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Interview with Author Sarah M. Chen

sarahmchenSarah M. Chen is the author of the recently released novella Cleaning Up Finn. I had the privilege of serving on a short story panel at the 2016 Left Coast Crime conference in Phoenix, AZ.

Earlier this month, I read Cleaning Up Finn and absolutely fell in love with the story and the characters. Finn is the chef at a seaside restaurant. He’s also a bit of a womanizer, and it is this that gets him into a heap of trouble when a young girl he goes out with vanishes, leaving him looking guilty of murder.

Here is the transcript from a recent interview I had with Sarah.

Dharma: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into writing.

Sarah: I always wanted to write and was an avid reader as a kid. I was an only child so reading was my escape.

In school, I didn’t pursue writing. My parents wanted me to find a “normal” career so I studied Communications – Film/TV. I was a studio script reader and script consultant for many years. Then in 2006, I went through a divorce and that made me reevaluate what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to write but I had no idea what.

Later that year, I met Darrell James at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. He was at the Sisters in Crime booth and encouraged me to attend a meeting. I always loved reading crime fiction so I thought why not? That chance meeting with Darrell followed by my first Sisters in Crime meeting in South Pasadena was the early beginnings of what you would, I guess, call my crime fiction writing career.

cleaningupfinnDharma: You recently published CLEANING UP FINN. What’s it about?

Sarah: It’s about a successful restaurant manager in the South Bay named Finn who loves the babes and the booze. He takes a young woman out on a date and loses her, literally. She turns up missing which brings in the local police, her parents (we learn she’s underage), the media, and a private investigator. Finn desperately spins lie after lie to disassociate himself from her, but his lies eventually catch up to him.

Dharma: The main character Finn isn’t your typical hero. Tell us about him and why you wanted to tell his story.

Sarah: I worked in the restaurant industry for many years and was fascinated by the types of people I met as well as the crazy lifestyle that came with being a server, bartender, or restaurant manager. These were some of the wildest, most fun times of my life. Finn is sort of a mesh of the managers and friends I worked with. I also wanted to explore a guy who seems superficial and shallow on the outside but when you dig deeper, you realize he’s not such a bad guy and has his reasons for doing what he does. Life isn’t so black and white and I like to see how far I can push my characters into doing something they wouldn’t normally do.

Dharma: With the book being a novella, was it more difficult to find a publisher?

Sarah: Not really. I actually wrote it for a specific publisher under contract. Then that publisher didn’t pan out so I went straight to All Due Respect Books because I wanted Mike Monson and Chris Rhatigan to look at it first. I’d worked with them before as they published one of my short stories. I also thought they were a very reputable and high profile crime fiction publisher when it came to novellas.

Dharma: Did you think about expanding the story to novel length or were you more comfortable with the length as is?

Sarah: I expanded it from a short story and since I was contracted to write a novella, I never considered it as a novel.

Dharma: Were there some personal experiences or elements you included in the story?

Sarah: Like I said, the story is based on my years working in the restaurant industry. Finn is a mesh of different people as well as loosely inspired by a restaurant manager I worked for. And I emphasize the term “loosely.” He was actually a fantastic manager and person.

I also was really fascinated with the Natalee Holloway story and followed it daily. She was a high school girl who disappeared while vacationing in Aruba over ten years ago and no one ever found out what happened to her (Joran van der Sloot was the prime suspect but they could never prove anything). I kind of used her story as a launching point for Ronnie’s storyline.

Dharma: In CLEANING UP FINN, you included the phrase “chow mein chaser”. As a trans woman, it gave me a chuckle because we have a similar term in the trans community. What are “chow mein chasers” and how are they viewed by the Asian community?

Sarah: It’s funny you say that because I only heard it once. I’ve heard “he has an Asian fetish” quite a bit which is along the same lines. I think I heard “chow mein chaser” either in a film or while eavesdropping on someone, I honestly can’t remember. When I heard it, I laughed and thought I had to use it. I don’t take offense to someone saying, “he / she has an Asian fetish,” but I know some of my Asian friends do. Maybe being half-Asian makes a difference, I don’t know.

I’ve experienced my share of racism throughout my life, but I rarely took offense to it because I didn’t really identify with any one culture or race. I grew up in a very white Republican area in Orange County (the Orange Curtain!), but my granola hippie mom always managed to find friends who were black, Asian, East Indian, suffering from MS and in a wheelchair, or gay so that’s what became normal to me. We’d go to their homes for dinner or they’d come to ours.

Growing up, kids in school taunted me that “they were turning Japanese” and they’d sing that song every time I walked by, and I’d think “but I’m Chinese, you idiot.” But I also didn’t identify with the “Chinese” part of me since I was half white and my dad (who is Chinese) wasn’t around much so I grew up knowing very little about Chinese culture. I didn’t know whether to think of myself as Asian-American or Canadian-American or what some people called Eurasian. All I knew was that I was a Southern California girl raised by a kooky Canadian mom.

Dharma: Do you write mostly crime fiction? What attracts you to the genre?

Sarah: I write mostly crime fiction, yes. I like to explore what makes seemingly law-abiding people become desperate and do things outside their comfort zone. I always gravitated toward the anti-hero in films and books. The loner or the character who strays from convention appeals to me. This type of character works quite well in crime fiction. I also like to explore the unexpected: the neighborhood watch mom who runs an escort service or the quiet high school math nerd who goes to raves every weekend.

However, I’m also working on my first novel that features a 19-year-old so I’m not sure if it’s YA, crime fiction, or what. It’s about an Asian-American college dropout whose estranged father comes back into her life. It’s a family drama as well as a thriller since not-very-nice men are after her father for reasons she can’t figure out.

I also have a children’s chapter book coming out next year. This is a fantasy yet there is an element of mystery to it.

Dharma: Do you have more novellas or novels in the works?

Sarah: Right now, I’m working on my first novel as I mentioned earlier. I don’t know if I will work on another novella, but you never know.

Dharma: What authors or genres do you like to read?

Sarah: I split my time between crime fiction and YA, with some middle grade thrown in. For YA, I will read anything by Andrew Smith and Tommy Wallach. I love the Red Queen series by Victoria Aveyard and the Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir.

As far as crime fiction, I read pretty much anything: especially thrillers, noir, and police procedural. The writers I read over and over are those who drew me to the crime fiction genre like Robert B. Parker, Ed McBain, Tony Hillerman, and Patricia Highsmith (I just realized I named all writers who are dead). I also count among my favorites: Dennis Lehane, Mo Hayder, Karin Slaughter, George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, and Don Winslow. I love James Ziskin’s Ellie Stone series and just finished Rob Hart’s NEW YORKED which was fantastic. Sara Gran’s COME CLOSER is one of my all-time favorite books. That scared the shit out of me.

Dharma: What are you reading currently?

Sarah: I just finished Tana French’s THE TRESPASSER. The last Tana French book I read was IN THE WOODS so it’s been a while since I’ve spent time with the Murder Squad in Dublin. Even though it’s over 450 pages, I tore through it. I’m now just starting Ed Lin’s INCENSED which is set in contemporary Taiwan and am really enjoying it.

Dharma: You were at Left Coast Crime in Phoenix. Will you be attending other conferences in the future? Do you go more for content or contacts?

Sarah: I just came back from Bouchercon and wow, I’m still recovering. It’s hard to come down from the high that is Bouchercon. I always come away from these conferences invigorated, inspired, and a little drained. I enjoy these conferences as a way to meet FB friends face to face and also to make new friends. I also plan to attend Crime Bake in November (am currently on the waitlist) but since I’m in the Level Best Books’ WINDWARD anthology that is launching at Crime Bake, I plan to show up no matter what. So I’m basically crashing it.

Dharma: Amazon’s opening bookstores while Barnes & Noble is white-knuckling it. Where do you see the publishing industry going in the future? Traditional vs. small press vs. indie vs. hybrid? Ebooks vs. print? Smaller online outlets like Kobo?

Sarah: I really don’t know, but I think it’s smart for authors, publishers, and booksellers to be open-minded. The publishing industry is in such flux right now, that it’s actually pretty exciting, yet scary. I hope the indie bookstore doesn’t go away and am encouraged by statistics showing more indie bookstores popping up everywhere. If the indie bookstore can live comfortably side by side with the B&N and Amazon bookstores, that would be great and what I hope for.

As far as publishing options, I think whatever works for you as a writer is what you should do. I know authors who are extremely successful self-publishing and others who do the hybrid thing. As someone at Bouchercon said, “It’s such a wonderful time to be an author and also the worst.” Society today has such a fickle short attention span and who knows what future generations are going to value when it comes to storytelling?

Dharma: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you or your work?

I’ll be appearing in a few anthologies in the near future. I’m in Crime Syndicate’s FAST WOMEN AND NEON LIGHTS anthology which features 1980s short stories and is coming out November 1. I’m in Level Best Book’s WINDWARD: BEST NEW ENGLAND CRIME STORIES anthology which comes out in November as well. I also have a children’s chapter book (ages 6-9) coming out hopefully early next year called SUPERBEETLE about a girl who goes to Taiwan for the first time and is terrified of the bugs there until she meets Superbeetle. And hopefully my novel will be finished the end of this year and I can start shopping it around.

Dharma: Sarah, thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions!

You can find out more about Sarah and her work on her website at https://sarahmchen.com. Her Twitter handle is @sarahmchen. For Instagram, use sarahmchen. Facebook: sarahmchenauthor. Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7022203.Sarah_M_Chen.

You can find Amazon author page at https://www.amazon.com/Sarah-M.-Chen/e/B00DL4CEHE/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1.



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