Books·How I Wrote It

Toronto novelist Lily Chu's The Stand-In puts representation at the heart of her debut rom-com

The Canadian author scored a big win when Hamilton actor Philippa Soo signed on to voice the audiobook version of The Stand-In, her debut novel about a Toronto woman who poses as the double of a famous Chinese movie star.

'Real life doesn't stop because we fall in love — even though we sometimes wish it would.'

Photo of Toronto writer Lily Chu
The Stand-In is Toronto author Lily Chu's debut novel. (Fred Lum)

Before writing her first rom-com book, Toronto author Lily Chu hadn't given much thought to writing romance novels. The Stand-In sprang from a nudge from her literary agent — but also from Chu's realization that the genre needed better representation of diversity in its characters and stories.

She put her knack for strong characterization and sense of place to work, devising the set-in-Toronto tale of Gracie Reed, who's just trying to hold it together after being fired by her overly "friendly" boss and dealing with being a caregiver for her aging mother.

Gracie's world quickly turns on its head when one day a SUV carrying Chinese cinema's golden couple, Wei Fangli and Sam Yao, pulls up beside her. Turns out she's a dead ringer for the famous actress — who asks Gracie to be her stand-in. But playing the role of an elegant movie star — and resisting Sam's charms — proves harder than Gracie bargained for.

It's a plot tailor-made for the big (or small) screen — and Chu scored a big win when award-winning actor Phillipa Soo, known for her role in the original Broadway run of the hit musical Hamilton, signed on to voice the audiobook version of The Stand-In, which was released prior to its publication in print.

Chu spoke with CBC Books about representation in romance and crafting stories that resonate with readers through writing The Stand-In.

From paranormal to rom-com

"I had initially started out writing in the paranormal genre, which means there's a lot of world-building above and beyond where it's set or other details — you have to figure out the magic and other speculative elements.

"But when it came to rom-com, in setting it in contemporary Toronto, everything was all right there — the world-building was really just about the characters' specific scenarios, rather than having to create an entire lexicon and perspective in a magical or paranormal world.

"It was my agent who initially said, 'Have you thought about writing rom-coms?' I said that I didn't really think that was something I could write, but in retrospect, that was mostly just because I hadn't really thought about it. I was just nervous about trying something new.

There are a lot of rom-coms that tackle topics like mental health, racism and discrimination and similar issues, and I usually really enjoy those books as a reader.

"But at the time, some not-great things were happening with representation in the romance industry, and I thought, 'I do want to write a book that addresses more of what I want to say about these topics.' There are a lot of rom-coms that tackle topics like mental health, racism and discrimination and similar issues, and I usually really enjoy those books as a reader. So I thought it was time to give it a shot and see where it ended up."

Representation matters

"I'm biracial, and when I was growing up, there just wasn't anything I could look to where I could see myself — I never saw those books in my small hometown library. And then as I got older, I had access to bigger cities and more books and things started to slowly change in publishing.

We're seeing so much more diversity in the characters we read about. It's very comforting to be seen.

"It's still not that great — but we're seeing so much more diversity in the characters we read about, and there are a ton of Canadian authors who write amazing Asian characters, and writers like Jackie Lau who also has biracial characters. And reading those books, when you're not used to seeing yourself in a book, is such an eye-opener. It's very comforting to be seen."

Landing an acclaimed actor for the audiobook

Actors Phillipa Soo, left, and Lin-Manuel Miranda appear in a performance of the musical Hamilton in New York. (Joan Marcus/The Associated Press)

"[Audiobook publisher] Audible raised the idea of Phillipa Soo doing the audiobook, but they make it clear that there are no promises. So I said sure, but I was thinking there was no way it would happen. And then I got an email from my editor saying Philippa was on board, and I think I screamed through the phone. It was like, 'Did this just happen? Or did my mind want that so much that I just made it up?'

"I got to speak with her before she recorded the audiobook, and she was very cool and nice. And her reading of it is just a different kind of perspective on the book and seeing how a performer looks at the content versus me as the writer was really interesting.

The audiobook experience can be really special when it's the right book matched with the right narrator, and for me, Phillipa was a perfect match.

"She has that tone of voice that just made Gracie's personality sparkle. And I also loved how she did Sam's voice. I think it's just that she really performs it, which is much different than simply reading it aloud. She gave it so much soul.

"I love print books because you can put your own spin on the nuances and do your own visualizations as the reader. But the audiobook experience can be really special when it's the right book matched with the right narrator, and I think for me, Phillipa was a perfect match."

Romance meets real life

"It wasn't an option for me not to touch on heavier issues even within the context of a rom-com. When we fall in love in real life, it's not like the rest of our life shuts down and you only focus on this new person in your life. You've still got to go to work with your handsy boss; you still have to help your mom who's got dementia; you still have to find the rent money. None of that stops because we fall in love — even though we sometimes wish it would.

"Authors that address issues like abuse, chronic pain, or mental health, for me it really adds a huge layer to the book and the characters I can connect with — and I wanted to do something similar. So when I was thinking about Gracie, it wasn't really an option for me not to include this other stuff in her life because it impacts her life and how she deals with the other characters."

Readers' response

"I've had some people write to me about reading the book, and that's always really special — like when someone takes time out of their day to say, 'Hey, I was having a tough time, and then the time I spent with your book just really got me through that week.' I hope my book can be a good distraction, whatever you're going through. That's really why I write books — in the hopes that it can serve that purpose for somebody.

To be able to trigger that kind of conversation — I never thought I could write something that would have that kind of an impact.

"And one of the most special responses I've received so far has been from a mom with a biracial kid who said, 'I read your book, and I really liked it because it made me think about some stuff that I hadn't necessarily thought about.' In some biracial families, there can be an avoidance in talking about race. But this person said, 'I sat down with my kid and I talked to her, and I got a whole new perspective on her experience.'

"To be able to trigger that kind of conversation — I never thought I could write something that would have that kind of an impact."

Lily Chu's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now