Interview | Maisie Chan

6 May 2020

Opening the garden gate

Children's author Maisie Chan wants to remove barriers and let imagination fly in lockdown. She talks to Adrian Turpin about her residency with Scotland's National Centre for Children's Literature

In a parallel universe, there’s only one place author Maisie Chan should have been on 1 May 2020. On that day, the Birmingham-raised, Glasgow-based writer was due to take up her post as the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellow at Peter Pan Moat Brae House in Dumfries. But Moat Brae - home to Scotland’s new National Centre for Children’s Literature - is temporarily closed. Chan finds herself having to remake her plans before she has even started. Man (or, in this case, the funding body Creative Scotland) proposes and God disposes, the proverb goes.

Chan’s own background has influenced her work and the way she plans to approach her time with Moat Brae. In their early twenties, her birth parents came from China in the 1970s to work in the Chinese takeaway business in the West Midlands. They arranged for Maisie to be privately fostered until she was 7, and she was later adopted.

Her adoptive father and mother were a machine cleaner at Cadbury’s and a dinner lady respectively. There were few books in the house she grew up in. “We didn’t have money to buy them.” But her mum took her to the library once a week, where she recalls the thrill of the cards and their little pouches gummed inside the books’ front covers. “I wanted to show when I got the fellowship that you can look like me and be a children’s author. Children of colour and kids that have grown up in council houses can do it, too.”

“I’ve always been searching for an identity. When I was a teenager, I was very much into black culture. Then when I went to university I did American Studies for a similar reason.” For an aspiring writer, British-Chinese role models were few and far between. A moment of recognition and a sense of possibility came when she first read Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet and (the American-Chinese) Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.

The question of visible models is an important one. “There are still hardly any British-Chinese children’s books,” Chan observes. One of her several sidelines is running the online group Bubble Tree Writers, which supports British East Asian and she mentors one writer from that background a year. Her own books, which include Stories from Around the World and Ladybird Tales of Superheroes, often look at cross-cultural settings and inter-generational relationships, exploring themes of connection, understanding and belonging.

The joy of the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship is that it allows a writer time to work and think, as well as offering mentoring support. (Chan is a huge advocate for mentoring, having in 2015 gone through the Megaphone scheme, which supports BAME writers.) She is the first writer for children and young people to take up the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship, which has previously been held by TS Eliot prize-winner Jen Hadfield and novelist Jenni Fagan, so perhaps there’s a sense of redressing a balance.

“Often children's writers do get ignored,” she says. “We’re not seen as proper writers. Yet children’s and young people’s sales make up almost a quarter of book sales each year. There’s so much choice out there now, especially for teenagers. It is in many ways a golden age.”

She has a clear idea of what she wants to explore during her year. “Usually I write very contemporary social drama, mainly for 8-12s. In the residency I’m keen to explore more myth, magic, portals.” As a reader she is taking inspiration from the Moat Brae archive while immersing herself in Diana Wynne-Jones’s classic fantasy novels Charmed Life and Howl’s Moving Castle.

And then there’s Peter Pan and its creator. The garden at Moat Brae House, where JM Barrie played as a child, offers particular inspiration. “Even before the lockdown, I wanted to write about the Tulip tree that only bloomed every seven years. It seemed such a strange and magical thing.”  But the current crisis, when access to green space has become a political and class issue, has added urgency to the subject. “It’s bound to affect the way I see things. I particularly want to look at those kids who don’t have gardens.

“When you are in lockdown, your imagination doesn’t need to be in lockdown. You can fly. Books allow you to go all the way round the world.”

Find out more about the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship here.

Filed in: Children