JULIE LEUNG was raised in the sleepy suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, though it may be more accurate to say she grew up in Oz and came of age in Middle-earth. She graduated with an English and journalism degree from University of Georgia. By day, she is a marketing director at Random House, specializing in sci-fi/fantasy books. You can catch her at pop culture conventions on behalf of Del Rey Books. By night, she is a children’s book author. Her debut series, Mice of the Round Table was praised as a “winning new adventure,” by Kirkus Reviews. She is also the author of Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist ,Who Did It First? 50 Scientists, Artists, and Mathematicians Who Revolutionized The World, and The Fearless Flights of Hazel Ying Lee.
How do you conduct your research?
In writing about Hazel Ying Lee and Tyrus Wong, it has been important for me to consult real-life people as primary resources, in particular any surviving family members. I love involving them in the writing process and making sure I have their blessing. Often I am able to incorporate personal anecdotes perhaps not available in more obvious records. Beyond that, I also rely on any documentaries (both Hazel and Tyrus have had phenomenal documentaries made about them) and any previously published articles available online.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
Usually I begin to outline my manuscript using a readily available online biography. For instance, I first read about Tyrus Wong in the New York Times obituaries and used that article to sketch out my story beats. Then I began to flesh out the details during my main research phases. Oftentimes, my manuscripts get way too long and I spend a lot of time boiling down to key points and highlights.
What is your favorite thing about research?
History was my favorite subject in school growing up because everything unfolded like a dramatic epic and there always seemed to be more behind what was officially included in the books. I often wondered what nuances got left out. My favorite thing about research follows the same sensation — of peeling back layers and discovering the full picture of a person.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
Finding a moment I really want to explore fully with a detailed scene and description, but not having enough sources to back up what I want to know.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
My picture books often feature moments of interiority that aren’t necessarily based on concrete fact but are inferred from what I’ve learned about my subjects’ personality. For instance, I can only imagine what Hazel might have thought while she was flying a plane or assume how Tyrus felt mopping the floor of his art school. Such moments are artistic liberties I took, but that I felt were important to include in order to create a three-dimensional representation. I always gut-check these passages with additional sources and get their blessing on it.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical nonfiction?
I feel less indulgent and more purposeful when I pursue a nonfiction project. My writing becomes less about my own art and more about whose legacy I wish to be in service to. Shining a bigger light on little-known pockets of Asian American history is so meaningful to me, the daughter of first-gen immigrants. I feel like it’s a course-corrective to growing up without such stories during my childhood.
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