Hi Marie I'm so happy to meet you! So nice to meet you!
So you do something so different from what I do that I'm just dying to learn about it. So you were born in China and you came over when you were five?
I was born in China. Yes that's right.
And so give us like how... How you were kinda oriented in story to begin with.
Yeah well I actually started writing because I had to pick up the language really quickly. So my mom would give me this assignment to go to kindergarten everyday and write down English words that I didn't know and come home and put them in sentences and memorize them.
What a clever mother.
Yeah she's given me very good advice you know? That was basically how I started writing and eventually I figured out that I just enjoyed that process of telling stories.
And what stories were you told? Are your parents good storytellers?
My parents have told me a lot of stories about their life growing up in China. Which is incredibly different you ...
know from the way that I grew up in America. They grew up during the cultural revolution which was this tumultuous time in Chinese history. And it's hard for me to understand and connect with that because I grew up in America, but it's always fascinating to hear their take on stuff.
And did they have stories or ideas about what was gonna happen when you all got to United States? Like did you have that typical immigrant story?
For me what I understood as an immigrant growing up was that you come to the new country to survive. Like that's the goal. You make it however you can and find a stable life for yourself. That was always the goal and for me I wanted to do that but also wanted to do something that I loved because for me it was... I had been given this great privilege of coming over to this country; what do I do with that to make myself happy? You know 'cause what's the point if you're not happy right? So I just realized early on that I was interested in the Creative Arts. Everything creative related. I would draw all the time, I would write all the time-
And don't you kinda draw your characters before...
I do yeah it's part of
my creative process.
Like pictures of them?
I actually worked in video games as an artist before I started writing full time. So it's part of my process.
How long did you do that?
About five or six year or so after I graduated. Yeah it was very like serendipitous. I didn't think I was gonna do that.
And did you like it?
Oh I loved it! It was great and the only reason why I left it was because I had gotten a book deal and there was just no way that I could keep the nine to five and also travel and write at the same time.
You were in the industry and you were creating art for them. And then at night you were working on your story?
Yeah I would... Well I'm kind of a morning person. I'm like the only morning person I know. I would wake up early maybe two hours before work started and do some writing, I would do some in my lunch breaks, just to try to fit the words in every day.
And you had this intention. You were very intentional about it. You wanted to be a storyteller.
From a very early age I had always written but I didn't know that it was a real job until I was like 13 or 14. I didn't know that real people wrote books. It never connected with me 'cause we didn't have authors coming through our city at the time. It wasn't until I figured out that that was like a real job then I realized okay this is something that I actually wanna do with my life. And then at that point it became a very deliberate thing.
And what do you think makes you a good storyteller? What do you understand about it now after working on it?
I've realized that I'm drawn to story because it's my way of figuring the world out and figuring myself out. I feel like I get a lot of that out through fiction. I have trouble telling it in nonfiction for some reason. I have trouble with essays and with very direct telling of my thought process and my life but with fiction there's something about that disconnect that helps me think about things better and understand concepts around the world and problems in the world and problems with myself and all that comes to the surface with fiction.
And you're really leveraging your years in the video games inside these stories right? 'Cause they're all kinda tucked into that.
Yeah they're very tied together.
And what does that allow for? That being inside that video game world?
It's made me a very visual thinker. When I was in games pretty much every thing in my head has become like a 3-D map of things. It's a different way of looking at story for me which is why I always end up sketching everything out ahead of time. I have trouble connecting with my characters if I'm not seeing them physically on the page.
Is that where you start? Do you start with trying to understand them physically?
Yeah I will draw them before I start writing anything.
And what are your sort of obsessive themes? Is it justice? Is it gender? Is it ambitions?
It's always something subconscious. I never really realized it until I finish the book and then I go back and look and see it popping up. Socio-economic problems pop up a lot in my stories and that was something that I didn't realize until recently when I look back. I think it has something to do with living in Los Angeles. You see this city with such huge contrast. You have Beverly Hills and literally the next street over you'll see poverty and crime and issues in the city and it's a strange contrast. So I find myself constantly exploring that and what that means mixed in with identity and with where people come from and history. It's stuff that's always boiling around in my head and it constantly finds itself spilling out on the page.
Spilling out on the page. And what part of the writing process or the storytelling process do you like the most? Do you like plot or do you like character development?
I love developing characters. I think it's so fun to make up people. It's one of the first things that I do when I start writing. I will usually come up with a character first and then develop the world around that character. And I'll just write long profiles for them and write little conversations between characters in like a blank room or something just to play with them. I have always found that really fun.
How long do you play with them before you start in on putting them into situations?
It can take months and months. I usually will have an idea stewing around in my head for at least a year before I start writing an actual draft of the story. It's a long process and kinda varies a little bit from book to book.
You don't have impatience? Like once you start to see somebody do you feel like kinda the itch to...
Once that first spark hits I will try to start drafting right away and I almost always have to throw that away because the story's just not baked yet. And it takes me that year or so of letting it cook in my head before I can actually get out a draft that makes any sense.
Yeah yeah yeah. And what's really hard for you? What eludes you creatively that you suffer?
Oh my God. A lot of things!
What makes you suffer?
First drafts make me suffer. They're so difficult. It's something about the blank page is terrifying to me. When I have a draft out on the page then I feel like I can go back and revise it and make it better and I have something to work with.
How crappy do you let your first draft be?
I've tried to allow myself to let them be as bad as possible. And they're really bad. I never send my editor my first drafts because they just wouldn't make any sense.
Oh I would be terrified. I'd be horrified. I think I would loose my job.
I hope you never see them they're really awful.
I'm not showing mine, you don't show yours.
Yeah so that's probably the hardest thing for me.
How early in the shaping of the story do you know you have it? Or because you've been thinking about it for a year do you know you have it before you even begin? 'Cause I felt like for me there's moments where I don't even know. I don't even totally believe in my heart of hearts that I'm actually gonna write this book. And then at some point it's like oh I'm definitely gonna do this. Like it's definitely gonna hold up under pressure.
That's so interesting. You have that moment where you... It flips from like just a shiny idea-
Like maybe I'm toying with something and you know my husband will say how'd your writing go? I'm like I don't know. I don't know. And then at some point there's enough that it feels like oh yeah.
This is gonna happen. I usually have a shiny ideas folder where I keep all of the cool things and usually-
Have you written on the edge of the folders jotting ideas?
It is called that on my computer. Like that's what the folder is called.
I have discovered in these conversations that people use file names in funny ways.
Oh that's so funny.
Like I have a parking lot where I set things that, they can't make the draft, but I kind of like them anyway and I just can't bear to throw them away.
Like outtakes you know? And just scenes that never make it in were just fun. Yeah absolutely and I never really know when they become like tangible. There's just like a moment where I realize oh this one idea has been popping up in my head for months consistently. And at that point I'm like okay I think that's the one I will tackle next. But even then I'll write a draft and sometimes I have to throw the whole thing away and start all over from like a different point of view or something and at that point I always feel like okay this isn't gonna happen. This is the last book that I'm ever gonna write and I'm just a fraud and this is my-
I know I know I know.
And that feeling just never goes away.
How much waste is in your life as a writer? Let's say that you have written one million words, how many of them have been tossed?
Oh my goodness! Probably 800,000 out of a million I would say. I have tossed so many. I wrote five manuscripts before. We were able to sell one so those are all-
And you didn't give up?
I feel like if it's in your... You just have to write like it just has to come out you know?
So you would've just kept doing it no matter what?
I would like to think that I would have. Although at the moment with each one I'm like forget it I'm done. I'm never gonna write again.
I know it's like having a baby or something. You can't believe you did it and you can't believe you'd ever do it again.
And then you're like oh I don't feel so bad about this.
Oh that was fine. I still fit in my jeans. Have you had movies made from your books?
I haven't no. I hope so.
Yes I would think, I mean given the subject matter, how twisted up do you get around book sales, book jackets best seller list book tour; that kind of stuff? Are you able to put a partition up?
Yeah when I first started out it was very anxiety making to think about sales numbers and publicity and marketing. All these things that you're like commodifying. Your artwork is a very different side of the business. It's the business side of the business I suppose which is something that I never thought about. When I first started writing I don't know why I didn't think about that. I assumed that when you become a writer you sit in your bathrobe and you create things and then somehow it ends up in the bookstore and you just keep doing it. And I never thought about all the other things that come with it.
And how hard it is to get a reader. I mean really 'cause that's what you're... That's what you've done it for. You've done it so that somebody can enjoy it but it takes a lot to get from your bathrobe, to your funny little office, to some kid in Peoria, Indiana.
And it's easy to get lost in the trees on the way there.
Yes for sure. So where do you find your inspiration? I read something funny about your inspiration for Legend.
Oh yeah I was watching the old movie version of Les Miserables one day, the one with Liam Neeson in it, and I was just watching it and thinking to myself it would be really fun to do a retelling of this somehow. And then I thought it would be fun to do a teenage version of this. Of the teen detective versus the teen criminal. And that was the point that... That was what Legend spun from. And eventually it spun so far that it doesn't really have much to do with Les Mis anymore but that was the original seed and it just comes from anywhere.
Have you had other seeds like that? I studied Shakespeare as a master student and I often thought you could just make a whole career out of A Thousand Acres type books. And then she did A Thousand Acres and I was like hands off. There is nothing to be done there but make a fool of yourself get out. But do you find that with old stories that you want to rework them and set them in this new modern-
That was the most direct time that it happened. Usually I'm inspired by some small piece of something.
Are you a big newspaper person? I mean are you getting it in the newspaper? Are you getting it in the cafe?
I will write in cafes sometimes. You mean like hearing things? I do keep a little notebook with me to write down interesting tidbits of things. Just collecting like a crow you know? Whenever I see something interesting or hear something interesting or meet interesting people with quirks that I think could go into a story.
I mean it's so irresistible. Sometimes I feel like I just wanna turn my back on them and like write it on my hand.
Hang on one second let me get this down.
This person is flossing on the Amtrak just jot it down.
I'm sure that's happened.
Oh for sure for sure. And then that person became mean. (laughter) It happens to. What grounds you? From a storytellers perspective what are you always trying to do? Is it entertain your readers? Is it to take them somewhere new? Is it to surprise them? Do you have a thing like that in mind?
I think at the end of the day all I really hope is to entertain people. I think that books are entertainment just like anything else. With a little bit of a window into how we see the world and how we hope to expose parts of the world. I think it's really interesting that books are dangerous to people sometimes. They're considered to be rebellious and whenever there's a revolution that's the first thing to go. You burn books. And there's something that excites me about that. And I think that's fun to think about as I'm writing. Like what truths do I wanna try to get in there and make it entertaining for people to and what truth do I wanna learn.
Can you think off the top of your head of a real truth that you uncovered in one of your books that you're really happy about?
Happy might not be the right word for it but a lot of fascinating things came out of The Young Elites which is a fantasy series that I wrote and it's from the point of view of a girl who becomes a villain. She's essentially the teen girl version of Darth Vader. So I had to be inside this villains head for a long time and that was very revealing and kind of unsettling for me to think about. I had to think about things from a point of view that I wasn't used to. Adelina is a character who believes that people only want the version of yourself that they like. They don't actually want you to be yourself even if they're saying that. And she kinda believes in the whole if people are turning their backs on you then you turn your back on the world and you take your revenge and that was a very new way of looking at things for me.
Did it make those people more sympathetic to you? Did you think behind every villain is a hurt person?
I would like to think so. Some harder than others. In a sense I think that everyone thinks that they're the hero of their own story even if they are the villain. No one ever really thinks that they're the villain. Maybe a few do but... And that was a new concept for me to play with to. To think about I may think of myself as being this great person but maybe from everyone else's point of view it's not the case.
Or at least you're just different. You're different to each person.
And you just don't understand why people don't see things in a certain way and vice versa for the other person.
And how hard it is to control how they see you. Even though you feel like you're sending out such clear signals. As they walking away thinking like oh my gosh, you got that for me? I didn't mean to put that out. We just have two seconds left. Can I give you my little speed round? Name a book you with you had written.
Oh the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. That was one of my favorites.
What was the last story that made you cry?
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
My daughter just finished reading it. She said it was unbelievable.
So good I cried that first chapter.
Do you read a lot of YA?
I do yeah.
It's professional requirement.
And it's just so fun.
If your mother wrote a book about you what would it be called?
Bring a sweater. (laughter) That's pretty much what she says to me every time no matter where I'm going.
Who can't you live without creatively speaking?
J.K. Rowling I think I find her so inspirational on so many levels. Not just creatively but the way that she presents herself online and the way that she talks with her readers and doesn't put up with anything that she thinks is wrong. I think that's great!
Yeah she's a great model. If you could get everyone in the world to read just one book what would it be?
Well there's this book called Illuminae by a friend of mine named Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. They wrote it together and it's fantastic science fiction. I want more people to read it. It's so interesting and creatively done.
Great Illuminae awesome!
Thank you so much!
Thank you so much!
This is really really fun to talk to you.
Thank you you to! (upbeat music)
Between the Lines is a series about uncovering the REAL story of these 16 best-selling authors and what story telling means to them. Each of these authors has their own stories that influence their work. Most writers are writing either directly or indirectly based on their experience, their dreams, or their realities. They are telling their stories, whether they are "made up" or based on real life. That takes a ton of bravery, a ton of courage, and that is what stops people generally from putting themselves out there. There is a fear of being not only judged on your work but your ideas. Writing takes BRAVERY. It takes a leap to put yourself out there for eyes to read what you have to say, and then there is the part of actually getting it done. This series is really about being brave, how these authors write their truth and how they MOVE people through their creative pursuits. This series is about what is "between the lines" for each these authors.