Malinda Lo on Writing a Coming-of-Age Love Story

In Malinda Lo’s forthcoming Last Night at the Telegraph Club (Dutton Books for Young Readers, January 2020), protagonist Lily Hu feels the challenging pull to act on her nature. Lily, a young Chinese American girl living in 1950s San Francisco, realizes that her love for another girl might endanger an already fragile defense against the deportation of her father.

Lo’s practiced hand has previously brought us the novels A Line in the DarkAshHuntressAdaptation, and more. Booklist’s starred review of her latest notes it as “a must-read love story in an uncommon setting…alternately heart-wrenching and satisfying.” Lo writes with such care that even the slipped reveal of a photo or the squeak of a book display may call up danger. Lo teases us with questions: Will the hero end up with the other girl? Will the political pressures on Chinese Americans deter her? What will become of her family ties? Can this book possibly unfold toward anyone getting what they want?

On the eve of the launch of her book next month, Malinda Lo spoke to Lambda Literary about writing the novel, reaching a queer and Asian audience, and breaking prescribed literary rules.

What’s been something you’ve celebrated recently?

One fun thing that happened just this past week: I was very surprised to see that O, the Oprah Magazine, included Last Night at the Telegraph Club in their roundup of queer books to look forward to in 2021. I shared that with some friends, and they were all so excited because everyone still thinks of Oprah as the book goddess. When nice things happen for my books, I often try to just brush them off because I don’t want to jinx anything; I’ve been doing this since 2009, so I have learned that things happen, things don’t happen, and not to get too hung up on one thing or the other, but it was really nice to have that happen the other day and to see that my friends and other people on the Internet were so excited about it. It reminded me that it’s OK to celebrate some of these small triumphs.

Congratulations on the notice.

It helps that it was also totally unexpected. Going on Twitter sometimes can be a little nerve-wracking. If people tag you and mention your book, it’s like, “Do I want to look? Do I not want to look?” So this was very surprising in an extremely pleasant way.

Is there a difference between getting a notice from a mainstream publication versus a niche one?

I really appreciate all of the positive reviews. The same day that the thing came out, I shared a starred review from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, which is from a very niche organization that really speaks to educators, and I was really so pleased by the review. They really got the book, and I thought that was wonderful. But people on the Internet don’t know what that is, so they were much more interested in the O thing. When it comes to smaller media, the people who know about that niche, they are really excited. As a writer, I’m so happy when anything like that happens from really anyone. It’s so lovely when random people on Instagram take a beautiful picture of my book and tag me. It’s so nice that someone takes the time to do that and share that with me.

Did you have a reader in mind when you wrote this book?

I always write for myself first, and then I want to reach readers who are like me, so I’m really interested in reaching readers who are queer women and girls, queer Asian women and girls. And then it goes out from there. It’s a historical novel, so I’m hoping people who love historical fiction will enjoy it. I’m hoping Asian Americans who are not queer will enjoy it. It really goes into Asian American history in a way that doesn’t happen very often in fiction being published today. And I’m hoping that queer readers who are not Asian American will be able to connect with the book.

What do you think about the idea that the clearer you are about your audience, the less diffuse you’ll be?

That’s a really interesting question. I approach this from a variety of ways. I, increasingly, am thinking about the reader. When I first started writing, I was totally thinking about what I wanted to hear, the story that I wanted to read, and that’s what I would write. The more books that I write, the more I actually think about what would make a satisfying reading experience for whoever’s reading it. A lot of that depends on the kind of book it is. Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a historical novel. It’s also a love story. People are going to go into it because of the packaging. If I have an idea of what the expectations are, I can work with that and try to either deliver on them or give the reader cues along the way that it’s not going in the way they expect. That’s something I never really grappled with until very recently—I’m not really sure why—but it has become increasingly important to me to deliver a satisfying read. But again, it depends on the genre.

If I was writing a dark thriller, there would be different things I would do. Maybe because I’ve written in so many genres, and I’ve switched around so much, I think about that more and more with each book: What kind of book am I writing? Who am I writing this for? What are they expecting? Am I going to give it to them or not?

As I was reading the new novel, I felt it could be called a romance novel, but I hesitated to say that to others because I didn’t want someone I was speaking with to pigeon-hole the book to one specific genre.

When you talk about the book or when your PR department talks about the book, do you have similar moments of deciding not to limit descriptions too much, even though you have a good sense of who you’re writing for?

I actually don’t think of it as a romance novel. I think of it as a coming-of-age novel with a love story. I’m not a big historical-romance reader, so I can’t say I was writing one. I know there are ways historical romance novels are structured that I would not know how to do—however—the book recently sold to the UK, to Hodder & Stoughton, and they are publishing it as an adult novel, and they are categorizing it directly as historical romance. I have no objection to that; if it reaches readers who want to read it, that’s great. In the US, because it’s YA, and everything is coming of age, it is an identity novel. The main character is coming out, she’s coming to terms with her identity as a Chinese American, as a queer person. And it is also a romance. However, the marketing copy has situated it within this greater historical context of McCarthyism and Red Scare in the 1950s, which is when it takes place.

I have noticed that when some book bloggers promote it as a book they are looking forward to, they immediately categorize it as an immigration novel or a novel about deportation or a novel about communism. That stuff is in the book, but that is definitely not what the book is about.

The book is a love story. If you go in there thinking it’s about immigration and communism, you will be sorely disappointed. The marketing copy immediately jumps to the political and race issues because, within YA especially, there’s been a huge focus recently on books about racism and immigration, and I totally understand that, and I get it, but it’s sometimes difficult to publish a book about a marginalized identity that is not an issue book and have people understand that’s not what it is. That’s been very surprising. I did not expect that.

One of the slyest parts of the new book is the comparison between the parents’ desires for freedom and romance, explored in the callbacks, and Lily’s desire for freedom and romance in the present-day of the novel.

The reader gets a sense of edges of acceptability and that different generations may recognize different boundaries. A book like LC Rosen’s novel Camp shows characters deciding to prioritize someone’s safety at home by postponing a portion of honesty until he’s an independent adult. Do you see such limits to authenticity for your characters, especially since Lily’s expressions of freedom may have negative consequences for her parents?

No, I don’t think so. I think it’s important to be true to the story and go where it leads you to be true to the character. When I wrote the character of Lily, she told me what she wanted. I tried to make her do other things, but what she wanted is what happens in the book. She’s very aware of the political situation and the concepts, which is why she makes the choices she makes for the first ninety percent of the book. The characters are all very aware they are Chinese Americans living in America in the 1950s, but people will do what they want. If someone wants something, they will try to get it.

In the prologue, as read in the pre-release copy, you use the simile, “like the slender-legged foals in Bambi learning to walk,” to give readers a rich visual of a pageant. Talk about the way you enjoy language that helps us see your scenes, not just know about what’s happening.

I love a sense of place. I love describing places. In the early drafts, there was too much description of San Francisco. I’d go around describing all of it, detail by detail, even trash on the sidewalk. I used to live there, so I was returning to San Francisco in my imagination. I love describing place; it’s something I’ve always been drawn to. I really enjoy describing rooms and houses. I enjoy describing the inside of nightclubs. Some authors are much more interested in dialogue, and that’s not me. I’ve always found dialogue not to be my strong suit. I’ve worked on it. I can do it. I had to describe a lot of fashion in this book too, and for some reason, fashion was really hard for me. It is the opposite of place. It’s kind of like pulling teeth. The Bambi line was a line my editor suggested. He suggested Bambi because it came out at the time in the book, and Lily would have seen it. When describing things from her perspective, I always tried to think of metaphors she, herself, would know, to keep it in the time period and her point of view.

Malinda Lo

The veracity of the book is pretty remarkable. Your descriptions feel like a camera sweep through a place: For dancing, we see dancing; we’re not told there are dancers.

I remember reading Sarah Waters’ novel The Paying Guests. There’s a party in that book, and there’s a party in my book. When I get stuck, I pick up a book by someone I admire, where I think they’ve done what I would like to do, and I read their scene and try to analyze it. Something I noticed Waters did: She made the furniture active. The furniture did things. A table would crouch as opposed to saying there’s a table over there. I try to do that in my party scene—but also throughout. I tried to make it so the world around the characters was living and not just inert. My novel A Line in the Dark takes place in New England in the winter, and the landscape of New England in the winter is just creepy. You can use that to deliver mood and emotion, so I try to think of things I’m describing as doing things.

The scariest object in Last Night at the Telegraph Club is the precarious book rack, at which Lily sneaks reads of a same-sex romantic paperback in an out-of-the-way spot in the store. The reading won’t give her away; it would be the squeak of the display. We sense the danger of surveillance, and at once, the secret-reading scenes feel historic and contemporary—about an action people used to take, yet some people still have to take. What is your hope for those today who have to be more secretive about accessing queer literature?

I understand. I have been the person sneakily reading a book in the library and not checking it out. I hope that if someone is sneakily reading this book, they get some comfort from it and feel seen. There are times when you cannot reveal yourself, and Lily knows that. That’s just, unfortunately, life. It’s just so hard. We’re in a much better place now than in 1954, but I absolutely understand that it’s not safe for people to come out in certain places or times or locations or contexts. I don’t come out at certain times. When we used to leave the house—when I would go places and get a Lyft or a taxi from the airport or be in a different city and the driver tries to talk to you—I don’t come out in those times, and I’m usually traveling to do a book event about my extremely gay book. I don’t come out in a lot of situations, even now, when I’m not in control or don’t have the power. As a woman, I know there are certain locations where I have to watch out for things, and if I come out as a lesbian in those situations, it generally makes it worse.

What rules do you break when you’re writing?

I hate all rules. So: prologues. Everyone’s like, “Don’t have a prologue.” I love prologues. I think I’ve managed to have a prologue in every single novel I’ve written.

Your website does a great job of highlighting local ways to pre-order your book. What’s behind this choice?

Since my first book came out in 2009, independent bookstores have been the one place I can go to consistently find my books. One of the major ways people discover my books is through independent bookstores that carry back-list titles and don’t immediately return books after the first month. I’m extremely grateful to independent bookstores for continuing to support my books, going on eleven years now. Without them, I would not be here probably. Also, independent bookstores are just so great. I love visiting them. They are so cozy and lovely, and the people who work there love books, and they have a curated selection. It’s a relief to go into a bookstore to be able to look around. I miss that a lot. Some of my best events ever have been at Porter Square Books in Cambridge. I just love them. Starting this past summer, they have allowed ten people at a time in, so I’ve gone a couple of times. I can’t stay away.

I hear you. Recently, I stood outside of Boswell Book Company, calling in, waiting for my book to be brought out to the no-touch cart. I called for someone else waiting too—someone who didn’t have a phone to call for their order. It was very neighborhood-y. I’m predicting people will grow in their love of independent bookstores. What do you predict for the future of queer #ownvoices writing?

More. It’s exploded in the last four to five years, and I think there will just be more. I’m very excited about that. When I was first published in 2009, I was often the only queer author at various YA book events, and I hated that. I really did not want to be the only one. There was obviously more than me, but we were never in the same place at once. I just love that there’s more now, and there should only be more in the future.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club
by Malinda Lo
Dutton Books for Young Readers
Hardcover, 9780525555254, 416 pp.
January 2021