Jen Sookfong Lee on $10 rosé and spying on strangers who read her books
A social worker, reeling from her mother's recent death, discovers the bodies of two young girls in her mother's freezer. This startling premise launches Jen Sookfong Lee's latest novel The Conjoined, a dark and twisting narrative about a woman who seemed like the perfect mother and a pair of wild foster sisters that no one bothered to look for.
Jen Sookfong Lee was a juror for the 2017 CBC Short Story Prize. Below, she answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Will Ferguson asks, "If you weren't an author, what would you be? (And don't say architect. Everyone says architect.)"
What I really want to say is a Broadway musical actor, but the reality is I would probably be working as a communications manager for a not-for-profit, which is what I used to do before writing went to my head and I quit my real job. I've been told I would be a good politician, which I'm pretty sure is an insult disguised as a compliment.
2. George Elliott Clarke asks, "What is your favourite font — or typeface? Why?"
For writing, I use Garamond, which I like because everyone knows it, but it also has clean, thin lines, which is visually pleasant in a font. For the same reasons, I go back to Helvetica a lot for other kinds of documents, like CVs. I used to design things for print and web a long time ago, and I had a whole cache of obscure fonts I obsessed over like a good graphics nerd, but now all I really care about is that my documents are legible and aren't written in Times New Roman, which is totally evil and everyone knows it.
3. C.C. Humphreys asks, "What is your favourite part of the process? First draft, final edit, something in between?"
Draft three! I know, it's so specific, but, for me, that's usually a structural edit, and there is nothing I love more about writing than mulling over structure. By then, the basic story is done: I know who the characters are and what happens to them. The challenge with structure is to figure out the shape of the novel that suits them best. How can I build a book that allows the reader to experience the story the way I want them to? How do I fit all these scenes together? The process is equal parts jigsaw puzzle, Machiavellian plotting and self-inflicted torture. But I love it anyway.
4. Shani Mootoo asks, "Is the writing life a selfish indulgence, a narcissistic quest, or a plain crazy way to try and make a living?"
I think it's all those things! There really isn't anything more indulgent than believing that I can tell a particular story better than anyone else in the entire world. I mean, come on. Is there a dentist out there who thinks only she can perform a root canal properly? For writers to produce, we have to be alone a lot. To be in our own company, with nothing but the voices in our heads for a soundtrack, is truly narcissistic. However, at the very least, if we're good at what we do, then maybe, just maybe, our books will have the social life that we don't.
Don't get me started on how crazy it is to make a living this way. I was on a group chat with some old friends recently, and they were talking about the best way to travel to Paris with children, and all I could do was weep into my $10 rosé.
5. Katherine Govier asks, "What do you think and feel when the first finished copy of your book is placed in your hands? Are you critical, or enraptured?"
I clutch it to my chest and cry. And then I open it somewhere in the middle and deeply sniff the pages. That's not a joke. This has happened every single time. After several years of being critical of a book-in-progress, I can't generate more critical thoughts by the time it's printed. I'm just emotionally overwrought.
6. Robert J. Sawyer asks, "Yes, sure, you're a writer, and many good writers eschew adjectives. But if you had to prepend one and only one, which would it be? A Canadian writer? A feminist writer? An ambitious writer? An entertaining writer? A literary writer? A reclusive writer? Why that choice?"
I think I would call myself a social writer, partly because I'm an extrovert (very uncommon for a writer, I know) and partly because my writing, whether it's fiction, nonfiction or poetry, is very concerned with the social — with popular culture, with the ways in which communities interact, and with the words we use to make sense of humanity. Which sounds very serious, now that I think about it. Perhaps this is just a long-winded excuse for how much I love Carly Rae Jepsen.
7. Cordelia Strube asks, "What keeps you writing?"
Everywhere I go, I stumble across hidden stories. Sometimes, it's the story of an immigrant stay-at-home mother who doesn't have a public, recorded life. Her story will die when she dies. Sometimes, it's the story of a boy who grew up in the inner city, who bounces from foster care to relatives and back again, and who will spend his adult life worrying about housing and employment. Or sometimes, it's a woman in palliative care whom no one ever visits. For me, the driving force behind my desire to write is to bring stories to the world that would otherwise never get told. There are invisible stories everywhere. Everyone's life deserves its own story.
8. Bill Richardson asks, "If you were to see someone reading your book in a public place — a plane, a cafe — would you introduce yourself?"
No. I would stare instead and try to determine their reactions to my book by observing their facial expressions. Once I saw someone skimming my first novel at a bookstore and I hid behind a pillar whispering, "Buy it. Buy it. Buy it." He must have heard me because he put it back on the shelf.