Jan 20, 2022

Taking Poetic Risks: A Q&A with Margaret Chiu Greanias

interview by Anne-Marie Strohman

I met Margaret Chiu Greanias when I auditioned for a local picture book critique group. Margaret had already published her debut picture book Maximillian Villainous, and I was in awe of her knowledge and appreciated the kindness in her critique. My years in the critique group proved that my first impression was accurate. Margaret knows picture books backward and forward. She approaches her craft with a strong sense of what she wants to say and a deep commitment to delving deep into character. And she has always helped me look at my stories with new eyes. Her new picture book, Amah Faraway, is a triumph. Read on, and be inspired by her writing process! –Anne-Marie Strohman

KidLit Craft: What inspired you to write Amah Faraway? How did you develop the story?

Amah Faraway Cover

Margaret Chiu Greanias: Since I began writing picture books, I’ve longed to tell the story of my relationship with my Amah (grandmother, in Taiwanese). Even though we saw each other infrequently, I adored her. But like Kylie, my main character in Amah Faraway, I always felt a bit shy at the start of our visits–due to my own cautious nature, the distance, language barrier, and cultural differences. After I had time to warm up though, I was always at her side or hanging out in her room. Once when her visit with my family in New York was over, I begged to go with her to my uncle’s house, a state away! (This was when I was 3 or 4, and my parents let me go! They drove up later that day and we all stayed there overnight.)

While I had this idea, I hadn’t found the right way to tell it until I came across a reverse poem. I was awed by how the tone changed between reading it from the top down vs. from the bottom up. I challenged myself to write in this format, using the forward text and reverse text to form a full story. Not just any story would work in this structure though, and eventually, I recognized the story of my relationship with my Amah might be the perfect fit.

The last piece fell into place when I remembered my children’s trip to Taiwan several years ago. It was the first time they had been to Taiwan. My mother, who was already there for an extended visit, wanted to show off her hometown. We visited places like Taipei 101, fancy basement-level food courts, MRT stations/shopping malls, a hot springs hotel, a mom and pop youtiao shop, etc. She also planned a huge family banquet, inviting relatives my children and I had never met before. It was all a bit overwhelming. Naturally, my children were cautious. At first. But then, they began having so much fun. They went from questioning why we had to visit Taiwan to asking when we could go back.

KLC: Amah Faraway is a reverso poem–it reads forward until the midpoint, then puts the lines in reverse order. What were the challenges of the form? What were the benefits? Did you try the story without the structure?

MCG: Reverso is a poetic form developed by poet Marilyn Singer. Like a true reverse poem, it can be read forwards and in reverse. However, in reverso, the punctuation may change, which gives each line a new meaning. I wrote Amah Faraway using the same rules as reverso, but the forward and reverse reads are strung together and read one after the other in order to form a full story.

The challenges of the form, as you may have already guessed, are:

  • It is tough to write. I wrote the first draft using trial and error. Like writing in rhyme, I made sure story came first, then found words that fit the story and structure.
  • Revising is also tough. Sometimes I would get revision notes and not have a clue how I was going to incorporate them. I knew if I broke one spot to revise, I would also break the corresponding spot on the reverse side. Sometimes, this even broke the whole story! It was pretty overwhelming. Also, after taking a break from the story as I awaited feedback, I then needed to get back into the groove of writing in the reverse structure to revise. To help me, I reviewed every reverse poem I could get my hands on and analyzed how they were written (I also studied what I had done so far) which gave me strategies to use to incorporate revisions.

As tough as writing in a reverse structure was, there were also some wonderful benefits:

  • The first is that when I finally reached the middle of my story, I was done. That was a happy surprise! All that was left was to read the story in its entirety and feel proud. 🙂
  • Another benefit was the reason I challenged myself to write in this reverse structure in the first place: the change in tone awesome!

I really love my story in the modified reverse structure, but I did try it in a traditional structure for two editors who requested revise and resubmits. These editors suggested I take it out of the structure. For the first R&R, the resulting story rhythm felt completely different from the original. So I ended up not submitting that revision. When the second R&R came in, I gave it another shot, because the feedback was more specific and felt doable. I did love the results, but the story ended up being pretty different. Ultimately, I’m grateful that my editor Sarah Shumway loved the structure as much as I did and had a vision for how it would work in a picture book.

KLC: There are so many wonderful layers in this book–the characters of Kylie and her grandmother, their relationship, the importance of place, themes of love and belonging, the elements of culture–how do you go about incorporating so many layers in such a spare piece? Did it come together all at once, or were you consciously layering in new elements as you revised?

MCG: Thank you! The layers of the characters and their intergenerational relationship, the importance of place and culture, the themes of love and belonging all naturally fell into place for Amah Faraway. I think this is because of the nature of the story: a grandchild visiting her grandmother faraway, each “from” a different country and culture. 

Two layers that I did consciously enhance were the layers of strangeness and familiarity–how Kylie, the main character, feels everything is strange in the first half of the story and how she feels everything is more familiar in the second half of the story. My agent Sean McCarthy (he is a master at revision) suggested that I use these layers to anchor the manuscript so there would be a bigger emotional payoff in the end.

KLC: The illustrations in this picture book are delightful. Do you have a favorite spread? Which one, and what makes it your favorite?

MCG: Tracy Subisak, who illustrated AMAH FARAWAY, did such a fantastic job. I’m so pleased with her heartfelt illustrations. It’s hard to pick a favorite spread, but mine is the second big banquet scene after Kylie, the main character, has had her big emotional change. She’s devouring food at the Lunar New Year banquet. Her mouth is wide open and she’s lifting the bowl up as she shovels food in. (For readers who don’t know, in Chinese culture we lift the bowl to our mouths when we are eating rather than leaving the bowl on the table and using the utensil to bring food up to our mouth.) I also love the expression on Amah’s face as she watches Kylie enjoy her food. Finally, I love the Chinese lion dancers in the background meant to set the story around Lunar New Year, but which add to the joy and celebration in the scene.

KLC: What do you hope readers will come away with after reading Amah Faraway?

MCG: I hope after reading AMAH FARWAY, readers will think of their loved ones who they haven’t seen in a long time and look forward to re-connecting. I also hope that readers will see how for Kylie, my main character, that one moment of opening up and sharing joy with her Amah was the beginning of her feeling connected with her faraway family and Taiwan.

KLC: How was the process of Amah Faraway different from your debut, Maximilian Villainous? (You can answer about writing or publishing)

Maximillian Villainous Book Cover

MCG: Even though I wrote Amah Faraway in an experimental modified reverse poem structure, and I wrote Maximillian Villainous in a more commonly used classic narrative structure, it took me 2.5 months to write Amah Faraway and 2.5 years to write Maximillian Villainous

Part of this disparity stems from me knowing what Amah Faraway was going to be about before I even started writing. I had already decided on the structure. I had planned what the plot would be. I simply needed to execute. Having these limitations helped me to focus my efforts. Ultimately, I wrote ten drafts before it was ready to send to agents, and my critique group provided me with two rounds of feedback.

For Maximillian Villainous, I began with a main character, a defining characteristic, and a general problem. But I didn’t know what the heart of my story was. I took the story to my critique group many times and even asked several people outside my critique group for feedback (fresh eyes). I was hoping someone would be able to tell me what my story should be about. In the end, I wrote over thirty-five drafts, several of them being full re-writes.

The publishing journeys of these two stories were vastly different as well–although not in the way you might imagine. After revising Amah Faraway one more time with my agent Sean McCarthy, we were on sub for one year and four months, receiving three revise and resubmits (one from my editor Sarah Shumway at Bloomsbury), before we got an offer. In contrast, Maximillian Villainous was on sub for under one month and sold as-is. I could theorize on why this happened but ultimately, I think it came down to finding the right editor at the right time.

KLC: One thing I love about your critiques is that you write a pitch for all of the books you critique. I’ve definitely honed my pitch skills from reading yours. How do you incorporate pitches into your writing practice?

MCG: I do a pitch for every story I write and often for stories I critique. Pitches help me clarify and remember what the story is about–kind of like a mission statement in business. For my own stories, when I write a pitch depends on what I’m needing at the moment:

  • I’ll write one at the beginning of the process if I have a strong idea of what I want the story to be about.
  • I’ll write one in the middle if I feel like the story has lost its way.
  • I’ll write one when I’ve finished my first draft to make sure the story matches what my idea was (sometimes I end up with something completely different than what I was intending and that’s okay so long as I recognize and want that) and to help me focus, refine, and strengthen my revisions. 

For stories I critique, pitches help me understand what the story is about and that helps me to focus my critique. I’ll usually include my pitch in my critique so that the author knows whether I “got” what they were trying to do and can decide if/how they want to take my suggestions.

KLC: What do you feel you’ve gained from being a part of the children’s writing community?

MCG: I can confidently say that I would not be where I am without the children’s writing community. Because of the kidlit community, I’ve learned the craft of writing picture books much faster than had I left to my own devices. There are so many great classes, webinars and workshops–Susanna Leonard Hill’s Making Picture Book Magic, Arree Chung’s Storyteller Academy, Renee La Tulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab, Inked Voices workshops, Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 webinars, Writing Barn workshops, Highlights Foundation workshops, local SCBWI workshops, etc–and if you ask around, people are so generous with sharing which ones they’ve done and what they’re geared for. I’ve also benefited from the insights my critique partners have gifted me through their feedback and surprisingly, I’ve also learned from critiquing their stories too. Had I not been connected with the community, I might have given up on this dream of publishing picture books altogether. Having critique groups, 12×12, kidlit411 Facebook group, my local SCBWI chapter has made this solitary path not so solitary. Being able to connect (and even commiserate) with of the publishing journey.

KLC: What can Margaret Chiu Greanias fans look forward to?

MCG: My next picture book, HOOKED ON BOOKS illustrated by Kristyna Litten, is scheduled to publish in the summer of 2023. It’s about a grumpy anglerfish who wants to finish her book but keeps getting interrupted. So, she swims deeper and deeper in search of the perfect place to read.

Check out our other interviews with picture book authors!

The Secrets of a Great Non-Fiction Picture Book: A Q&A with debut author Evan Griffith



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