The Word Process: An Interview with Mira T. Lee

The Word Process is an interview series focusing on the writing process and aimed at illuminating the many ways that writers approach the same essential task. In this interview, Mira T. Lee, whose gorgeous debut, Everything Here Is Beautifulcame out in paperback earlier this year, talks about the inspiration for her book, the process of writing her very first novel, and when she decided writing should be her career and not just her side-hustle.

Read other Word Process interviews here.

What was the first nugget of an idea that you had which ultimately led to Everything Here Is Beautiful
Lucia, the protagonist of my novel, started off as a character in a short story I wrote, along with her sister, Miranda, and her first husband, Yonah. I’d always loved these characters, and kept thinking about them, and about a series of awful predicaments I wanted to put them though. I’ve always been drawn to questions with moral “gray areas,” where good people find themselves in conflict with one another even though no one’s at fault. I wanted to explore complicated family dynamics, the limits of love, what happens when what you want for yourself isn’t in the best interests of someone you love, and vice versa. And I wanted to explore Lucia as a character who has a mental illness, but refuses to be defined by it, and the ripple effects of her illness on family bonds.

How did you approach the project: Did you outline? Jump right in? Start from the end? Not know the end until you wrote it? 

I knew who my main characters were, and I had a sense of the story arc and where the story would end up. So I guess you could say I had a rough outline, but only in my head? I’m by no means meticulous or organized in any way.

What was something about the process of writing your first novel that you didn’t know until you did it? 

Honestly, I didn’t know if I’d be able to finish a draft of a full-length book! There were so many times during my first draft where I got completely stuck. I didn’t know what POV to use, or whose, I didn’t know how to bridge time to get from point A to point B. I did have this very fundamental belief that my characters’ struggles were worthy of a story, and that the conflicts and moral ambiguities in their lives were universal and worthy of exploration. But the whole project was really a leap of faith.

What was the publication process like for you? Did you have an agent before you wrote this book? 
I’m always envious of writers who meet their agents in their MFA programs. Having some kind of mentor who believes in your writing when you’re a total newbie must be incredibly validating. I wasn’t in any kind of program or writing group while I was writing this book — I was pretty much isolated and holed up in my own little cave (I had two very young children). It’s tough when no one cares what you’re doing, no one is waiting for your words, no one is there to tell you that your voice is important — and for me there always this feeling of embarrassment, like here I was, being all self-indulgent, wasting my time on this project that might never amount to anything.

After working on my novel for 1.5 years (two drafts), I queried a handful of agents, basically because I was sick of it. It wasn’t ready, and I was rejected — though with some helpful comments. So I worked on the manuscript for another year, then queried four agents and got three offers. That was my biggest turning point as a writer — having someone on my side. A couple months later, my agent sold the book at auction. It was all pretty surreal. And I loved working with my editor, she helped me take the book to another level and I’m eternally grateful.

Another practical question: Have you ever needed another job to supplement your career as a writer? 

Up until the day I found my agent, I never considered writing as anything other than a hobby. I was always working as a graphic designer. I took a break from that when my novel came out, but honestly, I miss it. I may still return to it.

Where do you write? 

It depends on what phase of writing I’m in. If it’s a first draft, I prefer small, dark spaces. Ideas tend to come to me in the middle of the night, especially when I’m horizontal — often it’s when I’m trying to fall asleep but can’t. I keep a notebook by my bed and my husband bought me a light-up pen so I don’t have to disturb him if I want to jot down notes. For the novel, I used to like writing in my baby’s room, because it had only a crib and an armchair, and it had dark-out shades. I also used to write in bed. But if it’s revision, I can write anywhere — dining table, coffee shops, beach, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve even written in my car. It’s quite cozy.

Describe a typical day in your writing life. 

I don’t really have a typical writing day, and until very recently, I didn’t write every day. I did make a new year’s resolution to write at least 300 words a day. Lots of writers aim for 1,000 but that’s always felt daunting, especially because right now I don’t know what my story is. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out my own process!

When it comes to the craft of writing, what do you think is the most important quality or skill for a writer to possess in order to excel, and why?

I guess a facility with language would be the obvious one. Diction. Voice. Everyone has stories to tell, but few can write a story really well, and no two people will tell it in the exact same way. You have to figure out how to tell stories in your own unique voice, and that really comes down to how you string words together. Of course there are other technical skills that are important — how to unravel a plot, develop characters, create tension — but still, it boils down to a precision with words. And as for process: perseverance!

What’s the best advice about craft or process that you’ve ever received?

Kashuo Ishiguro said it best in his Nobel Lecture: “What if I stopped worrying about my characters and worried instead about my relationships?” You can have a great character, but if they’re not interacting with other people in a dynamic way, the story’s probably not going to light up.

Which piece of writing (or writer) is a fool-proof source of inspiration for you? 

Because I started out writing short stories, I always return to short story writers: Raymond Carver, William Trevor, Amy Hempel. Elizabeth Strout is my current go-to writer. The way she frames her stories, weaves backstory into present, and is able to wring emotion from the smallest moments in the most ordinary lives — the writing is not showy, but it’s genius. That’s what I aspire to.
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