Monday, October 29, 2018

TBR: Famous Adopted People by Alice Stephens

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and, from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Korean-born adoptee Lisa’s identity issues are slowly wrecking her life. After an explosive argument with her best friend while they are in Seoul searching for their birth mothers, she takes an impulsive trip with a handsome stranger only to find herself in North Korea. Held captive in a palatial underground compound, Lisa must come to terms with who she is and where she’s going.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

The character I had the most fun with was Lisa’s half-brother Jonny, who is based upon a real historical figure. I wanted to get that balance of satirical and yet informative, and add a psychological glimpse into how a flesh-and-blood human being can become a brutal dictator. He is also an example of the ultimate unanswerability of the nature vs. nurture question that perpetually vexes adoptees: which part of me is embedded in my genetics and which part is due to my upbringing? The character who gave me the most trouble was Lisa herself. She is not me, but in writing her, I had to confront the same pain, alienation and confusion that I experienced growing up as a transracial adoptee.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

The highs were writing it, which was cathartic, and its eventual acceptance by Unnamed Press, a fantastic indie press that publishes fierce, bold and highly literate works and who gave Famous Adopted People it’s perfect forever home. The lows were the many rejections I had to endure during the years-long submission process. My agent submitted it to 41 editors, and I myself sent it out about 20 times. (Unnamed Press was a cold submission, so writers take heart that manuscripts can make it out of the slush pile and onto an editor’s desk!) Rejection is caustic to the soul. But I took heart that the manuscript was never rejected because of the quality of the writing or any other fatal literary flaws, but rather because the individual editors just didn’t fall in love with the book. Quite a few claimed that Lisa was unlikable, which I took as editor-speak for the story doesn’t appeal to the soft middle of American culture and so we don’t want to take a chance on it.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Read the hell out of the genre in which you are writing. Read with a critical eye to see what works and what doesn’t. Don’t just read for the story, read for all the intricate moving parts that go into making an effective piece of literature.  

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

I was surprised how intimate of a look I was allowing other people into my life. Though Lisa is her own fictional character, many of her experiences growing up as a transracial adoptee are mine. I’m a fairly private person and so it was somewhat shocking to find myself spilling my guts about my own personal pain.

Who is your ideal reader?

Besides adoptees, my ideal reader is a literary fiction buff who is willing to have the conventional view of adoption as a happily-ever-after fairy tale or a touching story of rescue and second chances challenged.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Food plays a big part in my book, which features a Japanese chef who strives to make western food to please his employer. Food also serves as a symbol of gross economic inequality which is so perfectly illustrated by North Korea, where a select few gorge can gorge themselves on luxury foods while the vast majority make do with subsistence fare in between famines. Food is also an important cultural marker, and I enjoyed exploring the different palates of international cuisine, the raw fish of Japan, the dumplings of China, the noodle soups of Korea, the creams and sauces of France, the simple comfort of a tuna fish sandwich. I’m a big lover of noodles, and though I don’t have any recipes to share, I can tell you that the best ramen place in the DC area is Ren’s Ramen in Wheaton, the best Korean fusion is Seoul Food in Takoma Park, and the best sour soup dumplings and liang pi noodles can be found at Northwest Chinese Food in College Park.




DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.