Yesterday, we published the first part of my sprawling interview with fantasy novelist and comic book writer Marjorie Liu. She was at New York Comic-Con promoting next month’s release of her first creator-owned comic for Image Monstress.
For the second half of our interview, I ask her about her previous career as a lawyer, how she decided to become a writer, and what it means to be a prominent Asian American in the media.
RAYMOND: I’m going to ask this because I actually share this with you. So, you have a law degree. What did you study?
MARJORIE: Well, I actually wanted to specialize in bio-tech and international law.
And, I graduated law school in 2003. At that time, it was the worst job market for lawyers in years. I could not get a job with my special interests so I just did general practice. But I only ended up doing that for two seconds because right after I was accepted into the bar and was looking for work, I thought I’d had some time on my hands. Being the A-type personality that I am, I’d always wanted to write a novel. But I’d never been able to finish one. There was this little voice in my head that said…
“You have the time now…”
And this is the only time you’re ever going to have, so just do it now. So I sat down and did it in one month.
Again, A-type personality. It was a numbers game.
Your “billable hours.”
Right, my billable hours. I said, if I write 3,000 words a day for one month, I can write a novel. I’ll have 90,000 words in 30 days. So that’s what I did. I sat down every day at 6am, and I worked until however long it took me to get my 3,000 words in, and I did that for a month. I started in August and had a novel by September.
Then, I spent two to three months revising it and then I sent it out. Just for the slush pile; I had no agent. It was rejected by everyone except for the last publisher I sent it to who had an editorial assistant who pulled it from the pile and thought “my editor may like this.” And I got a four-book deal out of it.
And much to the shock of my family, I decided to give up law and write full time.
How was that for a transition for you? Was it liberating?
Well, I found it deeply liberating! But it was sort of nerve-wracking because any time you give up something that the world, and your family, thinks is a really good deal: going to law school, being a lawyer…
My parents always get irritated with me when I answer this question in interviews. But I understand. I went to law school. I was a lawyer. It’s a big deal, and I am still deeply grateful for that. Even though I don’t practice, I’m still a lawyer. There is something deeply satisfying about that.
Well, the ability to interpret rule and law and building worlds are really the same thing.
Yeah, it’s all about logic and asking the right questions and everything. I’m really good at cross-examining myself! But I had this opportunity in front of me to follow my dream of being a writer. I could not give that up. But sometimes we can be our own worst enemy and self-sabotage. I wrote full time, two to three books a year for eight years on top of novellas and comics, which I started including in 2008 or so. I basically worked myself to death for about eight years. And that’s why I talked about self-sabotage — I worked myself to the point where I was telling myself I had to do this. I gave up practicing law…
You had to make it worth it.
But I almost ended up working myself to the point where I no longer wanted to write anymore. I had to take a break. To step back and say I’m not going to write novels for a little while. I’m going to cut back on how much writing I’m doing so I can figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I didn’t want to give up writing, but I also knew that the time I was putting in and the way I was living in isolation, just writing non-stop was not a good way to live either.
Now, everything is really great.
You found that balance?
I’ve integrated balance to my life. I can be a writer and still have a life, which is really amazing. But that was difficult to accomplish because it required a period of transition where I felt continuously guilty.
For doing the thing you wanted to do?
For doing what I wanted to do, but later on, when the thing I wanted to do started taking over my life and stepping back, I felt guilty for not doing the thing I wanted to do.
It’s really messed up. But now there’s no guilt.
Oh, that’s good!
Now, I feel like a perfectly balanced individual.
Was part of that the reason you had to wait to get Monstress out?
Yeah. During my self-imposed break, I was still writing Astonishing X-Men. I wasn’t writing novels, but I was writing comics. After Astonishing X-Men ended a couple years ago, I took another self-imposed break…
Because I knew what I needed to do. I wanted to do creator-owned next. But that also required an adjustment period. Writing for Marvel is very different from writing creator-owned work because you’re in someone else’s sandbox, playing with someone else’s already established characters. So you’re not really world-building.
Right. And you can’t break them either.
No. You’re reinterpreting characters that have existed for a really long time. But that’s all they are, a reinterpretation. It doesn’t make it any less important as a writer to do it well, but you’re not building things from the ground up. I was under the mistaken impression that doing creator-owned would just be an extension of this comic work I had been doing. And that was not the case at all! I had to relearn certain skills and rebuild certain muscles. It’s one thing to write a novel or 400 pages in one-shot because you can always go back and revise it. But when you’re writing a comic, you have to send that out to the artist.
You also have the serialized format but also the time to get everything polished…
Yeah, it’s completely different.
How far out do you plan ahead in your comics writing?
As far as I can. Like, I know how Monstress ends. I don’t know how long it will take for me to get there. This is going to be a long book. I mean, I already write long anyway. Besides the first one, all of the issues are going to be 20-22 pages, and I found it really difficult to cut each issue down.
Because the pacing is different in a 22-page comic.
Completely different. And part of me is almost thinking of this as like a novel. So I’ve had to hold myself back in certain areas and rethink how I pace things. I mean, Sana’s wonderful, but you can’t ask someone to do a 38-page each month. You just can’t do it, especially with the amount of detail that’s going into this.
How has New York Comic-Con been going for you so far?
It’s been good, but I haven’t been back in quite some time. This is the tenth anniversary of New York Comic-Con, and I came to the first one in 2006, and that’s where I met the head of recruitment at Marvel and got my foot in the door. But it’s been a while since my last one.
You were on the Asian American panel. How was that?
It was great! I think we need more like that. When you have a panel of all Asian American artists and creators, there’s a common language and common understanding because you’re all coming from the same place. We all have different experiences, but there’s a commonality there.
And that allows us to really focus the conversation in some really interesting ways that are specific to Asian Americans but also general enough to encompass what it means to just be a writer and a writer of color. That was a really great panel to be on because I feel like that was happening. What it means to be a writer, period. But also what does it mean to be a writer of color? Then, what does it mean to be an Asian American creator? Which is all a different bunch of issues.
They’re related but none of them are exactly the same.
What is your advice to any aspiring Asian American writers?
You know what? It’s really interesting. In some ways, it’s the same shit that women have to deal with when they enter comics — maybe not so much anymore — but when I started out in 2008, this was a thing. People would be like, “you’re a girl; why do you read or write comics?”
“Why aren’t you a lawyer?”
Exactly! Thank you! But I think that Asian Americans in some ways deal with the same shit.
“Why are you being creative?”
The dialogue is still really primitive. “Asian Americans aren’t creative. Why aren’t you a doctor or lawyer?” “I thought you were supposed to be a good at math.” “You’re Asian American and an artist? What’s the deal?” “Oh, you must read manga.”
There’s a whole list of things, and it can be really discouraging. But I say life is short. We know what our passions are. We know what we love. I understand the pressure. I understand what it means when people want you to perform or do something else with your life because being a writer is not practical. Let’s be honest. It’s not practical, but who gives a fuck? At the end of the day, if this is what you want to do or how to spend your life, then do it!
Because we need more Asian American voices. We need them so desperately! Just turn on the television each night. It’s ridiculous. I watched the Emmys, there wasn’t a single Asian American in that audience. There were barely any people of color. So we desperately need more writers, more artists, more actors, more directors, more people who are passionate about putting themselves out there and creating stories and showing their faces.
To show there is more to being Asian American than the stereotype.
Oh my god, this whole idea that Asians aren’t creative. When I go to China, there’s this explosion of artists and music. But when I come home to the United States, suddenly it’s “thou shalt not.” It just makes my head want to explode.
It’s ironic with like how much fantasy culture has Asian influences.
Listen, that’s a whole other topic! The way that Asian culture is stolen and appropriated and remade to satisfy Western fantasies of what it is to be Asian. It kind of bugs me out sometimes when I look around and see how much Western White male fantasies rely on appropriating…
The Asian Other…
The Asian Other being “exotic.” Whether it’s the last Wolverine movie where he goes to Japan and kills all the evil Asian men.
And takes the beautiful Asian woman.
Exactly. Or Marco Polo on Netflix, which is another story of a white man going to the exotic East and learning some martial arts in one day! And then becoming more Asian than the Asians.
That is definitely always a recurring trope. I’ll even meet white people who are very fluent in Mandarin — and good for them — but suddenly they feel more Chinese than I am.
Yeah, it really annoys me. But then, to add insult to injury, we get movies like Aloha, where we still have yellowface. It is 2015! And we’re still dealing with this shit where a role that should be played by a hapa mixed race Asian American woman is being played by a white girl. People put us on like costumes.
We can be a costume.
We’re still a prop that white people can put on and take off at will. It’s one thing when you see it in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Like, they were just ignorant back then. But in 2015, when you still see white people in roles that should have been for Asian people — I hate it. I just hate it. It’s really maddening.
So you’re saying if Monstress ever gets optioned, you’re going to make sure it isn’t whitewashed.
I will fuck anyone up who does that.
I totally believe it.
I really will.