An Interview with Mira T. Lee
by Dani Hedlund
I’m going to start with the single most cliché question: What inspired you to write this book?
There were a couple of things: the first was a short story I wrote, originally published by the Missouri Review. I had these characters I’d already conceived of, and wanted to expand on their lives. The second was that I like intractable dilemmas, situations where there are no right or wrong answers, and I had these floating around in my head: What happens when two people in a relationship have a child, then grow dissatisfied? What happens when what’s best for a parent may not necessarily be best for the child? The part about mental illness was there, but it wasn’t what I focused on initially, mostly because I was afraid to get into it. But then as the novel evolved, that part also grew.
You tackled so much in this book in such a short period of time: you have an incredible bond between sisters, you have mental illness, you have the immigrant story, and you have a cast of really interesting characters with hugely different backgrounds. How did you balance all of that and decide what needed to go in the book?
I didn’t think of it that way when I wrote the book. It was very organic. I wasn’t trying to think of themes; I wasn’t thinking of immigration or sisterhood. I had these characters, and I had these predicaments I wanted to put them in. The themes came later, when I had to describe the book to other people. I realized, “Oh right, it’s about mental illness and family and immigrants.”
Another compelling feature of the book is the way your characters manage to wear the gray hat. You pull their flaws out early and humanize almost all of the characters instantly. How did you create characters that are flawed but still likeable? That kind of balance seems difficult for all of us.
Thank you so much for noticing! That was actually one of the most important things for me as I was developing these characters. I saw them as people who were flawed, but trying their best. I didn’t want there to be a character who was clearly the “good guy.” I didn’t want it to be clear what any one of them should or shouldn’t have done.
I was conscious of balance. If Miranda came across as overbearing, then you also had to see why. If Lucia seemed impulsive, you had to understand where that came from. But ultimately, a reader’s opinion of my characters will depend on their own experiential lens.
Out of your big, beautiful cast of characters, is there anyone that was easiest for you to write, that you identified with?
I actually think that the characters I most obviously identified with were harder to write. The easiest was Yonah, because he has this larger-than-life personality, and he’s Israeli, and has these certain speech patterns. For me, finding the voice of the character made it easier to get into their head.
Lucia’s voice was definitely the hardest because I always envisioned her as far more brilliant than I am. She’s more of everything: quirkier, more observant, more perceptive. I was always trying to stretch myself when I was writing her. I had to find different ways of looking at things, like seeing beauty everywhere.
Miranda was also pretty hard for me to write. I think I took her for granted because I’m closest to her, and I didn’t feel like I had to spell out her traits because they felt implicit. But you have to write it for the reader, because the reader doesn’t know the things you already know.
I’m always curious about why authors choose to open in a certain way. Why did it seem organic to open with the marriage starting from Miranda’s point of view?
In the original short story, “How I Came to Love You Like a Brother,” Miranda was largely a peripheral narrator. It was very much about Lucia and Yonah’s relationship, how they met, and then how Miranda comes around to appreciate Yonah and bond with him. It wasn’t about Lucia’s illness, really; it was about how your opinion of someone can change over time. I chose to open the novel with Miranda because that was where the short story started.
You have a really lush, lyrical prose style that you break up with small visual details. There are moments in high drama or high pain where you’ll describe something small as if to remind the reader of the situation and pull them in. What was it like to develop your prose style?
I don’t think I ever thought about consciously developing my prose style. I did have to think consciously about the voice from chapter to chapter. I’ve also noticed over the years—and especially as I was writing the book—that my writing is very much driven by the rhythms and sounds of sentences. I’m also a graphic designer, so I do think visually, but it’s not something I’ve ever been conscious of when putting together scenes.
You wrote this short story a few years ago: did you immediately start writing the book? How long was the entire process for you?
It’s probably been about ten years since I started working on that initial short story. I wrote for years with no thought of ever writing a book because I just didn’t think it was possible. To me, people who wrote books were these alien creatures who possessed some supernatural quality I didn’t have. Even after I had some short stories published, it still wasn’t something on my mind.
I started this novel in 2013. I hadn’t been writing for a while—maybe over a year and a half to two years. But by that point this story had been brewing in my head, gestating, and then around the time my younger son turned one, I thought, “If I’m ever going to write a book, I’d better try to do it now.”
I really believed in this story and the characters. It took me two and a half years to get through four drafts. After the fourth draft, I found my agent. I did small revisions with my agent, and it was sold a couple of months later, and then I went through another draft with my editor. I’d say I went through about five or six major drafts. By the time the book comes out in January 2018, it will have been five years since I “officially” started it.
What are the biggest changes that happened between your first draft and the beautiful galley proof you can now hold to your chest?
The first draft had so many holes in it, big gaps everywhere. The whole thing felt mushy. I probably rewrote every chapter at least twice. There’s not really a whole lot left untouched. I guess the overall shape is there, the arc is definitely there, and the characters are there. The characters were my impetus for writing, so it makes sense that they stuck! But their voices had to become sharper, so that happened over the drafts. The different strands pulling together also came in the later drafts; even the sisters’ bond and their arc came very late. It was actually my editor who said, “You need to bring out that relationship more.” I wasn’t sure what was important in the earlier drafts, so stuff was all crammed in. But you sift through it, again and again, and eventually you find the story’s core.
A common thing that our authors often struggle with is the idea of solidifying voice. How did you get past the mush and make sure everything was really distinctive?
For each character, I tried to think of specific ways they would phrase things, or idioms they would use. Miranda has a more formal tone; Lucia’s is more casual; Manny drops prepositions sometimes. Those were things I consciously thought about as I was trying to refine each person’s voice. I did want to make them sound distinct. Sometimes people write books from multiple points of view and the voices don’t actually sound much different from each other. I think that’s fine, but for me it was really important to know immediately whose section you were in when you were reading.
Since a lot of our readers are writers, they are always curious about the publication process. Could you tell us what it was like to land your agent? Did you do the typical querying process where you had to talk about the book for the first time?
I started querying agents after my second draft. I think a lot of writers do this—just get so sick of what they’re working on and decide, “This is good enough.” I naively thought, “Anybody who reads this should at least be able to see the potential in it.” So I sent it to five or six agents. Some of them I had tenuous connections with through various writerly acquaintances. I got some nice rejections. One agent offered specific feedback. But overall, it was pretty clear that I just had to keep working on it. It taught me a lesson: don’t send stuff out too early! It’s advice I repeat over and over again to writers who are looking for agents.
I worked for another year and went through two more drafts. After my fourth draft, I sent it to four agents and three of them were interested. That was pretty amazing, especially getting to meet them all. So I didn’t do a huge querying process, but I do tell writers, “Don’t squander your connections. Really make sure your manuscript is as good as it’s going to get!”
We all get to that point where we’ve been working on a book for so long that we’re slightly sick of it. How did you push through and make sure you were making it better? Did you have a secondary reader or was it just you, alone in a dark room with your computer screen?
It was a lot of me by myself. And I had so many doubts. But I was confident that there was a story here that was worth telling, and I believed in my characters from day one, with all my heart and soul. It was just about whether I could get to that place, whether I could tell their story right and do them justice.
For my first draft, I worked with a writing coach, setting deadlines to get through it. After that it was tough because I didn’t have a writing group or someone whose opinion I knew I could trust. I felt really alone. But I got a reader here and a reader there. Some of them turned out to be fantastic. I had one friend who read my third draft and suggested things that totally made me see revision in a different light. I’m forever grateful; I don’t think I could’ve gotten the book to where it is without his read.
Mostly, though, I was sitting alone in a dark room wondering what I was doing. It was very much my dirty little secret. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing a book for the longest time. I still feel funny about the whole thing, thinking of myself as a writer.
One of our writers always tells me that he doesn’t judge the success of a book by how many languages it’s translated into or how many copies it sells or even how high it gets on the bestseller list, but whether or not he set out to say one thing to the reader and whether or not he believed he said that. Is there one thing you really hoped this book would say to the reader?
I hope that this book portrays mental illness in the context of lives. I feel like mental illness—especially severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar—still carries so much stigma. And while this book is very much about Lucia’s illness, it’s also about her living her life—trying to have a family, a child, finding love, having a career—and how her choices impact the people who love her. And again, portraying people stuck in difficult situations, where there are no right or wrong answers—that was important to me.