1. Only a Monster is a romance with a bizarre, enthralling twist; Joan is a time-traveling monster, and she has fallen in love with Nick, a monster-slayer. What inspired you to write this novel?
I wanted to write a story from the point of view of a monster who has to fight against a hero. The inspiration came from my own experiences growing up. I’ve always loved genre TV shows and big blockbuster films, but as a kid I rarely saw people who looked and talked like me – people of the Asian diaspora – as the heroes in those stories.
Instead, I would notice that sometimes the only Asian faces were nameless characters who would show up for the fight scenes, and then would get beaten up and killed by the hero.
In Only a Monster, I have line about how in movies, the camera follows the hero after the bad guys have been killed, but I know that in my own viewing experience I would often find myself very aware of the few people onscreen who look like me, which sometimes meant being very aware of people lying dead on the ground as the camera moved away.
So that was the seed of inspiration for Only a Monster. I wanted to convey the feeling you sometimes get when the hero of the story isn’t the hero of your story. That feeling when a hero – maybe even a hero who is otherwise presented as good and decent and upright by the narrative – is fighting against you rather than for you.
2. From Aaron, a grumpy monster heir, to Ruth, Joan's fierce and witty cousin, Only a Monster contains a diverse and uniquely interesting cast. Is there a character that you most identify with? Strongly hate? What character did you feel the most viscerally as you wrote them?
I gave Joan a similar background to my own; like my Dad, her Dad is from Malaysia. So I identify with her background and the way she experiences the world. Joan is a lot more brave and quick to act than me, though – and she has to deal with a lot more. I definitely would rather be snugly at home than the main character of an adventure story!
The character I most dislike is Edmund Oliver – Aaron’s father. I hate that he’s so cruel to people. (He is fun to write, though!)
3. Real writer talk: this book is absolutely un-put-down-able! The plot is fast-paced, and each new revelation feels like a gold mine. How do you approach pace in your novels?
Thank you so much! At the time I started writing the book, there were very few Asian main characters in YA. The landscape is thankfully so different now – there are so many Asian main characters. And I’m so grateful to the authors who came before me, who proved to publishers that people want to read our stories, and who opened up more opportunities for writers like us.
It’s kind of strange to think about it now – when the landscape is so changed – but when I started writing this book, I was worried that having someone like me as a main character would make it a harder sell to publishers. So I thought I would have to make the book as ‘unputdownable’ as possible.
I did a lot of work to make the book ‘page turny’. I was so lucky that my critique partner, Cat, had already done a lot of thinking about the craft of page-turnines, and together we figured out even more about it.
There are so many contributors to creating and losing traction. I’ve found that it doesn’t so much rely on pacing as where the reader’s interest is at any given moment.
In some ways, you can think of it as set-ups and payoffs: setting up mysteries and stakes and promises of future cool/emotional scenes. And then giving the reader the information and cool/emotional scenes that you promised them. (Or surprising them with a twist that’s even cooler or that’s emotional in a better way.)
For writers out there who are interested in creating and maintaining traction, you can ask friends to mark where sections feel boring or flat. Often, you’ll be able to feel it yourself.
If a section does feel flat, you might want to ask yourself questions like: ‘Why don’t I want to read this right now? Is this emotional scene/information coming too early – did I not give the reader enough time and space to anticipate it? Or did I not set up my promise/mystery enough? Or do I need to make the stakes clearer here? Or is there something confusing here that I need to make clear?’
Do you follow a strict outline, or do you discover more as you keep writing?
For Only a Monster, I knew from the beginning that there were some scenes I really wanted to write (eg the Nick reveal; Joan travelling with Aaron for the first time …) So I wrote those first, and then formed an outline afterwards. For the sequel, Never a Hero, I made an outline first (on a big whiteboard!) But I still built the book around scenes that I really wanted to write.
4. Aspects of Only a Monster, such as time traveling, are absorbing but fictional. What aspects of the novel are similar to your real, lived-in experiences?
I was interested in portraying some of my experiences growing up as a member of the diaspora. For example, I tried to portray the feeling of growing up immersed in cultures in home that have been removed from their original contexts so that you don’t always know what’s cultural and what’s your family’s personality. I wrote about that by having Joan discover monster culture as she enters the monster world, and understanding her monster family more when she enters the context that they come from.
5. How does your ethnic background influence your writing?
I was born in Australia. My Mum’s ethnic background is Maltese – she was the only member of her family to be born in Australia. And my Dad’s background is Chinese Malaysian; he immigrated to Australia from Malaysia when he was 18.
Australia is a very different place today than when I was growing up – now, it’s very, very diverse (eg people with an Asian background make up nearly 20% of the population of my city – Melbourne). But when I was younger, I was definitely in an environment where my family was full of love, but out in the world, a lot of people had never seen an Asian person in real life before – let alone heard one speaking with an Australian accent. I experienced a lot of racism and hatred from strangers.
As some background … My Dad was among the first Asian people to immigrate to Australia after the end of the ‘White Australia policy’ (which was a series of policies and laws that made it very difficult for non-European people to immigrate to Australia). And I was in the first generation of Asian Australians to be born here since the Immigration Restriction Act had passed in 1900, preventing most Chinese people from immigrating here. (There was a similar act passed a little earlier in America – the Chinese Exclusion Act, and that ended around the same time as it did in Australia.)
I suppose that the experience of growing up visibly different from the people around me made me very interested in the perspectives of people who are outside of mainstream society and culture. And being biracial, has made me interested in characters who belong (and sometimes don’t belong) in multiple worlds.
6. What message do you want your book to convey to readers, especially those from similar backgrounds?
For readers in general, I wanted to raise questions like – what is it about hero narratives that makes us empathise and feel on the side of the hero? Is it because we are encouraged by the narrative to identify with them? And when we think about that, perhaps we’d think about who gets to be the hero and who is portrayed as the bad guy in narratives. Who gets to be represented and to identify with the hero, and who doesn’t?
Thinking specifically of people with similar backgrounds to mine … I really just wanted to write a rollercoaster adventure, and add another story to the (excitingly) growing pool of stories where we’re the main characters.
7. Only a Monster stirred a buzz in the YA community, and a sequel was published in August 2023! What advice do you have for young, aspiring Southeast Asian authors?
I would say that your voice is important and interesting and necessary! And whatever you want to say, the world needs to hear it!
8. Finally, we hear you’re a big Diana Wynne Jones fan. (Our personal favorite is Howl’s Moving Castle). What is your favorite book of hers?
My favourite is Howl’s Moving Castle as well! I really love that Sophie is such an unconventional hero, and Howl is such an unconventional love interest. (I love how cowardly he is – even though he’s brave when he needs to be!)
Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. We look forward to seeing your response!
Thank you so much for these fantastic questions – and good luck to all the aspiring Southeast Asian writers out there!!