Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Guest Post by Bruce Hale

I've decided that summers are a great time to host giveways and have author interviews and such. Today, I'm pleased to have some especially interesting comments by Bruce Hale, who recently came out with Playing With Fire. I thought his thoughts on the multiculturalism of the book were helpful to know!

Playing with Fire (SCHOOL FOR S.P.I.E.S. Book#1)It’s a spy world after all
By Bruce Hale

It all started with the fiercest yoga teacher I ever met. When I lived in Hawaii, I took yoga classes from a Korean woman who was veritable drill sergeant. She’d constantly be yelling at us — “Flex you feet!”  “Straight you legs, you lazy Americans!” — in her broken English, trying to help us perfect our poses.

Some of the students felt intimidated by this or found it un-yogalike, but for some reason I really “got” her. She was an excellent teacher, and I could see the huge heart beneath her gruff exterior. After she discovered that I had lived in Tokyo, she used to pepper her instructions to me with Japanese, which she spoke much better than I did.

We bonded over yoga and became friends. And all the time I was thinking, this woman is such a character — she deserves to be in a book.

At the time I was writing the Chet Gecko Mysteries, which, being animal-centric tales, offered no room for yogic drill sergeants. But a few years later, I hatched an idea for a spy story — one where a pack of orphans is being trained to become junior James Bonds and Mata Haris.

This was my chance. My friend and teacher would make a perfect spymaster. At first, the book’s working title was Shanghai Annie’s School for Spies (and Merry Sunshine Orphanage). Over many drafts, the book evolved. Thanks to feedback from Asian friends, Shanghai Annie became Hantai Annie (less stereotypical a name), and my yoga teacher became a fictional character.
Broken English

I knew it was a risky move to preserve her broken English — some readers would object to this portrayal of an Asian woman — but I had known plenty of people in Tokyo and Honolulu who spoke that way. I balanced it by making her multilingual, well-educated, and the smartest spy in the room. But most of all, I wanted to stay true to this strong character who had demanded to be put into a story. 

With Hantai Annie as a starting place, it felt like the most natural thing to draw the rest of the cast from a variety of ethnicities and cultures. It reflects our world, after all. Hawaii, where I’d lived for so long, is a true melting pot, and so is London, the unstated setting of the book. It would have felt odd not to be inclusive.

In Hawaii, many of my friends were multiethnic, so I wanted the story to reflect some of that reality as well. I hadn’t seen any spy/thriller books (aside from Barry Eisler’s John Rain adult thrillers) that starred an Asian or part-Asian hero, so I determined to make my hero Max Segredo part-Thai. (Plus, I’d spent some time in Thailand and really enjoyed the Thai people.)

From there, I spread out to the other characters.

Britain has a large population of people from the Indian subcontinent, so I made Miss Moorthy, the martial arts teacher, of Indian descent. Similarly, the island nation boasts plenty of black residents from Africa and the Caribbean, so I added a Jamaican student (Tremaine), and a black lock-picking teacher, Mr. Stones. Also, Max’s quasi-romantic interest, Cinnabar Jones (as well as her sister Jazz) is a mixed-race black character. (I say quasi-romantic because Max is only thirteen, and not entirely sure what to do with girls.)
Cultural sensitivities

To be honest, I did have some doubts about my ability to pull off this multicultural cast. After all, I’m a white guy from L.A. What do I know about the problems, attitudes, and manner of speaking for all these characters of other ethnicities? In that area, I relied heavily on my friends and fellow writers from those cultures. 

Plus, I took the advice of author-illustrator Ashley Bryan. Once, when I’d asked him whether writers could or should write about characters outside their own ethnic group and culture, he said, “If you feel it in your heart, write it.”

School for S.P.I.E.S.: Playing With Fire
has been a story from my heart. And I hope readers will connect with its multicultural cast, realizing that anyone can be a spy, and anyone can be a hero.





  1. Congrats to Bruce on his new series. I was fortunate to meet him at a SCBWI conference and help at his school visit to my daughter's school. He's so awesome with the kids. And very funny.

  2. I agree with Natalie. He was at Oregon SCBWI in May--very approachable and very funny.