Emily X.R. Pan On Grief, Mental Health, & Her YA Debut “The Astonishing Color of After”

The debut author talks about the novel’s many iterations, why it’s important to talk about mental health in YA, and what she’s working on next.

It may have taken many years to write The Astonishing Color of After (Little, Brown; March 19, 2017), but the results are what SLJ calls in its starred review “an exploration of grief and what it means to accept a loved one’s suicide,” with “lyrical and heart-rending prose” that “invites readers to take flight into their own lives and examine their relationships.” Pan discusses the novel’s many iterations, why it’s important to talk about mental health in YA, and what she’s working on next.

Can you tell us a little bit about this manuscript’s journey, from initial idea to final draft? How long did it take to write The Astonishing Color of After?

I started writing it in 2010, but it was a very different book back then. It was originally meant to span the first 40 years of a Taiwanese woman’s life (based on my grandmother), starting in 1927 in the mountains of Northern Taiwan. I was quickly overwhelmed by the research, so it didn’t take long for me to reframe it from the perspective of a modern-day teenage girl. I rewrote it many, many different ways, giving it whole new casts of characters, altering the premise and voice and format quite a few times. In 2015, I sat down to rewrite it from scratch (for the umpteenth time), and that was the version that got me my agent and then quickly sold. But I rewrote it again after that, so even the final version that became a real finished book is quite different.

From the start, readers get the sense that this novel, though realistic, is very much hovering between fantasy and realistic fiction. Did you know from the onset that you wanted to write a book in the magical realism genre? Or did the categorization happen once the book was written?

I think of this book as “contemporary with magical elements” rather than magical realism, since the bit of magic that exists in the book is not in response to oppression and colonialism, which is how the magical realism genre was born. The version of the book that sold had actually braided together two time lines—one in a fantasy world, and one in the contemporary real world. I tried really hard to make that work, and I guess that version was something more along the lines of a portal fantasy. When I revised it after selling the book, I decided I wanted to strip out the fantasy world since it wasn’t working quite the way I’d intended. That was when I moved all the magic into the real world, and the book became more of a ghost story.

Leigh sees the world through colors, and that motif is seen throughout—from her paintings to her conversations with Axel (her best friend and love interest). What inspired you to weave this through the narrative?

I’ve been asked this question many times, and I’ve never really been sure of the answer. The character of Leigh didn’t exist until 2015—and when she appeared in my mind, I knew immediately that she was an artist and thought of everything in terms of colors. Looking back on it now, my husband has some slight synesthesia tendencies, and I think around the time that Leigh arrived in my head, I was remembering the way he’d described certain short stories of mine using colors. The first time he ever told me a story of mine “felt really orange,” I was incredibly baffled—but in 2015, as I was trying to understand the grief that I was processing myself, and giving that experience to my main character, the use of colors to describe feelings and experiences suddenly resonated.

The format of the book is also complex. We have flashbacks, alternating time lines, and possible time/memory travel via magic. How did you keep track of all of the threads?

Oh gosh. It was a little bit of a nightmare at times. I used Scrivener, and within my Scrivener file I color-coded the chapters religiously. I also used color-coded index cards, and would stick them all over an empty wall in my bedroom to map out the threads, and to rearrange pieces of the story.

The food passages are especially memorable. Did you have to do any extracurricular research to get that aspect just right? What other kind of research did you do for this book?
I mostly put in foods that I myself like (or used to like, back when I wasn’t a vegetarian). I grew up eating very traditional Taiwanese foods cooked by my mother, so it wasn’t hard to just think about how she or my grandmother or my aunts would cook and plate something. And although I’d been to Taiwan multiple times, I did also visit again on a research trip specifically to help me sharpen the details of this book. That included many extremely crucial trips to night markets, where I ordered a lot of food and tasted it all—for verisimilitude’s sake, of course. On that same trip I visited many temples and spent a lot of time talking to people about Buddhism and Taoism. I was raised Buddhist, and I do consider myself religious, but I’m not one of those people who studies the scriptures and goes to temple regularly. I wanted to be respectful to Buddhism and Taoism, which are such important parts of the culture in Taiwan, and so while I was there I observed a lot of religious events and spoke to several monks and nuns. I also interviewed a lot of people for this book. From the start, the main character was biracial, so I spent a lot of time interviewing biracial friends and friends of friends—I wanted to be respectful to that identity and experience. I also interviewed members of my family extensively, to try to understand their instincts and perspectives. There are definitely significant cultural influences in the way they think about life and mental illness and grief, compared to how I think about those same things, and I wanted to capture the nuances as best I could.

Mental health, and its stigma, is an important theme in this novel. Why do you think it’s so relevant for teens and their families?

There isn’t enough conversation about mental illness. The stigma around it prevents people from seeking help, and it also prevents people from being able to recognize just how dire certain situations might be. It’s absolutely crucial that we normalize the conversation—that we reach a place where we can talk about mental health the way we talk about physical health.

Which protagonist did you identify with most? Which one was the most difficult to write?

I identify a lot with Leigh. I didn’t mean to put so much of myself into a character, but over the years as the story became more personal and more important, I couldn’t really help myself. Pieces of me sort of leaked out of my fingers and into her character. The most difficult to write was probably her mother, in part because I was dealing with my own grief from having lost a family member to suicide, and in part because it was difficult to find the right balance and nuance with her depression.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a couple other young adult novels right now. The one that will likely come out next deals more specifically with the cultural identities of Asian American kids whose parents emigrated from Taiwan. That’s something I touched on so subtly in my first book that I found myself needing to explore it more loudly and explicitly.  

 

See also: Nova Ren Suma and Emily X.R. Pan Launch a Platform for YA Short Stories

 

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