20 Questions with Quentin Lee

Quentin Lee

20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.

“Especially in a media-fused world today, I feel it’s important to encourage people of all ages to read besides just consuming media because reading is enriching and empowering. Literature can’t be consumed in film and television alone… if you know what I mean?” Born and raised in Hong Kong, Quentin Lee first moved to Montreal, Canada, for high school and then went to UC Berkeley for his B.A. in English, Yale University for his M.A. in English, and the UCLA School of Theater, Film & TV for his M.F.A. in Film Directing in the ‘90s.

A double immigrant and an out LGBTQ BIPOC creator whose work usually features Asian American gay men, his first feature film Shopping For Fangs premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1997. A member of the Producers Guild of America and Canadian Media Producers Association, Lee has directed and produced nearly 10 feature films and three television series. Most of his films have been released theatrically and his works sold to Netflix and Hulu. He is also the author of several books, including the semi-autobiographical The Secret Diary of Edward Ng, first published independently in 2019 and with Troublemaker Press in 2021.

I had the joy of speaking with Quentin as this week’s guest on 20 Questions, where he told me about the experience of coming of age as an Asian queer man, why writing has always felt natural to him, how storytelling always has the potential to be empowering, and more.

Growing up, did you always want to be a writer? Did you consider any other career paths?

Yes, I’ve always wanted to be writer even when I could hardly write English growing up in Hong Kong. I would always make my English-speaking friends or teachers read short stories that I handwrote. I eventually moved to Montreal when I was 15 and got my first short story published in a small American sci-fi magazine called “Dark Starr.” I also went to a Highlights for Children conference when I was 16, the youngest writer there. At the same time, I also fell in love with cinema growing up and wanted to make films. I love telling stories whether it is writing a story or making a film. It feels natural for me.

As someone who has also produced and directed film and television, what are your favorite differences between writing for the page and writing for the screen?

Writing a screenplay is much simpler than a novel; and I think certain stories are more optimal to be told as a novel or as a short story or as a feature film or as a TV series. Writing a play or a screenplay, which I’ve had plenty of experience of, is like writing a blueprint to a piece of art. A play or screenplay itself isn’t yet a fully realized piece of art. But writing a novel involves fully creating and producing a piece of art that the end user can directly consume. It’s so much more work writing a novel, like making a film on paper. You can’t say having read a screenplay is like having watched a movie; or having watched a movie is having read that novel it was based on.

Favorite book of all-time?

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man inspired me to write The Secret Diary of Edward Ng. So Portrait is my favorite book of all-time. It’s autobiographical but also fictional. If I were to write another novel, I would always lean into this genre.

The best book you’ve read in the last year?

I have to say it was a cookbook named Cook, Eat and Repeat. Between developing and making films and taking care of a 5-year-old as a single parent… I was ashamed that I hadn’t read as much as I had wanted last year.

If you could pick one author that’s inspired you the most, who would it be and why?

I retaught myself English as a teenager reading Judy Blume’s books and I was her fan as a teenager and a beginning writer. I admire her writing because her books both entertain and communicate so effortlessly with her target audience.

What time of day are you most inspired?

Usually in the early morning… or after dinner. But I get inspiration all the time!

One song that you will never be sick of?

Lately I fell in love with a French group called Videoclub… and I’ve been listening to their song “Enfance 80” over and over again. So maybe that.

If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?

Writing obituary is a specialized skill. I’d love to have Shakespeare write my obituary as it would be a sonnet and totally a piece of art.

Favorite thing to do on a rainy day?

Dancing in the rain for sure!

Your novel The Secret Diary of Edward Ng draws largely from the AIDS crisis in the early ‘90s and coming of age as an Asian queer man. What do you make of the landscape for queer people of color coming of age now versus when the novel takes place?

I think technology has changed the world so much that it’s much easier to come out, hook up and date now; but yet finding intimacy is equally hard, if not harder. I was blessed to have come out and come of age in the explosion of multiculturalism, queer politics, feminism, and technology that is unique and empowering to my generation very different from the generation before or after. It was simply who I am.

What does the word “beauty” mean to you?

I’m not sure, but I’m drawn to ideas and things that are beautiful and scary at the same time.

The best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It’s from my producing professor Arnold Rifkin: “Don’t take anything personal.”

What’s one vice you wish you could give up?

Drinking for sure. Not sure why most writers like to drink. Anne Rice did stop drinking… and just passed away. In memoriam!

One movie that will always make you cry?

The Neverending Story for sure. Both the novel and the first movie always touch me when I revisit, particularly the idea about a lonely child connecting with his own imagination and himself through a text. It’s both empowering and moving and reminds me of myself as a child.

The last series you binge-watched?

The Serpent on Netflix really captivated me. It was a true story set in the ‘70s and it was so well cast. The characters, whom I didn’t think I would like, feel really compelling to me.

What’s the most challenging part of writing for you?

Getting down to write. I can always think of a million things to avoid writing.

How would you articulate the importance of queer storytelling in every age but especially today?

Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story resonated with me as a queer teenager. Especially in a media-fused world today, I feel it’s important to encourage people of all ages to read besides just consuming media because reading is enriching and empowering. Literature can’t be consumed in film and television alone… if you know what I mean?

As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?

For me, the best way to rest and decompress is to write or do something I want to do. Like now I’m sitting down writing back to you… it’s calming and decompressing from all the “business” obligations I need to do today.

One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?

For me it’s being creative and keep making art. COVID can’t stop you from reading and writing… in fact… I’ve found myself to be even more productive these last couple of years.

What can we expect to see next from you?

This year, 2022, I’m finishing up post-production on my eighth feature film Last Summer of Nathan Lee which will world premiere at a film festival. My stand-up comedy TV series Comedy InvAsian will stream worldwide in May. Last but not least, my comic book Mystery Brothers, the first AAPI sci-fi adventure comic book, will launch at Comic-Con 2022 with Red 5 Comics.

Follow Quentin Lee on Twitter and Instagram, and find his novel The Secret Diary of Edward Ng wherever books are sold.

Quentin Lee
Quentin Lee, a student of UC Berkeley, photographed by South China Morning Post for publishing the first English article in support of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Hong Kong, 1989.