Tracey Lien on writing family, home and place

Tracey Lien on writing family, home and place

Tracey Lien was born and raised in southwestern Sydney and now lives in Brooklyn. All That’s Left Unsaid is her debut novel, and it won the Indie Book Awards for Debut Fiction, the MUD Literary Prize, the Davitt Award for Best Adult Novel and the Readings New Australian Fiction Prize.

Tracey Lien


ASTRID: Thank you so much for joining me today, Tracey.

TRACEY: Thank you so much for having me.

ASTRID: Now, I am in Melbourne, and you are whereabouts in the United States?

TRACEY: I'm in Brooklyn, New York right now.

ASTRID: Thank you for joining us with the international timeline, and congratulations on your debut novel All That's Left Unsaid. Now it came out more than a year ago, but it got so much attention in 2023 in Australia. It won the Davitt Award for Best Adult Novel, the Indie Book Awards for Debut Fiction, among many others. It was also listed for lots of prizes, including the Stella Prize, and for transparency purposes, I was one of the judges that listed it for the Stella Prize. As we know, you're also based in the United States. All That's Left Unsaid was also listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the mystery thriller category. That is a lot for a debut work. Congratulations.

TRACEY: Thank you.

ASTRID: For the listeners. Can you introduce us to the novel?

TRACEY: Absolutely. All That's Left Unsaid is a literary murder mystery. It's set in the year 1996 in Cabramatta, which, as some of your listeners might know, is a Vietnamese refugee enclave in Sydney, Australia. The story begins when a 17-year-old boy is beaten to death at a Cabramatta restaurant. When his oldest sister Key returns home for the funeral, she learns that the police are completely stumped by her brother's case. Apparently there were a dozen witnesses present, and they all claimed to have seen nothing. She takes it upon herself to track down each witness to find out what happened, and with each chapter, you get to hear from the witnesses, you get to see what they saw that night, you also get a sense of why they are withholding information, why they are keeping secrets. As you go along, you get closer and closer to discovering the truth.

ASTRID: This novel is firmly connected to place, Cabramatta in Sydney. I grew up in Sydney, you also did as well. How do you as a writer bring place so firmly to the reader? It's… you feel like you're back in the 1990s, you know, in Western Sydney, and it is not like anywhere else?

TRACEY: Yep. I think I started working on the novel when I was living in Kansas. I was getting my Master's Degree at the University of Kansas studying creative writing. And Kansas is about as far from Cabramatta as you can get geographically, culturally, demographically. And what I found was, I was writing a lot of short stories for my classes. When my classmates read my work, they asked me, ‘Are you writing a lengthy story collection?’ And I said, ‘I don't think so. What makes you ask that?’ And they said, ‘Well, you know, you've written four stories this semester and they're all from the point of view of young Asian girls living in Australia in the 1990s in a place called Cabramatta, so they seem pretty connected’. It hadn't occurred to me that that was what I was doing. It got me thinking, you know, I'm clearly circling something. But what is it?

Being from Cabramatta I realised that first off, I was missing home a lot at that point. I'd been in the United States for eight years, I'm approaching 11 years now. And so that's a long time to be away from home, even though I would visit every year and I visit every opportunity I can, you know, but when you don't live there anymore, there's a certain longing for it. I also realised I was circling an idea that was a little darker, which was that I wanted the reader to know how it feels. Now, what do I mean by that? I want the reader to know how it feels to have grown up Asian in Australia in the 1990s. Now, what do I mean by that? Well, I want people to know the feeling of conditional citizenship, right? So growing up in Australia, attending public schools in southwest Sydney, I was taught from a very young age, you belong here, you know, Australia really values multiculturalism. I totally bought into it, only to realise at some point that it wasn't quite true, that it didn't really apply to me or to people who looked like me. I realised that my citizenship was conditional. It was conditional on my impeccable behavior. It was conditional on my gratitude. If I ever did anything to step out of line, I risked being perceived as a nuisance, or worse, as a threat. We've seen a version of this play out over and over again, but just insert a different racial group. So, whether it was in the 1990s with Cabramatta, or in the 2000s with groups of Middle Eastern appearance, or the African gangs in the 2010s or then when the Pandemic hit, it was a Asian people again. And it's the discomfort of being in such a precarious position where you know you belong, you believe it in your core. But you're also aware of the fact that the opinions of the majority can turn on a dime. For me, it was tapping into that and tapping into the memories of living in Australia living in Cabramatta. And wanting that sort of emotional transfer.

ASTRID: There is so much in that answer. Tracey, thank you. I'd like to unpick it all. And I confess, I would like to start with Kansas. My partner is from Missouri, which is the state right next door to Kansas. I have spent quite a bit of time there, and I agree with you, it is nothing like Sydney, it is nothing like anything that you would find in Australia. And my family knows this, I find it quite difficult to be there. I'm really interested in how you explored your own history, your own emotions, and had that distance, I guess, from Australia to look at your experiences and you know, the social contemporary issues that play out here. Did you find it discombobulating – and maybe I'm bringing in my preconceived notions of Missouri, it is an odd place, and maybe Kansas City.

TRACEY: I think it's so interesting that you're partners from Missouri, I'd love to talk to you about that experience. So, the main thing I will say about Kansas is that first off people are really lovely. Midwestern hospitality is really… the number of people who have offered to pick me up from the airport. But like, here's the thing with Kansans, when they pick you up from the airport, they're not just pulling up and expecting you to get in. They park the car and then they go and meet you in the terminal. That is next level. Kansans are really lovely people.

In relation to me writing this novel, though, where I was, which was Kansas, it's a college town. It's very racially homogenous, right? It's not a particularly diverse place. And I think I needed to leave Australia to think critically. I needed to be somewhere that was so different from home, that I started to think, well, that inspired reflection. There's the saying, it's really hard to read the label from inside the jar, right? So, if you're immersed in it, how can you really think critically about it? So having that distance from Australia gave me the space really to think about it, and it was the experience of say, you're walking into a restaurant, or walking into a classroom or walking into the target, and being the only non-white person, and it's not as if anyone in the room has said or done anything awful. It's just this feeling that would sweep over me and I would have this awareness of my race. And if people turned to look, I would be thinking, is it simply because I walked in? And there's like a gust of wind behind me? Or is it because I'm an Asian person? Or is it because I'm an immigrant? You know, that discomfort was something that also reminded me of my experience in Australia, because my relationship with Australia is one that it is home, it is a place I love, it is the place that made me who I am. And yet it was a place where I experienced a lot of discomfort. And so, I think having that distance, but also having reminders of those particular feelings, was what allowed me to write this particular story.

ASTRID: I know there can be no definitive answer to this question. But if you hadn't gone to the United States, and you wrote a novel in Australia, would you have felt more constrained? Would it have been completely different? Because you were in the place where the discomfort had occurred?

TRACEY: It's possible and it's also possible I might have never written fiction. You know, before I became a novelist, I was a journalist. I was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times covering business. I often think of that fork in the road, right? Initially, that decision to leave Australia and then that decision to leave journalism. Had I stayed in Australia, would I still be a reporter? Would I have left earlier? Would I have done whatever it is journalists do when they decide that they're sick of being broke? We'll whatever that might be like, what does that look like in Australia? I'm not sure. So yeah, that is a fork in the road, and I find it really hard to imagine what my life would be like now, if I had chosen to stay.

ASTRID: Well, I can tell you, the journalists and writers are broke in Australia.

So, you did the MFA at Kansas University. There is an ongoing debate about how much writing can be taught and how much it's about, you know, practice writing on the page. I teach writing. So, I guess I come down on the fact that writing can be taught. But what did you get out of the MFA, particularly in terms of craft and how you approach the narrative on the page?

TRACEY: The main value of the MFA for me was two things. One was having the time to write. Being a student, you have to take classes. In my case, I had to teach Introductory English courses as part of my fully funded program. But you're nowhere near as busy as if you're working a nine to five, you have a lot of time. And so having the time to experiment was a big one. And then the other was having a mentor or professor who was encouraging, right? I think so many of us are afraid to call ourselves writers, or if we're working on a novel, we sort of say it with a whisper, and we're a little bit embarrassed. Just to have someone take me seriously and say, ‘Okay, you're working on a novel. I'm not going to ask you questions that make you feel like I'm patronizing you. I'm not going to say, I help you. You're working on a novel’. To have someone just take you seriously, I think, is a big mental shift.

But you know, in my MFA, there was no ‘how to write a novel’ class. There wasn't even a ‘how to write a short story’ class. All they really did was expose us to a lot of novels and a lot of short stories. We were just instructed to read critically, read closely, and then write and then share it and then see what people think. And then keep doing it over and over again and be observant. From that you will hopefully get better. Based on that, I think maybe some people need the structure of a course, whether it's a short course, an MFA, a Bachelor's degree, and some people might just be able to do that on their own. You know, most writers I think manage to do it without an MFA. I wanted to do it because I knew I wanted to leave journalism, but I didn't know what I wanted to do next. And so, an MFA was a way for me to buy myself time to figure it out. I was just lucky enough that within that first year, I figured out I want to write fiction. And so, I was able to focus on that.

ASTRID: A few minutes ago, you said the word experiment in the context of, you know, time to write and time to experiment. I'd like to unpack that a little bit. You mentioned that in your first semester there you wrote linked stories that suggested there might be something deeper. What did you do in terms of putting those stories into the novel, or whittling away everything else to come to the core of this story that you told in All That's Left Unsaid?

TRACEY: I found that in a lot of the stories I was writing, I was circling a theme or a voice. I wasn't necessarily aware of it as I was doing it. And so, the only short story that made it in, I'd say, like 90 per cent intact, is the third chapter. So that was initially a standalone short story that I massaged into the novel. But all these other short stories I wrote, in one of them, it was taught from the point of view of a little girl working on a history assignment in high school, and her cousin had recently been beaten to death, and her cousin was Danny, and her other cousin paid a visit. And in that story, nothing really happens, right? It's a little girl working on a history PowerPoint presentation. She's having thoughts but there's no action. The side characters that were in the background were more compelling than she was. Those side characters ended up becoming the main characters of my novel.

I think when it comes to experimentation, I'm all about being open to seeing what happens, and not being afraid to write something that's bad. Because I think that's another thing, if you enjoy writing, or you want to think of yourself as a writer, there's a good chance that you've perhaps always been talented. You've always been thought of as the good writer, like you're in Year 7, you get the award for a good writer. And then you're afraid of being anything but that good writer, right? When someone calls you good or talented, you're afraid of being anything but that. I think giving yourself the space to experiment also means giving you yourself the space to not be good. It means writing something and sharing it with a friend or reading it the class and having them come back and say, ‘we have no idea what this was’ or ‘this didn't make sense’.  Allowing your ego to get battered and bruised a little, because from that you can do something really interesting and something wonderful might come from it.

ASTRID: That is such a wonderful observation, Tracey. We've touched a little bit on place, which is clearly so central to the novel, but I'd also like to talk about time. It's the 1990s, the late 1990s. This means it is before social media and yes, the Internet existed but not in the form that it does now. When you're going back in time – and I know you're going back to a place that you lived, experience that you had – but I find it difficult to remember the 1990s, I find it difficult to remember the early 2000s sometimes. So that accuracy, to create what it felt like walking down the street or to create what it felt like, you know, turning on the TV or whatnot. How did you approach that so it would feel so alive for the reader?

TRACEY: Research was really important for me, because even though I was around in the 1990s and I lived in Cabramatta, I was a kid, right, and the novel is set in 1996. I was eight years old then, so whatever awareness I had was limited to that of an eight-year-old. There were a few research techniques that I relied on. One was that I accessed a bunch of newspaper databases and saw what was being covered in the 1990s. I went a step further, and looked for every mention of Cabramatta in an Australian newspaper, and went through all the headlines and anything that seemed relevant if it was covering a crime, whether it was covering a certain press conference about the heroin epidemic, whether it was about immigration, whatever it was, I would read it just to see what was actually happening at the time, or what was the nature of the crimes being committed. In one article, I came across talks about home invasions, about how the New South Wales Police Force has never encountered the home invasion. Before when people would burgle you and rob you they want you to not be at home, right? They want to make sure no one's at home, and then they'll break in. But the home invasion targeted people who were at home, and it was like, here's what the gangs are doing. And it was it was terrifying, right? It was like they are breaking in, they're committing a home invasion, and they would take your family photo albums in addition to any other valuables so that if you called the police, they were like, well, we now know what your extended family looks like. And so that you would fear retribution.

Stuff like that, like how could I as an eight-year-old have ever known? Or how could I as someone in Kansas thinking about this novel, there's no way I could have known without reading it in a news article published in 1994, or something like that. So, immersing myself in the news of the time was one way to access what was feasible during that time period. The other was looking at scholarly articles and sociology papers written about that time period. Now, this is something that I don't think any normal person would ever think to look up. But because I was in a university setting, I was like, this is this seems to be a thing. And pretty much any topic you can think of, there's a researcher looking into it, right? Whether it's Vietnamese teenagers living in Cabramatta in 1996, or its social media usage among private school girls in the Northern Beaches, or whatever it is. I allowed myself to get really specific and look at okay, Cabramatta, and then all of Southwest Sydney, and then oral histories with like teenagers who were living in the area at that time. What language were they using? What was the slang? Really immersing myself in everything I could find.

ASTRID: I'd like to switch to from the writing and the research to how this became a story that we all get to read. So, you're based in the US. This is published in Australia, it's also published in the US. Anywhere else?

TRACEY: The UK, the Netherlands, Romania, Germany, and Italy and Japan are coming soon.

ASTRID: That is so impressive for anyone, particularly for a debut. But how did that happen? I mean, you're in the US, did you pitch to Australia? Because it's so Australian based? Did you want an American publisher?  Talk me through the business end of how you get a novel out there.

TRACEY: Since I was based in the US, what I had learned through my course at the University of Kansas and from talking with friends who had published was that in the US, you need to have an agent. It's not like in Australia, where you could submit directly to some publishing houses. In the US, you need to have a literary agent. They are the gatekeepers; they are the middlemen. If you try to send your manuscript directly to whoever at PenguinRandom House us, good luck, there's no such email. And so, in finding a literary agent, the advice I got was to find a book that is similar to yours. Or, if not similar, think of it as if you walk into a bookstore and they have a table display of ‘ if you like this book, then you will love this one too’. Look at those books and flip to the acknowledgments section, because authors always thank their literary agents in the acknowledgments.

I would look up the agent’s name, and most of them either have a website or the agency they work for listed, and they will list off what they're looking for. Some agents might say, I'm only representing non-fiction, or I only represent young adult, or I'm full, my list is for I'm not looking for anyone else. I put together a spreadsheet. And it's a wish list of, you know, I don't know, these people, I might as well be on Tinder swiping right, like, it's whatever they might have, their photo, the list of people they represent. So, you put together this list. And then I wrote a query letter. And a query letter is sort of like a cold email where you're asking this person to represent you. But it's written in a very formulaic way, where you're essentially pitching them and pitching yourself in three paragraphs. And I learned how to write this just by Googling How to Write a literary query letter. Anyone who's listening like you can access the same thing I did! And then I sent off the letter to my top six, my thinking was, if the first six reject me, then I can sort of reassess and then go down to the next six. But fortunately, from that, top six, I got two offers of representation. And then that's sort of when I had to interview them. Right? When you're, when you're querying an agent, you're in this position of like, oh, well, I hope someone chooses me. But then when you have more than one offer, it's like, I have to decide who to go with. It was a matter of then seeing whether the person aligned with what I wanted. Right? If an agent came to me and said, You know what, I think this is going to be a really small book, and we should go with an indie, like small press, I probably would have said, well, that's not how I see this novel, I think a lot of people might be interested.

I wanted to go with someone ambitious. And the agent I went with Hillary Jacobson, she was so passionate about my novel and incredibly ambitious with it. Once she chose to represent me, the agency she works for has an agreement with a UK Commonwealth Agency, and then she represented me for both the UK and Australia. Then they both went off and did their thing, like pitching editors. I didn't really have to do much beyond getting the first agent, everything else just sort of happened. Once I did that…

ASTRID: I love the way you said that I didn't have to do anything much, but you know, write a really good novel, and then just go get the agent. So well explained, I think that's going to be a really valuable listen to people who listen to The Garret.

From your vantage point in the US, what does Australian publishing look like? How are we perceived over there, if I can ask such a broad question?

TRACEY: As someone who's been back and forth over the past few years, and every time I land in Sydney I look up every bookstore, right? Because I want to see like what authors are publishing here that aren't publishing in the US, or what the covers are. They are so different as well, my US cover and my UK cover and my Australian cover are completely different. I think, from my observation, Australian publishing favors Australian stories, which seems obvious. But it's incredibly noticeable. If you're walking around a Barnes and Noble, very rarely will you come across a story that's set in Australia. Like this year, I observed, there was The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlane, which is fantastic. But other than that, it's very US and European centric. And in Australia, I think Australian publishing really gives Australians a chance, right? And we really elevate Australian stories. And so, every time I come back, I fill up my suitcases, you know, new stories that I can't get in the US.

ASTRID: I really do hope that we see very soon a time when Australian books are sold into the US, simply because it is the biggest market in the world, and I would like all Australian writers to make lots more money than they currently do.

My final question for you, Tracey. You were a journalist, you decided you did not want to be a journalist anymore. You became a fiction writer and have done very well. What's next? Will it be a career of words? Will it be fiction? Do you have another work in progress?

TRACEY: I do have another work in progress. When my agents sold my novel, they sold it in a two book deal. And what that means is, my editor's bought the book I already wrote, and they've agreed to buy whatever I do next, which on the one hand is wonderful stability, on the other hand, a lot of pressure, because this book doesn't exist. It was sold on a basically a one sentence pitch. And I was like, I don't even know if this is the novel, but this is just what I'm throwing out there. For the time being I my career is in novel writing. I enjoy it a lot. It's still a lot of fun, and I'm going to keep doing it.

ASTRID: I'm looking forward to what comes next, Tracey. Thank you. And thank you for joining me with the time difference.

TRACEY: Thank you so much for having me.