Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Author Interview: ALAN CHIN

Author Interview: A.J. Llewellyn

1. Hi Alan and welcome to the Divas’s Den! Thanks so much for stopping by. I believe you and your husband Herman are still traveling through Asia as we do this interview. Can you tell me a little bit about your travels and what you have experienced there?
Herman and I love traveling. In the last twelve years we’ve visited over forty countries. This year, our first destination was Bangkok, but our trip was delayed by five days because the Bangkok airport was under siege by a political party apposing the former Prime Minister. We flew in on the second jet out of the US, and spent four weeks in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, where we really didn’t do much more than visit temples, eat great food and write.
We have visited Thailand many times so we don’t go there to see the sights, but rather, to hang out and enjoy the easy-going culture. For the past week, we’ve been in Melbourne, Australia, enjoying the hot weather and the Australian Open Tennis Championships. Herman and I love to play and to watch tennis, and the Aussie Open is a special treat for us.
It’s the best of the slams as far as we’re concerned. After the tournament, we’ll fly back to Thailand for two additional months of traveling around the southern islands, as well as Laos and Cambodia. Again, mostly visiting temples, mingling with the local folks and writing. Before heading home, we’ll stop off in Japan for a couple of weeks in April to take in the cherry blossoms.

2. I know you spent Christmas in Chiang Mai, Thailand. What was that day like for you?

Christmas was a very quiet affair for us. There were not many tourists there; many had either delayed or canceled their vacations because of the airport closures. As for the locals, because northern Thailand is predominately Buddhist, they don’t celebrate Christmas like we do in the West.
I had a productive writing session that morning, then after lunch, we strolled to an antique store that specializes in quality Buddha statues and treated ourselves by buying two collector’s pieces we had had our eyes on. For Christmas dinner, we had a bowl of noodle soup from our favorite street vendor.
However, we did celebrate a bit more on New Years Eve in Chiang Mai, sending lanterns into the sky along with thousands of others while fireworks exploded overhead.

3. How beautiful, Alan! I am aware of the floating lantern ceremony as part of the annual Obon Festival, but what is this particular ritual you are talking about?

In Thailand, they have these paper lanterns the size of a large garbage bag, with a filliment in the bottom that lights on fire, which fills the bag with hot air and it floats away like a hot-air balloon. The fire causes it to glow white, and when it reaches a certain distance up, it looks like a glowing star. I'm not sure that it's a Buddhist thing or not.
Thousands of people do it, and what they say is you make a wish and that wish is carried to heaven, which doesn't sound too Buddhist.... There were so many that they lit up the entire sky.
Wow, I'm in Chinatown and the Lion Dancers, who are doing their Chinese New Year thing, just lit a string of firecrackers just outside the door. My ears are ringing...

4. I love this on-the-spot reporting! Okay, Let’s talk about your book “Island Song.” My publisher – and yours - Tina Haveman, who co-owns Zumaya Press, loves this book. And I do too! I know you have been writing for many years, but this is your first published book. You actually describe this as your first book worthy of publication. What was it about this story that set it apart from the others you have written?

First off, I’m very please that you enjoyed "Island Song" because I know you’ve done tons of research about the islands and the Polynesian culture in order to write your impressive list of novels that take place in the Hawaiian Islands. So if you liked it, I must have done my homework right…
"Island Song" is a story that I’ve had a love affair with for well over fifteen years. It started as a short story about gay bashing which I wrote for a class project when I was in college earning my Master’s degree in writing.
After I retired from life in the corporate world in 1999 and began traveling the world, I read a book, Soul Mountain, that expertly wove Zen philosophy into the fabric of the story, and I thought, that’s what I want to do. So I picked up Island Song again and developed it into a novel-length manuscript while trying to weave my philosophy on life into the story. I enjoyed the process and the result so much, that I decided to try and publish it. Thus, I turned my hobby into a second career.

5. Was it a long journey for you, having the book accepted for publication? I know you started writing the book in 2003. Please tell me a little about the process you experienced in getting your publishing deal.

It was a long, frustrating experience. After writing the story, I sent out query letters and sample chapters to dozens of publishers and literary agents, with no results. I knew the story was good, so I assumed that the writing was substandard. So I rewrote the story, cutting out whole chapters and tightening the prose, then sent out query letters and sample chapters again. After a number of rejection letters, I decided to rewrite it once again.
I bought a writing technique book, The First Five Pages, which coaches writers on how to make the first five pages of their manuscripts shine to get the attention of publishers. I used their advice on all 300+ pages.
That did the trick because Zumaya Publications decided to publish it. For me, writing is mostly rewriting and more rewriting. It’s relatively easy for me to get a first draft down on paper, but it takes me forever to polish the story into something that’s a joy to read.

6. You and I both love Hawaii. Have you spent much time there? And is this where you got the idea for “Island Song”?

I have vacationed on the Hawaiian Islands several times, including one three-week stay on the big island. It isn’t Hawaii that I love as much as the Polynesian culture and the warm, lovely islanders. I’ve actually spent more time on Tahiti and Bora Bora, The Cook Islands, Fiji, Bali, and New Zealand. In fact, Hawaii was not my first choice. I had originally planned to set the story on Aitutaki, in the Cook Islands. But as the story developed, I realized that it needed to be set on an island that had an active volcano, and the only place I’ve ever seen one was on the big island of Hawaii.

7. One of your characters is, in your words, a venerable kahuna. I know you blend mysticism and spirituality in your novels. What is it about the huna religion that appeals to you?

While researching Hawaiian culture, I became fascinated by a group of warrior shamans that ruled some parts of Hawaii before white men brought Christianity to the islands. These Ana Ana kahunas were believed to heal the sick, pray people to death, have out of the body experiences, and possess animals and other people. The core of their beliefs was much of what I see in Zen Buddhism, which I’ve been a student of for many years. I saw them much like the Samurai of feudal Japan, who used Zen Buddhism to attain the perfect warrior attitude for battle, only the Ana Ana warriors added mysticism to their beliefs. It was perfect for the story I wanted to write.

8. Your website intriguingly states, “All my work explores the challenges of gay characters relating to straight characters within a supercilious society, all the while weaving New Age philosophies into the fabric of the relationships.” How did a perfectly nice navy mechanic come to write such tales?

Perfectly nice? You obviously didn’t know me in my younger years. I was out, truculent, often hostile, and with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. It took many years of hard knocks and spiritual maturing to move beyond all that, and even now that old self occasionally rears its ugly head.
For most of my life everything I read and every movie I saw that had gay characters in it either depicted the gay characters as perverts, insipid weaklings, drag queens, or had a tragic ending. Many of them combined almost all of those characteristics. That became a major motivation for me to begin writing in the first place. I wanted to create stories that featured gay characters as heroes, where strong gay men and women were role models, could fall in love, and even though the world raged against them, they could find some semblance of happiness together. They could triumph over the bigots of the world.
All my work features strong gay characters battling some form of bigotry. In fact, I have a mission statement on my desk in large block letters which reads: My goal is to tell unforgettable stories featuring unforgettable gay characters.
Island Song is a love story that also deals with overcoming the lost of a lover to AIDS, gay bashing and alternative families. My second novel, Changi, deals with gays in the military. My third novel, Match Maker, deals with gays in the straight-male dominated sport of professional tennis.

9. I believe you have completed another book, “Changi.” Will it be published by Zumaya and what is it about?

Changi is scheduled to be published by Zumaya in September of this year. In the U.S. military, there is a wall between the ranks of officers and enlisted soldiers that is stronger than tempered steel. All interactions between officers and enlisted are kept to military matters, never any personal banter.
I am convinced that that is why gays are still not accepted in the military. If they let gays in, then there will be gay officers as well, which could lead to sexual relations between officers and enlisted personnel, and that would break down the chain of command. Changi tackles that issue head on.
It’s the story of an enlisted, navy cook who falls in love with his executive officer on a destroyer during WWII. The first part of the book takes place on ship where the men are tightly bound by military regulations, but then they end up in notorious Changi, a Japanese POW camp on Singapore Island. In Changi, all the military regulations get turned on their head, and you’ll need to read the novel to see how that affects the lovers.

10. What other books and stories are in the works and can you tell me a little about your writing routine?

I have completed a third novel, "Match Maker", dealing with gays in professional tennis that my literary agent is trying to find a home for. Also, I’m working on two other novels. One, a modern western, is in the final stages of polishing, and the other is fifty pages into the first draft. Also, in the last few weeks, Herman and I have agreed to write a nonfiction book on our many travel adventures. I’m very excited that we will be working together on that project, but I have no idea how long that will take.
As for my writing routine, I write every day. When I’m home, I write new material in the mornings from 7 a.m. until noon. I take a long lunch break, spend time with Herman, catch up on emails, walk the dog, then spend another 2 to 3 hours in the early evening editing or polishing old work. When I’m traveling, I generally try to spend 2 to 3 hours in the afternoons to either write or edit.

11. I know you were married last year. I’ve congratulated you before but once again, congrats! Can you tell this hopeless romantic a little bit about your big day?

It was a typical situation for us. We have been living together for over fifteen years, and two weeks before the day gay marriage became legal in California, I asked Herman to marry me. I wanted a wedding party with a dozen or so close friends and family to share it with, and Herman wanted a very small ceremony and a dinner party later in the year.
We argued about it for two weeks, neither one of us budging an inch. Then, the morning after it became legal, I was writing in my office when Herman came in a told me to get cleaned up and put on a suit and tie, we had an appointment to be married at 2 p.m. At first I was furious, but before I put my foot in my big mouth, I decided to just go with it and give him what he wanted.
We went down the Civic Center, got our license and then were married in the garden there with one very close friend as our witness. The interesting thing was, even though we’ve been together for so many years, we both got choked up when giving our vows. We so often take our deep love for each other for granted, but during those moments it came home that this was the man I wanted to spend every day with, for the rest of my life. That realization was special. We were the first male couple to be married in Marin County, and I’m very proud of that

AJ: That’s a beautiful story, Alan. I appreciate you sharing it with us. On behalf of Dark Diva Reviews, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to us during your travels. I know first hand how difficult it is whilst traveling to get wireless access. I wish you good luck with all your future endeavors.

To learn more about Alan Chin, please visit these links:


Anonymous said...

great interview. As everyone knows by now, I am Alan's chief cheerleader. Thanks, AJ, for another terrific job.

AJ Llewellyn said...

Victor J, I adore you and live for your praise. Thanks so much for stopping by!