Roselle Lim’s first fabulist-romcom, called Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, was picked up for TV and it looks like the second, just out, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop, could well find its way to the small screen as well. That’s wonderful success for a writer early in her career, but Roselle put in a dedicated apprenticeship to achieve her “overnight success”.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and in today’s Binge Reading podcast Roselle talks about what it took to strike success with her first novel, how she kept going when even her teachers told her that her English wasn’t good enough to be a writer, and the delights of eating out in Paris – all in the interests of research for her book, of course.
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Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- Why she chose writing over painting
- How her sense of magic reflects her heritage
- Her passion for all things foodie
- The love and perils of aspirational parents
- The joy of seeing her world reflected in other’s work
- How determined persistence paid off
Where to find Roselle Lim:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions. But now, here’s Roselle.
Introducing Roselle Lim author
Jenny Wheeler: Hi there, Roselle and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Roselle Lim: Thank you for having me.
Jenny Wheeler: We’ve been chatting before we went on air, and you tell me that you’re in the depths of a Canadian winter. We are in the middle of our summer here, so we’re right at opposite ends of the Pole.
Your debut romcom was called Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune and it sold straight through to TV I believe. That’s a very big success for a debut author.
Then I noticed that the second book, the one we’re going to be discussing today, which is Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop, has already been picked by one of the Shondaland editors.
Shondaland, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a company that is doing a tremendous amount of popular TV. They have just had the Bridgerton series on Netflix, so you have to conclude that the second book has got a good chance of continuing to head for the small screen as well.
From that, people might assume that it’s been a very straightforward and easy road for you, but in fact it wasn’t quite that simple was it? Can you tell us what preceded what people might see as an “overnight success?”
A long road to publication
Roselle Lim: Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune was my, I think, eighth manuscript that I’ve written, and the ones I had written before were not good in that I had to get them out of my system to be able to write this book. It took me a little under two years to revise this book with my agent too.
Jenny Wheeler: When you say you had to get them out of your system, were they in this same fabulist-romcom genre?
Roselle Lim: The other books I’ve written were fantasy, some were romance. I find that with Natalie Tan, it’s more women’s fiction because it doesn’t have the amount of kissing and all of that, that you would categorize as a traditional romance.
As for the magical realism and the fabulism, I decided to incorporate that because I find that, culturally, it makes a lot of sense because there’s so much superstition in my culture.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. How did you keep going during those eight manuscripts? People listening who think they might like to write a book probably don’t feel they’re going to write eight before they get published. How did you keep yourself going during that period?
Roselle Lim: Sheer stubbornness. You can accomplish so much if you’re stubborn enough to think you will eventually get there. That is the one piece of advice – you can call it perseverance, you can call it stubbornness or bullheadedness, but it’s this idea that you will eventually get there if you try hard enough and just keep writing.
Jenny Wheeler: When you were at the beginning stage, what did that phrase “get there” mean for you? Was it simply to get one book published? What were your expectations at the beginning?
Roselle Lim: It’s small steps. First, get a literary agent, then eventually get a book. For me, when I started, that was the goal – get an agent and get a book deal. Now I think more long-term, as in, have a career. My dream now is to have first a bookshelf, then a bookcase full of my published books and hopefully different editions in different languages.
Loud meddling extended families
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. Both of these stories are anchored in an Asian family dynamic. It’s fascinating stuff. It happens in all cultures but is perhaps slightly more pronounced in Asian families – inter-generational loyalties and obligations, the affection and conflict that arises from those things, and also a very strong, fabulist theme, as we’ve discussed, as well as food and sweet light romance.
This is territory you know well. Tell us how your own background interweaves with the Yu family, for example, in Paris Teashop.
Roselle Lim: That is a very meddling, loud, extended family, which I would say is loosely based on my family. They love, they love hard, they love big, they will smother you with love, and you know their intentions are that they want the best for you. It’s just what they think is the best for you may not necessarily be the best for you, but you know they are coming at it from a position of love.
Jenny Wheeler: Vanessa has inherited this gift of prophetic sayings and she doesn’t really want it because it’s interfering with her life. She’s in this very difficult position where she’s trying to reject something that everybody else in the family thinks is an absolute blessing and boon, isn’t she?
Only doctors and lawyers apply
Roselle Lim: It is again kind of a – I wouldn’t say a metaphor, but it symbolizes Asian parents, my parents in general. Their expectations for what I should be or where I should be versus what I want for myself could differ, in that they would expect you to be a doctor, be a lawyer, somewhere along that line.
My sister followed that to a ‘t’. She became a really good accountant, a corporate accountant. She’s followed that. Then you have me, where I wanted to be a writer and an artist, and that’s not at all in line with what they are hoping for or expecting. It’s the same with Vanessa.
Jenny Wheeler: That must have been a very difficult transition for you in earlier years.
Roselle Lim: It is, because now that I’m older, I feel bad for my parents who had to parent me in that I was such a different kind of child. They are like, okay, go take piano lessons or take organ lessons, and I’m like, I don’t really want that.
I want painting lessons, I want art lessons, which was completely not what they were used to. There weren’t artists in my family. They’re all a bunch of bankers, they worked in banks and some were entrepreneurs, but this kind of creativity, having a job or a career in the creative field, was completely foreign to them.
Jenny Wheeler: How do they feel about it today?
Roselle Lim: I don’t think they still realize how hard it is to carve a place for yourself in the creative field and how many obstacles you go through to succeed in it. I think they look at it as, oh, that’s really a nice thing she has right now, but I don’t know if they know the true extent of what it took to get a book out and how many rejections it took from editors and from agents to even get to this point.
The long slow road to the screen
Jenny Wheeler: Do you think maybe when Natalie Tan finally appears on Netflix that they might then think, oh wow, she’s made it.
Roselle Lim: I don’t know. My dad wants a cameo. At this point it’s not with Netflix, but the production company John Wells. He’s more known for Shameless and Animal Kingdom and West Wing. That’s what his company has developed. We are at the pilot stage where we have a writer and I think we’re trying to secure a director as well. So it’s not with Netflix, but it’s getting close.
The thing with Hollywood is that it moves really fast or it can move really slow. I feel publishing in general is a very slow industry.
Jenny Wheeler: We’ve mentioned that food is part of it, and it’s obvious that you absolutely adore food, there is food pretty well on every page. I was left wondering whether you like to cook yourself or whether you make it your business to find great chefs and eat out a lot.
Roselle Lim: A little of column A and a little of column B, in that when I was younger, my dad is the cook in the family. That’s why the Natalie Tan was dedicated to him. He’s the one who would cook, and he would tell me in the morning, I’m making this for dinner, make sure you take this out from the freezer and do the prep work ahead of time, so that by the time he gets home from work, everything will be ready to cook.
I’ve learned how to cook from him in that I’ve always wanted to see how food gets prepared and how it’s made. Given the preference though, I prefer to eat than to put the effort into making something, because there’s a formula. It takes two hours of toil and labor to present a meal that will be eaten in under 10 minutes, and that inequality doesn’t sit well with me. I would prefer to be the one consuming it.
The joys of eating out in Paris
When we went to Paris, I made sure I ate everything I could. Like everything. We walked everywhere. I looked like that child with my grubby little hands against the clear glass windows, staring inside to see what is going on in there – for bakeries, for patisseries, everything. I just wanted to go in and it helped that I could speak a bit of French and I can understand and read.
I had no problems going in and out, checking everything out, going into chocolate shops and candy shops and being able to order and ask for what I wanted. And yes, I tried to eat everything I could, that was listed in that book.
Jenny Wheeler: It sounds like there’s another book there of your guide to Paris food.
Roselle Lim: I made sure that we booked the reservation at a Michelin star restaurant while we were in Paris. I had to. I don’t buy fancy purses or designer stuff, but I will save money to make sure that I tasted it. We had a dinner at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in St. Germaine, and the food there was just incredible. It’s one of those things where if I have to write about food, and I want to write about food, I should be able to try everything and convey that on the page.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, I think you do, so that’s wonderful. For those of us who probably won’t ever get to go there, it’s a lovely little bit of armchair travel in itself.
There’s a strong sense of other realms as well, as we’ve mentioned with Vanessa – the fabulist side, and she’s got this prophetic gift. You say that growing up in a household where Chinese superstition was infused with Filipino Catholicism gave you this sense of another realm. Is that an accurate way of describing it?
Roselle Lim: It is, because when I grew up, I would have my mom telling me these things that are not at all rooted in actual medicine or science. My mom would be like, you want to get taller? That’s easy. Just jump up and down and your body will stretch.
And I’m like, huh, really mom? Or things like, if you’re ever sleeping, not in your house or somewhere else, or even in your house, make sure that when you’re asleep your feet are not facing the window.
The magic of everyday life
And I’m like, why? And she’s like, because the bad spirit will come, pluck you by your toes and pull you out of the window and gobble you up eventually. And I’m like, okay, I don’t really believe in that. It’s little things like that. How could you not think that there was magic and there’s magic in the ordinary world.
Jenny Wheeler: These books are both about young Asian women finding their own paths, honoring their own stories while still fulfilling family obligations, as much as they can. I think that’s reflected in a wider area for you in that you’re also passionate about diversity and equity in publishing as well, aren’t you? Tell us what it was like coming to Canada as a young child and having to integrate into a completely different culture.
Roselle Lim: I was lucky in that in the Philippines, because it was colonized by the US, English was definitely present. I wouldn’t say it’s the first language, but it’s present. I have written it in my bio and it is true, I grew up watching Hulk Hogan and the WWF wrestlers on TV, and that taught me a bit of English.
By the time I came here, a lot of my cousins ended up having to take ESL classes. When I got here, the first thing I had to figure out was be more confident in English and also start learning French. That’s the other thing. Growing up, going through the school system, being an immigrant, I had been told many times by my English teachers that writing is not something I can do because my English isn’t good enough.
Saucy romance in Maths class
To this day, I’m still tripping up a little bit when it comes to tenses, because there are no tenses in Tagalog or Chinese. The date or time is framed in a different way. Instead of saying I walked to the store, you would say I walk to the store yesterday, so it would give you a timeframe when it happened. Tenses still trip me up a little bit.
It’s one of those things where if you get told ‘no’ so many times, that whatever you’re writing won’t be interesting or whatever – people will tell you all these things, and if you get told enough times, they’ll either break you or make you more stubborn to prove them wrong. I am in the stubborn to prove them wrong group.
Jenny Wheeler: Very obviously. You expressed this desire to write even when you were at school, did you?
Roselle Lim: I did. I was that girl in my all-girls Catholic high school that slipped my friends pages of my saucy romance novel in Math class. Yes, that was me.
Jenny Wheeler: What a gorgeous picture in itself. Tell us something about your creative process. Has it changed? You have now written 10 manuscripts, haven’t you, you’re probably in your 11th, we’ll get onto that in a moment, but you’ve probably completed at least 10 manuscripts. Has your creative process changed during that period of writing?
Roselle Lim: It has, because before I thought writing is easy. You just sit and you write whatever you want. You don’t need a plan to sit in front of the computer and just type, type, type. You’ll figure it out later. I didn’t realize that this wasn’t a good method for me until I signed with Jenny, my current agent.
Learning as you go along
She taught me that if you outline now and plan things, you don’t have to spend so much time revising it later. I’m like, wow, this is more efficient, I think I should start doing this.
So I’ve started writing outlines. I’ve started writing a query letter of a novel I haven’t written yet before I even start writing it, because that way it teaches me to get to the core of the novel quickly and to have a very concise pitch of what the novel is about. I find that really helpful. And lately, for the past few novels, I’ve started bullet journaling which helps me plan everything out even more.
Jenny Wheeler: Tell me about bullet journaling. I haven’t heard that expression before.
Roselle Lim: It’s using a journal, and basically it’s a dotted journal and I would print out photos of what my characters look like, so it makes it so much easier having it there on the page for when I’m describing them. All their character bios would be on there, the chronological order, even plotting.
One of the methods I use now that I find really helpful is after every chapter I’ve written, while drafting, I write down what subplots are occurring in that chapter. The tension level changes and writing down one or two lines of what happened in that chapter so that when I’m revising, I could easily find the places I need to address.
Jenny Wheeler: That is very organized. Were you ever tempted to indie publish any of those earlier manuscripts, and what about indie publishing generally for the future? Are you very much happy with the trad publishing process?
Cooking the books – so to speak
Roselle Lim: I see how much work friends of mine who self-publish put into everything. Again, I go back to my cooking and consuming. I see how much work they put into it. They have to hire a cover designer, they have to hire a layout – all the stuff traditional publishing would do. And I understand, yes for them it’s wonderful because they get all of the measure of control for marketing, what they need to do for the search terms and all of that.
I think of it as too much work for me. I prefer to be the one who that is eating in 10 minutes versus the one who’s preparing the food for two hours.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve got a very efficient process, haven’t you? Has it been tough launching this book, the Vanessa Yu Paris Teashop book, in the year of Covid? Has it mucked things up for you at all or affected your writing process? How have you been going there?
Roselle Lim: It hasn’t affected my writing process in that I’ve always been the type of person who is comfortable staying home, though now, during the pandemic, I’m yearning to go out, even though we’re in a lockdown, and I normally am fine with being home. For Vanessa, its publishing hasn’t quite adapted to how they’re supposed to do things during a pandemic, so it’s affected that in the publicity and the marketing side.
Disrupted by a pandemic
Jenny Wheeler: I think I read somewhere that you missed out on going to a book conference you really wanted to go to.
Roselle Lim: It’s the first one I was invited to in the US and I couldn’t go. It was canceled. I also missed my book launch. I already had the baker picked out. She was going to bake madeleines dipped in chocolate with pistachio bits on it to serve at the book launch. I had all these things planned out and all of that went out the window.
Jenny Wheeler: Oh, what a shame. Turning from the specific books to talking a little of your wider career – you’ve mentioned about that tension there was in the family because your own ambitions didn’t quite match up with what your family thought for you. I think you also are still very interested in art as well. Tell us about your life before you became a full-time author. How did you make that transition?
Roselle Lim: I was an artist, a full-time artist selling artwork, before I became an author. This is how, when I write, I try to paint the scenery for my readers. It’s with that artistic eye I use for my writing. I do illustration now and everything more as a hobby in that I don’t want to monetize it at all because I feel that if I do that again, it would suck the joy out of it.
Jenny Wheeler: But you very much write with an artist’s eye.
Roselle Lim: Yes.
Jenny Wheeler: Are you guilty of being a workaholic?
Roselle Lim: I’m trying to balance it because I always feel guilty. Like right now, I just turned in book three to my editor, which won’t be out until September 2022. That one is called Sophie Go’s Lonely Hearts Club. It’s about a matchmaker who returns to her hometown in Toronto and ends up having to match seven old grumpy men.
Jenny Wheeler: It sounds wonderful. You’ve just turned that in.
A compelling desire to work
Roselle Lim: That’s turned in. Book Four is not due until next March. I have a vague idea of what I want. I have the pitch all ready and I’ve got a vague synopsis of what I want to tell my editor, what I want to write for that. I haven’t started yet. I’m working on a YA fantasy right now that I’m revising for my agent.
I always feel guilty of not working. In a sense I think it’s because I was published later in life. A lot of people think the most ideal thing is to be published when you’re in your twenties, when you’re young, because this is great. But I didn’t get my first book out until Natalie. Natalie came out in 2019. I was 39. The fact that my first book came out close to my forties, I feel like I’ve missed out on so much, that I should be consistently working to catch up.
Jenny Wheeler: You have to catch up lost ground. Yes, I can understand that.
Turning to Roselle as reader, this is The Joys of Binge Reading and we like to focus on books that people can read for entertainment, as well as other things, but books that bring fun into their lives. Do you like to read much and are you a binge reader? If so, what do you do read?
Roselle Lim: I try not to read when I’m drafting because I don’t want anything to seep in while I’m trying to write something. I love romance. I would buy anything, read anything, Helen Hoang writes. She’s written The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test. I love those books.
What Roselle is reading now
The last thing I read that I absolutely adored that had me laughing so much – and she’s a friend of mine and also one of my favorite authors – is Sonia Hartl’s debut called Heartbreak for Hire. That’s coming out in the Spring by Simon and Schuster Gallery. It’s a fantastic, funny book.
Sonia writes these funny books that make you laugh, and this one is about a woman who works at an agency where her job is to create heartbreak for women who hire her to break the hearts of the men who have broken theirs.
Jenny Wheeler: That sounds fun. At this of your career, if you were doing it all over again, is there anything you would change and if so, what would it be?
Roselle Lim: I’m not really a person who goes back and tries to have many regrets in my life in that I know I got into art school and I could have pursued art, but I decided not to. I guess some people would say, what would your life have been like if you had pursued that full-time?
For my career, the only thing I keep telling myself is that it took you this long to get to where you are and given how everything unfolded, I would do everything the same again because it turned out the way I wanted it to unfold. Maybe not in the timeframe I wanted it to unfold, but it happened the way I’ve always hoped for.
Choosing writing over painting
Jenny Wheeler: Why did you decide not to do art as a full-time career?
Roselle Lim: Because when I was in art school, I said I miss writing. Which is the funniest thing, because I miss writing and I’m like, so let’s go to university. I went to York University in Toronto and decided to take history and humanities.
And I’m like, this is great. Then while I’m writing all the essays, I’m like, I miss drawing naked people in art school. You can never be happy thinking of greener pastures situations.
It’s like when I’m writing too. When I’m drafting, I’m like, this is great, it’s drafting, but I miss revising because it means the thing is done and I’m just fixing it. And when I’m revising, I’m like, I really miss drafting, when I’m sitting here in my own world and creating everything.
It’s always going to be that situation, so I try to tell myself, try to enjoy where you’re at. I know you always want to be doing something else but try to enjoy the thing you’re doing at the time you’re doing it.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve talked a little bit about what your next plans are. Tell us again – I didn’t quite catch the full name of the book you’ve just turned in.
Roselle Lim: Sophie Go’s Lonely Hearts Club.
Jenny Wheeler: I think Vanessa in this book has shown a penchant for matchmaking, hasn’t she, so it’s continuing on with that theme a little, but not Vanessa doing it.
A new matchmaker is on the scene
Roselle Lim: No, this is why it’s a little bit tricky with Vanessa having film and TV rights because Evelyn appears in both books. John Wells owns the rights to Evelyn, so it makes it a little bit trickier. He has said that if he had the right people who are passionate about the project enough approach him and say, we want to develop this, he would let the rights go. But it’s finding the right person who feels passionate enough about the project.
Jenny Wheeler: That means you can’t have Aunt Evelyn in any of your new books. It stops anyone but him from having the right to film them. Is that what you’re saying?
Roselle Lim: Yes. With Sophie they are all new characters. Nobody is mentioned from the other books that are in this one. The title is an allusion to the Beatles because Sophie loves the Beatles. That’s where you get the play on words of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But it’s Sophie Go’s Lonely Hearts Club.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s funny, isn’t it, how a writer today needs to take these kinds of things into consideration.
Learning from grandfathers
Roselle Lim: It is. I had to make sure that I tried to find the sensitivity reader for some of the rep in this book. It was fun to write because it’s a love letter to my grandfathers, the ones I loved spending time with that have passed and being able to portray people who are in their seventies as very happy and fulfilled in their lives instead of what society says, that they’re lonely people living in homes who don’t really talk to anybody. You know what I mean?
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, I do know what you mean. It’s that sensitivity of yours towards diversity and equality, isn’t it, extending to the generations?
Roselle Lim: It is because I’m writing what my grandfathers were like. One of the characters is loosely based on my father-in-law who has passed recently, and it made it all the more difficult and poignant to be looking at the book and turning it over, knowing that.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. Roselle. That one is obviously still in the same kind of genre, the slightly fabulist, lovely poetic writing that you do. Is book four going to be a change of pace at all, or is it also in that framework?
Roselle Lim: I want it to be different. It will still have the fabulism, but I want to push it closer to where fantasy is. I still have to pitch my editor and say, I really want to write this, can I please write it, thank you very much.
Jenny Wheeler: You obviously are attracted to fantasy because I think you mentioned some of your earlier books were also fantasy. Do you read fantasy yourself?
Where to find Roselle online
Roselle Lim: I read it. I consume it in media. I love watching fantasy shows. It’s something I’ve always loved. It’s not that I don’t love writing women’s fiction or fabulism. I do, I enjoy it, but I also really love fantasy and I want to be able to move closer towards that eventually.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s great. We are coming to the end of our time together, so I’m wondering, do you enjoy hearing from your readers and where can they find you online?
Roselle Lim: I do, especially when they have such wonderful things to say. I say that with all sincerity in that there are notes I’ve received from readers who write me and tell me, I’m Chinese or I’m Chinese Filipino and it’s wonderful to discover your books and see myself in these stories.
It was something I always wanted to do as a kid, I wanted to read books when I was younger that showed mirrors of me, and there weren’t that many available.
Your experience reflected
Jenny Wheeler: No, there wouldn’t have been. I saw your blog about Crazy Rich Asians, the movie, and you had a sense of excitement about seeing that movie on the mainstream cinema, didn’t you?
Roselle Lim: It is because the last time I saw an all-Asian cast that was a blockbuster was The Joy Luck Club, and that was in the nineties.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right.
Roselle Lim: Readers can find me – I’m most active on Twitter @rosellewriter and it’s the same handle for Instagram that I’m also on. My website is rosellelim.com and if they ever want to reach me, there is a contact form there.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. It’s been great talking today, it really has. Thank you so much. It’s given us a definite sense of seeing into your world, which has been marvellous.
Roselle Lim: Thank you so much for having me, Jenny.
Jenny Wheeler: Have a good day.
Roselle Lim: You too.
What’s next on Binge Reading
If you like Roselle you might like another Canadian author – Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee mystery series... Think Jackie Chan meets Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Ian makes forensic accounting sexy with his feisty hero Ava Lee who tracks down white collar fraud and retrieves ill gotten gains with an ancient and deadly form of martial arts. And if the going gets a little rough sometimes, well Ava and her mentor Uncle like to think of themselves as the guardian angels of investors, restoring lives.
Thanks To Our Technical Support:
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