Lifting Up Overlooked Authors: On Craft, Identity, and Insecurities
Debut Author Mira T. Lee in Conversation with Celeste Ng
Writers often meet other writers through their work, falling in love as they read a book and getting to know the author by reaching out afterwards. In the case of Mira T. Lee, however, I was unbelievably lucky to encounter her work early on—and even in those first days it was clear she was an enormous talent. Mira and I since became friends—we’re both writers and moms living and working in Cambridge, MA. Inevitably, we’ll chat about about writing, and in this conversation we discuss craft, finding the right editor, imposter syndrome, and supporting other writers—plus the all-important question of what to eat while writing. Mira’s debut novel, Everything Here Is Beautiful, was published by Pamela Dorman Books earlier this month.
Celeste Ng: We’ve known each other for some time; you were a student in the first class I ever taught at Grub Street.
Mira T. Lee: That class feels like it was forever ago—2009!
CN: You submitted a story called “How I Came to Love You Like a Brother,” which formed the basis of the first chapter of Everything Here Is Beautiful. Can you talk a little about the evolution of the idea, from story to novel? How do you know when an idea is going to be something larger?
MTL: I didn’t write that short story with anything larger in mind, but I did love my characters, and knew they had richer lives. I’ve always been drawn to questions that have no right or wrong answers, those kinds of situations that make you squirm because good people are in conflict with each other even though no one’s at fault. So I went through a phase, when my two kids were very young, where I just didn’t have time or energy to write anything—but I had one of those scenarios brewing in my head. And when I finally emerged from my baby-haze I had a rough outline of a plot—a series of predicaments I was eager to put my characters through to see how they’d come out the other side. I wanted to tell the story from several different perspectives, and though the idea of writing a book was daunting, I thought, if I’m ever going to try to write a novel, this is absolutely the story I need to write.
“I’ve always been drawn to questions that have no right or wrong answers, those kinds of situations that make you squirm because good people are in conflict with each other even though no one’s at fault.”
CN: What was the writing process like?
MTL: It was all pretty organic. I rarely felt like I was making conscious decisions about who my characters were or what challenges they’d face. I think maybe first novels are this way, you have so much inside that’s bursting to come out. I wasn’t thinking, “Hey, I want to write a book,” I was thinking, “I need to tell this story.” If I ever write another book, I think it’s going to be quite a different experience. I’m curious if you felt this way, as I know you’ve talked about being very deliberate in your choices.
CN: It’s funny that I give that impression, because when I started writing Everything I Never Told You, I was in much the same place you describe: I had some ideas about who the characters were and what kinds of situations I was going to put them in, but calling what I had a “plot” is pretty generous. I kind of plunged in and started writing, just feeling my way through with only the vaguest plan—sort of like having a destination for a road trip in mind, but not having a route really planned out, only a vague sense that you need to drive, say, north.
Looking back, I’m amazed that (One) I had the guts to do that and (Two) that it actually worked out! But I was driven by that feeling you mention: that I needed to tell the story of these characters, even if I was still discovering what it was. It’s kind of a blind faith, like being fairly sure there’s some treasure buried in this spot, but not knowing what it is, so you just keep digging.
In the end that meant I had to do a lot of revision—I had a “zero draft” where I was figuring out what the basic story even was, then four more where I was trying to figure out how to tell that story.
MTL: Was your process different for your second novel?
CN: I had the idea for Little Fires Everywhere before Everything I Never Told You came out. While I was on book tour I couldn’t write, but I could think and daydream, so I spent a lot of time figuring out the characters and the main events for Little Fires Everywhere in my head. That meant that when I actually went to put words on paper, the draft came together relatively quickly. Maybe that’s why it seems like I was more deliberate in my choices—but it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. I think I did just as much wandering and taking false turns as the first time; all that work just happened in my head rather than on the page.
Let me go back to what you said about telling the story from multiple perspectives, because I know (from talking with you) that you wrestled with this. Everything Here is Beautiful is told in multiple first-person and close third-person points of view, with each section featuring a different narrator. How did you know you needed those different voices, and how did you settle on the structure and points of view you ended up with?
MTL: My original thought was, I’ll write one section for each of my main characters, four chapters in all, and voila, I’m done! But yeah, that didn’t really pan out.
CN: Ha, I know that feeling well.
MTL: I got through the first two sections and got completely stuck. I needed a chapter in a psychiatric unit, but couldn’t figure out whose point of view to use. I tried the nurse, the social worker, a patient, but none of those worked, so I switched to third-person, and I wrote something, which was better than nothing. And then I got to Lucia’s (the protagonist) chapter and wanted to switch back to first person. Finding her voice was tough, because I’d always envisioned her as way smarter and wittier than I am, and for awhile, it felt too generic. But again, I wrote something to move the story forward.
Let’s just say, I grew to love revision! Later on in the book, there were plot points I knew I wouldn’t be able to pull off in Lucia’s voice, so I switched again to close third. I worried about breaking all these “rules,” but quite honestly, I just did what I could to get through that first draft. Now I’m glad there are all these different voices/perspectives, it fits with the chaotic nature of Lucia’s mental illness, as well as the overall feeling of the book. I do think a lot of writing happens as “happy accidents.”
CN: That’s so true—I’d find myself writing an image, like hard-boiled eggs in Everything I Never Told You or some of the photographs in Little Fires Everywhere, and then those images or lines take on a resonance of their own, within the story as plot points and then metaphorically as well.
MTL: Yep, or like you give your character a line like “everything here is beautiful,” and later beauty expands to become this bigger theme, and the significance of that line keeps getting amplified.
CN: There’s a quote from the novelist Michael Byers that I have pinned near my desk, about how at a certain point the novel itself becomes a collaborator: it reminds you of the ballerina in Chapter Two when you realize you need a ballerina in Chapter Ten, and so on. I love the idea that when you hit the right note, it kind of reverberates like a tuning fork and helps you get the entire project in tune with itself.
MTL: Absolutely! Though I’ve been surprised by some of the feelings I’ve had to contend with since finishing the project. I always told myself that once I’d written the book I wanted to write, anything else would be gravy. But suddenly I find myself plagued by feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, everything from “will my sales meet my publisher’s expectations?” to “why didn’t that reader like my book?” I thought I was old enough to be over all that ego-type stuff, but it’s a constant battle to stay grounded. You’ve had tremendous success with both your novels, but did you ever face similar feelings?
CN: Yes, I absolutely face similar feelings! All the time. One of the few things that’s reassured me in this very weird career of ours is that every writer feels jealous and inadequate. Literally every single writer I have ever met has confessed to feeling insecure, so I like to think anyone who says they don’t is lying—I’m 97 percent sure even Alice Munro and Toni Morrison are secretly annoyed when there’s a best-of list they’re not on. So first, it’s important to remember that no one can be on every list, and no one can win everything. It sucks, but you have to remember you’re in this first and foremost because the work itself matters to you.
I also think it’s important to remember that publishing is not a zero-sum game, even though it often feels like it is. At AWP, I once heard someone say publishing feels like a million people fighting for a very small slice of cake, except that at a certain point you realize there actually is no cake. And it does feel that way a lot: it feels like we’re all in this terrible Hunger Games battling for readers, attention, prizes, money. But my take is that rather than fight tooth and nail for that sliver of cake, what we need to do is make more cake.
Talk up other writers, especially ones you feel have been overlooked, on social media or on best-of lists. Recommend other writers for gigs or opportunities you can’t take on. (I learned that from the great Roxane Gay.) Support other writers’ books—by buying where you can, requesting at the library, recommending, nominating, all of it counts. And do whatever you can to create more space and fight the idea that There Can Only Be One—for writers of color, this is especially important.
People often say that no one reads (or publishes) women, or short stories, or novels by anyone nonwhite or [insert adjective here]. Say that’s true: then we can all either fight for the few scraps of attention left over, or we can try and make more seats—both new and old—open at the table. If every piece in a journal or every book recommended in a “By the Book” is by a white cis man, maybe we can point that out and encourage people to diversify their reading—and we can call attention to more diverse writers wherever we can. We can support—or create—prizes and awards and avenues to recognize good work that’s happening in overlooked areas. We can talk and write about this issue and urge more inclusion everywhere.
That sounds hopelessly kumbaya, but I do think writers—especially writers who’ve had success—owe it to each other to shine spotlights on each other and create opportunities for each other. I often hear writers agonize about feeling overlooked without them really engaging in reading and writing communities. But focusing on getting yours often makes the problem worse, in my experience; the thing that helps most is sincerely trying to open up more space for everyone.
“People often say that no one reads (or publishes) women, or short stories, or novels by anyone nonwhite or [insert adjective here]. Say that’s true: then we can all either fight for the few scraps of attention left over, or we can try and make more seats.”
MTL: All great points! It feels like writers of color, particularly women, have had a very good year, which is heartening. Do you feel a particular kinship with other women writers of color?
CN: I do feel a kinship with other women writers, and writers of color in general, because we all share the experience of writing and living in a world that treats us as lesser—less important, less interesting, less worthy. It doesn’t happen in the same way, or to the same degree, to all of us, but my experience makes me feel for others in similar situations, so I do what I can to support them.
MTL: And do you foresee a day when we’ll all be viewed simply as “writers” rather than “women writers” or “writers of color”? Would that be a good thing?
CN: As for thinking of writers as “just writers,” though, we’re really talking about two things: the opportunities writers get, and how their works are interpreted. If we ever get to a point where thinking of writers as “just writers” means everyone gets the same access to publication, the same types of marketing, and the same freedoms in their work, that would be great! Right now we’re pretty far from that scenario—you can see how many more men get reviewed, and the different tones of their reviews, for starters. And don’t even get me started on the ways people of color tend to be marketed and pigeonholed—and, often, penalized if they stray “out of their lane.”
But I’m not sure if there will—or should—ever be a time where a writer’s work will be interpreted without taking their background into account. Our experiences shape how we think and therefore what (and how) we write, which to my mind makes literature richer. It seems disingenuous and patronizing to pretend, for instance, that the experience of living as a black person in America isn’t going to shape the outlook—and work—of black writers, and that reading the book with that context isn’t going to add another dimension to the work. Ditto living as an Asian, or an LGBTQ person, or a disabled person, or someone from the working class, or someone from the Midwest, or an immigrant, or a Muslim—or, for that matter, living as a white person from the suburbs or from the Upper East Side! We just need to take that context into account for everyone as we read their work, and stop pretending that white or straight or male writers don’t also have “identities.”
Okay, to close out, here’s a little lightning round of questions! What was the last book you adored?
MTL: Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. Those sentences! And Wonder by R.J. Palacio, which I think is about as close to perfection as a book gets for its audience. I also loved The Kite Runner, which I only got around to reading this year.
CN: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
MTL: I just read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Lecture—the whole thing is great, but one line in particular struck a chord with me, put into words something I may have known, but not consciously: “What if I stopped worrying about my characters and worried instead about my relationships?” I’m absolutely taking this piece of advice to heart.
CN: Ok, how about the worst?
MTL: “Write what you know.” Followed by, “Write what you don’t know.” I find it kind of dreadful that people are always going on about what one should or shouldn’t write about. My takeaway: write what you care about. Passionately.
CN: What do you like to eat/drink while writing?
MTL: I snack constantly. Salty, sweet, salty, sweet. I’m trying to cut back on the chocolate. So here’s a question for you: how many interviews/events have you done for Little Fires Everywhere?
CN: 69 interviews and over 35 events since June. Maybe this is why my brain feels like it’s not working super well these days!
MTL: Wow. I think we’ve joked before about wanting to live in a cave. Are you ready?
CN: There’s no cell phone service or wi-fi there, right?