From Tech Founder to Young Adult Fiction Author

An Interview with Jack Cheng

Foster member Amanda Natividad hosted Jack Cheng, author of the novel See You in the Cosmos. They talked about his transition from founder to full-time writer, finding his niche in the Young Adult genre, and his writing practice.

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How did you transition from being a tech founder to a full-time author?

Growing up, I was always good at writing-related assignments in school. But it never occurred to me that writing could be an actual career. Most of my friends who were also Chinese American were going into engineering school or becoming doctors. Becoming an author, especially one who writes fiction, was not a career trajectory that was on my radar.

But I was always creatively inclined. I did a lot of drawing and art as a kid. In business, the field that most appealed to me was marketing because I could be creative. After graduation, I moved to New York and started working in advertising. Later on, I made the move into tech startups and started a company with a couple of friends. 

One thing I've noticed throughout my working life is that every single career I've had started off as a hobby. I was working in my startup and journaling on the side. There was one day where I didn’t have anything to write and a fictional scene popped out onto the page. And the next day, another scene popped out. After a couple of weeks, I realized I had the beginnings of a novel and I kept going.

You self-published your first book These Days through Kickstarter. How do you think about the publishing landscape today?

In the case of These Days, most of my audience were folks I already knew who worked in design, tech, and advertising because that was what the book was about. Kickstarter is great for that because you can more efficiently collect money and distribute your book.

In the case of See You in the Cosmos, my book for young readers, it's hard to reach kids between 8-12 years old because they don't have their own disposable income. They're often receiving or hearing about books through gatekeepers like their parents, teachers, or librarians. That's an audience that's much harder to reach if I were to try to do a Kickstarter project.

So it depends on what you're trying to write and who you're trying to reach.

In These Days, one of your characters says, “Just because it’s fiction, doesn’t mean it’s not true.” For you, what are some of the truest pieces of fiction?

One of my all-time favorite books is The Little Prince. Every time I read it, I see something I didn't see before. When you're reading it as an adult, you sense this whole life's worth of experience.

When author Saint-Exupéry writes about the relationship between the rose and the little prince, you can tell that it's grounded in real human experiences with relationships.

Another one of my favorites is the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. It very directly deals with issues of race. One of the storylines is about a teenaged Chinese American main character who wants to be white.

If you were to hand a teenage version of me a nonfiction book about race, it wouldn’t have been palatable at all. I wouldn’t have read it. It would have felt like homework. But a graphic novel has a way into these very real emotions and very real issues with a lateral approach.

These types of stories get into the intangible hard-to-put-your-finger-on truths of their subject matters.

The main character, Alex, in your book See You in the Cosmos loves astronomy, but astronomy wasn’t a passion of yours. How did you learn more about it so you could believably write that character?

Even though I wasn't into astronomy as a kid, I know what it feels like to be obsessed with something.

Alex is eleven years old in the book. When I was his age, I played little league and was obsessed with baseball. I would have my dad throw pop flies to me and I would imagine myself making diving catches in an actual game. That bravado I had as a kid went into Alex's character and how he thought he could launch his iPod into space. 

As far as the astronomy research went, I read rocketry forums and went to some rocketry events. I also read basically every biography about Carl Sagan. I wasn’t looking for anything specific there—it was more about absorbing the material and sometimes ideas would leap out at me.

The act of writing fiction, especially your very first draft, is like a dream state. In a dream, you're meeting characters and you're being transported from place to place, and you don't necessarily know why they're coming up. It's only after you've written when you can go back and psychoanalyze where everything came from.

For me, it has to happen organically. It can't be too forced, too over-researched, or too plotted out. I struggle with creating an outline for a story before I've actually written it. I might have the premise or a destination in mind, but I don't know all the different steps to get there when I'm writing a first draft.

The book gets into some heavier topics around mental health. What has been the response from young adult readers about those topics?

It depends on the age of the reader. There's a huge difference between the fourth-grade reader and the seventh-grade reader.

I've asked fourth-grade readers what they think about Alex's mom's condition. She doesn't take an active role in his life due to her illness. Those kids will often say things like, "I think it would be awesome because I could do whatever I wanted to do." Whereas the older or more advanced readers have a deeper understanding of what’s going on.

In the editing process, we were intentional about making it work for adult readers without it going over young readers’ heads. We wanted it to still be fun for kids to read.

How did you research the mental health aspects of the book?

I have a distant relative who struggles with the same mental illness Alex's mom has. Part of the research came from my interactions with that person and how it became a normal part of their family life.

I also found memoirs written by people who have struggled with the same mental illness themselves. It’s important to go to primary sources because it helps you put yourself in the shoes of your characters.

Writing fiction is not only about embodying your main character. It’s also about viewing the world from the perspective of all your secondary and supporting characters and seeing them as complex, dynamic human beings, even if they’re not in the story as much.

When you began writing See You in the Cosmos, you didn’t intend for it to be a young adult novel but it naturally went that direction. For your next novel, do you find it difficult to purposefully write for young adults?

When you know you’re writing for kids, it can be challenging to balance writing a great story and being overly didactic. You want to teach lessons to young readers to prepare them for the future, but you don’t want that to get in the way of making a story fun to read.

Brevity is especially important because young readers tend to have a shorter attention span than adult readers of literary fiction. You have to be clear about what you're trying to say or what purpose the scenes have in the story. Striving for brevity or simplicity takes more time to do well.

How do you think about the cycle of projects ending and nurturing inspiration when it comes to working on the next project?

There was a point when I was working on my first book where it struck me that it wasn't the only book I was going to write. I could see myself writing at least ten books. That thought immediately took the pressure off because I felt like I didn't need to put every idea I had into that one book.

Understanding that nothing is permanent is important too. If you have writer’s block or you’re in a slump, it will end at some point. On the other hand, when you’re on a writing high, be grateful for it and lean into it because it won’t always be like that.

What can you tell us about your next book?

It pulls more from my own experience growing up in the Detroit metro area. It's about an introverted Chinese American kid who is going into sixth grade. He feels like he needs to find the thing he's really good at, but he has trouble finding it. 

He gets pulled into the school's dance production of The Lord of the Flies by his more extroverted best friend. He's dealing with issues of the changing relationship with his best friend, and he's getting bullied at school.

At the same time, his grandparents are visiting him from China for the first time. His grandfather had a bad fall and is showing symptoms of a certain condition. But he doesn't know at first that it might be his last opportunity to see his grandfather.

It’s a coming of age story for this boy and him realizing he doesn’t need to have all the answers figured out.

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You can follow Jack on Twitter here, or check out his website here.

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