After finishing Portrait of a Thief I knew I had to interview Grace. This book delivered everything I wanted and more. There’s heists, conversations about art ownership, and disaporic identity. Seriously so obsessed! Keep reading to see all my burning questions!
About Portrait of a Thief
History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now.
Will Chen plans to steal them back.
A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son that has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a shadowy Chinese corporation reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago.
His crew is every heist archetype one can imagine—or at least, the closest he can get. A conman: Irene Chen, Will’s sister and a public policy major at Duke, who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering student who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down.
Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they’ve dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted attempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.
(Disclaimer: Some of the links below are affiliate links. For more information you can look at the Policy page. If you’re uncomfortable with that, know you can look up the book on any of the sites below to avoid the link)
What are some of your favorite heist movies/films/books? What role would you play in a heist?
I love this question! I’d like to think I’d make an excellent getaway driver. My taste in heist media leans flashy, fun, and self-indulgent; think the Ocean’s movies, the entire Fast & Furious franchise, White Collar, Leverage, Lupin. In literature, Leigh Bardugo’s SIX OF CROWS is brilliantly done, and I’m keeping an eye out for all the exceptional BIPOC heist stories on the horizon, including Adiba Jaigirdar’s A MILLION TO ONE and Andrea Tang’s THE KINGDOM OF WITHOUT.
One of my favorite aspects of PORTRAIT OF A THIEF was the way you explore the ‘ownership’ of art. Can you talk about what the inspiration for this was? For me I can vividly recall the first time I contemplated this and so I’m interested in when you began to think about this topic.
The inspiration behind this came from several places! Most obviously, the real-life thefts of Chinese art that began several years back, as well as my own increasing awareness of provenance as I began to spend more time visiting art museums in college and beyond. I wanted to talk about who art belongs to, and how we’ve been socialized the believe in the superiority of Western institutions and culture. On a lighter note, though, I loved the scene in Black Panther where Killmonger talked about looted art, and that was one of the first times I thought, Wow, that could be a whole story in and of itself. I’m desperately hoping that there will be more art heist stories to come, because there’s so much room here to play (and so much looted art that still needs returning!).
Another theme I loved in PORTRAIT OF A THIEF was the discussion of identity. The ways in which you discuss the diaspora, feeling a (lack of) connection to our ancestry. How did it feel to write about this? Do you have other book recommendations which you’ve read that discuss this?
Honestly, this was probably the most meaningful part of the book for me! Identity is such a complicated, personal thing, and I wrote this book with an audience of one in mind, as I was thinking of my own family and the many years it took for me to be comfortable with inhabiting the space of Chinese American. Books like Weike Wang’s CHEMISTRY, Celeste Ng’s EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, and Jean Kwok’s SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE helped shape my understanding of my own identity, and more recently Elaine Hsieh Chou’s DISORIENTATION, Laura Gao’s MESSY ROOTS, and Kelly Loy Gilbert’s PICTURE US IN THE LIGHT are all doing beautiful, revolutionary work.
Did you always know the structure of the ending when you had the idea for PORTRAIT OF A THIEF? What about the structure, did you always know you’d give a voice to each character or did it begin with a singular POV?
Shockingly, yes! Because this is a heist novel, I knew going in that I had to pay close attention to structure—the ending was planned out before everything else in the book! Of course things changed slightly as the characters developed, but the rough shape of it has remained the same. Similarly, this has always been a five POV book! I wanted each character to have their own reasons for saying yes to this heist, as well as their own emotional journey as the story unfolded.
What are some other debuts you are looking forward to in 2022?
So many! I’ve had the good pleasure of reading early many of the books I’m most excited for this year, including Becca Mix’s gorgeous sapphic fantasy THE ONES WE BURN, Sunyi Dean’s clever and delicious THE BOOK EATERS, Ann Liang’s IF YOU COULD SEE THE SUN, the Beijing boarding school rivals-to-lovers book of my dreams, and Shirlene Obuobi’s ON ROTATION, about a Ghanaian American medical student rediscovering herself (and also maybe love!). I’m also eagerly awaiting WRATH GODDESS SING, a trans reimagining of the Iliad by Maya Deane, and Kelly Andrew’s Deaf dark academia THE WHISPERING DARK.
Do you have a favorite side character? Were there other side characters who never made it to the final draft?
It’s so hard to pick favorites, but I will say there’s a certain rival street racer who shows up partway through the book, wrecking all the main characters’ plans, and I had so much fun writing the scenes with him in it.
What are some of your go-to comfort songs/movies/books?
Talia Hibbert’s romances have been such a source of comfort and joy during the pandemic, and I reread Sarah Hogle’s charming, laugh-out-loud funny YOU DESERVE EACH OTHER whenever I need a pick-me-up. Also, anything by Roselle Lim is full of food and warmth. In terms of other media, I’ve loved Taylor Swift’s music for years, and most recently I’ve watched and adored Bridgerton, Abbott Elementary, and Ted Lasso.
About the Author
Grace D. Li is a medical student by day and a writer by night. She grew up in Pearland, Texas, and is a graduate of Duke University, where she studied biology and creative writing. She currently attends medical school at Stanford University. Her debut novel, Portrait of a Thief, is forthcoming from Tiny Rep Books (Penguin Random House) and is also in development at Netflix.