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Jen Sookfong Lee

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Profile: Jen Sookfong Lee demonstrates a growing confidence in her third novel


(illustration: Rachel Idzerda)

Before she was a published novelist, Jen Sookfong Lee worked in communications for a Vancouver social services agency. She left that world in 2007, but the stories of immigrant, indigenous, and vulnerable families were forever seared in her mind. Nine years later, those experiences have informed her third novel, The Conjoined, published in September by ECW Press. “It takes a while for things to percolate before I feel like I’m ready to write about them,” says Lee.

Billed as a “literary novel inspired by crime fiction,” The Conjoined begins with the discovery of two bodies inside a freezer in a suburban home. The narrative moves between the 1980s and the present, following social worker Jessica Campbell and the Cheng family, whose struggles represent “stories that we might forget.” Lee says she wrote The Conjoined, in part, to honour people who are striving quietly in the shadows: “I really want readers to consider the lives of people who are otherwise invisible to them.”

Lee carefully outlined The Conjoined’s plot and converging stories from beginning to end – a sharp contrast to her usual, character-driven writing process. And while the book does feature a mystery, it doesn’t follow the typical crime-fiction formula of an investigator tracking multiple suspects and pursuing the case to a violent climax. Instead, the book represents Lee’s “homage to crime fiction” and beloved authors including Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin, and James Lee Burke. “It’s a perfect storm of everything you want,” says Crissy Calhoun, who acquired and edited the novel for ECW. “It’s a page-turner, but it’s literary. It’s a character study, but there are suspense and mystery elements.”

After Knopf Canada – which published Lee’s second novel, The Better Mother – passed on The Conjoined, the author and her agent, Carolyn Swayze, submitted the manuscript exclusively to ECW. “I like their books and I like what they do,” says Lee. “They feel like a very healthy independent publisher.”

ECW was still finalizing orders and marketing plans for The Conjoined over the summer, but “we tend to be fairly conservative on the first print run,” says Calhoun, “and then quick to hit the reprint button.” Lee is slated to appear at book festivals and events in Toronto, Ottawa, and Winnipeg near the end of October, and a launch party is scheduled for September at Vancouver’s Emerald Supper Club, where the author might even do some rapping (if appropriate beat-box accompaniment can be secured).

Launching the book in Chinatown with a mashup of literature, pop culture, and social consciousness is fitting – both for the novel and for Lee’s personality. She’s an enthusiastic consumer of everything from Taylor Swift’s music to the films of Gus Van Sant (whose 1991 My Own Private Idaho Lee will explore in a spring 2017 non-fiction title for ECW). “She’s both very much part of mainstream culture and very much apart from it,” says Calhoun.

As in Lee’s other novels, Vancouver is a Conjoined character in its own right, providing atmospheric rain and looming mountain ranges, with a soundtrack of Skytrain door chimes and ocean swells. “Understanding the city of Vancouver has always been really, really important to me,” says Lee, who is continually exploring the region’s lively history. This specificity gives her characters a three-dimensional place in the world, and a platform for stories that might otherwise slip away. “I don’t ever think that I will write a novel that’s not set in Vancouver.”

Such clarity of purpose also reflects Lee’s growing confidence. She’s feeling more productive and prolific than ever before. She’s no longer afraid to write “terrible” first drafts, or to tackle topics that will rock the proverbial boat. When her first book, The End of East, was released in 2007, “there were very few women of colour who were publishing fiction with major publishers.” The landscape is slowly changing, Lee says, but people are hungry for new stories. “Readers, booksellers, teachers, and librarians always say to me, ‘We want more diverse writers. We want a more diverse publishing industry.’”

It’s a topic Lee addresses head-on at both Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, where she teaches creative writing students who are increasingly sharing narratives that don’t fit the traditional CanLit mould. They’re exploring their generation, their cultural heritage, and their place on the gender-queer spectrum. But, master of fine arts programs and publishers still need to look further afield to give Canadians – whom Lee calls “among the most open, generous and adventurous readers in the world” – a wider array of voices.

Canadian readers crave novels that aren’t just about “people drinking iced tea on their Muskoka chairs, listening to the call of the loon and digging up old secrets that were in the lockbox under the floorboards of their cottage,” says Lee. “I’m not saying we don’t want to read those stories, but there’s room for everybody.”