Interview: CB Lee

CB Lee is a bisexual Chinese-Vietnamese American writer based in Los Angeles, and the author of the young adult science fiction series The Sidekick Squad, the first book of which, Not Your Sidekick, was a 2017 Lambda Literary Awards Finalist in YA/Children's Fiction and a 2017 Bisexual Book Awards Finalist in Speculative Fiction. She's also the author of the standalone novel Seven Tears at High Tide, which won the Rainbow Award for Best Bisexual Fantasy Romance and was a finalist for the 2016 Bisexual Book Awards in both the YA and Speculative Fiction categories. Geeks OUT wanted to get to know her better, and we were immediately enraptured by how much there is to know!

You had been pursuing a career in science before becoming an author. What inspired you to make this career change?

After graduating college, part of me felt like pursuing graduate school and a PhD was part of the path and was the next expected step. I loved science, but I didn't think the academic track was for me. And for the longest time, I felt guilty because it was what I had majored in—it was a set career path and would have been much more secure, but I was very unhappy. I wanted to do something creative and more true to myself, which comes back to stories. I've always felt most alive with stories, and being able to craft something out of just emotion and idle thoughts and turning it into something another person can experience. It's a kind of magic. That's what I love about writing. I just wanted to bring more stories into the world.

The whole process of telling stories is a such vital part of the human experience, just part of our culture that makes us who we are. How we perceive our lives, what happens to us, our emotions—it's all tied up in stories. The stories we tell each other about our hopes and dreams, allowing people from all walks of life to see different perspectives and to experience so many things. I love writing for many of the same reasons I love reading, not just for the escape factor.

Who were some literary figures who influenced your writing then?

I loved fantasy and science fiction growing up, and Ursula K. Le Guin, Diane Duane, Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, and Neil Gaiman were huge influences on me, for their intricate worlds of magic and world-building and just storytelling in general. Lawrence Yep and Amy Tan I also remember in my youth as wonderful crafters of stories especially with Chinese American characters; they were some of the first storytellers who delved into characters I could identify with, and I really enjoyed their historical fiction.

Who are some authors who inspire you now?

There are so many amazing writers today who I adore, and I'm lucky to discover so many wonderful voices in romance and genre fiction as well. Malinda Lo has been an absolute inspiration, and I was so happy for the opportunity to study with her with Lambda Literary in 2016. In romance, I really admire Courtney Milan, Alisha Rai, and Alyssa Cole's work (and think they're all incredible people), just to name a few.

In your books, you focus on crafting speculative fiction with LGBTQ themes and characters. What motivates you to take this approach to storytelling?

Speculative fiction has the power to inspire people to see new worlds, to look beyond the limits of their own. The concept of mirrors is so important—seeing yourself on the page, especially in a future, gives yourself power in the present. Especially for young people in the LGBTQ community, when you're still learning about yourself and there aren't a lot of positive portrayals of who you are and who you might be, it's so easy to think of yourself as wrong or broken. I think fiction has the power to affirm who we are, so I think these stories bridge an amazing time, full of so much potential, where youth are learning about themselves, being exploratory, figuring out who they want to be. I find the challenges addressed in these works have so much meaning, and I think there's definitely a need for more LGBTQ protagonists for teens to see themselves in. And then looking at subgenres, my favorite thing is adding elements of fantasy or science fiction to a story, because I love the creative potential in adding a bit of magic to a story, whether it comes from science or the supernatural.

How much of pop culture do you feel represents your own identity?

Since I was a kid, I feel like I've had to look in a lot of different places to even see pieces of myself. For Asian American characters that were in media, I was very drawn to the few that were available. I remember being very attached to Claudia Kishi in The Babysitters Club series, who was such an interesting character who struggled with being creative despite her parents' expectations. It was hard, because I didn't see many queer characters either in fiction, and a lot of the ones in fiction were very sad and tragic. That started to change but there wasn’t a lot of intersection in those works either, but I hope as more writers create more works and readers discover them that there are more stories and worlds out there.

How has your identity as a queer woman of color contributed to your writing? How much of your own personal experience have you put into your characters?

I feel like every piece of my writing has a part of me in it, whether it's my own insecurities and fears or hopes and dreams to specific instances. I write a lot about being at the intersection of certain worlds, and feeling like you're not enough to be one or another thing, and I think people who come from multiple communities can relate to that. I also hope that the crushes and butterflies and "but do they like-like me" feelings come across in the books. They've been a lot of fun to write!

What advice might you give to someone who wants to pursue writing but struggles with doubts about their creative abilities?

Don't give up. I think it's a very difficult endeavor, and so much of it is a cycle of working incredibly hard on a manuscript and hoping that someone out there will like it. You'll face rejections, plenty of them, and it's definitely hard on your confidence as a writer and as a person, but don't give up on your dream! Write the stories you want to read, ones you want to share. There's a quote from Erin Bow that is about writing, but I think definitely applies to life:

"No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better."

I think this quote is so reassuring, about how no efforts are wasted, and in writing there's often a lot of work that goes unseen, unrecognized, drafts that are torn apart and put back together, chapters thrown out, paragraphs rewritten. It's so easy to get disheartened when you write, but everything you do, it's part of the learning process and just adds to your overall skill and ability as a writer. Even if you think it's not contributing to anything or if you end up throwing pieces out later, every effort you put into your story builds on your understanding of it and helps it get better on the long run.

I love the quote and think on it a lot as not just for writing, but for life efforts, in the experiences that you have and it's easy to look back and think that something might have been a waste of time, but it contributed to who you are and where you are now, and that's important.

Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell our readers about?

I'm currently working on the third in the Sidekick Squad series, Not Your Backup, which follows Emma as she and her friends begin to work with the fledgling Resistance to take down the corrupt League of Heroes. I'm really excited to share her journey with readers as Emma learns more about herself and where she falls on the asexual and aromantic spectrum as she becomes a hero and figures out what that means, regardless of whether she has powers.