How Lillian Li Went From Harry Potter Fan Fiction To Writing Her First Book

Photographed by Steve Koss
Welcome to It’s Lit – a series of discussions about books. Join us every month to find out who’s reading what.
Author Lillian Li got her start writing Harry Potter fan fiction, and name checks Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential as the inspiration behind her debut novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant. She also drew on her own experience working as a waitress for the book: "The customer is always right, which means you partially forfeit the ability to advocate for yourself or your humanity, day in and day out. When you have a Chinese face in a Chinese restaurant, there is kind of a double alienation at work," says Lillian.
Named a must-read by O, The Oprah Magazine, Time, The Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed and The New York Times Book Review, Number One Chinese Restaurant is published in the UK this month. We visited Lillian at her Ann Arbor home to talk about the importance of libraries, what working at a bookshop is really like, and her unusual route into writing.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, which someone recommended to me over Twitter. The author, Jennifer 8. Lee, does some incredibly creative and intensive reporting to dig up the real origins of General Tso’s chicken and the fortune cookie, as well as many other trademarks of Chinese restaurants in America. I’m also reading Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, and within the first couple of pages you learn that a man will be skinned alive so… I’ve been reading that one very slowly but also very intently, because the language is both so visceral and so tantalisingly macho. I’ve also got an advance reading copy of an anthology from The Story Prize, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary by publishing a collection of short stories from all the past winners – one story per winner – a list that includes Edwidge Danticat, Elizabeth McCracken and George Saunders. You don’t often get collections, or even anthologies where every story knocks you out, but I’ve been bewildered in the best way over each one so far.
Who taught you to read?
Most likely my parents. According to them, I was a difficult child unless I was hearing a story, so they read to me all the time. And when they got tired, they would put me in the car, play an audiocassette of Chinese fables, and drive around until I fell asleep. It must have been a great relief when I learned to read.
What were your favourite books as a child?
I loved all the big series – The Baby-Sitters Club, Animorphs, The Boxcar Children. I also remember loving anything with wolves – Julie of the Wolves and all its sequels, White Fang. I was also obsessed with Ella Enchanted, Catherine, Called Birdy, and Trouble’s Daughter, fantastical/historical narratives of young girls leading lives totally against convention. I read those over and over again. And obviously, Harry Potter.
Photographed by Steve Koss
When and where do you read?
I read best in utter silence and reclined, so usually in bed. I recently received a plush backrest pillow as a present and it has increased my number of in-bed hours exponentially.
Where do you buy your books? Do you have a favourite bookshop?
I work at an independent bookstore in Ann Arbor called Literati, so obviously I buy all my books there, and it’s my number one! But I’ve visited many other great establishments. I love the history of Strand (NYC) and City Lights (San Francisco), and I had really great experiences reading (and shopping) at Books are Magic (Brooklyn) and Politics and Prose (DC) during my book tour. And I pretty much unilaterally love the bookstores in Chicago, especially the used bookstores (I’ve been to Open Books, Myopic, and Uncharted so far).
I also pledge my allegiance to libraries. A lot of the books I read are borrowed from libraries; it’s a habit from childhood, when I would take out so many books at once that they would usually fall on me when I tried to place them on the checkout counter. I still like to read seven to 10 books at once, and without my library, that wouldn’t be financially feasible.
I was the same, I think that’s why I still take such good care of my books… Is there a book you’ve read more than once?
I used to reread just about every book I owned, but more recently I’ve found I avoid rereading books that I loved the first time. I think I’m afraid that a reread might break the spell the book initially cast on me. However, I make an exception for books that are so dazzling that I have to reread them to see how they were made. Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential come to mind.
Photographed by Steve Koss
Photographed by Steve Koss
How do you choose what to read next?
I take recommendations seriously. Working at a bookstore, I’m around people whose job it is to read and recommend books, so my reading pile expands after every shift. But anytime I hear, or read, someone really gush about a book, I’ll add it to the list.
Netflix’s You aside, working at a bookstore is often romanticised – what’s the reality?
I can’t speak for other bookstores, but working at Literati fit my dream of what it would be like to be a bookseller. I come into work and am instantly surrounded by books, and people who love books. Ann Arbor is a university town, with a strong creative writing programme and a long literary history, and we have an eclectic, passionate customer base as a result. Bluets by Maggie Nelson is one of Literati’s all-time bestsellers, as is Ready Player One. I love talking to my co-workers and customers about what they’re reading because I hear about books from every kind of genre – science fiction, young adult, gender studies, politics, literary fiction.
Sometimes, yes, there is a difficult customer. And yes, there are days where I’ve alphabetised so many shelves that my eyes cross. But by and large, it’s a pretty romantic job.
It must have been pretty wild seeing your book on their shelves?
The day I was launching my book at the bookstore, I came in and saw that the entire Staff Picks wall was covered with copies of my book, complete with "shelf talkers" – little review cards we write for books we love. They left it up all month.
Are there any magazines you read regularly?
The only magazine I subscribe to right now is Milk Street Kitchen. I love reading about food and even more than that, I love looking at pictures of food.
Have you ever belonged to a book club?
No, but I’ve been a guest at a few book clubs now and based on the discussions we had, I think I should probably join one.
Photographed by Steve Koss
Photographed by Steve Koss
Oh really, what sort of discussions? It’s so rare that anyone has anything positive to say about book clubs in this series, so I’m curious!
One of my favourite debates was over who the most "evil" character in my book was, which became a larger discussion over whether a person who is transparently and intentionally bad is inherently worse than a person who doesn’t intend harm but hurts people out of thoughtlessness. That was really fun! So you know a bit more about my personality now.
How do you organise your bookshelves?
Not at all. I’m pretty cheap, especially about furniture, so I was working with just one bookcase for many, many years. Organisation was whatever fit the most books in that limited space. I’ve finally bought a second bookshelf (and turned a bench into a makeshift third), but the total lack of organisation remains.
Which three books would you recommend to a stranger?
The three books I recommend the most to new customers at Literati are A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang – one of those rare collections where every story rocks – and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu.
Photographed by Steve Koss
What do you use as a bookmark?
The free bookmarks that Literati gives out with purchases. Otherwise stray bits of paper.
Were there any books in particular that influenced Number One Chinese Restaurant?
Definitely Kitchen Confidential. There’s a moment in chapter nine of my book that is a direct homage to Bourdain’s own story of working at a seafood restaurant in Provincetown as a young man. It involves – or rather doesn’t involve – burn cream.
Where did you get the idea for the story?
Photographed by Steve Koss
I happened to work in a Chinese restaurant the summer before I started writing Number One Chinese Restaurant. I lasted barely a month before I quit, but the experience stayed with me, even after I’d moved to Michigan for grad school. I still felt the deep loneliness and alienation of serving people six days a week, 12 hours a day, people who looked right through me, who didn’t think of me, or my co-workers, as fellow human beings. I couldn’t imagine anyone lasting longer than a month in a job like that. Then I couldn’t stop imagining it. What would that kind of environment do to a person over the years? What kind of life would they make for themselves as a substitute for the outside world? What would they be willing to do for connection, love, respect? What would they be willing to give up? It was through that compulsive imagination that I wrote the book.
Was there a book that made you want to be a writer?
You could say it was the first Harry Potter book, since some of the very first creative writing I did was making up Harry Potter fan fiction when I was nine or 10. Those stories are probably still on the internet somewhere…
What was your pathway for those interested in fiction writing?
My pathway was fairly straightforward on paper. I wrote fan fiction when I was young and then started writing my own fiction in high school. I took a lot of fiction workshops in college, and my senior year a professor recommended I apply to MFA programmes. But the actual lived experience of my path was full of confusion and denial. Fiction writing was never meant to be my main thing. I wanted to be a lawyer in high school. I always took my fiction workshops as an extra fifth class in college. I applied to MFAs, but intended to teach in Hong Kong and had even signed my contract when I got my acceptance letter to Michigan. I fought my natural inclination to be a writer every step of the way, even as I consistently gave in to temptation. Even the straightest path to a creative life can be full of doubt.
Lillian’s Reading List
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee
Red Sorghum by Mo Yan
The Story Prize: 15 Years of Great Short Fiction by Catapult Books
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

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