Mira T. Lee (Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Fellow ’12) is publishing her debut novel, Everything Here is Beautiful, later this month (book launch event at Harvard Bookstore Jan. 19, 7 PM). The novel has already been selected by the American Booksellers Association as one of Winter/Spring 2018’s Top 10 Debut titles.
We asked the author about the journey of writing the book, her process and approach as a literary artist, and what’s next.
Where did the idea for your novel begin? And what has been its journey since then?
The novel started off as a short story, published in 2010 by The Missouri Review. I loved my cast of characters and knew they had richer lives. Over the next few years, I found a series of situational and moral predicaments that felt so compelling to me that I had to write – for my characters. I’ve always been drawn to questions that have no easy answers, where good people find themselves in conflict with one another. Such questions fueled the plot. I wanted to explore complicated family dynamics, the limits of love, what happens when what you want for yourself isn’t in the best interests of someone you love, and vice versa. I started writing in earnest in 2013, and it took me two and a half years to get through four drafts. At the end of 2015, I found my agent. That was a major turning point, because up until then, writing had been this incredibly lonely endeavor, my dirty little secret. Now it feels slightly more legitimate to say “I’m a writer,” though part of me still can’t quite believe that people I don’t know are actually reading my book!
One of the great things about Everything Here is Beautiful is its specificity, the way its details about, say, mental health treatment, or such settings as Ecuador or a small town in Minnesota feel so true. What was your research process like?
I read lots of travel blogs by backpackers and expats living abroad. I also like to collect photos of places I’m writing about (or what I imagine those places to be like), like a specific house, or a main street, or a cafe, or a dirt road. Having visual references really helps to evoke a sense of place. But many of the details also came from personal experience. This was true of the mental illness too – I have family members who have suffered from mental illnesses, and I’ve dealt with the mental healthcare system firsthand, all too often, and understand those challenges and frustrations.
I was interested to see in your bio that you dropped out of grad school in biology. Do you think there’s anything in your scientific studies that carries over to the way you write?
I guess I’m a pretty rational person, but I think I was that way before I studied science! I’m not sure that it’s affected my writing. I do have this complete obsession with the rhythms of sentences, as well as the sounds of words, but I’d attribute that more to my background as a musician.
Do you remember where you were (as in, what actual place) when you learned of your 2012 Artist Fellowship? Where were you in your career?
Yes! I was walking in Central Square, and had no idea that one got a call about such things! It was pretty amazing. I was at a lull in my writing at that point – I’d written a few short stories and was considering applying for a low-residency MFA program. But I also had a two year-old and a newborn and wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to more schooling. I liked writing, but had never envisioned myself as “a writer.” The Mass Cultural Council fellowship gave me the validation I needed to take my writing seriously. I gave myself permission to use the funds on only writing-related things, including a writing coach who helped me get through the first draft of my novel, as well as a one-week writing retreat, which was heavenly. I honestly don’t know where I’d be now if I hadn’t gotten that fellowship just when I did. I’m forever grateful to the Mass Cultural Council.
You’ve got several readings and events coming up. How do you approach talking about your writing? What do you strive to convey when speaking publicly about your work?
When people come out to see an author I think they’re looking for context for the book. This could be something personal, related to the subject matter, or the inspiration/reasons for writing the book. So I share a little about my background, and then I try to frame the book for them, what I found interesting about this story, and these characters, and why I felt compelled to write the book the way that I did. I try to highlight the main questions I hope people will think about as they’re reading. Though I realize that in the end, people read a book through their own experiential lenses, and think about it however they want!
What’s the most surprising response to your writing you’ve ever received?
To be honest, I’m still surprised that anyone’s actually read anything I’ve written! And it’s amazing when strangers go out of their way to track you down and tell you that it meant something to them. I mean, that’s everything.
If you could deliver one message to your younger self, what would it be?
Basing one’s self-worth on the opinions of others is the surest way to misery. I’ve been told this by people I respect over and over again, for literally, decades. And I know it, but it’s still really hard not to measure your own achievements against the successes of others – especially in the world of writers, where there’s always this list you didn’t make, that award you didn’t get, that review, that star. It’s so easy to feel “less-than.” But life isn’t about getting stars, or comparing oneself to others. I’m constantly telling my kids, “be grateful for what you have.”
What are you working on next?
I’ve actually been working on some children’s picture books. I love that they are smaller projects, with a strictly defined form (16 spreads and you have to be done!). I love being able to focus at the word and sentence level. I’m not an illustrator, so I don’t know if these books will ever make it out into the world (though I hope they do!) – but for now, it’s kind of magical.
Bonus: Name a Massachusetts writer you recommend we all read right now.
Sonya Larson. I read her short story, Gabe Dove, in the Best American anthology, and it was exquisite. I hope she comes out with a book-length work soon. (Editor’s note: read an ArtSake discussion featuring Sonya Larson.)
Mira T. Lee has upcoming readings for her debut novel Everything Here is Beautiful, including Point Street Reading Series at Bayberry Beer Hall in Providence (1/16, 7:30 PM), Harvard Book Store (1/19, 7 PM, in conversation with Lisa Miller of New York Magazine), and Porter Square Books (2/7, 7 PM, in conversation with Jane Martin, NAMI Cambridge/Middlesex).
Mira T. Lee‘s short fiction has appeared in journals such as the Southern Review, the Gettysburg Review, the Missouri Review, Triquarterly, Harvard Review, and American Short Fiction, and has twice received special mention for the Pushcart Prize. Along with her Mass Cultural Council fellowship, she was awarded the Peden Prize for Best Short Story by The Missouri Review (2010).