See You in Toledo, a Conversation with Author Jack Cheng

By Melissa Warner Published February 5, 2020

When he started writing See You in the Cosmos, author Jack Cheng was not necessarily thinking about writing for middle grade. In fact, he “didn’t even know middle grade existed as a category.” However, once he began working with editors, meeting with the people in children’s publishing, and especially once he started interacting with the students, it made him “feel this is want I want to continue doing.” He finds school visits rewarding because, among other reasons, it allows him to encourage those students, who with a few questions, “you can tell they are the ones who will be writers.” As a child he did not know “you could write books for a living.” Also, he recalls middle school to be the time in his life where he felt most “settled” as his parents moved around, mostly in the Metro Detroit area. This is the period in his life where his first “vivid memories” occur.

As a child, Mr. Cheng wanted to be an artist; “something about the visual arts appealed to me.” As a teen, he wanted to be a pro basketball player. Laughing, he stated that “like Alex, I was very ambitious as a kid.” Activities in high school included cross country, science olympiad, forensic speaking (which may have been foreshadowing of his former career in marketing), and theater arts. What he knows now that he wishes he had known as a teen is that “it might not seem like it at the time, but when you’re an adult, being yourself and being true to yourself is more valued by your peers. There’s such a pressure to fit in and not stick out when you’re a kid; you learn these things that I had to undo as I became an adult.”

Born in Shanghai, his family moved to the US when he was five. While he has no specific memories of living there, he retains “very early sense memories.” These have a “subconscious influence” effect on his writing. Main character Alex considers his family and “what is home” throughout See You in the Cosmos, and this is at least in part based upon Mr. Cheng’s own considerations of these topics, based upon his background and career and residence changes (he has lived in over 20 different homes). These themes are emphasized even more in his current work-in-progress which takes place in both China and modern day Detroit. This book is based upon his parents’ experiences growing up in China in the 1960s with the Chinese Communist revolution, and switches between eras and locations, which is a new style for him.

The “basic premise” of See You in the Cosmos is that a “boy and his dog try to launch his iPod into space.” This prompted Mr. Cheng to use a “hook” writing device where each chapter is a recording for the aliens he hopes will receive his “golden iPod.” In writing, he tries to “use things already in the book to solve story problems or writing related challenges.” He also listens “to a lot of podcasts so something about the sound and voice and the evocative nature of audio really appeals” to him.

When asked about a common misconception of writers, Mr. Cheng responded “how hard it is, how much is involved that isn’t the actual, physical act of writing.” When he finds himself “stuck or in a slump,” he reads. He believes that, even among writers, the “importance of reading great books” is neglected. This is “just as important as committing words to the page.” In fact, if he had one more hour per day, he would either sleep or read. Recently, he has been reading a number of graphic novels as a break “from staring at pages of text” while editing the second draft of his current work-in-progress.

See You in the Cosmos was picked up by a publisher very quickly and is his first YA book, but it is not his first published book. His first was self published and he received “mostly polite rejections” or no response at all. He stated that “my standard response to rejection is to basically come back and say ‘How can I make sure this doesn’t happen again.’” He believes he is “pretty good at seeing that [rejection] is not about me; it’s about the work. I took that to mean that the work wasn’t good enough yet; I needed to learn more to make it better.” He “went into that book with the mindset that it was going to be a learning experience.”

In his writing, Mr. Cheng strives to not be “too intense or depressing” even when addressing serious issues. He seeks to “inject humor and delight” which are “essential even if writing adult books.” Humor is “such a huge part of our lives” and “we use humor and we joke around…to talk about things otherwise too difficult to talk about.” Currently, all of his ideas are for YA books. Most of the issues, themes and life events he wants to explore are “interesting to explore through the lens or perspective of a child or a teen.”

The concept of “brave” or “bravery” is mentioned many times throughout See You in the Cosmos. When asked about this, Mr. Cheng cited Zed telling Alex that “if you’re only brave when you’re happy, then it’s not bravery.” To this author, “bravery is being able to carry your fear with you. It’s not being fearless. It’s having that fear and being able to hold it with you and still move through the world and still do the right thing.” This theme is important for the intended age group, and is something Mr. Cheng wishes he had known at the age of 10 like Alex (who is, according to the book, “13 in responsibility years”). For kids in this age group – elementary and upper elementary – it is the “time when a sense of morality and their values are starting to form, the sense of right and wrong.” He noted that a young person “might end up facing these situations where you know what’s right, but…acting on it is a completely different story – it’s much more difficult in practice.” Maturity and responsibility are other, unwritten but key themes in the book. In addition, Mr. Cheng has been exploring the concept of masculinity which is also addressed. For example, Steve “is a grown man but also acts very childish,” and Alex cries often. Mr. Cheng believes discussing masculinity now is important in our current environment where we have “examples of toxic behavior that is learned from a very young age.” “Right now we’re having lots of conversations about gender roles and male privilege…But at the same time, these issues are not just about the girls. They are about boys and men who perpetrate that violence.” He commented about raising children “with all this stuff going on” and pondered on what to tell a child, especially a son.

Mr. Cheng believes that these questions are important to authors. “They aren’t something we can ignore. We often play a role in shaping the norms and expectations around these kinds of issues.” He considers how he and other authors can “wield our influence, how we can make a difference – make the world a better place.” When he started writing See You in the Cosmos, Mr. Cheng did not feel compelled to include concepts of masculinity in his book although he has thought “much more consciously” about it since then, and believes it is part of the themes of home and family. He plans to more actively explore masculinity in his future writing.