Jen Sookfong Lee has been leaving readers awed and moved for years with her powerful and award-nominated novels, nonfiction, and children's books. She also knows a thing or two about publishing, working as an editor and writing instructor, and appearing on literary-themed programmes on CBC Radio as well as running her own Canadian literature-centric podcast, Can't Lit (with fellow writer Dina Del Bucchia).
Now, with the publication of her debut poetry collection, The Shadow List (Wolsak & Wynn), she has essentially checked every literary box, with no indication she's slowing down anytime soon.
And that's lucky for readers, because The Shadow List is a literary gift: lyric poems that push and pull at questions of desire, heartbreak, and self. Called "vivid and sophisticated" by fellow multi-genre whiz Zoe Whittall, it's a collection you will not want to miss.
Given Jen's many hats (including one, we're proud to say, as a former Open Book columnist), we're thrilled to welcome her today to celebrate the publication of The Shadow List and to share what she's learned from her many and varied roles in the world of writing and publishing, as part of our Goings Pro(s and Cons) interview series.
She tells us about the advice she (rightly!) had the guts to ignore, the CanLit icon who praised her during a nerve-wracking situation, and the guidance she would offer to emerging writers as they start their publishing journeys.
Going Pro(s and Cons) with Jen Sookfong Lee
My first big writing/publishing victory and how I celebrated:
When my first novel, The End of East, was accepted for publication, it had been after a year of shopping it around, and I had given up on ever seeing it in print. My agent called me at seven in the morning and said we had an offer and I had never been so surprised in my life! My partner at the time immediately picked up the front paws of my dear old dog Molly and danced with her across the kitchen. And it was the best celebration I could have asked for.
A big writing/publishing disappointment I remember and how I coped:
When I was in my 20s and writing The End of East, I had sought out manuscript help from a mentor, and he told me I was too young to be writing this novel and advised me to put it aside. I was terrified he was right, but I also knew, deep down, that he was wrong. I continued to write it anyway. And I proved him wrong.
My best public reading or event experience:
Easily, it was the first time I appeared at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, when I was so nervous, I could feel my blood pressure going up. Just as I was about to go on stage, Wayson Choy walked in and sat down and my vision immediately blurred and I could no longer see my book or my speaking notes! I stood on the stage, silent, until a woman in the front row, who was knitting, shouted out, “I love your shoes!” That brought me back down to earth and I finished the reading. Later, Wayson bought my book and asked me to sign it, and he told me I had done a good job. It was all I could have wished for.
My worst public reading or event experience:
Once I read to one single person at a bookstore in San Francisco. I mean, she was really lovely, but it was an exercise in humiliation!
The person or writer I met who I was most excited about:
I attended a party that Dionne Brand also attended, and she was standing behind me for half an hour. I couldn’t work up the nerve to speak to her, but I was pretty thrilled to be within three feet of her presence.
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The advice I would give someone publishing a book for the first time:
Honour your boundaries, whether they have to do with scheduling, or what you are willing to talk about publicly, or social media. The process is fun and exciting as long as it nurtures you, as opposed to taking away what matters. The pressure to promote is external, so listen to what compels you internally. That’s the important stuff.
The advice I would give someone trying to get a book published for the first time:
Sometimes the reasons an editor or agent declines your work are beyond anyone’s control, things like schedules or mandate. And other times it’s about personal taste. Once in a while, the rejection feedback is useful for revision, but you have to be able to filter what you can use and what you can shrug off. It’s a similar skill to self-editing, except that you will be reading the rejections with that same critical eye, which will also help you protect your feelings and prevent you from taking the feedback personally.
Jen Sookfong Lee was born and raised in Vancouver’s East Side, and she now lives with her son in North Burnaby. Her books include The Conjoined, nominated for International Dublin Literary Award and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, The Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, The End of East, Gentlemen of the Shade, and Chinese New Year. Jen teaches at The Writers’ Studio Online with Simon Fraser University, edits fiction for Wolsak & Wynn, and co-hosts the literary podcast, Can’t Lit.