An EXCLUSIVE AUTHORLINK interview with Julie Ma
Happy Families (Welbeck, 18 February 2021)
Feed into the rich tapestry of British Chinese history! A charming and uplifting story revolving around three generations of a Chinese family in a Welsh city and the resentments, secrets, and grudges that have come to define them.
Published in February 2021, Happy Families is the winner of the Richard & Judy Search for a Bestseller 2020, by debut author, JULIE MA.
AUTHORLINK: Ms Ma, or can we call you Julie? 😉 Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us here at Authorlink about your debut novel, ‘Happy Families’. Congratulations for being the winner of the Richard and Judy ‘Search for a Bestseller ‘ award…What a coup! It’s so funny and eloquent. We love the main character, Amy and her warm sense of humour. We just want to read ten others like this; keep them coming! It’s a ‘take anywhere’ kind of book, gentle and interesting and laugh out loud funny.
MA: Of course you can call me Julie! Thanks for having me and for your kind comments about Happy Families. I’m so pleased you like it.
AUTHORLINK: Of course. We love it! We heard a touching sum-up of Happy Families the other day. That the book is about, “the people you see, but don’t necessarily notice”. In other words, people waiting to be served in a Chinese Take Away or waiting in a queue at the supermarket. It makes us mindful to give a thought to the life led by the random person standing next to you. That, “everybody is worth noticing, everybody has a story. …” Can you expand on this?
MA: Well, how strange because just before this interview, I was listening to Elizabeth Strout being asked about her work on Olive Kittredge and My Name is Lucy Barton.
“Everybody does have a story that can be winkled out of them even if they don’t realise it…”
She used this word – quotidian – to describe her writing. Accomplished author as she is, she used one word to say what it takes me a whole sentence to describe! It’s the minutiae of day-to-day life that so often gets overlooked which I find so interesting. Everybody does have a story that can be winkled out of them even if they don’t realise it themselves or think they’re ‘too boring’. Some of the stories are big, some are small and some may not be what you expect at all. I think it’s all too easy to say someone is ‘just’ a postman or ‘just’ a waitress. Nobody is ‘just’ any one thing. There are always hidden depths and that is something I wanted to uncover.
This is a good philosophy for everybody to have more empathy about everyone they meet, not just for aspiring writers wanting to find material!
AUTHORLINK: I think you’re very right and what you say is inspiring. I often love hearing peoples’ ‘stories’ too! You also once said there were two reasons the book turned out the way it did.
One is that people think there’s no diversity in rural Wales and you wanted it to be shown, that to a certain extent, there is; point in case, your family. Not that the book is about your family’s history per se – in fact, your grandfather passed away before you were born – but that in almost every rural town in the UK, there’s a Chinese shop or an Indian shop on the corner. Immigration isn’t just for cities; it happens in towns and villages throughout the UK. It’s so commonplace, yet it still doesn’t get seen in fiction. Why do you suppose that is? Do you know of any other books that feature this?
Secondly, writing an ordinary life can unfurl extraordinary events, and this was something that inspired you – shining a light on the folds of everyday life where sparkling gems are hidden. You were inspired to an extent by the ‘Mass Observation Diary’, which is an archive run by the University of Sussex. Would you tell us about this and how long you have been involved in this worthwhile community experience?
MA: My other writer’s bugbear is about the need to be seen.
“…if you don’t see yourself reflected in the books, films, and television around you, how do you know you even exist?”
Because if you don’t see yourself reflected in the books, films, and television around you, how do you know you even exist? Now, this can relate to ethnicity or class, or geographical location. How would anyone know, for example, that ballet-dancing, Australian lawyer writers can be found living in Greece? Or that middle-aged British-born Chinese women writers are serving your takeaway to you? We might find ourselves sinking into that old chestnut where it’s only ever sirtaki that gets danced in Athens and that anyone who lives outside one of the UK’s big cities must be a bit of a parochial bumpkin. And you and I are both testimony that these clichés aren’t true!
Now, kind Authorlink reader, you may be wondering why does this writer know so much about the interviewer. And that is because Ms Anna Roins and I have met before on an online writing course too many years ago! (We have not yet met in real life!) Back then, neither of us knew if we would ever find a wider audience for our writing and I was determined to find someone who would read about the unexpected way we live our lives right now and record it for the future. That’s how I found the Mass Observation Diary.
This is a project in the UK dedicated to recording the quotidian (!) life of thousands of people and every year on 12th May, they invite everyone to donate their account of that day’s events to the national archive so future researchers can know more about right here, right now. Nothing exciting has to happen on that day; you just have to note it down because, as the Mass Observation Diary organisers say, ‘The ordinary can be extraordinary.’
And it has already proven fruitful in inspiring other books and drama such as A Notable Woman: the Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt and Housewife, 49, the story of Nella Last who thought she was ‘just’ a housewife during World War 2, made into a film by Victoria Wood.
I’ve got involved with it simply by submitting my entry on 12th May. Any of you can do the same!
AUTHORLINK: Ha ha ha! Dear Julie. So happy for your success. Who knew all those years ago when we were fiddling with our writing we would be at this point in time. Lovely. In reference to the question above, you said once, ‘Where are the Normal British Asians? You didn’t see them except episode two of Sherlock which unbelievably was first broadcast in 2012, not 1942. The baddies turn out to be a Chinese crime ring on an international murdering spree. Its members are so evil that one of them kills his own sister. If I’d seen this as a child, how would I have reacted to seeing that the only person who looks like me is an expendable damsel in distress. Two stereotypes for the price of one. Thank goodness then for films and books where you can see people who look like you doing the things you do? There’s The Joy Luck Club [Authorlink interview with Amy Tan here, . Part 2 of the interview is here. But they’re Americans. What about Crazy Rich Asians? Well, they’re insanely rich and live in Singapore. The thing is though if you are only ever depicted in one way, you’ll feel your caricature, you’ll believe your stereotype.” (Female First, 22 February 2021).
You tried to keep the unfurling of the story light because it’s supposed to be a funny book. However, the undercurrent of subtle racist digs experienced by the characters of Asian heritage are all throughout.
Did it feel satisfying to illuminate perhaps the kind of discrimination you or your family and friends might have experienced over the years, if any?
MA: I haven’t always reflected accurately the kind of discrimination we’ve experienced over the years and it’s a decision that ties in with what I said about the Mass Observation Diary. Why record the worst for posterity if it inadvertently validates it? Why not just let it be ignored and wither away? Having said that, I can’t gloss over it entirely but it’s worth knowing I selected my examples very carefully!
“…you don’t necessarily need a privileged background and all of the right contacts to get to where you want to be.”
What has been satisfying is being able to demonstrate that you don’t necessarily need a privileged background and all of the right contacts to get to where you want to be. (Although I’m sure it helps!) When I used to read interviews like this one, I would stew in gluckschmerz-y juices. Gluckschmerz is feeling horribly jealous and bitter when something good happens to other people. Please try not to feel that way if you are an aspiring writer reading this interview. Or set yourself of five minutes of gluchschmerz and then go and do something more useful instead.
A lot of luck is needed on the road to publication. Seneca said ‘luck is where preparation meets opportunity’. Opportunity probably won’t knock at your door unless you’ve gone out and told it where you live. Then you just have to be prepared.
AUTHORLINK: Sage words! Was there any advantages publishing your book during a pandemic or was it wholly disadvantageous? It’s such a lovely book about families – a welcome respite during a time we are all so far removed away from our loved ones. The fact there is a secret feud in the story, that silent language that crosses all borders, made it all the more poignant being separated from family. We loved the theme of talking to ‘one’s grandparents’, ‘grand aunt’ etc, now that you’ve got the chance…Especially now. Thoughts?
MA: This is a tough one to answer because I’ve only ever experienced being published during a pandemic! I don’t think it was wholly disadvantageous because the circumstances were that people had a lot more time for books.
I also discovered the existence of an entire community of #bookstagrammers who, if you’ve never come across them, are a devoted brigade of readers who share their love of books by sitting them nicely in front of the camera and taking beautiful photos of them. As if the books were their children! I’ve enjoyed working with them when the book first came out and can now enjoy them exactly as any other reader would and search through for suggestions as to what to read next.
In Happy Families. the main character, Amy, finds herself unexpectedly stuck in her childhood home with her grandfather (like perhaps some of us were last year) and she makes a point of talking to him about the family history. It’s not just immigrant families with stories from all over the world who can benefit from this.
How many people can describe in much more than the sketchiest of detail how their parents met? What their grandfather did for a living? People watch programmes like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ about the ancestors of celebrities but never think to make enquiries with the ancestor closest to themselves. And although we may not like to think about it, there most certainly is a ‘Best Before’ date on getting hold of all those memories before they are lost forever.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, so true. Don’t remind me! Speaking of which, we understand your grandfather arrived in Wales in the 1930’s from China where your family first ran a Chinese laundry business. Later your parents opened a Chinese takeaway in the 1970’s. Did your parents know that you had aspirations to write? What do you know about your grandparents? Did anyone like writing in your family?
You answered this once, “I don’t think so, no. I think writing has been a sort of quiet thing I’ve kept on the side – I have always written since I was a child, and I was told that I was quite good at it.“ https://www.besean.co.uk/spotlight/interview-with-julie-ma-author-of-happy-families
So, they never had a chance to see your success here? What does your brother think of your book? Have you received any ghostly signs that they are proud of you?
MA: Oh no, writing has always been my dirty secret so when you and I met, way back in 2012, that was one of my first steps to admitting that I was a writer. But even then, I kept it fairly quiet in my real-life although committing to it fully in my virtual-life.
Like the Li family in the novel, my family is not given to big emotional gestures so I think I just have to presume everyone is pleased and happy about it all. And that extends to ghostly signs too!
AUTHORLINK: Ha ha ha. Can you tell us about your road to publishing briefly below:-
- What were your fears?
- How did you convince your agent to represent you?
- What were your roadblocks? How did you overcome them, if any?
- Did you have any rejections?
- Did feel it would never happen?
- Did you have to go through many edits even after the sale to a publisher?
- What is the relationship between you and your agent? Your editor?
1. That nobody would like my book baby!
- I didn’t!
- Where should I start?! The original version of Happy Families was far too long. It was filled with back story that shouldn’t have been in the novel itself. It had a number of characters and boring subplots that I loved and had to cull.
- Yes, lots. And even worse, just getting ignored. Some of the rejections offered a hint of feedback and painful as they were, I was able to use them to improve the book.
- Yes. There were some bad times when you think ‘whatever is the point?’ You just have to carry on with the rest of your life until your writing mojo comes back to you!
- A few, but I’d edited it a lot before submitting it to the competition too.
- Lovely! And virtual! Zoom zoom!
AUTHORLINK: Terrific. Thank you. You used to work as a Customer Service Manager, but it ‘didn’t work out’ so you came back to your parents shop as a temporary arrangement to help out. Then your parents sadly got ill and they passed away, and they kind of indicated that they would like the business to carry on for a bit, so you decided to do that.
You said once, “I think previously it would have been a bit embarrassing to say that I run a small takeaway, but over the last few years, especially since the pandemic, I came to realise that it’s more important than you think: just because something hasn’t been shown in a glamorous light in the media or in fiction, it doesn’t mean it’s not important. (besea.n, 25 April 2021)
We totally agree with this! Can you elaborate in reference to community?
I’ve been very lucky that Happy Families found its publishing home and its readers at a time when people want to see a story about being Chinese, about being Welsh, about being from outside London.
Another writer was telling me recently how, years ago, she wanted to set a book in Cardiff and was told not to as nobody wanted ‘provincial, regional’ stories. I’m glad we live in more enlightened times!
In Happy Families, you can see how local businesses – not just the Chinese takeaway but also the butcher and the greengrocer – form a hub of the community. By seeing the same people every week for years, watching them grow up, grow old, there is a connection. Not the sort of relationship that you have with your nearest and dearest but one that lifts your day even if just for a moment and one that could well be there for you in a crisis. As you would be for them.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, so true. This is the novel that you have stuck to and worked on and revamped and it’s taken eight years…What were other novels about that were abandoned along the way? Can you tell us what you’re working on now? We understand it’s set in the same town, overlapping characters, ordinary characters being extraordinary… Sounds brilliant. Are you publishing it with the same publisher?
MA: It is the same novel but also, very much not the same novel. All the time I was writing it, I knew I wasn’t holding anything back for another go. It is a story very close to my heart.
However it was a sprawling old thing with many sub-plots all over the place, mini-novels in their own right, if you like. They have been stripped out and put away for now. They have already served a purpose in enriching the back story and may even see the light of day in their own right one day!
While I was writing Happy Families, I knew that the little Welsh town was the setting I wanted to keep writing about. After that, it’s just been a matter of snuffling about like a pig looking for acorns, trying to find the right story to tell this time. It’s very kind of you to say the proposed next book sounds brilliant and I’m sure one or two of the characters would be pleased and astonished to hear themselves described in this way.
“… I think I am allowed to say that I love my publishers – Welbeck – very much…”
I never believe in counting my chickens before they’re hatched but as the egg has been laid, I think I am allowed to say that I love my publishers – Welbeck – very much and am utterly thrilled that they’re letting me have another roost in their hen house. Sorry about all of the poultry references!
AUTHORLINK: That is so exciting. Bravo Julie! Ha ha ha. How do you take constructive criticism? Do you lie in bed and draw the curtains or try to take what you can from it?
“… it is unlikely to get good enough unless you learn to take constructive criticism.”
MA: And pull the duvet over my head? Yes, of course, that’s what my gut would like me to do but that instinctive reaction to keep yourself safe means your work will never change or get better. When I mentioned before that writing was my dirty secret, it also meant that nobody ever got to read it until it was ‘good enough’. The vicious circle there is that it is unlikely to get good enough unless you learn to take constructive criticism. Only then can you start working on the next task – sifting the good criticism out from the bad.
To take an analogy from my day job, the first time you start working with hot food, you will go ‘ouch’ because your fingertips are too tender. But as you expose yourself to the heat more and more, you will find that your skin thickens and it doesn’t hurt any more. It won’t happen straightaway. There will be lots of ‘ouch’ moments but it will be worth it in the end.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, good point! The vicious circle there is that it is unlikely to get good enough unless you learn to take constructive ‘good’ criticism. Why do you think it’s relevant to mention the author’s age? You were 51 when you first published this book. Why is this relevant?
MA: Do you know I had a good hard think about even mentioning it? But then I remembered how long it took me to think of the book I wanted to write, to write the book I wanted to write, to edit the book I wanted to write, find someone who would be interested in getting the book I wanted to write out there into the world . . . well, you get the picture.
And I wanted people to know that almost everything worth having will take so much longer than you expect. Writers all keep up with each other on social media and I’ve seen that next year, two more writers of a similar (ahem) vintage to me – Wiz Wharton and Julie Owen Moylan – will be debut novelists. I think it’s good to know that just because you didn’t turn out to be a Zadie Smith or a Sally Rooney, it’s still worth pressing on to see what happens.
Although I’ll admit 25-year-old me would be very upset it’s taken so long!
AUTHORLINK: Totally relatable! Here are some light-hearted questions to conclude:-
- What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
- What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
- What character from literature would you most like to play?
- Do you have any comfort reads?
MA: 1. Ooh, I think The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 ¾. Read it while you can still identify fully with Adrian. Nowadays I think I’m more Pauline Mole or Bert Baxter!
- Stoner, by John Williams. You can read it when you’re under 40 but leave some notes in your copy for your 40+ self to find when you re-read it.
- I quite fancy Raymond Brigg’s Father Christmas. I already have the physique and grumpy temperament so just need to work on growing my beard long enough.
- I’ve had some ups and downs lately and found solace in Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiney. If you can still laugh when you don’t feel like it, you know the book is taking you to a better place.
AUTHORLINK: Julie, you are and have always been laugh-out-loud funny. It was absolutely wonderful talking to you about Happy Families! Congratulations once again on this fabulous debut and we’re looking forward to reading more of your excellent humour and human interest stories.
MA: Thanks for having me! You may not believe this, but it’s been one of my wildest dreams that we would meet again online like this!
AUTHORLINK: 😊 Mine too. I’m happy for you and so pleased your dreams have come true.
About the Author
After graduating during the recession in the late 2000’s with a Drama degree from Aberystwyth University, Julie Ma worked in an eclectic mix of jobs, trying to find her ‘niche’ before taking over the family business when both her parents died.
Despite early success in coming runner-up in the Orange Short Story Prize, early drafts of ‘Happy Families’ were sent out to publishers only to be rejected.
Julie is Welsh-Born Chinese after her grandad settled there in the 1930s. After graduating from University, and working away from home, she now owns her family’s Chinese takeaway with her brother in Wales and is also a debut author at the age of 51.
Julie won the Richard and Judy ‘Search for a Bestseller’ competition for her book ‘Happy Families’. Richard and Judy are hugely popular TV presenters, who have a book club and annual novel award.