• Q&A With Yi Shun Lai

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in WBN News & Events     Comments 8 comments

    A few days before Yi Shun Lai’s debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, was released by Shade Mountain Press, she and I chatted a bit about the book, her writing process, and a topic I’ve beaten into the ground by now, our shared fascination with Cheez-It crackers.

    You regular readers are plenty familiar with Yi Shun by now through her posts and through her regular interaction with y’all in the comments sections. (Also, I touched on her novel earlier this year.)

    Enjoy our Q&A below, and then go check out her wonderful book.

    Have a question of your own for Yi Shun Lai? Fire away in the comments section. (Just don’t expect immediate answers — the weeks after publishing a book are exhausting.) (Or so I’m told!)


    Your novel will soon be available in bookstores, and readers and critics will commence judgment. How are you feeling as the pub date approaches? Can you describe for us this weird waiting period between acceptance and publication?

    This “waiting period” is hopelessly full of not-waiting. There is a ton of stuff to do. The pub date is a deadline: the day by which you hope the folks who have promised to review the book will have done so; the day on which you remind all the people who bought pre-sale copies to go to Amazon and Goodreads and review the living heebie-jeebies out of the thing.

    I have never wanted a ringmaster’s costume, complete with megaphone and attention-getting whip and red satin suit, so badly in my life, and yet, I also want so badly to play the cool, confident author, the one that’s all like, “Oh! If they read it and love it, that’s great. I don’t need to tell the world.” And then, in this fantasy, I would pour myself an aperitif, put on my smoking jacket, and go read some Dorian Gray, whilst absent-mindedly patting my Italian Greyhound or whippet or some other inscrutable dog.

    But this is so far away from reality. Writers do need you to tell the world, because there will be a second novel, and a third, and I want for them to be purchased and sold.

    All of this is leading up to so much activity. Right now, I’m busy preparing for interviews and podcasts, reaching out to educational institutions, and preparing for three sets of houseguests. Oh, wait, that last part isn’t related to publication.

    But I think the fact houseguests are on my mind is a key indicator that, no matter how much I want for my entire life to comprise book-related stuff right now, that’s never going to be the case. There will always be something else in the way — and frankly, I’m grateful. Having friends and family over to stay will definitely take the edge off of this stage, which is predictably crazy-making, and not a waiting stage at all. Oh, for a waiting period.


    Let’s go all the way back to the beginning of Marty Wu. Which came first, story/plot or character? Do you remember any specific moment or moments, early on, when you caught yourself realizing, “Hey, I’ve really got something good cooking here”?

    Not really. This is just the book I knew I had to write. Parts of it were my own experience, but I also knew that I couldn’t be the only one with similar experiences. I wanted this, this alternate type of American experience, to see the light of day.

    A little while ago I heard Richard Bach do an interview in which he referred to a writer’s job as sending up a flare. For me, the natural extension to that is that people will see the flare and feel less alone, and also, that we will learn a little bit about each other. This is my way of contributing to that.

    Marty is the person I imagined was inside all those girls I was told up to look to as paragons of good-daughter-ism. I thought their internal voices might sound something like Marty’s.


    You wrote a great post for us once on the critical elements of an elevator pitch, which include a logline and comps. Can you give us a Marty Wu logline with info we won’t read on the back of the book? And how about a couple of comps?

    Sometimes, when you’re writing loglines for yourself, you stop being able to see the actual pertinent bits of the book, and you may even forget what the most attractive, saleable parts of the thing are. To date, my best advice on loglines is this: Run it past someone else. Many, many someone elses.

    All of this is to say that when I gave my publisher some logline suggestions, she pointed out that they were riddled in military jargon, which is weird, since I have never served in the armed forces. And yet, she was right: things blew up regularly; Marty Wu looks for escape hatches; I think there were even some missiles involved.

    So I’m going to leave you with two. Bruce Holland Rogers, wrote this one for me by way of introducing my book to his Facebook friends:

    Not a Self-Help Book is the story of an ambitious young woman whose immigrant mother is a master of crazy-making mixed signals and unreasonable demands. When Marty Wu’s career shatters against a wall of her own making, her mother seizes the opportunity to put herself in charge of Marty’s life. This is not the best thing that could happen.”

    And this one we’ve used to pitch the book in tight spaces and at loud cocktail parties:

    Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu bridges the gaps between Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Joy Luck Club.”

    I guess the next question might be, well, can you find some comparables that haven’t been made into movies? And the answer is… yes, I’d like for this book to be made into a movie.


    OK then, who plays Marty in the movie? And ooh, who plays her mother?

    You know, it really doesn’t matter to me, so long as they’re not Caucasian. I’d like whoever options it to at least be cognizant of that.


    Speaking of Bridget Jones, how did you land on the diary (do you prefer journal?) format as your narrative mode?

    Diary. Please, please, “diary,” although that’s more a reaction to my extreme aversion to the word “journal” as a verb. Anyway. I settled on the diary format because Marty’s voice demanded it. So much of what’s interesting goes on internally. And part of the famously stoic culture Marty is descended from frowns upon flailing and emoting, so this is where the book landed: the diary is one of the few places Marty can be her messy self.


    Here come the obligatory questions about your writing process! Did you write every day, did you stick to a schedule, did you write at home or out in the world, longhand-to-computer or always computer, do you whip through a draft and then edit afterwards or do you carefully edit along the way?

    I love the writing process questions! I did write every day, after the workday, from a pretty carefully constructed outline that I could lean on if I got lost in the plot. I always wrote on the computer, although I did the outline by longhand (and that seems to be what’s happening for this second novel, too, so that seems to be what’s sticking), and yes, it was close-my-eyes-and-bolt-through-a-draft before I did any editing.

    It’s almost like I didn’t want to see what a mess I was making of my work until it was a complete mess.

    One thing I did that helped a LOT: I put up a word progress chart, of the type you put up when your school’s trying to reach a fundraising goal. Every day I logged in how much I’d written.

    And I set little presents for myself every 5,000 words (10,000? I can’t remember now): A night out with friends, a day off from writing, a day at a museum, a swish pair of boots I’ve been eyeballing.


    After you drafted, revised and edited, did you share the book with friends/family for feedback? 

    I shared with friends who are colleagues, people who wouldn’t hesitate to give me the straight poop, poop like “THIS IS NOT READY FOR ANYONE TO SEE. IT HAS SO MANY WARTS.”

    It was critical to me to get feedback from friends whose work I respected. I chose them very carefully, for the types of books they like to read, for the works they produce, and for the unflinching manner of their feedback.

    I don’t think I’d ever show a book to a friend just for the sake of getting untargeted feedback. I asked my readers to look for specific problems first, and also asked them to flag anything that seemed weird.


    Yi Shun LaiWhen you were satisfied, did you try to find an agent, did you go straight to publishers, or both? 

    I went straight to agents first, because of the inherently commercial nature of the manuscript, and then to independent publishers. In the end, I had interest from both agents and independent publishers.

    (I had much more targeted interest after I added 6,500 more words and the ensuing plot twists and layers that come with 6,500 more words. I added those pages at the suggestion of an agent, and I’m so glad I did.)


    How did you get hooked up with Shade Mountain?

    This was an intensely collaborative process. When I first reached out to Shade Mountain, answering a call for manuscripts, the press had done several literary books and was still looking to cement its reputation as a literary press, so the more comic nature of Not a Self-Help Book wasn’t a perfect fit. However, the publisher, Rosalie Morales Kearns, suggested that if I were still querying after she’d published one more literary novel, she’d like to take another look. By then, the book was so much better, so I felt comfortable approaching Shade Mountain with it again, and this time, it was a go.

    But I knew this was a press I’d want to keep on my radar from the get-go. Their edict to publish voices that don’t usually get heard, their origin story, and above all, the works they had published and the authors they had behind them made this an easy sell.

    Let’s end with a lightning round of both relevant and irrelevant questions. If our readers want to buy your book, what’s your ideal spot?

    Any and all! Amazon, BN.com, from my publisher, or order through your local bookstore! But please please leave reviews at places like Goodreads and Amazon, so that folks can see the great offerings small presses can give the reading public.


    Favorite flavor of Cheez-It?



    Level of disappointment, from 1-10, in learning that the plural of Cheez-It is Cheez-It?

    None. I am still in denial.


    How long before you abandon Nips and return to Cheez-It?

    It was Better Cheddars, and I’m still on the fence. Related: did you know there are EIGHTY-FIVE Baby Goldfish to a single serving? In terms of nuclear-colored orange foodstuffs, that’s a LOT.


    I don’t want to know the person who counts out eighty-five goldfish.

    Bad news, friend: you already know one!


    Where do you live? Where did you grow up? What’s your favorite city, not including any place you’ve lived?

    I live on the surface of the sun. I mean, Southern California, but nearer the mountains than the ocean. I was born in Taiwan, then was moved to Pennsylvania, which I will always consider a key part of my first awarenesses of America, and then we moved here, to the same town I live in now. New York is my spiritual home, provided I can get into the woods and mountains regularly.

    Favorite city? Paris. I was only there for four or five months, so that doesn’t count as getting to live there.


    Writers who have influenced you: the first five who come to mind.

    Dick Francis.

    Kenneth Graham.

    Amy Tan. (Ringer.)

    The writers behind Gilmore Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    Tara Shea Nesbit. (This one is recent, but she’s on my mind.)


    What book(s) are you presently reading and do you recommend it/them?

    Craig Tomashoff, The Can’t-idates

    Michal Lemberger, After Abel and Other Stories

    Diane Simmons, The Courtship of Eva Eldridge

    I don’t normally read three at once, but I’m under a deadline of sorts, and yes, I like all three of these books!


    What’s one question you wish I would have asked, and what’s the answer?

    I know you’ve asked this question five million times of people, but I never get sick of answering:

    Q: What’s the best thing about being a writer?

    A: You never know when a great story is going to come your way. And everyone is interesting. There are endless opportunities to learn from people.


    Any parting words of wisdom for our aspiring writers?

    Yeah. Writing is the art of knowing people, studying them, getting to know them, and then creating characters that people can see themselves or someone they know in. Don’t get too wrapped up in whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert or whatever; just do your best to be a good student of human beings. You won’t go wrong if you can write a great character that folks can get behind.

    Thank you very much for having me on this interview. Talking to other writers makes me so, so happy.



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    Alex Jackson

    That Cheez-it box is fly. So did you end up finding an agent, or did you get to Share Mountain through your own efforts? I’m curious about going straight to publishers. I might also have asked what you have lined up for promotion. Are you having a reading series? (Is there a listed schedule?) Doing podcasts? Lots of people who have books coming out review books at the same time to get they’re name out there. Are you doing that? How much time are you devoting to self-promotion on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and et cetera? Thansk! And good… Read more »

    Yi Shun Lai

    Hi, Alex! Thanks for the questions! I had an agent offer to rep, but I turned her down, and I went to straight to several publishers. For promotion, the bulk of my schedule gets listed at my goodreads author page. I don’t like to do straight readings; I think folks come to readings to hear the author talk, sure, but they also go for an active exchange. So I prefer to do either an interview with someone (another author, maybe) or panel talks, and will often take the extra time to set those up for the bookstore/library/whatever venue. I do… Read more »

    Mark in boston

    saw a guy reading this. oil on the T yesterday. White dude
    maybe late 20s. Small world. He seemed to enjoy it.

    Mark in boston

    This oil = this book!

    Yi Shun Lai

    FOR REAL???
    Mark, you’ve basically made my entire world explode with joy.

    Betty G.

    I will definately buy a copy of this. It looks like a lot of fun
    and I have enjoyed our conversations on this blog. I wish you
    lots of luck with the book!

    Yi Shun Lai

    Aw, thanks, Betty! I’m looking forward to seeing your thoughts on it!

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