Lily Chu Wrote a Rom-Com to Make the World a Better Place
With Phillipa Soo as the performer, 'The Stand-In' became the debut rom-com of Chu's dreams, with the main character, author, and narrator all being biracial.
July 15, 2021
Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.
*WARNING: This interview contains spoilers for The Stand-In*
Melissa Bendixen: Hi, listeners. This is Audible Editor Melissa Bendixen, and I'm here with Lily Chu, writer of the Audible Original The Stand-In, which is Lily's debut novel. Welcome, Lily.
Lily Chu: Hi, thanks for having me Melissa.
MB: Of course. I am so excited to talk to you today. I've been looking forward to talking to you because I love The Stand-In so much, and I do not say that lightly. It's been one of my favorite listens so far this year. Listeners, at the time of this recording, The Stand-In hasn't been released to the public yet, but here at Audible we have been impatiently waiting for it to come out because we think everyone is going to love this as much as we do. I'm not alone when I say The Stand-In is a flawless marriage of great story and performance, humor, and depth.
So my first question to you, Lily, is what gave you the inspiration to write a novel and to write this story in particular for your debut?
LC: First, thank you for all of those lovely compliments. I'm so happy that you enjoyed it and I'm so happy that the people at Audible enjoyed it and I hope everybody really enjoys it. In terms of what inspired me to write it I've actually been a writer for quite a long time. This is my rom-com debut, but I've been writing over 20, 25 years and I must have a good 13, 15, 16 books on my hard drive that are mostly terrible. I'm very happy that this one is out in the light for people to read.
It's kind of a funny way it came around, because in summer 2019 I had a meeting with my agent because I had to be in New York, and over really good waffle fries we were talking about where I was going to go with my writing and she said, "You know, have you thought about writing a rom-com?" And I said, "No." And she said, "Well, would you think about writing a rom-com?" And I said, "Probably not." And she's like, "Okay. But..."
"As an individual, when you come against things like racism, you can feel very helpless sometimes. And I thought, well, I am a writer, so something I can do is I can write."
And I'm like, "I'll think about it." And then of course I didn't, because anytime anyone says they'll think about something, they usually don't think about it. We left it at that, but then around December 2019, January 2020, there were a lot of issues going on in the romance world, about racism representation, whose stories got to be told, who got to challenge those stories being told. And when you come up against issues like that in a community where you thought things were quite safe or you thought things were getting better, it can be difficult to know what to do.
You can sign petitions, you can send emails. But as an individual, when you come against things like racism, you can feel very helpless sometimes. And I thought, well, I am a writer, so something I can do is I can write. And I thought, "You know what? I want to write a book and I want that book to be about people like me, people who look like me, people who have experiences like me." And I thought, “And I think it would work well as a rom-com.” I swear, about three hours later I had a text from my agent going, “Look, can we talk?"
I called her and I said, "I want to write a rom-com." She's like, "I was going to say the same thing to you." So we were exactly on the same page. It was like we both at the same time thought now is the time to try this, and I started writing the proposal that day. So this was about December, January, and I finished writing it in the spring and then it sold in July. So yeah, it came from not a great place. But I'm thrilled that there is another book out there that represents people with Asian heritage.
MB: Wow. That is such a crazy, amazing story. I love that you came from a place of becoming empowered or a place of empowerment. You got to that because you knew it was needed, and, wow, what a great rom-com it is too.
The Stand-In was acquired by Audible in an eight-house auction, which, for listeners who aren't familiar with the publishing industry, is pretty special for a debut rom-com writer. I'm curious, what was that like for you to have that experience?
LC: It was unbelievable. I had never experienced anything like that before. It was mind blowing on a few levels. First is as a writer you write in isolation. You don't really get a lot of feedback on what's going on. Once it starts going out to other beta readers, people who will take a look at it and be like, "Oh, you know I think maybe it needs some work here or there," you start getting that feedback, but it really is looking for places that your work can be improved on.
During the time period of the auction, I had a lot of conversations with editors, these amazing editors who were so smart and so perceptive talking about how much they enjoyed the book and where they could see it going. Having these brilliant people talking to me about how they enjoyed the book was really ego boosting, which felt really good, but at the same time it was extraordinarily stressful. So imagine you have a job interview for your dream job, your dream place, and you think it's going pretty well. And they say, we'll get back to you on Friday. You spend all week just waiting for a call and then Friday comes and nobody calls. Then you have that weekend of just high-level stress.
Imagine that emotion for about two weeks straight over the Canadian July 1 holiday, over the US July 4 holiday, before it actually sold. It was a really extraordinary period. I was really happy. I was really scared. And at the end of it I actually bought a card from a little store near me, and I wrote down how I was feeling, because I knew I was never going to have that experience with those emotions again, and emotions fade. When the time's done, the emotions eventually fade and then you consider them retrospect, but they're never the way they are at the moment. I really wanted to capture that moment in my life.
MB: Wow. And now The Stand-In is going to be an Audible Original. Did you originally write The Stand-In with audio in mind or did you have to make any edits for audio after you knew it was going to be an Audible Original?
LC: I didn't write it with audio in mind. But luckily when I do write I think a lot about how the text looks on the page, because I personally don't like big blocks of text on a page. So I tend to write a lot of dialogue. I tend to write shorter paragraphs, and I think that in general works well for audio. But after we started editing, we went through and we actually did kind of an audio edit where we took out things that would be redundancies. For instance, if you have a character and you write, "She sighs," you don't have to have the narrative say, "She sighs." The narrator can just sigh.
We went through and we... Well, I say we, but actually the editor did that. I was very lucky. She went through and she took all those things and we moved some phrasing around to make it clear who was saying something at the time, and I also went through and I made notes on scenes and how I thought they would sound. There is one scene where a character is having a panic attack, but it doesn't say that she's having a panic attack. But if you are someone who's experienced one, she's using a calming technique that often you'll try to use when you're having one. And I wanted it clear when the narrator went through it that this heightened emotion of that scene is because she's going to be experiencing this really intense, horrible moment. I went through and I noted things like that.
MB: That's really interesting. Do you think your writing will change in the future with the audio editing experience in mind now?
LC: Yes. Yeah, it actually has. I'm working on my second book now and it has changed because now I think much more consciously about how it's going to sound. I always read my books over, but to be honest it's kind of a put mumble. I mutter it to myself, so I'm not taking the time to read it the way that a narrator would read it with pauses and emphasis.
Now I am trying to do that more and I'm like, "Oh, you know, that sentence isn't flowing." It'll flow in your mind, but not necessarily when you're reading out loud. Or, "There's nowhere to take a breath in here." Or, "This alliteration is difficult to say." I'm really looking at it more closely now and to see, how can I improve it for audio?
MB: I'm also curious, did you pull from your career or background in crafting any elements for the story?
LC: I did in a lot of ways. Gracie, the main character, is absolutely obsessed with day planners and planners and to-do lists. That is definitely a reflection of me. I work as a communications manager and I actually used to work as an archaeologist, both of which are fields where you need to keep all your information straightforward and organized, which is not usually how I run in my day-to-day life. I really need lists to keep me on track.
Her love of those lists is definitely from me, as well on the personal side, of course, Gracie is biracial and I'm biracial. Many of her experiences are similar to those I've had and the perceptions and how she views her identity are definitely drawn from my own life.
MB: Right. And you can definitely tell that in the text. It felt so accurate to me. Crazy finding out that you used to be an archaeologist.
LC: Totally. And then to go back to the epi-planner, the one that Gracie created is actually based on one I created for myself. I used bullet journals and all sorts of different things, but I couldn't find one that really suited exactly what I wanted to do with it. I actually developed my own that I use. I use that as the basis for Gracie's epi-planner, although mine is not as complicated.
MB: That's really cool. So let's talk about the narrator. For listeners who may not know, Phillipa Soo is best known for her role as Eliza in the legendary Broadway musical Hamilton. The Stand-In is Phillipa's first audiobook performance and she did a phenomenal job. She captures Gracie's humor so well. I cannot count how many times I laughed during this, and it's one of those perfect moments where the story fits the performer so well. And Phillipa Soo really knocked this one out of the park. I heard you two got to chat while Phillipa was prepping to record. What did you guys chat about? What was that like?
LC: We did. First, I absolutely agree. I thought her performance was phenomenal. I was so impressed by it. Before she started recording we had a call and it was astounding to me how a professional performer approaches a project. I hadn't really thought through how she would be thinking about it and thinking of the different characters and how she's going to portray them. In my head I was still thinking narration was a reading of the text, and I was so wrong because it is a true performance from someone who is at the top of her game. She does different voices and different accents.
"It's exactly what I had hoped for but didn't even know I could hope for it."
When we were working through it, we were kind of talking about, well, how does this person sound? And I would say, "I think they sound like this." Because all these voices had just been in my head. I was like, "I think they kind of sound like me, but maybe not." And she's like, "Well, what do you think of this?" I'm like, "Wow, that sounds way better." Or she'd be like, "You know, what do you think of this?" I'm like, "Well, I think they sound like this." She's like, "I'm not. And here's why." I'm like, "That makes so much sense."
It wasn't just she was going by her gut. She was like, "These are the reasons I think this character uses these tones or her voice is this level." It just was astounding to me how a voice actor and a performer visualizes how they're going to interpret the text.
MB: It sounds like you guys got to cover a lot. How does it feel to have a performer like her also deeply connected to your work?
LC: I had no fear because Phillipa was also… She has a similar background to mine. I had no doubt that she would be able to render Gracie's voice and her experience perfectly. For an author having to give up control of your texts can be very difficult because there's a lot of trust going on. Because when people hear the book, at this point it's no longer really my book. I am the author, but they're going to be absorbing the performance of it.
To me at this point, it's a team collaboration, and books always are because there's you and then your editors and so many people behind the scenes who work on it. Once the book is sold, it becomes a real collaborative effort. But then having someone who you have to trust to interpret your book in the way that you want it read, it can be a little nerve-racking, but I really had faith that she was going to do it justice and she did. It was really beautiful.
MB: It was. It was really beautiful. And it's also really funny. Were there any parts during Phillipa's performance that made you laugh at your own jokes?
LC: Um, there were. That sounds really awful to even say, but there were some points. But to me, it wasn't the part that I laughed at, but there's one scene in the book that I cried when I wrote it... and then I was fine for the editing, you know. But when I heard it in the audio, it was just done so well that I cried again. I was listening to it when I was walking in my neighborhood. I'm listening on my earphones, it's like seven at night. People are walking their dogs. I'm kind of like quietly weeping as I'm listening to it.
Again, going back to the performance elements, she gave me such a gift, because when you write a book, you can't get in the mind of the reader ever. I write a sentence, let's say it's "That cat is black." In my head it's "That cat is black." But readers could say it as "That cat is black" or "That cat is black," and the emphasis changes according to the person and how they're reading it, and maybe they skip the paragraph before.
You never actually are able to get in the mind of your reader as they're actually going through the words, but when Phillipa performed it, I was like, "Oh, you know, that could be said that way," or "That could be understood that way." It was eye-opening for me, and I'm so happy that I was able to have that experience.
MB: It's so true that performance adds another layer of nuance. It adds another creator's interpretation upon your work, too. So many layers going on.
One of the things I think listeners will so appreciate about The Stand-In is the way you incorporate Gracie's experience as a biracial woman. It sounds like that element really resonated with Phillipa as well. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Phillipa said, "I was so profoundly moved by the fact that I was getting to play this very specifically biracial Chinese and white character. There's something specific to my own experience and specific to Gracie's own experience that I really connected with being biracial and feeling like you were a part of two worlds and at the same time in your own world, and not feeling a part of either.”
I also know that the cover artist, Leni Kauffman, who is a popular artist for rom-com and romance covers and is Japanese-American herself, tweeted that it meant so much to her to draw an Asian heroine. What has it meant to you to see this resonation with your fellow creators unfold across the making of The Stand-In?
LC: It's exactly what I had hoped for but didn't even know I could hope for it. When I wrote it, there was no way I could have even thought it'd be possible to have a biracial author with a biracial main character with a biracial narrator, and then also have a cover artist with a similar background. Leni Kauffman's cover is gorgeous. I love it. I think it's beautiful. It makes me so happy. To know that it also resonated makes a huge difference because you write to connect with people.
Of course, I'm hoping it connects with everyone who reads it. But what I'm really hoping for is that people who are like me can see themselves and their experiences in the book. I know when I was growing up that just didn't… It wasn't really an option. There weren't books with people who looked like me or had a family like mine. To know that I was able to offer something where people could see themselves, it's really special.
MB: What do you hope listeners will take away about representation in fiction from your work?
LC: Oh, that it’s really important. I think if you get to see yourself all over the place, if you get to see people who look like you, people who act like you in what you read, in what you see in the advertisements that you see when you're commuting to work, you don't understand what it's like to never see yourself. One of the most fundamental human needs we have is to be seen.
There's a reason why social ostracism and silent treatment are so painful to us. It's because we need to be seen, and we need to be acknowledged. When you don't see yourself anywhere, that's a very specific message that you're getting. And that is that "We don't think you're important enough to be seen." That's not a great message for anyone to hear. I hope that people who are like me they get, "Yes, someone else sees you, someone else understands that experience you had that you felt really alone in, someone else had it too."
I think if you don't come from a background like mine, and you are someone who gets to see themselves everywhere, I hope it makes you think a bit about, "Well, hold on, how come I haven't seen stories like this before?" Or, "Why do I see so few of these stories?" Because there are great diverse books out there. There should be a lot more. But there is, if you want to read them, you definitely can, and if you're not, then I would ask maybe why.
MB: Yeah. You know, you learn something. Your attention to nuances of a biracial identity is a great example of the way you've managed to incorporate commentary on deep topics and issues organically into the story without taking away from the overall levity and bubbliness. Some other heavy current issues that are central to the story are sexual harassment and mental health.
*WARNING: Spoilers ahead for The Stand-In*
And at this point I need to say that there are about to be spoilers for listeners. So anyone who hasn't listened yet, I advise you to turn back now. It's revealed that the reason Wei Fangli has asked Gracie to be her stand-in is because Fangli is suffering from depression. I so appreciated the way you skillfully approached the topic through Gracie's conversations with Fangli about it in a frank, open, safe space sort of way. Why was it important to you for it to be a major theme throughout this story?
LC: Here in Canada, about one in five Canadians each year will experience mental health problems or addiction. Some people will get help. A lot of people will think that's going to get better. They're going to try to get better on their own. They're going to be scared or embarrassed or ashamed to get the help that they need. I think that is terrible. I think mental health issues and addiction should be normalized and discussions around them should be normalized so that people feel comfortable seeking help or even just talking to the people around them about what they're experiencing instead of keeping it all bottled up. I think the reason I wrote Fangli as very reluctant to get help is because I think that reflects a lot of people's situations.
"If you have characters who are decent people, they're going to screw up and they're going to have regrets, but they're going to treat those big problems with respect that you as a writer also need to treat them with."
It can be very hard to admit that you're having problems. Sometimes it's not even that you are too ashamed of yourself; it's because you're too ashamed to even admit it to yourself that you are someone who does need this, because as a society we still stigmatize this. The more people who speak about it and are open about it, the better it is for everybody.
Because if you are someone who suffered from mental health issues or you have people that you love, it's a real drain. It's hard to live your life if you can't really be happy all the time. Even Gracie had trouble coping with her own. There's a scene where she's trying to encourage Fangli to get help and she admits that it really sucked, it sucks, but she's trying to encourage her friend to get help. She's trying to be positive about it, but it's a bad situation. The more people who can get help to get a helping hand out of it I think is better.
MB: That's so true. We just need more communication for normalizing it. It's going to be a long road because it's hard for all of us.
LC: It is.
MB: What's your perspective on tackling deep topics while keeping the tone light and fun, and do you have any advice to fellow writers trying to walk this line?
LC: Okay. So this is a good one. The real answer is, I don't really know. At its heart, The Stand-In is a rom-com. It is by its nature a light, fluffy, fun, escapist book. If ever you're going to describe your book as an uncompromising look at whatever, you're probably not in the rom-com world. But that being said, it's a rom-com that—although it has a fantasy element in that there's movie stars—it's set in the very contemporary world that we live in.
Unfortunately the contemporary world we live in has racism and it has sexism and it has mental health problems and it has all of these bad things. It was difficult for me to write a book that doesn't address those things because, to me, making those characters, 3D characters, meant that they are going to have to be experiencing good and bad things. Fundamentally the key to the balance is, do you have respect for those issues that you're bringing in? Because if you're bringing them in because you think it's a great plot point or you think it's cool or you want to mock it in some way, I don't think you're going to be able to balance it. You have to treat the challenges that your characters are having, because they're reflecting challenges people have, you have to treat them with some kind of respect. But at the same time I'm kind of someone who doesn't do well with emotional issues. I will often joke my way out of stuff anyway. I think that adds to it in the sense that Gracie will sometimes deflect or hide behind jokes, as well. But at all their hearts, what it comes down to is, the characters are fundamentally good people.
For writers who are thinking of this, you have to know your characters and you have to trust your guts. When the chips are down and Gracie's hurting, Sam's there not to mock her or make fun of her or tease her, but he's there to help. If Fangli needs help, Gracie is going to just suck it up and have those hard conversations, because she is at her heart a decent person. If you have characters who are decent people, they're going to screw up and they're going to have regrets, but they're going to treat those big problems with respect that you as a writer also need to treat them with.
MB: Yeah. I often think about how sometimes we can rationalize fiction as saying, "This isn't real, these people aren't real," but I like to think of fiction as oftentimes the untold stories that happened to real people. Because if you can think of it, it probably did happen in real life. So treating your fictional characters like they're real people I think is the responsible thing to do as a writer.
LC: Yeah. I think that's actually a really elegant way to look at it, and I really like how you phrase that. I absolutely agree. When you're thinking of your reader—because, you know, you write for yourself, but you also write to reach out to people—the last thing I want to do as a writer is to have someone put down my book and feel terrible about themselves. That is not the kind of book I want to write. I want to write a book where you read it, you have a great time, you put it down, you're like, "Awesome. That's cool. I feel pretty good."
MB: Yeah, definitely. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today, Lily. And listeners, you can find The Stand-In on Audible today.
LC: Melissa, thank you so much for having me. It was such a pleasure to talk to you about The Stand-In.