An interview with Marty Chan, playwright and award-winning author of 18 books for young readers. Hear about his intricate revision process, his deep appreciation of young readers and writers, and his delight in making things hard for his characters. 25 minutes.
Read the full transcript:
[1:10] Interview with Marty Chan
CA: Are you a planner? Do you know the endings of your stories, or some of the major plot points, before you begin?
MC: I’m a bit of both. …If it’s a mystery, I definitely need to sit down and plan everything out because I need to know where the plot twists are, I need to know the solution so that I can write toward it. But if I’m doing something that’s more of a character exploration, then I feel like I can just sort of jump in and improvise and discover the story as I’m writing. So … it really depends on the story.
[2:00] CA: Do you have any advice to young readers who might be stuck in the middle of a story?
MC: That’s the classic problem…And it leads to what they often call writer’s block. And I always think that where you notice the problem is not where the problem started. It probably started a few scenes or a few pages earlier, where you made a decision that pushed your character into the problem that they’re in now or the dead end that they’ve reached. … Go back a few pages, go back a few scenes, and then make a different decision for your character and see what that does to the story. It might push you to another dead end, but at least it’ll start to inform you about what the character can do and who they are. …
[4:00] CA: Do you have a favorite first line?
MC: Oh, one of my personal favorite first lines from my work is from the very first book I wrote, The Mystery of the Frozen Brains. And the opening line was: I hated secrets. …The opening line instantly raises the question of who hates secrets or how bad is the secret that this main character hates it?
[4:35] CA: Do you tend to write in first person?
MC: Generally I like writing in first person for younger readers. … My middle grade fiction is often first person. …My steampunk fantasy series The Ehrich Weisz Chronicles, that goes more into third person because I have to cover a lot of different settings and subplots. So having third person gives me the latitude or the ability to jump from one to another.
[5:15] CA: And have you ever opened with dialogue?
MC: … I know that when I work with kids and their writing, their natural instinct is to start with dialogue …. Just remember that if you don’t identify or describe the people who are speaking, it’s just a jumble of words flying at the reader. …So, if you start with dialogue, always remember you’ve got to give an anchor to the readers so they kind of know where we are, where we’re situated, and who’s talking and why we should care. That is when revision comes in handy …
[6:30] CA: …. Do you tend to edit yourself as you draft? Or do you sort of get it all out on the page and then go back and revise?
MC: When I started writing, I was constantly going back to the beginning… And then I discovered that because I focused so much on second guessing myself and reshaping those opening few paragraphs, then at a certain point I started to lose the spark for the rest of the story. … Once I started seeing the pile of stories that I never finished, I started thinking, “Well maybe the approach is wrong for me.” … So what I often do is I will just work all the way through to the end of the first draft before I’ll even start second guessing what’s happening, because I just want the joy of discovery for myself to get to the end of the first draft. What that means, though, is that I spend more time revising than I will spend writing a first draft. …
[9:00] CA: And when did you start writing? Did you write as a kid?
I started writing when I was in high school. … I did a lot of reading because I spent a lot of time hiding in the library from bullies. And by reading, like a lot of Hardy Boys novels, I started getting inspired to come up with stories. And oftentimes what I would do is I’d daydream. …. So I would daydream all the time, come up with different scenarios, but I never wrote anything down until my high school language arts teacher gave us a homework assignment. …. He said, “I want you to imagine you’ve won the lottery and you have $1,000,000 and you can spend that money on anything you want. All I want you to do is write down and describe how you use your lottery winnings to redecorate your bedroom.” I was a lazy teenager so my idea of a dream bedroom was to have a bed I never had to get out of to do all the things I wanted to do. So I said I would use all the money to put my bed on an elevator. … He said, “Marty, you have a great imagination. Have you thought about becoming a writer?” And it was at that moment that I was inspired to write… Because of him, I am the writer that I am today….
[12:30] CA: You give workshops to kids? Do you ever read kids’ writings?
MC: I have given feedback. I was the writer in residence at the Edmonton Public Library, and part of my job was to critique and give feedback to anyone who submitted their work to me. … Being a kids’ author, that magical moment is when you can see a kid’s eyes light up and they see the possibility that they could become an author just like me. It makes all the work I do worthwhile.
[13:35] CA: Do you have any favorite scary stories or scary movies? …
MC: I am a huge zombie fan. When I was a teenager, a group of my friends went to a drive in. … And there was a dusk to dawn which included George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead…. I loved it and I’ve been a zombie fan ever since. … And I think it kind of reflects in the writing that I do. My latest book is called Haunted Hospital. … I feel like my love of scary stories has given me the inspiration to write scary stories.
[14:50] CA: And what scared you as a kid?
MC: My mom. … I remember I had to deliver flyers to different houses…And there was a German shepherd in the yard. … And I froze as that dog came running right up to me. And thankfully she was happy to see me. …But ever since then I have been scared of big dogs, and it’s only been recently that I’ve been sort of a little calmer about big dogs.
CA: And have you ever put that in one of your stories?
MC: …If you read the Marty Chan Mystery series, anything that you see in there that you wonder, “Did that actually happen to Marty Chan?” 7 times out of 10 the answer is yes.
[15:55] CA: So you do base some stories on your own childhood?
MC: Yes. I think if you’re a writer and an observer of the world, you can’t help but put things from your own life into the stories. … Probably the most successful of all the books I’ve written is something called the Mystery of the Graffiti Ghoul. … that is the one that is the most personal in terms of the elements in the story were very much based on experiences that I had as a kid. And to me it taught me how, when you come up with story ideas, the first reader that you have to engage or entertain is yourself. … I thought, “I’m the only Chinese kid in town who actually understands what that experience is like,” but I would capture things that were universal for anybody. The first chapter is about a clothes shopping nightmare … everyone has been in that situation where they’ve been embarrassed by a parent or guardian or family member while they’re shopping for clothes. …
 CA: You’re sort of tormenting your character. You could solve their problems earlier but you’re going to make them suffer for a while. How do you feel about that?
MC: Well, I love it. Because when we’re reading, we want to cheer for the character, and if everything is too easy for the character then why do we brought bother reading? …. If they see that the hero wins too easily, they wonder why bother going on the journey in the first place.
[19:20] CA: Do you have any favorite settings from fiction?
MC: In general, my favorite setting is anything in New York. … The great thing to do is if you love a setting, a real setting, before you go visit that setting or that city, just read a whole bunch of books or watch movies that are set in that city, and then go through that city and try to find those landmarks. Because it’s one of the most amazing things that you can do as a reader is to see how the writers have captured the sense of a place. …
[20:05] CA: Nice. And you do any setting exercises? …
MC: … I do a lot of out-scenes. Like in the case of the Ehrich Weisz Chronicles, that’s set in New York. …I found maps of the time period that I was writing about. … In the 1890s, before the subway was built, the trains were on elevated rails. … I actually flew to New York and … walked the route that the characters were to going to go through in that first book, just to get a sense of the place and what it would feel like. And it made it much more real in my mind…
[21:20] CA: Is there somewhere where you get your best ideas…?
MC: Just from research. I love reading books… At a certain point it’s like the confluence of several different things that I’ve heard and researched that will just come together one day. It literally is like a lightbulb … I can’t explain how that happens. All I can say is that if you want to be a writer … open yourself up to the world and just pay attention to everything that goes on around you. …Fill your tank up as much as possible because you never know when that one thing you learn about will be the spark that gives you the great idea.
[22:35] CA: That’s probably a great note to end it on. Thank you very much for doing this…
MC: Great to meet you too. Take care. …
[22:40] Marty Chan introduces himself
MC: My name is Marty Chan. I am a kids’ author and playwright. I have a very short attention span, so if you take a look at my work, you’ll realize that I hop around a lot. So I’ve worked in theatre, television, radio, kids fiction, magazine writing. One of the things I love about writing is that it gives me the opportunity to create worlds and it also opens a door to doing pretty well anything. The great thing about being a writer is that you’re only limited by your imagination, and you know how big your imagination can be. So if you can dream it, you can make it real.
[23:30] Find out more about Marty Chan
You can hear more creative writing advice from Marty Chan on Cabin Tales Episode 5.5, “Author Interviews about Tension,” on Episode 7, “Just Get it Over With,” about endings; and on Episode 8, “The Never-ending Story,” about revision. You can find out more about Marty Chan and his books from his website at MartyChan.com.
[24:30] Thanks and coming up on the podcast
I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my group interview with picture book illustrators and author-illustrators Katherine Battersby, Peggy Collins, and Christine Tripp.
Thanks for listening.
Music on the podcast is from “Stories of the Old Mansion” by Akashic Records, provided by Jamendo (Standard license for online use).
Host: Catherine Austen writes books for children, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. Visit her at www.catherineausten.com.
Visit the Cabin Tales home page.
Marty Chan writes books for kids, plays for adults, and tweets for fun. He’s best known for Mystery of the Graffiti Ghoul, which won the 2007 Diamond Willow Award. His newest book, Haunted Hospital, launched in Fall 2020. He works and lives in Edmonton with his wife Michelle and their cat Buddy. Find him online at MartyChan.com.