As soon as I saw the announcement for Only a Monster, I was already preparing my email to Vanessa. After finishing, I knew I had to ask these questions! Only a Monster just ticked off all the boxes on my list I didn’t even know I had! Keep reading this author interview to see all my questions!
It should have been the perfect summer. Sent to stay with her late mother’s eccentric family in London, sixteen-year-old Joan is determined to enjoy herself. She loves her nerdy job at the historic Holland House, and when her super cute co-worker Nick asks her on a date, it feels like everything is falling into place.
But she soon learns the truth. Her family aren’t just eccentric: they’re monsters, with terrifying, hidden powers. And Nick isn’t just a cute boy: he’s a legendary monster slayer, who will do anything to bring them down.
As she battles Nick, Joan is forced to work with the beautiful and ruthless Aaron Oliver, heir to a monster family that hates her own. She’ll have to embrace her own monstrousness if she is to save herself, and her family. Because in this story . . .
. . . she is not the hero.
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What drew you to Joan’s story?
My inspiration for the story came from my own experience of loving big blockbuster action films as a child. They often have very clearly demarcated ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys, but when I was growing up, there weren’t many heroes who looked like me in them. Instead, I would sometimes see myself in the ‘bad guys’. Sometimes, the only Asian characters would be in the fight scenes, getting beaten up and killed by the hero.
I have a line in the book about how in movies, the camera follows the hero after the bad guys have been killed. But I know that in my own viewing experience, I can find myself aware of the few people who look like me onscreen, which sometimes means being aware of people lying dead on the ground as the camera moves away.
It gave me the idea to write about that feeling when a good, upright and decent hero – like the ones in the films I’d loved – is fighting against you rather than for you.
Did you always know you wanted to explore how Joan discovers she’s a monster?
I didn’t know initially whether Joan, would be completely naive at the beginning of the book, somewhat naive, or utterly immersed in the world of monsters. It was one of the trickiest decisions in the development of the book because each of those stories is very different.
For this series, did you think of the larger story and then break it into the three books? How did you go about drafting the story as it moves between books? Were there any unexpected challenges while drafting the sequel?
Before I started writing Book 1, I did a lot of work (years of work!) developing the characters, their backstories, the world, the rules of time travel …
The premise had come first – I always knew that it would be about a monster fighting a monster slayer – but then I had a whole, huge world in my head, and I had to figure out how to put it all into a book in the form of a coherent story.
I studied the hero’s journey (which I’d thought would be the most interesting structure for a monster protagonist). It helped me to put in order, and to weight, all of the emotional and paradigm-shifting ‘moments’ I’d imagined when developing the characters’ relationships and the world – for example, Joan learning that Nick is a monster slayer; Joan saving Aaron’s life in the maze after he leaves her for dead; Joan travelling for the first time …
I also love moments of reframing, so I overlaid a structure of revelations – a series of things that you learn about the world and the characters that change your understanding of them.
I had initially thought that I was writing one novel (I hadn’t written a novel before, and I was such a sweet summer child!) I soon learned that that you can only fit so much story into one book!
I was very, very lucky that I was able to sell three books in the series, because I had so much more story to tell, and so much more to reveal about the characters and the world.
Book 2 has been a lot easier to structure because I learned so much from writing Book 1. I would say that my main challenge is the same, though – having to make difficult decisions about what I can and can’t fit into the book, and accepting that some of my favourite characters, scenes, and moments from the original development work might not make it into any of the books! There really is only so much story you can tell in a single book – and even in three books.
Another theme that I loved which you explore in ONLY A MONSTER is Joan’s identity as both biracial but also as half human half monster. Can you talk about how it was to explore that? I saw a lot of parallels between both, but maybe that’s just me reading into it especially as a Chinese American!
I had wanted to explore a diaspora story both with actual rep, and through a fantasy lens. I’m biracial, and also born in Australia, so I grew up within multiple cultures. I feel drawn to characters who also live in multiple worlds.
There are intentional parallels – I had wanted to explore the feeling of both belonging to, and being a stranger to, your own cultures sometimes. When you grow up in the diaspora, your home cultures have been shifted from their original context, and you sometimes don’t know even within your own family what’s cultural, and what is personality.
But at the same time, in this book, the parallels were limited by my own worldbuilding of monsters, of course! (I occasionally wished I’d picked a different premise, and had been able to also explore Joan’s identity more easily – and without the moral grappling embedded into the fantasy element of my world.) Maybe next time!
Do you have favorite other time travel books or media?
Time travel is one of my favourite subgenres, and I love it every time – so essentially every time travel story is my favourite! But to list a few … Doctor Who, Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book (I cry every time!), Kage Baker’s books, the TV show Travelers, and basically every time it’s used as a subplot in anything (like in Avengers: Endgame)!
What books do you think would be on Joan’s bookshelf?
Joan is a huge history nerd, and I think she’d have a lot of non-fiction on her shelf – narrative histories, theories of history, archeology textbooks …
What kind of research did you have to do for ONLY A MONSTER? Did you discover something you wanted to include but couldn’t?
I was lucky enough to be able to go to London just before the pandemic. I’d already written most of the book by then, and visiting the settings in person was amazing and strange. I’d spent so much time exploring London through Google Street View, and imagining the characters in the settings, that it sometimes felt like I was walking around inside my own head!
In terms of things I had to cut out … Very early on, I’d imagined Joan being discovered by monsters as a biracial orphan in Victorian London, and I wrote it as a prologue. I had already done a lot of research of that period at university, and I did more for the book, but that was one of the things I couldn’t fit into the structure.
Who are some of your writing inspirations? Do you have other favorite Asian YA Fantasy?
This feels like such an exciting time for Asian fantasy – YA and adult – and I’m so inspired by, and grateful to, everyone who has helped to create this space, including Natasha Ngan, Marie Lu, Cindy Lin, Elizabeth Lim, Zen Cho, Aliette de Bodard, June Hur, Joan He, Fonda Lee, Neon Yang, Kat Cho, Rebecca Lim, Cindy Pon, RF Kuang, and more recently authors like Chloe Gong, Kylie Lee Baker, Xiran Jay Zhao, Axie Oh, June CL Tan, Judy I Lin, and Sue Lynn Tan. And there are so, so, so many more – as well as the many readers, bloggers, bookstagrammers, booktokkers and booktubers who also helped to create a space for these stories.
When I first started writing, I wasn’t even able to imagine being able to sell a book with a protagonist who looked and sounded like me. It’s thanks to the people who have come before me – who imagined it first and made it happen – that I’ve been able to imagine it too.
I recently really loved Riss M Neilson’s forthcoming debut contemporary fantasy, DEEP IN PROVIDENCE. It’s a beautiful and touching diaspora story with multiracial main characters, including a mixed Filipino character.
And I’m biased, but I also have to give a special shout-out to Shelley Parker-Chan and her incredible, beautiful debut, SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN. Shelley and I started our novel-writing journeys together, and I know how important it was to both of us to write and publish these books.
About the Author
Vanessa Len is an Australian author of Chinese-Malaysian and Maltese heritage. An educational editor, she has worked on everything from language learning programs to STEM resources, to professional learning for teachers. Vanessa is a graduate of the Clarion Workshop in San Diego, and she lives in Melbourne.