The Sweetest Debut: Yi Shun Lai on Filling the Gap Between ‘Bridget Jones’ and ‘The Joy Luck Club’ and Her ‘Magnum, P.I.’ Fandom


Welcome to the Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu is a 2016 novel about a “1.5 generation” Taiwanese-American woman, Marty Wu, who loves the advice genre but can’t quite get her own messy life — family drama, workplace hijinx — to look the way she wants it to. We heard from to author Yi Shun Lai about pitching her book as Bridget Jones meets the Joy Luck Club and (finally!) got her to bite on our fan-fiction question, offering us a sampling of dialogue featuring Magnum P.I.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

“This book fills the gaps between Bridget Jones’s Diary and the Joy Luck Club. Really, it’s a tale about an alternate American upbringing.”

That is a brilliant elevator pitch. What you tell your relatives it’s about?

“It’s about the way we were American,” or some clunky variation thereof.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

Over a decade. Since college. So yeah. Two decades. (That’s marinating in my head, not as a draft.)

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated?


On the other hand, what’s a book you’ve read more than two times?

Anna Karenina. Or any Dick Francis mystery, or P.D. James.

What’s a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

Pygmalion, or “My Fair Lady,” depending on my mood, the kind of ending I was noodling, or the part of the manuscript I was in. Your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

I have three! Supernatural, Quantum Leap, and Magnum P.I. But I’ve done with all three of them now, so I’m on to Buffy, Golden Girls, and maybe re-watching Luther.

Actually, I’ll watch anything from the BBC, BBC2, or ITV, especially their mysteries. Rosemary and Thyme; Midsomer Murders; Poldark (which I’m reading!); Grantchester; Endeavour; Poirot…you name it, I’ve seen it, and am always on the hunt for more.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Jason Bourne

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Not usually. But sometimes I’ll turn on some noodley jazz.

Do you write at a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Buzzing coffee shop.

At home, do you prefer working at your desk, bed or couch?

Desk or couch. Currently I’m on a couch.

Are you more productive during morning writing or late-night writing sessions?

Neither. Afternoons.

Do you work by writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

The former.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I write copy and P.R., and edit other people’s books. I’m currently helping to edit my alma mater’s alumni magazine and doing some writing coaching, which I love to pieces.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

I’m smack in the middle of marketing for Not a Self-Help Book, so I’m not finding much time to write at all. But when the mood strikes me, I find I have to grab that opportunity, otherwise it’ll go away in favor of something more pressing or immediately gratifying—like this questionnaire!

If you could write fan-fiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

I do wonder what else Magnum, P.I. does when he’s not reading, eating popcorn, surf-skiing, or solving mysteries by way of giving his writers an excuse to make up great plot lines—like the times when the whole episode is a film-noir knock-off, or that ep where he got dressed up as Dashiell Hammett, or that one where he gets lost in the ocean and is treading water the entire time.

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

Mmmm. Ohhhhkay. Only because I haven’t revisited in awhile and kind of miss the guy. —

I was looking forward to a long evening by myself, popcorn and my lady Agatha Christie, but then—Higgins. Oh, Higgins. You think maybe the guy knocks off for a couple of hours every night—how does he otherwise find the time to pull off that perfect side-part?—but no, he works day in, day out, making up stuff for me to do. “Magnum!” “Yes, Higgins.” “Don’t you think it’s time you skimmed the pool for débris?” Ah, Higgins. So uptight he can’t even let the accent go in ‘debris.’ I sighed, clocked the fourth wall, and rolled my eyes. “Higgins. That’s not why I’m here.” “Why are you here, Magnum?” “Robin and I are friends, Higgins. For the last time, I’m here as estate security.” Higgins sniffed. “I hardly think what you do here is considered ‘security’. I mean, how can you work in all this?” He gestured at my stuff: Pile of Agatha, pile of dirty clothes, pile of popcorn. Zeus, pooping on the floor. Zeus, pooping on the floor. “Higgins! Zeus is—my floor!” “Well, it’s not like you’ll notice, with all this—this—“ “Out, Higgins. Just get out. And take Zeus and the poop with you.” “Magnum, the pool.” “I said out.” I swear, one of these days, I’ll lock that smug little face in his den, ‘Cask of Amontillado’ style. And then maybe I’ll hire Jessica Fletcher and Starsky and Hutch to come find him, just for shits and giggles. I mean, why the hell not?