By Terry Hong
Until she found her agent in 2015, Mira T. Lee thought of her writing as a “dirty little secret.” Although she started publishing short stories almost a decade ago, she didn’t start writing “seriously” until 2012, buoyed by an Artist Fellowship from Mass Cultural Council: “I gave myself permission to use the funds on only writing-related things, including a writing coach who helped me get through the first draft of my novel, as well as a one-week writing retreat, which was heavenly.” Still, she didn’t dare think of herself as a writer until she had outside confirmation—that agent, a book deal—in hand.
Lee makes her fiction debut this month with Everything Here Is Beautiful, both a celebration and mourning of the bond between two Chinese American sisters—the younger afflicted with mental illness, the elder desperate to save her. When their mother succumbs to cancer, Lucia and Miranda Bok have only each other left to rely on.
Lucia, who serves as the narrative core, is free-spirited and impulsive; she’s traveled the world teaching English, writing stories, searching for meaning. Back in New York, she marries Yonah, “a one-armed Russian Jew” from Israel who owns an East Village health food store and gently adores his younger bride. But the relationship is short-lived, and Lucia eventually moves to a shared house in Westchester County, where she becomes involved with Manny, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador, with whom she has a daughter. Plagued with uncertainty and loss, the small family returns to Manny’s small village in Ecuador where Lucia will try again (and again) to become whole. Throughout Lucia’s joys, struggles, triumphs, breakdowns, Miranda will be both a comfort and threat. Despite Miranda’s attempts to live her own life—in Providence, then Boston, then Switzerland—Lucia’s troubles will propel her back to wherever her sister needs her.
Terry Hong: So I stumbled on your “everything here is beautiful” Facebook page—“presenting 365 days of beautiful, amazing & wondrous things” that you posted every day throughout 2017 “[i]n anticipation of the release of [your] debut novel.” What a gorgeous project! What were some of the highlights? What did you learn?
Mira T. Lee: I loved that project! I often come across things that I read, or hear, or see, and think, “oh, I have to tell so-and-so about that,” or “I have to remember that”—so the 365 Days of Everything Here Is Beautiful project was just a great way to archive lots of different things I love. And a really nice way of being able to share with others. I loved being more conscious of “amazing things” as I was out in the world—I’d take pictures on my walks, make note of a particularly great episode of a podcast, or rush home after seeing a great movie so I could add it to my list. Doing something every single day does affect you. Maybe I got in the habit of being a little bit more appreciative, or optimistic (not always easy in 2017!). And now I have this amazing archive!
TH: Your website reveals some of your past lives: “graphic designer, a pop-country drummer, a salsa dancing fanatic, and a biology grad school dropout.” Now that you’re a published author, which of those titles do you still claim? Do some of those past/current jobs/experiences inform your writing?
MTL: Well, I’ll admit to being in the midst of a bit of a mid-life identity crisis! I’ve always been very comfortable identifying as a graphic designer—I’ve done it for over 15 years, mostly as a freelancer, and it feels like who I am, professionally. But the truth is, in the past few years I’ve spent a lot more time on writing, and yes, now I can say I’m a published author, but I find myself still uncomfortable with claiming that as my identity. As for how my past experiences have informed my writing, I’ve often thought that my writing style has something to do with my background as a musician. I’m obsessed with rhythm—the rhythms of words, sentences, paragraphs, as well as their sounds. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chosen a word to fit the rhythm of my sentence, rather than for its actual meaning.
TH: Having spent 15 years as a graphic designer, do you also “see” your narrative?
MTL: Yes, I guess I do. Funnily enough, the first thing I ever wrote was a screenplay. I saw that story in “scenes,” and I think I often still do think of writing as very scenic. When I’m at a loss for ideas, I will often look for images that evoke a mood. I’ll also use photos for settings I’m trying to describe (e.g. a dirt road, snowy woods), or sometimes pictures of people who might look something like my characters. Or at least, [someone] who captures something of the “essence” of my characters.
TH: And what happened with that screenplay?
MTL: I turned it into a short story. And it was my very first published short story! In The Southern Review in 2009. But I still often think of the screenplay—whether I should go back to it and try to work on it some more. I still think it would make a good movie!
TH: Well, how fitting then! So the music, the graphics, etc. make you an especially sensory writer—you see, hear, THEN write. And when and how did you choose that writerly route? How did you end up ‘BLOOM’-ing as a novelist in your 40s?
MTL: Well, I certainly never expected to become an author… pretty much, ever! And when I started writing, about ten years ago, I had no idea I’d ever write a book. I started with that screenplay because I had one very specific story that I was burning to tell. It was right after my mother died, and I’d just spent a few weeks back home with her, waiting. It was an intense period, but also one filled with a lot of unexpected highs, in addition to the lows. Stepping back from it, I found the contradictions fascinating, and I knew there was a good story in there. So I wanted to tell it. But while the screenplay was great, it wasn’t a finished product, hence … short story. That’s how I entered the world of writing. And after that short story I thought I was done, but then I thought, “Well maybe I’ll try to write another,” and then another. I inched my way along this path.
TH: Speaking of contradictions, you’ve chosen what some might consider a taboo subject for your novel, especially in the APA community—because there’s no mental illness among us Asians, ahem! What was the inspiration there?
MTL: Mental illness is a subject matter that’s extremely close to my heart, since I’ve seen members of my own family struggle with it. Schizophrenia, in particular, is still one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized illnesses out there, and I’d rarely seen a well-rounded portrayal of it in literature—particularly one that addresses how it affects family members, in addition to the individual with the illness. I wanted to explore the conflicts that this illness can cause, and the ways it can wreak havoc on families. At some point early on, I did wonder if I should make my characters non-Asian (i.e. white), but that didn’t feel true to me. These multicultural worlds are what I’ve known in my own life, so it made sense that it should be reflected in my writing.
TH: All that “write what you know” certainly worked in your favor! But what made you consider making your characters white?
MTL: I started writing this novel several years ago, before the whole “diverse books movement” was as strong as it is now, and certainly well before our current political climate. I wondered if my cast of characters might feel off-putting to publishers, too bizarre or unconventional, and if it’d be easier if their cultural backgrounds were removed from the equation. I’d heard stories about Asian American writers being expected to write certain kinds of “Asian” stories, and here I had a Chinese American with a mental illness, a one-armed Russian Jew, a Swiss guy, and an Ecuadorian. But to be honest, it was a fleeting consideration. And both my agent and editor have been amazingly supportive—they never once saw my characters’ backgrounds as anything but enriching to the story.
TH: Beyond personal experience, how did you approach the additional research?
MTL: I pulled a lot from my own family experiences with mental illness, but I also read a lot of memoirs, as well as online blogs, particularly firsthand accounts of psychosis. And I spoke with medical professionals about the more technical aspects. I’d also attended a lot of family support groups, so I had a strong sense of the issues and frustrations experienced by loved ones.
For other aspects of the book—for example, living abroad—I’d visited those places, but I also read a lot of travel blogs by expats and backpackers, as well as local news sites. It was challenging to create these worlds in places overseas, though. I was initially a bit daunted by the prospect, but after a while, I had them pictured in my head—the small house in Ecuador, the countryside, the paths my characters would take to get from one place to the other.
TH: You write from various perspectives—the two sisters, older Yonah, younger Manny—that vary greatly in age, background, cultural identity, life experiences. How did you prepare for writing these rotating, diverse viewpoints? Did you find more affinity with certain characters than others?
MTL: I really enjoyed writing from different perspectives because it meant I got to experiment a lot with voice, and how you play with words and structure sentences to produce different voices. It was interesting, because you might think it would’ve been easier for me to write the women than the men, but it was actually the other way around. I found a real affinity with Manny because I connected with his anxiety of being a parent of a newborn, in addition to his fear and confusion around dealing with a loved one’s psychosis. Yonah came pretty naturally because I’d spent a lot of time around Israelis, and that voice is just so strong and distinctive. But Lucia was tough because I’d always envisioned her as far more brilliant and perceptive than I am, and finding that right amount of quirkiness and wonder was a real challenge. I kept feeling like I was holding her back! And Miranda wasn’t easy either, probably because she and I share more similarities, so maybe I assumed the reader knew more about her than they actually did.
TH: And Ecuador and Switzerland. I think I got the expected parallels—the colorful richness of South America, the order and straitlaced-ness of Switzerland. But other than that, why those countries specifically?
MTL: You’re right, that those places fit with the sisters’ personalities, but to be honest, I didn’t spend a long time consciously choosing those countries. It all came about pretty organically. Like I had Miranda meet this Swiss guy, and then I thought, “Ok, I’d better figure out this town where they’re moving to in Switzerland!”
TH: Screenplay first, then short stories, then some of those you wove into your novel. Do you have a preference for form? Might your non-Bok Sisters short stories end up in a collection?
MTL:: I do love the short story form. I’d stopped reading them for a while, but recently picked up a copy of Best American Short Stories, and was reminded of how perfect a short story can feel—unlike a novel, which to me is just big and messy and always has some flaw or other. But I did channel so many of my short stories into this novel; I don’t think I have too many left for a collection! Also, now that I’ve entered into the world of publishing, I’m more mindful about what a publisher might want. It does feel different, knowing that what you write has to get marketed and sold! I think the purity of that first book is something really special.
TH: From your website, I see you’re very much a reader—as a writer, does that extensive reading hinder or enlighten? What might be your three favorites from this past year?
MTL: I think it both hinders and enlightens. For example, I’ll find great ideas when I’m reading other people’s books, but also the writing style can influence my own. Which isn’t something I want when I’m actively writing (because I’m highly suggestible, and may subconsciously mimic other styles).
Last year I loved Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, and I just finished Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, which was epic and awesome. One non-fiction book that stood out was Ron Powers’ No One Cares About Crazy People, which is part memoir and part history of our country’s mental health system. And I also read some YA, which was new to me. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, and I just started John Green’s new one, Turtles All the Way Down.
TH: Is YA a form you might consider writing in the future?
MTL: Well, as I mentioned before, I can be highly suggestible, so it’s not out of the question!
TH: Your first book tour is coming up! What are you hoping to accomplish? Any reservations or fears?
MTL: Um, well …. I hope some people show up! (Isn’t it every author’s nightmare, to show up to a room of empty seats? Though, I used to play in bands and I can’t tell you how many gigs I had where we played for the bartender…) But seriously, I think it will be a really nice way to connect with people, and I’m looking forward to that. And I’m thankful for the opportunities to talk about some of the things that are meaningful to me, like mental illness, and writing cross-culturally, and empathy, and the role of fiction in today’s world.
TH: And always the final question that has to be asked … what are you working on now?
MTL: I have a couple of ideas for a possible next novel, and bits and pieces of a few different things. Still not sure if/how these will come together. I’ve also been working on a couple of children’s picture books—that’s been kind of fun, just because it’s so completely different!