Person of Interest: Lillian Li

. November 30, 2018.

How has having a book out changed your day-to-day life?

My coworkers at [Literati] bookstore said, “Oh, we’re not going to be seeing you after the book comes out,” and I explained, my day-to-day has not really changed. I still teach at the University, I still work at the bookstore, pretty much the same hours. I heard that a lot of authors tend to feel depression because there’s all this hubbub around your book and then, of course, the next month’s books come out and you’re not in the spotlight anymore. I haven’t experienced that dip, and I think it’s 100% because I work at Literati, where they have my book (displayed) in seven different places, and I can just pretend that every bookstore is doing that for my book!

Your book is set in and around Washington, D.C., near where you grew up; are there any traces of your time in Ann Arbor that readers might see in it?

One thing that was definitely influential was living in a town that was not my hometown, which allowed me to see that my hometown is strange and unique and has its idiosyncrasies. Later I looked up statistics and it turns out that where I grew up in North Potomac, 1 in 3 people is Asian American. I realized that I was part of a community (as an Asian American) which, outside of my hometown, is marginalized in a lot of ways. But inside that hometown (that Asian American Community) is almost equal to the majority. It definitely colored my experience growing up, and those are things I would not have known until I had settled in Ann Arbor.

How is the process of working on a second novel different from the first?

I don’t feel like I’ll be that lucky again! As soon as I started writing (my first novel) it felt like it was going to be finished. Of course, that might be some re-writing of history looking back, but I think it’s also because I hadn’t failed with a novel before. Now it feels different, because now I know that novels can die on you. Everything feels very superstitious, like I’m taking these precautions in how much I talk about what I write. Before, I truly knew nothing and therefore feared nothing.

In the bigger picture, what do you think is the role of fiction?

I read this wonderful essay on Buzzfeed about how her mother is a fortune teller, and she realized that she wasn’t retaining customers because she would just tell them the straight truth, like “Break up with this person,” or “This person doesn’t love you.” The people would (listen to the advice) but not really hear it, and not come back. Then, she realized that if she built a story and a ritual into it….So, if the correct advice is “You need to forgive your family,” you could spin a story around a plant that’s dying, and they go to the riverside and bury the plant, and that kind of leads them to the understanding that they need to forgive their family. It’s the same place that you wanted them to get to, but they wouldn’t have been led there just by saying it straight. Fiction taps into people’s ability to hear what they might not otherwise want or think that they need to hear. It sneaks underneath our defenses.

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