Interview by Amy Fish
About the book: Dragon Hoops is the story of a computer science teacher who follows his high school boys’ basketball team around for a year. The book weaves in the history of basketball and the personal stories of some of the players with broader issues such as racism, accusations of sexual assault and of course, winning and losing.
Not surprisingly, the book won many awards including the Harvey Award, Amazon.com Best Books of the Year, New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Book of the Year, Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year, New York Public Library Best Books of the Year and Michael L. Printz Award- Honor.
About the author: Gene Luen Yang has been writing and drawing comics since he was a kid. He was a computer programmer and high school teacher, and is now a full time writer and artist. Gene lives in California with his wife and four kids.
About the interviewer: Amy Fish read this book and loved it and was completely star struck when Gene agreed to the interview.
About the interview: The interview got scheduled and cancelled once (which is nothing in pandemic times) and took place over zoom with Gene at home in California and Amy at home in Montreal. Weather was not discussed.
Gene Luen Yang: I am sorry for all the confusion regarding interview times and getting this set up. I have a lot going on right now.
Amy Fish: I can imagine! Thank you so much for doing this. We were so excited when you accepted—especially me. I bought your book as soon as I read about it and then I sat in a chair and didn’t get up till I was done. I don’t really have any questions, it’s more just that I want to tell you how much I loved your book.
GLY: (looking pleasantly surprised) Thank you so much, Amy.
AF: Most readers of Hippocampus Magazine are writers, so we are always interested in hearing about your (air quotes) journey. Can you tell us how you got from ‘I’m a high school teacher and maybe I’ll write a book’ to here?
GLY: I’ve been doing comics since I was 9 years old. In 1995 I graduated college and in 1996 I self-published my first comic. I used to go to local comic book stores, and read everything like Xerox copies of handmade comics. It was always my intention to self-publish. I was and still am a fan of Lynda Barry and Jeff Smith.
I originally just wanted a comic with my name on it. I thought, if I don’t publish one comic before I die, I’ll die unhappy.
AF: This is fascinating. Go on, please.
GLY: Well, in 2006—that’s when I stopped losing money (genuine smile). That’s when I signed American-Born Chinese with the same publisher I’m with now. Even then, it wasn’t for the money. I was writing graphic novels, and after one or two years I went part-time (as a teacher). That way I had a mix of campus teaching and staying home. I had people to eat lunch with at work, and inspiration from kids and other teachers.
AF: Tell us about your process.
GLY: I’m a heavy outliner. We have a writer’s group inside my publisher, and I go through the story with my editor. Once the story is solid, then I started writing. I wrote thumbnails –
AF: (interrupting) What are thumbnails?
GLY: Oh, sorry, thumbnails are small sketches of what it looks like. Then, I do pencils which is the final art. I do the thumbnail on paper so I can pull pages in and out. I drew on a tablet digitally. I outline heavily.
AF: And then you color it in?
GLY: I work with a colorist, Lark Pien. This project was way harder than usual because they were real people and real teams. We had to get all the color references correct—for example if team colors were blue and yellow, we had to get the right blue and the right yellow so that it matches that team.
AF: That’s an insane amount of legwork, plus the book is packed with information about basketball. Tell me about the other research you did, the historical stuff.
GLY: I started off doing the research to build myself up. Reading basketball history affected how I was watching the game, for example, reading Tricksters in the Madhouse: Lakers vs. Globetrotters 1948 (University of Nebraska Press 2004) by John Christgau, I realized that there are kids of all different backgrounds playing on the same court. All their blood, sweat and tears. I thought, I’ve got to put this history in my book because I want my reader to have the same realization: the game is part of a larger and longer history.
AF: I loved that you were a character in the book. Was that a big decision?
GLY: I wasn’t planning to put myself in it. I was feeling inadequate. When I first brought the book forward, I showed up a tiny bit in the prologue and epilogue. I was an immigrant kid from the suburbs, I was intimidated. But then I tried to lean into being honest about what I could and couldn’t see from my vantage point.
AF: Do you find writing to be anything like basketball?
GLY: Very similar. Stepping onto a court and typing on a keyboard are both stepping into the unknown. Each time I have to teach myself how to write again, every story is different. Basketball players also have to make decisions on the fly. Players know general rules, structure, the game. But they have to make decisions. So do writers.
AF: Was anything cut from Dragon Hoops?
GLY: Oh, yeah, for sure. Like, one game I watched ended in a fistfight. The game didn’t finish. It stopped in the fourth quarter.
GLY: Yeah. And so, I didn’t include it because it would have been complicated to explain.
AF: I get that. What about the older coach—the one who was accused of possible sexual misconduct? You treated that story with such compassion.
GLY: The most difficult part of this book—I go back to the piece about the coach. I debated. My Plan B was to pull him out. Ultimately, I wanted to show Coach Lou the way I saw him, the defining thing was how he treated the older coach. I felt uncomfortable with the fact that I felt moved by their relationship. Maybe the older coach deserves to be isolated. Maybe he had given up his membership card to humanity.
AF: How were the kids you write about impacted by Dragon Hoops?
GLY: We had a launch event at a store local to the school and many of the boys had already graduated from college. They talked about very vivid memories of that basketball season. Reaction to the book, from them, has been positive.
AF: How has your pandemic been?
GLY: My kids are young, 8, 10, 13 and 17. We’ve all been locked down. Things are just starting up again.
AF: Read anything good this year?
GLY: Probably the most impactful was Journey to the West, a brand new translation by Julia Lovell. The book can be dry, and she captures the humor of the original text.
(Important side note: in our conversation, Gene did not mention that he had written the Foreword for this book.).
AF: That might be a bit of a commitment for me. Any other suggestions?
GLY: I also liked Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? By Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber.
AF: Did you know how Dragon Hoops was going to end while you were writing it?
GLY: It’s funny because at a certain point I started thinking, what am I going to do if they lose? What if they didn’t hold the game? How am I going to spin this so that it’s still hopeful?
AF: Perfect. You have just given me the final quote for this piece.
Spoiler alert: Dragon Hoops ends on a hopeful note, but not cloyingly so. Gene asks more questions than he answers, and does so in a respectful and creative way.
Enthusiastic recommendation alert: Even if you’ve never picked up a graphic novel or memoir, you don’t usually read YA and you know nothing about basketball, this book is a must read for creative non-fictionists. The inclusion of himself as narrator, the integration of historical research with the current story and the pacing are all aspirational plus the illustrations are outstanding.
Gene Luen Yang writes, and sometimes draws, comic books and graphic novels. As the Library of Congress’ fifth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, he advocates for the importance of reading, especially reading diversely. American Born Chinese, his first graphic novel from First Second Books, was a National Book Award finalist, as well as the winner of the Printz Award and an Eisner Award. His two-volume graphic novel Boxers & Saints won the L.A. Times Book Prize and was a National Book Award Finalist. His other works include Secret Coders (with Mike Holmes), The Shadow Hero (with Sonny Liew), New Super-Man from DC Comics (with various artists), and the Avatar: The Last Airbender series from Dark Horse Comics (with Gurihiru). In 2016, he was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or his website.