Q&A With Yi Shun Lai, Author of “Not A Self-Help Book”

Last week I reviewed Yi Shun Lai’s Not A Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu and let me once again recommend it to you all. If you’re a fan of epistolary novels, this book is a must-must read. It has a unique voice and plot, with memorable characters and complex relationships. The mother-daughter relationship is especially complicated and nuanced. If you read and review Not A Self-Help Book, I’d love to know your thoughts on this aspect of the novel. There’s also a good mix of humor and serious moments, with a dose of family drama to top it off. It’s difficult not to find something in this novel that you’ll like!

Today, I’m grateful to have the author of Not A Self-Help Book answer some book-specific questions ,as well as some personal ones to get know her a little better.

Without further ado..


Q&A With Yi Shun Lai

Not A Self-Help Book is your debut novel. Was the process of writing it fun or was it a difficult and arduous process that you couldn’t wait to be over? Perhaps a bit of both?

Yes, definitely a bit of both. I really like the actual process of writing, everything from the sitting down to the word dump to the revision, but the nuts and bolts of editing and trying to diagnose what’s working and what isn’t is taxing, at best.

I love getting to know new people, so getting to know the main character in this book was a treat, even when she was being an utter brat and doing nothing she was supposed to be doing. But all writers have a little bit of the voyeur in them, and it’s a lot more pleasurable to watch someone crash and burn when you know they’re fictional and still have genuine hope for them (and a hand in making that hope a reality).

Late in the editing process, a whole new character, a pivotal point in the plot, came onto the scene. Getting to know him was less of an organic matter and more of a scientific matter, if you will—you know, seeing where he fit best and how he needed to function and be in order to serve the purposes of plot. That’s a lot less pleasurable than just putting the bare sketches of a new character on the stage and letting them grow into themselves, and then building the story around them. But it’s a necessary function of some characters and plot points.

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Your novel is told through the various journal entries in Marty’s very chatty and eccentric voice. Why did you decide to tell the story this way? And would it be different if it were told from 3rd person point of view?

Oh, thank you so much for saying so. I love the idea that readers think this voice is chatty; she’s meant to draw you in despite her wreck of a life.

You know, this voice originally started out as third person. Then it went to first-person narrative, then back to third, and then finally, finally, I settled on this diary format. It was the character herself who dictated this eventual voice; I wanted her to feel as immediate as I could, both because of her propensity to act impulsively and the fact that she’s ultimately telling a story that might be hard to believe and stomach.

There are so many people out there who are living Marty’s life and experiences, but whose stories haven’t been told. Some of the things she suffers at the hands of her parent, all in the name of filial duty or cultural expectations, or whatever, are so deeply shameful, but they’re also universal among certain populations. It’s just that no one ever talks about them. Letting Marty tell her own story was not an option. It took me a while to see it, is all.

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What is your honest opinion on self-help books?

I know some of them are really useful. Not one of them has never worked, in its entirety, for me, although I’m sure each has its applications, and I know I’ve applied bits and pieces from each of the ones I’ve read to my life. Overall, I think the idea of folks turning to one manual or another as a way to lead their own lives is worthy of a little bit of shade. Still, pick and choose. No one says you have to take all the advice of any one book, and no one says you have to agree with everything.

People have sent me self-help books, or recommended them, by way of expressions of support. I think this is a lovely gesture, and it’s always nice to learn something new even if you don’t end up agreeing with what you’ve read.

Marty goes through an extremely embarrassing career meltdown early on in the novel. I cringed and felt legitimate second-hand embarrassment. She could just not catch a break! Have you ever had a streak of terrible luck or experienced something awfully embarrassing?

Oh, you’ve made me laugh. I’m remembering one of my first-ever visits with college students who had read my novel. They kept on having problems separating the narrator of the book, Marty, from me, the author. I eventually had to draw a chart on the whiteboard outlining the differences between me and Marty. (Actually, this ended up being an illustration of the ways a writer might draw from her life in order to be able to create believable characters.)

Anyhow, yes. I’ve had a ton of embarrassing experiences. I mean, haven’t we all? Am I going to tell you about them? No. No. I’ve blocked them all out of my head and cannot consciously remember them. They only ever re-appear in characters or in terrible nightmares. *Shifty eyes*

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There are several scenes in the book that elicited intense emotional reactions from me. But the most striking scenes were the ones where Marty’s mother was verbally abusive and cruel to her daughter. They have a very complicated relationship, to say the least. What was it like to write these emotionally-fraught scenes?

Pretty hard, actually. Usually we’re re-living feelings we’ve experienced when we put them on the page, even if the situations we’re describing aren’t real, or never happened. Never do we rely on pure imagination in order to be able to write the most fraught scenes. Every writer leaves a little bit of themselves on each page.

I’m remembering a visit to Prague with my parents. At one of the parks at the end of King Charles’ Bridge, a girl was being broken up with. I knew this because I had been broken up with before. Even though I don’t speak Czech, I knew what was happening. We all know what that feels like to be in that situation. The guy eventually stood up from where he’d been sitting next to her, turned to face her, spread his arms wide, shrugged, and left her there alone, looking down at her lap, which we all know she wasn’t seeing, crying and making a mess of herself. I so badly wanted to go over there and give her some tissues and hug, but the tour bus schedule wouldn’t let me.

I still regret that. And it underscores for me the universality of our most private moments.

Now for a few more personal questions! Do you have any secret talents most people don’t know about? If you don’t, how do you feel about that?

I have a gift for trying things, gaining a smidge of proficiency, and then giving them up or pursuing them only sporadically enough to never get good at them. A partial list: knitting, piano, harmonica, Spanish, Mandarin, drawing animals with things on their heads. I am a mediocre athlete and sometimes pull off an amusing watercolor or two. I’m “just okay” at a lot of things. This makes me a great cocktail conversationalist. I’ve been told I’m good at making people feel important. This matters perhaps a little too much to me.

I really like the last part of this question. How do I feel about being mediocre at so much? Okay, actually, but this is the first time I’ve ever thought about it!

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Both! I dread starting. I love being in the middle of it. I’m very, very good at finding reasons to end. Heh.

Do you believe in writer’s block?

Yes? No? Is it writer’s block when you talk yourself into a circle? I believe we get in our way a lot. I don’t believe it is this universal thing, like the physical wall you get during a marathon, which is a very real thing.

I think we make our own obstacles. But also that we can get over them with minimal fuss, because writers love to write more than we love making obstacles.

Thank you for your time! Please provide links to social media or professional sites where readers may follow you.

Aw! Thank you for hosting me! Readers can find me on Twitter @gooddirt; on Instagram @yishunlai. Visit my web site at thegooddirt.org for blog posts, and sign up for my monthly newsletter at tinyletter.com/yishun.  

 And thanks VERY much for the book recommendations you’re constantly writing. As a writer and a reader, I am grateful to you.

Add “Not A Self-Help Book” Goodreads

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu


About the author (from Goodreads)

Yi Shun Lai (say “yeeshun” for her first name) is the author of NOT A SELF-HELP BOOK: THE MISADVENTURES OF MARTY WU (Shade Mountain Press, May 2016).
She is the nonfiction editor for the Tahoma Literary Review.
Her nonfiction can be found at Cutbank Online, at The-Toast.com, at TheHairpin.com, and at Bustle.com.
Her short fiction appears in Atticus Review. Previously: Akkadian, 94 Creations, BigLucks.com.
She’s a fan of cold cereal, and like to roll around in warm laundry when she’s stressed. She lives in southern California. 


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13 thoughts on “Q&A With Yi Shun Lai, Author of “Not A Self-Help Book”

  1. I’m loving all these interviews you’re conducting! It’s such a great way to be able to connect with an author outside of the book, especially for people that don’t have a lot of opportunities to attend fests and author events and such. Thanks so much for this! Listening/reading what authors have to say adds so much to the experience of reading a book, so please keep doing these interviews. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much, Janani! Doing author interviews is one of my favorite things about being a blogger 😀 I admire so many writers and am honored to have them on my blog. These interviews just turn me into a bigger fanboy. haha. Expect to see more in the future. 🙂

  2. What a fabulous interview! I laughed when I read that Yi Shun says she has “a gift for trying things, gaining a smidge of proficiency, and then giving them up or pursuing them only sporadically enough to never get good at them.” I am SO the same way… jack of all trades, master of absolutely nothing.

      1. I really responded to that part of the interview too: it made me smile! I appreciate that your interviews are long enough and feel personal enough, Naz, that the writers are often willing to share “just a little more” than seems to come through in some other online content. In this instance, I wanted to add the book to my TBR almost immediately, but was happy to read along further!

  3. Another excellent interview Naz! I always admire how personal your questions are. I particularly liked that you asked if the author BELIEVED in writer’s block and didn’t ask if she experienced it. I recently found out that it is a big no- no to ask an author if they get writer’s block as many are very superstitious about it… who knew?

  4. Brilliant interview! I completely agree with the author, self-help books have never entirely worked for me but applying bits into my life has helped a little at times. The book sounds so interesting, I need to read that review of yours now!

  5. Wow! Thanks to all of you for reading this interview. I’m so glad you stopped by and took advantage of Naz’s insightful questions. And yes, I really loved that question about whether or not I believe in writer’s block, too. It really made me stop and think. 🙂

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