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.
“Stop caring what other people think of you and write what you want, say what you want, and love who you want. The rules of behavior are fake. You’re just fine exactly as you are.” Jen Sookfong Lee writes, edits, and sometimes sings badly on a podcast. She was born and raised in Vancouver’s East Side, and she now lives with her son in North Burnaby. Her novels include The Conjoined, nominated for International Dublin Literary Award and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, The Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, The End of East, The Shadow List, and Finding Home. She acquires and edits for ECW Press and is a familiar voice on podcasts and radio, currently co-hosting the literary podcast Can’t Lit. Her new book is a memoir-in-essays, Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart, a must-read for anyone who has ever simultaneously loved pop culture and felt sidelined by it. She joins me this week on 20 Questions to talk all things reading, writing, and creativity.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a writer?
I was eight years old and my oldest sister was in charge of me over summer vacation. She gave me an assignment to write a short story and I was enraged that she gave me homework, so I wrote a very short, and likely very bad, story, which she graded with a C+. I thought, “I’ll write another one so good, she’ll have to give me an A.” And that’s when I knew.
As someone who acquires and edits for ECW Press, what would you say is your favorite part of being an editor?
I really love getting into edits with an author and collaborating on what I can do to help them get the book to where they want it to go. There is something deeply satisfying about this process. I imagine it’s the same sort of satisfaction people get from solving jigsaw puzzles or Wordle, which are two things I loathe.
What is the most challenging part of writing for you?
I don’t really think of any of it as challenging. It’s a dream to be able to write for a living and have people read my work, so the whole process is just generally a privilege. I love the first draft process as much as the last polish. I know, I’m a nerd.
Favorite book of all-time?
Possession by A.S. Byatt.
Your new book, Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart, takes a frank look at the ways in which mainstream media has historically left behind people of color. What do you make of the ways that pop culture continues to serve and entertain, especially in an age of anxiety, despite its obvious limits?
Pop culture is in a unique position to be reflecting the culture back to us, but also creating culture back to us, and I think that it’s finally catching up the reality of our lives, which is that one narrative was never serving anyone. This is a function of allowing diverse creators to make what they want, but it’s also capitalism too. The people who own the media companies have figured out that racialized people want to spend money on movies, television, and books that speak to them, that are connected to them in deeply felt ways. It’s exhilarating to watch, but if there is one thing I have learned, it’s that pop culture will always find a way to disappoint us, in ways we can’t predict until it happens. I’m a cynic and am always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
One piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
Stop caring what other people think of you and write what you want, say what you want, and love who you want. The rules of behavior are fake. You’re just fine exactly as you are.
The last series you binge-watched?
The Last of Us, like everyone else!
The best book you’ve read in the last year?
Half Bads in White Regalia by Cody Caetano.
Favorite movie of all-time?
Singin’ in the Rain.
You’ve written several novels of fiction, including but not limited to The End of East and The Conjoined, as well as a significant amount of non-fiction. In terms of your own creative process, what’s the biggest difference between writing fiction and non-fiction?
With fiction, truly anything is possible, anything can be added, and you can stuff all the drama you want into it. With non-fiction, you have to find other ways to be creative because the story is what it is. I spend a lot of time thinking about structure with non-fiction and how I want the reader to experience the true events I’m writing about. Fiction is so different because you are basically just throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks.
If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?
I feel like Zadie Smith could make my life seem funny, even when it’s tragic. I don’t want people to cry when I’m dead, I want them to laugh at the absurdity of my existence.
What’s your current read?
The Story of Us by Catherine Hernandez.
Favorite quote of all-time?
“I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man,” Jay-Z in “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.”
One song that you will never be sick of?
“Desperado” by Rihanna.
Laptop or desktop?
You’re stuck on a long flight. Which world-famous musician would you want sitting next to you and why?
I will always answer Rihanna because I love her and I want to know everything about her!
As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?
I nap every day for 15 minutes. I swear, this saves my brain from short circuiting.
Favorite social media app?
I hate them all but I mostly use Twitter because I’m a sucker.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
The other dog owners at the dog park. They’re basically my best friends now and I have no regrets.
What can we expect to see next from you?
I have a horror novel in the works. Sorry if you don’t like scary things, but I’m not sorry at all.
Follow Jen on Twitter and Instagram, and buy her latest book Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart wherever books are sold.