Maisie Chan, a British Chinese children’s author from Birmingham, is an absolute favourite here at My Book Corner. Sarah Broadley jumped at the chance to interview Maisie, the result is an insightful interview that delves behind the creative scenes of ‘Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu’
1. Dancing plays a huge part in the relationship between your main character Lizzie and Wai Gong. When the idea for the novel came to mind, was this intended or did it unfold as you wrote their story?
The dancing came later. When I was on Megaphone in 2016 I came up with the idea of writing about a girl who lives with her grandad and he has dementia, it had another element to the story but it essentially was two novels in one and it was for teens. I rewrote that first part as Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu so that was the one of the initial element really. Although, the Guan Yin goddess idea came to me over a decade ago as an image of the goddess at a bus stop. I think ideas and themes swirl around inside my brain for ages and it either comes to together or it doesn’t. With each redrafting, a new element usually gets added. Dancing is now integral to the story and vibe of the book.
2. It’s fascinating to read about the goddess Guan Yin, the legend of Miao Shan, the monk Tripitaka and so many more Chinese stories in ‘Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu’. Guan Yin, especially, is crucial to the storyline. Were there any other Chinese deities that you wanted to include before settling on the goddess of compassion and mercy?
No, it was always going to be Guan Yin (also you might find it spelt Kwan Yin, Kuan Yin or she might go by other names). I think compassion was a core message I wanted and there was no other Chinese deity that I wanted to introduce in this book. I mention a couple of others but for this story it was always going to be her. I did ask other British East and Southeast Asian writers that I know if they thought it was okay to write about Guan Yin as people still pray to her, and they said yes. She does appear in popular culture and in remakes of The Journey to the West.
3. The adventure from Glasgow to Blackpool takes Lizzie, Wai Gong and friends through some scary and sometimes hilarious scenarios. Any of them linked to real life incidents you’ve experienced?
No, it’s all fiction. I did take my dad (who later had dementia) on a trip to Dublin but that was on a plane! We didn’t have any hiccups like Lizzie and her pals. I have had encounters though where I’ve been in a foreign city and strangers have helped me out. I was lost once in the Hollywood Hills and a man named Michael drove me to my friend’s house (after he searched on the internet the road they lived on) and I’ve shared a cab ride with a Belgian women to the airport once and we kept in touch and wrote letters to each other for a short period of time. I did once take a flight in the states and the pilot did a yo-yo show (he was some kind of yo-yo champion) as he walked down the aisle of the plane and we all clapped – so I think that was in my mind when I wrote the scene with Wai Gong on the train when he has a captive audience.
4. Young carers always put themselves before others. They can sometimes see themselves as the glue that holds their family unit together. Can you tell us a little about your experiences as a carer and how your experiences manifested, if at all, in Lizzie’s life?
I was much older than Lizzie when I was a carer for my parents. I was in my early twenties and my caring responsibilities lasted until my dad passed away in 2017. It’s one of the reasons that I can now write full-time because I have more head space. In the book, Lizzie gets on with it. She just starts to do the things her grandma used to do almost automatically. She knows deep down that something is not quite right, but she carries on just trying to keep the routines and rituals that had been in place. I used to do the same. My dad was very fussy so I learnt to cook the way my mum did for him, and I had to go to the Post Office and pay the bills, I went to the market each Saturday so all of that is mentioned in the book. I also didn’t really see myself as a ‘young carer’, I didn’t label myself and Lizzie doesn’t realise at first that she is one either. I think she’s also very protective over Wai Gong and really wants to make him happy because he’s been depressed and sad. I’ve experienced that too.
5. People deal with grief in many ways, you can tell from Lizzie and then Wai Gong that they deal with it differently. Grief is a powerful emotion and these scenes must have been hard to write, how did you feel when writing them?
The grief element wasn’t too bad to write if I’m being honest – I supposed it’s loosely based on the different ways my dad and myself dealt with my mum’s death nearly twenty years ago. I’ve had varying experiences of grief and so I didn’t really want to go into it too much. Lizzie keeps herself busy to distract from her feelings. Wai Gong doesn’t function well, he can’t find a job, he’s depressed and a bit aimless. We hear from Lizzie that he didn’t get out of bed for days and wouldn’t eat – that was my dad. I didn’t have time to do that because I was the one who had to sort out the funeral for my mum and suddenly I was the ‘head’ of the family even though I wasn’t the oldest. I found researching young carers the toughest part because there was a sense of them losing a little of their childhood.
6. Dementia is an impaired ability to remember, think, or make decisions that interferes with doing everyday activities, which you very sensitively approached in your novel. What research or conversations were needed to make sure that Wai Gong’s experiences were portrayed as true to reality as possible?
That element is loosely based on my dad who used to see a figure called ‘Angel’ but then other times seemed relatively himself. He wouldn’t know if the shopping had been delivered (which it had as I’d organised it every week) and he wouldn’t remember speaking to certain people. But he’d remember other things.
7. What’s next for Maisie Chan?
I’m currently thinking about the next book idea and I’m wondering if I could combine elements of historical with contemporary. I’ve just written a couple of historical pieces and really enjoyed them. I might write about a transracial adoptee and I have the title of another book but I don’t know what the story is about yet. I’m enjoying not having a deadline and allowing my brain to relax a little. I’m also focussing on screenwriting and have nearly come to the end of a traineeship with Magic Light Pictures who make a lot of Julia Donaldson’s adaptations.
Maisie Chan’s first novel Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths (also called Danny Chung Sums It Up in the U.S.) won the Jhalak Children’s and YA Prize 2022 and is shortlisted for the Branford Boase, it was also shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Awards 2022. Her latest novel is Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu. She also writes the Tiger Warrior series with Hachette under the name M Chan. She has written early readers for Hachette and Big Cat Collins, and has a collection of myths and legends out with Scholastic. As well as a mystery story in The Very Merry Murder Club with Farshore. She runs the Bubble Tea Writers Network to support and encourage writers of East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) descent in the U.K. She has a dog called Miko who has big eyes. She lives in Glasgow with her family. She loves dim sum, yoga and travelling.