This podcast transcript was handcrafted of locally sourced alphabetical letters by Garlic Knitter, master of fine transcripts. Many thanks.
Here are the books we discuss:
Sarah Wendell: Hello, and welcome to another DBSA podcast! That stands for Dear Bitches and Smart Authors, and I’m Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.
With me this week is Marjorie Liu, who is connected to me through her publicist because she has both a book and an animated movie that she wrote coming out, and they wanted to know if I was interested in talking to her about those things. [Laughs] Yeah! I originally met up with Marjorie last fall in Australia when we were both guests of the Brisbane and Melbourne Writers Festival, so she and I had had a wonderful conversation in Australia, and it was really fun to continue it over a podcast, even though instead of being in the same place with a multilevel tower of sandwiches, she was in Tokyo and I was in New Jersey, which is not nearly the same thing. In the interview, we talk about the final book in her series, which is out now, as well as, as well as a bunch of other subjects, including manga, minorities, portrayals of minorities in popular culture. It’s a very wide-ranging conversation, but I hope you find it interesting.
The music that you’re listening to was provided by Sassy Outwater, and I will have information at the end of the podcast as to who this is.
And Penguin would like to remind you, don’t miss Feral Heat, Jennifer Ashley’s paranormal romance of forbidden desire. For a shifter, there’s a fine, dangerous line between ecstasy and savagery, and these two lovers are about to walk it. I’ll have information at the end of the podcast about this book and where you can find it.
And now, on with the podcast!
Sarah: So, you are in – are you in Tokyo or Hong Kong?
Marjorie: I’m in Tokyo at the moment.
Sarah: What are you doing in Tokyo?
Marjorie: I came for a literary festival, and –
Marjorie: Yeah, and then, and then we decided to stay, like, an extra 30 days.
Sarah: Well, sure!
Marjorie: Yeah, why not?
Sarah: Why not, right?
Marjorie: So it’s kind of a combination of research, research trip and vacation.
Sarah: Isn’t it nice to be a writer? Everything you do is so portable!
Marjorie: You know what? It’s, it is such a blessing.
Marjorie: I have to tell you, it is, it is a blessing in ways that, that, that if one tries to describe it, then they think you’re bragging, but it’s like – [laughs] Sorry!
Sarah: No, I, believe me, have alphabet, will travel.
Marjorie: You know, I always wanted to tell stories. You know, I loved to read. I always wanted to tell stories, and as I got older, you know – ‘cause it, it took me a while to figure out that, like, that one could write for a living. Even later, like, I knew that even if I ever wrote a book, like, chances were good I’d, like, you know, chances were, like, more than good I would still need a day job, but –
Sarah: And you have to degrees in Asian Studies and, do you have a, a secondary degree in science?
Marjorie: Yeah! In Biomedical Ethics.
Sarah: Yeah, you know, like you do.
Marjorie: [Laughs] ‘Cause the two really go, go together, right? [Laughs]
Sarah: Totally, yeah.
Marjorie: What is it, John Scalzi has a saying. He says, I’m too lazy to fail.
Marjorie: At this point, yeah, like, I, I sort of feel the same way, that, that this is, this is it for me.
Sarah: You have this incredibly cool career! Like, do you ever turn around and look behind you and go, holy shit! Look what I did! [Laughs]
Marjorie: I do, actually.
Marjorie: And I, I really, I – well, because it’s, it’s, it’s not out of, like, it’s just this sort of weird combination of surprise and then just, like, I don’t know. Like, I’m afraid, I’m almost afraid to think about it too much –
Marjorie: – ‘cause I’m afraid that, you know, it might go away.
Sarah: Do not look directly at the awesome. The awesome will go away.
Marjorie: Exac-, well, well, no, but it’s, you know, just being able to have the opportunity to tell stories in different ways –
Sarah: Oh, yeah.
Marjorie: – and so, you know, I think we talked about this before when we were, ‘cause we, when we were in Australia, but I – to, to be able to write novels and have the opportunity to tell a story in, in prose format, but then to also be able to tell a story as a comic book, combining both the visual and, and the literary, it’s profoundly, it’s like a profoundly pleasurable experience. [Laughs]
Sarah: Oh, I can, I cannot imagine.
Marjorie: It really is, and so I think I think about, more about that, just the pleasure of being able to turn around and say, okay, you know what, I have an idea, but I think this would work better as a comic book instead of a novel, and to be able to say, yeah, I can do this too, that I’m not just, you know, I’m not constrained to one form or the other, it’s, it’s really a liberating feeling.
Sarah: Oh, yeah. And the more I see authors self publishing and exploring different options for their careers, every now and again on Twitter, I’ll see somebody say, I think I want to write a graphic novel next, and having people go, oh, I’m doing it! It’s so fun! Like, you can –
Sarah: – you can expand your, your media. You know?
Sarah: Whatever, whatever medium you’re working in, you can diversify that into visual and three-dimensional and – I mean, there’s so many options now.
Marjorie: Well, and there’s, and within comic books, the genres are so, like, it’s the same, it’s completely – I mean, it’s not superheroes anymore, basically.
Marjorie: And so you can write a graphic memoir, you can do, you can do journalism, you know –
Marjorie: – like, via, via the graphic novel format, you can tell any story you want. And I have always been afraid of stagnating. I like being able to do different things and push myself, and I think doing so, it just, it keeps me fresh and it keeps me, it keeps my mind very mobile. When I did have the chance years ago to tran- I hate to use the word “transition,” because it sounds like I left novels behind, and that’s not the case, even though I did sort of take a break.
Sarah: So let’s talk about some of the awesome things you have going on now. You have a book coming out, or a book that just came out –
Marjorie: Yeah! It just came out –
Sarah: – and then you have a movie coming out.
Marjorie: I know, isn’t that weird? The novel is Labyrinth of Stars, and it’s the fifth –
Sarah: And this is the last Maxine book, right?
Marjorie: Yeah, yeah, I think it – you know, it’s funny, because I do feel like it’s the last novel in the Hunter Kiss series in this particular format, which is to say that, that I still feel like there are stories to be told in the Hunter Kiss universe. I don’t know how I will tell them exactly. I don’t know if they’ll be in a graphic novel format. I don’t know if I’m going to, you know, whether or not it’ll be short stories, if I’ll tell stories from a different point, you know, point in her life or, you know, or if I’ll even flash forward to her daughter. Like, I’m just not sure yet. But this particular arc of her life is finished.
Marjorie: You know, as far as, as far as telling it in this format.
Marjorie: And, and I wasn’t, I, I wasn’t sure of that when I first started writing the novel, but then the more I continued and – I just felt like I’m not sure how I would do it.
Marjorie: I just, I need time, like, to actually re-evaluate and think about it, because the ending of the novel is so, like, out there.
Marjorie: I just, I just, you know, I’m not sure where I would go, really, like, from that. I mean, I do, I have some ideas, but, but to put it in a novel format like that, it just, it would be, it would be very, very difficult right now, as it stands, and, and there are some other things I want to work on, too, to be honest.
Sarah: No kidding. There’s been a little bit of a gap between this book and the previous Maxine book, right?
Sarah: So, has the same amount of time passed in her world, or does this book pick up where the last one left off?
Marjorie: This book pretty much picks up where the last one left off. It’s only been about three months, two to three months.
Sarah: So it’s a much shorter timeline.
Marjorie: Much shorter timeline.
Sarah: Was it a different perspective for you to come back after so much time away, to go back into the world so immediately?
Marjorie: Absolutely. Absolutely it was, because I, I found that my voice had changed.
Marjorie: Not, like, drastically, but after taking a year, you know, or so just to experiment writing other things and focusing on graphic novels and, and just, you know, dabbling in short stories, I, my voice had changed, and so coming back to the Hunter Kiss world, trying to write this novel, was very, very difficult for me. I had about five or six false starts where I would write maybe, I don’t know, 30 to 40 pages of the novel, and I’d have to stop and sit back and be like, okay, well, you know what, this is fine. This is all fine, you know, what I’m writing, but it doesn’t sound like Maxine, and it took me a while to get back into the series. It took me a while to find her voice again and, actually, to find my voice as, as it pertained to the series, like, a way to sort of – I didn’t want to write, I couldn’t make it so radically different, I mean –
Sarah: Of course.
Marjorie: – it’s, it’s a series, and it’s Maxine.
Sarah: This question might be a bit of a stretch, but was going back to Maxine, sort of like Past Marjorie’s creations, sort of like picking up some of the characters that you’ve worked at and worked, worked within the Marvel universe that were someone else’s creation, and you had to come back and get to know them before you could move them forward? Was it a similar process?
Marjorie: Well, it’s interesting, because for some of the characters, yes, actually, it was. Not – Maxine, a little bit with Maxine, but, but more with the boys, more with Grant –
Marjorie: – and there were some secondary characters that I actually just couldn’t, I couldn’t really return to, just because I couldn’t find them, like, in my voice, and so, unfortunately, that’s why they were left out of the novel. Like, I would have put them in the novel, but I couldn’t return to them again. As a writer, I feel like I should have just been able to turn it on and be like, okay, you know what, I, this is my character, I can, I know this character, it’s, it’s mine, you know. Certainly, I can, I can write this person again.
Sarah: Of course.
Marjorie: But, but I found, I found that wasn’t the case with, with all of them. I think because Maxine was so, so, so much a part of me, she was the hardest, not because, not because I was unf-, you know, I’d forgotten her but because, but because our, our voices were so close, or had been so close, and now they, they weren’t. So it was almost like Maxine was written, you know, at a time when I was, I was, I just had a very different writing voice. It just wasn’t me anymore.
Sarah: How, how excited are you for this book? Is this sort of like, is this, is this really ebullient excitement, like fizzy and bubbles, or are you just sort of like, oh, this is scary ‘cause it’s been a while?
Marjorie: It’s both, both.
Marjorie: I was really, I was, I was really excited that I finished the book. [Laughs]
Sarah: Yeah. You know what, finishing it is just, like, you know what, you, you get, you get a yacht just for doing that. [Laughs]
Marjorie: That, that was a celebration all unto itself. I tell you, finishing that book was a huge relief.
Sarah: Especially after false starts of 30 to 40 pages each.
Marjorie: Yeah! Let me tell you –
Sarah: Oh, gosh!
Marjorie: – that was, that was not fun.
Marjorie: I mean, it was a learning process, but – and I managed it. Yeah, I’m nervous. I’m nervous ‘cause it has been, like, a couple years since I’ve had a novel out, but also I just, I do feel sort of a, more than anything, just a deep sense of comfort that I didn’t escape entirely.
Sarah: Nope, and, and you got to tell her story all the way through.
Marjorie: Exactly, exactly. So, I would say that’s, that is, that is the predominant feeling, one of just, just happiness and comfort.
Sarah: The other thing I’ve been dying to ask you about, because this is so cool, is you have a film that you have written coming out, an animated movie.
Marjorie: Yes, this is true.
Sarah: This is so completely badass. Could you please tell us about this, ‘cause this is so cool!
Marjorie: Well, thank you. I, this was another surprising sort of offer that came on a table a couple years ago, actually. So, Marvel’s been doing a series of, of animated films, and they’re all done in the anime style. They’re all, they’re all made in Japan –
Marjorie: – and, so they did, you know, Iron Man, and I think, I can’t remember if they, I think they had one for the Avengers on a slate. And so they just said, well, you know, we have this, we have this idea for a film. We want to do a, a Black Widow versus Punisher film. Would you like to write the story for it? I mean, that’s all they had. Literally they said to me it was Black, they just, they said, Black Widow versus Punisher, and they said, what do you think? And I’m like, well, yeah, I’m on. Like – [laughs] just, like, tell me what you want me to do. And so they said, well, just write the story. And so, basically, I just sat down and I, and I thought, okay, it’s Black Widow versus Punisher, and it’s, basically, in some ways it was like writing a comic book script, except without a lot of dialogue. It was even, in some ways, one could, could describe it as a synopsis for a novel, but basically, I just wrote the story, you know, just outlining what happens, you know, in each scene, and sometimes I would throw in lines of dialogue, but for the most part a very detailed story.
Sarah: Have you seen it? Have you seen it all the way through?
Marjorie: I haven’t seen it all the way through. I’ve seen clips of it.
Sarah: Is it weird to see your story in that medium?
Marjorie: It’s very weird.
Marjorie: It actually is weird, and the thing is, I don’t even know, because – Like I, it may not even be exactly the story I wrote. Like, it’s hard to say, because after, when something’s adapted –
Marjorie: – you know, it’s the, the next writer puts their input in, and once the animation process begins, you know, they put their input in. So I don’t even know how close it will be to the original. It’s interesting, because having worked on comic books, once you work on comic books, working on film isn’t, it is not radically different, and so it was, I have to say, writing those, those comics all those years, it was good training for this. Good training for this, good training for the, the video game that I did a couple years ago, too, and it was, it’s all very much linked to these, these visual mediums combined with the literary. It’s funny how things work out. [Laughs]
Sarah: And it’s, and it’s dialogue and emotion in the dialogue.
Sarah: Because you don’t get all those paragraphs of, you know, what the character’s looking at and thinking and feeling –
Sarah: You have to communicate that all through what they say.
Sarah: Oh, that’s a challenge. Which is totally awesome for me, because I’m the horrible reader who reads all the dialogue and is like, wow, that’s like five paragraphs of exposition. I’m going to skim that.
Sarah: Dialogue! Oh, that’s what I like, dialogue. People are talking. I love, I love a good book that’s heavy on dialogue, because it’s –
Marjorie: Me too!
Sarah: – you’re, you’re like, you’re eavesdropping on people.
Sarah: You’re not supposed to do that.
Marjorie: That’s why I like Jenny Crusie so much.
Sarah: Oh, yes, and, and Julie James. Have you read her?
Marjorie: Oh, yes.
Sarah: Oh, God. She’s a, she’s a screenwriter; she’s a scriptwriter, and I think she started writing screenplays first and then started writing novels, but her books are just so much, oh, so much good dialogue. So wonderful. [Laughs]
So, I have heard rumors online that there’s going to be a Black Widow movie, like a feature film.
Marjorie: I’ve heard the same rumors.
Sarah: Do you get to write it?
Marjorie: Probably not. [Laughs]
Sarah: Can I nominate you? Is there someone I can call and be like, yo?
Marjorie: Oh, sure.
Marjorie: That would be great, but, but I think, I think I have a ice, what is it, a snowball’s chance in hell?
Sarah: I don’t know, you, you’re, you’re as fluent in Black Widow as anyone else.
Marjorie: Well, I have, I will say I love the character. She’s probably my, my favorite character in the Marvel universe. I, I admit to being a bit biased.
Sarah: What do you like about her? ‘Cause I like her too, but I like her because she’s human.
Marjorie: Exactly. That’s –
Sarah: You know, she’s a fierce human.
Marjorie: That’s exactly why I love her. She has no superpowers.
Marjorie: You know, she doesn’t have any powers. She stands as the equal beside, besides, like, a god. Besides all these guys with superpowers. The genius Iron Man, a.k.a., Robert Downey, Jr. [Laughs] And she holds her own. She always holds her own, and in fact, not only that, she’s usually one step ahead of them. And, you know, and there’s a reason why she – now, I’m not talking about the film now, but in the comics, there’s a reason why she once led the Avengers. There’s a reason why these guys are intimidated by her. She’s just incredibly smart, and she’s incredibly well trained and disciplined. As far as the writer goes, and, but, as a reader, too, that’s deeply, deeply attractive to find a character who is so human and so much a woman and so deeply, profoundly sure of herself.
Marjorie: It’s really beautiful, you know. I just love her as a character.
Sarah: And they respect her.
Sarah: They treat her with, not deference because she’s female; they treat her as she’s one of the crew.
Marjorie: Yeah, absolutely. She’s one of –
Sarah: That’s a tremendously difficult position to be in.
Marjorie: It’s tremendously difficult, but also it’s, it’s, it’s very unusual now, in some ways, because I, I feel like, you know, I watch a lot of film and I watch, watch a lot of television, and, and, and I’m always reading, and so often the female characters become, they’re not really people. They’re, like, caricatures of, like, the badass woman or the, you know, like, they’re the rescue job. They’re a sex object. But they’re not really people, and the thing about Black Widow is that she is, she always seems like a fully rounded person. She, she’s a woman. She’s a soldier. She’s a spy. She’s all of these things.
Marjorie: She’s not just, like, a false image of, you know, of what people think a woman should be.
Marjorie: Like, you know, like the stereotype of, you know, what a female spy should be or, or blah blah blah, you know. She feels very fleshed out.
Sarah: And she has a vulnerability.
Sarah: And it’s not just the fact that she’s human and you can kill her.
Sarah: I mean, and, and she can get her, and she can obviously have the crap beat out of her, but she has an incredible amount of strength and vulnerability.
Marjorie: Yes. Absolutely.
Sarah: And she uses both, and it’s, like, it’s fascinating to see how she uses her own vulnerability.
Marjorie: I just remember when I was writing her, I just felt so keenly that this was a woman who had, she’d been through hell. She’d seen everything. She’d seen everything. Some of the hardship and, and the, the various tortures that she’s endured, and despite all of this, instead of it making her hard and brittle –
Marjorie: – it’s just made her more compassionate. Will she kill the bad guy? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean that she’s, you know, a cold, hard person. She’s –
Marjorie: – she’s deeply compassionate, and she has a deep sense of honor and, and a sense of right from wrong, and I think that for a character like her that, that has seen so much, her heart has only gotten bigger. Like, it hasn’t, it, you know, it hasn’t contracted, and that’s another mark of her character that I love very much.
Sarah: Oh, yes. And the, and the fact that she is able to balance the, the good and the bad that she’s doing.
Sarah: Like, she’s aware of what she’s doing –
Sarah: – and that sense of compassion makes her, it makes her actions more, and her decisions more powerful.
Marjorie: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Sarah: So, do you get to play her in the movie?
Marjorie: Ha ha ha. [Laughs]
Sarah: Could we have, like, Marjorie versus Scarlett Johansson? Like, have that?
Marjorie: Oh. I would not even, I would not even try to compete.
Sarah: [Laughs] She did do a very good job with that character.
Marjorie: Oh, my gosh, she’s amazing. She’s absolutely amazing.
Sarah: And she has that, that stillness in her face –
Sarah: – that, like, you know something’s about to happen, but you have no idea what it is, ‘cause it’s –
Marjorie: It’s really –
Sarah: – it’s an active stillness.
Marjorie: It is, and it’s funny, because when she was first announced for the role I was like, ehhh, like everyone. Like, it’s, you know, it wasn’t to the same degree as when Matt Damon’s writing partner, [snaps fingers] um –
Sarah: Oh, [laughs] Ben Affleck!
Marjorie: Ben Affleck! I knew it started – I, I can’t believe I forgot his name. When Ben Affleck was, was announced as the actor who’s going to play Batman –
Sarah: Yes, and everyone was like, what?!
Marjorie: The, like, cries of horror that rose on the Internet were –
Marjorie: – were just, like, deafening. I didn’t feel that way when I heard that Scarlett Johansson had been cast, but I, I just, you know, I, it’s just, I was okay. Well, that’s, that’s interesting. And then once I saw her in the movies, I was like, ah, like, I –
Sarah: I get it.
Marjorie: – I got it. I got it, and she –
Marjorie: – she’s been perfect. She’s been perfect for the role.
Sarah: One of the things that you talked about while we were in Australia together was that you were the only woman of color at Marvel.
Sarah: Are you still often the only woman of color in the, in the realms in which you’re working?
Sarah: So how wide of a trail are you blazing for people to follow you? Like, are you just pushing off people to the side and being like, okay, everybody, let’s go! I have the, I’m, I’ve broken in!
Sarah: Run for the door! Go, go! [Laughs]
Marjorie: It’s, it’s weird, I – it’s not something that I sit ar-, I mean, yeah –
Sarah: Sit around and think about it all the time?
Marjorie: Yeah, that would be, that would be weird. Like, that would actually just be, like, really weird. But –
Sarah: That’s a lot of navel gazing.
Marjorie: Well, yeah.
Marjorie: I would have, I, there’d be a real problem with me if that was how I was spending my time. It does come up, because, not just because people will ask me, but because every now and then I do get emails from people, and they’ll be like, hey, by the way, you know, I’m Chinese or, you, you know, I’m a, I’m a woman of color, and I saw your last name on the cover of a romance novel, and I didn’t know that Chinese people were writing romances. That, when that happens, I’m like, okay. All right. You know, this is, this is, this is, this is good, this is important.
Marjorie: It also becomes important too – I feel like, that there’s many stories, they’re, most of the stories that are being told right now in, in mainstream fiction and in comic books both, there’s no room for girls of color. Like, there’s just no room for them. They don’t have a voice there. They don’t have a presence. The, you know, overwhelmingly, most of the characters in YA novels are white.
Marjorie: And it’s the same in comic books.
Marjorie: It’s the same in film.
Marjorie: And, so, for people who are looking for a, a mirror, for people who are looking to see themselves reflected in the fiction they’re reading, in the, their, in the, the movies they’re watching, in the comic books, there’s nothing there for them. There’s just an absolute absence, and I think that that, that absence, that lack of a reflection, it’s so, it’s become so commonplace and so, and so all-consuming that we don’t even notice it, necessarily. Like, we take it for granted that all romance heroines are white.
Marjorie: And all romance heroes are white. Like, it’s so much so that, that if a character wasn’t white, I think we might not even notice it then, like –
Marjorie: – just because that’s, that’s such the default.
Marjorie: And I think that really deforms a person’s perception of their place in the world. If you are a young Chinese girl and you’re not seeing yourself reflected ever, ever, you know, in the work you’re reading, well, okay, like, that’s, how does that, how, how does that affect how you see yourself, how you see your value in terms of fiction? Like, if you yourself become a writer, like, let’s say there’s a little Chinese girl and she wants to be a writer, is she going to tell stories about the Chinese experience, or is she going to tell stories about the white, mainstream experience? Like, and how, like – Do you know what I mean? Like, how does that –
Sarah: I know exactly what you mean.
Marjorie: Yeah! How does that affect one’s self identity and how you, you relate to the rest of the world, when you never see yourself anywhere? Or, when you do see yourself reflected, it’s in terrible stereotypes, like the whole, you know, Orientalism. I mean, like, basically, like, I, I love, you know, I love Hugh Jackman, like, I love the character of Wolverine, but this movie, like, the, the latest Wolverine movie that came out, you know, sure, it was – I, I enjoyed it at a base level –
Marjorie: – but on a deeper level, I couldn’t enjoy it, ‘cause it’s basically about Wolverine going to Japan, killing all the evil Asian men and then taking all the Japanese women.
Marjorie: I mean, that’s really, like, the, the base level of what that movie’s about.
Sarah: So colonialism.
Marjorie: And the same thing with Pacific Rim. You have –
Sarah: Oh, God!
Marjorie: I mean, that movie, I mean, I could – I, I went into that movie with such high hopes and basically came out feeling like someone had given me paper towels for Christmas.
Marjorie: Like, that, that was my reaction to seeing that movie. And part of it had to do with, I mean –
Sarah: [Still laughing] Paper towels!
Marjorie: All, like all, you know, there were many things wrong with that movie, but when, but the race issues, like, you have, you have the, the, the three white saviors –
Marjorie: – who all look identical.
Sarah: Of course.
Marjorie: You have the, the, the Japanese woman who at, in every camera shot, in every way is portrayed as, almost like, in, in certain camera angles she’s almost portrayed like, they shoot her like she’s a little girl.
Marjorie: Like, so she’s infantilized. She’s supposed to be this, this, you know, really important pilot, but all she does is sort of stare longingly at her, you know, at her, her copilot, her big, strapping, white Australian man. Like, her role was just sort of useless. The Oriental doll, basically. But this is typical.
Marjorie: This is, this is really standard, where – and then, like, every television show that I can, I can, I can think of, they always have their Chinatown episode.
Sarah: [Laughs] Yes, ‘cause they need to have the diversity.
Sarah: Well, they have, they have their – It’s like that one episode that features that one actor for his Emmy award. This will be their diversity episode –
Sarah: – so we’ll go to Chinatown.
Marjorie: Exactly. They always have a Chinatown episode where they get to play the, the stereotypical Chinese, like, ding-dong music and talk about the Yakuza or the Chinese mafia. It’s frustrating and wearying. It makes me want to do something about it.
Sarah: Which you so totally have!
Marjorie: Well, that’s kind of you to say. I feel like I haven’t done enough. I think one of my goals in the future – and I’ve been thinking about this long and hard – is to start telling more stories that reflect voices that are going unheard. And even my own voice, when I was growing up as someone who is of mixed race, I never, I never saw myself reflected in fiction, in movies. Not, not in a way that was realistic. Not in a way that, that, that felt like it touched on the actual experience. And of course everyone has actual, you know, a different experience growing up, you know, biracial in America. That’s something I’ve been thinking long and hard about, and I’m beginning to sort of involve myself more in, in different organizations. I’ll be teaching this summer at, at VONA, the Voices of Our Nation workshop, which is for, which is for writers of color, you know.
Sarah: Oh, that’s cool!
Marjorie: It’s not something I ever envisioned for myself, because I’m, I’m still shy. I’m still very, very shy. In the past couple years, I’ve, I’ve been learning how to overcome that shyness and put myself out there more, and – which has, it’s been really good for me. It’s been a long process, but a, a good one, but –
Sarah: It’s hard to do, though.
Marjorie: It’s really hard to do, especially, I’ve trained myself too well to stay within my shell and keep to myself, you know. I, I’ve got my routine.
Sarah: [Laughs] Yeah, I know exactly what you mean!
Marjorie: Yeah! It’s like, it’s, you get into your bubble, you get into your routine. I would, I got up, like, I had my, for eight years I had my routine where I’d get up every morning and I’d work, and, you know, I had my cats and I had my dog and I had my, like, errands I’d run during the day, but basically, I was at home –
Marjorie: – doing my thing writing.
Marjorie: And I did this for eight years. And it was good, but it was deeply isolating, and I had to learn a whole new vocabulary for myself when I decided that enough was enough and I needed to start, like, going out into the world.
Sarah: One of the things that I’ve noticed, though, especially on Twitter in the last few years, you know, three years ago on Twitter I watched a bunch of governments fall –
Sarah: – on Twitter because the American media didn’t cover it at all. Now I’m watching, I think, a sort of a, a cultural uprising, particularly in the United States, as more writers have the opportunity to reach their audiences directly and have the ability to say to a publisher, no, this does have an audience –
Sarah: – and have more writers say, I want to write this experience of my culture, and I want, I want people who, who are like me to see themselves in romance, which, if there’s ever a place where you want someone to be able to see themselves, romance would be it.
Marjorie: No kidding!
Sarah: Because the, the ultimate message is you are valuable exactly the way you are, and you deserve happiness.
Marjorie: Abs-, yeah, I –
Sarah: Like, I don’t think there’s any topping that.
Marjorie: No, there isn’t. There is, there is no topping that, and that is, that is the truth. To have, like, readers out there who feel like that, that, this is denied them –
Sarah: That’s not okay.
Marjorie: No, it’s not okay. It’s not okay.
Sarah: I agree. And I, I do want to tell you about a book before I forget –
Sarah: – because I really liked this book, despite some really sort of ridiculous plot twists. There is a Harlequin Superromance called Back to the Good Fortune Diner by Vicki Essex, and –
Marjorie: What a title!
Sarah: The heroine is Chinese-American. Her, her fam-, her parents and grandparents, I believe, are the ones who immigrated, and she and her brother were born in the United States, and they live in a small town in upstate New York, and her family owns the Chinese food restaurant that everyone goes to.
Marjorie: Oh, my gosh.
Sarah: And she is determined to get the hell out of town, so she goes through high school, she doesn’t have very many friends, she tutors this really popular guy in a class, and then she graduates and she gets out of town, and then in the bad economy she loses her job, and she has to move back home as an adult. And it is this incredible crushing depression for this character, because she has failed in, in her own estimations, and her parents are like, why are you here? [Laughs] You should not be here, you were in the job, why are you back home? And she doesn’t want to be at home, and she doesn’t want to work in a restaurant. She doesn’t want to work over the steam table, and she doesn’t want to have to deal with her parents fighting all the time. And then the, the guy that she used to tutor, he ended up inheriting his father’s farm, and he had a son very young, and so he has a son who is now in high school, and she ends up tutoring his son and getting to know his family. And it is so incredible; I read this book, and I was just, oh, I was so into it, because I, I had so much empathy for her experience, and I had so much – I just, I just thought this book was amazing. Like, I thought –
Marjorie: You’re killing me. The description of it, like, the way you describe this book sounds amazing.
Sarah: I thought it was so great.
Marjorie: That is a total must-read.
Sarah: The only problem I had was that his father was a bodacious racist. Like, he wasn’t even half.
Sarah: He was, he was racist all the way to 11. Like, there was just, any minute now, he was just going to drop an N-bomb, like, he was that bad, and because it’s a Harlequin, there’s this incredible moment of realization, and I’m like, yeah, that doesn’t actually happen in real life –
Sarah: – but you know what, Harlequin, you go ahead and you dream that dream. You go ahead! Curing the racism!
Marjorie: Well, it –
Sarah: And yet, the rac-, the racism that the father, like, he says these things that are, like, not only just the huge, like, bombs of, dude, seriously, did you just say this? But he always, he does the, the microagressions.
Marjorie: Oh, gosh.
Sarah: Like, you know, like, well, you know, your people are always good at math.
Marjorie: Oh, God.
Sarah: He’ll just drop that bomb, and then he’ll say something even smaller, and it’s like, dude, that’s just as bad! And watching the hero negotiate his father, who, who already is mad that he can’t run the farm because he’s not well, oh, it’s just, there’s – The thing about Superromance is that often I think they, the writers are encouraged to pack as much as humanly possible into these little tiny books, and so sometimes there’s so many big issues that they can’t reconcile all of them, but the fact that they brought them up in the first place, I’m just like, this is great! Please feel free to rip my heart out and hand it to me –
Marjorie: See, I –
Sarah: – it’s totally fine!
Marjorie: I have to tell you, like, just your base description of this book sounds like it would be, like, if, if it was published outside Harlequin, like in some quote-unquote, like, highbrow, literary press –
Sarah: I know!
Marjorie: – people would be talking about it, like, across the nation.
Marjorie: Like, just your basic description of it.
Sarah: Oh, yeah. There’s a couple of Superromance authors that are, that are just, I just love how they are incorporating culture of different backgrounds. Like, Jennifer Lohmann has a series where the first book is Reservations for Two and The First Move, and then there’s another one, but the, the heroines of those books are from a Polish family –
Sarah: – and both of them are Polish chefs because their mother ran a very famous Polish restaurant in Chicago –
Sarah: – and the thing that’s fantastic about her writing is that not only did she get Chicago so right – like, I, I, I recognized it – the fact that they have an Eastern European mother who has a very specific set of rules about how you cook and how you live and how you keep your house –
Sarah: – and how you, how you behave, all of that informs them, and it’s, it’s just, it’s, it’s incredible when you look at, like –
Marjorie: That’s wonderful.
Sarah: – They have done this awesome stuff with the Superromance line. The more I think that there are writers who can say to their publishers, with evidence –
Sarah: – of, based on, you know, social media and interacting with readers online, no, really, there’s an audience for this. Here they are! Look, I can give you their names. You can talk to them right now, they’re online. They’re right here. [Laughs]
Marjorie: But also, not only that, but good stories are universal.
Sarah: Yep, yep.
Marjorie: And so it’s not just like, it’s not just saying, okay, I’m going to write about a Chinese character to target Chinese people, it’s about saying that all these stories are universal.
Sarah: So, before we go, what are you reading or what have you read recently that you would love more people to know about, aside, obviously, from your own most excellent books?
Marjorie: Ah, let’s see, I read a really interesting book, and it’s right here, ‘cause I brought it with me to Japan. I’m reading, like, a really good book. It’s, it’s a nonfiction book, actually. It’s called Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey.
Sarah: Wait, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans? This sounds like all of the things I like to, to read.
Marjorie: It’s actually a nonfiction book.
Sarah: A Spice Oddity, Odyssey.
Marjorie: Odyssey. It’s really, really good, and it’s by –
Sarah: Gary Paul Nabhan, Nabhan, Nabhan [trying different pronunciations].
Marjorie: There you go. Yeah, and it’s –
Sarah: I don’t know what to do with a B and an H together. Nabhan, Nabhan.
Marjorie: It’s, it’s very interesting, actually. I’ve really enjoyed it. And then, I’ve also, I’m finishing up – so I’m a huge fan of the, the manga, the mangaka Kaoru Mori, and she wrote the most brilliant, beautiful – I mean, she’s still working on it, so it’s not done yet, but – it’s a series called A Bride’s Story, and it’s set in Central Asia in the early 1900s, and it’s about a 20-year-old woman who is sent to marry a 12-year-old boy. It sounds like, it sounds like, okay, uh, that’s a little bit of an odd, you know, that’s weird. Except –
Sarah: Oh! I recognize this – this artist did Emma.
Sarah: Oh, my gosh, I had a review of someone who found Emma, the animated Emma, and was like, everyone on, in Netflix needs to watch this right now. So good!
Marjorie: Yes, and so she is amazing. She is absolutely, her art is brilliant, her stories are wonderful. Because of A Bride’s Story, I’m just now beginning to read Emma, and so, and I’m, I’m totally in love with Emma, but I actually got a chance to sit down with her –
Marjorie: – and meet her.
Marjorie: Yeah, last weekend, actually. It was, it was set up through the literary festival. I can’t say enough nice things about her. And then her sweetness shows through in the work she does, because her heroines are always very compassionate and romantic and – the thing I love about her, the women in her book is that they are completely non-sensational. Like, they’re not jumping off buildings, they’re not, you know, shooting guns, they’re not, like, superheroes, but within their situation, they are deeply proactive, deeply sure of themselves. Like, they, they make shit happen, basically.
Marjorie: It’s not easy to do. Like, it’s actually, it’s not an easy thing to tell a story about a woman that isn’t sensationalized in some way. Like, we don’t have this problem in romance novels, but I’m talking more about, I guess from, I was switching over, I was thinking about graphic novels for a moment, like, superheroes and things like that.
Marjorie: You know, a lot of times the idea is okay, so I’m, I’m writing a woman, so what do I do with her?
Marjorie: She can’t just be a woman; she has to have superpowers. She has to be this and that. You know, it’s not enough that she’s just a normal human being. And Kaoru Mori does not have that problem. She sees women as women and, and real women and strong, vital, alive women. I love her work; it’s really brilliant.
Sarah: And that’s all for this week’s podcast. I hope you enjoyed our discussion. I thought that was a really fascinating, fascinating conversation, and I’m so glad that Marjorie was up early and I was up late so we could meet at the same time, and I’m, I’m telling you, with Skype, there are times when I’m talking to somebody who’s on the other side of the planet. They sound like they’re on the couch next to me. It’s kind of amazing. The Internet, man, don’t, don’t ever leave me, Internet.
Sarah: The music that you’re listening to was provided by Sassy Outwater. This is “Room 215” by the Peatbog Faeries. You can find this on their album Dust, and I’ll have links to the album and to the song in the podcast entry.
Penguin InterMix would like you to know about Jennifer Ashley’s Feral Heat, a new paranormal romance novella of forbidden desire. Jace Warden is sent to the Shiftertown in Austin to find a way to free all the Shifters from their Collars. But pulling off the Collars can cause Shifters to go mad or kill them outright. When Jace meets Deni Rowe, a wolf Shifter with troubles of her own in the past, she volunteers to help him test Collar removal, and as they work together, they feel the mate bond begin. You can download your copy now wherever eBooks are sold. And thank you to Penguin InterMix for sponsoring the podcast.
I hope you liked this episode. If you have suggestions or questions or things you’d like me to ask Marjorie the next time I talk to her, hopefully with sandwiches, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can call us at 201-371-DBSA; that’s our Google voice number, and you can leave us a long and rambling, completely nonsensical voicemail, and we will love every second, we promise. One of the best parts of the podcast is the podcast email inbox, so thank you for writing to us. We’re going to do a listener mail episode very soon, ‘cause y’all have some good questions.
And wherever you are, Marjorie and Jane and myself wish you the very best of reading. Thanks for listening.