Interview with Vanessa Len


About the Author: “Vanessa Len is an Australian author of Chinese-Malaysian and Maltese heritage. An educational editor she has worked on everything from language learning programs to STEM resources to professional learning for teachers. Vanessa is a graduate of the Clarion Workshop in San Diego and she lives in Melbourne.” (Bio from the author.)

Find Vanessa Len on the following platforms:

I would like to thank Vanessa Len for speaking with me on her debut novel, Only A Monster. Out now, don’t miss our review here!

Frances Drye: First and foremost, I want to thank you for interviewing with me and to congratulate you on your debut novel! How do you feel about having your debut novel published? Did you do anything to celebrate this amazing accomplishment?

Vanessa Len: Thank you so much! As I’m writing this, I’m two weeks away from my Australian publication, and a month away from publishing in the USA. I’m celebrating both launches with online events, and I’m planning to visit bookshops with some friends! 

FD: Did you always know you wanted to be an author?

VL: I’ve always loved to write and read – I used to write little stories and plays as a child. I made my cousins and brother act out the plays! I loved the idea of being an author, but it seemed like a very unattainable dream – like wanting to be an astronaut. 

But then a couple of my friends published books, and I thought ‘hey, I could have a go too!’ Sometimes, you just need to see a model of someone else doing something to think maybe you could do that too. 

FD: Only A Monster is such an awesome addition to the YA fantasy genre. Is there a reason you chose to write a book for young adult readers? Do you have any favorite YA novels?

VL: Thank you! I love young adults as an audience because they’re really open to stories that have high emotion and high stakes. I also like young adult stories because the characters are often having first-time experiences like first love and first grief, and through those experiences, they’re changing and adapting and growing. I find those change arcs really interesting to explore, and I love following characters who are still learning new things about themselves at the same time that they’re facing challenges in their worlds. 

FD: Only A Monster crosses and blends the lines between traditional ideas of good and evil as well as hero vs. monster. What made you decide to have this theme so central in your novel? 

VL: That’s a good question! Only a Monster has a central rivalry between a monster girl and a monster slayer, and it’s written from the monster girl’s point of view. 

You’re right that it crosses lines between good and evil by humanising the ‘monsters’ and depicting the hero as a violent threat. The inspiration for doing that came from my own experience of loving big blockbuster action films as a child – they often have very clearly demarcated ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys. 

But when I was growing up, there wasn’t a lot of representation of people who looked like me in the heroes. Instead, I would sometimes see myself represented in the ‘bad guys’. I’d notice that sometimes the only Asian characters onscreen would be nameless, unspeaking characters who would show up just for the fight scenes, and they would get beaten up and killed by the hero. 

I have a line in the book about how in movies, the camera follows the hero after the bad guys have been killed. But I know that in my own viewing experience, I can find myself aware of the few people who look like me onscreen, which sometimes means being very aware of people lying dead on the ground as the camera moves away. 

That gave me the idea of writing about what it feels like when a hero – maybe even a good, upright, and decent hero like the ones from the films I’d loved – is fighting against you rather than for you. 

In my book, the monsters are not good, but you see things from their perspective, and I think the reader’s empathy is what makes the lines between good and evil feel blurred. 

I would love readers to take from my story the feeling that narratives can create and deny empathy for characters and to maybe notice that when enjoying future ‘hero’ stories. 

FD: Do you have a favorite scene or quote from Only A Monster? What was fun about writing it? Were there any parts that you found more difficult to write?

VL: I really enjoyed writing the first scene where Joan intentionally uses her powers, guided by another monster. I felt very immersed as I was writing it. I could see and hear everything that happened.

The most difficult section by far was the opening. There was a lot to set up, and I was keen to keep the momentum up, which meant that the beginning had to include a lot of information without seeming to. 

FD: What can you tell me about the worldbuilding and creation of the characters of this complex story? How did you develop the magic used by the main character? 

VL: This is my first book, and I knew before I started that it would be a big project and that I would be spending a lot of time on it. So before I started I made a big list of all my favourite things – enemies to lovers, time travel, families with powers, heists, people who turn out to be more than they seem … And then I drew on that list to create the world of monsters. 

The time-travel-based magic came from that work. I had known that I wanted to write about monsters, and when I saw ‘time travel’ on my list, I decided to join those ideas together to create monsters that could steal time from the human lifespan, and then use that to travel in time.  

After I had that concept, I spent a long time developing the monster world and how it worked, the rules of time travel, and the characters, their relationships, and backstories. I love generating ideas, and imagining, so that was one of my favourite parts of the process. I knew that I was ready to write the book when the world felt real and alive to me. 

FD: Why did you choose London as the setting for your novel?

VL: I set the book in London because I wanted to explore a diaspora experience in a big city, and because London is a great setting for time travel – it has a very documented history!

Having said that, I’m from Melbourne, Australia, and when I read the book, I see how much my own city has influenced my writing. My version of London has very ‘Melbourne’ demographics and weather! 

FD: Only A Monster follows a lot of morally complex characters, in your book you do an amazing job of humanizing those characters without excusing their destructive behavior. What was the inspiration behind those characters? Was it difficult to write those morally ambiguous characters?

VL: Thank you so much! I wrote the book as a response to my observation that characters who look like me – or are otherwise marginalised – can be denied empathy in ‘hero’ narratives. I think there can be real-world implications of that. 

Hero narratives encourage us to empathise with the side of the hero by showing us the hero’s backstory, their struggles, their relationships outside of ‘being a hero’. When we get to know someone, we empathise and care about them.  

In Only A Monster, I wanted to give the ‘bad guys’ their own backstories, struggles, and relationships too. I wanted to write a world that felt complicated and to write characters who – whether they were heroes or monsters – could be empathised with. 

At the same time, the monsters really are monsters. My main character, Joan, is half-monster and half-human, and I liked that she didn’t fully fit into either the monster or human world. 

She struggles ethically with knowing what monsters do; but after she makes some very difficult moral choices to fight the hero and save her family, she doesn’t fully fit into the human world anymore either. 

FD: Joan Chang-Hunt is half-English and half-Chinese as well as half-monster and half-human; she is a character that lots of readers will be able to relate to. How did you create her character? Where did you find the inspiration for her complex heritage?

VL: I gave Joan a similar background to my own. [Her mother is English, and her father is Chinese Malaysian. Mine are Maltese and Chinese Malaysian.] It was really important to me to write in the representation that I didn’t have growing up, and I was interested in portraying some of my experiences of growing up as a member of the diaspora. For example, I tried to portray the feeling of growing up immersed in cultures in homes that have been removed from their original contexts so that you don’t always know what’s cultural and what’s your family’s personality. I wrote about that by having Joan discover monster culture as she enters the monster world, and understanding her monster family more when she enters the context that they come from. 

FD: Your book is full of such wonderfully realistic characters, did you include parts of your own personality in any of your characters? Who is your favorite character to write in this novel? 

VL: Haha! I didn’t intentionally include my personality in any of the characters [although I do cross the road at the lights like Joan does!] When I was developing the characters, I used a combination of photo-inspiration [where I used street-fashion photos to create characters]; and archetype work [where I overlaid particular archetypes on each of the characters after I had a sense of them]. 

FD: Finally, let’s talk about the romance in Only A Monster. This book has one of my favorite tropes: Enemies to Lovers. Did you intend to include this specific trope, or did it just happen naturally?

VL: It’s one of my favourite tropes too! I included it on purpose. It was a significant item on my ‘list of favourite things’, which I drew on when creating the world and characters. 

FD: Only A Monster is the first in a trilogy and I personally cannot wait to read more from this world. I know you can’t reveal too much about your next novel, but could you give us a teaser for what we can look forward to?

VL: Thank you! I can’t say too much about the second book, but I can give a little clue about one of the big secrets of the series! In Book 1, we learn a nursery chant that describes each of the family powers; it ends with the line ‘Only the Lius remember’. 

In Book 2, we find out that there’s more to that chant than we knew. The Lius have a secret version of it with an extra line at the end that describes something specific that they remember – something that all of the families once knew. 

PRR Writer and Editor, Frances Drye