What was the first thing you knew about this story before you began to write it?
I knew that I wanted to write a story set in Toronto Chinatown! One of them, anyway. And I knew that the story was about two sisters who seem to love each other dearly, but as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that their relationship is complicated at best.
The revelation that your protagonist is at the skin dealer not for more surgery, but to sell her sister’s skin is so stunning! That seems like such a tough thing to write, and a difficult character to empathize with. How did you approach it?
I love complicated, morally ambiguous protagonists, and I think the key to making them sympathetic is focusing on traits and feelings that are very simple, but very relatable. Sure, not many people have the exact experience of selling off their younger sister’s skin, but comparing yourself to a sibling, feeling inadequate or jealous, or being unable to forget hurtful comments may sound very familiar. What I do is take those feelings and amp them up to an unhealthy level. For example, as long as all we know about Liin, the protagonist of “Natural Skin,” is that she’s jealous of her little sister and insecure about her appearance, her quest to find the ji-si seems perfectly reasonable. When we realize that we were wrong about her motivations, though, it feels like an error in judgment, and, like her closest family members, as though we never knew this character at all.
I adore fairy tales, and with “Natural Skin,” I actually started with the core of “Snow White”: a young, beautiful girl with black hair and red lips, and an older woman full of murderous jealousy. For this story, I decided that I wanted to write about the complicated relationship between sisters as they go through puberty, watching their bodies change into something foreign and painfully aware of the physical difference between themselves and others. That, I feel, is very relatable.
Do you have a typical process for writing a story? Did “Natural Skin” fit that pattern, or give you any surprises?
The first draft of “Natural Skin” might actually have been my first, actual short story. I wrote it when I was nineteen, and it topped out at about 1,000 words. Like many of my other stories, I wrote a clean first draft and kept its thematic core and protagonist through every subsequent draft. And like those stories, it took me a handful of years to figure out the best way to tell the story I wanted to tell. In that sense, it did fit a pattern—and in a way, “Natural Skin” set it.
What are you working on lately?
I’m working on a couple of stories, including a horror novelette about bird pregnancy, a novella about maimed ex-pop idols, and a short collaboration piece with visual artist Grace Fong for Uncanny Magazine. I’ve been deep into Southern Gothic recently, too, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that surfaces in another piece soon.
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