This week on the blog, second-year CRCLC PhD candidate Michelle Anya Anjirbag asks author Elizabeth Lim a few questions about her creative process, and how her array of academic interests and different experiences informed her writing and world-building. More information on the author and her works can be found on her website.
MAA: Before we dive into other questions, I want to just take a minute to highlight that you’re not only a skilled author, but you’re also a film and video game composer, and I believe you also have a doctorate in music composition. Both writing and music are very interesting but different methods of storytelling. Can you tell us a little about your connection to both mediums, and if you see a connection between the ways in which you approach constructing narratives?
EL: Yes, my backgrounds in music and creative writing have definitely informed the way I construct narratives. My formal background is in music—I completed a doctorate in music composition a few years ago. While I was working on my dissertation, I was employed at a video game company; I also started scoring films. My goal was always to move to Los Angeles once I’d finished my education and seek work as a film composer, particularly because I’ve always loved how music itself can describe and guide a narrative, and intensify a story’s emotional impact.
But while in graduate school, I revisited my childhood hobby of writing, and I began working on a novel. I was lucky enough to find representation for it and in the process of writing and editing it, discovered that I wanted to become an author more than I did a composer.
I definitely see a connection between music and writing. Structure, themes, and pacing are central things I pay attention to in both music and my novels. I try to outline as much as I can, and write down themes/motifs that I’d like to reappear and develop throughout the piece.
MAA: Your secondary degree is in East Asian studies. What drew you to this field, and has it had an impact on your writing?
EL: I was born and raised in California, but my family is Chinese and like many of my fellow Asian Americans, I probably spent less time thinking about Chinese culture when I was younger because I wanted to “fit in” as an American teenager. I came to regret this as an adult and became much more interested in my family’s history; I wanted to learn more about my ancestors— where they came from, what they did, what they were like. My family and I also lived in Japan for a few years, during which I became fascinated by Japanese history and mythology, so I naturally wanted to learn more.
While in college, I was not expecting to earn a secondary degree in East Asian studies, but I’d taken so many classes in the department (out of personal interest) that my advisors suggested I go ahead and complete the few requirements I needed to earn the qualification. It was a decision I came to value, for I’d already expressed interest in writing a thesis based on music along the Silk Road. Becoming more involved in the department also exposed me more to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean history and literature, which has in hindsight been incredibly valuable for me as a writer.
MAA: What, in your mind, makes for strong world-building? Where do you find inspiration, and how important do you think it is for readers to not only read a world as “authentic,” but for authors to craft “authentic” worlds?
EL: I find inspiration everywhere: in history, in daily life, and in other fictional worlds. I primarily write fantasy, so while I do think it’s important for readers to read a world as “authentic,” I do believe the author should have freedom to stretch their worlds as long as it is done in a respectful and thoughtful way.
MAA: On the note of authenticity, and because it is a loaded term in conversations about representation, what does “authentic” mean to you? Does it impact your creative processes?
EL: Oh, this is a tough question! “Authentic” will mean different things to every artist (and I say artist because I view music, art, writing – all as arts) you ask, and certainly to me when regarding representation, it is important that the artist have a background that reflects what they are creating. But what I care most about is intent. I think the sincerity of the work is what makes it authentic.
It certainly does impact my creative processes, and for many reasons. I occasionally worry that my work won’t be seen as “authentic” because I was born in America and not China, or that my work isn’t representative “enough” because I’m deviating from history. But at the end of the day, I think my having these concerns is a sign of a certain sort of progress in our society, insofar as we are paying more attention to questions of culture, ethnicity, and diversity. I also strongly believe that every individual’s story is different, so unless it’s blatant, I’m generally not a fan of going around calling out fellow authors, saying “yours is inauthentic.”
MAA: Your forthcoming novel reimagines the Silk Road, how have you tried to bring this to life aesthetically?
EL: In college, I was involved with a few organizations in bringing together musicians from different cultures to perform and create new works. While I was studying at Harvard, Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble was in residence, and hearing music from different parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe instilled in me a deep appreciation for the exchange of traditions between East and West during the time of the Silk Road.
Spin the Dawn loosely draws upon the Silk Road’s historical setting by incorporating a network of trade routes in its geography, one that relies heavily on the confluence of ideas and culture between East and West. Silk is a key commodity in Spin the Dawn, as it was historically, along with key spices and other trade goods—and since my character is a seamstress, she especially is sensitive to its availability and value. Furthermore, in my novel, as my main characters traverse realms along the road far from their own homes, their perceptions of the world change and widen, as I imagine must have occurred for travelers along the Silk Road.
MAA: Your work can also be considered as widening the aesthetic texture of YA fiction, how deliberate is this? What do you hope readers take from seeing stories or tropes they might already know in different cultural contexts?
EL: I’m not sure what it means to widen the aesthetic texture of a genre! When I first started writing Spin the Dawn I was just trying to write a story I would have wanted to read as a teenager. After Spin was accepted for publication, though, I became more aware of its place among other multicultural YA narratives, and I’m thrilled that more books are being published that take familiar stories and put them in different cultural contexts. Many have observed that folktales and fairytales from widely disparate cultures have deep structural and thematic commonalities – such as the European Cinderella and Chinese Cinderella (in the European version, she has a fairy godmother, and the Chinese tale she prays to goldfish bones). I hope readers will see, when they pick up Spin the Dawn and recognize certain ideas and archetypes recast, not just how diverse the world is, but also how much in common different cultures have with one another.
MAA: I heard you started writing through writing fanfiction when you were younger, why do you think we have this impetus to not just retell stories, but to retell them in different ways based on what the reader might have seen as missing or a more intriguing story?
EL: I think fan-fiction is a marvelous way for a writer (young or old) to exercise and stretch the imagination while honing the craft of writing. Personally, I was drawn to fan-fiction because 1) it gave me an opportunity to take characters and universes I desperately loved and make them my own, 2) it was a “risk-free” way of practicing my writing because the personalities worlds had already been developed and I was borrowing them to tell my own stories, and 3) it was fun to write!