GenerAsians Interview

I just posted on Twitter the following:  “This is how I’m imagining myself attacking the million things I need to do today.”

Pretty much sums it up.  I have a written list a mile long and I’ve been using an ACTUAL TIMER to get it all done.  I’ve never done that before, never used my phone to beep me at five or ten minute increments, but given the potential for inefficiency when doing many many small but important tasks, this has been incredibly useful.

In other news, early last year the lovely students at GenerAsians, the Asian American magazine at Wellesley, reached out to interview me for their Spring 2015 edition. They’ve very kindly allowed me to re-post that interview here.

1) What did you like to read when you were growing up? Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Romance? When did you first get into comics?

I read everything growing up, but what always moved me as a reader was that delicious mix of the fantastic and romantic.  Magic, adventure, monsters, mayhem — I adored it all — but pour in love, passion, heartbreak, intimacy and longing, and a book would have me forever.  That’s why I began writing paranormal romances in the first place — I wrote what I loved to read — and that hasn’t changed very much in the last ten years.

There’s an element of romance in my comics, too, but I didn’t start reading those until I was in college, with a comic book store just an easy walk down the street. I loved the animated X-Men cartoon on Fox (this was back in the 90’s), and so mutant superheroes were already part of my fan vocabulary – but comics? That took a little longer.

2) Can you tell us about your upbringing in a Chinese American household? What was your experience living in China? What was your favorite memory from that time?

Chinese culture was – and is — a huge part of my life. From the time I was little I was always around my Chinese grandparents (they owned a laundry – how much more stereotypically Chinese immigrant can you get?), cousins, aunts – always in Chinatown, watching Chinese films, eating and cooking the food, hearing the language, studying the history. Not in a conscious, dedicated way – it was just part of my daily life. I took it for granted, really – at the time I didn’t think of my upbringing as specifically Chinese. My dad is Chinese and my mom is white, so there was a mix of traditions and cultures. But in hindsight, my upbringing was very Chinese, in ways that I didn’t understand or even appreciate until much later. And yes, there were all the traditional academic expectations, too: doctor or lawyer!

Still, it wasn’t until I was eighteen or so that I was able to travel overseas – first to Taiwan, and then to China. Those extended trips had a profound effect on me. I’d never experienced being Chinese in that way before – for the first time I was fully immersed in a culture and language that was both familiar, but also just intensely more: more vibrant, more present, more inclusive and nuanced than anything I’d previously experienced or imagined. An Asian kid growing up in America can’t help but observe his or her culture through a Western filter, which can deform and alter our perceptions of our relative cultures – and, by extension, ourselves. At least, that was the case for me. Going to Taiwan and China more or less hit the “reset” button – suddenly I was attached to my identity as a Chinese American in ways that I hadn’t been before.

My favorite memory? There are so many. But when I lived in Shanghai I’d wake up early every morning and walk down the street to write at a coffee shop – and that ten minute stroll through the old residential neighborhood was always magical. It’s the little things, right? Watching grandparents take their grandkids to school; stores opening up, food stalls selling breakfast; the stray cats; the smells in the air and listening to people arguing. I loved it all.

3) How has your Asian American background influenced the type of stories you tell? You also majored in East Asian Languages and minored in Biomedical Ethics, have they come into play in your writing process?

It’s hard to quantify. Yes, there’s been a profound influence, but I think I’m only just beginning to consciously tap that part of me. Before, it almost felt too intimate – I wrote fantasy because that created some creative distance that allowed my unconscious to play out all my feelings of what it means to be biracial – an “other”. My characters are always racial others, of a kind – not quite human, but searching for that human connection: love, trust, friendship, acceptance. And I think that mirrored my experience growing up – in ways that I couldn’t have articulated if you’d asked me outright.

As for my college major and minor – those are an extension of pre-existing interests. So yes, I’ve been able to tap into those studies – but I think the more profound effect came from law school. The discipline I had to learn in those three years, all the different ways of thinking about the world and people, have added a logical, detail-oriented element to my process that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.

4) Why did you decide to apply to law school, and what caused you to change your career path? What was the most challenging part about the transition from law into writing?

Doctor or lawyer! That was the family decree!   I think most children of immigrants know how powerful that is. Fortunately, I loved law school – and I’m deeply grateful that I’m a lawyer, even if I don’t practice anymore.

Passion, though, gave me the courage to go in a different direction with my career: passion for writing, telling stories. Of course, if I hadn’t sold my novel less than a year after graduating from law school, I’m not sure I would have transitioned quite so quickly from lawyer to full-time writer. Nor is that something I would recommend to most people. I had a four-book contract, and my family was very supportive of my decision. That’s not always the case.

Being a writer, or an artist of any kind, is full of risk.  Every career has risks, of course, but writing for a living is unpredictable. Chances are good you’ll never publish – and even if you do sell your novel, don’t expect that it’ll be an overnight success, or that you’ll earn enough to write full-time. I hate to sound like a downer, but having a backup plan – as in, a job that pays the bills – is a must. I got lucky right off the bat, and that’s not normal. Of course, I didn’t think about any of this while dreaming about being a writer.  And even if I had known about all the business and financial hurdles that writers face, it wouldn’t have stopped me. I would have found a way to keep telling stories.

5) What drew you to comics? Can you tell us about the process of how each issue is produced?

Comics are the perfect middle ground between prose and film, and they grant the writer so many opportunities to experiment in ways that aren’t always possible in other mediums. I love that immersive power of combining story with art.

As for the process, it all comes down to the basic building blocks of storytelling: character, world, and plot.  Hammer those down, and you’re halfway there. The rest is a bit more technical – scriptwriting isn’t the same as writing prose.

6) What is the favorite comic book series you have worked on? Have you ever thought about creating your own series/character, or converting one of your novels into a comic book series as they did with Northanger Abbey?

I’m actually working on my own creator-owned series, a book called Monstress that will be published later this summer. It’s drawn by Japanese artist, Sana Takeda, and takes place in an alternate 1900’s earth where a girl discovers she has a psychic connection with a monster. It’s my favorite book so far.

But I also have favorites from my Marvel work. I loved writing X-23 and Black Widow, and Astonishing X-Men.

7) What is your experience as the only woman of color currently writing comics at Marvel? What opportunities are there for women to enter such a masculine industry?

I’ve had a great experience at Marvel, with wonderful opportunities. And, I’ve also received emails from readers telling me to “go back to China, you slant-eyed chink bitch.” So, I suppose I could say that I’ve learned how to deal with the simultaneous pleasures and pains of being a woman of color who is writing mainstream comics.

The thing is, people of color are the present and future of this country. That reality, however, hasn’t caught up with the comic book industry, especially at Marvel and DC. What I’d like to see are less characters of color written by white men, and more people of color writing comics. That’s what I call diversity and inclusion.

It’s vitally important for women of color to use their voices – in all areas, of course, not just in writing comic books. But storytelling is a powerful tool. Things are changing, but with diverse voices that change will happen even sooner. There are many opportunities: women are deeply engaged in the comic book industry – as readers, writers, artists, editors. It’s hard to break-in, but not impossible: start with learning the fundamentals of scripting, and art; start with telling a story; start with passion and faith. You can do this. Trust me, I’ve been there, at the very beginning. And there are countless young women out there who will thank you and be inspired.

9) Now for some fun:

  • What superpower would you like to have for one day?

The ability to heal!

  • What song is currently stuck in your head?

The last song I listened to: Billy Joel’s “It’s All About Soul”

  • What is the last book you really loved?

Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants by Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain.

  • Which literary/fictional character do you have a crush on?

Oh, gosh – there are so many. Vincent (from the original 80’s television show, Beauty and the Beast), John Wick (Keanu Reeves still has it), Gambit …

  • What is your guilty pleasure TV show?

No guilt, just all pleasure! I love watching Game of Thrones,  Outlander, Sleepy Hollow, Orphan Black – all the good genre stuff.

  • Who is your favorite Asian writer?

Maxine Hong Kingston, Malinda Lo, Natsuo Kirino, Tash Aw, and more.

  • What is your favorite cuisine?

I love Chinese food. Give me dumplings!

  • Finally, if you could travel back in time, what advice would you give your college-aged self?

“Don’t worry so much. For real. Just keep doing what you love.”

New Monstress Sketch!

Sana Takeda, brilliant artist of Monstress, has a new Tumblr page where she’s posting sketches and other art from the book (and Monstress has its own Tumblr, as well, so check that out). This is her latest post, a fragment of a larger character sketch that she created after I turned in the first script for Monstress. It’s fabulous, right? And check out those four characters in the front. The heroine in blue is Maika — to her right is Tuya, and then we’ve got Kippa (the fox girl) — and, finally, the cat.

Writing is funny — I never quite know where a story will lead me. In the case of Monstress, I know how the series ends and more or less how we get there, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for tons of surprises. Kippa and the cat were two unexpected characters who leapt onto the page — just on a whim — and then took on lives of their own. People ask me how that happens — surely, as a writer, I have complete control. Right?

Well, not really. If I want to be a control freak, sure — but writing is an organic process for me, and characters move the plot, characters live and breathe on the page. And sometimes, an impulse becomes something more. A cat with two tails? YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT MADNESS HAS EMERGED FROM THAT ONE DECISION.

In other news, I’m back in Indiana for the weekend, visiting family. I didn’t grow up in this state, but half my folks are from here and I feel very much like a Hoosier, some days. It’s been beautiful, but colder than Boston in the evenings, and the leaves are already turning, falling, and the persimmons are growing heavy on the trees. It’s so peaceful. Also, cats.

Tomorrow I head back to Boston, but I’ll miss getting chewed on:

It’s all love, man. Especially when the chewing starts.

A photo posted by Marjorie Liu (@marjorie_liu) on

Coming up for air…

I teach in a couple hours — a course on comic book writing, no less — and I’m up relatively early to do some last minute preparation. Also, it’s a beautiful day out, and even if summer is officially over I can enjoy the beginning of a warm autumn.  Been bike riding, and I can smell the change of seasons in the air.  It doesn’t smell green anymore.  Not that “fresh green” of spring.  It smells like the leaves are turning — and they are, here and there.  I see it down by the Charles River along the path — small golden leaves, already on the ground — and the acorns, too.  The squirrels are working hard.

Also, in case you’ve been wondering, this has been my life for the last three-four months:

This tells you everything you need to know about my life right now.

A photo posted by Marjorie Liu (@marjorie_liu) on

Deadlines! Deadlines!  I’m thrilled for them — who doesn’t like work, right?  Especially when you’re a writer.  And everything is finally coming under control.  I’m looking forward to finally being able to discuss four of the projects I worked on this summer: three of them are comics-related, and one is a short story for an upcoming anthology.

Also, MONSTRESS.  More on that later, too.

Freedom to Get Freaky…

I made it home from San Diego, and have basically been in a daze for the last two days.  It’s not just the Sunday red-eye that I took (and thank goodness for evening flights, because I did not want to waste my Monday on a plane), it was the previous five days of non-stop action — early mornings, late nights.  Everyone’s been asking what Comic Con was like, and I always say the same thing: “Lots of fun.  Totally exhausting.”   Which is true, because I get to meet readers and see my friends — non-stop.  That’s why I go.  I didn’t even walk the floor until Sunday morning (which was the only time it was manageable).

I spent the whole time promoting Monstress, my new comic from Image — coming out November 4th.  Almost 70 pages long, which is already more than half the size of a typical trade.  Why is the book that long?  Couldn’t I have just cut it down to even half that length?

Well, sure.  But I didn’t want to.  Actually, even if I’d wanted to, it would have been a bad idea.  The story needed that space — it needed every panel, every page, all collected into one massive issue.  To cut it up into two parts, or three, would have messed with the rhythm, weakened the story.  Sometimes, you just need to read something in one sitting.  Maybe it’s the novelist in me.  The rest of the issues won’t be that long, but I won’t lie: I take deep, deep pleasure in knowing that I have the freedom to do what I want with this book — and that I have a genius artist like Sana Takeda as my partner-in-crime.

I was on an Image panel last week, in which we discussed freedom — the freedom that comes with creator owned work.  I’ve known that freedom, having had it in novel-writing — but this is the first time as a comic book writer that I feel as though the sky’s the limit.  I can finally get my freak on.

Of course, “getting my freak on” means writing about a steampunk 1900’s Asia, imprisoned kaiju, witch-nuns, little girls who are part fox, and a heroine who is slowly being transformed into a monster.

This isn’t the only creator-owned book that I’m working on.  There’s more coming down the pipeline — I’ve had a taste, and with a couple exceptions, I’m not planning on returning to work-for-hire.  That’s fun, but this is way more of an adventure.

Here I am, creeping up on Yoda. He’s like, “Who is this strange chick?”

A photo posted by Marjorie Liu (@marjorie_liu) on

SDCC: Day One

There was a punk hipster with blue hair juggling in front of the flight gate in Boston this morning at 6:30 am — thus began Comic Con.

Here’s one truth about this convention. There is not enough time to see everyone you know and love, and even when your friends are standing right in front of you, you might not be entirely in the right mind to even realize that they’re there.  Sensory overload, man.  And today was just Wednesday — preview night — which is easy.  Tomorrow is when this convention really gets going, and by Saturday it’ll be a frenzy.

Still, it was an amazing day.  I met some amazing readers and got to hug my friends, who I haven’t see since last year — and of course I got to chat up Monstress.  I can’t wait to show you what’s coming.  We’ve been holding back, not wanting to share too much too soon, but with the book coming out in November expect more peeks at Sana’s amazing art.

Here’s my schedule for Thursday:

  • Booth signing at 11 am — find me and Anne Elizabeth at #2201.
  • And later, at 2 pm, I’m on an Image panel discussing creator owned comics: Room 23ABC.

And now I’m off to bed!  My feet hurt!

With the lovely Anne Elizabeth. Day one of SDCC is over! We survived!

A photo posted by Marjorie Liu (@marjorie_liu) on

Giving Maika a low five before the doors to preview night open!!! A photo posted by Marjorie Liu (@marjorie_liu) on

Wandered through the convention center and saw Monstress at the Image booth. Had to stop and take that in.

A photo posted by Marjorie Liu (@marjorie_liu) on

At Booth 2201, Anne Elizabeth is stroking the hairy candy brain of a zombie. #SDCC A photo posted by Marjorie Liu (@marjorie_liu) on