Interview with Crystal Chan – All That I Can Fix

Everyone, please welcome Crystal Chan to Rich in Color! Crystal’s newest book, ALL THAT I CAN FIX, is out today from Simon Pulse.

In Makersville, Indiana, people know all about Ronney—he’s from that mixed-race family with the dad who tried to kill himself, the pill-popping mom, and the genius kid sister. If having a family like that wasn’t bad enough, the local eccentric at the edge of town decided one night to open up all the cages of his exotic zoo—lions, cheetahs, tigers—and then shoot himself dead. Go figure. Even more proof that you can’t trust adults to do the right thing.

Overnight, news crews, gun control supporters, and gun rights advocates descend on Makersville, bringing around-the-clock news coverage, rallies, and anti-rallies with them. With his parents checked out, Ronney is left tending to his sister’s mounting fears of roaming lions, stopping his best friend from going on a suburban safari, and shaking loose a lonely boy who follows Ronney wherever he goes. Can Ronney figure out a way to hold it together as all his worlds fall apart?

Sound like the book for you? Read on!

I read an excerpt of ALL THAT I CAN FIX, and between the squirrels falling from the trees and the animals on the loose, Ronney immediately caught my attention with the tidbits we got about his family. What can you tell us about Ronney and his family?

You know how sometimes a relationship can crash and burn? How do you even start to pick up the pieces? That is the heart of the story between Ronney and his dad, because his dad recently tried to kill himself by gunshot. In the meanwhile, yes, there are squirrels falling from the trees and animals on the loose: Sometimes the chaos of the world can parallel the chaos that’s going on in your heart and in your family.

I remember hearing about the 2011 exotic animal outbreak in Zanesville, Ohio! What was it about the incident that inspired you to include a fictional version of it in ALL THAT I CAN FIX?

I was transfixed at the exotic zoo breakout in Zanesville – it was like, serious? There are lions running around OHIO? Of all places! It was so surreal, and I guess that stuck with me: Sometimes curveballs happen that throw us way out of our realm of experience, whether it be a zoo outbreak or, in Ronney’s case, that your dad tried to kill himself. For many people, we can point to at least a couple things that have destabilized us, for better or for worse – but in either event, it lends to it a surreal experience. It was that surreal feeling that I really wanted to explore in the story.

What did you like most about writing Ronney’s character? What are his relationships like with his best friend and the girl he has a crush on?

Believe it or not, I really liked writing from the male perspective. My debut novel had a female protagonist, and in this novel, Ronney is squarely a cis male. His voice just popped out of me. I had very complicated male dynamics in my family, so I have always been interested in the male perspective, always observing groups of guys, asking my guy friends why guys thought X, etc. but it was in writing the story from the male perspective that I realized how… liberating it was. For instance, Ronney can be a jerk, sometimes an asshole. And you know what? It was fun. You see, I was raised as the “dutiful Chinese daughter”– the nice, demure, obedient one. And I realized in writing the book, having the dual restraints of gender and race – I never gave myself permission to be an asshole (laughing). It is much harder in our society for females to be jerks. And the more I explored this freedom, the angrier I got – why is female “jerkiness” socially unacceptable? Why must females be perfect while males can be jerks, even assholes, and get away with it? That kind of a thing. And you know, I didn’t even realize the weight of those expectations until I didn’t have them anymore in writing this book.

You’re tackling some heavy topics in ALL THAT I CAN FIX—suicide, mental illness, gun control, etc. What do you hope your teen readers will take away from the book?

I guess I’d like to clarify your question and say, “What do you hope cynical and disillusioned teen readers will take away from the book?” I hope these teens will, first and foremost, see a mirror held up, reflecting back a portion of their society: A world in which grown-ups act like children and children act like grown-ups. A world where adults scream at each other and dehumanize each other and yet expect kids to reconcile on the playground. A world that reflects the hypocrisy of adulthood and how leaders are simply not leading – and I’m not talking about partisan politics, I am talking about huge swaths of adults across this country. For instance, why do we have fun games on our phones but can’t balance our state and national budgets? The answer: Grown-ups are having more fun creating fun games. Balancing budgets isn’t fun and so grown-ups have opted out of it. I want these teens to know that I support their questions and frustration. Just as important, I want these teens to know that I have hope in them, to pick up the ball that has been dropped and to run with it.

Both you and Ronney are mixed-race kids from the Midwest. Were there any experiences in your life that found their way into Ronney’s?

Oh, sure! I lived in a small-ish town in Wisconsin, and my family totally stuck out. Much like Ronney’s. Also, I received a lot of food harassment at school – like when I would bring chicken feet or beef tripe for my lunch and received absolute rejection from my peers because of that. Things like that.

What 2018 YA books by or about people of color or people from First/Native Nations are you looking forward to reading?

OMG, I am totally itching to get my hands on a copy of Nnedi Okorafor’s AKATA WARRIOR. She is one of my favorite authors. Daring and bold – she’s been a great role model for me.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about ALL THAT I CAN FIX?

I started writing this book seven years ago, and in many ways it feels like it was a different world. In these past seven years, more and more of the news headlines are lining up with the plot points of the book: Prescription drug abuse, children protesting school gun violence, leaders refusing to lead, and so forth. At first it freaked me out. (grinning) Now it’s more of an acknowledgment of how art works: Many times the artist really has to listen deeply within herself and to the world to hear the whispers, and just sometimes, the art goes beyond the artist. Actually, I think that is an artist’s deepest wish.

Crystal Chan watched with amazement at the exotic zoo outbreak in Zanesville, Ohio in 2011, where scores of animals—hungry lions, panthers, and tigers—ran loose around the county. That incident helped inspire her most recent novel, All That I Can Fix.

When Crystal isn’t writing, her passion is giving diversity talks to adults and kids alike, telling stories on Wisconsin Public Radio, and hosting conversations on social media.

Her debut novel, Bird, was published in nine countries and is available on audiobook in the US.

She is the parent of a teenage turtle (not a ninja).