Interview with Sangu Mandanna – Author of Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom

Welcome everyone! In today’s post, co-hosts Wendy and Shenwei have an interview to share with Sangu Mandanna, discussing her newest book, a middle grade fantasy novel, Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom. More about the book below:

About Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom

For fans of the Aru Shah and Serpent’s Secret series, this action-packed fantasy-adventure sees a girl’s drawings of Indian mythology spring to vivid life–including the evil god who seeks to enter the real world and destroy it.

Kiki Kallira has always been a worrier. Did she lock the front door? Is there a terrible reason her mom is late? Recently her anxiety has been getting out of control, but one thing that has always soothed her is drawing. Kiki’s sketchbook is full of fanciful doodles of the rich Indian myths and legends her mother has told her over the years.

One day, her sketchbook’s calming effect is broken when her mythological characters begin springing to life right out of its pages. Kiki ends up falling into the mystical world she drew, which includes a lot of wonderful discoveries like the band of rebel kids who protect the kingdom, as well as not-so-great ones like the ancient deity bent on total destruction. As the one responsible for creating the evil god, Kiki must overcome her fear and anxiety to save both worlds–the real and the imagined–from his wrath. But how can a girl armed with only a pencil defeat something so powerful?

Trailer for Kiki Kallira

About Sangu Mandanna

Sangu Mandanna was four years old when an elephant chased her down a forest road and she decided to write her first story about it. Seventeen years and many, many manuscripts later, she signed her first book deal. She is the author of YA novels The Lost Girl, A Spark of White Fire and its sequels, and has contributed to several anthologies. She lives in Norwich, in the east of England, with her husband and kids. Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom is her first middle-grade novel.

Welcome, Sangu! Thank you so much for joining us at Lit CelebrAsian.

Q: Kiki Kallira is your middle grade debut — what drew you to writing for this age group, and what was it like transitioning into this in terms of your writing process?

Hi Wendy and Shenwei! It was quite a surprising transition, actually, but in a good way. My YA tends to skew very angsty and is on the darker side, so it was both a surprise and delight to find that I was drawn immediately to the lighter, funnier side of MG! There’s so much joy and fun in books for this age group, and you can really dig deep into feelings, so I absolutely leaned into that and tried to make every plot point as dramatic, silly, funny or emotional as possible. The fact that Kiki’s voice is naturally dramatic was a huge bonus too!

Q. In your book, Kiki has to face the consequences of accidentally “playing god” and creating sentient people and a living world. Some of the gaps in her artistic worldbuilding lead to funny or even disastrous consequences. If you had Kiki’s power of bringing a world to life, what would be one of the little things you’d make sure to include in your design?

Oh, like Kiki, I would absolutely make sure I included electricity and plumbing in my design! It wouldn’t matter if my imaginary world was futuristic, contemporary or based on ancient mythology; I like my modern comforts too much to go without! What would I do without all the books I have stored on my phone?!

Q. Kiki is such a well-developed character in terms of her struggles with her anxieties, and her attempts to be brave and do things outside her comfort zone, and how this is linked with the worldbuilding of the mythical kingdom. What’s something you’ve done in spite of feeling afraid at the time, and how did things turn out?

Sending my very first submission to a publisher. It was when I was fifteen, and it was a manuscript that was, in hindsight, truly terrible. I was absolutely terrified of taking that leap, but I wanted so badly to be an author that I made myself address the envelope and send it off. To Tor, no less! It was a rejection, but the editor at Tor included a handwritten note telling me I had potential and not to give up. It was one of the kindest things anyone’s ever done for me and it absolutely gave me the confidence to keep trying.

Q. Kiki comes up with incredibly creative ideas and is an artist, as well as struggling with anxiety. For writers and other creatives, it’s always interesting to think about the links between mental health and our creativity: how our creations can be empowering, allowing for self-care and escape, but also a source of struggle. Could you speak to this topic, and any advice you have for young creators who might be struggling with writer’s or artist’s block?

I know there are a number of creative people who believe there’s no such thing as writer’s or artist’s block, but honestly, I disagree. As someone who is both neurodivergent and who struggles with my mental health, there are absolutely times when my creativity feels like it’s been completely extinguished. And that, essentially, is what the “block” is: it’s the absence of ideas and motivation, the struggle to conjure up that spark. The best advice I can offer a young creator is to give it time. Look after yourself. Allow yourself to rest, and recharge, and do other things. Creativity always comes back, but sometimes it just needs that time and care.

Q. What was your worldbuilding and research process like for the fantasy aspects of Kiki Kallira? Was most of the mythology drawn from stories you’d known growing up, or mostly informed by your deliberate research prior to drafting?

I would say that almost all of the worldbuilding in terms of the mythology came from my memories of the folklore and stories of my childhood, and I actually leaned into that because so much of the plot hinges on the idea that our cultural folklore can be interpreted in many different ways and a child’s perspective is necessarily different from an adult’s. So I wanted to use my memories, to capture the feelings I had when I was younger, to make Kiki’s interpretation feel more real and relatable to young readers. That said, I did do a little research while drafting, mostly to remind myself of historical and geographical details that I needed to include.

Q. Related to the above, a lot of times, when authors of color draw on their own cultures for their writing, they’re held to unfairly high standards of “authenticity,” even when the story is fantasy. However, creativity is one of the joys of the fantasy writing process. What was your favorite part of Kiki’s alternate world to create?

You know, that was very much in the back of my mind when I was writing this book! Kiki’s world is exactly the kind of patchwork hodge-podge of sense and nonsense that I would have come up with at the age of eleven, but I really ratcheted that up because I think I was absolutely rebelling against the idea that I would be expected to be perfectly, impossibly “authentic”. I think Kiki’s world is true to the stories and culture I love, but it’s absolutely not “realistic” and that was a deliberate choice. We are all made up of the places we go, the people we meet and the art we love, and those things are almost always incredibly varied and diverse, so I wanted Kiki’s world to reflect that.

Thank you so much for joining us, Sangu!

Find Sangu on:

Twitter

Instagram

https://sangumandanna.com/

Buy Kiki Kallira:

US edition (Viking)

Kiki Kallira – UK edition

Indiebound

Bookshop.org

Amazon.com

Barnes & Noble

Parnassus Books

Powell’s

Audiobook

UK edition (Hachette)

Bookshop.org

Waterstones

A New Chapter

Bookbugs & Dragon Tales

Amazon.co.uk

Book Depository

Audiobook

More of Sangu Mandanna’s books:

The Celestial series

Color Outside the Lines anthology

The Lost Girl

Interview with Julie Abe – author of Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch

Today, co-host Wendy is excited to be bringing you a Q&A with Julie Abe for the release of her second middle grade book Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch – the sequel to Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch! If you love stories involving friendship and adventure, set in a magical world, be sure to pick this book up.

About the Book:

The thrilling sequel to Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch in which Eva must put a stop to the violent Culling or risk the fate of Rivelle Realm forever — perfect for fans of Kiki’s Delivery Service.

From this day forward, we will believe in the impossible.

Eva Evergreen has fulfilled her dream of earning the rank of Novice Witch, and discovered the chilling truth behind the mysterious Culling — the violent magical storm wreaking havoc across Rivelle Realm.

Revealing the truth, however, proves to be a difficult task and soon the culprit is at large. To make matters worse Eva learns what might be the horrible truth behind her pinch of magic and her mother’s own mysterious connection to the Culling and rogue magic.

With her spirits at an all-time low, Eva must muster up the courage to prove her mother’s innocence and learn to believe in her own magic, if she wishes to put a stop to the Culling once and for all.

Buy Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch:

Personalized Copies
Indiebound
Barnes & Noble
Amazon

About the Author:

Julie Abe is the author of Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch (a NYPL and Kirkus Best Middle Grade Book), its sequel, Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch (August 2021), and Alliana, Girl of Dragons (2022), set in the same world as Eva Evergreen. She also has a forthcoming Young Adult novel, The Charmed List (2022). She has lived in Silicon Valley, spent many humid summers in Japan, and currently basks in the sunshine of Southern California with never enough books or tea. Sign up for Julie’s newsletter and find out more about her at https://julieabebooks.com/newsletter, on Instagram at www.instagram.com/julieabebooks, and on TikTok at http://tiktok.com/@julieabebooks

Hi Julie! Congratulations on the release of Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch, and thank you so much for joining us.

Hi Wendy! Thanks so much for having me at Lit CelebrAsian.

Q: One aspect of the Eva books which I really enjoyed was how it subverted ideas of power and powerlessness, and examined the extents and limits of power through magic. Could you speak to what inspired this and how you went about developing these themes?

Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch mirrored my personal journey. I was going through a difficult patch in life where so much felt impossible. Among so many other things going on, I didn’t know if anyone would ever read my stories or connect to a character like Eva, and my morale was low. I wrote Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch as I worked through that time in my life, and I learned to believe in the impossible.

Q: An important part of the Eva series is the Culling (a phenomenon bringing natural disaster in the books), and the exploration of its causes and consequences. What struck me about this was how it reminded me of various other Japanese media where characters have been confronted by the forces of nature and have to grapple with its consequences — something which is linked to recent history in Japan. Was this something you consciously drew upon, or was this influenced by anything about your own connection to/ experiences in Japan?

The Culling was based on the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake, a 9.0 earthquake that wiped entire cities off the map. It was a terrifying disaster. My family and I were on a train in Yokohama, Japan when it hit. That was one of the toughest days I have ever experienced. I couldn’t fight off a tsunami, I couldn’t stop an earthquake.

But, that day, I did what I could with what I had, and I took care of my family as best as I could. Though the trains were stopped, I was able to find a place for my family to stay for the night, guiding my grandma and mom through hordes of frightened, confused people to a safe spot. That terrible earthquake and the subsequent tsunami was what formed into the Culling for Eva’s stories, and for me, was a reminder to do anything and everything I can to help.

Q: Parent-child relationships and friendships are really important in Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch. How do you approach writing such relationships, and the conflicts that arise in them, for a middle grade audience?

Parent-child relationships are very complex and fascinating to explore, especially in middle grade. I wanted to create a dynamic where Eva’s parents truly believe in her. They don’t try to limit her or say her dreams are impossible, or that she has to do things a certain way to live up to their expectations—or, worse yet, try to fix things or pave the way for her. It was a difficult, fine line, and something that I had to adjust constantly while writing Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch. Eva’s parents encouraged her as much as they could, so that Eva would be able to accomplish her dreams, but they did not overly help her nor push her into a different direction from her dreams. I love Eva’s parents for how they encourage her and help her grow naturally, and it was so important for me to try to create that complex yet beautiful relationship between them.

Davy, Charlotte, and Ember are Eva’s found family, and they mean so much to me. I heard the advice once that secondary characters should feel like they’re the protagonists of their own adventures, and that was what I aimed for with each of their appearances on-page. Davy’s love for adventure; Charlotte’s painfully shy yet standoffish demeanor; Ember’s need for someone to care for him—I can really imagine each of them having amazing adventures of their own, even when they’re not in Eva’s books. 😉 

Q Another theme in Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch is dreams, impossibilities, and how we can create change. What’s a dream you’ve had that’s come true for you, and what’s something you wish you could change about the world?

I wasn’t sure that I’d ever be able to publish another book after Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch, but I wrote and wrote, even though my dreams felt more fragile than glass. I even went on submission with a young adult book that was so incredibly fun to write, but I wasn’t sure if publishers would want it, because there wasn’t exactly a place on YA bookstore shelves for sweet, charming contemporary romances with a dash of magic. Luckily, amazingly, one of my dream publishers picked up The Charmed List and it’s going to be on bookshelves in Summer 2022!

Something I wish I could change—oh, there is so much! Environmental awareness, human rights, healthcare access… But here’s something close to my heart: I want works by BIPOC creators to be mainstream. I want works by Asian authors to be celebrated not just during May’s “AAPI month” (which is also an erasure of Asian diaspora across the world), but during all the other months of the year, too. So I’m thankful for Lit CelebrAsian for supporting and promoting voices like mine, year round.

Q: I’d love to hear more about your writing process. Are there any aspects of writing craft which you learned more about and can share insights into, from your journey writing Eva Evergreen?

While writing the first book, I had a major writing revelation thanks to a dear writing friend, Jessica Kim (Author of Stand Up, Yumi Chung!). She read one of the early chapters of Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch, and helped me understand how to create a dynamic scene where things are in motion all around the character, and weaving those details into the background. It’s a writing tool that I’ve kept in my craft box to this day, but you can see it in action in the boat scene of Book One as Eva starts her journey and watches her parents’ faces disappear behind her.

Q; Specifically, how did you go about developing the world in the Eva series? With your upcoming Alliana book also being set in this world, how much did you know before you started writing the subsequent books, or left aside to develop along the way?

Developing Rivelle Realm drew a lot upon my life and travels throughout Japan. For example, Auteri (the town Eva goes to for her quest) is based on the Izu Peninsula, where I had visited on the morning of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. The north (which is featured a lot in Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch) is based a bit on Okinawa, but also the forests of mainland Japan, which I’ve been able to spend beautiful times hiking in.

For Alliana, which is also set in the world of Eva Evergreen, it was a LOT of fun. There’s a significant time gap between Alliana’s story and then Eva’s, so I got to take a lot of liberty in showing the differences between their times, and the reader can get a glimpse into the changes that Alliana enacted on her journey to become the queen of Rivelle Realm.

Q: I’m excited to hear about your upcoming YA contemporary romance, The Charmed List! Could you share a bit more about what to expect from the book, and the inspirations behind it?

I can’t wait for readers to meet Ellie and Jack from The Charmed List! I describe it as: Two childhood best friends turned rivals who are stuck together on a road trip through California. It’s set in the real world… but with a hidden side to it. The Charmed List was inspired by a little corner of Palo Alto (in northern California) that I’d always imagined was a hidden spot full of magic… the idea of rival magic shops was just something I couldn’t turn down, but I added some magical cupcakes, enchanted tea, and magical cottages for travelers.

If you’re interested in The Charmed List, I hope you’ll give it an add on Goodreads! And look out for preorder campaign details coming soon in my newsletter/Instagram—I’ll be trying something exciting and new.

I’m so excited for the launch of Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch! Thank you for joining me on this magical adventure with Eva and her friends, and I hope you’ll pick up a copy to celebrate!

Thank you so much for joining us, Julie!

Find Julie on:

Instagram
Twitter
Facebook
Website
Eva Evergreen Ordering Links Page
Goodreads – Author Page

Fly into the magical world of Rivelle Realm:

Interview with Axie Oh — Author of XOXO

Hello! Hope everyone’s summer/winter is going well and that everyone is staying safe. Today’s post features Co-Host Shenwei’s interview with author Axie Oh. Her newest YA novel, XOXO, recently released on July 13th!

About XOXO

Jenny’s never had much time for boys, K-pop, or really anything besides her dream of being a professional cellist. But when she finds herself falling for a K-pop idol, she has to decide whether their love is worth the risk. A modern forbidden romance wrapped in the glamorous and exclusive world of K-pop, XOXO is perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Maurene Goo.

Jenny didn’t get to be an award-winning, classically trained cellist without choosing practice over fun. That is, until the night she meets Jaewoo. Mysterious, handsome, and just a little bit tormented, Jaewoo is exactly the kind of distraction Jenny would normally avoid. And yet, she finds herself pulled into spending an unforgettable evening wandering Los Angeles with him on the night before his flight home to South Korea.

With Jaewoo an ocean away, there’s no use in dreaming of what could have been. But when Jenny and her mother move to Seoul to take care of her ailing grandmother, who does she meet at the elite arts academy she’s just been accepted to? Jaewoo.

Finding the dreamy stranger who swept you off your feet in your homeroom is one thing, but Jaewoo isn’t just any student. Turns out, Jaewoo is a member of one of the biggest K-pop bands in the world. And like most K-pop idols, Jaewoo is strictly forbidden from dating anyone.

When a relationship means not only jeopardizing her place at her dream music school but also endangering everything Jaewoo’s worked for, Jenny has to decide once and for all just how much she’s willing to risk for love. XOXO is a new romance that proves chasing your dreams doesn’t have to mean sacrificing your heart, from acclaimed author Axie Oh.

About the Author:

Axie Oh is a first generation Korean American, born in NYC and raised in New Jersey. She studied Korean history and creative writing as an undergrad at the University of California – San Diego and holds an MFA from Lesley University in Writing for Young People. Her passions include K-pop, anime, stationery supplies, and milk tea. She currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada with her puppy, Toro.

Visit Axie at: http://www.axieoh.com/
Follow her on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/axieoh
Follow her on Instagram: http://www.instagram.com/axieoh/

Interview

Q: The main character of XOXO, Jenny, plays the cello. Do you have any personal experience playing this instrument? If not, why did you choose the cello in particular?

A: I do not! I did however play instruments all throughout my school years—piano in elementary school, clarinet in middle school band, and the harp in high school orchestra. I chose the cello in particular because I think it’s such a beautiful instrument and one of my favorites to listen to because of its warm and rich tones. My favorite cellists include Nana Ouyang and Hee Young Lim.

Q: XOXO involves multiple characters who are kpop idols. The industry can be a bit opaque even to those who are mega-fans of kpop. How did you go about writing and filling in the blanks to create a convincing portrayal of the idol experience?

A: I wrote this book so that it would feel like a K-drama, so it wasn’t as important for me to make it convincing as to make it entertaining. I wanted to focus on the romance, the friendships, the setting, and culture but with a K-pop hook, similar to how You’re Beautiful is a humorous K-drama about an idol rock group or True Beauty that focuses on high school life but features idols as characters. It definitely helped that I’ve been a fan of K-pop my whole life (my intro group was the 90’s girl group Fin.K.L) so a lot of the K-pop elements were fun for me to write because I could channel that love.

Q: XOXO explores the darker sides of the idol industry in Korea. Did you ever feel like you needed to tone down those aspects or avoid sensationalizing them?

A: I 100% wanted to avoid sensationalizing anything. I wanted to give a well-rounded picture of the industry, and also portray my idol characters existing within the system in different ways, some healthier than others. And maybe because I am Korean diaspora, I also felt protective of K-pop, seeing how it’s sometimes perceived in the U.S. People who aren’t as familiar with the genre sometimes jump to conclusions, and see the “dark side” or negative aspects first, instead of seeing the hard work and genuine love and happiness the music brings to people. I wanted to paint a more nuanced and positive picture in XOXO.

Q: XOXO is a fictional kpop group. Can you introduce each of the four members as they would introduce themselves on a variety show or at a public event?

A: The group would introduce themselves as “Hello, we are XOXO!” Sun would say something like, “I am the leader of XOXO” and likely flip his hair. Nathaniel would say something sassy, like, “I am the XOXO member you should pay attention to” Jaewoo would say something humble and simple, like, “Hi, my name is Bae Jaewoo,” and Youngmin would say, “I’m XOXO’s maknae (youngest member), and I’m so happy to be here!”

Q: Did you have a playlist that you listened to while writing this book, and can you give some recommendations for kpop songs that you think fit the book?

A: I have a Spotify playlist! I attempted to match each chapter with a song. You can check it out here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5NnM5DIqUhX0u8AxVbMX6X

Q: If you were a member of a kpop group, what role would you take on (this can be realistic or idealized/aspirational)?

A: Realistically I wouldn’t be in a K-pop group, but maybe I could be a manager or stylist! But idealistically, I’d want to be a vocalist. My bias in a group is usually the one whose voice I’m most drawn to because of the way their voice makes me feel when they sing (and the #1 thing I love most about K-pop is the music itself). So for an aspirational role, I would love to be a vocalist.

Q: Part of the story takes place in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Can you name a few of your favorite Ktown spots or must-see features for anyone who might visit in the future?

A: My *favorite* K-BBQ place is Chosun Galbee. It’s pricey but delicious! I also love the Koreatown Galleria mall and MaDang Courtyard shopping mall! Both malls have K-pop and K-beauty stores!

More Books by Axie Oh:

Author Feature, Book Excerpt, and Giveaway: After the Dragons by Cynthia Zhang

Hello! Today we are collaborating with Stelliform Press to present a special video featuring debut author Cynthia Zhang on her novel, After the Dragons.

About After the Dragons

Dragons were fire and terror to the Western world, but in the East they brought life-giving rain…

Now, no longer hailed as gods and struggling in the overheated pollution of Beijing, only the Eastern dragons survive. As drought plagues the aquatic creatures, a mysterious disease—shaolong, or “burnt lung”—afflicts the city’s human inhabitants.

Jaded college student Xiang Kaifei scours Beijing streets for abandoned dragons, distracting himself from his diagnosis. Elijah Ahmed, a biracial American medical researcher, is drawn to Beijing by the memory of his grandmother and her death by shaolong. Interest in Beijing’s dragons leads Kai and Eli into an unlikely partnership. With the resources of Kai’s dragon rescue and Eli’s immunology research, can the pair find a cure for shaolong and safety for the dragons? Eli and Kai must confront old ghosts and hard truths if there is any hope for themselves or the dragons they love.

After the Dragons is a tender story, for readers interested in the effects of climate change on environments and people, but who don’t want a grim, hopeless read. Beautiful and challenging, focused on hope and care, this novel navigates the nuances of changing culture in a changing world.

The cover art for After the Dragons is by Wang Xulin, with typography and design by Yu-Lobbenberg Rachel.

About Cynthia Zhang

Cynthia Zhang is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in KaleidotropeOn SpecPhantom Drift, and other venues. She is a 2021 DVdebut mentee.

The Giveaway and the Video

Stelliform Press is currently holding their second giveaway of advance review copies of Cynthia Zhang’s tender queer fantasy novel, After the Dragons. If you haven’t already heard the buzz about this book, we invite you to watch this video of the author briefly talking about her intimate approach to the fantasy genre, and reading a short excerpt. After the Dragons is a queer romantic fantasy novel which will be published by Stelliform Press on August 19th. The book is Cynthia Zhang’s first novel.

The video reading includes captions for those who prefer or require them and the full text of the excerpt is provided below. Be sure to sign up for the contest, or learn more about AFTER THE DRAGONS and pre-order a copy here. Also, signing up for the Stelliform Press newsletter will keep you in the loop about our upcoming launch event, which will include some fabulous opening acts and a chance to talk about the book with the author and publisher.

Read the Excerpt

It’s dark inside the store. A few dragons chirp in protest when Kai flips on the light, but the room is otherwise silent.

Kai glances around the shop, assessing the lines of cages and tanks. Then, without saying a word, he closes the door, slips his sketchpad under the front desk, and walks decisively toward the back of the shop.

After a moment of hesitation, Eli follows. “Do you want any help?” he asks as Kai slips a thick, leather glove over one hand.

“What, and have the whole shop escape? You can stand there, and if I need anything from the top shelves, you can take it down for me.”

“I think I can pull that off,” Eli says as Kai steps toward a cage in which a blue dragon sits atop a pile of rocks, preening the scales on its back. Compared to the tianlong Eli sometimes sees clustering on rooftops and stop lights, this dragon is larger and sleeker, the size of a hawk with a narrow chest and long curving wings. Feathery frills circle the dragon’s head, giving an appearance halfway between a lion’s mane and an Elizabethan neck ruff worn by a draconic poet.

Kai makes a high, clicking sound, and the dragon raises its neck toward him, imperious as a little monarch. “Hello to you too, your highness,” he says, unhooking the door and sticking his gloved hand inside. The dragon glances at the glove, then back up at Kai: and?

Rolling his eyes, Kai takes a dead mouse from one pocket and dangles it in front of the cage. The dragon cocks its head to one side, politely uninterested. “Oh, come on now,” Kai says, shaking his hand. “Cixi, baobei, piece of shit, don’t be like that —”

“Cixi? Like the empress?”

“Just like the empress,” Kai confirms, eyes intent on the dragon as she gingerly steps onto his wrist to take a bite — the smallest bite — of the mouse. “Almost as bad as the human one, too. Bossy little thing,” he says, carefully lifting his hand out of the cage, spindly dragon and all. “Isn’t that right, princess?”

In response, Cixi trills, licking her snout as she snatches the mouse and swallows it whole. Her eyes are tawny, and in the dim light, they gleam like gold coins against delicate whiskers and blue scales.

“She’s beautiful,” Eli says, leaning forward. “What is she?”

“A pain in the ass? Careful — this one does bite,” Kai warns as he hands Eli a strip of dried meat.

Eli offers it to Cixi, who sniffs the jerky before deigning to take it from him.

“In terms of breed, feilong, which goes a long way toward explaining the sense of superiority since they supposedly only appear to ‘great men’ in the wild.” Kai strokes her neck, Cixi leaning into the touch before snapping at his fingers. “Doesn’t do anything to explain the stubbornness or complete lack of manners.”

“Like owner, like dragon, maybe?”

Kai glances up, and for a second, Eli is unsure whether he’s earned the right to say what he did — but then Kai laughs, a short, surprised sound that turns into a wry smile. Eli can’t help smiling back. And then, with no warning whatsoever, Cixi swoops off Kai’s wrist and out the door, a glistening blue blur with Eli’s jerky between her teeth.

“Oh, fuck,” Kai mutters before sprinting after her.

Interview with Sarah Kuhn – author of From Little Tokyo, With Love

Today’s post features Co-Host Shenwei’s interview with author Sarah Kuhn. Her newest YA novel, From Little Tokyo, With Love recently released on May 11th!

About From Little Tokyo, With Love

Celebrated author Sarah Kuhn reinvents the modern fairy tale in this intensely personal yet hilarious novel of a girl whose search for a storybook ending takes her to unexpected places in both her beloved LA neighborhood and her own guarded heart.

If Rika’s life seems like the beginning of a familiar fairy tale—being an orphan with two bossy cousins and working away in her aunts’ business—she would be the first to reject that foolish notion. After all, she loves her family (even if her cousins were named after Disney characters), and with her biracial background, amazing judo skills and red-hot temper, she doesn’t quite fit the princess mold.

All that changes the instant she locks eyes with Grace Kimura, America’s reigning rom-com sweetheart, during the Nikkei Week Festival. From there, Rika embarks on a madcap adventure of hope and happiness—searching for clues that Grace is her long-lost mother, exploring Little Tokyo’s hidden treasures with cute actor Hank Chen, and maybe . . . finally finding a sense of belonging.

But fairy tales are fiction and the real world isn’t so kind. Rika knows she’s setting herself up for disappointment, because happy endings don’t happen to girls like her. Should she walk away before she gets in even deeper, or let herself be swept away?

About the Author:

Sarah Kuhn is the author of the popular Heroine Complex novels–a series starring Asian American superheroines. The first book is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog’s Best Books of 2016. Her YA debut, the Japan-set romantic comedy I Love You So Mochi, is a Junior Library Guild selection and a nominee for YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. She has also penned a variety of short fiction and comics, including the critically acclaimed graphic novel Shadow of the Batgirl for DC Comics and the Star Wars audiobook original Doctor Aphra. Additionally, she was a finalist for both the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Her newest novel, From Little Tokyo, With Love—a modern fairy tale with a half-Japanese heroine—is a Junior Library Guild selection and was recently chosen as Penguin Random House’s One World, One Book title of the year. A third generation Japanese American, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and an overflowing closet of vintage treasures.
 
Visit Sarah at: http://www.heroinecomplex.com/
Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/sarahkuhn
Follow her on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sarahkuhnbooks/

Interview

Q: I love how the chapters start out with little fairy tale snippets. What is the magic of fairy tales to you?

A: I love the epic, larger than life quality of a fairy tale—these stories that have been around for centuries and have gone through so many different versions, retellings, and twists. I mean, when you hear the words “once upon a time…”, don’t you just sit up a little straighter? You know you’re in for something good! I think one of the themes of a lot of my work is putting modern Asian American characters in truly epic settings, and I certainly wanted to do that here—to give that modern Asian American girl her own very grouchy version of Cinderella.

Q: Rika thinks of her anger as a fatal flaw of hers, but anger isn’t inherently negative, especially when it’s in response to injustice. What do you hope young readers will take away from this story as far as anger is concerned?

A: Pretty much exactly that, you said it perfectly! In a way, I think I was telling myself that, too. I’ve always had a temper like Rika’s, where it feels like an actual monster that’s about to consume you. I thought the only way to not let it consume me was to shove it down, try to get rid of it, and yes, mark it as something inherently bad. But I slowly realized how much anger can empower you, and what a necessary emotion it is—how sometimes it is simply a correct response to injustice or being treated badly, how it can protect you, and how we need to make space for that. Both Rika and I had to learn how to embrace our anger and allow it to power us forward.

Q: I thought it was fun that Rika aspired to be like the nure-onna from Japanese folklore. What creatures or beings would Henry and Rika’s family be?

A: Ha! You know, the problem with this is many of these creatures end up doing really terrible things to humans! Like I was thinking that maybe Rory, Rika’s blazingly smart 12-year-old cousin, would be an itachi—a little trickster that looks like a cute weasel. But itachi also bring bad omens and start fires that level entire cities. So.

Q: The fictionalized version of Little Tokyo is central to the story and treated with a lot of love. What are some of your favorite spots in the real Little Tokyo to visit?

A: Too many to name! Many of the spots Rika visits are favorites. I adore Bunkado, which is the most amazing and eclectic gift shop and has been around for 75 years—that was where I imagined Rika finding her nure-onna t-shirt, because that is exactly the kind of cool thing you would find in that shop. And like many of the businesses in Little Tokyo, it has that lovely family vibe. I love walking through the Japanese Village Plaza, which has those beautiful lanterns strung through the air and feels like a little hub of constant activity. And of course there is so much amazing food—many of the restaurants in the area started doing these cool to-go meal specials during the pandemic. Like JiSt Café brought back their classic Tokyo Garden Special—a combination featuring chashu and shumai, such glorious comfort food. And Azay did a delicious fried chicken bucket for the holidays—I still have dreams about it, to be honest.

Q: I know you started out writing adult urban fantasy-romance before publishing any YA, and I can definitely see how the influences from the adult romance genre shines through in your YA work. Were there any challenges you faced while adapting to this new target audience?

A: To be honest, I don’t really think of my audiences as different. Many of the same readers cross over—the Heroine Complex series has a lot of teenage fans, for example, and I think my writer voice carries across all my work. I suppose one thing I do think about is if the characters sound authentic to where they are in life—like with I Love You So Mochi, I had to put myself in the headspace of what it would have been like to visit Japan for the first time as a 17-year-old rather than as an adult. When I talked to Actual Teenagers who had just visited Japan, a lot of what they picked up on seemed to involve situations that were potentially embarrassing—like, what if I try to crawl through Buddha’s Nostril, a little hole in this big wooden pillar inside of a beautiful temple…and I get stuck and then someone takes a video and it goes viral and suddenly I have destroyed an important landmark and totally embarrassed my mom. That kind of thing helped me get in the right headspace. Although, to be honest, I’d probably worry about getting stuck in Buddha’s Nostril as an adult, too.

Q: Rika is terrified of being vulnerable with others because of her history. As authors and writers, we tend to bring our vulnerability with us when we write, especially when our stories center the communities and identities we claim. How do you overcome that fear of not being “enough”?

A: Um, wow! Anyone who knows the answer to this, please DM me. But seriously, you are absolutely right that this is part of it—I always feel intensely vulnerable putting stories like this on the page. With Little Tokyo, I felt this really deeply, because I was writing about some of the complexities of existing as a biracial Asian American girl that I haven’t talked much about before. I really appreciate my amazing editor, Jenny Bak, for creating a space where I felt safe to do that. In the end, I don’t know if there’s any way to “overcome” this fear—I think we have to process it by showing up for and supporting each other. I try to show up as authentically as I can, to be really honest about those fears—and when I am honest, I feel like other people feel safe being honest with me, too. It was a revelation to me that nearly everyone in our huge Asian diaspora community feels like they aren’t “enough” at some point, for many different reasons. When we can share these things and support each other, that helps so much. It can be so cathartic and freeing, and deepens those community bonds so beautifully.

Q: The importance of having Asian American stories on screen is a recurring theme in the book. If you were to be in an Asian American film or show, what kind of role would you play?

A: Anyone who knows the answer to this…also DM me. Ha! You know, I think in the past, I would have very naturally said something about being funny comic relief, the sidekick. But now I’m much more comfortable claiming the main character mantle. I think I’d probably be someone like Rika—a cranky, reluctant heroine who has to get out of her own way so she can claim her happily ever after. Aspirationally, I’d love to be the fabulous Auntie who gives everyone way too honest advice and has the most beautiful, luxurious wardrobe ever. Actually, that’s basically what I want to be in real life.

Interview with Emery Lee – author of Meet Cute Diary

Today’s post features Co-Host Shenwei’s interview with author Emery Lee. Eir traditional published YA debut, Meet Cute Diary released on May 4th!

About Meet Cute Diary

Felix Ever After meets Becky Albertalli in this swoon-worthy, heartfelt rom-com about how a transgender teen’s first love challenges his ideas about perfect relationships.

Noah Ramirez thinks he’s an expert on romance. He has to be for his popular blog, the Meet Cute Diary, a collection of trans happily ever afters. There’s just one problem—all the stories are fake. What started as the fantasies of a trans boy afraid to step out of the closet has grown into a beacon of hope for trans readers across the globe.

When a troll exposes the blog as fiction, Noah’s world unravels. The only way to save the Diary is to convince everyone that the stories are true, but he doesn’t have any proof. Then Drew walks into Noah’s life, and the pieces fall into place: Drew is willing to fake-date Noah to save the Diary. But when Noah’s feelings grow beyond their staged romance, he realizes that dating in real life isn’t quite the same as finding love on the page.

In this charming novel by Emery Lee, Noah will have to choose between following his own rules for love or discovering that the most romantic endings are the ones that go off script.

About the Author:

Emery Lee is a kidlit author, artist, and You-Tuber hailing from a mixed-racial background. After graduating with a degree in creative writing, e’s gone on to author novels, short stories, and web comics. When away from reading and writing, you’ll most likely find em engaged in art or snuggling cute dogs.
 
Visit Emery at: https://www.emeryleebooks.com/
Follow em on Twitter: www.twitter.com/emeryleewho
Follow em on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/emeryleebooks/

Interview

Q: Meet Cute Diary is a romcom brimming with love and humor whose central focus isn’t on The Coming Out ExperienceTM, but it also doesn’t shy away from portraying some of the tougher experiences of being trans in a world that’s hostile to trans people. How did you strike the balance between keeping the focus on the lighter aspects and acknowledging those struggles on page?

A: I went into the book knowing that I wanted it to be first and foremost “happy”, so it ultimately came down to only including those things that I thought would add to the happiness instead of detract from it. In real life, we’re all a combination of good and bad experiences, and I’ve always thought that bad experiences are what make the good feel that much better. So I definitely still wanted to address that those bad things can and do happen because I think they inform the way we approach life and they impact Noah’s perception of what happiness should look like and why that might be harder for him to achieve as a marginalized person, but I only wanted to really include those things that were largely in the past or had some level of distance so that they would provide context to that happiness without dimming it.

Q: An ice cream shop meet cute was one of the first meet cutes in the story. If you were to describe Noah, Drew, Becca, and Devin as ice cream flavors, which would you choose for each of them?

A: Noah would be coffee, Drew would be mint chocolate chip, Becca would be cinnamon, and Devin would be lavender.

Q: Which of the different meet cute scenes (whether ones that actually happened to Noah or ones he made up for his MCD blog) was your favorite to write, and why?

A: Oddly enough, I think the funniest one to write was the one he actually didn’t include on the blog which was the “coffee shop” meet-cute where he thought he would fall in love with the barista. Just going through the harsh comparisons between what Noah hoped would happen and what actually happened was really fun and I cackled the whole time I wrote it LOL.

Q: If you were to pick a “theme song” for Meet Cute Diary, what would it be?

A: It’s so hard for me to narrow down one song because I tend to use different songs to embody different parts of the story. But I guess if I were making a TV show and needed an opening song, I’d probably go with “Young For The Summer” by Dales because that was a song I used a lot to get me in the mood to write the book.

Q: Boku no Hero Academia/My Hero Academia gets a mention in Meet Cute Diary. I have yet to watch it myself, but it’s on my list. If Noah were a character in BNHA, what would his special ability (or “Quirk,” as I believe they’re called) be?

A: Ah, yes, Noah’s quirk. I feel like it would be something related to storytelling, like where he crafts a story and then can make it real? Or maybe something where he’s just really good at tricking people into thinking it’s real? Something where he can craft things from nothing and people just have to deal with the chaos.

Q: Are there any meet cute scenes that you cut for plot/pacing reasons?

A: There was actually one meet cute scene at the end that we ended up cutting. It was supposed to be one of the blog submissions after the blog actually opened up to submissions, and it was a model UN meet cute where this trans girl accidentally grabbed somebody else’s drink at a café because they had the same order. It was really cute, but ultimately, we decided it ended the story on the wrong note so we cut it.

Interview with Stacey Lee – author of Luck of the Titanic

Today’s post features Co-Host Shenwei’s interview with New York Times Bestselling historical fiction author Stacey Lee. Her fifth and most recent book, Luck of the Titanic released on May 4th!

About Luck of the Titanic

From the critically-acclaimed author of The Downstairs Girl comes the richly imagined story of Valora and Jamie Luck, twin British-Chinese acrobats traveling aboard the Titanic on its ill-fated maiden voyage.

Valora Luck has two things: a ticket for the biggest and most luxurious ocean liner in the world, and a dream of leaving England behind and making a life for herself as a circus performer in New York. Much to her surprise though, she’s turned away at the gangway; apparently, Chinese aren’t allowed into America.

But Val has to get on that ship. Her twin brother Jamie, who has spent two long years at sea, is there, as is an influential circus owner, whom Val hopes to audition for. Thankfully, there’s not much a trained acrobat like Val can’t overcome when she puts her mind to it.

As a stowaway, Val should keep her head down and stay out of sight. But the clock is ticking and she has just seven days as the ship makes its way across the Atlantic to find Jamie, perform for the circus owner, and convince him to help get them both into America.

Then one night the unthinkable happens, and suddenly Val’s dreams of a new life are crushed under the weight of the only thing that matters: survival.

About the Author:

Stacey Lee is a fourth-generation Chinese American. A Southern California native, she graduated from UCLA and got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall. Now she plays classical piano, wrangles children, and writes young adult fiction. Stacey lives outside San Francisco, California. Under a Painted Sky is her first novel.
 
Visit Stacey at: www.staceyhlee.com
Follow her on Twitter: @staceyleeauthor
Follow her on Instagram: @staceyleeauthor

Interview

Q: As a historical fiction writer, research is one of the foundations of the writing process. What kinds of things have had you had to research that you didn’t think of looking up before starting a draft but ran into questions about while drafting?

A: SO MANY things! For LUCK OF THE TITANIC, one thing I had to investigate was where Chinese were buried in England. If there was money, the ashes could be sent home to China. If not, the Chinese were often out of luck, since cemeteries didn’t want them hanging out with the good folk, even dead.

Sometimes, I have to research something, but I don’t want to because I think it’s going to be too hard, and I do everything I can to ‘write around’ it. Inevitably, I spend more time avoiding it than if I had just buckled down and researched it. An example is the engineering behind the Titanic— two four-cylinder, triple expansion, inverted reciprocating steam engines and one low pressure Parsons turbine. Did the information I learned make its way into the story? You may not see it on the page but knowing how it was run did help me write those important collision scenes. For LUCK OF THE TITANIC, I also learned more than I wanted to know about Merry Widow hats, water closets, and coal holes.

Q: Although historical fiction takes place in the past, it’s not necessarily irrelevant to the present day. For example, anti-Chinese racism remains a problem and has undergone a resurgence due to the racist rhetoric about the pandemic. Do current events inform how you approach your storytelling? How do you create historical stories that resonate with a present day audience?

A: I’d go so far to say that historical fiction is about the present because we can’t appreciate the past without putting it into the context of the now. Historical fiction is escapist on one hand, but I think you can’t read it without emerging with questions about who we were then, and who we are now. This is the one of the most important things writers of historical fiction can offer readers, this idea that one can’t change the past, but one can be changed by the past.

Q: Historical fiction requires a balance of fact and imagination to breathe life into a story, and where the lines are drawn as far as suspending disbelief goes is often a question of power and whose narratives are given weight in historical records. In particular, historical fiction stories that center people of color in the United States or Europe or other currently white-dominant settings are often seen as “unrealistic,” making the act of bending the truth more fraught for writers of color in the genre. How do you decide when and how much you’re going to take liberties with the source material/context when you approach your writing?

A: Such a great question. When in doubt, I tend to go for it, and I try not to care so much what people think. For THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL, I got wind of a few disbelieving comments about whether a Chinese girl could win a horse race in Atlanta 1890. I don’t know if any actually did, but I can tell you there were a lot of nobody-girls doing lots of remarkable things throughout history that they weren’t supposed to be doing and the world will never hear about them. Jo Kuan stands for those girls.

Q: I love the names you come up with for your protagonists (Sammy Young, Mercy Wong, Mimosa/Mim, Jo Kuan, Valora Luck). How do you go about picking names for your characters (who aren’t real historical figures)?

A: I try to stick with names that were popular at the time, but also something memorable and unique. I try not to use anything too precious. “Samantha” made a good name for my heroine in UNDER A PAINTED SKY because it could be shortened to Sam or Sammy when she was in disguise as a boy. In OUTRUN THE MOON, mercy was a quality that fit Mercy Wong’s character, and also an Anglicization of her Chinese name, Meh-Si. In THE SECRET OF A HEART NOTE, perfumer Mimosa was ‘flowery’ intentionally and means ‘touch me not,’ which aligns with her character’s resistance to physical touch. THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL “Jo” was simple and basic, like her character. And my latest heroine in LUCK OF THE TITANIC, Valora, well, I will let you figure that one out.

Q: I saw the news that you made the NYT Bestseller list for paperbacks with The Downstairs Girl. As someone who’s been following your work since 2016, I’m so happy to see you reach this publishing milestone! What lessons have you learned during your publishing journey from debut to your fifth published book?

A: That is so kind of you! I definitely try not to take myself too seriously even if my books make cool lists like the NYT! Writing is not my life—it’s just one of the things I love to do. And like everything I love, I try to pour my best into it.

Q: Can you tease us with what comes next?

A: I have a new middle grade fantasy coming from Rick Riordan Presents next year unofficially titled WINSTON CHU VS. THE WHIMSIES about a kid who receives the dubious present of a broom and dustpan who begin to wreak havoc in his life. I’m having so much fun writing it. I also am working on more historical fiction, with new heroines that would probably be good friends with my old ones.

So excited for this middle grade title! Thanks a bunch for your thoughtful answers!

Interview with Misa Sugiura – author of Love & Other Natural Disasters

Today’s post features Co-Host Shenwei’s interview with Asian/Pacific American Award-winning fiction author Misa Sugiura. Her third and most recent book, Love & Other Other Disasters just released on June 8th!

About Love & Other Natural Disasters

This delightfully disastrous queer YA rom-com is a perfect read for fans of Jenny Han, Morgan Matson, and Sandhya Menon.

When Nozomi Nagai pictured the ideal summer romance, a fake one wasn’t what she had in mind.

That was before she met the perfect girl. Willow is gorgeous, glamorous, and…heartbroken? And when she enlists Nozomi to pose as her new girlfriend to make her ex jealous, Nozomi is a willing volunteer.

Because Nozomi has a master plan of her own: one to show Willow she’s better than a stand-in, and turn their fauxmance into something real. But as the lies pile up, it’s not long before Nozomi’s schemes take a turn toward disaster…and maybe a chance at love she didn’t plan for.

About the Author:

Misa Sugiura is the Asian/Pacific American Award-winning author of It’s Not Like It’s a Secret and This Time Will Be Different. Misa lives under a giant oak tree in Silicon Valley with her husband, two sons, and a gray-banded king snake.
 
Visit Misa at: www.misasugiura.com
Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/misallaneous1
Follow her on Instagram: www.instagram.com/misallaneous1

Interview

Q: Congratulations on publishing your third book! What lessons have you learned as a writer since your debut?

Thank you! When my first book sold, I heard a lot about the experience of being an author that I believed wouldn’t apply to me—but of course, it all turned out to be true for me. For example, that thing about how hard it is to be content with what you’ve got: true! How difficult each new book is to write: true! And how valuable a writing community can be: true!

Q: You said in the acknowledgments that writing Love & Other Natural Disasters really challenged you. In what ways was the process difficult, and what helped you get over those bumps in the road?

My first two books focused on family relationships and social issues with the romance on the side, and I had a hard time switching gears and keeping the romantic plotline at the forefront of L&OND. My editor broke down the key elements of the fake dating trope for me, and helped me identify what was missing in my manuscript (I didn’t have enough pining). And I listened to a lot of bubblegum pop songs and Sophie Kinsella audiobooks to try to get that relentlessly optimistic, comic voice in my head.

Q: Love & Other Natural Disasters is a romcom, but it also explores the thornier issue of coming out and the impact that may have on your relationships with family, among other topics. How did you balance the comedic elements with the serious and grounded ones in your work?

For each book that I write, once I have the main storylines fleshed out in the draft, I color-code each chapter by topic and lay the colors out in a line. That way I can see where I’m spending too much time on one thread or another, and shift things accordingly.

Q: I found it refreshing that everyone involved in the love square(?) at the center of the book was a girl of color. Publishing often sets explicit or implicit quotas on how many marginalized characters can exist within a book, especially when it comes to multiply marginalized characters, but the reality is that queer Asians/POC exist as more than just isolated token minorities in a sea of otherwise unqueer and white people. How did you go about creating these four distinct characters, and how do you give them each a voice that feels authentic to their backgrounds, their personalities, and their age as teens?

I put a lot of thought into the race of each character, and made a careful, deliberate decision to put a romance between two Asian girls at the center of the story, and to have all four girls involved be people of color. As you said, queer (and, let’s face it, even straight) BIPOC are often window dressing, or a unicorn in sea of white people, and I wanted to celebrate and normalize queer BIPOC relationships. I had a lot of help from authenticity readers of different races and a wide range of ages to help me hone their voices and add texture and nuance to everything from their appearance to their life philosophies. I owe so much to these readers and their work.

Q: I enjoyed the ways that art was woven into the story. Do you have a background in art at all, and if not, how did you go about integrating that aspect into the story as a layperson?

I don’t have any formal background in art or art history, but I love learning about it. And because all the arts are about expressing emotional truths, the non-literary arts work really well as metaphors for creativity, for emotional connection, and even for life in general. Dela’s art installation is obviously symbolic, but I initially chose Glass Cube (a piece in the museum where Nozomi works—and also a real piece in a real museum) for no other reason than because it was so baffling. But by the time I finished writing the book, I realized that it also had symbolic significance. I feel certain that my subconscious mind understood it and knew that it fit, somehow.

Q: If you were to describe this book as a food, what kind of food would it be?

I hope it’s like those caramel and cheese popcorn mixes: a mix of sweet and salty, and impossible to put down. 🙂

Q: In the book, Nozomi and Dela work together to make paper cranes with wishes on them for an art installation. If you were to make a wish for this project, what would you wish for, and why?

It’s such a cliché, but if I knew it would come true, I’d wish for an end to poverty and world hunger, just like one of the wishers in the book. Or maybe I’d wish for people with power and money to do something real about climate change, once and for all.

Interview with Kelly Loy Gilbert – author of When We Were Infinite

Today, co-hosts Shenwei and Wendy are so excited to be bringing you an interview with YA author Kelly Loy Gilbert! Her latest book, When We Were Infinite, just released today, and you can find out more below.

About When We Were Infinite

From award-winning author Kelly Loy Gilbert comes a powerful, achingly romantic drama about the secrets we keep, from each other and from ourselves, perfect for fans of Permanent Record and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.

All Beth wants is for her tight-knit circle of friends—Grace Nakamura, Brandon Lin, Sunny Chen, and Jason Tsou—to stay together. With her family splintered and her future a question mark, these friends are all she has—even if she sometimes wonders if she truly fits in with them. Besides, she’s certain she’ll never be able to tell Jason how she really feels about him, so friendship will have to be enough.

Then Beth witnesses a private act of violence in Jason’s home, and the whole group is shaken. Beth and her friends make a pact to do whatever it takes to protect Jason, no matter the sacrifice. But when even their fierce loyalty isn’t enough to stop Jason from making a life-altering choice, Beth must decide how far she’s willing to go for him—and how much of herself she’s willing to give up.

About the Author

Kelly Loy Gilbert is the author of Conviction, a William C. Morris Award finalist, and Picture Us in the Light, a Stonewall Honor Book and the winner of the California Book Award. She lives in San Francisco Bay Area.

Interview

Welcome, Kelly! Thank you so much for joining us.

Q: Beth bases so much of her identity on her friendships, fears people drifting away from her, and cares deeply about and wants to be enough for others – all of which I really identified with. Why was it important to you to tell this story of friendship, self-worth and longing? – Wendy

I think friendship is so so central to the high school experience, and I feel like it often goes so unexamined how you spend years building up this whole world, this whole universe, and then four years later it’s just over. Also, when I was a teenager, there were never books that felt like they could have been about me or the people I grew up with, and I always wanted to tell those stories—the quiet ones about the small tragedies and heroics that happen between people, about people doing their best for each other, and those chasms that can exist despite our best intentions.

Q: Despite the progress made in publishing more diverse YA, it’s still unusual to find contemporary books like yours where everyone among the primary characters is a POC. The idea that whiteness needs to be centered or included in order for a book to be marketable or relatable to a white audience can create a pressure for authors of color to “write white.” That is, writing an all-POC cast can be seen by some as a limitation or liability. However, as a writer myself, I don’t find it limiting at all, but rather full of possibilities. How did the all-Asian cast inform your approach to writing the story and developing the themes you wanted to explore? – Shenwei

It’s interesting because I tried to publish this book years ago, and couldn’t—I don’t know how much race played into it, but isn’t that how it goes sometimes, that you have to wonder? I didn’t have these stories growing up and I longed for them, and I feel a deep debt of gratitude to writers like Ellen Oh, Cindy Pon, and Malinda Lo, whose early work I genuinely believe paved a path for a lot of us writing today. I think one thing that’s often critical to the Asian American experience is the centrality of family, and that dimension in stories about young people is always fascinating to me. I think it’s interesting being from the Bay Area, too, because there’s a huge diversity within the Asian American community.

Q: Another part of Beth’s character which is brought up throughout the book is her underlying anger. Similarly, I appreciated how she made messy choices at times in a way that’s seen as less acceptable for POC in fiction, yet portrayed with so much empathy as she looked back on her younger self and her growth. Was there anything you particularly meant to say or were motivated by in developing these aspects of her character? – Wendy

Her anger was dormant in a lot of drafts and finally came through in the end—I think even as a thirty-something I had a lot of internalized blocks against writing angry teen girls, and especially Asian American ones. But how can you not be angry? I felt it was important, too, to get Beth to a place where she stopped feeling like she didn’t have permission for anger on her own behalf. I think claiming your anger is part of claiming what you’re worth.

Q: This book explores sensitive and difficult topics such as abuse and mental illness that are usually considered taboo within various Asian cultures, a stigma aggravated by the conditions of immigration and racism in the U.S. What do you hope this book will contribute to the ongoing dialogues about trauma and mental illness in Asian American families and communities? – Shenwei

I hope it can be in conversation with books like Ilene Wong’s THIS IS MY BRAIN IN LOVE, Emily x. R. Pan’s THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, Randy Ribay’s PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING, and other works that explore Asian American mental health and generational trauma. 

This is a spoiler alert and also a content warning- I also felt like I’d not read a lot of stories about characters who nearly died from suicide but then survived.
And I really wanted to write about people who truly faced very real despair and then were able to build a life again after that. I wanted to write a story about hope and resilience and community threaded through the grief and trauma the characters were facing.

Q: Beth’s perspective of her Asian friends and community, and how she sometimes feels a “lack of concrete belonging” with them, is shaped by her mixed-race identity — including her alienation from her grandparents and from Chinese languages. Could you speak to this and how much of yourself was in this aspect of her character? – Wendy

So much! Everyone in the story has a very different family background than mine, but as someone who’s mixed race I have always felt a sense of otherness in nearly every space I’m in—the one frequent exception being my brother, the only person in the word who shares my exact background, ha. Beth’s alienation extends deeper than mine ever has because it’s in so many areas of her life, but I do think there’s a way in which I always feel that possibility of that alienation, the shape of it, if not the thing itself. 

Q: What is your process for naming your characters? The names you chose for the characters in this book felt extremely true to life in representing common naming patterns among East Asians in the English-speaking diaspora, so I was wondering if they were borrowed from real people you know, or chosen from pools of common East Asian American names, or curated based on intangible feelings that they’re the “correct” names for their respective characters based on their vibes, or a combination of any of the above. – Shenwei

My process for naming characters is always the same—I imagine the characters’ parents and delve into their lives enough that I could imagine what they would name a child, either as a baby or later picking an American name, etc. I’m so glad you felt they were representational—I sometimes get scornful questions about names from people who are like, “really, Asian kids named Harry and Regina???” and I’m always like … yes??  ???

Q: Classical music is such an important part of When We Were Infinite. Why did you choose violin as Beth’s particular passion, and what was your research like for this aspect of the book? – Wendy

I watched sooo much violin! It was great—research is always one of my favorite parts of writing. I used to play the flute, but not well, so I had a lot to learn. I chose music because I wanted something that Beth could experience both communally and individually, and also because playing in these prestigious youth symphonies is such a thing in the Asian American communities where I’m from. 

Q: Finally, this is your third published YA novel, and you’ve mentioned that you’ve worked on this book through several years and iterations. What are some aspects of writing craft and publishing which you’ve found challenging, and lessons you’ve learnt, along the way?

I’m always challenged by plot. It took, honestly, years for anything to *happen* in this book. One piece of advice I got craft-wise that was super useful is that every action has to lead to another action, rather than a string of interconnected events. As for publishing—it’s honestly such a strange industry with no apparent analogues I’ve found in other industries. I’m still learning a lot. It’s still a challenge for me to navigate the intersection between story and commerce, I guess. 

Thank you so much for your time and insights, Kelly!

You can find When We Were Infinite at the outlets below:

Barnes & Noble

Bookshop

Books-A-Million

Indiebound

Find Kelly on:

Twitter: @KellyLoyGilbert

Instagram: @KellyLoyGilbert

Website: KellyLoyGilbert.com

More about Kelly’s previous YA novels:

Conviction

Picture Us in the Light

Asian Settings in Middle Grade – Guest Post by Saadia Faruqi

“As an Asian American author, I’ve mostly written stories set in the U.S. After all, my children – now 11 and 14 years old – were born here, and this is the only world they know. So without really thinking about it, I’ve always gravitated towards writing for kids like mine. First generation. Muslim American. Asian American. South Asian American. American.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing. My kids – and all kids growing up in the U.S. today – need books that center BIPOC characters. They should be reading books that showcase cultural and religious differences yet take nothing away from the story itself. My Yasmin series for beginning readers is a perfect example of this: Yasmin and her family and proud Pakistani Americans and Muslim, but it’s not really mentioned in the books. You see that from the art (by the fabulous Hatem Aly) and from small clues like the words they use or the foods they eat. Yasmin is an ordinary second grader just like every American kid in elementary school, and that’s her appeal.

Somewhere in the last few years, however, I started thinking about why culture is so important in books for kids. I began to wonder why most children’s books in the U.S. are set in the U.S., even though a significant portion of young readers today are immigrants or first generation. I saw my own kids slowly losing their connection to their heritage, especially since we stopped visiting Pakistan as often as we used to. All of this has had a deep impact on me. More and more, I began to consider setting a middle grade novel somewhere else. Somewhere outside America.

And so, A Thousand Questions was born. I’ve set this novel in my birth place of Karachi, Pakistan. It’s the story of a first generation American girl Mimi who visits her grandparents from the first time, and finds everything awful. The heat, the language, the spicy food… everything is foreign. But slowly, these things grow on her, and she becomes close to her new family. She also meets a new friend, Pakistani native Sakina. The contrast between the two girls, their lifestyles, their hopes and dreams… this is what storytelling is all about.

A Thousand Questions isn’t just a friendship story, but one where setting plays a huge part. I could have set the story anywhere on earth, but I chose to place Mimi and Sakina in a land that may seem foreign to some readers. But hopefully they will see the benefit and enchantment of that land, and discover the similarities with their own home. At the end of the day, place is an important part of ourselves… our culture, heritage, memories, perspectives. The non-American settings of our books may be the most important part of the stories we tell, if we allow ourselves to do so.

I choose to allow myself.”


Saadia Faruqi is the author of the Yasmin series by Capstone, and A Place at the Table (co-written with Laura Shovan) by HMH/Clarion. Her new novel A Thousand Questions released in the U.S. on October 6 and will publish in the U.K. on Nov 12. Follow Saadia on Twitter and Instagram @saadiafaruqi.