By Ellie Wong
Podcasts editor Ellie Wong interviewed Christina Li ’21, a Stanford senior and debut author of the middle-grade novel “Clues to the Universe.” They discussed writing about grief and loss, finding commonalities in art and science, the importance of Asian-American characters and more.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): I read on your blog that the first novel you drafted was young adult (YA) fantasy. How did you transition to writing a middle-grade book?
Christina Li (CL): YA was what I was reading at the time. I was really liking authors that came out around 2012 and 2013, like Marie Lu and Leigh Bardugo. YA fantasy was where I started out, and the book was a YA retelling of the Opium Wars.
It was a book I really loved and that I was able to get my agent with, but ultimately it didn’t sell on submission. It was a “back to the drawing board” moment for me, and I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go next with my writing. Over the course of the summer after my high school graduation, the idea for this middle-grade novel came to me.
I was grappling with whether it should be a middle-grade novel, whether the characters should be younger or older, but ultimately it’s about kids coming to term with grief and dealing with loss in a way I thought would be better written as a younger voice. So, that’s how I transitioned to a middle-grade novel for my debut.
TSD: How did you come up with the themes in your novel? You mentioned grief, but I noticed so many other ones at play too.
CL: Yeah, there’s a hodgepodge of ideas in there. This book was an examination of how two different characters both help each other and find certain commonalities and deal with the loss of their loved ones.
The other theme is about the ways in which art can meet science. I got the inspiration for that theme from an author talk I attended, where the author said that science and art are the same in that they both draw patterns out of chaos.
That was something that profoundly stuck with me, and I really want to build a book around the thesis of how characters that are vastly different from each other are able to find commonalities.
There are a couple of scientists and mathematicians I really admire, and one of them is Maryam Mirzakhani. She was the first woman to be awarded the Fields Medal, and her daughter always referred to her complex, geometrical drawings as paintings. So, there’s a lot of similarities between science and art, or the left brain and right brain.
TSD: Growing up, were you interested in science and art at the same time?
CL: I’m definitely more of an artistic brain. Growing up, I wanted to love science. I loved hearing stories of scientific discoveries, especially by women and minorities who did incredible things in their fields.
But, I’m much more of a right-brained person, and while I want to love science, it doesn’t come as easily to me. I had to do a ton of research for my book about 12-year-olds. My 12-year-old scientist is way smarter than I am.
TSD: Did you have any writers or mentors who helped you while writing your novel?
CL: I had a huge mentor from when I was around 10. She’s this author named Andrea Buchanan, and she wrote “The Daring Book for Girls” a long time ago. It’s a how-to book for girls for life skills and such.
I cold emailed her when I was 10, saying, “Hey, your book is super cool. I want to learn how to write.” I’ve gotten to meet her in person, and she’s one of my really good writing friends and has been such a good mentor to me.
I remember when my first book didn’t sell. I was calling her saying, “I don’t know if I’m a writer anymore. I have no ideas. I don’t think I’m capable of writing another book.”
She told me, “If you write in your journal, you’re a writer. You have the rest of your life to write.”
Other people that have really helped me in my writing journey are the social media community of writing Twitter. It’s really helped me find support and camaraderie during what is supposed to be a really lonely process of writing and publishing.
TSD: Have you taken any creative writing classes at Stanford?
CL: I loved ENGLISH 91 (Creative Nonfiction). There are no high stakes or expectations, and I wrote one of the best pieces of my life in that class. The professors are really, really nice as well.
I also loved ENGLISH 91A, which is the Asian American Autobiography class taught by Chang-Rae Lee. It was this really small workshop class with 10 or 11 other people of Asian American descent, and there was this common support that I wasn’t able to find in any other class at Stanford.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to take many writing classes at Stanford because of limited time and major requirements. I’m an economics major, and there’s not a lot of crossover into creative writing.
TSD: When did the idea of incorporating an Asian American identity into your writing come to you?
CL: I honestly don’t know when I made this internal decision, but I decided that every book I wrote would be from the point of view from an Asian person. It would be from my point of view, and I would put parts of my own thoughts and experiences in it.
When it came time to draft my middle-grade novel, Ro is half Chinese and half white, and she’s an Asian American character growing up in a relatively culturally homogeneous place. That was drawn from my experiences as a Chinese American kid growing up in the Midwest and grappling with Midwestern culture.
I wanted to put in small but loving details. For example, Ro’s mom calls her “baobao,” which is a really endearing term. They have a Chinese New Year party, and her mom almost exclusively cooks Chinese food. There’s a section about her not knowing how to make a casserole, because that’s such an American dish. I’ve taken from my childhood and put in little love letters to where I came from.
TSD: Can you share anything about future books you’re writing?
CL: I’m working on a second book, and it’s part of my two-book contract. It’s also middle grade, and it’s set in San Francisco Chinatown. It’s about a girl dealing with the loss of her grandfather, estrangement from her friends and family and her seventh-grade year when everything changes.
It’s currently an absolute mess, and I’m in the middle of writing it. But, it’s also something I hope to be really proud of and something that’s so, so very personal to me.
TSD: Why do you think the theme of loss shows up often in your books?
CL: In this new book, the girl bonds with her grandmother over how much they miss her grandfather. It turns out the grandmother is going through dementia, so she’s also slowly losing memories of the grandfather. My grandmother had dementia, which is why this book is really important and really personal to me.
Experiencing the pandemic this year and seeing so much loss and loneliness happen, it became something that I wanted to think about. And when I want to think about things, I want to write about them. This year was when the idea fully took shape, and I realized it was going to be a book about being lost and feeling like you’re by yourself. I think that’s what really clicks for me as a subject matter, so it just naturally manifests in my books.
TSD: Were there any books that inspired you to become a writer?
CL: When I was younger, I was part of this book-trivia team that my school called Battle of the Books. I read all these classics I wouldn’t have otherwise, like “Anne of Green Gables” and the “Little House” books.
One book I really appreciated growing up was “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” by Grace Lin. It was a phenomenal book. It really made me think, “I could be an Asian American author writing about Asian characters.”
I read that book when I was in fifth grade, started writing my first novel the next year in sixth grade and it just went on from there.
TSD: When your first novel wasn’t selling, how did you overcome and deal with the rejection?
CL: I took time off, time off to just live life. It was also the year I was applying to colleges, so that consumed all my waking thoughts. I just pushed a hard reset button and went back to square one. I remember getting the idea for “Clues to the Universe” that summer, and I didn’t even know if I was able to write another book anymore.
That’s what I’ve discovered with every single book, whether it gets rejected or not, there’s always going to be some element of doubt. It definitely gets easier as time goes on, but it never really stops hurting. I think I just learned to cope with it best by writing another book.
TSD: Who or what are you reading these days?
CL: I’m reading this book called “These Violent Delights” by Chloe Gong. She’s a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, and her book just hit the New York Times Best Seller list. It’s a YA retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1920s Shanghai. It’s about how the heirs of two rival feuding gangs, the Cais and the Montagovs, have to work together to defeat a monster that’s plaguing Shanghai. It talks about colonialism, unrequited love — all the classic Shakespeare but elevated to a whole new level.
TSD: Do you usually read a lot of YA?
CL: Yeah, I read a lot of YA and a lot of middle grade. Another book I recently read and really loved, middle grade-wise, is “A Place to Hang the Moon” by Kate Albus. It’s coming out in February, and I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy. It’s about these three kids in World War II England who get shuttled from home to home after London is threatened with bombings.
I read across genres, and they all help me become a better writer. Even if the genres are vastly different, there are such good books in each of them.
TSD: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
CL: Read a lot in the genres you want to write, and take your time. As a young writer, I thought, “I have to become a teen published author. I have to hit this milestone by this age.”
Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. You have the entire rest of your life to write. The older I get, the more I appreciate having time to pick up skills and take classes, learn from books and people and live life. Just be patient with your craft, and take as much time as you need.
I’m glad I’m getting such a young start in publishing, but I’m also glad that I have this space to grow as a writer as well. I want to be able to have a career, and I want every book I write to be better than the last.