‑C‑H‑A‑N‑W‑R‑I‑T‑E‑S.com.
Mandy: Thank you.
Crystal: Thank you.
Transcription by CastingWords