A Q&A with R. F. Kuang, Author of June Indie Next List Top Pick “Yellowface”

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"Yellowface" by R.F. KuangIndependent booksellers across the country have chosen R. F. Kuang’s Yellowface (William Morrow) as their top pick for the June 2023 Indie Next List.

Yellowface follows June Hayward, a failing author who is perpetually jealous of her friend and wildly successful rival, Athena Liu. When Athena dies in a freak accident, June takes the opportunity to steal her rival's unpublished manuscript and submit it as her own.

“Equal parts modern satire, indictment of the publishing industry, and twisted ghost story, R. F. Kuang’s first foray into literary fiction pulls no punches and will have you reading late into the night,” said Abby Bennsky of Old Town Books in Alexandria, Virginia.

Here, Kuang discusses her process with Bookselling This Week.

Bookselling This Week: Yellowface features a lot of prominent issues. It examines how an author’s identity changes the public perception of their work. The main character is a white woman who refuses to accept the consequences of her own actions. But this novel largely deals with racism in publishing, specifically the simultaneous touting and belittling of minority authors, and the struggle for diverse employees to succeed in a primarily white industry. I’d like to know what it’s like to go to through publishing with a novel criticizing modern publishing.

R. F. Kuang: This is a book that I would have been terrified to publish as a debut writer. I don’t think this is the kind of book you can write as a debut. It takes a few years of having those experiences, seeing everything firsthand, to gather the material to write something like this. I’ve been very fortunate in that those years have helped me grow and develop a thick skin to the inevitable reaction you get to books like this.

I’m also lucky that I really trust my team. My editors, and the publicity and marketing teams, I’ve been with these people from the start. I’ve published with William Morrow or Harper Voyager for my entire career. There have been hiccups, there have been some serious low points, but we’ve grown through all of that. They were willing to listen to me and they were willing to change when I told them what wasn’t working for me. There’s a level of trust there that I’m really grateful for, that I don’t know I would have at any other publishing house. Looking back, publishing with Harper was the only way to do it.

In fact, there’s no part of the process in which my team was holding me back. If anything, they were egging me on, acting like the devil on my shoulder, and encouraging me to write things into the manuscript that I didn’t even know happened in publishing. That was very much the tone of the first few revisions. People who had experienced the other side of publishing, who had been in meetings that I’ve never been in, were letting me know, “Oh, actually it’s worse than you think.” So, I feel very fortunate that I could publish it. It’s definitely terrifying, but I’m just used to the nastier stuff by now.

BTW: Within the first few pages of the novel, June looks at her rival and feels this urge to “peel her skin off like an orange and zip it up over [herself].” The visceral reaction that phrase evokes perfectly foreshadows the discomfort we feel throughout the entire book as we watch June make one terrible decision after another. At the same time, it is incredibly entertaining and I get the sense that you had fun writing June’s voice and the chaos of her actions. Would you talk a little bit about creating June’s character?

RFK: Oh, I had so much fun. I’m glad that you can tell. I’ve never felt this excited to work on a manuscript. June’s character is so fun to write. I’m working on an essay right now about the female bullies in a lot of contemporary psychological thrillers. I’ve been reading around the genre to do my research, to learn the tropes, to understand the rhythm and flow of different genres. I noticed so many books in this genre feature this particular female voice that’s really nasty. She’s condescending, she’s hateful, and she's so fun to listen to. That narrative voice is so compelling and I’m trying to figure out why, because we don’t like that person, we never want to become that person, but she's so fun to listen to. With June I’m really leaning into that voice, this person that we never want to meet but can read for 300 pages.

The other part of writing June’s voice is that I know June. We all know June. They’re all over publishing. When you've been in the industry as long as I have, unfortunately, at some point you start to internalize that voice. I’ve had June sitting around in my head for years, always nitpicking everything I do. Saying that I don't deserve anything, that I’m only interesting because I’m Chinese, and that if I weren’t diverse, nobody would read anything I wrote. It’s obviously ridiculous, but it sticks with you, and I found that ultimately, I had to trap her on the page and put all those thoughts down in black and white. It was a very cathartic experience even though the voice is so relentlessly mean.

BTW: This novel also examines authors cannibalizing their own pain, their family’s pain, or that of a third party, to fuel their stories. Would you like to talk more about that?

RFK: I don’t think anybody in publishing has really worked out the answers to this ethical problem. And I don’t know if there is one. I certainly don’t think there’s a clean and easy standard for when you’re allowed to write about something and when you’re not. It’s a topic that fascinates everyone, because obviously writers have to pull on their personal experiences to write anything compelling. We do it every day.

Every single person we meet, every interaction we have, gets lodged in the back of our heads to be drawn on when we have to describe things in the future. We all do it. Oftentimes when I’m going through something really difficult, I’ll think, “I should document how bad I feel. I should write down my physiological responses. I should think of the adjectives that come to mind. Then when I’m describing a similar kind of grief in the future, I’ll be able to write authentically.”

I write about really tough things that my family has been through. Writing feels like a way to honor that and to chronicle that for them. But at the same time, I am literally using their pain to create my art. Is that inherently wrong? I don’t think so. But where do we draw the line? I think it’s always going to be context dependent. There will always be sticky situations, but I don’t think we can say for certain what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. In fact, I don’t think we should have those hard and fast rules about writing.

BTW: We’ve seen you navigate grimdark fantasy, we’ve seen decolonial dark academia, and now literary fiction. I’m already stoked for your next novel, which I understand will be a journey to Hell riddled with philosophy and logic puzzles. You’ve proved to your audience and to publishers that you can successfully write any genre you want. Are there any you’re excited to tackle in the future? 

RFK: I really want to do a romance, but that is one genre that I struggle with. In part because you have to write what you enjoy reading at the moment. I try to read very broadly and read all different genres, but I always have a really hard time getting into romances. Not for lack of trying. But I’ll figure my way around it.

BTW: This book is filled with tidbits about the book industry, and I think our booksellers are going to enjoy seeing those tiny details that overlap with their lives. Can you talk more about the role of books and indie bookstores in your life?

RFK: I really try only to shop at indie bookstores. There’s something about walking into a space and seeing books that are carefully curated, instead of just the ten most popular books in the country.

Part of what made the Boston area feel like home was finding my local indie, the Harvard Book Store and Porter Square Books. Now I go in there and I recognize the sellers. Every time I have a friend visiting, I drag them in there to look at books. It’s dangerous because Harvard Book Store is close to the T stop. When I’m at the T, I think, “Well, I’ll just go buy a book...”

Indie bookstores are a large part of my life. I’ve had such wonderful support from my local indies, and I’ll continue shopping at them as long as they’re around.