by Sophie Schmidt
Today we welcome debut author Emily X. R. Pan to Justine! She is the author of The Astonishing Color of After, an #OwnVoices novel about Leigh’s journey through grief and the healing nature of art. This is one not to miss! Read on as she reveals how Leigh came to be and why the book is no longer set in the 1920s.
Justine: Hi, Emily! Thanks for joining us today. Why don’t you start us off by telling us something we can’t find in your bio.
Emily X. R. Pan: Well, I’m a proud music nerd. I started piano when I was four, violin when I was seven, and to this day I still own eight violins. I also played a handful of other instruments, and sang, and used to compose for piano, orchestra, string quartet, choir, and college a cappella groups. These days I’ve totally switched styles and instruments—I’m taking bluegrass mandolin lessons.
J: I’m a music nerd, too! It’s always awesome finding another music lover. Moving more toward your book, can you describe your book in 5 words or less.
EXRP: Woof. Oh, I hope that didn’t count towards my words. Okay, here goes: Love and belief yield magic.
J: I love it! How did you first come up with Astonishing? Did you start with a setting? A character?
EXRP: I originally set out to write a novel based on my grandmother’s life story, beginning in Taiwan in the 1920s. But trying to pin down all that history, and understand it politically and geographically—that got overwhelming. I realized I had to reframe the story so I had better access to it myself, and that was how my teenage main character came about. I planned to tell my grandmother’s story through her voice. Eventually it morphed into its own thing: The stuff about my grandmother shrank with each revision, and more of myself got sucked into the book than I’d ever anticipated. It was when I was rewriting it for the umpteenth time, the year after I lost a family member to suicide, that the story shaped itself into the version that sold.
J: There are so many colors within your story and they’re essential to Leigh understanding her emotions. Why color? How did you find so many different colors?
EXRP: That was actually exactly how Leigh came to me. When she arrived in my head, I understood her to be this artist who connected with the world around her in terms of its palette. It was always a part of who she was. I guess, similar to how I was writing furiously to work through complicated feelings in real life, she needed to have some kind of creative outlet. As for finding the colors: I do a bit of visual art myself, so I actually pulled out my own paints and collected all their names. And just like colors can mean different things in different contexts—the same shade of blue might present as bright and happy in one painting but then come across as bruised and sad in another work of art—Leigh’s colors don’t follow any rigid rule but are based on the context of each moment.
J: That’s lovely. Her color and art are something that I love reading about. Have you visited any of the places in the book?
EXRP: I had been to Taiwan a few times before, but in the summer of 2016 I flew to the north of Taiwan specifically to do research as I was revising. All the places that Leigh goes are places that I went—it felt important to me to physically walk in her footsteps. I wanted to actually see and hear and smell the things that she experiences. It was an incredibly special trip, as I hadn’t gone to see my relatives there in about thirteen years. And much like Leigh, during my visit I got to hear all these family stories from my grandmother and aunts and uncles for the first time. It was magical that the process of revising this book brought me closer to my own family.
J: That sounds so special! I’m hoping to visit China at some point, too. Speaking of heritage, how important was it for you to include diverse characters?
EXRP: For starters, as a woman of color, it would be quite a painful exercise to write a book that was all white characters, erasing myself from my own story. Diversity is the reality of our world, and I set out to be true to that, and to my own experience. I’ve lived in many places—including the Midwest and the South—and even in the most homogenous towns, I’ve always had, for example, at least a couple friends of color, and friends diverse in sexuality and gender, whether they were out at the time or not.
I tried to write this book to reflect the kind of environment I had growing up. Despite moving all around, I did always live in mostly white communities, so I had some trouble fitting in and feeling comfortable at school. And because I spent most of my time with my white classmates, when I did have the opportunity to be with Asian American peers, I couldn’t fit in comfortably with them, either. I listened to different music, was raised in a different religion, or simply cared about different things—my day-to-day context just didn’t match. In Leigh’s character I was trying to capture that experience of being one of the few people of color, and also that feeling of not belonging in either world. It’s a very specific situation, and yet a universally understandable loneliness. I hope that a young reader out there living that same experience will find my book, and feel comforted and seen.