Jesse Sutanto has been on our site many times before, chatting her YA books The Obsession, The New Girl and also sharing her top rom-com reads in celebration of Well, That Was Unexpected. This time, we are thrilled to have her here to chat about her adult novel, Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers. Vera Wong is a sixty-year-old self-proclaimed tea expert who wakes up one morning to find a dead man in the middle of her tea shop. Knowing she’ll do a better job than the police possibly could – because nobody sniffs out a wrongdoing quite like a suspicious Chinese mother with time on her hands – Vera decides it’s down to her to catch the killer.
Please recommend us your favourite Chinese tea.
My favorite Chinese tea is called Tie Guan Yin, which directly translates to Iron Goddess of Mercy. I still remember tasting it for the first time as a child. I made a face and declared I hated it, but my dad told me to wait a few moments, and I found to my wonderment that the bitterness gave way to sudden, unexpected sweetness. I have loved it ever since.
And when writing Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers, did you have to do a lot of research on the different benefits of different types of Chinese tea?
Yes and no. I had a broad understanding of which ingredients were traditionally used for which ailments, and I just did a quick Google search to confirm what I already knew, so that part was actually fun!
Vera Wong is like all Asian Americans’ mum, from the things she does to the tone she uses. Is she inspired by your own mum? Does she agree she is like Vera or does she deny this?
I would say Vera is 75% my mom and 25% my dad. My mom LOVES Vera. Like, completely adores her. When she finished reading Vera, she immediately asked me for a dozen copies so she could hand them out to her friends, and she reminds everyone who would listen that the main character is based on her.
In Chinese culture, filial comes almost naturally to us and no one would dare say no to Vera Wong. Was it difficult to ensure other characters would also listen to her commands?
It wasn’t, because all I had to do was imagine how decent people would react to my mom, and it all came naturally. Because the thing is, even though my parents are overbearing and super annoying at times, it’s obvious that their interactions come from a place of affection.
Vera Wong sometimes crosses boundaries and she can be a little too much. Were you worried that some readers would be annoyed by her?
Not really, because I was writing to be authentic, I wasn’t really worrying about the reception of the character. I write quite a few unlikeable characters because I also have suspense/thriller books, so I’m used to not worrying about how readers would like my characters!
Vera Wong also teaches the characters to live unapologetically. Why do you think younger people tend to worry about all the little things while to the older generation, like Vera, things are straightforward and we should just do it?
You know what? The older I get, the less crap I give about appearing a certain way. I figure that by the time you get to Vera’s age, you’d be out of f***s to give. I certainly hope that I would stop caring about all the superficial things once I’m her age! I guess you could say that I wrote her as an aspirational character for myself.
And finally, Asian representation is so important nowadays. While creating Vera Wong, how do you balance between portraying an Asian lady that readers can connect to, but also not play into the stereotypes?
This is such a tricky one for me. I’m so aware of Asian stereotypes and I hope that I’ve successfully avoided them. At the end of the day, the best thing I can do is write from the heart and make sure that my characters are coming off the page as fully fleshed out individuals and not just caricatures. I am approaching them with love and respect and I hope that shines through.