Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Jen Sookfong Lee

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Jen Sookfong Lee (photo credit: Sherri Koop)

Jen Sookfong Lee talks to Open Book about her newly released sophomore novel, The Better Mother (Knopf Canada), why she felt compelled to write about the emerging HIV/AIDS crisis of 1980s Vancouver, and how she attempts to balance motherhood with the writing life.

Jen Sookfong Lee will be reading from The Better Mother tonight at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre. Visit our Events Page for details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new novel, The Better Mother.

Jen Sookfong Lee:

The Better Mother is about the accidental friendship between Miss Val, a longtime burlesque dancer, and Danny, a Chinese Canadian wedding photographer. They first meet in 1958 when Danny is a child, and meet again when Danny is in his 30s and each is struggling with family, truth and community. Together, they try to figure out how to reconcile their troubled pasts with who they have become.

OB:

The Better Mother is set in Vancouver in 1982, at a time when HIV/AIDS was spreading and not well understood. What was it about this particular place and time that inspired you to write about it?

JSL:

There was something very basic about that time. No one knew anything about HIV/AIDS, but everyone was afraid. It didn’t matter who you were or where you lived, the spectre of HIV/AIDS was emerging on our televisions, in our newspapers, to people in our lives, and there was no known way of stopping it. I saw a documentary called The Age of Aids when I was starting to shape The Better Mother, and in the footage from the 1980s, every AIDS patient had the same expression on his or her face: a devastating mixture of terror and barely-there hope. I knew I had to write about it.

OB:

As the mother of a young son, were mother/son relationships particularly present in your mind as you worked on this book?

JSL:

Yes and no. I started The Better Mother well before I was even thinking of becoming pregnant, and I was mostly into revisions by the time I was pregnant. However, everyone who knows me knows I have mother issues! I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of the “bad” mother. So many people I know remark that they can never understand how a mother can leave her child, or be cruel to him or her. But it happens, and I try to build the whys and hows into most things I write. After my son was born, I was still revising, and I think much of the depth of the mother/son relationship was crafted around that time. Because new mothers are always worried about not doing the right or good thing, as every mother in my novel is as well.

OB:

How did the experience of writing The Better Mother compare with the experience of writing The End of East, your first novel? What did you learn from The End of East that helped with your work on the second novel?

JSL:

The Better Mother was easier in some ways because I was more aware of my weaknesses as a writer. Reviews will do that to you! I paid more attention to the nuts and bolts of writing than I ever thought I needed to with The End of East. In some ways, though, it was a more challenging book to write because it’s my sophomore novel. All of a sudden, people expected me to produce something and expected to read it. While toiling in anonymity isn’t fun, it has its blessings, which is to say that there isn’t any pressure other than self-generated pressure.

OB:

What does your average writing day look like?

JSL:

I don’t have any of those anymore since my son was born. Now, I try to write a couple of mornings a week while he’s napping, provided he sleeps for a decent stretch. That’s about it!

OB:

How does your involvement with CBC Radio One's On the Coast, All Points West and The Next Chapter contribute to your work as a novelist?

JSL:

Talking about books on the radio keeps me excited about writing. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about the world of words when you’re alone all the time, pinging your own thoughts around inside your head. When I get to talk to other book lovers and bring book news to listeners, it makes me want to be a better writer.

OB:

What writers would you say have had the biggest influence on your work?

JSL:

This is a difficult question because I think every book I’ve ever read contributes a little to my writing. The biggest influences are probably Margaret Laurence and John Thompson, who have been my imaginary writerly companions for a long, long time.

OB:

What are you working on these days? Do you have another novel in mind?

JSL:

I work on sleeping! I have a couple of ideas I’m thinking about (not surprisingly, featuring mothers once again), but I haven’t actually written anything down. Who knows what I’ll do next?


Jen Sookfong Lee was born and raised in Vancouver’s Eastside, where she now lives with her husband and son. Her books include The End of East and Shelter, a novel for young adults. Her poetry, fiction and articles have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including TOK: Writing the New City, The Antigonish Review and Event. A popular radio personality, Jen is the voice behind "Westcoast Words," a weekly writing column featured on CBC Radio One’s On the Coast and All Points West. She appears regularly as a columnist on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers and is a frequent co-host of the Studio One Book Club. Find out more by visiting her website.

For more information about The Better Mother please visit the Knopf Canada/Random House website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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