Authors-Interview by Fiona Mcvie
Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.
Let's get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?
My name is Iris Yang. Some say I have the heart of an 18-year-old; others say I have the mind and experiences of an 80-year-old. I’m somewhere in between. :)
Fiona: Where are you from?
I was born and raised in China. Now I live between Sedona, AZ and Chapel Hill, NC.
Fiona: A little about yourself (ie, your education, family life, etc.).
When I grew up in China, books were being confiscated and writing was a dangerous career. As famous writers, my grandma and aunt were wrongfully accused as Counter-Revolutionary Rightists. My grandma was fired from her professor job and my aunt was sent to the countryside to get “re-educated.” I couldn’t follow their footsteps and had to choose a safer career—science.
Although I wasn’t passionate about science, I worked hard. After graduating from Wuhan University, I was accepted by the prestigious CUSBEA (China-United States Biochemistry Examination and Application program) and became one of the fifty lucky students from entire China to enter this program. At age 23, with poor English, little knowledge of the country, and 500 borrowed dollars, I came to the United States as a graduate student at the University of Rochester. Later, I received a Ph.D. in molecular biology, trained as a postdoctoral fellow at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and worked at the University of North Carolina. I have published a number of scientific papers, but I have a passion for creative writing.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
In 2018, I achieved every writer’s dream—my novels were accepted for publication by Open Books. The first novel, Wings of a Flying Tiger, was published in June 2018, and its sequel, Will of a Tiger, was released in January 2019. Both books have received glowing reviews and have been featured in a dozen newspapers (www.irisyang-author.com).
Recently I was interviewed on NPR’s The State of Things—“She infuses real-life events with her personal family history stories from a very dark period in China’s history (https://www.wunc.org/post/dutiful-daughter-finds-her-passion-meet-iris-yang-0).” I’m an invited speaker at the Authors Festival 2019 at Octavia Fellin Public Library in Gallup, NM. I’m invited to attend the Flying Tigers WWII Veterans Reunion in San Diego in September 2019.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I began writing about seventeen years ago.
I was a negative person in an unhappy marriage at the time. When I reached the bottom, luckily, I made a decision to save myself. I turned to books for help and read lots of self-help books. One of them had a huge impact on my life. It says that if you write down five positive things a day, in twenty-one days you could change your mindset from negative to positive. Being desperate, I was willing to try anything.
So, I jotted down five positive things a day. It started with words or simple phrases. In time, words became sentences; sentences turned into paragraphs; paragraphs grew into pages. All positive. I didn’t change in twenty-one days. It took me two years. But the end result is remarkable. I’m no longer a negative person.
The “side product” of this practice? I started writing short stories, then novels.
Writing changed my life!
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I didn’t consider myself a writer until my books were accepted for publication a year ago. For a long time, when people asked me, I’ve always said I was working on a novel. I had trouble calling myself a writer since I was trained as a scientist and wrote with a second language.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
When I was growing up, China was an isolated country. We were told that the Americans were “devils” and the American soldiers were crude and coward. I didn’t read anything about the Flying Tigers until I came to the U.S. I was touched once I learned the truth. I wanted to thank the Flying Tigers. What would be a better way to show my gratitude than writing a book about them?
As a Chinese, I’m thankful for the Flying Tigers’ bravery and generosity; without their help, the course of the Chinese history might have been changed, my family might not have survived, and I might not have existed.
As a U.S. citizen, I’m honored to write books about American heroes. It’s a privilege. A duty.
My inspiration came from real life stories of the Flying Tigers, the victims of the Nanking Massacre, and my family struggles in the war.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
Wings of a Flying Tiger, the title of my first book, came to me easily. The book is a heroic tale about the rescue of a wounded American pilot (one of the Flying Tigers) in WWII in China. When this Flying Tiger’s “wings” were damaged, the Chinese people were his “wings.” They healed his wounds and helped him to soar back into the sky.
But I struggled with the title of my second book for a while. Originally, I wanted to call it Roar of a Tiger, but it was taken. Eventually, I chose Will of a Tiger since the book is about the struggle and the incredible will of two sworn brothers—one American, one Chinese—to survive and to live a meaningful life.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style? Is there anything about your style or genre that you find particularly challenging?
Many readers commented that my book is fast-paced and it’s impossible to put down once they started reading. One reviewer said it’s a touching and heartfelt story that “sticks with you, long after the last word has been read.” Others stated that the book is beautifully written—“simply stated yet intricate in detail” and “it could be turned into a great movie.”
I think of my writing as direct and emotional.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
Both books are historical novels based on a particular time in WWII in China. The characters are primarily made up, although parts of the stories were inspired by my family experiences.
My mother and grandma had lived in Nanking and escaped from the city just days before the notorious Nanking Massacre when the Japanese soldiers slaughtered 300,000 innocent Chinese and raped 20,000 women in six weeks. Both my mother's and father’s families fled to Chungking, where Japanese frequently bombed the wartime capital. My father told me the repulsive smell of burning flesh, and as a young child, he had nightmares about the raids for several years.
I wrote both Nanking Massacre and Bombing of Chungking in my first book.
Fiona: To craft your works, do you have to travel? Before or during the process?
No. I didn’t travel during writing. But I’ve been to most of the places in my books (Nanking, Wuhan, Yunnan, Taiwan, San Francisco…) beforehand.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
My publisher, Open Books, designed the covers. They did a wonderful job. I love the covers.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
What would you be willing to sacrifice for your loved ones? This is the essential question of Wings of a Flying Tiger. It’s a story about love, sacrifice, bravery, kindness, and hope.
“Will of a Tiger is a classic moral tale,” one reviewer wrote. It’s an epic journey of two sworn brothers—one American, one Chinese; it’s about survival, hardship, friendship, and love.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest? Who is your favourite writer, and what is it about their work that really strikes you?
My favourite writer is Jin Yong, a Chinese author.
His novels belong to a genre called wuxia—martial arts and chivalry. His books have a widespread following in many Chinese-speaking countries and have been translated into many languages.
Unlike typical martial arts novels, Jin Yong places emphasis on patriotism and heroism. Many of his books are set in history when China was occupied or under the threat of occupation by foreign forces. He often includes unforgettable love stories, along with references to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, martial arts, music, and philosophical thoughts. In his novels, historical figures intermingle with fictional characters.
I admired the heroes he created; I was moved by the incredible love stories he created; I learned Chinese history and culture from reading his books. Those are what I strive to achieve—to provide those wonderful feelings to my readers.
Fiona: Outside of family members, name one entity that supported your commitment to become a published author.
Anne Crosman is a writer and a retired journalist. We met at a book festival. When she learned about my book and my struggle of using a second language to write, she volunteered to edit my books. For nearly two years, we worked together, word by word, line by line. She believed in me when I had doubts. I’m grateful for her generosity and encouragement.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
I’ve always loved reading, but creative writing was a dangerous career in China when I was growing up. As famous writers, my grandmother and aunt were wrongfully accused as Counter-Revolutionary Rightists. I had to choose science—a safer path. I have a Ph.D. in molecular biology, but my passion is fiction writing, which was a faraway dream and writing it in English was beyond my wildest dream.
Now that I achieved my goal and fulfilled my dream, I won’t let it go easily.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
So far, I can’t think of anything I want to change. I may think differently ten years from now.
Fiona: Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
Writing made me a better person. I learned that I could do the “impossible,” and dreams do come true when one works hard enough.
It was a long and hard journey. Trained as a scientist, I had to learn fiction writing on my own. I read lots of books about the subject. Using a second language, I struggled with words. For a couple of years, I shared my books with three writing groups. It wasn’t easy to listen to other’s comments. My face burned a few times. But I learned a lot from them. Writing made me a better and stronger person.
Fiona: If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
I do have a favorite actor. His name is Josh Hartnett. He played Danny Walker in Pearl Harbor. He left such a strong impression that when he died in the movie, I decided to bring him back alive in my stories.
I wrote my book with Danny Walker as the American pilot, whose name is Danny Hardy, taking Danny Walker’s first name. In fact, I’ve written several short stories, a novella, three novels; the main characters in all of them is named Danny, although they are different men at different time and places. One of my short stories is titled Dreaming of Danny.
Fiona: Any advice for other writers?
Writing is hard. If you don’t have a burning desire, don’t bother to start. But if you are passionate about it, don’t let anything or anyone stop you. Follow your passion.
Start today. Keep writing! Don’t give up. Persistence. Perseverance. Patience.
I’ll share several useful Chinese proverbs with you:
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
“Every step leaves its print.”
“If you work hard enough, you can grind even an iron rod down to a needle.”
Looking back, I’m amazed that I finished a novel (actually three—two have been accepted for publication; one isn’t good enough to share with anyone), by writing down one word after another. If I can do it, anyone can.
Fiona: Anything specific you want to tell your readers?
Both books happen in one of the darkest hours in Chinese history:
Wings of a Flying Tiger begins in December 1937 when Japan invaded Nanking, the capital of the Republic of China. In six weeks, they killed 300,000 Chinese and raped over 20,000 women.
A part of Will of a Tiger happens in a Japanese prison camp, which is notorious for its brutality.
Both novels have violence—killing, massacre, torture, rape… I cried many times when I wrote the books. Many readers told me that they loved my books; they cried when they read my books, from an 11-year-old boy to a 90-year-old lady. They had no idea how much the Chinese suffered during WWII; they had no clue that a group of Americans sacrificed so much to help China winning the war.
One reviewer said: “Iris Yang poured her heart into Will of a Tiger and breathed life into the characters. As a result, I got so caught up in their lives that I cried toward the end of the book—something I don’t do often with a novel (https://thebrownbookloft.com/2019/03/30/WILL-OF-A-TIGER-BY-IRIS-YANG/).”
Another reviewer commented: “The entire time spent reading I either cried, laughed, experienced joy, pain, relief, fear, love or hate. And I felt emotionally spent by the time I reached the end. But sometimes, the best books just do that to you! (https://jesscombs.com/2019/03/20/WINGS-OF-A-FLYING-TIGER-BY-IRIS-YANG/).”
Reach out and touch people, one heart a time—is my new goal!
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
To be honest, I’ve been so busy promoting my books that I haven’t had time to read lately. In seven months since my first book was published, I’ve given a couple of dozen presentations, participated a number of book signings/festivals, interviewed by book bloggers, on the podcast, YouTube, and radio station (NPR). I started using Twitter a year ago, and I’ve gotten over 13,000 followers (@irisyang86351).
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
I don’t remember the first book I read, but I do remember my early experiences related to books.
I was raised in a family of professors in China. Even before I was born, my parents and grandparents had bought tons of books for me. However, During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards came to our home and took most of the books away. I read the few leftovers again and again because there weren't many books available—for almost ten years the libraries were closed and the bookstores had nothing except political works. You can’t imagine how hungry I was for books.
But I was lucky to have a wonderful father. My hometown, Wuhan, is one of the “Three Furnaces” in China. We had no air conditioning or electric fans. In the hot and humid summer evenings, we sat outside. Surround by neighboring kids, my father told us lots of stories—from Chinese masterpieces to Western classics, including some of the most heroic tales such as Romance of the Three Kingdom, Water Margin, The Great General Yue Fei, and Spartacus. Those summer nights influenced me in many ways.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
Any touching love story would make me cry.
Beautiful nature makes me smile.
Fiona: Is there one person, past or present, you would love to meet? Why?
I’d love to meet my grandma.
A hundred years ago most Chinese girls couldn’t go to school; they didn’t even know how to write their names. My grandma was the first Chinese woman to receive a master’s degree in the UK and became a famous writer and playwright in China. Later, however, she was wrongfully accused as Counter-Revolutionary Rightist. She was fired from her professor job and ordered to sweep streets at old age. During the Cultural Revolution, she was kicked out of her university housing and sent back to her hometown. She died there alone. We were not allowed to be close to her; if we did, we would have been labeled as Counter-Revolutionary as she was.
I feel sorry for my grandma. She died before her name was cleared. Nowadays there is a park opened in her name. But she would never know that young people started to learn her story and read her books. I wish I could see her and to talk to her. I could learn so much from her—her knowledge, her courage, her toughness.
I wish I could tell her how much I appreciate the “gift” she gave to me—my passion for fiction writing. She would be thrilled. And she would be so proud of me, not just because I followed her footsteps and became a published author, but more importantly, because I didn’t give up. I definitely have her genes in my blood.
Fiona: Do you have any hobbies?
Besides writing, I love hiking, dancing, photography, and travel. I took flying lessons and went skydiving. I hold a private pilot license—part of the reason I wrote books about the Flying Tigers is because of my admiration for fighter pilots. I know how hard it is to fly; I can’t imagine how hard it is to fly and fight at the same time. My respect for those heroes clearly shows in my books.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
Titanic, Pear Harbor, Gladiator, Brave Heart, House of the Flying Dangers, Dance with Wolves… As you can see, the common theme of these movies is a historical and heroic tale with a touching love story—similar to my own books.
Fiona: Favorite foods, colors, music?
Growing up in China when food was in short supply, I’m not a picky eater at all. I like all kinds of food, but my favorite foods are fruits and nuts—very healthy. :)
As a shy and quiet girl, I used to like cool colors—blue and green. Interestingly, as my personality changed, my taste of color also changed. Now I love bright red—to me, it represents passion and energy—something I value in life.
My taste of music is relatively narrow. I like soothing music, and I still listen to a lot of Chinese music.
Fiona: Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?
I don’t know. Honestly. I do have a lot of interests. But writing is such an important part of my life. It is hard to imagine without doing it. I suppose, even without writing more books, I’d still participate in the promotion of those previous books or teach others what I’ve learned along the way—to write, to get it published, to promote. I’ve already learned a lot and I’ll keep learning.
Fiona: You only have 24 hours to live how would you spend that time?
I’d spend this time with my family and friends.
I’ve done so much in life that I don’t have a bucket list anymore.
As a poor girl grew up in China, I worked hard to get a rare chance to come to the U.S.
I studied and worked at several great universities and institute and published a number of scientific papers.
I published two Enjoy Flowers books with my parents in China and a dozen articles with lots of my photos in Chinese magazines.
I won several writing contests and published short stories in anthologies. Now I have two novels accepted and published by a publisher.
From a very shy, fearful, and negative girl, I turned my life around and changed my personality. I’m a positive person full of energy and passion.
I traveled to many places and drove to Alaska by myself. I hiked all along the way. I’m an organizer of a large hiking group, and I’ve organized more than 300 events.
I learned to fly and received a private pilot license. I went skydiving and scuba diving (received an open water scuba certification).
Some people say that I’ve lived several lives. :) I don’t need the last 24 hours to fulfill my dreams.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone?
To tell you the truth, I never like the idea of being buried in one place. I want to be free, even after death! I’d like my ashes being scattered. Anywhere beautiful would do, but the first time I had this idea was in Crested Butte, CO.
It was a sunny summer day. Surrounded by lush green trees, colorful wildflowers filled this meadow in Gunnison National Forest. Birds were singing. Industrious bees buzzed among the blooms. Yellow butterflies with black lines and dots darted in front of me. The air smelled of honey. This is the kind of place I want to end up with, and I’d help those beautiful flowers blossom even brighter. :)
So, I don’t need any headstone. But I do hope that I’d be remembered as someone who worked hard to transform her life and tried her best to touch people’s heart with her stories.
Fiona: Do you have a blog or website readers can visit for updates, events and special offers?
Yes, I have a website with lots of interviews, reviews, and events: www.irisyang-author.com
I also have a travel blog: https://solotraveltoalaska.wordpress.com/
Iris Yang, Ph.D. (Qing Yang) was born and raised in China. She has loved reading and writing since she was a child, but in China creative writing was a dangerous career. As famous writers and translators, her grandmother and her aunt were wrongfully accused as Counter-Revolutionary Rightists, so Iris had to choose a safer path—studying science.
After graduating from Wuhan University and passing a series of exams, she was accepted by the prestigious CUSBEA (China-United States Biochemistry Examination and Application program). At age 23, with poor English, little knowledge of the country, and 500 borrowed dollars, she came to the United States as a graduate student at the University of Rochester.
Later, she received a Ph.D. in molecular biology, trained as a postdoctoral fellow at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and worked at the University of North Carolina. Although she has published a number of scientific papers, she has a passion for creative writing, and her short stories have won contests and have been published in anthologies. Her debut novel, Wings of a Flying Tiger, has been published in June, 2018, and its sequel, Will of a Tiger, has been published in January, 2019.
Currently, Iris is working on a story based on her grandmother, who was the first Chinese woman to receive a master’s degree in Edinburgh in the UK. Iris now lives between Sedona, Arizona and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Besides writing, she loves hiking, dancing, photography and travel, and she holds a private pilot license.
Links to my books:
WINGS OF A FLYING TIGER (6/8/2018): World War Two. Japanese occupied China. One cousin's courage, another's determination to help a wounded American pilot.
WILL OF A TIGER (1/27/2019): Sworn brothers—one American, one Chinese—captured, imprisoned, tortured. Survival is just the beginning of the battle...