Author Wendy Lee weaves Chinese culture, past and present, into her new novel, ACROSS A GREEN OCEAN. As Wendy notes, it’s important to weave our personal stories into the threads of our fiction. That’s what makes the universal, personal. That’s what makes stories matter to their authors. And like Wendy says, “If you don’t take your work seriously, no one else will.” Please welcome Wendy Lee to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Author Wendy Lee Say If You Don’t Take Your Work Seriously, No One Else Will
Amy: Welcome to WFW, Wendy, and congratulations on the publication of your second novel, ACROSS A GREEN OCEAN. Wendy: Thank you for having me! Amy: Where did the title of the novel originate? Was it something you knew right away on your own? A collaborative effort? Did it pop into your head one day or was it the result of endless brainstorming sessions? Can you share with us if there were any other titles? Wendy: The title comes from a line in the book and refers to a couple of things: a place in China called Qinghai Province, which literally means “green sea”; and the Pacific Ocean that separates China and America, which I think remains forever in the minds of some immigrants. It pretty much was the only title that came to mind and the only one I considered. Fortunately, no one asked me to change it. Amy: How did you come up with the idea for the novel? Was it a spark? A character? Something personal? Wendy: I had spent a few years working on a different novel, about a Chinese-American family with three daughters where the father has passed away, and something about it just wasn’t clicking. The daughters come back home, they grieve, and that was it. I wondered what it would be like if one of the characters wasn’t so much like me–which turned out to be Michael, the gay son in ACROSS A GREEN OCEAN–and what if that character found out something about his father that prompted him to go to China. That led me to set part of the book in Qinghai Province, which is located in the northwestern part of China and a place that I don’t think has been written about a lot. It’s very special to me, as I spent my first year out of college teaching English there. I also wove into that storyline a little of my family history, as I have a great-uncle who was sent to Qinghai Province for reeducation by labor in the 1950s. I wanted to portray China in its current, modern form as well as its turbulent past. Amy: Can you share with us your favorite scene in the novel, and why (without any spoilers). Wendy: That would be when Michael first arrives in China and gets pick pocketed. Not only is it a personal violation, but it’s a culmination of all the strange sights and sounds he’s experienced so far in that country. It forces him to question why he’s there, whether he’s made the right choice to investigate his father’s past, and how he’s going to manage without knowing much of the language or culture, despite being Chinese American. Amy: So, was this one of the easiest, or one of the hardest scenes, to write? Wendy: It was an easy and fun scene to write, because it actually happened to me when I was in China! At the time, I was outraged and also a little confused as to how to respond. Part of me wondered whether there was a culturally correct way to handle the situation. And, of course, while I was thinking all this, the pickpocket got away. So by making Michael confront his pickpocket, I was able to rewrite what happened to me with a slightly more satisfying outcome. [Literary revenge is sweet, indeed, Wendy!] Amy: Your debut novel, HAPPY FAMILY, was published in 2008. How has your publishing experience changed in the past seven years? How has your writing changed? Wendy: While it’s gotten harder for certain kinds of books to get attention in the media, there are also more social media outlets available to authors now (Twitter definitely wasn’t so popular in 2008). Because of that, I think authors are under greater pressure than ever before to participate in their own marketing and publicity, just because they have these resources at their disposal. I hope that my writing has gotten to the point where it’s allowed me to explore more complex subjects and in a more complex way. For example, HAPPY FAMILY was in the first person, while ACROSS A GREEN OCEAN includes the points-of-view of multiple characters. I’d like to try to continue to find my way into the heads of characters who are different from me. Amy: Sometimes a bit of an uproar arises over the term “women’s fiction.” What is “women’s fiction” to you? Does the label bother you? (Obviously, it doesn’t bother me) Wendy: Because I’ve worked as a book editor of women’s fiction, I think of the label as more of a convenient way for publishers and booksellers to label books for an audience rather than a controversial term. The label doesn’t bother me–after all, women are the primary consumers of books. Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring novelists? Wendy: I’ll repeat a piece of advice my grad school advisor gave me, which is to “work hard.” I know that sounds simple, but I think the hardest thing for a writer is to feel validated, especially by themselves. I think aspiring novelists should treat their writing like a job, and work as hard at it as if it were a second job. Set aside time for it and refuse to let other people intrude into this time. If you don’t take your work seriously, no one else will. Wendy Lee is the author of the novel Across a Green Ocean (Kensington, 2015), about a Chinese-American family dealing with the immigration experience, long-held secrets, and learning how to forgive. Her first novel, Happy Family (Grove, 2008), was named one of the top debut novels of the year by Booklist. A graduate of New York University’s Creative Writing Program, she has worked as a book editor and an English teacher in China. You can find out more about her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.