From writing an award-winning novel to working at Literati Bookstore to contemplating the future of her writing career, Lillian Li is the epitome of the Ann Arbor-based writer. As an alumna of University of Michigan’s esteemed Helen Zell Writers’ Program, Lillian has had many unique opportunities. As I learned in a recent interview with Lillian, she has learned about herself, her writing, and what it means to be a writer (and reader) in Ann Arbor both during her time in the program and post-graduation.
In 2013, Lillian started her journey to earn an MFA. Coming out of Princeton with an English degree, she went straight into graduate school with one main goal in mind: finishing a major project. This project ended up being her debut novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant, but that goal wasn’t always set in stone.
Hayla Alawi: What’s the process you go through to write a book?
Lillian Li: I think Number One Chinese Restaurant was a bit of a fluke in that I didn’t set out to come to Michigan for the MFA program to write a book set in a Chinese restaurant. I had a totally different idea. It was a collection of short stories at one point. Then it became a novel about two families that keep running into each other at the beach. It was just so outside of the realm of a Chinese restaurant. Then I happened to work in one to make a little extra money before grad school, and the relationships with my coworkers and the vacuum-packed space of the restaurant I was working in really just shot my brain into all these questions about what is family, what is a life that you make for yourself inside of a space that maybe you didn’t choose. And then, because of the MFA program, I had three years to basically work out all of the kinks of this idea. I had my classmates; I had my teachers; [and] I had a thesis advisor. They’re bringing in agents, they’re bringing in editors, so there’s just a lot of resources and a lot of support and a lot of deadlines, which I…really need.
HA: So did you go into the MFA program with the understanding that you’d be working on a book?
LL: Yeah. I had heard from college professors of mine to think about the MFA program not as a professional degree that was going to get me a job, but rather the time, the space, and the financial freedom to plug three years into a project. So I knew that even if I didn’t have a project going in, I really hoped I’d be able to find one so I could use those three years properly.
I’d never heard an MFA program described to me in these terms before, as an opportunity to dedicate time to a long-term project with all the resources and input available to an MFA student. Lillian’s explanation of the freedom to create something so important to her in such a supportive, collaborative space cleared up a lot of confusion. As I told Lillian, I’ve always thought of MFA programs as rather nebulous spaces where one focuses on writing short stories or poetry – not both, and nothing else. For a lot of people, that’s what they gain from their MFA experience. It was intriguing to learn, though, that it can be so much more than that.
The financial freedom Lillian mentioned was especially appealing. Students pursuing an MFA at Michigan participate in craft classes and workshops, attend readings, teach classes, and have regular individual meetings with faculty members. They turn in a thesis at the end of the second year and continue into a postgraduate fellowship for the third year, during which they engage with the community and, of course, continue writing. It’s a lot of work. All Michigan MFA students in creative writing are fully funded, though, with stipends and tuition waivers giving them three years to write without monetary burdens weighing them down.
HA: What was it about University of Michigan that drew you specifically?
LL: I will say that University of Michigan was the only place I was accepted to, so I can’t totally speak to choosing it. But for my classmates who chose it, I think it was largely because Michigan added that third year pretty soon – maybe a year or so before I came in. Before, you kind of had to compete for the third-year fellowship. The vast majority of MFA programs are only two years long. Which is still pretty great. And there’s a lot of teaching involved as well. So I think a lot of people chose Michigan because it is just a really great deal in that it’s three years, you only have to teach one year, [and] you only have to teach one class a semester.
HA: While you were here, did it feel very competitive? Or because that third year was a given for everyone maybe that took that pressure away?
LL: It didn’t feel competitive really at all because there was nothing to compete over. Hopwoods was the only time there was competition, but we understood from the beginning that the way that judging process works – it’s talent, but it’s also a crapshoot, as all competitions are. I would say that one of the great parts of Michigan that I learned once I came here is that there is no level of competition. For example, at Iowa, they have tiered scholarships. So some people who come in, they don’t have to teach at all because they get a higher scholarship. Some people get no scholarship and they have to teach the entire time. So there is that element coming in of a hierarchy. And Michigan doesn’t have that.
HA: That’s so great to hear about the [lack of] competitiveness. How small is it?
LL: I love the size of [Michigan’s] MFA program. It’s basically twelve fiction, ten poets every year for three years. So you end up having, like, sixty people all mingling around with each other. That means with twelve people, you’re going to find at least one person you really like, and there might be one person you really don’t like, but with ten other people as a buffer, you don’t have to hang out with that person. You have pretty good odds of finding people, but you won’t get lost, either.
HA: Before, you were saying you had an advisor, and then who were the other people you were working with in the program?
LL: A lot of MFA programs tend to bring in agents every semester, so you have the chance to actually, you know, talk about your book like it’s a real book to someone. [To] try to essentially convince them that it’s something worth reading. Which is a skill a lot of writers don’t have! As a result of [the opportunity for meetings], a lot of people are able to find their agents. The agent’s that step before you can sell your book to an editor, because they’re like the middle man for that. So that was a professional aspect that was helpful. And then, otherwise, you’re still in workshops, so I got a lot of help just workshopping parts of the novel, but also short stories I was working on.
HA: And how has striving for publication shaped how you write now and how you view yourself as a writer?
LL: I think that one of the interesting things about being an Asian-American writer and someone interested in Chinese-American characters and Chinese-American communities [is that] I always was released from a lot of that expectation of, like, I’m going to write a bestseller, I’m going to write the book that everybody reads, because that’s just not my perspective of the world and the people interested in my story. It was always like, I very early on lost that sense of universal relevance. I wish that upon everyone in the world. I think it would make people a lot happier.
Lillian’s view of publication is a refreshing one. It’s interesting to hear a writer not only express their love of the craft (that much would, hopefully, be expected) but also to explain that publication doesn’t necessarily have to be the end-all, be-all; doing the work and enjoying doing the work is what’s important, and no amount of money or fame should necessarily replace that. Lillian went on to tell me that her goals are to keep writing and putting books out into the world as long as she can. As she learns more about the human condition, various readers’ responses to her writing, and explores other genres, like, for example, science fiction, she hopes that more work will follow.
Somewhere along the way as Lillian and I discussed the perks of her program and what she was glad to gain from it, I was curious to know about what she wished she’d known going into the program. As might be expected of the writer’s perplexing situation (and perhaps something that people who don’t write by choice might not sympathize with), being alone with one’s writing for three entire years, with no buffer between oneself and the work, can be taxing. Miserable, even. As Lillian said, during her first year in the program, when she had nothing but the writing to occupy her time, she learned that “when you’re writing, there’s more wallowing and just being sunk in it.” Eventually, she discovered that the way to get herself out of her head while still being able to write productively and healthily was by getting involved in the community.
The second year of the program, Lillian was teaching, and during the third year, she not only found Literati Bookstore – where she still works – but she also started working at the Neutral Zone. The Neutral Zone is an organization based in downtown Ann Arbor, and according to its mission statement, it provides high school teens with a space to cultivate “artistic expression, community leadership, and the exchange of ideas.” There, Lillian ran a literary magazine for the local high schools to fulfill the community engagement requirement for third-year MFA students.
Obviously, Ann Arbor has proven to be home enough for Lillian that even after graduating from her program in 2015, she still lives and works here. I wanted to know specifically what writing here, what being here, offered her as a writer.
LL: I think one of the best things was getting to work at Literati. I think I’m coming up on my fourth year there, which is pretty incredible to me, because I still feel like the newest one, but there’s been so many people who’ve come and left at this point. I’ve just stayed around so much longer. We’re in a town [where] there’s a real pride and identity around being an interesting reader, for better or for worse. And also being a university town, and a town that really likes to talk to each other about what they’re reading…all those aspects collided. So whenever I think about going to a different town, or a different bookstore, it just feels like it would never be like what it’s like in Ann Arbor. It’s a place where I feel like it’s fun to recommend books and get recommendations back. It’s a great town to be a writer, but it’s really a great town to be a reader.
There it is, then. The University of Michigan’s MFA program is certainly special, with its noncompetitive environment and the extra year for students to work on their projects, to name just a couple of many advantages of coming to this school. It seems, though, that Ann Arbor itself is really what makes the experience of being a writer at Michigan unique. From being able to work with the community to working at a local bookstore to living her life now as a successful MFA holder and still (thankfully!) writing, Lillian Li has had a unique and fulfilling experience tailored to her own goals at Michigan, and Ann Arbor served as the theater for it all.