E. L. Chen is joining us today with her novel The Good Brother. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Tori Wong is starting over. She’s given herself a new name, dropped out of school to work at a bookstore, and fled her parents’ strict home to do all the things she’s never done before. Like go out on weeknights, flirt with her cute co-worker Egan, and live out of the shadow of her overachieving brother, to whom her parents always compare her. Even though he’s dead. But she soon finds that reinventing herself isn’t as easy as it seems. Especially during Yu Lan, the Festival of Hungry Ghosts, when traditional Chinese believe that neglected spirits roam the earth. Not one but three forgotten ghosts come back to haunt Tori: her vengeful brother Seymour, and ambitious Vicky and meek little Mui-Mui, herself at age seventeen and eleven. Despite her attempts to appease them, none of them approve of Tori’s new life. They sabotage her job and her budding relationship with Egan. Literally haunted by the past, Tori spirals into despair, but learns the truth about Seymour’s death, and in doing so learns to accept herself.
What’s E. L.’s favorite bit?
E. L. CHEN
My hands-down favorite bit of The Good Brother is a scene. A quiet scene, not a big show-stopper. There are no explosions or histrionics or emotional highs or lows, and none of the ghosts that haunt Tori are involved. It’s simply an exchange of dialogue between Tori and her closeted cousin Wilson.
Wilson gives her a ride to a family dinner, and they both dance around the fact that they had each seen each other with a “friend” a few days ago: Wilson with his boyfriend, and Tori with her crush Egan. Tori fears that Wilson will mention Egan to her parents, whose scrutiny she wishes to avoid.
“Hi,” I said. “Nice car.”
I climbed in. A saccharine female voice warbled over the car speakers in Cantonese. It sounded like a cover of an old Madonna song.
Neither of us said anything until Wilson had navigated the downtown streets and turned onto the ramp to the highway. “Oh, the other day,” he said as the car accelerated onto the open road “. . . that guy you saw me with, that was my housemate, Dominic.”
“I didn’t know you had a housemate,” I said.
“He just moved in a few months ago.”
“He’s a friend. He needed a place to live, and I have an extra bedroom, so I figured this was a good way to pay off my mortgage quickly.”
“That’s a good idea,” I said, and I knew that he knew I didn’t believe him. “What does he do?”
Wilson stared straight ahead at the road. The traffic heading north on the Don Valley Parkway was surprisingly good for a late Sunday afternoon. Good traffic on the DVP, however, merely meant that it was moving. “He’s an actor.”
“Oh,” I said, and I realized just how bad the situation was. Coming out was one thing. Dating an actor was another. Traditionally in Chinese society, entertainers were considered little better than prostitutes. Scholars were on the top of the hierarchy; merchants, actors and prostitutes at the very bottom. “I won’t say anything. Um, I don’t just mean about Dominic’s career.”
“Thanks,” Wilson said. “So who was your friend?”
“Oh, that was Egan,” I said, trying to sound casual. “I work with him. We were actually with another co-worker but he had to leave.”
“I think he has a girlfriend,” I lied. The leather upholstery squeaked as I squirmed in the passenger seat. “Egan, I mean. Not our other friend.”
“Uh huh,” Wilson said. We sat in silence for another few minutes. The song ended, and a duet started up. It was just as saccharine. I could never tell Cantonese pop songs apart. They all sounded bland and maudlin.
That’s it. Nothing happens. And yet one of my beta readers called out this scene as a favorite too, so I knew I was doing something right. Tori and Wilson say a lot to each other without actually being open. Neither can admit out loud–or perhaps even to themselves–what they feel for the important people in their lives.
I’d heard on a writing podcast (Writing Excuses, actually, co-hosted by Mary Robinette Kowal) that YA novels tend to be more explicit in their narrative when describing their characters’ thoughts and feelings. This I had in the back of my mind when I was giving The Good Brother a near-final pass. But a brief discussion with a YA writer friend–as well as examining my favorite books in the genre–confirmed my suspicion that this isn’t always necessary. The story should be told the way it needs to be told. The reader can be trusted to read between the lines, and infer the characters’ feelings from their dialogue and actions.
Trying to write quiet, telling a lot without explicitly telling too much. This is my favorite bit of The Good Brother, and something I definitely want to get better at.
E. L. Chen’s short fiction has been published in anthologies such as Masked Mosaic, The Dragon and the Stars and Tesseracts Fifteen, and in magazines such as Strange Horizons and On Spec. She lives in Toronto with a very nice husband, their young son, and a requisite cat. The Good Brother is her first novel. Anything else she doesn’t mind you knowing can be found at elchen.ca.