7 Questions with Betty Yee

1. If you could travel back in time, (assuming there’d be no risk to yourself or changing the course of history) where and when and why would you go?

I would love to travel back to the late 19th century, early 1900’s. There was such tremendous energy all over the world. Times were changing, the world was becoming a smaller place, and new ideas were emerging. In so many fields (math, science, arts, social sciences), great paradigm shifts were starting to take hold.

2. Your book is set in China and America during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. What fascinates you most about this time period?

Gold Mountain is set in 1867, when thousands of Chinese workers came to America to help build the American transcontinental railroad. The main protagonist, Tam Ling Fan is a fifteen year old girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to earn enough money to save her father. She goes to work for the Central Pacific Railroad Company which is tasked with building the western portion of the line through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

As I conducted my research, I was amazed at the enormous hardships the Chinese workers endured. Everything I learned: from the backbreaking labor of digging through a granite mountain range, to the brutal winter months, to enduring the indignity of bigotry, and exploitation, all added up to an incredible story that needed to be shared with the world.

3. What elements of this time period do we still see today?

The desire to find a better life in America is still a dream held forth by many people all over the world. Unfortunately, some Americans still have strong negative feelings about immigrants entering the United States in search of a better life. There is still a tendency to fall back on negative stereotypes and fear that “others” are coming to steal American jobs. At the same time, because many immigrants are desperate, they put up with work conditions that are unsafe, or accept low wages/benefits.

4. What kind of insights do you think kids from this time period have?

I think that many young men and boys felt that this was a time of tremendous opportunity for people who were willing to take risks. In America, the west was opening up, and people could literally make their fortunes just by working hard. While opportunities were not the same for women, I do believe that women and girls began to see the inequities and began asking themselves why/why not, and what they could do to change things.

5. Is there an historical tidbit that didn’t make it in the book, but is super interesting?

One of the most difficult aspects of writing historical fiction is finding the balance of fitting in fascinating historical facts with the needs of the novel. I regretfully had to cut out some of the remarkable technical details surrounding the building of the railroad, including some creative engineering feats used on Tunnel 6. In addition, the Chinese workers attempted a historic but unsuccessful strike for better wages in the summer of 1867. My hope has always been to open the door to this fascinating period and that readers continue the journey themselves.

In light of that, I encourage interested readers to learn more about the Chinese railroad workers at Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project.

6. What’s your favorite historical fiction (any age!)

My all time favorite historical fiction is Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War That Saved My Life and its sequel, The War I Finally Won. I also adore Pam Nunoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising and Echo. These novels were an inspiration to me while I wrote Gold Mountain.

7. What are you working on right now?

I’m drafting a MG fantasy novel based on some Chinese folk tales. I’m also starting to research a MG historical novel that is still under wraps 😉

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