JJ Lee

Interviewed by Janice Esguerra

jj lee imageJJ Lee is a Canadian writer who was raised in Montreal and studied Fine Arts at Concordia. He later got a Master of Architecture from UBC and wrote his memoir, The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Governor General’s Award and the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize. He is also an art critic for the Vancouver Sun and the Georgia Straight, an ELLE fashion columnist, and a CBC radio producer. He now resides in New Westminster, British Columbia.

To start off – why do you write?

When I’m able to take whatever accidental writing I have and begin to hone it and link together the ideas I didn’t know I had, I get excited. I really like the constructive nature and layering that occurs through writing. On a more practical level, it’s sort of accidental that I’m a writer – but it’s the only thing I’m known for and the only way I can make a buck. It’s not even a lot of money, but I do enjoy it a lot. And I like the culture – writing people are my favourite kind of people.

Why are writers your favourite kind of people?

I think they want to be thoughtful and they have a commitment to craft, and even if they don’t have a commitment to craft, they just love books and they want to be published. There’s a sort of fun about them that I really appreciate. Even if they’re the most mercenary writer in the world, they still work with words. There’s this incredible love of the work, and loving something so much that you want to do it is a great thing. It makes for a happy person.

You obviously have the same commitment to craft that you admire in other writers. What’s the first thing you remember ever writing?

Oh – I remember having this kindergarten panic with writing the alphabet. I only knew up to “E.” I didn’t know what the actual letters sounded like, so I didn’t really know how to read. I also remember writing this really ardent Valentine’s card to a girl. I think I was six or seven years old. The most attention I ever got for my writing as a child must have been for a class project in the fifth grade—probably about Samuel de Champlain—and I got asked to enter my schools’ Gold Book. By then, some sort of weird socialism kicked in for me and I refused. I didn’t want to participate in a competitive educational environment. I was so proud of myself for denying the opportunity. My parents were pretty upset with me for doing that.

That’s a really strong stance to take as a fifth grader. If you were to teach a writing workshop for fifth graders, what sort of things would you include in the class?

I would teach them how to write a ghost story. Like, a campfire story. Oh, and I have these cards that say things like “house,” “car,” “laugh”—stuff like that. I would let them pick five cards and they would have to build a scary story made up of whatever those five cards are. Or I would get them to write jokes, which would teach them how to write things in the right order. You don’t build stairs up to go down, that sort of thing. I would encourage them to take their time writing in an orderly way, trying to stay in the scene without over-explaining anything. When I’m teaching, I keep to form – it doesn’t matter if the people I’m teaching are children or adults.

What’s a genre of writing that you struggle with the most, or find the most foreign to you?

I have a long history of writing bad poetry. I feel bad for people who want my opinion on their poetry, because I’m so bad at it. I’m not cool enough. I just don’t have the intellectual rigor that poets have. I’m too prone to my own feelings and my own dull thoughts about things; it makes me a bad poet. I wish I could write lyrics well, too. It’s an ambition of mine to write a substantial song—ideally a ballad, like an old-timey country song.

I’m looking forward to hearing it once it’s on the radio. Now, I know you studied fine arts at Concordia and got a Master of Architecture degree from UBC. I’m really curious as to how your relationship with writing developed after your university education, and if your experiences within art and architecture inform your process as a writer?

I was first published at the age of twenty-three as a journalist. I joined my school’s newspaper as the Arts co-editor and did some media event for a museum show. The curator was giving everyone a tour of the exhibition, and I was asking questions and taking notes while surrounded by other real Arts journalists who were getting paid to do this sort of thing. A woman came up to me and told me she was the editor of Parachute magazine. She said, “I’m not going to write the review for this exhibition anymore. You are.”

That was how my career started in publishing. I created for ten years, all while I was going to school. I published about forty paid art reviews, and I wouldn’t have been a writer in that context if I hadn’t studied the things I studied. Writing as an art critic led me to journalism. While I was at UBC doing my Masters, my art critique and magazine work led to my interest in journalism, which led me to radio. I joined the CiTR team. The APEC protests happened at UBC and we covered it – we ended up winning a national award for journalism. That led me to CBC. My first gig was with them; I didn’t apply, I was drafted. I hung around either as an intern or as a freelancer from 1997 to 1999, and in 2000 I was an associate producer. That led to my research on tailoring, which led to my memoir. It’s all connected.

As a painter, I learned to muck about and not overthink as much. As for the architectural part, the idea of structure interests me a lot. Having the freeness of being able to put something on the page without thinking too much, and then having the structure to be able to organize what’s on the page after – these are the things I learned from art and architecture. They’re quite complimentary.

That’s amazing – I would have never guessed your memoir was the product of such a long chain of events. In talking about your book, The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit, you mentioned the idea of memoir as a sort of disruptive technology. How are you able to write on emotional topics with vulnerability and still retain clarity? Do you have any advice to emerging writers on how to do so?

When you’re young, you experience things in a really sharply distinct way. Everything is kind of new. Things can be a big fucking deal all the fucking time, you know? You can keep that in quotes. Anyway, my point is that I teach directly to this idea of emotional distance. I don’t mean you should let time create emotional distance. I would never tell someone to wait ten years before writing about something, because you would lose so much of what you can recall. Most people see a memory through the eyes of the person who experienced it. Let’s say you’re looking back on a memory from when you were ten years old. You’re probably going to remember it as a ten-year-old. Instead, I teach people to write as a fly. You take the fly and watch everyone in the scene, including the person that used to be you. In my class I tell people, “let’s not talk about the character in the story as you, because you’re not that person anymore. You’ve grown since experiencing that.” Taking faith in the idea that you don’t have to re-enact the past when you write—just simply watch the person experience it and have observations about them—creates this sort of emotional distance.

The other thing I teach when it comes to this sort of thing is “the hotter the scene gets, the colder the writer gets.” I think It’s a huge mistake when writers—especially young writers and emerging writers—try emotionally to convey what the character felt. It’s a huge mistake to go “I’m really sad, so I’m going to tell you how sad I am.” The reader has no interest in how sad you were. You need to make the reader feel sad, which isn’t the same thing. The classic Aristotlian principle of “character is action” comes to mind – allowing what people say, do, and see create the emotion itself. At no point do you have to betray how the main character feels about something – the reader just feels it, so further commentary isn’t necessary.

So—psychological distance created by not letting the writer see through the eyes of the character who experienced the event and instead constructing it from a third-person POV, and writing “hot” scenes with a more clinical voice and tone—those are just two ways of writing that will allow you to write distinctly about hard topics or memories. The second you try to amp it up, the reader won’t trust you. Any extra energy added to a story is seen as a melodramatic amplification of the truth. The idea is to say everything and explain everything without wrenching anything.

What’s the hardest thing about writing? What’s the most rewarding?

I’m a premise-driven writer. For me, it’s all about the setup—so if I write a bad one, it screws me up. For me to have enough steam to finish a first draft, I really have to set up my characters perfectly. If that doesn’t happen for me, it can be really frustrating—especially if I’m trying to reach a deadline for a draft. Once you’re able to break through it, it’s a great feeling. It feels like you’re going downhill from that point on—you really start to hit your stride.

Janice Esguerra is currently in her third year of the Creative Writing BFA at the University of British Columbia. She likes to write about everyday conversations, diaspora, women, love, and people she sees on the bus. Janice works at a coffee shop but doesn’t drink coffee.

Maria V. Snyder

Interviewed by Bree Taylor

mvsbiophotoMaria V. Snyder is a New York Times bestselling author of 16 fantasy and science fiction novels and a variety of short stories. She currently works as a teacher and mentor at Seton Hill University alongside her writing career. Her most popular series, the Chronicles of Ixia series, spans nine books over 12 years. Snyder’s most recent novel, Chasing the Shadows, the second book in her Sentinels of the Galaxy series, is due to be released on November 18, 2019.

What would you consider to be your biggest sources of inspiration when coming up with ideas for new stories to tell? 

Traveling! I love to travel and I’m always finding inspiration for stories. Not all of my ideas will make it into a book or become stories, but I keep a journal as I travel and write it all down. For example, traveling to China back in 2004, I learned about the Terracotta Army discovered near the first Emperor’s tomb and learned that they were built to protect him in the afterlife, which got me thinking about the afterlife and what happens if one of the warriors is broken – do they disappear in the afterlife and, if so, how does that impact the Emperor? This all mutated over the years and I sparked on the idea of the discovery of these warriors on other planets in the galaxy and that became Navigating the Stars.

What is the biggest challenge for you in creating such vast and rich fantasy worlds, like the ones we see in the Study and Healer series?

Keeping track of all the details! As the books went from 1 to 3 to 9, the world became a large complex beast! Also coming up with unique elements to each world. I find that creating new worlds is harder to do as I don’t want to repeat the same elements. The Eyes of Tamburah, which is my latest fantasy novel is set on a desert world and the citizen all live underground to keep safe from the killing heat when the sun’s at apex. I sparked on this idea while traveling in the Australian Outback.

 What writers and/or books most inspired you to start writing?

I started writing because I was bored at work and needed something creative to do. But at the time, I was reading and enjoying Ursula K. LeGuin, Barbara Hambly, Kate Elliot, David Eddings, Mercedes Lackey, and Andre Norton. A mix of science fiction and fantasy authors. I also loved Dick Francis’ mystery books. They were written in first person POV and always had mini-cliffhangers for his chapter endings – something that I do as well.

The Study/Glass series are often considered to be YA. Did you write them with a teen audience in mind?

I didn’t start out writing them with a teen audience in mind. I was thinking Poison Study would be a stand along adult fantasy, which is why I detailed a certain traumatic event. If I’d known there would be so many YA readers, I wouldn’t have written that with so much detail. But Poison Study was published the same month as Twilight and many YA readers were looking for other books to read. Of course once I realized this, I modified my writing a bit. Same tone and same complex plots, but not as much detail. Sex scenes always fade to black.

When working on your novels, do you find yourself writing chronologically, or do you tend to jump around a lot?

I start at page one and write chronologically. I can’t jump around, then I’d be tempted to write all the fun parts and be left with nothing but the drudgery! In Magic Study, I knew Valek would show up and I was looking forward to their reunion, but I had to write up to that point – it was like dangling a carrot.

Do you have a type of scene that is your favourite to write? 

I love it when I’ve got a group of characters all together and they’re bantering and teasing each other. It’s fun – also scenes with humor!

What is your favourite thing about writing fantasy novels? 

Swords and horses and magic! Oops, that’s three. If I had to pick (do I, really?), I’d say magic. Because that’s the only thing unique to a fantasy story. Magic is fun to create and use and takes just as much work as building a fantasy world. It appeals to my scientific side.
What do you feel is the hardest part of the writing process for you? 

Getting that first draft done. I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer and figure out my story as I write. The hardest part is usually the middle of the book, when I’m not sure what’s going to happen next or what I need to do to get to the end. I usually have an ending in mind, but sometimes, the plot goes in a different direction. In those cases, it’s always better than what I’d been thinking. And it’s also instinctual – I’ll reach a point and go “yup, that’s it – that’s the end.”

There was a seven-year gap between Fire Study and Shadow Study. Did you find it difficult to return to Yelena’s world (and POV) after so long?

Yes! I had to re-read all the Study and Glass books to get back into that world and characters. However, I’d been thinking of Valek’s past and his character arc for a couple years and so when I wrote the book, his chapters just came so easy. I had a harder time with Yelena because I got her to a good point at the end of Fire Study – she had her character arc – the new books are more focused on Valek’s character arc – also Yelena was super powerful, what could I do to her? The answer was to yank her powers and see what she does! I’m not called a super villain author for nothing.

Have you found it difficult to balance writing, teaching, and personal life?
Yes! It’s been a constant struggle. I’m lucky that I have a very understanding family and my friends are patient! I must admit these last two years, I’ve been writing two books a year and it’s exhausting! I’ve one more year left and then I’m going back to one book a year. I know readers like having books more often, but I can’t keep up this pace.

What would you consider the hardest part of getting a book published? 

There are so many people writing and submitting manuscript to publishers, just getting noticed by editors and agents is super hard. Then if you do find a publisher, finding readers is also difficult as there are a ton of books out there.

A lot of research has gone into some of your novels, like Inside Out/Outside In. What do you feel is the biggest benefit of research? If any, what do you feel is the biggest drawback?
The biggest benefit is being able to accurately translate an experience/information to your readers. I love hands-on research just for this very reason. I can read that a glass kiln is super-hot at 2100 F, but it’s not the same as standing next to one and feeling the heat pulse and press on your skin and squinting at the bright orange glow inside as if a piece of the sun had been broken off and stuffed inside.

If you had to pick one of the worlds you’ve created to live in, which would it be? Why? 

The world of the Study/Glass series (Ixia and Sitia). Because all my friends live there and it’s the most complex of my worlds. Plus I’d get to hang out with Ari and Janco – need I say more?

If you could go back, what would be one piece of advice you would give yourself when you started writing?

To listen to my editor!! When I finished Fire Study, I was burned out with the world and characters. I’ve been with those characters a long time – it took me three years to write Poison Study and another two to find a publisher. However Fire Study hit the New York Times bestseller list when it was released and my editor and publisher wanted to keep up the momentum. I should have listened. I think the Study/Glass books would be more popular if I’d done that.

Bree Taylor is in her final year of the Creative Writing BFA at the University of British Columbia. Her primary focus in writing is Young Adult and New Adult fantasy. She is currently working on a New Adult fantasy novel centered around modern witches in Vancouver.