LJ Talks to Mira T. Lee | Debut Spotlight

In Mira Lee's first novel, Everything Here Is Beautiful, the author calls on characters from her short stories, filling out the lives of sisters Miranda and Lucia. Here, Lee discusses crafting these women, her own sibling experiences, and more.

Photo ©Liz Linder

In her first novel, Everything Here Is Beautiful (LJ 9/1/17), Mira T. Lee calls on characters from her short stories, filling out the lives of sisters Miranda and Lucia. Here, Lee discusses crafting these women, her own sibling experiences, and more.

This novel includes characters originally featured in your short stories. Did you feel that you needed to expand on them in a novel-length work? Even in short stories, I like to imagine bigger, fuller worlds for [my characters]—though...a novel was the furthest thing from my mind when I wrote those stories. With this particular set of characters, I knew I could stick with them for a long, long time because their relationships with each other were so complicated. And though Lucia’s life was always the central thread, the richness lies in how her actions impacted those who loved her and forced them to make tough choices of their own. I adore these characters. They’re definitely flawed, but they’re also in these awful binds and trying so hard to do the right thing. I guess I felt compelled to do their stories justice.

What mental gymnastics are required to write from multiple viewpoints? The alternating points of view felt really natural in terms of the way the plot moved. I actually don’t think I could’ve told this story any other way, but the tricky part was finding the right voice for each section. Once I got that, the rest usually flowed. Lucia was especially tough.

It was interesting, because you’d think the male characters might be harder to write, but their voices were clearer, and I could wiggle into their heads through our commonalities—like Manny’s experience as the terrified parent of a newborn, or Stefan’s concern over his spouse’s decisions. But with Lucia, I always envisioned her as far more brilliant and perceptive than I am, which posed a real challenge. I mean, it’s humbling to realize that a character can only be as brilliant as her creator—I kept feeling like I was holding her back!

Do you have siblings, and if so, did that experience inform your writing? I was a middle child, so I guess that gave me both the experience of being the responsible one, as well as the one being bossed around—I can understand how one might grow resentful of either of those roles.

Why did you select Switzerland and Ecuador as the places where the sisters chose to live? I guess I wouldn’t exactly say the sisters “chose” those places, more that they found themselves entangled with men from those countries. In my 20s, I played a lot of music and hung out with a bunch of Europeans I met while studying at [Boston’s] Berklee College of Music. Later on, I went through a heavy salsa dancing phase, which also involved a pretty international crowd. So for Miranda, the older sister who craves order and stability, to end up in Switzerland, and Lucia, who feels at home in a more relaxed culture, to go live in South America, fit with their individual personalities.

You’re also a graphic designer. How do those skills assist in your writing? I often have to ask clients to describe what kind of image they’re hoping to project. I need them to tell me the feel of their company in words, and usually that works best when it’s accompanied by something they can picture in their heads. Once I understand what they’re going for, I translate it into something visual. There’s something similar going on in writing, I think, where you have to invoke certain feelings, and you can do that using the words themselves—their textures and meanings—but you can also do it by creating visual imagery.

What other writers have influenced you? My original favorite author was Milan Kundera. I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being during my senior year of high school, and then proceeded to devour every other book he’d ever written. I loved the clarity of his sentences, his philosophical meanderings, his succinctly stated observations of human nature, which felt so new and revelatory to me at the time. I’m a huge fan of Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel for the organic feel of their stories, how they’re able to use simple, elegant language and mundane scenarios, yet invoke so many emotions without being too linear or obvious. I love Elizabeth Strout, and the way she conveys the nuances in her characters’ relationships. I’m in awe of Khaled Hosseini’s grand story arcs; Lorrie Moore’s wit; Mohsin Hamid’s long, glorious sentences; and Adam Haslett’s renderings of complex feelings with a subtlety that’s just masterful.—Joanna Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence

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