Leila: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing life so far?
Have you been writing long, and what drew you to writing for children
Tina: About me? Well, that is quite a story in itself but I’m not sure I have enough room to fit everything in, so here is the condensed version! Are you ready? This is what I answer when I am often asked “Where are you from?” – I was born Maisie Chan back in the late 70s (the same year as Elvis died – RIP The King). At twelve days old I was fostered by the Freeth Family who then went on to adopt me when I was 8 years old. I was fairly good at school, went on to study American and Canadian Studies at Birmingham Uni as I liked basketball, rap music and wanted to live in America for a year (I had no career aspirations back then!), plus my Mom wanted me to stay at home and I lived around the corner from the campus.
During my year abroad, I read lots of Asian American authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, but on my return realised there were no British Chinese authors. I went to live in Taipei so I could learn Mandarin Chinese to feel closer to my Asian roots, but really I felt more British – so that backfired! In 2003 my Mom passed away and soon after, I decided I wanted to write. I had a few jobs as a grants writer for various charities, and in 2006 it was all change again as I decided to quit my job and focus all of my energy into writing and unexpectedly found my biological father when I was surfing the internet – he was a Tai Chi Master and was doing a show in London. I did his tai chi class and after told him I was his daughter. I started to write a book about it but never finished it!
I was accepted onto the National Academy of Writing diploma course at Birmingham City University in 2007 and also had a place on the Birmingham Libraries scheme for BAME writers Original Skin which culminated with a short story anthology.
Since then I’ve had a handful of short stories published in various anthologies and collaborated on two picture books for reluctant readers that were published by Franklin Watts. The characters in those children’s books were from an urban housing estate and looked like me and people that I had grown up with, such as the Pakistani families on my road, or the families that had the random child in the middle who was a shade darker than all of the others. Families are not only white, they aren’t always like the ones you see in the supermarket adverts buying food for their neat breakfast tables. I knew that it was important to have people of colour and to have working class people in books, especially children’s books as all children need to see mirrors of themselves represented in books. Society is made up of a mixture of different people and circumstances.
I had a break from writing to have my two children in 2010; one of them looks Spanish and the other one looks Chinese. They both love to books and we create weird stories together. I want to write stories for children and teenagers because I remember what it was like being a child and even though my Mom was not very literate, she always took me to the library and made sure I could read well. A librarian once told me that my writing ‘voice’ suited young adult fiction and I often work with children, either through storytelling, family yoga sessions or doing author events at schools and libraries.
Fortunately for me, in 2015 I was accepted onto the Writing West Midlands Room 204 writer development scheme last which has been wonderful as it has put me in touch with local writing community. I was one of the finalist of the Creative Futures Literary Awards last year which was a surprise as I hadn’t written for such a long time.
I’m super happy that I will be teaching creative writing to teens during this coming year which I am sure will help me understand that particular age group a bit more as it’s been a while since I was a teenager! I need to brush up on the lingo!
Leila: And can you tell us a bit about the book you will be writing this
year – what’s it about, and what inspired you to write it? What do you
think the biggest challenges will be in writing it? (the things you
think will be most difficult – e.g. researching, or structuring, etc.)
Tina: I have a tendency to write tragic comedies and I suppose the novel I am writing will be along a similar vein. I am going to write about a British Chinese teenager who is going to go live with a black foster family, I want to explore how my protagonist deals with the cultural differences that will arise from living with a family very different to your own. Originally, my idea was that her father had been sectioned for mental health reasons but now I am thinking of changing it to her grandfather (whom she lives with) who has severe Dementia and has to go onto a care home. He has looked after her since her parents both died. I often want to explore themes in my stories that I have experiences such as grief, rejection, being a young carer, or the effects of mental health issues on the family. I think many young people have to go through these issues, it’s not all about who you fancy or Justin Bieber!
I think the most difficult thing about writing the book will be carving out time to do it whilst juggling family life. My daughter starts school in September so I’m very much looking forward to that event! I also teach yoga once a week and it helps me maintain my own yoga practice which I think definitely helps me as a writer. It counters the sitting in a chair and tapping on the laptop. In essence I need to make more time and will start going to a local cafe to write instead of doing it at home with all the distractions of laundry and washing up. I tend to procrastinate a lot!
I also need to use my experience but then detach from it too and know that I am writing fiction. I am not the main character and the story is hers story not mine. Research for the story shouldn’t be that difficult as I have firsthand experience of many of the themes in the book.
Leila: Finally, what do you hope to get out of Megaphone?
Tina: I hope that Megaphone will take my writing to the next level. I have only written short fiction and short scripts but have always wanted to write novels, but in my mind I felt I couldn’t do it without some kind of support. Often on writing courses you are not taught how to write a longer piece of work, so having a mentor is going to be invaluable as she will read the novel as I’m writing and editing it and has so much experience in this area of writing. I am also looking forward to the masterclasses from visiting authors and publishing professionals. I’ve created a facebook group for the five of us from Megaphone to get to know each other better, to share resources and to support each other over the coming year. I’m looking forward to seeing the other participant’s novels take form as well as my own.
A writer friend once said her mantra was ‘BOOK IN WATERSTONES!’ and I am adopting that too, I want my book (s) in Waterstones (actually any large bookstore or independent ones too for that matter!) I want young people to read it and for that to happen it has to be published and to be out there.
Megaphone is an excellent scheme to make this happen I just have to live up to my end and write the best story I can. Thanks to all of those involved in making this happen. It really is a life changing opportunity.