By Christopher KL Lau
First Published here: http://www.beijing-visitor.com/hong-kong-culture/kathryn-tse-durham
Order the book here: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1482891093/beijing-visitor-20
A dreamer with a social conscience and mission, Kathryn Tse-Durham, armed with the power of the pen, sensitivity and a great deal of empathy is slowly becoming a literary force and the voice of an entire generation.
Tse-Durham, always had a passion for writing and through dedication, persistence and sheer hard work, her small inkling of an idea has morphed into her first critically acclaimed book “Ellanor and the Search for Organoth Blue Amber”.
The novel reflects aspects of Kathryn’s own life as the book touches upon many different issues such as identity, confidence, self-esteem and multiculturalism. Behind this fantasy novel is quintessentially the development and evolution of a person’s identity and place in the world as life and society keep evolving. It delves into how people have to adapt and change with the times to keep apace, yet still being able to maintain a sense of individualism and confidence in, what at times, can be a very difficult world to live in.
Being the creative wordsmith that Tse-Durham developed into probably has to do with Durham’s unique upbringing. Tse-Durham grew up in Australia and has spent large tracts of her life in Hong Kong; it was this fascinating blend of East and West that has given Durham such a unique outlook on life; at times, being part of the overseas Chinese diaspora can make a person feel like an outsider in both societies and cultures but it can also give a person a vision of life which can motivate them to go further and beyond all their expectations.
Tse-Durham has always loved writing and like all aspiring writers, her ultimate goal was to share her view and vision to a wider audience. Not one to simply sit around, she was proactive and took the first few steps to making her dream a reality so she completed a creative writing course through the University of Oxford. Like all writers, simply putting out work to be noticed and getting content published is difficult yet she found an outlet through her day job of being a speech therapist; she got articles published in educational magazines and her university honors thesis was published in a European academic journal. The rest is history.
The novel itself delves into a mythical land of magic, mystery and heroes / heroines. The story revolves around Elly Celendis and is set in the far away land of Alendria. The book is aimed at teenagers up to adults and can be best described as a ‘coming of age’. The content subtlely covers the trials and tribulations that all teens grow through in the tough transition from being a child to becoming an adult. Durham’s writing style and appeal is universal and speaks to all and this is reflected in the interest she has gained from all around the world. The struggles, trials and tribulations and sense of adventure that her main character “Ellanor” has, resonates with many and there is no doubt that word of mouth will spread and her novel’s readership levels will grow even further.
Be prepared to be amazed as you step into an incredible world created by the vivid imagination of Tse-Durham!
Kathryn Tse-Durham Interview
What is the general premise behind ‘Ellanor and the Search for Organoth Blue Amber’? Which age groups and types of readers would like it?
My book is of the fantasy and adventure genre, and it is sort of a coming-of-age tale, too. It is about a unique young elf named Elly who lives in the realm of Alendria. She has big dreams to become an explorer, and she struggles with issues that plague most young people – problems with self-esteem, bullying, learning to stand up for herself, first pangs of love, and so forth.
This book is the first installment in a planned short series, and this first book tracks her adventures as she masquerades as a human after she is fooled by a goblin and pushed through a portal into the human realm. She is desperate to find her way back home, and to do so she must find an elusive blue amber which she hopes will repair the damaged portal. Her experiences lead her to discover dark secrets about her homeland, much more sinister than she had imagined. So basically, it is about a youth who finds herself out of her comfort zone, and her experiences really force her to grow up.
My book has been categorized as a “Young Adult” novel, and it is meant for readers aged 10 years – adult. I hope this story would appeal to a large audience, both male and female readers. I believe that a good story can appeal to a wide audience. For example, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is categorized as a Young Adult novel, too, but it has been widely read by a huge audience – teenagers and adults alike. That’s what I want for my book. I don’t want to pigeon-hole it. I hope that readers from all age groups and backgrounds will enjoy my book.
Are there little bits of you in the main character, Ellanor?
I would say there are little bits of me in all the major characters in the story, especially Ellanor and her human best friend, Lily Wong. I think that when we create characters, it is important to draw from our own experiences, too. I also think that authors tend to live vicariously through our characters. Elly has a daring streak, which isn’t initially apparent as she struggles with feelings of insecurity, inferiority, and contends with bullying at school.
These are all issues I also contended with in my youth. But despite all that, I have always loved adventure, and through Elly I get to become a globe-trotter and travel to places I’d love to visit. The character of Lily Wong is loosely based on me, or rather, she is what I wish I could have been like back in my teenage years. Lily is feisty and stands up to bullies, and this is something I wasn’t good at when I was young. It’s a different story now!
Does the book have subtle lessons about self-esteem, confidence and identity? Would the readers identify with the book?
Yes. I wanted to create a character that young readers could look up to, but not somebody one-dimensional and too ‘goody-goody’ – although the main character is an Elf, a fantastical character, she also has very human qualities that we can identify with: Elly has many strengths, but she is also flawed – she is an insecure young girl who is grappling with growing pains, struggling with bullying at school, experiencing her first pangs of love, having to deal with loneliness and isolation in the school setting, desperately wants to impress others, comes to learn the true value of friendship, and eventually learns to stand up for herself…These are timeless issues that are all relevant to what children and teenagers experience in our society everyday.
I believe my story reflects some important issues that are relevant to today’s society. For example, issues relating to prejudice and racial equality, bullying, family, friendship, multiculturalism. I also make references to environmental pollution, autism, divorce, and child abuse – which are all issues relevant in today’s society.
I was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Australia, and I am very much a ‘third-culture’ kid. As a Hong Kong-Chinese person, I really wanted to create a story in which Chinese and other Asians are featured prominently in a fantasy tale. In other mainstream fantasy or science-fiction books, I’ve found that Chinese or Asians are usually peripheral or minor characters. We live in an international, multicultural world where people of different ethnic backgrounds mingle on a daily basis, and many so-called ‘minorities’ are prominent contributors of society who ought to be featured prominently in fiction! I wanted to create a story which exemplifies and celebrates this.
With so many distractions these days, do you think reading has become less popular with young people?
Yes, I think so. To be honest, I think reading has become less popular with all people, not just youths. Reading requires one to sit down and concentrate. With such busy lives, and so many other forms of entertainment these days, many people don’t find the time to sit and read so much anymore.
There was a lot of hype over the Harry Potter books apparently having revived the love for reading in young people, but then further research found that in reality, it didn’t really create a significant change after all, which is a bit disillusioning. But despite this, I still strongly believe in the value of books and the value of reading and learning. I think the Harry Potter books are great. I think a good education is the backbone of society, and good works of fiction should educate and entertain. I think it is important that writers continue to create good stories that are both entertaining and educational.
I’ve been working as a Speech and Language Therapist for the past ten years, and from experience I really do find that children learn best when they’re interested and having fun. I have a primary school student who was struggling with Language Arts at school and he had almost zero interest in the books he was asked to read.
But then I thought: well, what does this kid like? He likes things to do with espionage, groovy high-tech gadgets, detective work, conspiracies….So, I went to the bookstore and came across the Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz. I bought the first book in the series, and asked my student to try it out. A few days later, his mother texted me and told me how much her son was loving the book and how he had already finished it in one week! I was astounded and utterly pleased! So you see, a good book can do that for you.
How much of your day job has influenced your writing?
I run my own private practice as a freelance Speech & Language Therapist. Since I run my own business, I tend to have some control over my work schedule. I go from place to place all over HK Island, and in between classes or on lunch breaks, I would rush off to a coffee shop or cafe to work on my book.
If I didn’t have a job like mine, but an office job where I had to sit at a desk all day confined to one building, I probably wouldn’t have been able to work on my book effectively. I find that I can work much better at a coffee shop than at home, where there are many distractions. So I’m pretty grateful for the type of job that I have.
But because some days are busier than others, I don’t get to work as much on my writing on those days. On a good day, I could spend a couple of hours on my book. But no matter what, I tried very hard to work on my book EVERYDAY, even if it was just for twenty minutes during lunch or before bedtime.
Another way that my profession as an SLT has influenced my writing is that it has kept me young at heart. I work with children, I adore children, and I really think that being around them keeps me young at heart, which then inspires me to write what I write.
As Roald Dahl said…those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. By magic, I think he was referring to a child’s sense of curiosity, their hope in miracles, their wonderment at all the little things in this world that jaded adults take for granted. I believe in that sort of magic, because it’s that sense of wonderment that keeps us young at heart and helps us appreciate all the small things that can give us joy. And that’s one of the reasons I love spending time with children, especially my adorable nieces Chloe and Mikayla. They keep me…unjaded! One day, I hope I can share that magic with my own children!
Many people dream of becoming published writers but few make it a reality. When you started this project, did you ever imagine that you would finally become a recognized published writer?
For as long as I can remember, I had always wanted to write a novel and have it published. I’ve loved books since I was old enough to read. There were times during my teenage years when things just got really dark and lonely – not uncommon in adolescence! – but books were always my one solace. Without my books, I think life would have been much harder! Back at school, English Lit and Art were my two favorite subjects. I especially loved creative writing.
Several years ago, I took up a creative writing course through the University of Oxford which was a real eye-opener for me. I got to interact with a group of wonderful, creative, and intelligent aspiring writers, most of whom were based in the UK or Europe. I was the only Chinese participant, and the only one from Hong Kong. But strangely, I didn’t feel singled out. I actually felt like I belonged, because we all had one thing in common – the love for writing! It was exhilarating. I just loved that course, and I learned so much. It was also incredibly encouraging to receive positive feedback for my writing, to see that people actually enjoyed my stories and ideas. It was a real confidence booster.
It took a few years to get the ball rolling, but finally, in 2012, I decided I would make a start on my novel. And then that ball just wouldn’t stop rolling. I became immersed in the whole writing process. I can’t stress how much hard work it took, how much discipline and self-motivation I had to muster everyday…I just pushed and pushed myself, and there were days when I would really second-guess myself and ask, “What in the world am I doing? Who am I kidding? What if people hate my book?”
But I finally accomplished it. So no matter how things pan out with this novel, I would know that at least I had the courage and strength to fulfill my dream, to try something new and scary. The fact that I’ve written and published a novel cannot be taken away from me, no matter what people think of my book. When I held my published book in my hands for the first time, it was a truly surreal moment. In the past, I could only imagine it. Now, it’s happened.
From the initial idea to the final product; just how hard was the publishing process and how long did it take?
The initial idea of what I had in mind for Ellanor has pretty much stayed intact throughout the whole process, from beginning to end. I started off wanting to write about a young Elf who would explore the human realm and encounter fantastic adventures. But the final product is very, very different from what I had started off with. My very first draft hardly looks recognizable now!
I must have revised the whole manuscript over a 100 times. I started off jotting down ideas, brainstorming on pieces of note paper that I stuck in my schedule planner..then those notes morphed into sentences, paragraphs, then eventually chapters. I wanted an artist to help me create some concept art for the story, and over time those ‘concepts’ morphed into full-blown illustrations for my story, which have been included in the published book.
Raquel Diaz is my illustrator, and she is incredibly talented. Working with her was just amazing. She is Spanish and lives in Sweden, I live in Hong Kong, but somehow we just clicked and managed to communicate really well. She was able to produce the artwork pretty much as I wanted it. She worked extremely hard, and she was very professional. I was often very pedantic about what I wanted! So that process alone took a lot of work, but it was totally worthwhile.
Writing a novel is a huge feat. There are plots to be created, analyzed, revised, critiqued, and as the author you have to make sure that everything falls into place, that every plot hole has to be accounted for, every little nook and cranny gets looked into. It is an enormous undertaking, but one that I enjoyed immensely. So much planning was involved, coupled with research and the actual execution of the story on my faithful I-Pad and blue tooth keyboard, which I took everywhere with me.
It took over a year and a half to complete the entire manuscript. I would go over it constantly, obsessively, and I would literally work on it whenever I got a spare moment. Just ask my husband! I would even work on it standing up as I waited in a queue for something, typing away on my iPad. I didn’t care how crazed I must have looked! I finally mustered up the courage to show the manuscript to a couple of people who acted as my critics.
Then after I got their feedback, I revised some more. The revisions and rewriting took many months, day after day. It took much longer than I had expected. Then my editor edited the manuscript …and even after that, I went over the edited manuscript countless times to ensure everything was in order, because it is the author’s responsibility to submit the final manuscript and make sure it is all OK to go. The tweaking just seemed to go on endlessly.
Overall, the publishing process was a tremendous amount of work, and it was a lengthy, complicated process. But if I had to do it all over again, I would. It was an amazing and rewarding experience.
Which writers have influenced you? And what were your treasured books as a child? Can creativity be taught?
I have read many good books, and I would say that there are many excellent writers and story-tellers out there. I would say that several writers have really influenced me, especially J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion. He created this amazing world that I just fell in love with the first time I read about hobbits and elves and Middle-Earth when I was 16. What’s amazing about Tolkien was that he created this beautiful literary work that was based in a fantasy world, and yet his story and the characters managed to evoke such empathy.
Years ago, I had this fleeting idea that one day I would write a story about an Elf girl named Ellanor, in honor of the beautiful golden flower ‘elanor’ that grew in the elven realm of Lothlorien in Tolkien’s fantasy world. I wanted to write about an Elf girl with human connections who could take the reader on wonderful adventures. Through Elly’s expeditions, I hope that the reader’s curiosity about the world would be piqued.
As a young child, I loved reading Enid Blyton, all the fairy tales I could get my hands on, and I especially loved the Baby-sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin! As a teenager, I was really into Christopher Pike.
As I got older, other writers that influenced me are Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro, both wonderful story-tellers. Murakami, especially, is very good at creating extraordinary and surreal stories. Kazuo Ishiguro, well, I just love his writing style and the way he creates these poignant, memorable characters and story lines that often don’t end with an obvious conclusion.
I believe creativity can be taught, in the sense that people can be encouraged to think outside the box and not just follow the crowd and do what is ‘safe’. I do think that some people are more creatively inclined than others, but sure, I think that everyone can be creative, it also depends on whether they want to be…because being creative is also a choice, and you gotta have the courage to step up and be a bit of a mover and a shaker!
Is writing a novel as romantic as it sounds? Are all budding writers really hunched over notepads and computers and sitting in chic and trendy cafes typing away?
OK, I admit I have had the luxury of sitting in chic and trendy coffee shops such as Starbucks typing away! But as I said, I just can’t concentrate well at home, and I work best when I’m in a coffee shop like Starbucks or Pacific Coffee…They’re just so conducive to writing for me! I even became a Gold Member at Starbucks because I patronized them so often, and the staff saw me so much that they soon remembered my usual order off by heart!
But here’s the thing, much solitude is needed when writing a book. You got to be OK with that. Some people don’t like to be alone. I’ve always been quite comfortable with solitude though. I love my husband and my family, and I enjoy being with my friends. But I don’t mind being by myself, too. I can go into a restaurant by myself and enjoy a quiet lunch. I’ve even been to the movies by myself in the past. So spending hours by myself writing and typing away came more naturally to me. I was often alone, but I never felt lonely. But I can’t imagine how I could get time alone once kids come into the picture!
Writing takes a TREMENDOUS amount of hard work and commitment. You gotta love writing, you gotta really have the drive…the thirst…to finish the novel, to share it with others, even though the thought of it scares you witless.
Can anyone write? And does everyone have their own ‘voice’?
I think that anybody can write, but not everybody can tell a story well and be creative with it. And yes, I do think everyone has their own voice.
Where can people buy the book?
My book is now internationally available for purchase online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Books, and several other online stores which have cropped up on google search. Hopefully, the book will be available at some local English bookstores soon, we’re working on that! Also, my publisher has sent me hundreds of copies which I will distribute personally.
What are your plans of the future?
This book is the first in a planned short series about Ellanor, the main character. I’m working on the second book. I do hope that readers will enjoy the story enough to want more, so if there is a demand for the sequel, that would be great. I’m waiting for the reviews to come out, and the publisher is helping me promote the book. But no matter how things pan out, I love books and I love writing. I am so grateful for all the awesome support that my family and friends have shown me. I want them to know how much I appreciate it!
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