An Interview with Laurie Tom – Author of “The Ancestors”

Anna Yeatts: When we bought “The Ancestors” for FFO, you and I discussed holding its publication until April so that it would coincide with Ching Ming, a famous holiday also known as Ancestors’ Day. Would you tell us about your personal experience with Ching Ming and how it influences this particular story?

Laurie Tom: When I was in school my family would pick up my grandmother from Chinatown and make a tour of local cemeteries to visit deceased relatives and friends of the family during Ching Ming.  I noticed that some of the other families we ran into would have picnics in the cemetery, but we would not.  On the other hand, the male members of my family would bow three times before the grave of a direct ancestor before pouring a small cup of wine before the grave, and I didn’t see other families doing the same.

My dad told me that every family has their own traditions, which makes sense when taken in the context of Western holidays like Christmas, but this was especially important to me as a Chinese American kid whose only other input on what Ching Ming was supposed to be came from cultural enrichment classes at school, which tended to present the holiday as a uniform “this is what Chinese people do on this day.”

Because I already knew that traditions could vary from family to family, I took it an additional step and decided to set the family get-together in “The Ancestors” on the beach, which makes sense consider their particular heritage.

AY: I’ve read on your blog (which is terrific, by the way) about the way Asians are marginalized in American pop culture. How do you see this translating into fiction?

LT: There is a certain image as to how Asians are supposed to behave, and it goes beyond being hard-working, smart, and good at martial arts.  When looking for popular books with Asian settings, an overwhelming number of those are written by white Americans.  There’s one list I found (I won’t link to it, but it’s easily found on Google if one searches for “best Asian fantasy books”) which lists 15 books and not a single one of them appears to have been written by an Asian author.

While some non-Asian authors do the research to write another culture without exoticizing it when I see something like that, it feels more like Americans are writing the Asians that Americans want to see rather than the Asians who are actually there.

My particular bugbear is Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds, which is so stuffed with unflattering Chinese caricatures that I’m embarrassed it won the World Fantasy Award.  And yet it’s the one book that I’m most likely to hear mentioned when a white person tells me that they enjoy fantasy set in China.

AY: It’s easy for Western writers to culturally appropriate Asian culture. What, if anything, do you think can be done to embrace Asian culture better without misusing it?

LT: I can’t speak for all of Asia, it’s a very big continent!  But at least for far east Asia, countries such as China, Japan, and Korea, there is a lot of domestic entertainment produced and a growing number of people in Asia or abroad who are interested in exporting it.  I think media such as books, TVs, comics, movies, etc. tell stories that are of interest and concern to the domestic population, and it’s a way to look into the contemporary culture from the point of view of an insider.

Stereotypes like the smart Asian kid just don’t exist when every kid in the school is Asian, so it’s possible to see Asian students as athletes, artists, band members, etc.  Sure, there will be a number of kids studying hard, but it won’t be because of their ethnicity.

Aside from seeing how another culture views itself, writers should also consider asking a few readers from the culture to check out their drafts.  I realize it may be difficult to track down someone, let alone multiple people, from the Uyghur minority for a culture check, but it shouldn’t be hard to find someone from India or China.  Just ask nicely, since sometimes people get tired of repeating themselves if they’ve been prodded a number of times.  No one wants to be the sole voice for their ethnicity.

AY: I know you’re a fan and reviewer of manga/anime, and you’re a gamer. If you don’t mind, tell us your current favorites.

LT: This is tough!  Keeping it to recent anime, I would say my current favorite is “Erased” which will have aired its final episode by the time this interview goes up.  It’s about a twenty-six-year-old man who has an uncontrollable ability to jump back in time a few minutes, during which he can prevent a tragedy, usually by saving someone’s life.  When his mother gets murdered, though, his ability takes him back in time fifteen years to a point a few days before a classmate of his becomes a victim of a serial kidnapping and murder case.  As an eleven-year-old, he has extremely limited means to save two lives.

With games, I’m all over the place.  I regularly play Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm.  I’m a big fan of most Shin Megami Tensei games, and in recent years I’ve started playing more visual novels.  Currently, my most anticipated game is Zero Time Dilemma, which combines escape room mechanics with non-linear storytelling.  The previous games in the Zero Escape series have been intense head-trips, and I’m expecting the conclusion of the trilogy will include a lot of “But what does it all mean???” until everything comes together at the end.  They’re very brainy games, and you have to be willing to do a lot of reading.

AY: Do you see any overlap in the storytelling styles of these mediums into your short fiction?

LT: For good or ill, I’ve been so influenced by animation since I was a kid that when I visualize my stories and choreograph scenes they often look like anime in my head, but I do a bit of translation.  The most important thing is to convey the same emotion.  A manga panel might use a lot of empty space around a character to show their isolation as they walk through a city, and that’s what I’ll see in my head, but I’ll write the isolation with different words (for instance, it might be a severely internally focused piece of narration) and I’ll likely not mention any physical distance at all.

After playing the Zero Escape series I really want to try a non-linear story, but I’m not sure I can pull that off as a short.  It might have to be something longer.

AY: Tell us about your writing process. Where you go, what you do, do you listen to music, etc.

LT: My writing is usually crammed in the bits of spare time I find during my workday.  I guard my break time, 15 minutes in the morning, 15 in the afternoon, and if I already have a project I’m working on, I can sit down and go to work almost immediately.  I also write during my lunch hour, which I’m careful to take away from my desk.  When that’s not enough time, I’ll also work at home, but I’m most productive midday and the afternoon.

I like music during brainstorming or copyediting but tend not to listen during the actual drafting process unless I’m on a deadline and I’m having trouble getting motivated.  Songs tend to get attached to specific stories, and when those stories are completed, I no longer listen to them for writing purposes.  I suppose that sounds a little sad, but what happens is that if I hear the song later on it sends nostalgia waves through me because I’ll remember the story I was writing in conjunction with it.

AY: You’re a brilliant writer. “The Ancestors” was included in The Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction 2014. You’re a grand prize winner in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. And you’ve been published in top magazines. But like many writers, you say you still suffer from imposter syndrome. How do you face down those doubts? What advice would you give to other writers who feel themselves be in the same position? Because we need more of your fiction.

LT: I don’t think the voice will ever go away.  The best, and hardest, thing is just not to listen to it.  Or, have another voice on your shoulder, like the old angel and devil cartoon imagery.  I do have imposter syndrome, but there’s also an egomaniac voice that says, “Well, of course, you sold that because you’re awesome and bully on anyone who thinks otherwise!”  The egomaniac’s voice was actually the loudest for me when I first started writing.  The imposter was, oddly enough, virtually nonexistent until after I won Writers of the Future.  It was my first professional sale, so it made for a new and very high benchmark going forward.

There is a necessary bit of ego in order to be a professional writer because writers expect they will write stories other people like enough to pay them for it.  It’s important to nurture that ego (though not to the point of being a monster) and remember that most writers don’t come out of the starting blocks at full speed.  Everyone improves at their own pace, and if sales have already been made, then it is entirely possible, even likely, for more sales to be in the future.

AY: Five years from now, where would you like to be on your path as a writer?

LT: Five years from now I hope to see several books on the virtual shelves of various retailers.  The kid in me who wanted to grow up and be a writer is still looking to see books with my name on them.  I’m readying a novel series that I plan to start self-publishing towards the end of this year, and once that’s underway I have ideas for additional series, at least one of which I would like to take to traditional publishing.  I don’t plan to give up on short fiction, oddly enough I’ve written more of it since I started the novels, but the books are definitely some long-term wish fulfillment.

AY: And finally, where can our readers find you on social media?

I’m most active on Twitter as @writerrat, but I am also on Facebook at  Hope to see you there!