#LoveOzYA Q&A with Vanessa Len about ONLY A MONSTER
Vanessa Len is an Australian author of Chinese-Malaysian and Maltese heritage. An educational editor, she has worked on everything from language learning programs to STEM resources, to professional learning for teachers.
ONLY A MONSTER is her debut novel, and follows teenage girl Joan as she learns about her monster heritage.
Read on for the discussion between Vanessa and #LoveOzYA’s Bianca Breen, or check out a clip of the interview over on our YouTube channel.
What was the inspiration behind ONLY A MONSTER?
I guess I was inspired by that feeling of when the hero of a story isn’t necessarily the hero of your story. When I was growing up I loved big blockbuster action films and TV shows, but it wasn’t very often that I would see a hero that looked like me. But sometimes the bad guy looked like me, or Asian characters would show up just for a fight scene and then the hero would kill them or beat them up. When the bad guys are killed in a movie, the camera follows the hero away from them, but for me, I’m aware of the few people who look like me, which means I’m aware of those characters lying dead on the ground. What if a hero, even the really good, decent, upright heroes you see in movies, is fighting against you rather than for you? I thought it would be interesting to write a story about that, from a monster’s point of view.
Absolutely! I loved that twist. How much of your own experience went into writing Joan’s experience?
I’m second generation – my dad is Chinese from Malaysia – and I really wanted to write about that diaspora experience; it’s common to so many Australians. In particular, I wanted to explore the feeling of being raised around a culture that you’ve been removed from – you don’t always know what’s a part of that culture and what is just your family’s personality and traits. There’s a part in the book where Joan is entering the monster world for the first time and she’s given some food that tastes familiar, something her grandmother makes that she thought only her grandmother made, but it’s actually a monster food. She didn’t realise it had a bigger context.
What does it mean for you to have not only yourself represented in this book, but what I’m sure will be many readers?
When I was growing up, I always wished I could read about characters who looked and sounded like me in the age of diaspora, having exciting adventures in magical worlds. So I intentionally made Joan have a similar background to mine – her dad is also Chinese from Malaysia! It was really important to me, and I’ve been hearing that the book is resonating with other people as well, so that’s been really gratifying and exciting.
The monsters really appealed to me – I love their family dynamics, their culture, their world, and what they do to humans is monstrous but not violent in the gory sense. Did the monsters and what they can do go through many takes before you settled on this?
Surprisingly, they didn’t go through that many takes. I always knew that I wanted the monsters to look like humans and live in the same world that we do. Their monstrous power is that they can steal time from a human’s lifespan and use it to travel in time. So it is a violent act, but a covertly violent act – you would never know a monster had attacked you and stolen a part of your life. It was mostly because I wanted them to hide in plain sight, and the human world be unaware of them.
It’s so fascinating! I also love the story of how you came to write this book, that you were at a dinner with friends when you all realised you wanted to write books. But it’s one thing to say ‘I’m going to write a book’ and another to actually finish it. Were there ever any moments where you thought it was too hard, and how did you get through those moments?
This is the first book I’ve ever written, so in the beginning I was Googling ‘how do you make a character’ and ‘what is a scene’ so it was definitely difficult, but I’m the kind of person who loves learning new things, so it was fun for me to almost problem-solve how to make a book. The beginning was the most difficult section because there was so much to set up, but I wanted to make the book a page-turner, so it was hard to find that balance of making the reader want to turn the page but also convey enough information that when the monster-slayer is revealed, it’s a shock and you understand the impact of it.
I love that you had almost a scientific formula to write a book. But it’s interesting that you say that because the pacing was something that really stuck out to me – you go in to a book thinking you know what it’s about, but ONLY A MONSTER had me guessing throughout the whole story.
Thank you! I definitely put a lot of work into figuring out what makes you want to keep turning the page, so it was definitely a mechanic!
So can you tell us a little more about that dinner?
I guess the seed of the book began when I was having dinner with a few friends and we just started talking about how we’d all been thinking about writing a book. None of us had really spoken about it to anyone else. And we thought, ‘You know what, why don’t we do it, let’s make a pact and write our books’. One of them is She Who Became the Sun [by Shelley Parker-Cahn]. I think partly it was having that mutual support that helped us to finish the books. It wasn’t just a chat at dinner – we met every Saturday (before the pandemic) just to write with each other and keep each other company and talk about the books, which keeps them alive in your mind. It can feel so solitary sometimes when you’re writing. Even when you’re just describing the plot out loud, sometimes you’re like, ‘Wait, that doesn’t make sense now that I’m saying it’.
I loved that the book is set in 1993 and in London! What was the decision to set a YA book in that time and place?
I chose London because it’s such a big diaspora city; it’s so multicultural. And from a time travel perspective, it’s history is so documented that you can find out almost anything from any point in time in London – people recorded everything. As for 1993, I wanted to remove Joan from her element, before her own birth.
So what kind of research went into the book?
I went to London before the pandemic. I was lucky to have written most of the manuscript at that point and had been looking at Google Street View so much but I just thought I’d love to experience it myself. So I went there and walked the exact routes that my characters do in the book, and thought I’d figure out where they jumped a fence in these gardens to get away from their pursuers and do it myself. It seemed like a great idea! So I found a spot in a park that was a bit hidden and I went up to the fence, ready to jump it, then suddenly saw on the other side of the fence a man with the biggest gun I’d ever seen, then I saw a sign that said Israeli Embassy. I rewrote that bit in the book! After that, I was a bit more wary about method acting after that.
What are you hoping young readers take away after reading this book?
It’s not really a ‘message’ book, I intended it to be a fun, fantasy adventure, but I suppose I did write it with that seed of inspiration about noticing a hero’s behaviour in a narrative and who are the minions on the other side getting killed. If I wanted readers to take home anything it would be to notice narratives and what’s going on in them. And to any aspiring writers I would say, ‘Go for it!’ I never expected to have my book on the shelf. It’s definitely possible.