S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.
S2: I actually am not sure that I feel 100 percent comfortable writing young adult books, I mean, I know that Young Adult is the the label of the books that are put in the bookstore. You know, the category young adult, but it tends to refer to only teenagers in the marketing category. But I really think my audience is actually young adults.
S3: Welcome back to working, I’m your host, Isaac Butler,
S1: and I’m your other host, June Thomas
S3: June. It is now a few weeks into January. Do you feel like you’re back in the swing of things after the little bit of time off for the holidays? Or are you, you know, still on the runway, you know, driving towards lift off or maybe even taxiing or like you’re waiting by the gate because the doors malfunctioned? How’s the how’s your year going?
S1: Hmm. What a metaphor you tell.
S3: I haven’t flown anywhere in three years because of a global pandemic.
S1: Honestly, it feels like I’ve already lived about 25, maybe even 35 lives this year, so it’s surely at least mid-May. I know you said it’s mid-January, but that can’t possibly be so. On the other hand, I am still keeping up with at least some of my New Year’s resolutions. So in that sense, man, I’m flying. I’m already at 35000 feet. I am incredible. I’m well above the clouds right now. What about you?
S3: I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m at. I think I’m at that point where, like, you hear the engine rev up, like the high pitched whine start singing like, Oh, it’s happening now. That’s that’s about where I’m at, because, you know, the book comes out in a couple of weeks and I have a lot of work to do, but it’s sort of like lots of little things that pull me in a bunch of different directions. So it’s sort of hard to know what direction I am headed in, except for this week’s episode. Our guest who was that who we heard at the top talking about the kind of confusions of the label, why a novel
S1: that was Malinda Lo and her recent novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club won the 2021 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. I believe it was her sixth novel, though I first came across Melinda’s writing when she covered culture for the website after Ellen, when that site was in a different ownership and it was still really fun and vibrant and not offensive. She’s also been very involved in tracking diversity in white literature and publishing
S3: amazing, and our slate plus listeners get a little something extra this week, right?
S1: They do. I asked Melinda about her book’s dedication, a very small part of a book that I always have an outsized interest in. About whether last night at the Telegraph Club will have a sequel and how she incorporated Chinese language elements into a book that has a lot of Chinese and Chinese-American protagonists.
S3: Well, that sounds absolutely fascinating, and I, for one, would not want to miss out on that or miss out on any of the other amazing things that one gets when one subscribes to Slate. Plus, it’s only one dollar for the first month and you get extra content from your favorite podcast. You get bonus episodes of podcasts like Slow Burn and Big Mood Little Mood. You get full access to all the articles behind the paywall at Slate.com, and you get to feel really virtuous for supporting everything that we do right here on working. It is only $1 for the first month. Go to Slate.com Slash Working Plus to sign up today. All right, enough of the hard sell. Let’s listen in on June’s conversation with author Melinda Lowe.
S1: Malinda Lo, thank you so much for joining us today.
S2: Thank you so much for having me on
S1: your most recent book. Last night at The Telegraph Club won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. First of all, congratulations. I wonder if you could tell us about the book’s origins. Where did you first get the idea?
S2: The novel actually came out of a short story that I wrote for a queer, a historical short fiction anthology called All Out. And so the idea for that short story came out of two books. I’ve been reading two different nonfiction books. The first was Wide Open Town, a queer history of San Francisco, and the other was Rise of the Rocket Girls, which was about the women computers who worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab in the 1940s and 50s. So these two books have nothing to do with each other, but in my brain, somehow they combined to create this character in my head, Lily, a 17 year old Chinese-American girl who really wants to be a rocket scientist like her Aunt Judy, who works at JPL and Lily simultaneously, is starting to think that she might be a lesbian. So that is when she starts going to a lesbian bar that she finds out about called the Telegraph Club. And that bar obviously was inspired by many of the bars documented in wide open town. So that’s where the book sort of started. Mm-Hmm. I wrote the short story and I thought that was it, but I was talking about it with my agent and he just told me, You know, this is way bigger than a short story. Mm-Hmm. He thought it was a novel, and he was right. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And it was clear that I had way more to say about Lily and her experiences. So then I expanded it into a novel.
S1: It’s really interesting to me that a novel could come out of a short story because maybe it’s just because as someone who doesn’t write fiction, the differences between short stories and novels seem so immense, even though fiction writers. I don’t know if you usually certainly usually at the beginning of their careers, they often work in both kind of lengths. So I’m curious what the differences are between writing short stories and novels for you. Obviously, it’s more than just while you need 300 more sheets of paper, right? But do you find that writing writing the two formats feels different in terms of what they demand from you as a writer?
S2: Absolutely. Yes, I am not a natural short fiction writer, and I think that the longer I am a writer, the more I realize that you have to have a specific kind of mentality with short stories. That is very different than with novels, because a short story has to really. Tell you something very profound in a short period of time. So you have to have a point and you have to know what that point is so you can execute it in a very quick way, you know? But yeah, novels, you can kind of mess around. You can kind of write the whole first draft and not know what you’re doing. You can revise it. And the novel has its own life. It becomes alive in a way. At least I feel that way. Short stories I find really hard. And each sentence needs to work harder, I think, because there are fewer of them. Even the title of a short story needs to work harder because that title is part of this kind of leads the reader into the short stories over the title is wrong. That can be a problem.
S1: You know, if it hadn’t been for the National Book Award category that you wouldn’t in, I’m not sure I’d have known that last night at the Telegraph Club was a young adult novel. It isn’t particularly packaged that way. The the cover, by the way, is amazing. I love the cover, but it doesn’t scream young person. And although Lillian and the two characters at the book center are around 17, it certainly didn’t get the impression that you were holding back on content. So how do you think about writing young adult and do you have a particular age group in mind as you’re writing?
S2: I have to be honest. I feel like I write for queer women of all ages. I feel like often many of my readers are young queer women in their 20s, going through early adult experiences. They’re really young adults. I mean, I know that young adult is the the label of the books that are put in the bookstore, you know, the category young adult, but it tends to refer to only teenagers in the marketing category. But I really think my audience is actually young adults. Yeah. So those are the people that I think would connect most with my books, but also as a lesbian myself, I grew up not having books like this. You know, I often get emails and messages from queer women of all ages who are like, I didn’t have these books when I was 17, and this still speaks to me as a 50 year old, you know,
S1: so has the genre always felt comfortable to you, or I don’t even know if it is a genre specifically? It’s more, as you say, an area bookstore. Yeah. As you’re writing, do you ever come up against barriers that make you question, like, does this belong in a book that’s going to be in that section of the bookstore?
S2: Well, this is funny because I actually am not sure that I feel 100 percent comfortable writing young adult books like I hope this doesn’t get me canceled in onTwitter Way, but the My My first novel As, which was a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, I just wrote it like I was not. I wasn’t reading young adult books when I wrote it. So in a way, actually, Ashe sounds very much like 1980’s adult fantasy because those were the inspirations that had inspired my writing of Ash. But by the time I sent that out on submission, which was 2007, you know it fit into a young adult fantasy at the time, and that’s where it was sold. So since then, I have had the fortune to continue to sell books into the white category, so I continue to write them. And I think that at times I have felt as if I’m not allowed to say certain things. I’m not allowed to do certain things. I’m not allowed to have adult characters. OK. However, now that I have been working with my current editor, Andrew Carr at Dutton for several books. Mm-Hmm. He’s the one who told me I could put adult characters in my son at the Telegraph Club. I mean, I didn’t think I could. And he said, Why don’t you put their perspectives in there? Because they’re clearly important. And they allowed me to show the reader what the perspectives of her parents were, the perspectives of her Aunt Judy, because I felt like they were very important for the story. I wanted readers to know why these adults in Lily’s life made the decisions they do at the end of the book. And Lily would know, like she’s not going to know what her parents’ experiences were. She, first of all, they’re not going to tell her because they’re Chinese parents, so they won’t be telling her this stuff. But also, it’s not her experience. So, you know, I’m very happy I was able to do that. And you know, my editor never asks me to hold back on anything. I’m very able to write whatever I want now that I’m working with him. So that’s great.
S1: Your fiction? Actually, most of your writing period has always had queer people and. Usually queer people of color, some other people of color at the very center. Given how rare that still is, for that to be the case, I wonder if you feel pressure to make your characters perfect. Do you feel tension between wanting to show, for example, the strength and vulnerability of 50s era butchers while also showing them to be fully rounded characters with flaws and bad habits and some things that you wouldn’t want in a best friend?
S2: I’m a fortunate person in that I don’t I don’t feel any of that pressure at all. I like very complicated people who make bad decisions because, you know what? Those are the ones who make the best characters. It is so hard to write a like a morally pure good person that is the hardest character to write because they’re so boring. You’re just so boring. Whereas people who are complicated, who make mistakes, who make bad decisions on purpose because, you know, we people do that, that is a human thing that people do. And that is the funnest to write. That’s what I love to write, and I have never felt the pressure to write role models. Never. I know that people say that sometimes, you know on social media and there’s this discussion going around about how we’re supposed to write queer characters who are great role models. Or there are people saying they feel pressured to write queer characters who are great role models. And I don’t know what it is about me. I’m just noncompliant. I guess I I’ve just never felt that pressure. So I want to write queer characters who are human and, you know, act like human beings.
S1: In your book, which is, you know, about really who and Kathy Miller and their relationship, there were some very universal moments that I could very much relate to. And they tended to be, you know, emotional things or just like sense memories. I guess that I just were triggered for me because I remembered, Oh, I had that feeling too. Oh God, yes, I remember. There just are certain events like having to deal with being asked on a date by a guy who you like, but you know you don’t have any romantic feelings for or having to, you know, keep something really huge from somebody who has been your best friend. And even though you know that that is effectively, you know, blowing up the relationship when you’re working on a book, how do you tap into those emotional moments that are rooted in young adulthood, their feelings that I haven’t had for a long time? But you definitely, you know, sent me back to that moment. What do you do to get into that world?
S2: Well, I guess I’ve been blessed to have a very emotionally volatile personality. I don’t know how to explain it. Like, I have a lot of feelings. I always have a lot of feelings. You know, I actually this is not related to writing necessarily, but I do have general anxiety disorder. I’ve had a lot of therapy, a lot of practice talking to therapists about my feelings. And let me be honest with you, that is really helpful for writing. Yeah, because I I have thought a lot about feelings, how they affect me. I’ve thought about how they affect. They may affect other people. This is something I’ve thought about my whole life. I also, you know, do certain things to put myself in the scene when something is happening, you know, I have music that I listen to to try to trigger certain feelings. Music is so powerful and it can really bring you to an emotional place very quickly.
S1: Is it music that you were listening to at that time in your life as a 17 year old or?
S2: No, I for everything that I write, I find music that evokes the mood that I’m trying to evoke in the book. So I spend a lot of time trying to find particular kinds of moods in music. This is why my Spotify end of year rap lists make absolutely no sense because I don’t actually listen to that stuff, except when I’m trying to get into a particular headspace. And sometimes I’ll listen to a particular song like a lot, a lot, a lot. And not because this is something I want to listen to to enjoy myself. This is something to help me understand a feeling. You know, I think that music is super powerful.
S1: Yeah. Can you tell us some of the songs that you had on very high rotation for last night at The Telegraph Club?
S2: The songs that I listened to while writing the book were often instrumental. I often didn’t listen to songs with words. I remember listening to a few tracks from the Crown soundtrack like, well, Netflix, The Crown. I know this is very random. There were a few tracks from that that really evoked a very particular feeling of loose sounds funny, but looking out windows while feeling complicated emotions,
S1: I totally know that feeling. Absolutely, yes. Yeah.
S2: So sometimes I wanted to get in that headspace, so I would listen to these few tracks from the Crown over and over again. Wow.
S1: So it’s not about the 1950s. It’s not about young love. It’s just, I want this. This is what’s going to get me into that place to to write that scene or to write this book.
S2: Yeah. And for other books, it’s been different. I think because Telegraph Club is set in the 1950s, I found it a little bit hard to listen to contemporary pop music. Yeah. I didn’t want to be thinking about today when I was writing the book. I wanted to be in the 1950s, so it did help to have wordless music. Yeah, whereas if I’m writing a book that’s set in the present day or even like a fantasy or science fiction or something, I it’s easier to have music with words that people you could hear today.
S1: I, of course, I knew your work when you were a journalist before you were writing novels or before you were publishing novels. And as a journalist, research is a huge part of the process. And I can tell that you’re still really into the factual underpinning of your fiction. How is it different to do research for something that’s going to be a novel from when you were a journalist or when you’re writing journalistically, even though
S2: it’s kind of wonderful because I’m allowed to follow the threads that interest me. Whereas if you’re writing a report or an article or when I was in grad school, when I was doing research, you’re researching a specific topic and you have to kind of know everything around that specific topic. As a novelist, when I’m researching stuff, I can just follow stuff down a rabbit hole because I feel that that is an important part of the creative process. You know, the thing that I’m writing has to be something I’m really interested in. So if I’m really interested in in this random topic, I have free rein to go, look at it for a while, you know, and it may not ever show up in the book, but I think that that kind of research still ends up informing the novel that is written because some of those details come back in ways that you cannot really predict. It’s a very. Complicated subconscious process for me, I like to cram a lot of stuff in my head and then see how it emerges.
S3: We’ll be back with more of June’s conversation with Malinda Lo after this. Listeners, we want to hear from you, whether it’s to ask us for advice on a creative problem or tell us a guest you’d like to hear on the show. Share your own creative triumphs. Drop us a line at working at Slate.com. Give us a ring at three zero four nine three three w o r k. As you probably know, we now have a bonus show called Working Overtime two times a month. That’s going to air, and we’ll be featuring a lot of listener phone calls and emails on that. So this is your chance to be a part of our show. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Now, let’s return to June’s conversation with novelist Malinda Lo.
S1: One of the things we often talk about on working is what a weird job being a writer is if you’re a car mechanic. You don’t need candles and rituals to start working, you know? But many writers do need to, like, get in the zone before they can do their job. And I don’t mean to make fun of that because
S2: it’s really hard. It’s so easy to make fun of it, though, because it is often ridiculous.
S1: Yeah. So I’m curious if you have any secrets or rituals to getting into the writing mood. And if you need different things for fiction and nonfiction?
S2: Yeah, I do. I I start the day with meditation. I’ve been practicing Buddhism for a long time, so I learned very early on with meditation practice that it got me into a very good creative space because it’s a practice of focusing in on the present and eliminating distractions from your brain. And I’m not saying that I’m able to eliminate distractions. Like most of the time while meditating, I’m constantly returning to the breath, which is the thing that I focus on. So it’s not like I have a clear, empty brain or anything, but it does center me, you know? And so when I am writing fiction, especially first drafts, I, I do the meditation and I have now started to go on very long Twitter hiatus. So I just won’t go on Twitter for like six months when I’m writing fiction for a first draft because social media is absolutely terrible for creativity. It’s just so bad and I have to be on it to do book promotion. I understand that, but if you’re trying to write something, don’t be on social media. That’s what I have learned. I just I can’t do it. And I used to kind of I used to use this program called Freedom, which would shut off the internet for a certain period of time. And I realized now I just need to not be on it for months because even if you go on it only in the afternoon, like I used to not go on the internet in the morning and then I would go on in the afternoon. It can still impact your creative brain. I don’t know what it is about this about. So I was going
S1: to say it’s just do you have any sense of of of what it is about that particular part of the internet, that or that particular thing that that can be so destructive to that that zone?
S2: I think it’s just too many people’s voices coming at you, you know, too many opinions. And I think that a lot of writers have this problem where we have an inner critic that’s looking over our shoulder and saying that sentence is bad, that one’s even worse. How could you even ever write this? You’re a terrible writer. Will always be a failure. So there’s that voice you have to deal with. But on top of that, there’s the millions of people on the internet like sharing their opinions about everything. And if you’re a writer and you’re on like writing or publishing Twitter, there’s a million opinions about writing and publishing. And that can really be debilitating to getting in the zone and being true to the story that you personally want to tell, which cannot be influenced by these outside voices, at least not initially.
S1: Well, that actually brings me to something I wanted to ask you from something that I saw on your website Malinda Lo dot com. There’s a piece you you’re very kind to provide all kinds of writing advice, and there was something that you published actually in December 2019, where you pulled together nine lessons from your first 10 years as a published writer of fiction. And the item that really spoke to me on that list was what you called Honor Your Creative Goals. And you said, I’m going to read from it. I’ve learned that I want to level up with each new book I write, which means I try to focus on improving my craft. I do this by reading writers who are better than me and trying to learn from them. I have no idea if others think I’m leveling up with each book, but that doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is whether I think I’m leveling up and I can’t lie to myself. That’s amazing. It really resonated with me, and I get that it’s a personal, subjective test that only you can apply to your own work. But I wondered if you had any tips for how other writers can make use of that advice. Are there techniques that you’ve used to keep leveling up and to kind of have that in your mind without it being? You know, I can’t publish this sentence, just isn’t ready yet. And you know, we all know that that can just lead to. Yeah, it’s never done.
S2: Well, I can tell you what I do. I mean, I when I’m writing and I don’t know what to do or I’m very confused about. How to express something I really do turn to those writers that I admire and I read some of their work right there. I mean, I’m sitting in my chair, I’m writing, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I go to my books, I find a book and I read it. Like some writers, I think try to not read other fiction when they’re writing because they want to have their own voice. But I feel like I do so much revision that even if I end up copying something from another writer and an early draft, by the time it gets to the end, it will be totally different because it’s not going to be that anymore. It will have to fit into the narrative arc as a whole with my voice and the style of the book. So I actually think it’s great to copy from great writers because it gives you a place to start. Like, sometimes you just need to know how to start a sentence. Like, I remember writing the party scene and last night at the Telegraph Club, when Lily goes to an after hours party at the apartment of two older lesbians that she meets at the bar. And I could not for the life of me, figure out how to do this scene because a party scene has a lot of people in it. They’re doing a lot of things. You’ve got to describe the place but make it feel vivid and alive, and there’s a lot of details to juggle. And I couldn’t figure out how to do it. So, you know, there was this one scene in the paying guests by Sarah Waters, in which the main characters go to a party, and I literally pulled out that party scene and read it. And then I somehow understood how to start the scene. I don’t know what happens, but reading writers who are really good makes something click in my brain like it reminds me how to start a sentence, because sometimes I really don’t even know how to start the sentence. So once I started it, then I could move forward with that scene. And that was a really great way to just move forward because the problem is getting stuck and then you feel like you can never do it and it’s overwhelming. So I really try to jog that stuckness free by reading stuff that I admire.
S1: You said that you revise over and over. Can you talk us through like, what were the stages of last night at The Telegraph Club?
S2: Sure. So I wrote the first draft and it took me a long time because first I had to learn all about the 1950s, which I knew nothing about. So I went on like a six month research odyssey. Wow. And then I wrote the first draft, which was was very bad. But you know, I think it’s pretty standard for me. I will. I feel like it’s bad. My editor is always very nice and he has. He has good things to say about it. But also,
S1: you do show that first draft to people on your team kind of thing. Yeah.
S2: Well, there’s like a pre first draft where it’s almost done and then I go through it and kind of stitch it together. So it seems more coherent. It’s not really more coherent. It just seems like it is. And then I send that to my editor and sometimes I send him stuff before the first draft, like he actually likes to see sections of a manuscript before they’re completed, which I understand why he likes to see that. But me, it makes me so nervous. I’m like, But it’s not done. It’s really, really bad. So I normally I’ll send him the first draft or some scenes. And after the first draft is finished, that’s when we had the conversation of you could have these adult characters in the book. And then I went and wrote all the adult scenes separately. I wrote a bunch of them, and then I sent them to my editor and we were like, Well, where do they go? And at this point, I think I was already working on the second draft, which was almost a complete overhaul of everything. I mean, the first draft was very bad. So the second draft got a lot better. By the time I got to the third draft, I think I was starting to think that the book was good and I don’t even know how many jobs I did at least four or five and then overall, four or five drafts. And then some scenes had multiple iterations, like the first scene where Lily goes to the Telegraph Club. The first time she experiences that space, I worked on that scene a lot. There were many iterations in which I would sit there staring at a sentence. Wondering if I had done enough there, because that was such a complicated scene because I wanted her to experience seeing Tommy Andrews, the male impersonator performing. But I wanted to be very careful about gender. I wanted to communicate that to 2021 readers. Well, also being true to the 1950s, that gave me a lot of headaches.
S1: Yeah. So that was the third draft.
S2: Well, I don’t really know. And anymore it was there. There were probably four or five total drafts. And then after that part’s done, then it once it gets to a place where we feel like that’s basically it, then it goes to copyediting and copyediting is a whole different experience. Where are you, the copy editor? Check some facts, but also looks very closely at your punctuation and syntax. And then I get that and I can never understand how commas work. So copyediting is a very confusing process to me, where I look at a sentence that has been copy edited and I don’t understand why something has been added or removed. And I sometimes can’t even understand what I’m trying to say in that sense anymore. But it’s an important part of the process. Yeah. But by the time I got the copy, it is with Telegraph Club. I actually felt that it was a good book. Good, but don’t always don’t always feel that way. Like I’ve just finished the copy edit of my next book, and I do not have the same feeling that I did with Telegraph Club. I have the feeling that I normally have with my books, which is this is as good as I can make it right now. Mm-Hmm. But with Telegraph Club, I actually felt, Wow, this is a good book. I did a good job with this book. I don’t know why. I felt that I definitely felt it, and it was unusual enough for me to remember feeling it.
S1: Malinda Lo, thank you so much for being on working.
S2: It’s been really great talking about the process with you. I feel like I do a lot of interviews, but we never get beyond the what’s the book about? Yeah, it’s been really nice.
S3: So June, that was an amazing interview, and, you know, we mentioned it briefly at the top of the show, but I think it’s worth echoing again that Melinda has some, shall we call them concerns or perhaps frustrations, or maybe the amusements with the label young adult literature. And look, I get it. It’s a marketing label, right? It actually doesn’t have to do with the books. It has to do with how they’re marketed and particularly for people like you and me and Melinda, who are middle aged, who grew up reading at a time where that label didn’t exist. It feels weird to segment off a certain kind of book and be like, This is for kids, and it has to obey the certain genre rules, and that can be really frustrating. What do you as a reader, I suppose? What do you think of that label? Do you find it useful? Do you find it limiting? Does Melinda’s work feel like other Y.A. that you’ve read?
S1: I have to say first off that I have read very little. I mean, I read the Harry Potter when they came out. I think I read most of The Hunger Games. I read anywhere that involves young people getting braces, but that’s about it. So I’m definitely no expert by any means.
S3: But when are you going to have your dental podcast?
S1: That’s I know, right? When I asked you, I hope the powers that be are listening. Yeah. But as I said in the interview, if I hadn’t known what category last night at the Telegraph Club had won its National Book Award in, I wouldn’t have known that it was why. And I certainly never go shopping in that section of the bookstore, so it is not going to get readers like me unless I hear about it some other way, unless there’s some other factor that’s kind of advising me about this new book that’s out there. So for me personally, it’s definitely not a good thing. And it was really interesting to hear Melinda talk about conceiving of her first novel, Ash in one category. And then the publishing industry kind of was responding to a business trend and ended up slotting it into another category. And you know, a writer has no control over that, but it can be useful and helpful to their careers. So it’s pointless, I guess, to challenge it, even if it means you’re associated with a market segment that you’re kind of neutral on.
S3: Totally, totally. You know, I really loved the way that Melinda framed issues of representation, her characters, you know, she wants to write, quote, very complicated people who make bad decisions, end quote. And she wants to do that because those are good, interesting, meaty characters. What we really need more of are good, interesting, meaty characters of all identity groups, not idealized, politically useful characters. What did you make of that?
S1: I mean, yeah, thank goodness, right? Mm hmm. The reason I asked that question in the first place was that I think a lot of writers, maybe especially white writers, take, you know, really reasonable concerns about appropriation and representation and issues like that that are very serious and very important. But it sometimes leads them to create characters, especially if those characters are different from them in some demographic way that are boring and nobody’s interested in boring characters. Nobody wants that. So I when I was reading the book, I was really relieved to see, you know, 50s lesbians with bad habits and nuanced Chinese-Americans in in that novel.
S3: Yeah. You know, also, probably because of my own book, I’m always interested in how artists channel emotions that they might not currently be feeling that are needed for the work. And Melinda uses the time honored trick of listening to music that summons a certain emotional state. That’s actually what I do to a lot of the times. If I need to do that, June, what tricks do you have when you’re trying to summon a feeling in your writing? And do you listen to music while you write?
S1: I don’t. I just find it basically impossible to multitask in any way when I’m listening to music, which of course, mostly means that I don’t listen to music much anymore. And I’m also really in the market for an application technique I hear in this new book Coming Out The Method How America learned to Act. And I’m going to sort of consult that to see if there’s some way I can learn about evoking emotion on command. I just really the only thing I’ve ever done that’s had any success is is something that I’m almost embarrassed to say out loud, which is lying down like literally getting into bed with my head on the pillow, like in the middle of the day or whenever it is that I’m trying to write something and I don’t know what the psychology or the physiology of that is, but it has, at least at some points, enabled me to get into some kind of slightly controlled mind-wandering state that I at least required to connect to another time or place or to the imagination. It’s a little more practical during the COVID era, but the fact that I’m so embarrassed to even admit to it suggests it’s possibly not a long term solution, so I’m definitely still in the market for that.
S3: Sanford Meisner, one of the great acting teachers of the 20th century, was a big fan of daydreams. He thought that daydreams were a significant part of emotional preparation, and if you followed the Daydream, you know, wherever it went into sort of deeper and deeper places, you would get interesting emotional material. So you are connecting to a time honored acting tradition, in fact, and you should not be embarrassed.
S1: No, no. All right,
S3: Melinda said something about research that I had to imagine. You might have some opinions about yourself since you are in the midst of researching and writing your own book right now, which was that you have to let yourself go down rabbit holes and follow your interest to unexpected places and sort of give yourself permission to do that, even though wherever that goes might not. You might not end up using it in the book, but it’s still a fruitful journey to go down. Are you allowing yourself to do that while you work on your book? You know, given deadlines that you have a full time day job doing stuff like this and things like that?
S1: Yes. But I do sometimes worry that I’m losing focus or that I’m allow myself to be kind of lured off the one true path. But I also really think I totally believe I agree with you completely that that kind of research can lead to the sort of grace notes that separates a writer who is really into the thing that they’re writing about from someone who’s essentially doing a work for hire and and, you know, work for hire. That’s a noble thing. No shade. But you know, my book is about something that I totally care about and I’m really excited about. So I really want to allow myself to go down those, you know, to go on those weird side quests. But at the same time, I can’t pretend that I don’t think about my writing schedule when I’m doing that. So I’m not, I guess I’m not fully allowing myself to trying to be practical.
S3: So what was your weirdest side quest? What’s that? What’s the June Thomas equivalent of, you know, the village baker was like, Oh, I need this magic wheat that’s, you know, guarded by the barbarians at this cave in order to make the celebration bread. Or, you know what?
S1: Yeah, I have no idea what you’re just talking about, but I guess that’s what a cyclist is. OK. There are two things that I always have to watch out for. So one is I will find a way to connect anything that I’m doing to Patty Hearst and take the opportunity to read a book about Patty Hearst, who’s been my lifelong obsession is. And so if I’ll just give myself the slightest excuse, oh, this happened in the 70s. You know what happened in the 70s also and things like that. The other is so I’m currently researching bars, and I’ve just become obsessed with other kinds of not bars, but like places where people go, gather to eat and drink. So like suffragette restaurants or GI coffeehouses or like the nation of Islam, had had restaurants. And I could read like entire books about those things because I’m absolutely fascinated by them. But I know they’re going to be a paragraph, maybe five paragraphs total, but I’m absolutely fascinated.
S3: That’s interesting. You know, there was a whole thing that I did not go into about that in my book, because during World War Two, there was the Broadway canteen in the Hollywood canteen, which were, you know, places where soldiers could eat for free and they would receive some entertainment and famous people would be there serving food. And John Garfield, who’s a main character in my book, co-founded The Hollywood Canteen with Betty Davis. And so it is very fascinating. You know what spaces were created for people to gather and back when people could gather indoors? Maybe some of the hunger is driven by by that, I’m surprised you don’t have the third rabbit hole of dental work, you know, like what did Patty Hearst ever wear a retainer, for example?
S1: Do you have to, you know, you give me another trek to go and.
S3: One thing Melinda said, remind me that I’ve always meant to follow up with you about this, and now I get to do it on the microphone and put you on the spot, which has to do with influence and reading writers she admired or who had done something like a party scene that she was trying to write. And you know, you and I had a conversation a while ago on this show about influence because I’m a big fan of influence. Actually, I’m a big champion of it. I think writers should acknowledge it. I think you should lean into influence. I don’t think you should worry too much about being original because no one’s original. But you were finding influence a little. It was tightening you up. It was creating anxiety was actually inhibiting your creativity. And so I was wondering how that was going for you.
S1: Well, you taught me down, Isaac. I didn’t exactly follow your advice. As I recall, you told me to just go cold turkey and stop listening to or reading writers like Robert Caro or David Halberstam.
S3: Yeah, at least for a little bit, at least.
S1: Probably, yeah. And I didn’t exactly do that. But you’re saying stop, it was enough for me to like quiet the inner critic, that’s always muttering things like, No, this is great writing. You think you’re capable of that because obviously we all know you just have to block that out and something that you said just kind of changed the way I was experiencing them. And you know, the truth is, there are also things, a lot of things to learn from those books like I was just reading Louis Man’s book The Free World, which is also like amazing and full of brilliant insights. Highly recommended. It could also definitely be that kind of this book will, you know, overwhelm you. But it also has a very basic structure and hearing a really great book just kind of just keep having these one to, you know, like it just was a useful reminder that you don’t have to like, reinvent the concept of the chapter every 40 pages. So it also can be quite calming.
S3: Chronological order is a noble order that has persisted for a long time for a reason.
S1: Yeah, exactly.
S3: Well, that’s our show for this week, we hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you have, please remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. And now, for one, last time this week, let me tell you about the greatness of a Slate Plus membership slate plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast. Full access to all the articles on Slate.com. Bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and How to Do It. And right now you can sign up for just one dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to Slate.com. Working.
S1: Plus, thank you to our guest Malinda Lo and to our sagacious producer Cameron Drews. We’ll be back next week for a conversation between Karen Hamm and comedy writer Karen Chee. Until then, get back to work. Hazlitt Plus members, thank you so much for your support of Slate and working. We hope you enjoy this segment, which is just for you. So I’m going to do a little preamble here. I was recently reading a book of advice about writing non-fiction, and it was emphasizing how important the introduction is because that’s what people will read if they pick up the book in a bookstore. And it’s also what interviewers will look at for questions. OK, sure, that’s true. And I mentioned that because your book has one of the most memorable dedications that I can think of. I think I could recite it from memory even a couple of weeks after reading it, and it is also the first thing that a lot of potential readers will see. And it is a big buildup to all the bushes and femmes past, present and future. So why that dedication and where in the writing publishing process did that become that the dedication?
S2: I think the dedication comes toward the end. Typically, I don’t actually remember when it came to me, but I knew that it came fully formed. Like, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do for this book. It’s interesting that you mentioned that that’s the first thing people see when they start reading this. And that’s true. I didn’t. I never thought of that before, and now I realize I really set the scene there for this book. Yeah, no, I’m very that dedication is something that readers on the internet have taken pictures of the book, the dedication and sent them to me. I know that. I know that people have really connected with that, and I’m so happy that they have, because that was that was my intention. You know?
S1: Yeah, yeah. So without getting into the ending because I don’t want to spoil it because I want to encourage everyone listening to you by the book and read it. You leave some things unresolved. It isn’t a book where every loose end is tied up. Does that mean that this is part of a series or was it or was there something else going on that you didn’t want to just kind of put a big bow on everything?
S2: I think I never want to put a big bow on anything, and I definitely was interested in writing a realistic historical novel. And so I felt that a realistic ending is what I was aiming for. That said, there is a companion novel that is coming out in 2022. But the funny thing is, I didn’t realize it would be a companion novel until. It’s a very convoluted story, because the book that’s coming out in 2022, I actually wrote before last night at the Telegraph Club. And it wasn’t until I wrote last night at the Telegraph Club that I realized they were related. And well, now the 2022 book does tie up some of those loose endings. You so you will see some people from Telegraph Club in that book, but it’s not the same kind of book at all. They’re very different. So while I do want people to know that they’re related, I hope they won’t think it’s the same.
S1: So it’s not a sequel.
S2: No, it’s not a sequel.
S1: Interesting. I’m even more curious to read it just to just to figure out. So this is a book with characters who are immigrants from China, from different parts of China who speak different variants in Chinese. There are also Chinese-American characters who were born in the U.S. and one of the way just one of the ways there are other ways, but one of the ways you express these differences is in the different ways they speak Chinese. Some speak Cantonese, some Mandarin, some Shanghainese. And I actually listen to the audio book, which is fantastic. Emily Wu Zeller is a fantastic narrator, and so I experienced the words that are printed in the book in traditional Chinese characters as Chinese words. I mean, I don’t speak Chinese any of those variants, so I don’t know. But it sounded like I was just hearing Chinese. And so that was my experience. But for people who read the book and they see those characters, it’s still fairly rare to see characters or any language, for that matter, that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet in novels. Why was that important to you? But also, did your publisher offer any pushback to their inclusion?
S2: No. My editor was very supportive of that, and the reason I wanted to use Chinese characters in the text was because the romanization of Chinese in the 1950s was kind of all over the place, especially when it came to Cantonese. Cantonese still does not have a standard romanization system. Even today, really? And the ones that are standardized, they’re basically illegible to English readers who are too don’t understand how to read that that romanization system. Yeah. So I didn’t want the book to be filled with sentences that looked like. I don’t know. Nonsense words, you know, so I wanted them to understand that this is a language. It’s a language, and using the Chinese characters very clearly situate it as a language with its own history, its own identity. And it doesn’t look like a bunch of. I mean, honestly, racist name calling, because racist name calling is what it can look like. And I didn’t want that. I wanted it to have the stature of Chinese. So the great thing about Chinese is that Chinese characters are the same no matter which dialect you speak, mostly. There are a few characters that are specific to Cantonese, and figuring out which characters to use was was a journey in itself because I also wanted to make sure it was historically accurate. So I’m using traditional characters here, not the simplified characters that are now more widely used in the People’s Republic of China. Yeah, yeah. So there’s the Cantonese organization, which I did use in a few instances when they’re talking about food. So if it’s just like one word in a sentence, sometimes one word in an English sentence, so then they’re speaking Chinglish. Then I’ll romanized the Chinese word so that romanization varies depending on whether they’re speaking Cantonese or Mandarin. And also Mandarin had a specific romanization system in the 1950s. But the difference is. Yes, it was. It was a way jail system in the 50s. Now it’s opinion. So this is really getting in the weeds here. But I I I really got in the weeds with it. I mean, I went to the Harvard Jingjing Library. I looked up the Cantonese English dictionary. I was sitting there right, taking notes, taking pictures of those characters, so I couldn’t find them. It was. I loved it.
S1: Thanks again for your Slate Plus membership.
S4: We appreciate it.