In Conversation: Jenny Lee and Emiko Jean discuss identity, tropes, and writing around a pandemic
In the coming weeks, author Jenny Lee will publish Anna K Away, the highly-anticipated sequel to last year's beloved Anna K, a modern take on the classic tale of Anna Karenina. Emiko Jean will publish her third novel, Tokyo Ever After, a Princess Diaries-meets-Crazy Rich Asians-style tale (a sequel is already in the works for 2022). Here, the two YA authors discuss their new novels, sharing their writing secrets, their experiences as Asian Americans in the publishing industry, and how the global pandemic has factored into everything.
EMIKO JEAN: Hi! I am always so fascinated by the writer's journey. I did some internet research (ahem, stalking) and read that you began in television writing before crossing over into novels. Did you always want to write? Or is it something you found later in life?
JENNY LEE: I actually started out in books, then moved into TV writing/producing, and then went back to books. Now I do both. I suppose TV is my "day job" and writing books is my fun "side hustle" these days. My first three books were humor essays (and none of them sold all that well) and as I really wanted to earn my living by writing I began to explore TV writing. Now, to answer your question…. Yes, I absolutely always wanted to be a writer. I remember my first story, which was in maybe second grade, it was about a little black kitten who lived in a jack-o-lantern pumpkin. The cat was named Blackie and I wrote it on that paper (that no longer exists) with the dotted line in the center to help you work on your cursive writing! Of course, me wanting to write, and what my strict Korean parents expected of me was very different. If they had their way, I'd be a lawyer now.
What about you, what's your how-I-became-an-author story?
JEAN: My path to writing was a little more circuitous. I loved reading as a little girl. I remember going to the library with my mom and bringing home stacks of books — as many as I could carry! But I actually didn't start writing until later in life. I had a variety of careers before seriously considering writing. Now that I look back on it, I realize that there weren't a lot of Asian American writers to look up to and I believe that influenced my path — not seeing myself in something that I loved so much. Anyway, if you ever need a florist/candlemaker/elementary math specialist I am your girl. I was working at a zoo, and unhappy with my job, when I wrote my first novel — it had werewolves and fairies and I am ever so embarrassed to admit that. Fast forward a few years and one novel later I wrote my debut, We'll Never Be Apart. And now, here I am. How do your parents feel now about your career?
LEE: My father passed away when I was in college, but I am lucky that we had a chance to have one convo before then where he said he believed I was going to be okay (this was a few years after I had secretly applied and gotten into NYU Tisch for dramatic writing program and I refused to go anywhere else and then he refused to pay for art school, but then he caved and did.) My mom is supportive-ish, but I wouldn't call her a fan of Anna K (too much drugs, sex, and teenage hijinx for her taste). She is pleased I have managed to make a career as a writer, but she worries about the instability of a writer's life. I do my best to reassure her that I would much rather be a poor starving writer than a well paid lawyer, but somehow I'm not sure if she believes me! Each to their own, is my motto.
But where I owe both my Asian parents a debt of gratitude is they trained me that with enough hard work and practice anything is possible, and it was this that gave me the confidence to try writing for TV, writing a children's book, and tackling pretty much any project that interests me. I do think, with hindsight, that all the pressure they put on me was more beneficial than all the praise I craved, but never received. (Whooo! Getting real, here! It's cool, though. My mom won't read this.)
I'm always interested in artistic inspiration. Where did you get the idea for Tokyo Ever After?
JEAN: I'm sorry to hear your dad passed away before he had a chance to see your work published. My parents instilled in me, too, that with enough hard work and discipline anything is possible. I wanted to write a book about a Japanese-American girl, like myself, who was searching for her identity, a place where she belongs. Growing up I never felt Japanese enough or American enough and grappled with it. From there it was a hop-skip-and-a-jump to setting the concept on a bigger stage, i.e. a royal stage. It all seemed right, using the classic I'm-really-a-princess trope and pairing it with a search for cultural identity. Tell me about Anna K. Have you always been a fan of Tolstoy? What made you decide to reimagine it in such a unique way?
LEE: I read Anna Karenina for the first time in high school after I got busted for "borrowing the family car" (I only had a learner's permit. Bad Jenny!) and was grounded for many, many months. My older sister in college was taking Russian Lit and sent me Anna Karenina knowing I'd have plenty of time to read it and to say… hey, us girls make mistakes...it's not the end of the world. At first I was like… Russian novel set in the 1800s, no thank you. But with nothing else to do I did read it and then I loved it. I was obsessed. I have read it now three times, once in my twenties and again in my thirties. Every read it's different for me and i recognize Tolstoy's genius and I also see love from a different character's perspective (mainly because of my own experiences with it as I have aged.)
In 2012 I saw the Keira Knightley version of the movie in NYC with my mom on Christmas Day and as we had both read the book we discussed Anna's tragic story for a long time. It was then that I realized that Anna Karenina really discusses first loves and it occurred to me if someone were to do a modern retelling it may have to be done with high school age teens, as that's sometimes the first place when someone falls in love (or thinks they have fallen in love). The women in the original book were very inexperienced when it came to matters of their (own) heart as they were obviously unable to ever really get to know any man before marriage at the time it took place. Late that night when I couldn't sleep I snuck down to the hotel lobby with my laptop and I was struck that a YA retelling of Anna Karenina would be such a fun book. I wrote my book agent, she replied back a day later and told me she loved the idea…. But then honestly, it took me another five or so years before I figured out how I wanted to tackle it (also, I was just embarking on my career as a TV writer in Los Angeles so all of my early attempts at writing it never panned out.)
Spring of 2018 I was recovering from minor surgery and I figured out how to do it…. And it was one of the best writing experiences of my life/career. That said, it should be noted that writing the sequel, Anna K Away, (which pubs April 27th) was one of the most difficult writing experiences of my career. Yes, the pandemic played a part in the torture… but I don't believe I properly understood how daunting a sequel would be once it was totally original and no longer a "retelling."
This is a question I was asked many times about Anna K, whether I was a "pantser" or a "plotter." (I didn't even know what "pantser" meant! But now I do, it's someone who flies by the seat of their pants and writes with no outline.) I wrote Anna K as a pantser, no outline, just charged ahead. Of course my Part One very closes follows the plot of AK before I began to deviate later on. In the sequel I tried to be a pantser again, but as I quickly ran into story problems, I wished I was a plotter. I promised myself that going forward, I would be a plotter.
So, what about you… pantser or plotter?
JEAN: Ah, I hear you about writing a sequel. I just finished drafting book two for Tokyo Ever After and it was brutal. I felt so much pressure to produce something that built on the first book but that felt different and new, too. It helped that I had a solid outline to work from. I am definitely a plotter. But like you, I started out as a pantser. I wrote my debut We'll Never Be Apart without an outline and ended up revising it a dozen times! I find having a solid outline cuts down on the revision time, for my latest project I have only revised six times (ha!). With any project I usually have a pretty solid idea of the character arc, where they are beginning and where I want them to end then fill in from there. For example, Izumi, the main character in Tokyo Ever After, starts the novel with a hunger to discover who she is and where she comes from this launches her journey to find her father.
So now that you have the sequel to Anna K completed. It comes out soon! What is next for you in the publishing world?
LEE: I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to have mine done and out at the end of this month. I don't have anything definitive planned for my next book. I do want to do one more Anna K book as it will be her senior year of high school. That said, the Anna K timeline is Spring of 2019 (book one) and Summer 2019, which means Anna's senior year would be interrupted by the pandemic in 2020. It's up in the air whether I would stick to real life, or whether I would write it minus the pandemic. I'm just not sure if anyone wants to read about the pandemic as we're still living in it, as I know I certainly would not…. But I'm still thinking about it.
I'm also considering writing a thriller as well. It's a genre I've always wanted to try… I read a lot of thrillers during the pandemic as I needed something totally escapist to keep my attention because I had total stress/anxiety mush brain!
For me writing prose — as opposed to my TV writing work — is something I look forward to as there is much more freedom to do what I want.
Do you know what your next book will be?!
JEAN: Thank you! It has been quite the feat writing during a global pandemic and something I don't wish to ever repeat. Ooh, another Anna K book or perhaps a thriller? Both sound like fun. Currently, I am working on a novel. I can't say too much about it. I am one of those writers who doesn't like to discuss their projects until they come to fruition. But I am writing and I am excited about this new project. Anyway, here's to the future and to more books. Thanks Jenny for this chat!
LEE: Yes, here's to the future and more books, especially with Asian female leads! It was so fun talking with you, Emiko!