Flight of fantasy
Telegraph Magazine (UK)
Chick lit: Nancy Yi Fan with her pet budgies in the bedroom of her home in Florida. Her evening work schedule is posted on the wall.
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 27/01/2007
Most novelists only dream of landing a global publishing deal at the first attempt. Nancy Yi Fan is 13, Chinese and writes in her second language. Lucie Young meets a literary prodigy and her very ambitious parents.
Americans like to think they have the market cornered in how to raise child geniuses. Educational programmes such as Baby Einstein, Learning Before Birth and the Mozart Effect are all popular with new parents. But the Chinese are equally driven, judging by the success of Nancy Yi Fan. Nancy, 13, is one of the
youngest authors to have a novel published in America – an accomplishment that is all the more extraordinary as English is not her first language. She was born in China and Mandarin is her native tongue.
Nancy, whose first book, Swordbird, comes out in the UK next month, is the latest in a line of Chinese prodigies to conquer the West that has included the 13-year-old chess champion Pu Xiangzhi and the violinist Tang Yun, who at 13 starred in Chen Kaige's 2002 film Together with You.
Over a homecooked dinner of dumplings, tofu, egg and peppers in their hanky-sized apartment in Gainesville, Florida (where the Fans moved from China six months ago), Harvey Fan, 43, explains that it is no accident that his daughter is such a precocious talent. His plans for her greatness began even before she was born. 'Americans really care about their children, but in Beijing they go more crazy,' he says, as the Fans perch around the kitchen table on what appears to be plastic garden furniture.
By law, Chinese parents can have only one child (unless they produce twins) and they do everything in their power to ensure that their child develops to its fullest potential. 'I didn't buy a sofa,' Harvey says, looking at the plastic chairs in the spartan living-room. 'Luxury is not for me. I don't need to lie on a sofa. As long as we have enough money, it is for Nancy to buy books.' Turning to look at his wife, Lora, he continues, 'She is never complaining. My sister criticises me and says, "Why you not buy your wife beautiful clothes? You not so decent. You just wear cheap shirts and T-shirts. Why?" '
Nancy shows no evidence of being a spoilt child. She has little in her bedroom apart from her computer, a collection of moss and four-leaf clovers she gathered from the school playing fields, and a bookcase that holds about 50 books (half in Chinese, half in English). What she does have –in abundance – is confidence.
Sitting on a mattress on the floor, with her hair in a ponytail and glasses that make her look like a cross between Harry Potter's Chinese twin and Velma from Scooby-Doo, Nancy explains how she took two years to write Swordbird, and then did what every writer dreams of – she secured a publisher without even having an agent. 'I'd read a few books about how to get published and it was so complicated,' she says, rolling her eyes. She didn't want to waste money on postage, sending out lots of copies of her manuscript to book editors, so instead she simply e-mailed Swordbird to half a dozen of the most important sounding people at the leading publishing houses.
Jane Friedman, the CEO and president of HarperCollins, who frequently appears near the top of lists of America's most powerful women, receives dozens of emails every day from hopeful authors, but this one caught her eye. 'It was addressed to President Friedman and said it was from a 12-year-old Chinese girl, but it seemed very grown up,' Friedman says. 'I had my doubts that it was real.' Nevertheless she emailed Nancy immediately to let her know she was interested in her book. Within a month, Nancy had a deal.
Swordbird, like most classical children's fiction, involves a crusade of good against evil. In this case, the main protagonists are blue jays, robins and cardinal-birds that eat pies, play the piano, perform plays, dance, sail boats and tip-claw around the trees of the Stone-Run Forest. These small creatures are also expert swordsmen and defend themselves with an impressive array of blades against an evil hawk, Turnatt, who enslaves innocent birds in Fortress Glooming and tries to pit everyone against each other.
Birds are Nancy's passion. In a tiny cage in the living-room are perched Ambergold, Cyan and Tiger, her budgerigars. 'I got my first bird when I was in China. I called him Alphabet because I was learning the English alphabet at the time.' Keeping birds as pets is common in China but mostly among the elderly. 'They keep canaries, singing birds or nightingales in bamboo cages. It takes the place of golf or a newspaper,' she says.
Nancy spent her first seven years in Liaoning in north-east China, and Beijing. Lora and Harvey had already lost twins and didn't want to lose another child, so when Lora became pregnant for the second time she stayed in hospital for nearly a year. Harvey had a karaoke machine and recorded love songs to play to their unborn baby. 'I remember Moon River and Love Story,' Lora giggles. 'My husband said, "Eat all sorts of things so your child will be clever." '
'I said, if you take a lot of minerals, your child will develop a lot faster,' Harvey adds. 'I bought very expensive cherries and lychees. I spent to my limit. I also went out to the villages and bought donkey meat and snake meat. The old generation have a superstition that it is good for the child.'
Before Nancy could walk, Harvey carried her to museums to show her art. He exposed her to different sounds and bought a computer so she could tap on it, even when she didn't know what she was doing. Everyone in his family chipped in. Harvey's 80-year-old father did chores around their house and one day placed an English book under Nancy's sleeping head, perhaps hoping she might learn by osmosis. 'It was a prediction,' Harvey grins.
When Nancy was seven, the Fans moved to America where Harvey had won a visiting scholarship to several universities, including Harvard. During this four-year spell in the US – they returned to China for two years when their visa expired – the Fans made intensive use of the library system. Nancy, who has been twisted up like a pretzel at the table, animatedly jumps in to tell the story. 'My parents rode bicycles and went to the libraries with backpacks. Sometimes we would bring a little shopping cart, which I left near the door. It didn't make any noise, so they didn't say anything, but the librarians' eyes grew very big when they saw it,' she says with a giggle.
In her first year at school in the US, Nancy's reading ability shot from kindergarten level to a year above her classmates. (Nowadays, she boasts, 'I can read a Harry Potter in a day if I have not much other things to do.') Her first short stories were so outstanding that her teacher summoned Harvey to check he wasn't writing them for her. Her parents beam with delight at the very idea.
In the evenings and at weekends, Harvey gave his daughter additional homework. He taught her to keep a diary and set her tasks such as using a particular quote in a story. 'She is under my control at home,' he says proudly. 'At home she can't read any books except classics and the Newbery Medal book list [an annual award in America for the best children's books chosen by librarians].'
On the wall above Nancy's desk is a schedule outlining how she will spend every hour of the evening: 4.30-6.30 homework; 6.30-7.30 meal/rest; 7.30-9.30 Quest. Quest is the name of her second novel, which she says she has nearly finished. It is set 100 years before the time of Swordbird and 'tells how Wind Voice became Swordbird,' a giant dove-like bird of peace with magical powers.
Every night at 10pm, after Nancy finishes her assignments, the family goes jogging. It must be quite a sight. There are barely any pavements in most American towns and Gainesville is no exception. Most people seem to live in apartment complexes arranged around a communal car-park, and the local streets are huge four- and six-lane highways cutting through the heart of town.
Harvey feels that in China parents neglect sports to their detriment. It is not a priority in Chinese schools; the emphasis is solely on study. Harvey says this is partly because the playgrounds are small and crowded, so there is not much room for sport. He prefers the Western model; Nancy took dance classes and did skating and swimming. 'I think she is taller than us because of the swimming,' he says.
The Fans have moved almost 10 times in Nancy's life. Asked if moving makes it hard to keep up with friends, she says soberly, 'My best friends are books. Books are everything. They are my teachers, my friends. They are always there for you, even when we move and go to a temporary home.'
Her favourite hobby is to lie in bed at night and picture the characters from the books that she has read that day and see if she can make the stories come out differently. 'Then when I fall asleep I dream about the stories,' she says. 'If the story is good, it is very hard to change what happens.'
The idea for Swordbird came to her at the age of 10 after one of these bookish dreams. She had just read Gone with the Wind and Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (a fictional story about a young apprentice silversmith caught up in the American revolution). 'I was learning about the revolutionary wars in my social studies class and that all got mixed up in my dreams,' she recalls. When she woke up, she realised she had dreamt the makings of a novel about war, peace, friendship and trust. 'For several days, I thought of all the good stuff I had ever thought of and poured it all into the story. I wrote and wrote and wrote, whenever I had spare time. It always occupied a place in my mind.
Nancy jots down ideas in ringbound notebooks that she carries in her jeans pocket. 'I just wildly write out my ideas on a notebook, however stupid. The notebook is about brainstorming gems for the story. Then I go back to the computer and go through it. I think the disadvantage of a computer is I am tempted to change it.'
The first draft of Swordbird took two years to complete. In the first version, she had more than 100 characters. 'It got really tangled up and confusing,' she says, so she snipped the characters down to 40 and tried to streamline the whole thing. She even took up martial arts to help with the battle scenes. 'I thought if I knew how to use a sword, the battle scenes would be more realistic.' The result is the birds fight with everything from rapiers and sabres to scimitars.
Nancy is keen to show off her new-found fighting skills and impressively twirls a huge sword in the living-room and strikes a dramatic pose. Evidently, when she sets her mind on doing something, she doesn't do it by halves.
Kate Jackson, the editor-in-chief of the children's division at HarperCollins, which publishes such modern classics as Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events and Where the Wild Things Are, thinks Nancy's writing is breathtaking. 'I've never seen the like of it before,' she says. 'I didn't realise when I first read it that it was written by a 12-year-old. She is so accomplished as a writer, goodness knows where she will be when she is 25.'
Of course, Swordbird was by no means perfect when it first arrived at the publishing house. Like most first novels, it needed some fine-tuning. Nancy's editor, Phoebe Yeh, spent six months coaching her how to hone the story and break it into chapters. The result is a book that has, as Friedman says, 'an old-fashioned sense of values, which is what a lot of the great writers have'. Friedman won't let on what HarperCollins paid for the book, but it wasn't six figures, she says. How well do they expect it to sell? 'Not millions. That's only JK Rowling and Lemony Snicket. We would be very happy if it did 50,000.'
A cynic might say that Nancy's book benefited enormously from great timing. Other publishers did turn it down. Some told Nancy she was too young, others told her to approach magazines first or get an agent. Would HarperCollins have been so keen to entertain such a young unknown author if the company wasn't looking for titles to help it break into the vast untapped Chinese market?
Friedman admits that when she received Nancy's email, 'China was on my mind. We were planning to enter the Chinese market so, yes, the idea that she was Chinese was appealing. Nancy's book will be published in China by People's Literature Publishing House, our "partner" in China – there are no official partnerships yet.'
Were the publishers worried at all about the strain all this hothousing, writing and fame might have on such a young mind? 'At the beginning, I might have worried,' Jackson says. 'But this is her passion, this is what she loves. She seems very peaceful with it. She is a very calm person, even with all the things going on in her life. Now I've no worries about it. She is old beyond her years.'
Nancy seems unaffected by all the fuss. She is a sweet, sensitive, highly articulate teenage girl whose plans for the future are to continue writing stories and to go to a leading university such as Harvard. 'They have a very nice atmosphere which I find very pacifying,' she says. For now she is happily putting the finishing touches to her second novel and dabbling in fashion design. She is wearing a T-shirt she designed featuring a bird and a verse by the poet Emily Dickinson: 'Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all.'
Asked if she has any tips for young writers, she says simply that the best way to learn is by reading the best books. 'Read them over and over until you seem to memorise the rhythm and the words. Then, when you write, all the good parts will melt into your style.'