By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Malinda Lo to the WNDB blog to discuss her young adult novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club, out January 19, 2021!
What prompted you to want to write a book set in Chinatown during the Red Scare?
This book began as a short story, “New Year,” which was published in the anthology All Out. When I came up with the idea for the short story, I had just learned that in the 1950s, San Francisco’s lesbian bars were clustered in North Beach, located just a couple of blocks from Chinatown. I used to live in San Francisco, which is such a walking-friendly city, and I had this gut feeling that Chinese American lesbians who lived in Chinatown at the time must have known about these bars. I wanted to tell a story about one of them.
There is often criticism from the LGBTQ+ community, especially from queer women, that queer women’s media is so focused on historical settings, such as Carol or Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But most of those pieces of media featured white protagonists. Do you think that LGBTQ+ historical fiction needs more intersectional representation?
I have heard these criticisms since the early 2000s, when pretty much the only historical fiction about lesbians was written by Sarah Waters. All of her books have been turned into TV series or movies, so she has had a profound impact on the representation of queer women in media—but she is simply one author. I’m pretty sure that if you look more closely at the representation of queer women in media, only a tiny fraction of it takes place in historical time periods. The vast majority of fiction about queer women is contemporary because until very recently, most people denied the fact that queer people even existed before modern times.
Historical fiction in America and the West is certainly very white-centric—just like all fiction—and I’d definitely love to read more historical fiction about queer people of color.
Do you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser? Did you follow that same routine for this book or surprise yourself?
I am both! Every book is different, and I surprise myself every time.
You’ve spoken about the extensive research you usually do as part of your process of writing a book. What was that like for Last Night at the Telegraph Club? Can you share a piece of research with us that you loved learning?
When I started working on this book, I didn’t know much about the 1950s at all; it had never been an era that fascinated me. So I had to start at a very broad, general level, and gradually dive deeper into the details. I even visited the GLBT Historical Society’s archives in San Francisco, where I listened to a recorded interview with a Chinese American lesbian that they had in their files. She worked at a San Francisco department store in the late 1950s, and in her interview she noted that many of the managers in the women’s departments were lesbians who had graduated “from Wellesley or something.” That cracked me up because I went to Wellesley, and when I graduated from college in 1996, department stores still came to my college to hire us. Sadly, I didn’t work that detail into the book!
In addition to homophobia and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments of the time period, Last Night also dives into racism, xenophobia, and immigration. What was different about immigration during the Red Scare, and were there any similarities to the barriers facing immigrants, particularly Asian and Chinese immigrants, today?
Immigration to the U.S. has always been very complicated, and for Chinese and Asian Americans, it has often been restricted due to racism. The Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese (and later, Asian) immigrants from 1882-1943. In the 1950s, a strict quota system didn’t allow many Asians to immigrate. It wasn’t until the Immigration Act of 1965 was passed that large numbers of Asians were able to come to the U.S.
So, during the 1950s, very few Asians were allowed to immigrate to the U.S., which is a little different than today. However, one thing hasn’t changed. Asian Americans are still treated as perpetual foreigners, no matter how long we’ve lived in this country. I’m often asked about immigration in relation to Last Night at the Telegraph Club, but the main character, Lily, is a second-generation American citizen. She and her mother were both born in the U.S., but the white people she meets often think she just arrived from China. That kind of thing still happens today.
What’s the most useful thing you’ve learned about writing since you published Ash?
I’ve learned to truly value the time I spend writing a novel on my own before it’s published. That’s when the story is mine alone, and it’s a precious time.
If you could be on your dream panel to promote this book, what would it be about? Who are some other authors you’d love to have on it with you?
I’m so fortunate that I’ve been able to put together two dream panels for this book already, with the help of my publisher! I’m talking with Emily X. R. Pan for one event, and with Kristin Cashore for another. I’m really looking forward to them!
Can you tell us about some of your favorite scenes to write between Lily and Kath? (You can keep it spoiler-free.)
I loved writing the scene in Thrifty Drugs when they talk about a lesbian pulp novel, and I also really loved writing the bowling scene. You’ll see!
The scenes of Lily and Kath interacting with LGBTQ+ safe spaces (so to speak: They were as safe as you could get during the time) feel so incredibly real. Where did you draw the emotional resonance of these scenes, beyond the historical accuracy that was needed?
Thank you! Well, I spent a lot of time in lesbian bars when I was younger, and although back then I didn’t think I was doing research for a future novel, I’ve used a lot of that experience to write those scenes.
Lily and Kath have a slow burn romance, which makes sense for the characters and the time period. What do you love about writing a slow burn and what do you think is essential for writing an effective romance, regardless of the era when it takes place?
People may not believe this, but writing romance does not come easily to me; I strongly prefer writing murders! 🙂 I wrote Lily and Kath’s love story in the way I felt it would naturally develop in real life. I didn’t think of it as a slow burn romance in that trope sense; rather, I thought of it as a coming of age story.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club is interspersed with timelines involving the characters in the book and switches point-of-view to give the reader a deeper look at how everyone’s lives connect. Was it difficult to keep the timelines straight? Did you have a process for plotting out the book according to your characters’ timelines as well as historical events?
I think the main storyline of the book is pretty straightforward—there’s no mystery to solve or thriller to the plot, just Lily moving forward in time and through relationships. I wrote the other point-of-view scenes separately from Lily’s main story, and I wrote them all at the same time, so it was pretty simple to keep things in order. The difficult part was not in the organization, but rather in developing emotional resonance. That came with time and revision.
You used Chinese characters in the book when Lily and her family were speaking full sentences in dialects of Chinese. Why did you make this choice? When you do this, as well as when you felt anything needed a footnote, there were footnotes for the reader. What do you think it adds for readers familiar with the terms and characters to see Chinese characters and terms in the text without being taken out of the story for an explanation primarily meant for unfamiliar, often white, audiences?
I decided to use Chinese characters in some cases because the romanization in use in the 1950s was not standardized, and thus it was impossible to guarantee it could be understood by today’s readers. Also, the characters speak several dialects in the novel, and these dialects are all romanized differently. Chinese characters, on the other hand, are the same regardless of dialect, and when you see them on the page, it’s clear that it’s Chinese. It is its own language, with its own history and culture and tradition. Romanized Chinese of the 1950s was for the benefit of non-Chinese Westerners, mostly white people.
I’m sure that the reading experience is different for those who can read the Chinese characters, versus those who can read the romanized versions, versus those who can’t read any version of Chinese. That’s the way it is in the real world, too.
At the same time, I wanted to make sure that every reader understood what was being said, and I knew that it would be impossible for most people to google the Chinese characters or romanizations. I was inspired to use footnotes after seeing Kevin Kwan use them in Crazy Rich Asians, and I think they work to make the reader note that they are reading a translation. I wanted that to be clear, so the reader could have a sense of insider versus outsider culture.
Without spoilers, can you tell our readers what it’s like to craft a historical novel about LGBTQ+ characters that isn’t hopeless and overly traumatic?
I’m not sure if I’m capable of writing a book about queer characters that’s hopeless and overly traumatic! I just wanted to make sure there was a sense of hope at the end. That was important to me.
What other books do you think Last Night is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for recently published or forthcoming YA books?
It was definitely influenced by Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters and The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith.
For 2021, I’ve had the chance to read a couple of excellent forthcoming queer YA books: Eliot Schrefer’s amazing science fiction thriller, The Darkness Outside Us, and Britta Lundin’s fantastic contemporary about a female football player, Like Other Girls. I can’t wait for both to come out!