I’m so excited to be hosting author Lillian Li this week! Lillian Li is the author of the novel Number One Chinese Restaurant, which was longlisted for the Women’s Prize, the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and an NPR Best Book of 2018. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Granta, One Story, Bon Appetit, and Jezebel. Originally from the D.C. metro area, she lives in Ann Arbor.
Read on to enjoy our interview with her, then find out how to enter for a signed copy of her book at the end of the post!
Which talent do you wish you had?
There’s an amazing Janet Malcolm profile on the painter David Salle (called “Forty-one False Starts,” which is literally the forty-one different beginnings she wrote while trying to draft the piece). Her seventeenth false start begins, “Writers have traditionally come to painters’ ateliers in search of aesthetic succor. To the writer, the painter is a fortunate alter ego, an embodiment of the sensuality and exteriority that he has abjured to pursue his invisible, odorless calling.” I’ve always wished I could draw or paint because, just as Malcolm puts it, writing can feel so fleshless sometimes.
Tell us a secret about the main character in your novel — something that’s not even in your book.
I cut this flashback scene out of the book where Jimmy Han, the youngest brother of the family and current owner of the Beijing Duck House, is terrorized by a bully at his middle school. The bullying culminates with Jimmy being forced to bring this kid home with him and submit to having eggs thrown at him. Right before the egging can start; however, his older brother Johnny comes out of the house. Instead of protecting Jimmy, though, Johnny forces him to face the bully on his own because Johnny believes that it would be unfair for him to get involved, since he’s older and larger. It’s a childhood moment that reveals some of the brotherly tensions that go beyond sibling rivalry that are in action in the present day, but ultimately I cut it because it slowed the pace of the story down too much. So that’s a secret—Jimmy Han was once egged by a bully.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I once worked, very briefly, at a Chinese restaurant. I was the youngest server by about thirty years and had no idea what I was doing the entire time. I never learned how to carry a tray, ate hot-and-sour soup for lunch just about every day for a month, and hid in the walk-in fridge when I was overwhelmed. The experience partially inspired my book, so it was simultaneously the best and worst job I’ve ever had.
What first inspired you to start writing?
Harry Potter fan fiction! I grew up while the series was still coming out, and you had to wait years between books, so when I was ten, I took matters into my own hands and started writing my own stories using my favorite characters.
Tell us about a book that made you cry.
There’s a moment toward the end of Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being that made me literally burst into tears. I mean tears were actually jumping out of my eyes. For anyone who’s read it, I’ll say obliquely that the moment has to do with something lost suddenly being found. Why it made me cry was that when the moment happened, I understood the mercy that a fiction writer can deliver to their reader. I can get really bogged down by what “realistically” should happen in my work and forget that I’m making everything up and that fiction writing is a kind of magic. My favorite writers are the ones who use that magic for good.
An exuberant and wise multigenerational debut novel about the complicated lives and loves of people working in everyone’s favorite Chinese restaurant.
Generous in spirit, unaffected in its intelligence, multi-voiced, poignant, and darkly funny, Number One Chinese Restaurant looks beyond red tablecloths and silkscreen murals to share an unforgettable story about youth and aging, parents and children, and all the ways that our families destroy us while also keeping us grounded and alive.
For a chance to win a copy of this wonderful book, follow us on Twitter or Facebook and share this post! Leave a comment below for extra entries. We’ll choose a winner on Friday, June 7th, and be in touch shortly afterwards! (US only)
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