Number One Chinese Restaurant – Lillian Li + Q&A

Jimmy Han runs the Bejing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland. The restaurant’s been in his family for thirty years, but Jimmy’s had enough of his brother Johnny’s interference and has bought his own place, the Bejing Glory. Things aren’t going to be that simple though; Jimmy’s short of the investment he needs and he’s hoping his dad’s old friend, Uncle Pang, knows people who can help him out. Uncle Pang’s happy to be involved, although in a slightly different way to the one Jimmy anticipated.

While a tangled web of family secrets and lies is revealed, the novel also focuses on two of the restaurant’s longest serving employees: Nan and Ah-Jack. Nan is the restaurant manager. Ah-Jack has recently returned from retirement to continue working as a waiter, a decision taken by Johnny who values Ah-Jack’s loyalty. Nan spends a significant amount of her day covering for Ah-Jack who spends his time gambling, drinking and, inevitably, making mistakes at work. The rest of Nan’s time is mostly spent on her wayward son, Pat, who’s working in the restaurant’s kitchen and has his eye on Jimmy’s daughter, Annie.

Li crafts an engaging tale of family (dis)loyalties and the stories we tell ourselves about the lives we lead. Number One Chinese Restaurant is an absorbing novel.

I’m delighted to welcome Lillian Li to the blog to talk more about the novel.

The novel’s intergenerational, why did you decide to focus on a range of characters interconnected through family or working relations?

I’ve always been drawn toward stories about communities more than stories with only one main character because I think the way characters bounce off each other is incredibly illuminating, both about who they are as a person, and all the different roles they play within the community. So for example, while Nan, the manager of the Beijing Duck House, is certainly fascinating to me alone, I learn more about her when I see her take such gentle care of her longtime co-worker and friend Ah-Jack and then, that same night, fail to demonstrate the same easy warmth to her troubled son Pat. And I learn even more about why Nan seems to have a deeper relationship with her co-worker than her son within the context of her job at this Chinese restaurant. Hopefully the reader feels the same depth even if each character technically gets fewer pages dedicated to his or her journey.

Initially I was frustrated with the focus on the male characters but the novel slowly reveals these smart, fascinating, sometimes manipulative women. Were you considering gender stereotypes as you were writing?

That’s an interesting question. I think I tend to write my characters by first finding a person I know who can provide a foundation for my imagination. My characters aren’t based on real people because what I layer on top of that foundation is all invented. For example, the matriarch of the Han family, Feng Fei, gets her foundation from my grandmother. Specifically, the curlers they both wear to sleep, the way they complain about how their children treat them, and how they’re both surprisingly ferocious despite their age. But my grandmother never worked in a restaurant, let alone owned one, and so Feng Fei very quickly became her own person, shaped by those specific circumstances. At the same time, I think that character’s foundation in a real, complicated person is what guides me against stereotype and keeps me from straying into the one-dimensional.

The thing I really loved about the book was the way you show how we use stories to build myths about ourselves and our lives. What interests you about this?

I love that that resonated with you! I really believe that people experience the world, and themselves, almost entirely through stories, that it’s our way of understanding, but also controlling our lives. At the same time, I’m frightened by how easily stories take the place of facts, and how we’re almost naturally pulled toward believing “better stories” even if they’re patently untrue, about ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies. As long as we dismiss the power of the stories we’re telling ourselves and each other, we dismiss the potential for delusion and manipulation, but also the potential for connection and change.

The novel’s set in a Chinese restaurant and there are a number of criminal elements to the plot; what sort of research did you do and do you enjoy this element of writing?

There’s a fire that happens in the book and I talked to a fire investigator, Kathleen Summersgill, as part of my research. How I found her in the first place was that strangely enough, my first year in Michigan (where I attended grad school and wrote this novel), a pizza restaurant a few blocks away caught on fire in the middle of a sub-zero January night. A year or so later, at the point in my research when I needed to know how exactly someone starts a fire, and also how that fire might reveal itself to be suspicious to law enforcement, I remembered that potential pizza arson and looked up articles to see if I could find someone to talk to. Kathleen was the investigator on that case. I really enjoyed talking to Kathleen, not only because she helped me write a scene that wasn’t riddled with mistakes, but also because in talking to her, and asking her just generally about her job, I got so much extra knowledge about, essentially, the nature of fire and fire-starters. I was able to totally transform the scene into something that felt real to me. She gave me the necessary confidence to own that scene.

I definitely enjoy talking to people who’ve actually experienced the worlds I write about, criminal or otherwise. I like getting that foundation in reality, though I’m also a bit shy and a bit lazy. I try to remind myself of Kathleen every time I want to wimp out and just Google around for an answer.

My blog focus on female writers; who are you favourite female writers? 

I was introduced to so many amazing female writers who happened to have debut books the same year as me and felt buoyed and energized by their work. Lucy Tan (WHAT WE WERE PROMISED), Crystal Hana Kim (IF YOU LEAVE ME), R.O. Kwon (THE INCENDIARIES), Vanessa Hua (A RIVER OF STARS), Lydia Kiesling (THE GOLDEN STATE), Ingrid Rojas Contreras (FRUIT OF THE DRUNKEN TREE), Akil Kumarasamy (HALF GODS), Elaine Castillo (AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART), Nafissa Thompson-Spires (HEADS OF THE COLORED PEOPLE), Rachel Heng (SUICIDE CLUB), Aja Gabel (THE ENSEMBLE), Fatima Farheen Mirza (A PLACE FOR US), Inez Tan (THIS IS WHRE I WON’T BE ALONE), and Nicole Chung (ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW) are just a few of my favorites.

Other favorite writers who’ve already had a number of books under their talented belts include Susan Choi (whose new book TRUST EXERCISE blew my mind), Ruth Ozeki, Karen Joy Fowler, Yiyun Li, Elizabeth McCracken, Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Strout, Lily King.

And of course, there are the powerhouses and legends. Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

There are so many more, but those are the handful that jump to mind.

Thanks to Lillian Li for the interview and to Pushkin Press for the review copy of the novel.

Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke

It’s 2016 and in Lark, Texas two bodies have been found within a week. The first, a black male, a visitor to the town. The second, a local white woman. It’s the talk of Geneva Sweet’s cafe:

“And ain’t nobody done a damn thing about that black man got killed up the road just last week,” Huxley said.

“They ain’t thinking about that man,” Tim said, tossing a grease-stained napkin on his plate. “Not when a white girl come up dead.”

“Mark my words,” Huxley said, looking gravely at each and every black face in the cafe. “Somebody is going down for this.”

Locke introduces Texas Ranger, Darren Mathews into the equation. Mathews is suspended from duty and his marriage is on the rocks over an ultimatum issued by his wife who wants him to quit his job. His suspension is due to him being called out late at night by a friend, Rutherford McMillan, over an incident with Ronnie Malvo. Two days later, Malvo was found dead. The bullet wounds matched McMillan’s gun, a gun which he’d reported missing the previous day.

Ronnie “Redrum” Malvo was a tatted-up cracker with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a criminal organization that made money off meth production and the sale of illegal guns – a gang whose only initiation rite was to kill a nigger. Ronnie had been harassing Mack’s granddaughter, Breanna, a part-time student at Sam Houston State, for weeks – following her in his car as she walked to and from town, calling out words she didn’t want to repeat, driving back and forth in front of her house when he knew she was home, cussing her color, her body, the way she wore her “nappy” hair.

When Mathews gets a call from his friend Greg Heglund, an agent within the Houston field office of the FBI, telling him about the case in Lark and suggesting he go and find out why the local sheriff’s refusing outside help, Mathews can’t help himself.

In Lark, Locke creates a town dominated by the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and the power and money of Wally Jefferson. A man who lives in a house which is a near perfect replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and sits bang opposite Geneva’s cafe. Bluebird, Bluebird is a tale of racial hatred but Locke’s created something much more complex than the initial premise appears. As Mathews uncovers the town’s secrets, Locke shows how the heritage of blacks and whites in America is deeply entwined and suggests that white hatred comes from a more complicated place than they might wish to acknowledge.

Bluebird, Bluebird is a gripping, timely novel. The first in a new series featuring Darren Mathews, I’m already looking forward to the next instalment.

I’m delighted to welcome Attica Locke to the blog to answer some questions about the book.

Bluebird, Bluebird has a contemporary setting; did it feel important to be writing about race in America now?

It’s simply my world view. I’m a person of color and so I frequently write characters who are of color and in portraying the contemporary world they live in, I end up writing about race in America. I will say that I wrote this book before Trump was elected and we’ve seen this ugly cancer of racism metastasize all over the country. So it’s been odd seeing how prescient the book is. Although…. Just the fact that Trump was running for President of the United States so successfully was hint enough as to where we were headed.

A small section of the novel is written from the point of view of a white supremacist; how did it feel to get into the mindset of that character?

Oddly freeing. It wasn’t hard to write at all. I just typed up all my worst nightmares about what white supremacist think of me and let it all out. Somewhere in there too I was trying to understand where all that rage comes from. I have a theory that so much of hate and crime has to do with people’s perceived concept of scarcity—their belief, often false belief, that there isn’t enough for them. I think Keith—that character—believes that black men have taken something from him. It’s really a wounded point of view. It actually, I hope, shows you how small these white supremacists are.

The relationships you portray, particularly the marriages, are complex and often difficult. What interests you about people’s romantic relationships?

I suppose the usual stuff—what draws people together. It’s always interesting to write two people who don’t seem like they should be drawn to each other but they are anyway. And of course romantic conflict can be so irrational and passionate. That’s always fun to write too.

Why did you choose to write crime fiction?

It goes to what I was saying before. It’s a mix of exploring what scares me and also philosophically looking at the way people respond to perceived scarcity—whether scarcity of money of love and affection. I’m so curious about why some people lash out and some people don’t.

You’re a screenwriter as well as a novelist; do you treat them as separate entities or does your work in one form inform your work in the other?

I think they can’t help but inform each other—maybe in ways I can’t even see. But I understand the two mediums very well and I treat them differently when I’m writing.

Are we going to see more of Ranger Darren Matthews?

Yes! This is the beginning of a series of novels along Highway 59 in east Texas, all featuring Darren Mathews.

And, I have to ask, will Jay Porter be back at any point?

I’m sure. But it’s nothing I’d try to force. I’d have to wait for the right story to demand that he return.

My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite female writers and have you read anything recently by a woman writer that you’d recommend?

Jane Smiley. Toni Morrison. Francine Prose. Jesmyn Ward. Paula Daly. Liane Moriarty. Curtis Sittenfeld. Tayari Jones. Jami Attenberg.

My favourite books of the last 18 months or so are All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; Swing Time by Zadie Smith; Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng; Made for LoveMade for Love by Alisa Nutting; Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki; and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Thanks to Attica Locke for the Q&A and to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.