An interview with Sally Rippin

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sally Rippin is the author of Chenxi and the Foreigner and the writer and illustrator of numerous picture books.

From the start of the bio on her website:
I was born in Australia, but grew up in many other countries like England, Brunei, Hong Kong and China. We moved nearly every two years because of my father's work. When I finished my secondary studies in Australia, I went to China and studied traditional Chinese painting for three years. Much of my experience of studying in China became the basis of my first novel Chenxi and The Foreigner.
You can find out more about her on her website.

Here is my interview with Sally (my questions in bold). And check out Sally's blog, too!

I find it really interesting that you revised this book. How did this come about, and how different is this edition of Chenxi and the Foreigner than the original?
Essentially the story is still the same but there are a few major changes. The ending, for example, is quite different now, and I changed the dates slightly to have the novel set in the lead up to the government crackdown in Tiananmen Square rather than just after, to create more tension in the story.
It’s pretty rare for an author to have the opportunity to go back to an already published book and make significant changes, but I can tell you that it is an incredible opportunity. I imagine I am not alone when I look at my body of work and think, ‘Oh, I would have done that differently…’ or ‘If only I’d had more time to spend on that book…’ but usually I just tell myself that I have to let go at some stage and I can only aim to make each book I publish better than the last. So, when my novel was picked up by my new publishers after it had gone out of print, I was given the opportunity to rewrite this book and make all those changes I wanted to.
A lot has been made about the adding back in of swear words and the writing in of a very timid sex scene (yawn!), but for me what I am most proud of is that I hope to have written truthfully and authentically about that period in Chinese history, which has since been erased from all history books. As I mention in my afterword, I am fortunate enough to live in a country where freedom of speech is considered a basic right and as this is not the case for writers all around the world, the least that I can do is honour that right.

Who is your favourite character in Chenxi and the Foreigner, and why? Which character in the novel is the most like you?
Hmm…Anna is probably my least favourite character, but definitely the one most like me! I cringe when I read how na├»ve and sheltered she is but that is exactly what I was like when I was a nineteen-year-old student studying in Shanghai and it would have been dishonest of me to write her any other way! Chenxi is my favourite – of course! He is a mixture of all the best things in a half a dozen friends I had when I was in China – that guy’s looks, that guy’s personality, that guy’s bravery. That’s one of the great things about inventing characters – you can invent your dream guy!

I recently read an article in The Age (I think it was in a lift-out they had for Children’s Book Week), where you were quoted talking about having your novel rejected. Could you tell me a little bit about the road to publication for you?
It’s a long hard road, but I know very few writers who have had it any differently. I teach writing at university and I am always amazed to discover students who want to become ‘Writers’, but don’t actually want to have to write. So many people want to know the ‘secret’ to getting published – there’s no secret: you just have to write. And write and write and write. (With lots of reading thrown in.) Before my first novel was published I had written dozens of short stories and one unpublishable novel, that’s how I learned to write. By writing. I know I’m harping on about this but no one in their right mind would ask a sprinter how to win a gold medal unless they were serious about running. That’s where I see so many talented writers fall by the wayside – they’re not prepared to put in the training. It’s not easy, but as Rilke said, ‘Only write if you must.’ (That answer’s especially for you, Steph – fifteen years old and you’re already writing your arse off. You’ve got what it takes.)
Steph's note: Thanks!

What were your own experiences living in China like?
Very much like my main character, Anna’s experiences and, like Anna, by the end of my time in China I was very ready to leave. I love so much about China: the Art, the culture, the food, the language, but after three years I became exhausted from living in such a big, noisy, polluted city, where everywhere I went I was stared at and treated differently for being a foreigner. Even though I was a student, and poorer than many of my Chinese friends because my boyfriend and I were living off one scholarship, I was always expected to pay more than any of the locals. Sometimes, when we went on school excursions, to a museum or a gallery, the price was one Yuan for a local and ten Yuan for a foreigner! Even though I would argue until I was blue in the face that I was a student and should pay student prices, they would never budge. It seemed so outrageously unfair when I was living there, but now, as an adult, I think those years of always feeling like the outsider and being treated differently because of the colour of my skin were probably good for me, and I am grateful for the empathy that that little taste of discrimination has given me.

Are you working on any new Young Adult novels at the moment? Could you share a little about it?
Yes, I am working a new YA novel, but as it is still such early days I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it. I also find that talking about a book too early, when the ideas are still forming in your mind, can diffuse it, especially if people start giving you their two cents’ worth!

Was there any particular event that led to you writing this novel, and choosing it to be set in China, a place where not a lot of books for teenagers are set?
I am fascinated by China and it amazes me that the rest of the world seems to take so little interest in it, considering that one in five people live there. Having said that, I grew up in South-East Asia as a child and, as you know, spent three years in China as a university student so I definitely have an affinity with that part of the world. I guess my main drive was to write a complicated multicultural love story, but I hope China creates an interesting backdrop. I also hope to show readers that while the politics of the vast and powerful country that China is may differ greatly to the country they are living in, young people all around the world have much the same hopes and desires regardless of their nationality.

Did you intend to write this novel for young adults? Or did it just turn out that way? (I think it has a lot of crossover appeal, even though the characters are all fairly young.)
Not necessarily. As you know I was nineteen when I first began writing this novel, so I guess I was firstly writing it to myself. Now I give it to my friends who are my age (ancient) and they seem to enjoy it as much as my young adult readers, so yes, I hoped it would have crossover appeal.

What books and authors inspire you?
Oh, dozens of them. Writers who play with language and can combine this with great story-telling are my favourite. I read lots of contemporary Australian YA authors because there are so many wonderful authors here, but I’d love to hear some recommendations of other great YA books anyone has read lately?

Complete this sentence: My teenage years were…
A heady mix of heightened emotions and complicated relationships, with lots of bad fashion and great music thrown in.


Many thanks to Sally, and Joanna at Annick Press. Chenxi and the Foreigner is available in the US, Canada and Aus! And maybe some other places but I'm not sure. You should definitely check it out.

The Chenxi and the Foreigner blog tour finishes tomorrow at Into The Wardrobe.
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