The Saturday Rumpus Interview: Vivian Lee
Vivian Lee is the kind of editor you want on your team: a writer at heart who understands the sometimes painful creative process, a fierce advocate when it comes to supporting her authors, and always at the ready with a hilarious tweet up her sleeve. She has spent her life steeped in books, studying literary journalism at UC Irvine as an undergrad and then going on to receive an MFA in nonfiction from The New School. Since 2013, she’s been an editor at Little A, Amazon Publishing’s literary fiction and nonfiction imprint, which is where we first met when I was an editor there as well. You can also depend on her for excellent music recommendations and when she’s not busy editing, she reflects on life through the lens of her favorite songs in Tinyletter dispatches.
I’ve always admired Vivian’s ability to straddle the worlds of fiction and nonfiction (which anyone in publishing will tell you can often seem like distant solar systems). For example, last year she published the critically acclaimed The Hundred-Year Flood by Matthew Salesses and worked with Jim Atlas on the short biography series ICONS, featuring writers such as Karen Armstrong, Dennis Lim, and Thomas Beller. She’s also been an outspoken supporter of writers of color, something the publishing industry desperately needs more of. I caught up with Vivian on a recent Sunday—we walked through the streets of New York’s Chinatown, where she lives, and talked about the publishing biz, diversity in the literary world, and the upcoming books she’s excited to see drop.
The Rumpus: What drew you to publishing? Why books?
Vivian Lee: Honestly, two of my favorite childhood memories involve book reading. The first was the Scholastic Book Fair. I remember getting those catalogs printed on newsprint and using my favorite pen to circle all the books that sounded interesting to me. At the time, I was really into books about bunnies and immigrants (maybe I still am?). But what was great was, they were also inexpensive—or at least less expensive than toys, so my parents were ok with giving me the $10 to buy the handful of books each time the book fair was around. The second was the Pizza Hut Book-It program. You’d read 10 books, collect some stickers, and get yourself a personal pan pizza. My dad really encouraged me to read during this time because it meant a free meal (which is peak dad). Which is to say that my parents liked that I read and—this is very cheesy—it also ultimately drew me to loving the language and wanting to be involved with it as much as I could. I got my Bachelor’s and MFA in Narrative Nonfiction, so I think about writing holistically, which makes being an editor such a natural step for me. I’ve been lucky to work with writers who are so thoughtful about the craft and narrative of their work, I love chatting about recent books I’ve read with my colleagues in the hallway. Publishing is a good place for me because I get to be around bookish people who love language as much as I do.
Rumpus: I love how unapologetically blunt some of your tweets are when it comes to race. Like this one: “This may come as a surprise but the onus is not just on POC editors to acquire books by writers of color (esp bc there are so few of us).” What’s your MO as an editor?
Lee: When I tweeted that, it was because someone made a passing comment about how I could be known as the editor who only publishes Asian American authors. It was so othering to me. It made it seem like the only reason I was publishing authors was because we had a similar background. I’d like to think I’m publishing quality books—and it just so happens that a lot of these writers are of Asian descent. If it is a good narrative with an emotional core, then it’s a good book.
As far as my MO as an editor, I am interested in the beauty and transformational power of language and a good story and that’s what I gravitate towards. My list is predominantly writers of color mostly because I’m surrounded by wonderful communities of them and I want to be able to go to more readings and panels that aren’t comprised of all white or almost all white writers. I think I’m in a very good position at Little A as an editor of color to publish these voices and experiences that are not often heard. It’s a unique place to be in and it’s something I take very seriously.
Rumpus: How do you go about finding and nurturing writers of color?
Lee: There are a lot of different ways to go about this! For example, I try and seek out new writers within wonderful writing communities out there both online and off including AAWW, Cave Canem, Kundiman, the Twitter account Writers of Color, etc. Also, I try to go to readings, parties, and panels when I can and actually talk to people to let them know what I’m looking for. I’ve diversified my reading list and have read more books by people of color (POC). I’m also always happy to meet for coffee with writers or people who want to get into publishing.
As for nurturing writers, I like to think this is where my MFA comes in handy. I am very craft-focused (for lack of a better word) and always think about maintaining voice first and foremost. I never want to obscure or hide it or tone it down. I think my authors like working with me because I personally understand that the writing process is hard and my edits are to make the book the best book it can be.
Rumpus: So much of being an editor is about being open and empathetic to a writer’s point of view, qualities that every human being should have regardless of race, yet it makes such a big difference when you don’t have to do the extra explaining that comes with having grown up with a different cultural, racial, or sexual identity.
Lee: Your question reminds me of an interview my author Matthew Salesses (author of The Hundred-Year Flood, which Little A published in September 2015) gave to Ed Lin at AAWW where Ed mentions that it’s rare for an Asian American author to have an Asian American editor. He asks “Did you feel that as a result, your book didn’t have to explain as much about your Asian characters and their interactions with the world?” Matt answered that I told him I wanted to market the book as a book so when I asked him to think more about race (which is what he writes about predominantly), it had nothing to do with the market or labels. As an editor of color, one advantage I have is that writers of color are comfortable knowing I’m not asking for edits to artificially enhance or to cover up their race. It’s not weird to me that their characters look like them.
Rumpus: Some people point to examples like Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jhumpa Lahiri, and say there are plenty of success stories when it comes to writers of color. What would you say to them?
Lee: I can count at least five white, straight, male, upper-middle-class fiction writers with the first name “Jonathan.” They have the privilege of being seen as individuals with individual stories. When you’re a person of color, you’re made to speak for an entire culture when, surprise, you are also just an individual with individual stories. It’s ridiculous that because there is Junot Díaz, there can’t be another Dominican American writer who also wants to write about his or her experiences. I think a lot of people in the industry shy away from books just because they have POC. Why is that? Surely, writers of color have also written about families being sad, too, right? We also love, get jealous, have depression, need money, eat. We just have the added burden of systemic racism.
Rumpus: Lee & Low Books recently released the results of a survey they did on diversity in publishing. The results were troubling but not surprising: the majority of the business is white, female, able-bodied, and straight. How did you react to the study?
Lee: I will say that if you take a look at the editors at Little A, it is a whopping 60% POC which I, and everyone I mention this fact to, gets really excited about. We’re comfortable committing ourselves to a future where our books will start reflecting the interests and landscape of the world we live in. Overall though, the results of that survey are not surprising at all. I went to a reading where a white author cracked a joke at the expense of Asians. Everyone laughed and I looked around and realized I was the only person of color in the audience. Last year I received a manuscript that was so racist I had to look at my calendar to make sure I didn’t accidentally time travel. There have been countless times that people have mistaken me for another Asian editor. I’m telling you this because these are “good” people who “mean well” and yet this still happens. Honestly I don’t know what to say—it’s hard. It’s isolating sometimes. I think that’s why it’s important that I put myself out there as an editor and why I love being an editor. I get to remind people we exist and love books and good stories where the characters look like us. I enjoy doing interviews like this because representation matters.
Rumpus: What’s at the root of the diversity problem in publishing? What do you think needs to change?
Lee: There’s a lot of hand-wringing over the “diversity problem” but not a lot being done yet. I think the root of the problem goes back to my tweet earlier. Everyone in publishing needs to take accountability for diversity—not just POC editors. From the ground up we have to hire diverse editors, designers, marketers, publicists, etc. I do think once we change from the “inside out,” then publishing will realize that Junot Díaz, Zadie Smith, etc don’t have to be the sole voice of an entire group of people. I can’t speak for other houses, but I am excited to say that Little A is committed to publishing diverse stories, voices, and authors.
In my dream scenario as an editor, if we all seek out more writers of color and diversify our list, then agents will have to also diversify their list and seek out more writers of color, and readers will get more of a chance to read stories they normally wouldn’t read, and then more books by writers of color will be published. I’m pretty direct with agents about what books I want and it forces them to look at their own list and see where they can improve.
Rumpus: I always tell this story about going to Foundry’s rooftop BEA party one year and seeing these two Asian guys from a distance, which I got all excited about because I was like, Who are these Asians in publishing?! Of course, when I got up close, I realized it was Kirby Kim and Hua Hsu, two people I already knew. Why do you think there aren’t more Asians in publishing?
Lee: Hah! Right. I have so many similar stories—Asians stand out because publishing parties are so white. Almost every Asian person I have met in publishing is because I approached them at a party (or they approached me), both of us excited that it was someone new.
Rumpus: Yes, exactly! I’ve done the same thing. It’s this strange feeling of recognition, like, “Hey, there’s someone like me here,” and you feel compelled to talk to them, to compare notes. There’s a certain kind of validation that comes with knowing you’re not the only one—you have to see it to be it.
Lee: Like I said earlier, representation matters. I didn’t even know publishing was a viable career option until I was much older. No one I knew was in this field and when you see that a business is predominantly white faces, you think maybe this isn’t a welcoming field to jump in. If there are no familiar faces “making it,” it’s harder to picture yourself succeeding.
Rumpus: What do your parents think about the career path you’ve chosen?
Lee: My parents are both avid readers and my mom is not a bad writer herself (although in Chinese so I can’t really read it). They’re pretty okay with it since I’m supporting myself and I’m actually using my degrees. It also helps that they have a few friends in Hong Kong who work in bookstores, have published books themselves, or work in related fields. Yes, that’s right. Contrary to the model minority/tiger mom myth, my parents are not disappointed that I’m not a doctor or a lawyer.
Rumpus: The issue of diversity is often divided, like it was at the Oscars this year, along the lines of black versus white. Do you see a similar dichotomy playing out in publishing?
Lee: If you look at it as white vs POC in publishing, you’ll see that the authors in the POC group are much more diverse than in Hollywood. There still aren’t enough of us, obviously, but at least it’s still a diverse group. For example, the PEN/Bingham Prize for 2016 are all writers of color from very different backgrounds. That’s a start that I hope means something.
Rumpus: Tell us about some of your recent or upcoming books.
Lee: Yeah! I have some wonderful titles coming out of Little A that I can’t wait for people to read. This year, I’m excited about O. Henry Prize Winner Viet Dinh’s beautiful debut novel After Disasters (September 2016) told through the eyes of four people after a devastating earthquake hits India. Its part love story, part survival story (in every sense of the word) and if you don’t feel feelings after reading it, we need to have a chat. I’m also thrilled to be publishing Courtney Elizabeth Mauk’s third novel The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things (October 2016), about a family spiraling in dangerous ways after their missing daughter’s body is maybe found. It’s a riveting portrait of grief and loss. I’m also looking forward to Ted Wheeler’s coming-of-age story during the Omaha race riots of 1919, Jimin Han’s literary thriller about four college girls who are held hostage in their college dorm room, and Matthew Salesses’s next two works.