by Nancy Yi Fan
Nancy Yi Fan talks about her second book on HarperCollinschildrens' podcast.
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Hi, this is Nancy Yi Fan, author of Swordbird and Sword Quest. Thanks for tuning in to this week’s Middle Grade podcast. I’m so happy to have the chance to talk to you!
Since the worldwide publication of Swordbird, you have sent me tons of emails and letters telling me how much you love my book. Now I’d like to thank you for your support and encouragement. Without it, I couldn’t have finished writing my second book Sword Quest. Your reaction to Swordbird really motivated me to write another book. This time I wanted to tell the story of Wind-voice. So I started on another journey and worked towards a new destination—writing my second book Sword Quest.
Writing is hard work but it is also fun, especially when I have so many readers to share my book with me. Now I have friends all over the world. Though I have never seen most of you, my stories link us together. Confucius once said, “Is it not a joy to have friends come from afar?” This is how I feel when I receive letters from readers afar.
I wrote Swordbird just for myself. Writing Sword Quest was a very different experience. I wrote Sword Quest for my readers and friends in order to satisfy their curiosity as well as my own.
The idea for writing Swordbird came from a dream; Sword Quest was inspired from an untold story in Swordbird. Readers kept asking me, “How did Wind-voice become Swordbird?” “Who wrote the Old Scripture and the Book of Heresy?” Yes, how did Wind-voice become Swordbird? I thought. Where did Wind-voice get his sword? How did Ewingerale the woodpecker play a part in Wind-voice’s journey? This sounds like an exciting story that I must tell.
When I write stories, I like to explore something special, something that I’ve never seen or heard before. In this way, my writing becomes a process of discovery, challenging and thrilling. But finding that special something can be elusive. Sometimes it can take up countless days of deep thinking or even as much as a month’s research.
Finding the hero Swordbird had been like this— when I was 11 years old, I was spellbound by fantasy stories but in all the fantasy novels I’d read, none featured birds carrying swords (of course there were other animals carrying weapons), So, I began to tell stories to myself in which armed bird warriors challenged one another in the air. For days and days afterwards, when I ventured into the forest, I seemed to see flashes of something bright in the birds’ tiny claws. My eyes are surely playing tricks on me! I thought. One afternoon after I came back from my forest walk, I picked up a pencil, and drew the profile of a dove raising a broadsword. In no time I tacked it onto the ceiling so I could look at it in bed. That night I had a dream about cardinals and blue jays who were fighting. From it, grew the first book I know of with weapon-waving birds! Because it was a first, I just couldn’t wait to write all about it.
For Sword Quest, it was even harder to find something really special to write about. Since Swordbird and Winger were mentioned in the first book, what could be new? After racking my brains for a long time, I had an idea: Sword Quest would trace back to ancient times. Who were the ancestors of birds? Some sort of dinosaur? But since that hasn’t been quite proven, and since dinosaurs are so familiar, I didn’t feel that writing about dinosaurs would be exciting at all.
One evening, I was flipping the pages of an ornithology book when a picture of an archaeopteryx caught my eye. Here I am! he seemed to grin. He had teeth and claws on his wings! Birds with teeth—all of I sudden a door opened and I saw the opportunity of writing about chattering teeth, toothaches, chewing!
I dashed to the local library to see whether there were any children’s novels that had archaeopteryxes as characters, and there weren’t. “So the archaeopteryxes win the audition for the bad guys,” I said. Sword Quest could be the first children’s book to have archaeopteryxes as its major characters. Cool! I guess you could say this is a secret of my writing — making the most of discoveries.
So how were the archaeopteryxes involved with Wind-voice? Sword Quest opens with the world of birds in chaos. According to the legend, a hero would restore tranquility when he finds the Hero’s Sword. Wind-voice and his friends, Ewingerale the woodpecker scribe, Stormac the myna warrior, and Fleydur, the musician eagle embark on a journey to aid him. But the evil archaeopteryx Maldeor, aided by the half-ghost Yin Soul, wants the sword as well. The four friends must stop him, and find the real hero. Their journey sweeps across the world, over oceans and rivers, mountains and forests.
My parents call me “forest girl” because I love forests so much that I run off into the woods whenever I find the time. Forests were the inspiration of my two books. Where there are trees, you find birds. When I would stand near the trees, I could almost sense tiny bird feet shuffling on my shoulder. It was as if they were leaning in to sing their inspiration to me. Once under the canopy in the depth of the forest I felt exhilarated as if I were turning into a bird myself. My ears could distinguish songs of different kinds of birds and my eyes could effortlessly separate bird silhouettes from the fluttering leaves. I love birds for their song and the happiness which they share with the entire world.
Now I live in Florida. The tropical woods and prairies here are just as inspirational. If you have seen the cover of Sword Quest, you’ll know what I mean. You just can’t forget that background, a lush tropical forest with palmettos and dazzling, beautiful flowers. Ancient trees in Florida look like hunched storytellers. They are simply shaking their leaves to find a person to whisper to. And you can’t help but believe that it is the sheer happy birdsong that holds up the skies. I love every mossy inch of the forests. I deeply believe that a forest has a river of stories that flow without ending.
I wish my writing experience was always smooth, but the biggest challenge I faced was time management. While I wrote Sword Quest, I had to cope with many other things at the same time: a flood of media interviews for Swordbird, numerous school, bookstore and library visits, keeping up with readers’ emails and letters, and my homework. I was also determined to stay a straight A student but I wanted to have enough time to write my book! Why do I place my school work above everything else? I truly believe that my fate and future lie in learning as much as I can. In fact, writing is a kind of learning. It trains my thought process to be more logical and it keeps my mind in shape for brainstorming and imagining.
Once my homework was done, I tried to seize every available moment to write. The time spent in the airports waiting for delayed flights, on the way home or going to school, lunch periods, holidays and weekends were all used to whip ideas together and write. “Give me a moment to think”—that often would pop out of my mouth.
Gradually I learned how to be efficient and meet deadlines—that is, to rank things in order of importance and do the most important ones NOW. Speaking of deadlines, they are heartless things, definitely worthy of a hero’s challenge! I even found a way to include the theme of deadlines in Sword Quest. I created a Hero’s Day in Sword Quest to hasten and worry Wind-voice. That’s the only day when Yin Soul the half-ghost can burst back into the living world, and when a hero can become Swordbird. I sure can relate to the feeling of trying to make a deadline from my experience. I’m sure others, too, will relate to this feeling. Deadlines make feathers and hair rise on necks, whether it’s in life or in fiction.
Sometimes the things I notice find their way into my book. In one scene Wind-voice’s mother pretends that her wing is broken in order to divert the archaeopteryxes’ attention and protect her son. Once, outside a supermarket, I saw a mother bird brooding eggs on her nest in a patch of grass, and some school boys were standing around her. The father bird feared they would harm his family. He ran in front of the school boys, calling and pretending one of his wings was broken. Seeing heads turning to look at him, he raised his wings. He barely lifted into the air and dropped to the ground a little bit farther off. Again and again he fluttered away, but always would collapse. Then all of a sudden he gave up and started running and stopping, dragging his wing, hoping the children would be lured away into trying to capture him. Then his family would be safe. But how could he understand that these were children, not weasels or cats? The kids ran back when they realized the bird’s intention. The father bird returned, perplexed and worried. He cried out to the kids, and then tried again and again, each effort more desperate than the last, to draw them away. By this time the kids paid little attention to him. His heroic attempts made a lasting impression on me, so I definitely wanted to include it in Sword Quest.
In another scene when Wind-voice meets the heron Fisher, the first thing he sees is Fisher’s spindly legs. There is a pond near my home. Often I would sit behind the cattails and watch silently as the silent heron stalked the silent fish. What most impressed me were the herons’ legs—the knees were so bony they seemed to knock together at every stride. In Sword Quest, the heron Fisher is the head of a battle-worn community. His thin legs covered with scars show the hard life in the midst of war.
In a scene from the same chapter, the sentry of Fisher’s camp stands with a rock in the claws of one foot. It sounds so amazing and peculiar. But this kind of thing does happen in real life. I learned this from a photo that I saw in the Florida Museum of Natural History. I thought it was so curious I was determined to find a way to include it in Sword Quest.
Yin Soul is one of the main antagonists in Sword Quest. Because Yin Soul swallows a tear of the Great Spirit by accident, he becomes a half ghost. He searches the minds of dying birds and tries to trick them, so that he could come back to the mortal world in his victim’s body by Hero’s Day. This was inspired by one of the ghost stories my grandmother used to tell me. “In the crossroads, ghosts would lurk around,” she said. “There they were, waiting to seize someone who was rushing by so that they could use his body to return to the living world.” I was only a preschooler then. I was so scared that once, in the fall, when I saw fog clinging over an intersection, I nearly flew back and avoided the place for days. Even now I can’t forget the creepy story.
In one of the scenes in Sword Quest, an old bird uses sticks and the Yin and Yang symbol to tell fortunes. The symbol seemed so mysterious to me that when I was small, I used to draw a huge Yin and Yang on the dirt with my toe, and fill the black parts with buckets of water, the white parts with sand from the sandbox. I believed the Yin and Yang symbols contained the secret of the cosmos. So in Sword Quest, I arranged a fortune-teller to show Winger and Fleydur the way to the Island of Paradise.
Even today fortune-telling exists everywhere in the world because no one knows what will happen tomorrow and in the future. Since what lies ahead is so unpredictable, many of us believe in fatalism.
So in my second book, I dedicate Sword Quest to all who want to be masters of fate. It may seem as if it is too early for kids to think about fate but we do think about it. I think from ancient times to the present, kids are always wondering “What shall I be?”
I seriously thought about fate when I was in my last year of middle school, and everyone was saying goodbye and asking, “What will you do?” Again I thought about it when journalists interviewed me and asked what profession I would choose in the future. This is a big question. No one’s quite sure about the answer but we do have goals.
In Sword Quest, I let Winger speak for me:
“Fate is wind, not a river.
The directions of wind can always change,
But rivers shall flow the same.
No matter which way the wind shall blow,
Dare to use your wings.”
We can use our wings to change our fate and strive for a better tomorrow. If we take action instead of idling, if we put in a little more effort, anything can happen.
Now I’d like share a snippet from Sword Quest with you.
In this passage, Wind-voice is lashed over a fire by the archaeopteryxes. As he is dying, Yin Soul, the half-ghost offers him another chance at life.
Chapter Three Choice
A righteous heart can beam a light in the darkest place.
— from the Old Scripture
Gradually 013-Unidentified became aware that a raven was clacking his beak loudly. “Come,” the raven rasped, beckoning. “Come, you don’t want to be late.”
“No!” 013-Unidentified whispered. For some reason, he didn’t want to go anywhere with this stranger.
“Come,” the bird insisted. “I’ve been ordered to bring you, and bring you I must. But if you ask, I must bring you back again. Those are the laws I obey.”
Out sprang a claw that clasped around the white bird’s neck. He gasped. His conscious soul was being lifted out of his body! The raven flew out of the kitchen. Nobird seemed to notice. 013-Unidentified turned back to look, and saw his body still on the fire.
“Where are we going?” he asked the raven, choking.
“To Yin Soul.”
They flew over an endless stretch of gray, an angry ocean beneath them. It seemed only minutes before the raven dropped 013-Unidentified. He landed before he could open his wings.
He was in a small red room, the walls lined with looming bookshelves. On the far side was a fireplace framed by a red mantle, surrounded with red incense sticks and sputtering red candles. The sharp cinnamon perfume they gave off stung his eyes.
“Hello, dear 013-Unidentified.” The youngster jumped at the sudden words; they were whispery and thin. A scaled creature in a broad red manteau nodded slightly as he scuttled from behind a pile of books. He looked a lot like an archaeopteryx, except he was larger and all four of his limbs were shaped like wings. “I am Yin Soul. Come here, young one, and perch beside me.”
013-Unidentified obeyed in a dreamlike trance. The carpet underfoot, woven with a design like red and yellow flames, felt plush.
“I do feel so sorry for you.” The creature’s eyes softened with what looked like a father’s fondness. “You were going to die. They wanted to cook and eat you; how cruel! But now you’re here. You want to live, surely? Everybird wants to live!” Yin Soul studied 013-Unidentified. He began to speak again, softly. “I like your spirit. You face reality so bravely. But don’t you want to fight your enemies? Don’t you want to steer the flight of your life? I can save you from that fire. You’d be free.”
013-Unidentified gaped in silence. “Free! I—”
Yin Soul’s eyes bore into 013-Unidentified’s. “But being free is not enough. You know that your enemies deserve to be punished. They deserve to be punished for causing you pain, for every injustice, for every feather they tore loose. Some even deserve death! I know a way for that. Hero’s Day is the day of the fifth full moon in the year after the next. You know the legends about a magical sword that can be found at Kauria, the Island of Paradise. If you find the sword on that particular day, you will have that power over all your enemies. Then you can do what your heart tells you to do! All you must do is to agree to swallow my essence.”
After a silence, Yin Soul glanced into the distance and sighed. “I am like you. I know how it feels. Truly.” He smiled sadly at 013-Unidentified.
“Why do you want me to swallow your essence?” the white bird asked at last.
Yin Soul closed his eyes. “Then I would be able to guide you inside your body.”
013-Unidentified peered at Yin Soul, confused. Suppose, just suppose it was real! Then his troubles would probably end here and now, but . . . . Was it his conscience telling him no? Was it the same thing that had made him say his long-ago name, Wind-voice, instead of 013-Unidentified when he spoke to the woodpecker captive, Ewingerale?
You are Wind-voice, not 013-Unidentified, a voice deep inside him said. Think like Wind-voice.
For a split second, everything in the room changed. Red blurred to gray. The flames went out; the candles were pools of wax. The cinnamon scents of incense soured into those of spoiled fish.
The old kind bird transformed. The eyelids were gone, and Wind-voice could see his eyeballs, dark yellow as rotten plums. The gentle chuckles of Yin Soul changed to a dreadful sound, as if somebird was vomiting. This was what Yin Soul was truly like! The feathers on Wind-voice’s nape rose. He gulped. He was chilled with fear. It was suddenly so cold.
The next second everything returned to the way it had been.
“013-Unidentified, will you agree?”
Wind-voice didn’t dare to look into Yin Soul’s face, but he knew what he wanted to say. “No. Take me back! I want to go back.” He rose and looked around. He saw the raven who had brought him here lurking behind a bookcase, and stepped toward him. “Take me back to the archaeopteryxes.”
“You cannot,” Yin Soul taunted. With a whirl of his wings, the shadows of ghostly birds, screeching unearthly sounds, appeared out of nowhere and moved swiftly towards Wind-voice. “You cannot. It is against your instincts to go willingly to your death. Come to me!”
But Wind-voice knew—he had seen in that brief moment of true sight—that none of Yin Soul’s kindness could be trusted. Whatever he offered, whatever he planned, Wind-voice knew he wanted no part of it—even if the other choice was death.
“No!” Wind-voice faced the raven. “I want to go back! You said you must take me back!
“I don’t think so. Stay.” Yin Soul rose as well, and reached out a rootlike, quivering claw.
Wind-voice flung a red blanket at Yin Soul. Then he seized the raven’s claw and shouted, “Fly!” The raven cawed in surprise. The mangy bird dragged Wind-voice into the air, while Yin Soul yelled below them, “Soon you’ll wish you had listened to me!” The ghost birds wailed along with their master.
Wind-voice didn’t see Yin Soul shaking a balled claw, didn’t hear him whisper, “At least there is the other one.” Wind-voice closed his eyes tightly and could only hear the beat of the raven’s wings, which soon turned into the crackling of wood.
To his horror, he could smell salt and pepper on his body. Had it all been a dream? Coughing, he opened his eyes. His smothered skin was flushed to a reddish-pink, and his lungs felt as if they had collapsed. He was still tied to a spit over the fire. Tears burst from his eyes as sparks leaped up and scorched him. But the tears quickly evaporated in the heat.
Wind-voice realized that there wasn’t much smoke around him. But the smoke had to go out somewhere! Craning his neck, he squinted at the ceiling above. Cold air blew through a jagged hole. He looked around. No archaeopteryxes cared to be near the heat of the fire. The spit turners were all away on errands for the cook at the moment. He peered down into the flames. There was only one way, and that was the fool’s way. He opened his beak, sucked in a deep breath, and blew with all his might at the fire. Shutting his eyes tightly, he waited for the flames to flare back at him. He felt his ropes starting to char. But his feathers were burning as well.
One rope fell. He fluttered the freed wing awkwardly and leaned forward to peck at the ropes around his other wing. The ropes dropped into the flames and withered to ashes.
Summoning his ebbing strength, Wind-voice beat his wings and soared toward the hole of the ceiling.
It was tight fit, but he struggled madly. There was a rip. He was in the air, in the night air! The bitter wind welcomed him.
“It escaped!” cried an archaeopteryx below.
Wind-voice’s body was blazing as he flew. The long strokes of his flailing wings were sweeps of flame. He looked like a fire bird.
The archaeopteryxes shot a volley of arrows at him, but they fell short.
He knew he could not last long in the air. His past was burning away. He could be what he wanted to be.
013-Unidentified is truly dead, he thought as his scorched body faltered and plummeted down. Wind-voice is reborn.
Now Sword Quest is available in bookstores, and you can join Wind-Voice on his journey.