Crystal Chan Takes on Complex Issues for Teens in New YA ‘All That I Can Fix’ – Interview by Kate Hannigan
Chicago author Crystal Chan doesn’t shy away from challenging subjects. With her debut novel, the enchanting Bird (Atheneum, 2014), she explored loss, grief, and the meaning of family through the eyes of an inquisitive girl, Jewel. The book resonated with middle-grade readers and adults, and was picked up for translation and publication in nine countries around the world.
Venturing into the darker waters of YA with her new title, All That I Can Fix (publishing June 12 with Simon Pulse), she grapples with more complicated material like drug addiction, suicide, and gun control. In this her second book, Crystal writes from the perspective of a teenage mixed-race boy named Ronney, whose already demanding world gets turned upside-down when snakes, big cats, monkeys, and other exotic animals are released from a local private zoo. This original setting, inspired by a real event, is the backdrop for Ronney’s tumultuous journey.
As an author shifting from writing for younger readers to now addressing tougher issues geared for older students, Crystal charges into the fray and never looks back. And her book, which has earned starred reviews from Kirkus, the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and School Library Journal, serves as a powerful conversation starter for discussions of current events with teenage audiences.
Question: Your debut novel Bird was written for a middle-grade audience, but All That I Can Fix is for older readers in the land of YA fiction — complete with profanity, f-bombs, and romantic longing. Can you talk about the change to more mature and challenging material? How does it feel to write for older readers?
Crystal Chan: Bird and All That I Can Fix are two completely different books. In that sense, it was really fun and refreshing, although in the beginning it was kind of nerve-racking, knowing that I might lose some of the audience from the first book. Once I really got into it, though, I realized that audience be damned, I needed to write Ronney’s story, come what may. I really did enjoy being able to sink my teeth into a lot of substantial issues with this YA book. Don’t get me wrong, Bird also has its weighty issues, but I felt that with All That I Can Fix, not only could I address some of these issues — like the gun debate, prescription drug abuse, child PTSD from gun violence and even dark humor — and I could take off the “kid gloves” in doing so. There’s a lot that goes on in the story, a lot of different ways that it ties back into our world today, and I didn’t want to draw any pedantic conclusions, but to help formulate the question for the readers and trust the readers to tackle the questions themselves.
When I write, I hear voices. For Bird, Jewel’s voice spoke to me, loud and clear, and basically she dictated the entire first chapter of the book — I did very little editing on that chapter, it came out as is. For All That I Can Fix, again, I heard a voice, and this time it was Ronney’s. And it was an entirely different voice — cynical, darkly humorous, smart in an edgy way. Honestly, Ronney’s voice took me by surprise, but I needed to go with it. And likewise, the first chapter of this new book was also almost exclusively Ronney’s voice with minimal editing. (grinning) Of course, after that first chapter I needed to stop being the transcriber and actually do some writing work. But, like Bird, I knew that an entire novel had been packed into that first chapter and that my job as the writer was to unpack it.
Question: You take on mental illness, drug addiction, and guns in this book. Did you set out to tackle such enormous social issues?
Crystal: I didn’t set out to tackle these social issues, not really. As I was developing my character profiles, though, these issues did impact my characters, and so I had to work with that. In developing characters, I try to get out of the way: My characters tell me about their life, not the other way around. And so, when I was investigating my characters’ pain and burdens, these things surfaced.
Question: Ronney is a flawed but likeable main character. How did he come to be? Have you known a Ronney?
Crystal: I have known a lot of Ronneys, actually. In fact, I have a feeling there are more Ronneys out there than I thought initially. One of my beta readers — a guy who I had specifically asked to read the book with an eye toward giving me feedback on the male perspective — when he read the books, he said, “How did you know that my dad and I fought like this? Were you in the living room watching us?” So perhaps Ronney is not as particular as one might think at first.
Question: The supporting characters in your story are richly drawn and feel like living, breathing people. Can you share your creative process in bringing little sister Mina, friends Sam, George, and Jello, as well as the parents to life?
Crystal: From a technical perspective, I create a character profile file for each person and go through a list of standard questions: What is their background? What do they want most? What do they fear? That sort of thing. From an artistic perspective, I really key into their strongest emotions; what are their go-to emotions? In a way, creating supporting characters is very similar to creating the main character — it takes just as much time, intention, and work.
Question: Your story took seven years to bring into the world. What do you want readers to gain from reading it? What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
Crystal: I want young adults to understand that I think the world is a ludicrous place to grow up in right now; we expect these kids to solve all of our problems — environment, politics, guns — problems that we adults have not been able to solve for generations. And there are so many examples of adult hypocrisy and double standards: On the one hand, adults tell kids to be kind on the playground, and on the other hand the adults demean each other and call each other names based off of political opinions. This is terrible. This is embarrassing. This is not how I want to do my part to make the world a better place. And in a way, in writing my book, I want kids to understand that I see this hypocrisy, the absurdity of the world we have given them. Adults are acting like children, and the children are acting like adults. I want them to know that I’m with them, I’m on their side. And I’m doing my best, fixing what I can fix.
Chicago author Kate Hannigan writes fiction and non-fiction for young readers. You can read more about her writing A Lady Has the Floor in her January 2018 Nerdy Book Club post. Her historical novel The Detective’s Assistant, based on America’s first woman detective, won the Golden Kite Award for best middle-grade. Kate is a proud recipient of a Nerdy Book Award. Visit her online at KateHannigan.com.