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Author Interview: Kam Oi Lee

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Kam Oi Lee is one of my oldest writing friends. We met in a writing community on LiveJournal in 2004, and did our first Nanowrimo together in October that year. Along with several others (including Jess Faraday), we formed our own writing and critique group, which has been going since January 2005. Kammy was the first to volunteer her novel for group critique, which gives you some idea how fearless she is. We all learned a lot from that first exercise, and I’ll always be grateful to her for going first. These days when I get to read her work, either in early draft or published form, I treat it like an occasion. There’s usually a cup of tea involved.

Author Kam Oi Lee crouching in front of a display of many large paintings
Kam Oi Lee at an art exhibit in NYC

Cover of

KAM OI LEE, human being from Earth, is also a musician, athlete, writer, spaceship dweller, and dystopian underdog. Born in Washington, DC, she spent her childhood in Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan. When her father retired from the U.S. Foreign Service, the family returned to his home state of Hawaii, where she completed high school. Since then, she’s lived in Massachusetts, Washington and Wisconsin. She now resides in Chicago with her spouse and two cats.

Please tell us about the story you have in this book.

My novella, entitled “Star Reacher”, is about a diesel mechanic and aspiring sculptor who has decided to leave the cold, harsh planet of his birth and move to a paradise-like space station. There’s just one last repair job he has to complete—and it takes an unexpected turn. It’s kind of like “Ice Road Truckers” meets “Brokeback Mountain”—but not tragic. It’s published in Alembical 3: A distillation of three novellas(2014, Paper Golem), which is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

How long did it take you to write this story?

I think it took me about 3 months to write a rough draft of about 20,000 words. Then there were numerous revisions, which took approximately forever.

What led up to you writing this story?

A writing prompt led me to take a minor character from another story and transform him into a main character. I started writing the scenes and serializing the story on my writing group’s LiveJournal page. Eventually I put all the scenes together and found that it was too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel.

What is your favourite part of this story, and why?

There’s a part where my main character and his friend/coworker are in a maintenance hangar at a mining site located in a remote, frozen wasteland. They’re in the middle of an engine and transmission rebuild on a large mining vehicle—and they’re having a screaming argument about art, why art is important and why ordinary people should care about it.

Where do you write from?

Chicago, IL, USA. Usually on my lunch break at work.

What is one essential part of your writing process?

I always put my butt in a chair first. Also, I try to have some idea of what I’m going to write before I start. Not necessarily something as formal as an outline, maybe just a sentence or two. But sometimes I just wing it.

Where can people find you on the web?

My blog is at On Twitter, I’m @mongrelized.

You can find my first published short story, “He Learned How”, about a guy who finds himself between a rock and a hard place, online.

And in real life (appearances, tours, conventions)?

Seeing as how only six people know I exist or have ever read my work, I have no appearances or tours planned yet. But I’m working on it, so stay tuned.

What is your favourite movie?

I have to pick one?!! (I’m a huge movie dork.) OK, one of my favourites is Das Boot, in which a German submarine crew is pushed to its physical and psychological limits during World War II. It was the first movie I ever saw that just kicked me in the gut. Claustrophobic, tense, grittily realistic, it’s the best sub movie ever, and one of the best WWII movies too.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

James Clear says, “You don’t need motivation. You need discipline.” Good advice not just for writing, but for life. In writing terms, don’t ask yourself if you feel motivated to write. Ask yourself if you are a writer. If the answer is yes, get your butt in a chair and your hands onto a keyboard.

Name one person who has influenced your writing.

Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. He helped me learn how to push through and finish a story.

 Everyone’s path to publication is different; tell us about yours.

My first published story, “He Learned How”, came out in an online magazine called Forbidden Fruit (which later became Wilde Oats). I probably found the magazine through an online search; I don’t really remember. It was the first place I submitted the story, and to my great surprise, it was accepted. An editor named Stan Ridge helped me get the story into shape. Working with an editor was a brand new experience for me; he was the soul of professionalism and I learned a lot through the process. I’m still quite proud of that story; in fact it’s the backstory for one of the main characters in the novel I’m currently working on.

Finding a market for “Star Reacher” was a bit of a challenge. There wasn’t a lot of demand for novella-length science fiction, and I really wanted the story to come out in an actual printed book, not just as an e-book. I went on Duotrope and found exactly three markets that fit the bill. One had recently folded, but another had a submissions call for an anthology of SF novellas called “Distant Worlds”. I submitted the story and it was accepted. And then the publisher strung all the authors along for two years before cancelling the anthology due to “lack of funds”.

After much gnashing of teeth, I submitted the story to the third publisher, Paper Golem, a small press that publishes occasional anthologies of SF stories. It was accepted, and came out as part of the Alembical 3 anthology. Elapsed time from submitting the first time to eventual publication: four years.

Would you try self-publication, or are you seeking traditional publication via an agent?

I’ve never self-published, but in the likely event that no traditional publisher wants to touch my forthcoming book with a ten-foot pole, I might have to consider it. I don’t currently have an agent, but then again I’ve never seriously looked for one. I don’t think I’m at that point yet.

What are one or two of your big learning experiences or surprises in establishing yourself as an author?

I’m a long way from being established as an author, and still have a lot to learn. But one important lesson I’ve learned is that anybody and their dog can call themselves a publisher, make a web site, and put out calls for submissions. It doesn’t mean that they know what they’re doing, that they will follow through on their promises, or that they will behave professionally. If a publisher becomes unresponsive to communications, lies to you or makes excuses, or otherwise doesn’t treat you right, get outta there. Don’t feel that as a first-time, new or unknown author, you have to put up with unprofessional behavior. And don’t be like me—I learned the hard way.

(Note: Preditors and Editors is a good resource for authors wishing to steer clear of fraudulent and flaky editors and publishers—which should be all of us, really.)

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on the second draft of a novel set in a dystopian future USA. It’s part “social science fiction”, part coming-of-age story. The first draft was written as a trilogy, not the best strategy for an unknown author. For the second version I’m condensing it into a standalone book.

 What’s something personal about you that people might be surprised to know?

I’m a bit of a fitness fanatic. I have a coach who programs my workouts, and I religiously log my workout results, sleep, and food intake. I’m actually more serious about staying in shape than I am about writing—which probably explains why only six people know about me 😉

Is there anything I haven’t asked, that you’d like to tell our readers?

It’s an honor to be a guest on your blog, Wendy. Many thanks!

The honour is all mine! Many thanks to Kammy for agreeing to be interviewed. Please check our her blog and her stories.

If you know an emerging author or you are one, especially one with a book or other project to promote, let me know and let’s see if we can’t spread that word of mouth a little further!

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