Author Interview: Lydia Kang

Lydia KangLydia Kang is an author of young adult fiction, poetry, and narrative non-fiction. She graduated from Columbia University and New York University School of Medicine, completing her residency and chief residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. She is a practicing physician who has gained a reputation for helping fellow writers achieve medical accuracy in fiction. Her poetry and non-fiction have been published in JAMA, The Annals of Internal Medicine, Canadian Medical Association Journal, Journal of General Internal Medicine, and Great Weather for Media. She believes in science and knocking on wood, and currently lives in Omaha with her husband, three children, and a terrarium full of stick bugs. (source)

Your first novel, Control, which is going to be released on December 26th by Penguin, deals with teenagers who, among other things, are experts in certain fields of science. Their knowledge gives them power but society takes away all their agency and would rather have them not exist. What is it, in your opinion, about these set-ups that appeals to the teenaged audience? Is it only that they empathize with the protagonists’ lack of power or do you think the dystopian genre has other elements that appeal to contemporary readers?

Being a teenager, in real life or fiction, is fraught with power issues. I confess that I took advantage of that natural powerlessness and expanded it exponentially by adding government conspiracies and greedy private entities that threated the tiny bit of control that these kids possessed.

I also think that audiences always cheer for the underdog, particularly when the antagonist is truly worth fighting against. Dystopia is such a great immersive experience because sadly, we can imagine how awful it would be to have huge powers crushing the little guy. Or gal. 🙂

Jacqueline Rose, a children’s literature theorist, argues that there is no such thing as children’s literature as the literature ostensibly created for children serves to appease adult needs to create the ideal childhood with innocence being the most prominent quality in it. Even though Rose’s arguments are dated and “children’s literature” contains darker themes, especially in fiction released in the past decade, the fact that remains that the majority of children’s literature created is done so by adults. Keeping this in mind, how authentic do you think the portrayals of children in children’s literature are? How would you respond to Rose’s arguments?

I think the portrayals of teens and children in literature written by adults are extremely valid to teens and children readers. I have an author friend who was once accused by a well meaning friend that “she didn’t qualify to write children’s literature because she wasn’t a school teacher.” That makes no sense to me. Adults have all been children, and we have all been teens. But that doesn’t even address the issue of imagination. You don’t have to have been a genetically modified teen to have written a book like Control. You just have to have the imagination for it. As for ideal childhoods, well, ha. Zelia’s life is anything but ideal.

As an author, I don’t constantly have this fantasy of relieving my teen life within the book I’m writing, and the content of my writing is so far from innocent! I also don’t think I’m trying to appease any one reader’s needs when I’m writing. I’m just trying to unearth the story of a very real person going through her very real hell within my imagination and getting it down on paper as accurately as possible.

Children’s literature is dismissed in certain circles as not having much literary merit.

Kimberley Reynolds, a scholar of children’s literature, contends that precisely because it is not in the spotlight that children’s lit. authors can be more innovative and experimental with content and style. Do you agree? Are there any techniques or narrative styles you’ve used in Control and felt comfortable doing so because the novel is intended for younger audiences?

Within children’s literature, there are books that are extremely commercial and extremely literary and books that are every combination therein. Just like in adult fiction. When I wrote Control, I was very influenced by Suzanne Collins’s writing style (very to the point, and not a lot of pages spent on description). But I’ve also spent time writing poetry, and used those skills to craft certain sentences just so. Both techniques work well for any audience, teen or adult. I want to strangle people who pat me on the back and say “Congratulations on your book, it must have been easy to get a deal since you’re only writing kid’s lit.” Not only is it condescending, but it’s extremely ignorant and irrelevant.

Reynold’s point of view is sadly very narrow. Content-wise, in children’s literature you see rape, incest, abandonment, suicide, mental illness, physical and mental abuse, LGBTQ characters and relationships, parental pathology, broken families, abortion, teen pregnancy…I mean, that’s not even the whole list. In what way is that content any different than what you see in adult literature? Also, as far as not being in the spotlight, children and teen lit is huge in the marketplace. That’s a burning hot spotlight of attention.

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Your novel is set in set in the year 2150 and features many fantastic inventions that sound both sinister and intriguing, for example auditory ecstasy drugs. Did you root your inventions on current inventions/sciences or did you give your imagination free rein? What was the research process like for your novel?

Research was so fun! Basically, I took some physiology and pharmacology concepts and turned them into imaginary drugs. Since it’s all in the future, I had a lot of leeway. Those scenes practically wrote themselves.

How has your experience as a doctor contributed to your writing? Is there any specific way it has affected the way you build your world and individuate your characters?

The concept of my main character’s physical issue (her Ondine’s Curse, also known as Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome) came about from studying for my Internal Medicine board exam. Other sci-fi elements that dealt with the genetic alterations also stemmed from what I knew. The great thing about being a doctor and a prior bench researcher in neurobiology is that it was super easy to make stuff up that had a backbone of scientific realism.

Many authors have documented how their early childhood reading has affected the way they express themselves as writers. Are there any books you read as a child and a teenager that have stayed with you and shaped the way you think and write?

Well, I was a huge fan of the Little House books. Still am. I wrote my version of a rough-and-tumble, gun-toting pioneer girl as my second “practice” novel. That story taught me so much about how to write. But many other childhood novels I adored stayed with me, and I tried to remember exactly how those authors managed to craft such real characters and worlds. I also read so much YA these days. These books are all great teachers! I was and am still also a huge Jane Austen fan. I love a good romance. There are nods to Pride and Prejudice throughout Control, but that was more for me than anybody else.