Emily X.R. Pan lives on Lenape land in Brooklyn, New York, but was originally born in the Midwestern United States to immigrant parents from Taiwan. Her debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After, was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the APALA Honor and Walter Honor awards, a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize, longlisted for the Carnegie Medal, and featured on over a dozen best-of-the-year lists. She received her MFA in fiction from the NYU Creative Writing Program, where she was a Goldwater Fellow and editor-in-chief of Washington Square. She was the founding editor-in-chief of Bodega Magazine, and went on to co-create the FORESHADOW platform and anthology. An Arrow to the Moon is her second novel. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @ exrpan.
I had the opportunity to interview Emily, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Hello hello! Thank you so much for having me! I’m a Taiwanese and Chinese American writer based in Brooklyn, New York. I was born in the States and grew up moving around quite a lot, but I’ve lived in NYC longer than anywhere else, so I feel most like a New Yorker.
How did you find yourself becoming a writer?
I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember. I was raised on a daily dose of fiction from my dad, who’s a phenomenal storyteller. At bedtime, instead of reading to me, he would invent a new tale on the spot. And eventually he started encouraging me to help brainstorm, and we would spin out these complex threads, and play them out with my stuffed animals. My mom is also a writer—she writes creative nonfiction in Chinese—and has been publishing essays for pretty much my entire life. I remember being a small child and listening to her read sentences back to herself, watching her cross them out and rework them. She was always so engrossed. Growing up that way, I think it was just so much the air I breathed that I couldn’t help but fall in love with the written word myself.
What drew you to young adult and speculative fiction specifically?
Ah, I love this question. What I love about the young adult category is specifically the readers of young adult books. YA readers are so open-minded about genre, about format. They’re willing to try something very strange, or something completely different from what they typically read. It’s quite a different attitude from the readers of adult lit who make a beeline for the sci-fi shelves in a bookstore, or exclusively read romance, or only want to consume what they dub to be high-brow and literary enough. On bookstagram you see YA readers sharing stacks of their recent favorites, and so often it will be such a wide variety of genres, such different types of writers. I love that about the YA world. It feels like I have endless possibilities to play with, so many opportunities to blur genres and experiment, and the YA audience will be ready to try just about anything.
As for speculative fiction, I just can’t imagine myself writing anything that doesn’t have a touch of the strange or the magical. I remember being a kid and having those moments that feel perfectly encapsulated by the exploding brain emoji, wondering whether a wardrobe or an attic could truly have the power to transport me to another place. So many of my hours were spent searching among the trees for signs of the fae, wondering about the possibility of me being a changeling. Once I started reading about other worlds, about things that defied logic and physics, I couldn’t go back. All the stories I write will forever be fulfilling this ongoing fantasy for me—this idea that maybe if I just look hard enough at something, maybe if I tap on a stump the exact right way, walk past a wall at the exact right time, I’ll find something very special and out of this world.
What can you tell us about your upcoming book, An Arrow to the Moon? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
There were two major points of inspiration. I mentioned before that my dad was always telling me stories. Sometimes he would tell me the legends and fairytales that he had been raised on himself. And my favorite of those were his stories about Houyi the divine archer and Chang’e the moon goddess—I asked to hear them over and over again. Throughout my childhood it always bothered me that I never saw either of those characters in the fairytale collections that I would find at school or at my local library.
The second piece of inspiration was, of course, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which I just fell in love with when I read it in school. I think it might have been my first time ever reading Shakespeare on the page, and I was so captivated by his way of playing with words. I’m also a fan of the Baz Luhrmann film from 1996. So I’ve known for some time that I wanted to do a retelling of Romeo and Juliet—but I wanted it to be more feminist, and I wanted to somehow capture what it felt like when I was growing up, before everything revolved around the internet. I was turning around in my head the idea of doomed, star-crossed lovers…and realized making Houyi and Chang’e my Romeo and Juliet was the perfect combination.
Drawing from your work, it seems that East Asian mythology and culture is a large part of the heart of your work. Besides the story Houyi & Chang’e, are there any other mythologies or contemporary Asian drama/stories you’ve found yourself drawn to and taking inspiration from?
I would actually say that the heart of my work is me wrestling with the same questions of identity that I’ve had all my life—especially as a kid who always found myself living in predominantly white neighborhoods, attending predominantly white schools. I never saw myself represented in the books that we were assigned, or that were handed to me in the library. I never saw myself represented in movies. When I went over to friends’ houses, they always had a different way of doing things compared to my family—it often felt like going on an adventure through a strange land. And so the way I think of it is that I’ve been aiming to write very American stories, imbuing my characters with pieces of myself and my truth. In The Astonishing Color of After, I simply incorporated elements from my own family. In An Arrow to the Moon I remade Houyi and Chang’e as Asian American teenagers in the 90s. So I’m not sure what other inspiration I might be drawing from next—at the end of the day it’s just about pinning my own experiences on the page, with the hopes that other Taiwanese and Chinese American people see themselves reflected.
Your debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After, is a beautiful YA novel touching on grief, mental health, and Taiwanese culture and identity. As a writer, what was it like writing this book, and do you feel changed as a writer or a person after having completed it?
Oh, thank you so much! It was certainly a difficult book to write, but for me it was a way of processing my own grief, answering questions that had been spinning in my head. I definitely feel like a different person from the me who was writing it. Sometimes I open the book up to a random page, curious to see how I’ll feel about my prose, and it so often feels like the words I’m reading could not possibly have come out of my brain. It’s a very bizarre experience. The cool thing about a published work is that it’s a snapshot of its creator at a very specific moment in time—or if the book was written over the course of many years, then it’s a collection of snapshots. The Astonishing Color of After is absolutely a time capsule for me. I can see myself mourning right there on the page. I can also see my fears about my writing career, my aching desire to share my words, to make myself known. My new novel feels very different to me because I wrote it when I was older and wrestling with very different things.
How would you describe your writing process?
I’m a chronic rewriter. On my first few drafts I’m writing my way through a dimly lit forest. I have some sense of certain events and situations I want to aim for, but I try to keep myself in the dark aside from those to leave ample space for discovery. I spend a lot of time in those early iterations figuring out what the story is even meant to be. And then on later drafts I’m reshaping, restructuring, cleaning up the mess and shining up the words.
What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What are some you find the most challenging or difficult?
The first draft is probably the scariest for me. That’s when impostor syndrome hits me the hardest. The second most challenging aspect is trusting that I can take a mess of a manuscript and somehow make it good. It always gets so much worse before it gets better—kind of like decluttering and reorganizing a house. But it’s terrifying to start ripping things apart, throwing scraps here and there, attempting to rebraid the chapters.
The best moments—my absolute favorite moments—are always when I’m wrestling endlessly with a puzzle and finally a solution suddenly sparks in my brain, and it turns out that the answer I needed was connected to something I’d already written in another part of the book. Those moments make me feel like a sneaky genius. I love them because they remind me to trust in myself, and trust in the process.
If you could go back and tell your writer-self anything, what would it be?
Oh gosh. If I could travel back in time to visit young Emily, who so badly wanted to be writing and publishing books, who was so full of fear that that dream might never come true…I think I would tell her to be less afraid. To write what’s true to her. To ignore what feels commercial, what feels most “doable.” And to write the books she thinks are too ambitious for her to write.
What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
I would tell them, first, to read constantly, and read widely. To read everything—even genres and age categories they have no interest in—and to challenge themselves to find at least three craft lessons in each thing they read.
Second, I would tell them that if there’s a glittering story idea that scares them, that they don’t think they’re good enough to write yet: that’s exactly what they should be working on right now.
Are there any other projects you are working on right now and at liberty to speak about?
I’ve got quite a few secret novels that I’m chipping away at, including an adult novel and a middle grade book. But those are on the backburner because I’m on deadline for a new YA novel that’s very different from what I’ve published so far. I think that’s all I can say right now—but I am very excited for all of these!
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Oh gosh. Everything Malinda Lo writes. I must scream especially loudly about her newest book, Last Night At the Telegraph Club, which has at this point won a gazillion awards and is so absolutely deserving of all the hype. Anna-Marie McLemore is another brilliant writer who will forever give me brain envy, and their book When the Moon Was Ours is one I go back to quite often. Charlie Jane Anders, too—I will read everything she writes. I love love love her short stories, plus she’s currently publishing a trilogy—the first book is called Victories Greater Than Death, and it just has so much wonderful representation in it. It’s amazing how the landscape of publishing has changed. I remember being a teen trying to specifically find queer stories, and having to mostly rely on word-of-mouth recommendations. It’s so much easier to find these books now. There is still so much to be done in publishing, so many gaps to be filled—that work is endless, really. But also there is so much more out there, so many more people being given the opportunity to share their voices. It gives me a lot of hope.