Marjorie Liu is a New York Times best-selling author who has written more than 10 romance novels, starting in 2005 with Tiger Eye.
Why I write
Why do I dream? When I was a kid, as young as I can remember, I would have the most wild dreams. Dreams with plot, if you will. I started writing them down in the fifth grade or so. I still have those journals, and when I flip through the pages to remind myself of what was hurtling through my head at nights, it feels surreal, like I’m reading about a different person.
But I always had a big imagination. My daydreams were just as vivid. I was always one of those kids who liked to be alone, and entertaining myself was usually as easy as sticking a book in my hand or leaving me by myself so I could shut my eyes and dream. I loved to make up stories.
It goes deeper than that, though. I just… need to write. I need to express myself, and release all the pressure that would build up inside if I didn’t have the outlet that words give me. I need words. I need the freedom that words give me.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Every day. I could tell you that it’s because I have so many deadlines, but the truth is, I love words.
Worst source of distraction?
The Internet. I didn’t have real access to the Internet until I went away to college. It was less of a distraction then than it is now. Blogging, twitter, holding instant conversations with friends and strangers… it’s addictive!
Best source of inspiration?
Just being alive. Never underestimate the power of simply being able to walk and breathe, and see the world.
I love mornings, too. I love watching the sun rise and seeing new light on the trees. I love waking up and hearing the wind, or birds singing, and knowing that it’s a brand new day to get something good done. That’s an incredible source of inspiration for me.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
I doubt my ability every day, but then I kick myself and get back to work. Writer’s Block, on the other hand… that happens once or twice per book. I’m not much of an outliner – so I never know what’s coming until I write it. This keeps things lively for me – maybe a little too lively – but you can’t work blind without getting a little lost every now and then. That’s the fun part.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I adore a good mystery – and thriller – so I’ll always pick up the latest Robert Crais or Lee Child novel, and I love the work of Laurie R. King. When it comes to romance novels, I think Lynn Viehl is excellent; and I enjoy the graphic novels of Frank Miller and Bill Willingham. I eat up Annie Dillard’s work, and Isabel Allende; and no one writes a good first line like Stephen King. Honestly, I need to read like I need to breathe – and I read everything – so trying to nail down even a handful of writers is an exercise in futility.
I will say this, though, I read to be entertained. And I love a good adventure.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Cao Xueqin. I can’t help myself. He was a genius. Reading Dream of the Red Chamber is like hearing a clear light tone in your heart, and head.
Best book about China?
The last time I was in Beijing, I stood in line behind a young British man who was clutching a worn copy of Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics by Huang Yasheng. He had been told that he had to read that book if he wanted to understand China, its economy, and the Chinese people. I told him he would be better off ditching the book and taking a walk. You know, with his eyes open. That might have been presumptuous of me, but no book will ever replace pure living when it comes to learning about a place or its people.
With one exception: Dream of the Red Chamber.
Great fiction – and great stories – transcend culture. But it’s because they transcend that they are able to draw the reader in, and teach in ways that lesser works could not. Dream of the Red Chamber isn’t simply Chinese fiction – it’s human fiction, filled with characters that lure you so deeply into their lives that it doesn’t matter if you’re a modern day gal from some little town in North America – you still intuitively understand and empathize with Baoyu, Daiyu, and that huge cast of characters. You’re there, in your heart, living with them and immersing yourself in their world.
It just so happens that you receive a profound lesson in Chinese culture along the way.
I’ve found that the books that are meaningful to me tend to change over time. I suppose if I made a list, in order of when I loved them most, you could probably tell a lot about what I was going through at that particular point in my life. In high school it was Isabel Allende’s The Stories of Eva Luna and Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, while in law school it was Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion. More recently I’ve been keeping the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke on my nightstand, specifically Letters to a Young Poet and Book of Hours: Love Poems to God.
I don’t know if he’s my favorite writer, but Joseph Campbell certainly influenced me the most at a point in my life where I could have gone in a very different direction than the one I eventually took. It wouldn’t have been bad, mind you – I had to make choice between being practical and following my dreams. So I dreamed.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
There’s a world of books out there that I need to read, most that are probably in languages I’ll never understand.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Well, the first thing I had published – for money – was a poem in Cicada, a magazine for teens. The poem was called ‘In My Mind.’ I wrote it when I was 17 as part of a college application to the University of Chicago (they wanted a poem instead of an essay), and though I didn’t end up going to that school, I was told that the poem was one of the main reasons they accepted me. I got a lot of mileage out of that poem. Later on, ETS used it in California’s High School Exit Exam.
When I look back on it, though… what I remember is that I wrote the poem in a rush, in bed, with the lights off. The words hit me hard, fast, and I was done in less than ten minutes. I didn’t revise it like I usually did my other work (not that I was an expert in poetry). It just felt right, as is.
That’s the great and crazy thing about writing. You don’t know where the words come from, but they’re gifted to you – and sometimes they’re good, and sometimes they’re lousy and need to be thrown out – but either way it feels like magic.
How did you get started writing?
The first time I ever imagined my doll going on an adventure? I really don’t know. As I said earlier, I was always day dreaming and telling stories to myself and my toys. There were no tea parties, let me tell you. Instead, my dolls were climbing blanket mountains and going on quests to find all those treasures hidden behind the couch; or there were battles to be fought, or friends that needed to be saved; and it was rich and vivid in my mind. Still is. I never lost my love of daydreaming about big, magical adventures. I suppose it was a natural progression to writing.
Does writing change anything?
Thoughts are things. What we think and believe – long enough, and hard enough – we become. Maybe not literally (I’m not going to sprout wings by imagining them), but on a psychological level that can have profound effects on our lives, and the lives of those around us. So yes, writing can change everything – by introducing ideas, possibilities, truths that let us see the world in a different light. Words – the right words – can help us evolve into better people.