Vanessa Len

An interview with Vanessa Len, author of Only A Monster

Author Interviews

Vanessa Len discusses growing up mixed race, the importance of representation, and her debut novel, Only A Monster.

1 February 2022

M: Can you give us a quick overview of the book?

V: Yep, so Only A Monster is my first novel. It’s a YA fantasy about a monster girl whose summer is absolutely ruined when she finds out that the guy she likes at work is a monster slayer. It’s got time travel, it’s got I guess like a Captain-America-like heroic antagonist, it’s got a monster point of view, monster families with powers. I think if you like Doctor Who, if you like Cassandra Clare, if you like Holly Black, you might like Only A Monster.

M: So, a big part of the story is that Joan (the main character) is half-monster half-human, and we know that you’re also mixed yourself. How would you say that your background informed where you went with that?

V: It was really important to me to explicitly include some kind of rep. When I was growing up, I didn’t often see people who looked like me – not only as the main character in narratives but even as side characters. So,

I definitely wanted to include Joan having I guess a similar background to me as well (my dad is Chinese Malaysian, her dad is also Chinese Malaysian). I think I’m just drawn to characters who live in multiple worlds within multiple cultures, so it felt natural to also make her mixed human and monster – although I feel like that metaphor doesn’t go too far *laughs* just because she’s a monster. But yeah, I feel like my background informed my choice of identity for my main character.

X: Where did you start when building your main character? Did you start with her wanting to be mixed race and then move into ‘Oh, it’ll be fantasy, a monster’ or did you start in fantasy and move into her being mixed race?

V: Good question! I’m really trying to think about that. To start the whole thing, I initially just made a big list of things that I liked the most. So that included time travel and enemies to lovers, and out of that list I made this world. I think I had always wanted to write a really fun fast-paced story with some representation similar to my own background, so I feel like it all came together kind of at the same time. I knew that I wanted to tell the kind of story that I would like to read and I would like to include a main character that – I’m not a monster *laughs* - but someone like me.

M: You’ve done a really good job of including both sides of her family … There’s a scene early on where she Facetimes her dad who’s having a bit of kaya toast with some half boiled eggs. I had a good little giggle when I read this part where Joan says she can see her dad is having “coffee that tastes more like flavoured sugar”. It’s not necessarily an important part of the story, but it’s still such a nice element to see and it’s the kind of thing that you really won’t get anywhere else.

V: I guess that’s true, I guess that’s part of when you include some rep, you do get some familiar backgrounds. I definitely wanted, on purpose, to make that Chinese Malaysian background the nostalgic background; the place she wishes she was, the home she wishes she was at when things start to go terribly terribly wrong in the monster world. I wanted to create the feeling that I have towards my own family, of that very loving, safe harbour feeling on that Asian side. I feel like both sides are very loving, but when things go terribly wrong for her, I think that’s where she yearns for

M: I’m really interested in how you landed on using monsters instead of another fantasy element that you maybe see more. I don’t think I’ve seen monsters in, well, anything really?

V: Yeah, I guess they’re like an original monster *laughs*. The idea for that came out of – I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences when you’re watching a movie or a TV show and it’s so rare (I guess in Western ones at least, the ones that I watched growing up at least) – it’s so rare that the heroes look like me or you. Usually they don’t. Sometimes I would notice when I was growing up that the bad guys were the ones who would look like me – there’d be no Asians at all until a fight scene and then suddenly there would be a couple. And in the fight scene, they wouldn’t say anything, they’d just die. I’ve got this line in the book about how in movies when the bad guys get killed, the camera moves away from them and follows the hero. But I know that in my own viewing experience, I can just sometimes find myself where if the few people on screen who look like me – which sometimes means being aware of these people lying dead on the ground and the camera’s panning away from them – I thought it might be interesting to write a story about – what would it be like if those good, decent heroes from the narratives that I like, what if one of those heroes was fighting against you instead of for you?

M: How have you found the publishing process as a debut author and one who, maybeeeee with magic very relevant to being biracial, would sometimes otherwise be completely ignored?

V: It was a definitely a choice I made very early on. I didn’t know if this was going to limit my ability to publish traditionally or not, but I thought why else am I writing this if not to put some rep in it? But in the end, I think it worked out really well. In fact, right now seems to be a real golden age of Asian fantasy (YA and adult) so I guess we all had the same thought at the same time that we’d like to see ourselves in stories. I think this is an exciting time and hopefully there’ll be more exciting times to come as more people see themselves in books and maybe want to write their own stories as well.

M: You’ve talked a lot about how it’s always been hard to find any [representation], but as you said it’s also been a good time in recent years to finally try and find something that you can actually see yourself in. So, do you have anything where you’ve felt represented?

V: Yeah definitely, look at my shelf back here! Zen Cho, Shelley Parker-Chan who’s one of my critique partners, Kylie Lee Baker, June Tan who wrote Jade Fire Gold. So yeah, I feel like I’m finding new inspiration in all these new writers, and of course existing inspiration in people like Natasha Ngan… Oh, so many. Marie Lu, Cindy Lu who kindly blurbed me. I feel like there’s people who went slightly before me and sort of opened up that space and there’s all these people who are making that space bigger and making that home in publishing

I feel great about all the people that came before, because I know that when I started writing I could not have imagined being able to sell a book with a protagonist who had any kind of background similar to mine and then books started to come out and you think, ‘Oh, I could write a book too!’

X: Do you have any extra things you want to say about your book?

V: The only other thing that might be interesting to your readers, is that I was really interested in writing that diaspora experience, where in coming from culture or cultures that have been slightly removed from their original context. My dad immigrated here when he was very young and I feel like even he doesn’t always fully understand everything about the culture that he came from, and then when he imparted it to me, sometimes it was very removed from its context. Those are the things that I tried to also put in the book. Like, when Joan enters the monster world, she eats this food that tastes like her grandmother’s food and she says to her frenemy Aaron, ‘I thought this was just something my family cooked.’ And he’s like, ‘No, this is monster food.’ And I feel like I’ve definitely had that experience before, where I was like, ‘Oh I thought this was just something our family did.’ And then you realise no, this is a giant cultural thing, half the people around the world does this. But I guess because you’ve been removed from that original context, you don’t always know what’s cultural, what’s personality, what’s your family. So that’s another thing I really wanted to portray in the book.

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. Vanessa is a graduate of the Clarion Workshop in San Diego, and she lives in Melbourne