Author and editor Yi Shun Lai discusses writing for the J. Peterman catalog (and all this time I’d thought it was a Seinfeld creation), common problems she sees in short fiction and short nonfiction, why she decided to start writing about being Asian, and more in this 5 On interview.
Yi Shun Lai (@gooddirt) is a writer and editor living in Southern California. She has written copy for everyone from Patagonia to lingerie retailers, and articles about everything from rock climbing to her irrational fear of sharks. Her debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu (at Amazon & Shade Mountain), debuts May 6 from Shade Mountain Press. She is the nonfiction editor for the Tahoma Literary Review.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: When you were still the Los Angeles Review fiction editor, you said you would have welcomed more work that revisited the teen years from an adult perspective because you were, you said, “a softie for the teen years.” Why the teen years? And what do you as a purely recreational reader most enjoy seeing explored, specifically, in a look back at that life phase?
YI SHUN LAI: I’m fascinated by the different ways people look back on those turbulent years. Sometimes, I find myself just now solving things that puzzled me way back in my teens—like the day I figured out the “Sherwood Florist” near my childhood home was, in fact, a pun—and I always wonder what people think of the teen years now that they’re older and writing stories about such things.
But this is a tricky one, right? Because we need to be careful to not be too maudlin or trade entirely in nostalgia. That doesn’t make for a good story. That just makes for good anecdotes.
So maybe it’s not exactly the teen years. It’s any long-lens view on things that are in the past. The teen years often find us navigating rocky times, or thorny issues, and the ways we experience those things is so varied, since we each are so different … reading, or hearing about, the different ways people experienced these times is always a pleasure.
In your debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, the protagonist, Marty (Mei Mei when she’s in Taiwan), is a late-twenties, first-generation Taiwanese-American daughter to an emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive mother whose influence does its best to beat down Marty’s spirit and drive, which in Bobo-doll fashion bounce back again and again. What was the inspiration for Marty—not only her unique character, but her overall story?
Well, I really did work in advertising, like Marty does when we meet her, and I really did take the job at least partially so my parents wouldn’t worry so much about what I was doing for a living. But from that sprang this entire thread of thought: I know too many people, both young men and women alike, who had gone into whole careers and lifestyles because that’s what they thought their parents wanted. I wondered what it would be like for someone who chose to live that way—if someone who were living this had chosen to stay close by the pressure, if she had, in fact, chosen to stay near the source of all the pain.
Plus, on the outside, while Marty is doing everything she can to be the paragon of a stereotypical good daughter, on the inside all kinds of things are fomenting. I always wondered about the girls my parents told me were “good girls.” I wondered what they were like on the inside. I imagined their own voices were a lot louder, on the inside. So I wrote what I thought they might be like.
Lastly, I wrote someone I thought I could be friends with.
You’ve said you didn’t start writing about what it was like to be Asian until you were thirty-five. If you avoided writing about it, as you suggested, because you thought it was too easy, or “low-hanging fruit,” what was it that finally persuaded you to write about the experience, after all? Was there a conversation, a comment, something in the news, that made you say, “I have to”?
The intent all along was for my writing to stand on its own. And, frankly, I don’t think I really saw myself as Asian. I really saw myself as an American kid, with the added advantage of a second language and a different cultural background.
And I already knew I’d be pigeonholed for my ethnic-sounding name, which I wasn’t about to give up. But then, as you suggested, two things did happen, far, far apart from each other.
I spent my entire young adulthood trying to be as American as I thought I could get. I couldn’t hide my Asian face, after all, even if I were to eventually decide to write under a pseudonym. In college, during a class on creative journalism, a fellow student said that her friends saw her as “me first, and Asian last, or maybe never.” I was so, so jealous. Much later, it came to me that she had a certain luxury—she’d taken her father’s Hispanic last name, and she could pass for Caucasian. And that’s when I figured out I’d still be hyphenated, perfect unaccented English notwithstanding.
The second thing is much more recent. Each time I make a public appearance, one or two young Asian women approach me and ask how my parents felt when I told them I wanted to be a writer. I mean, that struggle happened for me a decade ago. I had hopes that the parents of today—my contemporaries, right?—would be better about letting their children be artists and pursue their creative aspirations, but they’re not.
So that’s when I began to think that this concept of a shared struggle was more important than my wanting my writing to stand alone. There is power in community, even if I had never been a real part of the Asian community before.
And finally, there are parts of every culture that need to see the light of day, and that run a smaller chance of being revealed. We read to understand each other; to know more about each other, and maybe ourselves. And finally, we read to know more of the world. So that was what, eventually, tipped the scales to writing about this part of my identity.
Some of the nonfiction submissions to the Tahoma Literary Review come from writers in journalism who are new to literary writing, you’ve said. What do you see in a journalist’s approach to literary writing that literary-only writers might find useful, and what should a journalist save for the magazine or newspaper?
In my own days reporting, I often came across stories and people who deserved a place of their own in the limelight, but who weren’t within the scope of the assignment. This is every writer’s dream, because more material makes for more assignments and more pitches, and that’s a great thing.
But then there are the times when the story you’re reporting on strikes at the heart of you as a person, not as a reporter, and those are too often the stories that get left on the editing floor. We never get to tell anyone what being a witness felt like to us; how it affected us, or why.
So I’m interested in TLR’s being a venue for writers who have those stories, and who haven’t yet found a place to tell them.
The corollary to the “lost story” is the technique that reporters use to get at a story: reporters are asked to be impartial, and I think that allows for more sides of a situation to get seen and heard. And then there are little things, like accuracy and timeliness, that aren’t necessarily or always a part of the literary world. Those lend different tones to storytelling, differing levels of urgency.
How did you come to be the youngest-ever writer, for a time, for the J. Peterman catalog, and what’s the trick to writing good catalog copy?
When I was still in college (college again!), a roommate’s father got the catalog, and she showed it to me. I thought it was so cool. So when I went into the great wide world of my first job (selling advertising space, actually, like Marty does), I thought, well, hey. Why not see if I can turn my advertising chops on this so I can keep my hands in the writing business? I applied. They sent me an item to write about—a Tartan-plaid vest—and I noodled on it, with my then-boyfriend’s help, for a few days. I sent off the sample copy, they liked it and bought it, and I worked for them for a couple of years, purely as a side gig.
And then there was the whole Seinfeld thing, and people kept on saying, “You’re like Elaine!” and I had to correct them: “I was Elaine before Elaine was Elaine.”
Sigh. I love catalog copy.
What was the question again?
Oh. Here’s the key to great copy: know the brand, inside and out. Live it. Get to know who the catalog is selling to. Imagine yourself in their shoes. What do they want to buy? Why do they want to buy?
Know the image the company wants to project, like you know the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Your copy is the transom by which the company sells its stuff. You have to know that and live it.
I’ve also written copy for the Patagonia catalogue and for a lingerie retailer. Both required knowing the brand. Both were as much fun to work for as the Peterman catalog. But that’s only because I bought into all three companies’ brand narratives. You can write good copy if you’ve never lived the life (or aspired to it!) that the brand is trying to sell, but it’s so much easier, and enjoyable, if you go there.
5 on Publishing
You used to read short fiction for the Los Angeles Review, and now you read short nonfiction for the Tahoma Literary Review. If there are common mistakes writers make in a short piece that render it an almost-but-not-quite (or, a so-close rejection), are they the same in both fiction and nonfiction, or does each have its own unique standard problem?
The most common mistake I see in nonfiction is related to time. Writers don’t give themselves enough time between experiencing the thing they’re writing about and sending it off to me. I get a lot of submissions that feel so raw, so pained, and then fail to come to a satisfying conclusion, or fail to reach the level of depth that would come with more reflection. Sometimes this “time” just means time in the chair: with some essays, you need to write out all the extraneous stuff before you can winnow down to what the thing is really all about. This is what editors mean when they say “you’re too close” to the work, and that’s the other thing about time: you need to step away from the work for a while before you can see it for what it actually is.
In fiction, I read a pile of what I’d term “incidental” stories: stories that don’t actually have plot to them, that describe something but don’t actually go anywhere. This is especially a problem in flash fiction, where you have a very short space to do anything. Every occurrence has a story behind it. It’s your unique challenge to tell your reader what that is, and somehow manage to finish telling it by the time the story ends. The good news is, when the story ends is up to you.
Your 2013 essay in The Hairpin, “Miss Manners Doesn’t Live Here,” addresses “well-meaning bigots” who “never know they’re doing anything wrong” by automatically stereotyping or fetishizing Asian women.
Your novel is published by the relatively new Shade Mountain Press (their first titles published in 2014), which as a feminist press is committed to publishing women, but “especially women of color, women with disabilities, women from working-class backgrounds, and lesbian/bisexual/queer women,” the website says. Generally, underrepresented female perspectives.
Did you experience any difficulty finding a publisher for what you suspect might have been race- or gender-related reasons (or have you ever)? Or was Shade Mountain Press a first pick, perfect fit?
I wish I could answer this question with some accuracy. But no one who declined my manuscript because I wasn’t telling a “classic” “Asian” “mother-daughter” story would ever put it that way, would they?
I did begin to wonder, though. I had an inkling when an agent suggested to me that the mother character in my book “could be more Asian.” I clarified with her that she meant what I thought she meant, which was more broken English; potentially more cultural details. (There are many reasons this is astute commentary, one being that the book is written in diary form, and recording the massive gap between mother and daughter would be more telling if I were truer to what someone whose second language is English might sound like.)
I want to go on record here and say that I’m not at all offended by this commentary: it’s my job to write the book, and the agent’s job to sell the work. Agents know the marketplace, so I appreciated her feedback and used it to make my work better.
Predictably, though, I began to take a harder look at some of the rejections I’d received. Mostly they centered around the “I don’t like epistolary novels” bent. And some did say that they thought the main character “wasn’t funny enough,” or that the novel just plain didn’t appeal to them, and I think it was because Marty uses humor to defuse some situations that decidedly are cultural that the book had a hard time finding a home. Maybe it’s because the convention hasn’t been to treat painful cultural differences with humor. Who knows?
In the early days I was pitching the book as “Bridget Jones’s Diary meets The Joy Luck Club,” and while I think that’s an accurate description, and an attractive one—I got many requests to see parts of the manuscript, or full manuscripts—it may have been enough of a genre-bender, or convention-bender, that folks didn’t see how they could sell it.
I did wonder what would have happened if I had queried under a pseudonym, just to try it out. And I wondered what would have happened if my main characters weren’t Asian.
What avenues of self-promotion did you take in the lead-up to your novel’s release?
I took steps like building myself an Amazon author’s page and a Goodreads author page, and I also revamped my web site to include a page for my book.
I reached out to select bookstores and started thinking about where I wanted to go for book events (I chose to go only where I know I have a strong network), and also about the type of event I wanted to have.
But mostly, I did things the same way as always: I have a varied, interesting group of friends, so I leveraged their support, and will continue to lean on it as the book begins to make its first rounds. A good number of people offered to interview me for blogs and features like this, but some of the publicity happened quite organically: the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for, for instance, is making an appearance at a conference in Seoul this summer, and I’ve tacked on a few days to teach some university-level workshops via the US embassy there, since I’ll already be in-country. And after I attend the graduation ceremony for some friends who are getting their MFAs in Washington State this August, I’ll also visit bookstores there, whose events are managed by some other friends from the same MFA program. A writer we published in Tahoma Literary Review has since become a close acquaintance, and since he lives in New York, we’ll be doing a joint reading together there.
Obviously, my wonderful publisher found book reviewers and venues that would be a good fit to feature the book, and the other folks who have been published by my press (Vanessa Garcia, Lynn Kanter, Robin Parks, and Kathleen Alcalá, among others) have been incredibly supportive.
Actually, I’d say the whole of my network has been supportive. I think this is in part due to the work we’ve done together as a literary community (I’ve been, at various times, student, instructor, interim marketing director at an MFA program, for instance), but I also think this is just making sure we support each other when the time comes. I’ve made really good connections thus far in my writing career and in my other lives. Keeping them good, with mutual support and enthusiasm for all our projects, even if they’re not writing-related, is such a pleasure.
It’s made my pre-release activities a joy, although I’d be remiss not to mention that I kind of wish writing books and marketing them were my full-time job.
What did it mean to you as an already established, professional writer and editor to have Not a Self-Help Book accepted by a publisher, and did you have a plan for what you would do if no publishers expressed an interest?
I was going to write the second novel, and then try and sell this one. I knew it was a story I wanted to tell, so I wasn’t about to let it go quietly away. But I knew from the get-go that it might be a hard sell. (A recent reviewer said the book treats serious issues with lightness … already it sounds like a sticky wicket to navigate.)
I think the book’s publication means less to me as an established professional in this realm than it does to me as a member of a literary community. I have amassed a lot of experience and knowledge in my time working with words, and having a published book means folks can feel better about recommending what I’ve learned and said, or about hiring me on as an editor or instructor. In short, I’ll be able to give back in a more complete fashion.
Did your experience on the business side of writing and publishing play any kind of role on a conscious level in guiding you toward creating a saleable novel?
Not one bit. I think it’s a massive mistake for any writer to start creating stuff expressly for the market (advertising and marketing copy aside, obviously). It sounds Pollyanna-ish to say, but you should be writing what your heart tells you to write. You should be telling the story your gut tells you to tell. Don’t cave to, or even think about, what the YA “trends” are, or what “people” think is the next hot thing in women’s contemporary lit, or mysteries. Write the novel that sits within. Anything else—aiming for “saleable”—will ring false.
But there was, I think, a certain amount of business and publishing experience that helped me after the publication train was well on track: in business, you should cast your net widely. You never know if the person you meet next is going to be a fan, or if maybe there is some way to look at book marketing that you never thought of before. So I leaned on my sales training from so long ago: I followed up with folks, thought sideways about what parts of my book might work for different events, worked on leveraging my contacts in different areas of my life.
We’re too early in the sales cycle to know whether or not any of this has had any effect. But I like to think that the other thing being on the business side of writing and publishing has granted me is a thick, thick skin, and the willingness to try something else, if one tactic doesn’t work.
Thank you, Yi Shun.