Hilary Masters, mentor and friend

I remember being surprised that Hilary was a man.

Based on name alone, I was expecting a woman that first time I walked into Hilary Masters’s classroom. Instead, I found a grizzled old soul with sharp eyes, a gravelly voice, and sly wit. He was intimidating because he didn’t suffer fools or slackers. But he was always wise and generous in his guidance of our work. The more we gave, the more he gave.


That first class took place in Baker Hall, in a plain white room with long tables arranged into a square. While other students filled in anywhere and everywhere except right next to the professor, I took to sitting just to the left of him. Later, the advanced classes grew smaller — and perhaps braver — until it was just half a dozen of us squeezed into Hilary’s office. The boys liked his lumpy green couch. The girls settled into various random and mismatched chairs.

Hilary always presided from the well-worn leather rolling chair at his desk. He listened thoughtfully to our excited chatter, indulging us for a few minutes at the beginning of every class. Then he called us to order and listened even more thoughtfully to the work we read aloud. His observations were specific and insightful, often leading us beyond the words that we had put on the page, to the deeper meaning and emotions underneath, which we hadn’t even realized we were excavating.

From Carnegie Mellon’s obituary for Hilary:

“Always encouraging, he believed in the craft of writing and he believed in his students, and he believed in me,” Barnes said.

By senior year, I considered Hilary a mentor, and I asked him to supervise my thesis project. With humility — and a hint of warning — he accepted. Then he challenged me to write 10 new pages of my novel and show it to him every week, regardless of any other club, school, or Resident Life responsibilities I had. It was hard, but I did it. I wrote half of that novel under his guidance, won an award for my thesis presentation of it, and finished the draft a few months after graduating.

Hilary didn’t make me a writer, but he did make me a better writer. More than that, he opened up his heart and his home to me and a few of my classmates. I remember the awe we felt at being invited into his charming historic house, with all its worldly knickknacks from his long and fascinating life. I remember trying triple creme cheese for the first time, and daring to have a sip of wine. I remember sitting in the tiny room by the stairwell and talking about books late into the night.

Hilary Masters was a special man, and I feel fortunate to have known him. Friends are often teachers, and in this case, my teacher became my friend. He will be missed.

For more about Hilary’s full and interesting life, please read this lovely write-up in the New York Times.

My fridge, on writing and life

3 years ago I graduated from college (holy cow I’m old) and Andy and I moved in together. Our condo came with all the necessary appliances, including a nice Maytag refrigerator. The unit was pretty standard: ivory white, vertical doors, with the refrigeration side on the right, freezer and ice/water dispenser on the left.

We put a lot into that fridge. Milk, cheese, fruits, veggies, ice cream, pot pie, leftovers, etc. And of course we took quite a bit out again too. Some of the stuff, we forgot about, and over time it grew moldy, became inedible. Every now and then we would purge the fridge of these horrors, then re-stock it with fresh new goodies.

One day, for no apparent reason, the ice/water dispenser decided to stop dispensing. We Googled for help, and even paid $15 to chat live with a serviceman, who instructed us on how to take the dispenser out of the door, fiddle with the wires, etc. Nothing worked. So we shrugged our shoulders and bought a purifying water pitcher to use instead. Life went on.

Fast forward 1 year.

Last week, a small windstorm knocked out power in our neighborhood. When the power was restored a few hours later, we went around to reset all the clocks. As I walked into the kitchen to set the microwave and oven, I noticed two strange little lights on our refrigerator door. The ice/water dispenser had come back to life!

In case you hadn’t figured it out by now, this is not only a true story, it’s a metaphor. As writers, we fill up our manuscript with words and ideas. Sometimes they get old and moldy before we can put them to use. Sometimes they keep for years. And sometimes part of the manuscript just stops working. You can hire someone to try and repair it, or jiggle the wires and hope for the best. Or you can accept that it’s broken and walk away. Find an alternative. Maybe work on a different manuscript altogether. Then one day, when you least expect it, maybe a light will come on, and your original manuscript will start working again.

I started my first novel, The Good Daughters, 6 years ago. I put it aside 2 years ago, when I realized that in spite of the great characters, themes, and prose that it contained, the story wasn’t working. The plot was broken. Then a couple weeks ago, a light came on in my head. Without consciously trying to, I had figured out the perfect plot to dispense my story. The Good Daughters works again.

My guess is that this metaphor applies to a lot more in life than just writing. To be clear, it’s not about “magic” solutions to your problems, or waiting for things to happen for you. It’s about not trying to force something to work before it’s ready. Because maybe it’s really you that isn’t ready. Maybe your brain is trying to figure something out but you’re getting in the way. Or maybe your mind just needs a little time and a little space, a little spark or a little storm, to jolt it back on the right track.

Or maybe I’m just overextending the metaphor because I’m so shocked by my dispenser’s miraculous revival…

Either way, would you like some ice? I can get it for you from my fridge.

A few fictional Asians

Yesterday, Crossing by Andrew Xia Fukuda became available for purchase. Andrew is another writer and blog-friend I met through the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, and in fact his book is being published via AmazonEncore as a result of his participation in that contest.

Now, I didn’t subject Andrew to an interview like I did Todd, but the Q&A on Crossing‘s Amazon page is what got me interested in his book. I highly recommend checking that out.

Verdict? Crossing took me by surprise. I wanted to read it because of my Chinese heritage, and because of how the Virginia Tech incident affected me, but somehow I wasn’t expecting the book’s emotional depth. Furthermore, the mystery element made it a very compelling read, and certain passages struck me with their literary beauty. Like any book, Crossing won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Of course, I had to laugh when Andrew mentioned (in the Q&A) how most immigrant books feature “clichéd scenes of family meals, flowery mother-daughter relationships, and cathartic returns to the motherland.” Because that’s sort of the book The Good Daughters was. (TGD = my first ever completed novel, currently shelved but slated to be rewritten.) Well, okay, TGD’s mother-daughter relationship wasn’t flowery, and no one went back to the motherland, but it did feature more “typical” or expected elements. (Hence why it needs to be rewritten.)

So in addition to enjoying Crossing as a story, I also appreciated how Andrew stepped away from a lot of the stereotypes. (But not all of them. And hey, some exist for a reason.) Andrew used Chinese culture to enhance Xing’s character, not to define him. Xing could have been a loner for any reason; he just happened to be Chinese.

Similarly, actress-writer-director Fay Ann Lee created Falling for Grace, a Chinese-American rom-com. Yes, that’s right: a Chinese-American romantic comedy. Hollywood liked the story but wanted Lee to change the main character to a white or Hispanic woman. Lee refused and put the movie out independently. It’s not 100% polished like the slick things we usually see on-screen, but it’s got a lot of raw truth in it, particularly in the scenes about Grace and her family. In fact, my favorite part (sorry, this is a teeny bit of a spoiler) is when Grace gives her brother some money for culinary school:

Ming: I’ll pay you back, I promise!
Grace: Just cook for me for the rest of my life.
Ming: … I’d rather pay you back.

Did that have to take place between Asian siblings? Of course not. But throughout the movie, their heritage is reflected in their interactions with each other and with their parents, and it makes those relationships feel rich, and real.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love (love LOVE) Amy Tan, and a lot of the more “typical” Asian American fiction that’s out there. (LOVE.) But I think it’s great that some writers and artists are exploring their heritage in other ways. We need to represent the whole spectrum of experiences, you know?

Andrew Xia Fukuda and Fay Ann Lee are doing that, and when I rewrite The Good Daughters, I plan to as well.

A big thank you to my team

Dear friends and lurkers alike,

I just wanted to let you know that I did not advance to the Semifinals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest. Don’t worry, I’m not upset at all. I knew the second half of my book had some problems that I hadn’t fixed, so I was very happy just to get this far.

The best part of this whole thing for me has been the overwhelming support I got from you all. It really energized me at a time that I was feeling a little burnt out, and now I’m ready to get to work making the whole book just as good as the opening excerpt – or better!

So thank you very much for your kind words and encouragement. It’s the end of the Amazon line, but definitely not the end of my journey to publication. ;)

“Everybody in this league is successful,” Allen said. “Everybody in this league has made it to this level where they’re a flagship in their society and their community where they grew up. People look up to them. They’re outliers in their world.

“We’re not outliers among ballplayers, but we’re outliers amongst the people that we grew up around. I started analyzing why that is. What made me successful? I was successful because of the opportunities that I had, outside of the other opportunities that people had, the breaks, people pushing me forward. The communities I grew up in, people were always adding an extra five bucks to get me to camp. The same thing that Bill Gates went through with the computer access. I had access to a gym, just the same. Once I started going there, people started seeing my passion for it, they started helping me.

“That’s why I always tell people, no matter what sport you’re in, whether it’s team or individual, everybody has a team. There’s a crew that helped get you where you are, no matter how you see it, how you look at it. You start thinking about it, analyzing situations. Anybody in this locker room, people helped you achieve your goal.”

(From a great ESPN column by J.A. Adande. Emphasis added by me.)

Weird… but okay

Any publicity is good publicity, right?

  • Green Pasture Christian Bookstore – The Good Daughters [link now gone]
  • Intelligent Investor Club – The Good Daughters [link now gone]

I’m neither a good Christian nor a good investor, so I’m not sure what to think…

Anyway, there’s just about a week left until I find out the fate of my novel The Good Daughters in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest. If you haven’t gotten a chance to read, rate, and review it yet, I’d love for you to check it out before the 15th. After that, it will probably be taken off Amazon. Unless of course it makes it to the Semifinals (top 100 entries), but that’s highly unlikely.

(That’s not modesty, haha, that’s insider knowledge. The excerpt is WAY more polished than the rest of what I submitted. But I’m working on getting the rest up to par…)

For those who have already helped me rack up my ridiculous number of positive reviews, thank you so much!!