Jen Sookfong Lee

JSFL

Photo Credit: Sherri Koop Photography.

Interviewed by Alyssa Hirose

 Jen Sookfong Lee’s stories propel readers through space and time with emotional, troubled, and courageous characters. Lee is the author of several fiction and non-fiction books for children and young adults, including The End of East, Shelter, The Better Mother, The Conjoined, and Chinese New Year: A Celebration for Everyone. She was born and raised in East Vancouver, talks on CBC radio, and has a killer twitter profile.

I was interested in interviewing Jen Sookfong Lee firstly because she is a fabulous Asian-Canadian female writer, secondly because I’ll never forget the day I finished devouring The Conjoined and could do nothing but stare vacantly out my bus window contemplating morality, and thirdly because her funny and feminist tweets are a welcome presence in the dumpster fire that is Twitter politics.

When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I started writing with the intent to be a writer as a career when I was 10 years old, but I don’t think I knew what I was getting into then! At 16, when I was in my last two years of high school, a poem of mine got published in a student journal, and it was at that time that I thought, “This writer thing could actually work out.” Ever since then, I have never had an alternate plan. I have no real skills other than writing! So this is it. I will be a writer until I die.

I think it’s common for emerging artists, even when published, to feel like they still aren’t a “real writer.” Do you remember when you first felt like a “real” writer, or the first time you claimed that title?

I’m quite sure I never called myself a writer in public until I had sold my first novel manuscript and I could conceivably whip out that contract as evidence if I ever needed to. I think when you’re at the beginning of your career, especially if you’re a woman of colour, your confidence is shaky. Who was I to be declaring I was a writer? I was no David Foster Wallace!

How have you noticed the writing field changing from when you first started writing to today?

A few years ago, the big publishers started to change their publishing philosophies, and were much more interested in acquiring books that they thought were safe bets, and that would make money easily. Which meant that the more experimental books, often written by authors from marginalized communities, were pushed aside. Those manuscripts then went to the independent presses, which led to an interesting expansion of titles for small to medium publishers. What I think this has done is levelled the playing field a bit more, meaning that the literary prizes are not just going to the books by the big presses, that the bestsellers can and are coming from independents. The power, if we can call it that, in Canadian publishing is more horizontal, which allows for a greater diversity of voices and styles. I think this is a hugely positive change.

Can you explain the process you went through in having your first book published?

The End of East took seven years to publish! I know, so depressing. When I had finished the fifth draft, I sent queries to five agents, two got back to me, and I went with Carolyn Swayze, who is still my agent to this day. Back then, everything took a lot longer because we had to send hard copies of the manuscript to publishers, and we didn’t do simultaneous submissions as often in 2005. It took about a year for it to be rejected about five times, and then Knopf Canada offered on it as part of its New Face of Fiction program.

In The Conjoined, there are several moments that are very dark, intimate, or uncomfortable. Is it difficult to share those scenes with people who are close to you, or is it easy for you to remove yourself personally and just share work professionally?

The wonderful thing about writing fiction is that you can hide behind the “I just made it up” curtain for everything you ever write. I highly recommend this! Actually, The Conjoined didn’t bother me so much because it was my third novel and also everyone understood I was writing a literary crime novel, so the darkness was a matter of course. It was my first book, The End of East, which is quite obviously based on my family and their stories, that worried me more than anything. However, my family, who I think loves me, understood that this novel was the most important accomplishment of my life, so if they had any criticisms about how I wrote sex or violence or abuse, they kept it to themselves.

Do you have any advice on how to deal with rejection?

I only really read rejections once or twice. I will read them, transcribe any feedback that is useful into my notebook, and then immediately delete it. You take what is helpful, and forget about the rest, and move on. Do not dwell.

When you get feedback for a piece of writing, how do you decide what feedback to use and what to ignore? In other words, how do you make sure that your work remains yours even after being workshopped, critiqued and edited?

My philosophy is that feedback is often spot on about pinpointing what isn’t working, but not always right about how to fix it. So, if someone points something out to you that they don’t like, it is always worth your time to look at it and give it some thought. The solution you come up with to deal with that problem may not be what anyone suggested, and that’s fine and great. You need to find your own solutions! Having said that, some feedback isn’t helpful and I think if it makes you cringe or feel bad, then ignore it. There is nothing wrong with this. One thing I do to keep my own voice apparent is I insert a header into my Word doc that states the themes I want to be present in every scene. So, for The Conjoined, it read, “Missing and murdered women from the Downtown Eastside, cycle of working poverty, intergenerational trauma.” This helps keep everything on track.

What has surprised you most about being a writer?

That community would so important to me. Writers are often people who are quite happy being alone, but the sense of community is more important that you might think. We need to talk about our projects with others who care, and we need to have those supports when we go forth and promote our work. But also, we just need other humans, to interact, to be part of the world.

Are there any specific obstacles that female-presenting, Asian Canadian writers can expect to face that male-presenting or white writers do not?

Well, we are always confused for one another, meaning about 33% of the time someone thinks I’m Evelyn Lau or Madeleine Thien. I think there can be a real push for Asian women to write trauma stories, or stories of systemic oppression, or immigration stories, and that’s just wrong. Why shouldn’t we write graphic novels or romance or spec fiction if we want to? I call it The Joy Luck Club Syndrome. Which is to say publishers can often pressure us to rewrite that novel over and over again. No shade at Amy Tan! She is a pioneer and a human delight! Also, she wears BDSM outfits and sings in a punk band, so I’m into her always.

If you feel stuck on a story or article, are there activities or methods you use to inspire you or push you forward in your work?

Freewriting helps for sure. Give yourself 10 minutes to just write out the junk in your head and by the end of it, you will have come up with an idea for your story that you will likely be able to use.

What encourages you to keep writing when you feel discouraged?

The love of books. Honestly, that’s it.

How do you prepare for readings or panel discussions? Do you get nervous for them? How do you deal with those nerves?

I write speaking notes usually, which helps quell the nerves. I am rarely nervous anymore, but I find preparing a lot helps with those nerves. Also understanding that book audiences are very forgiving. They want to like you!

If you could go back in time to before you became a writer, what advice or words of wisdom would you have for yourself?

Write what you want. Don’t listen to all those gatekeepers who told you to write something different. Protect your voice.

What is your favourite thing about being a writer?

Meeting my readers. What a wonderful experience that is! It is never bad and never grows old.

How do you choose when to engage with problematic and potentially exhausting topics in the writing community, and when not to engage for your own wellbeing?

This is something I am still learning, as controversy comes and goes and changes over time. Some issues are not mine to take on, only mine to listen to and support. Others feel very personal to me, like UBC Accountable. It’s a balance of what I have energy for and what demands to be addressed. I have found that there are times I need to step away for extended periods just so I don’t exhaust myself so much that I can’t write. I guess my only advice is this: protect your energy so you can write. Your writing is your legacy.

What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?

Mostly Youtube makeup tutorials. I am legitimately writing an essay on them, but really they are AMSR therapy to me. Without them, I would never sleep.

What are you working on right now?

I have a few projects on the go. A kids’ book of non-fiction, about immigration and refugees. A poetry collection that will be published in 2020 by Wolsak & Wynn. A collection of essays that are part pop culture, part memoir.

Who inspires you?

Zadie Smith, Celeste Ng, Ariana Grande, Gus Van Sant, Kylie Jenner. I am totally not joking.

What advice do you have for emerging writers (particularly local, Asian-Canadian ladies!)?

Give yourself time to write in obscurity. It can be so tempting to jump into a literary scene right away, to make connections before you’ve had a chance to solidify what you want to be writing. You need the time to write, try new styles and genres, and to do so in an environment that is safe and yours alone.

 

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