By Alisson Clark
Gainesville Magazine Feb./Mar. 2008
Becoming a best-selling author at age 13 could be a mixed blessing for someone less grounded than Nancy Yi Fan. But Fan, whose novel “Swordbird” spent weeks on the New York Times Children’s Bestseller List in 2007, takes success in stride.
“At school, I’m just like anybody else,” says Fan, now 14 and celebrating the release of her second novel, the prequel “Sword Quest,” in January. She’s appeared on the The Today Show and Martha Stewart and gets fan mail from around the world, but the ninth-grader says the role of famous author is like an alter-ego.
“It’s like I have a double life, like Spiderman,” she laughs. “I have a light switch in my head that goes back and forth easily.”
Fan was born in China and had to learn English in a hurry when she moved to Syracuse, New York, with her parents at age 7. A few months after visiting New York City and standing on the observation deck of the World Trade Center, Fan watched the towers fall on 9/11. Her tumult of emotion after that day, along with a lifelong affinity for birds, led to a dream in which birds in old-fashioned clothing fought with swords clutched in their claws. When she awoke, she immediately began writing, and “Swordbird” was born.
Fan e-mailed her manuscript to several publishing houses, where it caught the eye of Jane Friedman, President and Chief Executive Officer of HarperCollins. The book hit shelves in February 2007 and was chosen for Al Roker’s kids’ book club.
“I’m so glad ‘Swordbird’ is inspiring to other kids,” Fan says. “Writing ‘Swordbird’ allowed me to express what I wanted to say in a way that’s beautiful and poetic but at the same time, fun. I want everyone who reads it to realize how precious peace is.”
The response from kids around the world has been tremendous: Fan spends time each day responding to reader mail and laments that she can’t personally respond to each one.
“I’ve had to look up the names of some of the countries on a map, “she says.
Fan’s parents, Harvey and Lora, help their daughter balance her writing with homework, martial arts (she took up swordplay to write better fight scenes) and time outdoors.
“My parents take me to Paynes Prairie so I’m not cooped up in front of a computer all the time,” Fan says. “Sometimes I’ll take my writing and sit in the shade and watch the birds. I love the herons stalking in the ponds and the clouds of white egrets floating over it.
Nancy says it was her grandfather, however, who first put her on the path to success. When she was born, he placed an English book under her head while she slept in the hopes that it would make her gifted with words.
“In a way, it was magical, “she says.
Last year, on a trip to China in support of “Swordbird,” she returned the favor, placing a copy of the novel under her 93-year-old grandfather’s pillow.
In the years to come, Fan hopes to go to Harvard and continue writing and practicing swordplay, but beyond that, “I’m still a kid: I can’t really imagine that far,” she says. Her focus is on finishing her freshman year of high school and her next novel, which takes place in the period between “Sword Quest” and “Swordbird”. Although she plans to keep writing, she hasn’t ruled out other fields.“Im’not sure what I’ll choose for a career, but whatever I choose, I know I will write for the rest of my life,” Fan says. “Writing is an integral part of who I am.”