Sunday Brunch: A Chat with Authors Jenny Lee and Molly E. Lee

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[Note from Frolic: Our resident YA expert Aurora got the chance to chat with authors Jenny Lee and Molly E. Lee and ask them all about their new books. Up first, Jenny Lee!]

Aurora: What was your inspiration behind your most recent novel? 

Jenny Lee: Anna K Away is a sequel to my debut YA novel, Anna K: A Love Story which was a modern retelling of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Obviously, there was no sequel to the original book because of Anna’s death, but as I changed the ending in Anna K (spoiler alert: someone else dies by train, and it ain’t the girl!) it gave the possibility for a sequel. There were no plans for a sequel when I sold Anna K, but as the book began to gain early buzz, I had a discussion with my publisher about what a sequel would look like. Being a new YA writer, I had no idea how big series’ were in this space. My first thought was that Anna K ends with Anna flying away from Greenwich and NYC at the end of her junior year of high school with her reputation/and love life in tatters…. Obviously, the logical next step would be moving to the following school year. BUT– what I wanted to do was write the sequel and have it take place in the summer. In my head, the years of our youth are divided between school year and summer, and I was very interested in seeing this cast of characters during the summer months. Summer for most kids is a fun time to relax, and well, who doesn’t want to see how a bunch of wealthy kids spend their summer…?

What character in this novel do you most relate to and why?

I know most authors always identify most strongly with their main character, but that wasn’t necessarily the case for me in Anna K: A Love Story where I probably identified most strongly with Dustin, the nerdy outsider of this rarified world. In Anna K Away, I absolutely identified with Anna the most. She has just suffered a terrible tragedy and is dealing with her grief and huge sense of loss. I was writing this book during the early pandemic, and I definitely channeled a lot of my feelings into Anna’s plight. She is dealing with something unprecedented, the tragic death of the boy she loved…. and I kept thinking how would anyone so young know how to deal with this? I lost my father and my older sister, tragically, in college, so I have some experience in that area. I remember  it’s quite isolating as you feel very alone. With the global pandemic I felt like everyone in the world was dealing with something unprecedented for the first time and it’s a strange feeling to be thrown out into unknown waters. In the beginning Anna is flailing, unable to handle her feelings, but soon she accepts that it is okay to not know what to do next and instead she begins to just open herself and take her life one day at a time. Which is basically how I began to cope with the pandemic, without an end in sight; I just kept thinking surviving every day relatively intact is a win. 

Why do you feel novels with powerful and unique characters are so popular and have such a voice right now? 

Wow, big question. I can say as a Korean American writer I am extremely pleased to see the rise of diverse voices in publishing right now. I believe people want to read relatable stories, sure, but for me books have always been about escaping my day-to-day life and running away into a totally new world. During the pandemic everyone was desperate for an escape (as most of us were quarantining with a few number of people) and all I craved was reading about lives very different from my own.

Please describe the content of your latest read and what can readers expect from it. 

Anna K Away is the sequel to Anna K: A Love Story. It takes place in the summer months directly after a terrible tragedy. In Book One, Anna was starting off at a very high point and by the end she’s in the lowest point of her life. Now in the sequel, it’s the reverse, Anna’s starting off at her lowest point and by the end she’s in a really good place. Not exactly the heights of where she was when we first met her in Book One, but she’s in a more genuine and authentic place when it comes to figuring out who she is and what she wants out of life.

What’s next for you in the bookish world? 

There’s no deal in place for Book Three, but I do feel that I would love to explore Anna K’s senior year of high school so that’s swirling about in my brain right now. I am also very interested in trying my hand at writing a thriller. I love a good page-turner and it’s something I’ve always wanted to try myself. I’m also working on a short story, a medium which I have loved since college, and publishing a short story again is on my writer bucket list. My first published short story was in high school in a small college magazine and since then… nothing! And lastly, as I’m a woman who always has an abundance of ideas, but not enough time to do everything, my ultimate author dream is to write a literary adult novel. I never felt like I was ready for that, but lately, I’m feeling that it something I want to start thinking about for the next few years.

Who is your current favorite writer? Why? 

This has always been such a tough question. If I had to pick one, Lorrie Moore has always been my “favorite author.” Reading her short stories in college was a BIG deal for me. I loved her dark sense of humor, but most of all she has a very specific point of view and style, and I knew that it was my goal in life to eventually develop my own style and distinctive point of view. I’m also eagerly awaiting Sally Rooney’s next novel. I adored Conversations With Friends and Normal People, and I was so impressed by them, especially as she’s so young. 

Any writing advice for aspiring writers? 

I will admit that I have wanted to be a writer ever since I was young girl, and I went to college for writing with big aspirations at being a Sally Rooney type who writes her first novels at a young age. Well, that didn’t happen for me…but I now know that’s okay. I’ve published eight books and each one taught me a lot about writing and myself. I am much more patient these days and know that inspiration strikes when it’s damn well good and ready to do so, and not a day sooner. So, my advice is don’t be too hard on yourself about not being a big success so early… you have time. Just work on your craft (write as much and as often as you can!), read everything (I’m a big proponent on reading all types of genres and mediums, variety is good for you!). I’ve never been a big science fiction and fantasy reader but I’m rereading Dune in preparation for the movie (I read it in college because a boy I liked loved it, and I remember enjoying it, but I didn’t stick with the genre). I read Leigh Bardugo’s The Ninth House last year and that has piqued my interest in trying to read more fantasy. And lastly, now that I’ve made my living as a writer for many years now, what I must often remind myself is this is what I’ve always wanted to do, so when it feels too much like “work” I need to take a step back and remember to stop putting so much pressure on my “career” and remember the joy of writing. 

Up next, author Molly E. Lee!
Aurora: What was your inspiration behind your most recent novel?

Molly E. Lee: This story hit me in college while taking an ancient religions class. I was fascinated by the universal themes of good and evil and wanted to explore it further. What if you were chosen to save the world and you didn’t want to because the world had never been kind to you? What if you were endowed with divine powers to serve in a war you never knew existed? These are the questions that brought Harley and Draven to life. I loved playing with the dynamics that not everyone is wholly good or wholly evil and the choices one has to make when faced with situations that come with super high stakes. I fell in love with the supernatural world of demons and angels and warlocks and monsters and a girl who has been broken her whole life—one who has been asked to save everyone when no one ever bothered to save her. The choices she’s faced with are never easy, and in the end, that was the spark when sitting down to write Ember of Night.

What character in this novel do you most relate to and why? 

I relate to the main character Harley for so many different reasons. She has a lot of my own personal experiences with emotional abuse in her journey. While mine was non-familial and hers comes directly from a family member, the effects are crucial to her growth. I also relate to her use of humor in tough situations as an escape, though, she’s much better at it than me. Her ability to find joy and laughter in the darkness is one of the things I admire most about her. 

Why do you feel novels with powerful and unique characters are so popular and have such a voice right now? 

In my opinion, I think the global pandemic has shaken the human race to its core and the need for escape into worlds that are wholly different from our own are crucial. Reality lately has been hard and terrifying for so many people and so many amazing heroes have been born out of it (infinite thanks to our healthcare and front line workers!). But there is something powerful about being able to open a book and be transported to a different reality where you can watch visible monsters get their asses kicked by the people powerful enough to do it. It’s freeing and satisfying to dive into the pages of a book and watch the characters manage their world when ours sometimes feels out of control. 

Please describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it. 

Ember of Night releases May 4th, and it’s a young adult paranormal romance about a girl from a broken home that has one goal in life—get her little sister away from their abusive father. If that wasn’t a hard enough task, a hot stranger comes into her life and tells her she’s the key to saving the world from a war between heaven and hell. But the world has never been kind to her, so who says it’s worth saving? Readers can expect tons of slow burn tension, characters with lots of angst and snark, and a few surprises along the way.

What’s next for you in the bookish world? 

I’m currently working on the sequel to Ember of Night and I can’t wait to tell you all more about it!

Who is your current favorite writer? Why? 

THIS IS AN IMPOSSIBLE QUESTION! LOL. I have so many favorite authors and there is a world of talent out there! I just got done reading a fantastic read by the amazing Molly McAdams called Lie to Me. It’s a standalone page turner and the characters just stole my heart. She knows how to write a breathtaking story! I’m also wholly addicted to anything Jennifer L. Armentrout writes, and her latest series—the From Blood and Ash series—has me on pins and needles with each book. Both these authors have a way of creating characters and worlds that leap off the pages and take root in the reader’s soul. They’re both an inspiration and just genuinely awesome people! 

Any writing advice for aspiring writers?  

Write the story you want to write! Write what excites you, what terrifies you, what makes your heart hurt. Write the story only you can tell. Passion bleeds through the pages and when you sit down to write what is truly interesting to you and excites you, readers will feel that. And after you’ve cranked out that messy first draft, go back to craft. Do everything you can to sharpen that bad boy and hone your skills. Read extensively in the genre you’re writing in and learn from those on the shelves. Read craft books, listen to experts in the field, and take constructive criticism with grace. It’s so important in this business to be able to learn and grow by listening to advice from those who’ve walked the path ahead. Hard work pays off—writing is key. Sit down at the keyboard and give it everything you have and be proud of what you give. Even if it’s ten words, be proud of those words. It’s ten you don’t have to write tomorrow! Also, don’t be afraid to reach out for advice from those who inspire you. I love talking to aspiring writers and always respond to messages. When I first started out, I reached out to one of my favorite authors Kimberly Derting (she’s amazing btw everyone should buy her books) and the advice she gave me was invaluable. I learned from it and grew from it and I still use that advice years later today! So, reach out and write your passion because no one else is going to do it for you

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