Fresh Voices: Tae Keller

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture a unique aspect of the human experience. Enjoy this Q&A with Tae Keller, author of When You Trap a Tiger!

What inspired you to write When You Trap A Tiger?

I loved the stories my Halmoni told me, especially the story of the sun and the moon. I remember, vividly, curling up in bed, listening to her tales and imagining there was a tiger right outside, pacing in the hall, scratching at my door. The first seed came from that thought—what if there really was a tiger?

The rest came slow and steady from there. Not so much a flash of inspiration, but just me sitting with the idea, day after day, building a story through trial and (lots of) error. The first draft didn’t even have a halmoni in it; in that version, the stories were told by Lily’s mom, and Lily was trying to navigate a new school and find her dad. So, the story evolved significantly.

What was the most difficult part about writing this story? What part was the easiest?

The hardest part was making sure everything fit together—that the star stories, Halmoni’s history, and Lily’s current story all made sense in one world, both logically and thematically. This took many revisions to get right, and thankfully Chelsea was patient and reassuring throughout the process!

Nailing down the thematic consistency also meant rewriting the star stories many, many times. Originally, I tried to leave the myths mostly untouched, but by the end, the star stories were almost entirely invented, though still inspired by the themes and structure of mythology.

As for the easiest part… I’m not sure any part of it was easy. But the most fun part was the research, both Korean history and folklore. I loved learning new things, finding ways to weave real world history into the narrative, and discovering connections in the writing that I hadn’t intended to make.

What character do you identify with the most and why?

When I write any character, I try to draw on my own heart—maybe not in experiences, but in feelings. I’ve been afraid to tell my whole story, like Halmoni. I’ve felt trapped in my own skin, like Sam. I’ve felt helplessly overwhelmed like Lily’s mom. And I’ve felt invisible, like Lily.

If you could put any character from another book into this story, who would it be and why?

I’m cheating a little because I already took the tiger from mythology. 🙂

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

I always want them to see that they are not alone. And to know that growing up in this world is often scary and heartbreaking, but it’s full of wonder and beauty, too. They’re going to be okay.

What are your social distancing book recs?

I’ve been talking about Station Eleven non-stop, because it’s one of my favorite books, and unfortunately topical right now. I’m also in love with Sharks in the Time of Saviors, which weaves a contemporary Hawaiian family story with Hawaiian mythology. It’s incredible. 

Tae Keller

TAE KELLER was born and raised in Honolulu, where she grew up on purple rice, Spam musubi, and her halmoni's tiger stories. After high school, she moved in search of snow, and now lives in New York City. She is also the author of The Science of Breakable Things. Visit her at TaeKeller.com, follow her monthly love letters at bit.ly/lovetae, and find her on Twitter and Instagram.