You met The Writing Salon founder, Jane Underwood, in 1999. In your memoir, The Red Sandals, you write so beautifully about the moment you met her. Can you tell us about that first meeting and how it led you to start writing in your second language, English?

1999. It was a weekend. I went to the SF Book Fair at Fort Mason, looking for some much needed intellectual “brain food” for myself, a professionally unfulfilled public high school teacher. What a fascinating sight it was inside the vast, high-ceilinged warehouse. A book paradise! So many books. Such great variety. Growing up in communist China, I loved school and learning but was starved for books. Anything that wasn’t about praising the “glorious” Chinese communist ruling party (1949 -) was banned and burned by the government. Then I saw something inspiring that stirred a desire inside my heart: A banner of The Writing Salon: We Teach You How to Write about Your Life. Sitting in a chair under the banner was elegantly dressed, beautiful Jane Underwood. “Do you accept someone whose first language isn’t English?” I timidly asked in my Chinglish accent. “Why, yes, of course!” Jane’s heart-warming smile brought grateful tears into my eyes. I had a story to tell. I needed to learn to write about my life: from a born-unwanted peasant girl to becoming the top winner competing against hundreds to come to America as an exchange teacher, then study for my master’s degree.

How did your experience in The Writing Salon’s classes help you grow as a writer?

The Writing Salon helped embark my writing journey in my second language, English. It laid the cornerstone for my memoir, The Red Sandals. The very first class I took at The Writing Salon was Jane’s Round Robin. I loved the way she taught her class to use as detailed words as possible. I still remember chuckling about the hilarious examples in one of her handouts: “928 elephants flying across the sky” is much more vivid and memorable than “there were hundreds of elephants flying …” As The Writing Salon expanded, I took several inspiring memoir classes. One question from a young woman in one of the classes helped me solve my painful lifelong mystery: “Why did your mother never smile at you?” Finally, at age fifty-one, I became emboldened enough to get my mother to tell me: At age 20, she had pushed a heavy pinewood washboard hard and repeatedly against her pregnant belly trying to abort me. Birth of my life devastated her and ended her dream to stay in school and become a journalist/writer, and worse, stuck her in a lifelong miserable marriage with my father.

How long did it take you to write your book, The Red Sandals? Can you tell us a little bit about the process of getting it published?

On and off, it took me 20 years. For the first twelve years, I didn’t put much effort, teaching high school full time. Weekends writing classes only. I was also trying to find romantic love in America after my 20-year touchless, loveless, and parental obligation only marriage that I lugged all the way from China. 2013. I started writing full time, as I officially retired from teaching. I completed the first draft in 2019. Besides hiring one developmental editor and one copy editor, I enjoyed the editing process by myself, too. It gives me a joy of satisfaction to see the improved version of my bumpy writing in my second language. I need double, triple times more effort than English native writers. 2019 I attended SF Writers’ Conference again, aiming to find an agent. Instead, I directly found a publisher who asked to see the first three chapters of my book, told me that I “have a way with words,” and, yes, they would publish my memoir. But small publisher, no advance. After another dozen rounds of detailed editing back and forth between me and my publisher/editor, my debut book, The Red Sandals: A Memoir, was published on May 18, 2022.

What are you up to now? Are you working on any new writing or projects?

I’ve been working on my second book, America Through My Chinese Eyes, an essay collection based on my 30+ years of experiences living and teaching in America. It’s about language, culture and education. I’ve also written a 400-page m.s. of Mental Math for Kids, aiming to teach American young kids to do math in their heads and calculate everyday money without using an electronic calculator, so they’ll at least know how to balance their checkbooks when they grow up! I’ve also so far handmade several children’s picture books on mental math. But all in all, I want to teach again, or tutoring. I miss teaching kids, of all ages. I can teach/tutor any age groups Mandarin Chinese and ESL; I can teach little kids basic mental math skills – start them young and start them right! And I can teach school age groups or adults common sense health living and a simple, healthy way of cooking. My handmade macaroni with fresh tomatoes and fresh garlic is the best. My homemade pot stickers are much tastier with high quality of health value than the bland and greasy kind in most SF Chinese restaurants. I’m not kidding!

A born-unwanted peasant girl in a remote Chinese village, Jing Li grew up neglected and abused, surviving female-infanticide, famine, starvation, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and escaping death. Her irrepressible desire to learn made her a top ranked high school English teacher in Taiyuan city. After academically competing her way to America, she earned her MA, her California teaching credentials and taught elementary, high school and college for another 20 years. Her writings have been published in anthologies and literary reviews and have won numerous awards including the Grand Prize from San Francisco Writers’ Conference. The Red Sandals, her debut memoir, is an Eric Hoffer Award/Montaigne Medal Finalist.

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