Author Interview: Taffeta Chime

What inspired the idea for your book?
Both of my books were written from short stories that were part of a school competition called the Future Problem Solving Program, for the section called the Scenario Writing Competition. The FPS program had four or five futuristic research topics every year, and in the Scenario Writing Competition, you had to write a 1500-word story around one of those topics. You also had to have evidence of research in whatever the topic was.

My first novel, Stoodie, which I began in 2003 when I was 14 and published four years later, was based on a scenario I’d written two years before about the future of education. I liked to imagine that maybe we wouldn’t go to school someday. Maybe there would be some other model where children could spend more free time playing and socializing. That was the basis of my story. But, of course, you need conflict, so the problem was if kids couldn’t learn that way and would have to go back to the “traditional” model of education. I thought, in a time when kids play all day, they would probably imagine school as some sort of torture! And that was the genesis of Stoodie. I expanded the short story into a novel that followed the story of a girl, Amai, who thought her life was over when she had to start going to Traditional School.

My second novel, The Last, was also based on a scenario–the very first scenario I’d ever written, in fact, when I was nine years old. The topic I chose was oceanography, and I liked the idea of actually living underwater in a place like Atlantis. I wondered how that could be possible. I thought maybe it could be like a human habitat in case of an emergency–like some sort of global war that destroys the surface. And there it was. I began the novel in 2007 when I was 19 and also published four years later–but this time, I used the original scenario as the first chapter and built on the story’s future from there. The novel follows Josephine Cousteau as she grows up in this underwater post-nuclear doomsday habitat.

What part of the book was the most fun to write?
In Stoodie, one chapter is a nightmare about Amai’s first day of school. Because dreams and nightmares are so unpredictable, I had the idea to write it in a stream-of-consciousness sort of style. I had no specific plan for that chapter, and I hardly edited it; I wanted it to feel thrown together and ridiculous. And, you know, I listen to music to help me focus, and I really wanted chaotic music that would help me channel that sort of energy, so I listened to Linkin Park and was just, like, singing along hashing it out. It turned out to be a really wild chapter that was super fun to write.

I should explain that in a lot of ways, The Last is really autobiographical. A lot of the events in Jo’s life were pivotal moments in my own life. And when I thought back to monumental moments in my childhood, a lot of them actually surrounded Halloween. These were some of my favorite childhood memories or times when I felt really scared, connected to my friends, independent, or something like that–a lot of them were based on Halloween! So I decided to have a Halloween chapter in The Last, and that chapter was fun to write.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I was writing stories from the time I could hold a pencil. When I was in first grade, I wrote my first story called “My Toy Cheetah” that was about, you guessed it, a toy cheetah (my favorite animal) that came to life when you said magic words. I wrote so many stories and comics as a kid. And when my parents and teachers encouraged me to write for the FPSP Scenario Writing Competition, I actually won second in state and then first internationally for my division–for my first ever public story! That was a huge boost in the arm, and it was from then on that I thought, “Well, I love doing this, and maybe I’m actually kind of good at it too! Maybe this could be a job.” So I knew from pretty early on that I wanted to be a writer.

Are there any books or authors that inspired you to become a writer?
When I was in the process of writing Stoodie, I read books on writing and studied young authors. I specifically remember reading Christopher Paolini’s books because I knew he published when he was 21, and when I visited the Ingram print shop for a job shadowing day in high school, one of their sales representatives told me that his first publication contract was through them. I also remember the first time I cried reading a book was when I read a short story by Anne McCaffrey in her collection called The Girl Who Heard Dragons that detailed a time she was on the plane and sitting next to someone reading her book. I cried because I felt like she was living my dream! Both of those books made me feel like I could do this. They could; why not me? And at the end of last year, I read How to be a Successful Housewife Writer. It’s a terrible title and it’s awfully outdated, but it spurred me to take myself seriously as a professional writer. So after reading that, I got back in the writing saddle and began putting myself out there again.

What books did you grow up reading?
So this may come as a shock, but I really wasn’t very interested in reading as a kid. In my mind, I wanted to write more than I wanted to read. Why should I be reading someone else’s work when I could be creating my own? There were a lot of times, too, when I read as a writer and would focus on the craft, the narrative arc, the character development, or something like that rather than really get immersed into the story. There were many times I would read a book and think I could write it better, so I would quit reading it and write a story based on it. At school, we had the Accelerated Reader program, and I was so frustrated by reading that instead of reading at my level, I would read several super easy books; for example, instead of reading one thirteen-point book, I would read thirteen one-point books. So it took a while for me to really find books that I enjoyed. I have two older sisters, and they both really enjoyed reading, so they would try to get me to read with them as part of playing. They would read some of their favorite books to me, and then I would play out the story using my toys. That’s how I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Little Princess, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It wasn’t until my middle school librarian was so fed up with seeing me read so many low-point books that she took me on as a project to find just the right book for me. I told her I enjoyed dragons, and she knew I played drums in band, so she showed me Anne McCaffrey’s book Dragondrums, which is the third book in the Harper Hall Trilogy. I read all three books and devoured every other McCaffrey book our library had.

What book (or books) are you currently reading?
Like most people I know, my TBR list is very long. I am working through books that I have gotten from friends, and I’m also reading through some Mandarin books and books on writing that others have recommended to me. I just finished re-reading Nine Parts of Desire, the one-woman play written by a visiting playwriting professor I had in college. It’s so dang good. And now I’m about to move on to a book of Chinese poetry a friend gave to me. That’s going to be a challenge!

Have you ever considered writing under a pseudonym, and why or why not?
I actually do already, but probably not in the way you think. Most people look at “Taffeta Chime” and think it’s obviously a pen name because it sounds so artsy-fartsy. But it is actually my legal name–just my first and middle name. I made the decision early on to write under Taffeta Chime instead of my first and last name for a couple different reasons. The biggest reason is that I began writing as a young woman, and I anticipated that at some point I was probably going to be married and would probably change my last name. I didn’t want to have to change my writing identity and deal with paperwork and legal stuff and blah blah blah, so I decided to just go with my first and middle name to begin with. But also “Taffeta Chime” is just such an artistically beautiful name that my mom–also a writer–intentionally chose because of the poetic image it evokes. I wanted to respect my parents’ artistic decision and embrace that as an artist myself. Plus, it gives me a touch of anonymity. It is bizarre in some ways, though, because though Taffeta Chime is my real name, about 99% of people call me by my nickname, which is Taffy. Whenever someone calls me “Taffeta,” it’s a bit jarring and often feels a bit too formal for me.

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
So after The Last was published in 2011, a lot of life happened for me. I traveled abroad, I got married, I completed a Masters degree, I began work as a language teacher, I cared for international students in our home–and then I had a baby in 2019. I wasn’t doing much creative writing at all, and I knew when my daughter was born that I wanted to stop working at the language school, be home with her, and work as a writer. However, I did not anticipate the kind of mental, physical, and emotional energy it took to care for a child. I still was not writing. And then, boy, 2020 came and I only thought I was struggling with being home all the time in 2019! I battled a lot with depression from the isolation with a toddler, and absolutely no creative pursuits were happening. But I knew I needed to change that. I aimed for ten minutes–just ten minutes–of reading and writing a day. That was really a good decision for me, and I kept up with that model for a couple of years. Ten minutes turned into fifteen, then thirty, then an hour …. Now that daughter is four years old, and I have another baby girl who’s just three months old. I have to manage my time wisely, so I started keeping a timesheet for myself to make sure that I am getting the work in through the week. I usually clock anywhere from 10 to 25 hours a week with writing work, but most of the time, it’s here and there when I can grab some free time. I do a lot of work on the phone while I’m nursing the baby, whether it’s writing, reading, networking, engaging on social media, writing emails, pitching, submitting, editing–you know, there’s lots of things that you do as a writer besides writing! I get to do the bigger writing chunks at my laptop during naptime or bedtime for anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours, depending on how well everyone is sleeping. I do usually have a big chunk of time on Saturdays when my husband often takes our oldest out to the park or playground or something like that and I keep the baby. My toddler starts preschool next month, and I’m excited about the two days a week when she’s going to be gone for five hours a day!

At what point do you think someone should call themselves a writer?
If you had asked me this a few years ago, I would have told you that anyone who writes is a writer. But now that I have gone through a long span of time with hardly any creative writing and have felt how much that hurt my sense of self, I realize how harmful that answer can be. Impostor syndrome is very real in this profession, and we need to lift each other–and ourselves–up. So I’m going to steal an answer I heard recently in a webinar with Kayleigh Shoen: a writer is someone who lives a life that will always bring them back to writing. Yes, if you write, you are a writer. But also if you get excited about wordsmithing, if you love the skill it takes to put a story together, if you communicate with your characters like you would your best friend, if you devour books on writing, if you are willing to devote time out of your day to storytelling, you are a writer. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been published, it doesn’t really even matter if anybody reads your writing. If you put thoughts into your words and live a life that feels empty without that, then you are a writer.

What are common traps for new authors?
I think especially with young writers, you get people who put themselves in their book and write for people who are like them. Self-centeredness is part of immaturity; it’s not selfishness necessarily but just a blindness to others around you. But part of the fun of writing is learning about other people, expanding your worldview, and exploring the beautiful differences in all of us from inside someone else’s mind. Whether you’re thinking about a fictional character, or incorporating aspects of a real person or situation, or envisioning the response of a reader who’s coming from different viewpoints than your own, writing builds empathy in both the writer and readers.

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