Tidbits behind SWORDBIRD

Nancy Yi Fan

My family told me that when I was just born and fresh from the hospital, my grandfather placed an English book under my head. No baby in the family had ever received such a special pillow. Now, it seems like a prediction that I would write a book one day, that it had something to do with my writing Swordbird. When my parents and I visited my grandfather to celebrate his ninety-third birthday this summer, I placed a bound galley of Swordbird under his pillow as a surprise. He was so delighted when he awoke and discovered it. He looked at the pictures and words over and over, even though he did not understand English. He smiled at me and his eyes shone as if to say, “I knew it would happen all along!”


          I had a leafy plant that was suspended on a hook in the balcony ceiling. That was when I lived in Syracuse, New York. From the computer desk inside, you could see the plant pretty well. One day, I saw a robin flutter over and inspect it. Later on as I started to write Swordbird, a pair of robins actually came and nested in it! They brought grass and mud everyday, and I saw a small bowl forming in the center of the hanging plant. I was so happy by this that I made my main character the robin Miltin. A few more days passed, I wrote more of my story, and the robin laid four pale blue eggs in the nest. The best part was when the little baby birds hatched and grew strong. They chirped cheerily all the time and that gave me confidence and new strength whenever I faltered during the writing process.

       I started practicing martial arts with a sword. With actual experience, wouldn’t my fighting scenes be stronger? I thought. I took some lessons with the local kung fu coaches. It really worked.


I love to draw birds and things of nature. Before I wrote a chapter or an important scene in Swordbird, I usually did a detailed pencil sketch of the main action in the plot. This not only made me excited about writing the chapter or the scene but it also helped me describe the parts more vividly. All I needed to do was to transfer the picture I had drawn into words, and hopefully a picture will form in the reader’s mind. I believe that drawing, like writing, is one of the greatest ways to express your opinions, ways and the world to others.


After I finished the story, I went online to look for some email addresses of publishers and then to email out my first draft with a summary. President Jane Friedman of HarperCollins was one of the recipients, who breathed Swordbird into life.



Nancy talks about Swordbird at Beijing International Book Fair (2006)