Tell us about the history of KIMCHI & CALAMARI? Where did the story come from? How long did it take you to write?
Really the story idea came wrapped in a baby blanket and drinking a bottle of soymilk. I’m referring to my son Connor, who arrived at JFK airport twelve years ago from Pusan, South Korea. Adopting Connor was one of the happiest things I’ve done with my life. Yet it was also a reflective time. As overjoyed as I was that he was part of our family, I realized his adoption came with another side for him: a sense of loss for a life (and family) that was gone. So I started this book intent on writing about an adopted character. I wanted to write a story that Connor and all adopted children could read and relate to. But of course the story didn’t happen right away. It marinated for a few years, and when I actually sat down and wrote it, it took about fourteen months.
One of the strengths of your novel is how authentic and effortless Joseph’s voice is. Being female, was this a challenge? How do you think you were able to sound so convincingly male? And 14-years-old, no less?!
Thanks for the attaboy compliment. Writing KIMCHI & CALAMARI certainly had its challenges, but the boy voice wasn’t the hardest part. For starters, I had two brothers growing up, and I have two sons and a stepson now, so I might have picked up some “boy voice” through osmosis. I also attended the United States Naval Academy, which is a predominately male institution, so for four more years I was surrounded by boys (17-21-year-olds, but boys nonetheless.)
When I first started writing KIMCHI & CALAMARI, my oldest son TJ was about Joseph’s age, and my home was bustling with boys, eating, laughing, playing sports and playing video games. Often I would ask them questions on “boy stuff,” and I wasn’t above reading pieces of my story to them for an honest opinion. (Of course I had to keep it short and sweet. TJ got embarrassed if I asked too many questions, and video game time was definitely off limits.)
I really enjoy the attitude and spirit of boys around my character’s Joseph’s age. Eighth-graders, who are usually thirteen or fourteen, often see themselves as big men on campus at middle school, yet they still have an innocence too. It’s a fun mishmash.
The story of an adopted child being curious and then searching for his/her birth parents is a rite of passage for many adopted kids. What do hope readers learn from your particular story? How does your story compare/differ from others you’ve heard?
I agree about curiosity being a right of passage for adopted kids, Karen, and for that matter, all kids, especially during adolescence. Above all, I hope readers get a rollercoaster ride between the pages of KIMCHI & CALMARI. I hope they find some laughs, some uh-ohs!, and maybe even shed a few tears at the rougher moments of Joseph’s journey of discovery. And while I hope my book doesn’t preach, I would be happy if readers walked away reflecting on family and identity and race -- and what happens when they converge. In my story, Joseph describes himself as an ethnic sandwich: “Korean on the outside, Italian on the inside, and some days, the other way around.” I think many kids feel sandwiched these days, whether it’s because of adoption, ethnicity, divorce, parental expectations, or even different sets of friends. I hope discovering how Joseph deals with his sandwich dilemma gives them hope that they, too, can work through their challenges.
How did this story grow and change over the course of your revisions? Were you always sure that Joseph’s search for his parents would end the way you ended it? Or did his evolve over time?
I wasn’t completely sure how Joseph’s search would end, but I knew how I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want a Hollywood wrap-up with Joseph having a glorious meeting with his birth mother and then going back to his middle school life without skipping a beat. This is hardly a criticism of birth parents or adoptive parents, only to point out that learning one’s roots and one’s story is powerful, life-altering stuff, and I wanted to treat it that way. Korea is a country that has had a closed, secretive attitude about adoption, but fortunately, that’s changing. Years back, adoptees who tried to search for their birth families met roadblocks, but today some do reconnect, although many still don’t. So I wanted to leave hope that Joseph could in fact find birth relatives one day, but also be realistic in showing that a kid sitting in NJ couldn’t find his birth mother with a simple click of a computer mouse.
Having said that, I should add that as important as finding his birth mother was for Joseph, his search really was about finding himself -- discovering who he is, in all his parts. Just yesterday I met an adoptee who shared that she had reconnected with her birth parents. It went well with her birth mother, but not so well with her birth father. Still, she told me, she was glad she did it because she learned about herself. Knowing her true story, with all its messiness, she said, was much better than not knowing.
Food is mentioned on nearly every page, it seems. It’s also the title! Can you talk about the different ways you use it and why?
I’m with Oliver Twist when he sings, “Food, Glorious Food!” I love food -- making it, eating eat, planning out what I’ll make, and even hearing about what others have prepared or enjoyed for special occasions. Food is one of the most powerful tools I have in my parent toolbox. It’s amazing how a tasty snack or a comforting meal can ease the ouch of a bad day, isn’t it?
Food is also an important tool in my writer’s toolbox. Food can tell readers how a character is feeling, if he/she is loved (by who makes the food and how it is prepared), and it gives insight to a character’s personality and quirks. And I find the dinner table can also be a battleground where power struggles occur. This isn’t always fun for parents or kids, but it’s terrific fodder for authors.
The title KIMCHI & CALAMARI is, of course, symbolic to Joseph’s Italian and Korean sides. Kimchi is a robust pickled cabbage that most Koreans eat daily, and calamari is a special squid dish enjoyed at Italian celebrations. Of course Joseph is neither Korean nor Italian exclusively; he is multilayered, and he has to travel and stumble some to get to this realization.
Were there any threads to your story that were more difficult to write than others?
I must have tried five or six different ways to jump into the story. As writers we know you have to get to the conflict, but it was important to me that KIMCHI & CALAMARI didn’t become a “problem novel,” simply about an adopted kid doing a search. So once that was on track, the plot came fairly smoothly. Revisions took a lot of time; they always do for me, but as much as I grumbled about them, they do strengthen the story.
We often read about authors who always knew they wanted to be writers. When did you know that you wanted to write? What was some of your early work like? Are any of those early themes and/or characters echoed in KIMCHI & CALAMARI?
I never had that “ah-ha” moment in which I realized, “I must write.” I always wrote. As a child growing up on Long Island I was painfully shy. Teachers would ask questions but I wouldn’t raise my hand. If they called on me, I would turn bright red (I’m freckled too, so I truly looked like a splotchy tomato!). But I wrote with volume and voice, long stories on loose leaf paper. I continued writing during my years as a naval officer. I can remember being aboard an amphibious assault ship off the coast of San Diego and feeling the need to journal about the experience every night, no matter how exhausted I was from standing watch. Finally, having children (and reading to them) brought me full circle to children’s books, and I’m so glad it did.
My first attempt at writing a children’s novel never saw the light of a publishing house. It had lots of hiccups and way too much telling vs. showing, but I’m still proud of that work. Newbery award winning author Joan Bauer says she is as much an author for the stories that published as she is for the ones that didn’t, and I agree with her.
What’s next for Rose Kent?
I’m finishing up a novel called ROCKY ROAD, about Tess, an artistic twelve-year-old girl whose life abruptly changes when her mom moves the family (her and her deaf little brother Jordan) from San Antonio to upstate NY in the dead of winter to open an ice cream shop. I spent three years living in San Antonio, and I live upstate NY now, so this story is dear to my heart. (And doing ice cream research is nothing to complain about!)
And I have another book underway about a biracial boy living in Albany, NY in 1974 and caught between two loves: jazz piano and baseball.