Kristen and Layne welcome multi-talented multi-genre author Sandra SG Wong for a chat about her new suspense novel IN THE DARK WE FORGET, the challenges of crafting a main character who has no idea who she is, and what it’s really like to road trip with a thriller writer.

Mentioned in this episode:

Find out more about Sandra on her website, Instagram, or Twitter

Episode Transcript

LAYNE: Welcome to Unlikeable Female Characters, the podcast about women who don’t give a damn if you like them. I’m Layne Fargo, and I’m here with Kristen Lepionka.

KRISTEN: Hello!

LAYNE: And our guest today is Sandra SG Wong. Sandra writes in multiple genres, including the cross-genre Lola Starke novels and Crescent City short stories. She has been a finalist for the Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence, and longlisted for the Whistler Independent Book Awards. She also used to be the President of Sisters in Crime, and is now the Immediate Past President, which is still sounds very fancy. And her new book In the Dark We Forget comes out June 21st. So welcome, Sandra!

SANDRA: Thank you. Very fancy welcome.

LAYNE: We’re so excited to have you here. We actually were putting together our list of people we wanted to talk this summer, looking at the books that were coming out, and you were very high on our list. And then your agent reached out to me. She’s with the same agency that my agent is. And I was like, what a coincidence! We were literally just talking about this.

SANDRA: That is so great. Yes, we’re agency sibs. I just love that. Yeah. So I was stalking you on Twitter ages ago, as soon as I found that out. And I was like, when will Layne Fargo follow me back? I don’t know, but I’m praying.

LAYNE: Oh my God, I, when did I follow? I just followed you on Instagram. And I thought I was following you for a long time. That happens to me all the time, like I’m sure that I’m following someone, cause I’ll see their tweets cause like other people that I follow follow them.

KRISTEN: Yes, same with me.

LAYNE: Oh, internet. Well, I apologize for not following you back right away.

SANDRA: Don’t even worry about it. Like, that’s going to be the top of your list? I don’t think so.

LAYNE: I get really overwhelmed by Twitter. It’s like, I look at it, and I’ll engage with it a little bit, and then I just get overwhelmed and have to hide from it. I have a really love/hate relationship.

SANDRA: Yeah, no, that’s healthy, though. It’s healthy to hide from Twitter, I think.

LAYNE: I think it would be healthier to just delete it.

SANDRA: Well, I don’t know. I can’t quit it. I’m sorry. You know, there’s the otter videos, and the I Pet That Dog, and foxes. Yeah, I just can’t, I can’t quit Twitter. I’m sorry.

LAYNE: Ugh, yeah, I can’t quit it either. I want to believe that I could, but I can’t.

KRISTEN: Yeah. I want to believe that I could just stop using it without having to take the drastic step of deleting it. But for some reason, that’s impossible.

SANDRA: Yep. Yeah, I know. I know. I hear you, sister.

LAYNE: So your new book, In the Dark We Forget, comes out June 21st. Could you tell us a little bit about the book, and also the main character, Cleo?

SANDRA: Sure. I’m always torn about whether or not I should use her name, because the book starts out with her waking up with amnesia at the side of a highway. But, yeah, in the course of her recovering her identity and trying to recover her memory, she discovers that her parents have vanished. And she discovers there’s a $47.3 million jackpot in the mix, just for kicks and giggles.

So it’s told from my protagonist’s point of view. And she’s not too sure what’s happened with her parents, let alone herself, but she does find a really loving, supportive younger brother along the way. And they just try and piece everything together themselves. So in the manner of a kind of domestic suspense, I guess could be the genre? Though some people are calling it a psychological thriller, and I don’t really know what the difference is.

LAYNE: Yeah. I don’t know either. I mean, I guess domestic, I think definitely family, usually it’s husbands and wives. So it’s really interesting to see a brother/sister relationship at the heart of a book like that. If it is indeed domestic. We can call it whatever we want.

SANDRA: Yeah, exactly. It’s just a great book, people. I’m just going to call it that. Okay. I mean, I hope!

LAYNE: Yes, it is!

KRISTEN: Yes, it’s great.

LAYNE: And so how did you come up with this concept of amnesia and a lottery ticket? There’s so much going on, I love it.

SANDRA: I was in the Canadian Rockies on a road trip with my husband. We were there for an anniversary trip away, and we came around this bend in the highway—the Trans-Canada is what it’s called, the Number 1, which cuts across Canada, west to east. And we came around a bend just east of Lake Louise, and there’s a patch of flat-ish grass next to the highway. I’m like, what would it be like if someone just woke up there, and had no idea how they got there or who the hell they were? And that’s when it started.

LAYNE: That’s what it’s like to travel with a thriller writer. We’re always like, someone could get murdered there, and then some horrible thing could happen over there.

SANDRA: Absolutely.

LAYNE: We can’t turn it off.

SANDRA: We cannot turn it off. It’s just who we are. So, yeah. And for anyone who’s listening, if you’ve ever been to the Canadian Rockies, they’re immense. They’re amazing. They just make you feel so insignificant.

KRISTEN: So beautiful.

SANDRA: So I thought let’s add that into the mix, right? Because you stare at the mountains, at the tops, it’s like a carpet of trees, and you’re like, well, how could you possibly find your way if you got lost? What would you do? For me as a city person, you know, would I have my phone with me? Could I use the compass? I don’t even know what that means. Like, what would I do?

So yeah, that was the spark. And then I just kept thinking about the character and like, who is she? What is she like? What’s her relationship with her family? I love thinking about families, and my favorite kind are the totally fucked up families. Those are the best ones I find to really ruminate on. And like, why do people do what they do? Why do they keep coming back? If they keep coming back. Like, what is that about families that make someone do that?

That’s probably why I did siblings, brother and sister, rather than husband and wife. Plus there’s a lot of really great books of domestic suspense that are husbands and wives. So I thought, you know, someone else can take care of that part, and we’ll just focus on this story and see where it takes me.

KRISTEN: I love how as the reader is getting to know the protagonist, she’s getting to know herself. We’re meeting her, and she’s meeting her at the same time, really, because she doesn’t know who she is. And I think that’s a really fun way to launch yourself into a story because anything is fair game. But I bet as a writer, that was pretty challenging, because not having a real sense of your character’s identity can probably make it a little tricky to get the story rolling.

SANDRA: Well, thank you. Thanks for saying it worked for you. Cause, you know, for some people that doesn’t work, right? They’re like, who is this person? I want to know right away. But I like to do things that are interesting for myself as a writer, and then hope that other people find it interesting as well.

I am a person who likes to have an outline as just a touchstone, a lodestone. So I can return to it, if I write myself into this total tangent where I’m completely lost, at least I come back to the outline and see, well, what was I originally thinking?

But for this character, I did have a sense, you know, she started out on one end of a certain spectrum. And then I actually had to pull her back from the edge because she was a little too much. Too obvious. She was too straightforward. And I thought, well, let’s have a little mystery—no pun intended—to this character, because she’s a mystery to herself.

And I thought, well, what would that look like? What if you really wanted to know who you were? And then from there, from a writing perspective, what would the stakes need to be so that she really needed to find out who she was pretty damn quickly.

So I think I had a fairly good idea of who she was at the beginning, cause I do a lot of work on character before I start drafting. But she really did surprise me. And I know it’s such a cliché, and just to be really honest, sometimes I hear writers talk about their characters like, “they’re real people and they speak to me,” and I’m like, okay, that does not happen to me. But in this case, she took me some places I didn’t really know that I was going to go. So that was actually a lot of fun.

KRISTEN: Well, I also really love how as she begins to discover who she is, she realizes that she is a bit of an unlikeable female character in her past life. Like, she’s known for being blunt and sarcastic and sometimes rubbing people the wrong way. She’s like, who am I? Oh, I might be a bitch.

SANDRA: Yes.

KRISTEN: That’s wonderful.

LAYNE: And that her amnesia somehow made her nicer.

KRISTEN: Yeah.

LAYNE: I was telling my partner about this book. He was like, wow, what would it be like if you got a bump on the head and then you were like, nice? I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d be so freaked out. I’m like, I know, right? It’s crazy!

SANDRA: Yeah, I think that’s totally true with any of us. If we have no memory of our family or any of the experiences that made us who we are in this moment, then are we going to be the same person? Are we not going to be different? Aren’t we going to take a look at who we are?

We’re going to hear all these stories from other people about who we were. And then there’s sort of a freedom to saying, well, do I want to keep doing that? Do I want to keep going down that road? Do I want to slip back into those clothes? Cause you know, they’re going to feel a little bit uncomfortable, right? And I find that fascinating, the idea of identity, personalities, character, like how much of that is the choices we make along the way? And if that’s true, then what are the factors that come into our choice? Like I’m a total nerd about lots of stuff. And human beings are definitely fascinating study for me.

LAYNE: Yeah. I wrote down this quote when her brother’s telling her stuff about herself, from before. And he’s like, oh no, you’re not—I mean, you’re just like, kind of abrasive and sarcastic. And she says, “I may have amnesia, but I remember enough to know that’s what gets a woman called a bitch.” I love that line.

SANDRA: Oh, I’m so glad. Yeah, I really liked this character. She was a lot of fun to write. So I was so glad that you connected with her.

LAYNE: Yeah, totally. And it was really interesting as well, how she unconsciously—and then it sounds like, in her past life, consciously—used her status as a petite Asian woman so people wouldn’t find her threatening. That was really interesting commentary on how people perceive Asian women, throughout the book.

SANDRA: It’s also a comment on what do you do with that, as a petite East Asian woman? What do you want to do with that? This perception that’s put on you, how do you want to use it? Do you want to use it? Do you want to spend your life fighting against it, and saying I’m not like that at all? Or do you want to exploit it to your advantage? Because you know that the world is just not fair.

So I wanted to play with that cause, you know, in my experience, I’ve met all sorts of East Asian women, Chinese-Canadian women, Chinese-American women, Chinese-Australian women, etc., who just navigate all that in all different ways.

So I think that in terms of immigrant stories that many of us have read or seen on the screen, there’s definitely that, you know, dragon lady versus the demure—what’s that one movie? Flower Drum Song? Like we’re not all gonna break into song, but this sort of filial piety, following an obedient daughter. There’s these two extremes. The East Asian version of the Madonna/whore, I guess.

But we have like people all over the spectrum between that. So I wanted to see what could a person be like if they were the kind of person who decided they’d want to exploit it instead. And that’s definitely something Cleo discovers about her previous self. There’s a point in there where she’s like, well, if I have to decide, who am I going to be from here? What am I going to do now? And that question fascinates me, for sure.

LAYNE: We had a similar discussion with Amanda Jayatissa, the author of My Sweet Girl, when we interviewed her last year. Her main character does a similar thing where it’s like, the white people around her are seeing her in a certain way. And this character is choosing very much to exploit that and use it. And it’s kind of like, why not? It’s the white people’s fault for having these preconceived notions, and it should be used against them. Why not?

SANDRA: Yeah. I think too, it goes beyond ethnic boundaries. Like, just women in a patriarchal society, we all get that, right? That, you know, “hey little lady.” I mean, how many women do you know who’ve been called that? Little lady.

LAYNE: Oh, Yeah.

SANDRA: Right? So then, do you want to lean into that? I hate that phrase, but sorry, I used it. Do you want to use that, or do you want to set your boundaries and say, don’t call me that. It’s kind of moment to moment, right? Right now in this situation we’re thinking to ourselves, like, is it worth it to draw that line right now with this person? No, it’s a five-minute interaction, I don’t care. Never going to see this person again.

But if this is my boss, my supervisor, then it’s probably a line I should be drawing, you know, for that person to understand not to cross. So I think we all have that as women, and any kind of marginalized group. If you’re from a marginalized community, you’re going to have to deal with that in some way, shape, or form.

LAYNE: Yeah, it’s a really good point.

KRISTEN: And it’s exhausting, because you have to constantly reevaluate where that line is. And does it need to be reinforced? It’s not like, well, there’s the line, and things will fall where they are. You have to evaluate every single interaction differently based on whether or not that’s a boundary you need to assert, and it’s very tiring.

SANDRA: Yeah. Yes, it is. I’m always saying, like, if I didn’t have to deal with all that shit, just think of what I could accomplish.

LAYNE: Yeah, is this why the mediocre white men do so much? Because they don’t have to think about these things. It just, like, frees up the bandwidth in their brains?

SANDRA: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. We would rule the world, I think, otherwise. Which is the point. That’s the point, right? That’s why we’re exhausted dealing with this stuff, and they are not.

KRISTEN: So do you want to talk a little bit about how this book is different from your other books?

SANDRA: Oh, wow. Thanks. Yeah, so you mentioned Lola Starke novels and Crescent City short stories. So that was the series that I started publishing with. I signed my first book contract like 10 years ago, and it was for the first of the Lola Starke novels. And those are alternate history, hard-boiled detective, with ghost and magic. So this is very different.

Those are set in a 1930s-era Chinese Los Angeles, and Lola Starke is the series protagonist. She’s a trust fund baby, but she’s my femme fatale as a hard-boiled PI. She goes around digging into other people’s secrets, pretty much cause she just feels like it. So she has an interesting background, and I created a whole world for her. I have a number of short stories published that I write in that world that I call Crescent City. I really was taken by that idea, and so I ran with it.

And then, in 2018, I got the idea for this book, as I mentioned on a road trip. And I thought, you know, maybe I can try writing something contemporary and see where that takes me. I also write romance, so.

LAYNE: Oh, you do? That’s so cool.

SANDRA: Yeah, I do. I’m a massive romance fan from a very early age. Romance and mystery are the two genres I grew up reading. But I was a late reader because my parents, as typical immigrants, they didn’t really think that fiction was worthwhile. They always caught me reading books, and they’re like, why are you always reading books? And I’m like, why wouldn’t I be reading books? Life sucks, and I hate school. So yeah, I’m reading books, man.

But yeah, so, that’s the difference. The Lola Starke and Crescent City stuff, those are fun, but they take a certain mindset, right? I have to be in like, the 1930s ethos, and trying to remember all the slang. And so when I go back to writing those, I’ll have to do a deep dive back into all of my noir films, be bingeing noir films so I can get all the vocabulary back and all the slang.

Those are fun too, because there’s no technology in them. There’s no cell phones, you know, there’s magic and stuff. And I have my own magic system, which is fun. But magic systems are only fun when you put limits on them. So I sometimes write myself into corners where I’m like, I have no idea what I was supposed to do now. But I think that happens with any genre. It really matters if you’re creating a whole world, or you’re just writing it about your own neighborhood.

KRISTEN: Yeah. There’s so many corners to write yourself into.

SANDRA: Yep.

LAYNE: My big weak spot is all the, like, forensic and detective work kind of stuff. And so I was really impressed with how—I mean, I’m just assuming everything was correct, because I’m not going to go look it up, cause I’m bad at that stuff. But so much of this book is dealing with the police in their investigation, and really the step-by-step process. What kind of research did you do?

SANDRA: Yeah. So for other nerds like me, who like to read acknowledgements, you’ll see that I do thank a few people. And then I say, all errors are either by mistake or by design. So I freely admit that I did not deep dive into procedure because, like, that’s not this book, right? And other writers do a way better job of going step-by-step in a really great, suspenseful way through procedurals, and that wasn’t what the focus for this book was.

So I did basic due diligence. I did speak to someone who works for the RCMP. He was just, like, a personal friend, so not in an official capacity. And I was like, so what would happen if this, what would happen if she woke up on the side, and she went to the detachment, the closest one, and then what? And so he just said, well, then it would do this, and then if there’s that, and if there’s drugging involved, then it would have to be this. I’m like, okay, great. And then I just went with it after that.

LAYNE: It all seemed very official to me.

SANDRA: Thank you. Thank you so much. I mean, of course I did some internet research. And thank you to the RCMP site. Thank you, government of Canada. But I mostly just pieced together, like what would make sense? And then I just double-checked some stuff to make sure it wasn’t completely out of bounds How their detectives would act with a victim, and how would that go?

So I’m really glad that came across as plausible, and I’m totally open. I’m sure someone’s gonna email me at some point and say, you know, that was totally wrong, and I’ll say, okay, thanks.

LAYNE: People love to do that, don’t they?

KRISTEN: Oh, they sure do.

LAYNE: It’s like, wow, great. I’ll go fix the book, that’s already been printed, right now.

SANDRA: Yeah. Of course, in my fantasies, I have a certain rejoinder, which I probably will never say out loud because that would be really rude. And I don’t like being rude to people to their faces.

I think in our fantasies, the best response I could come up with would be like, thanks for letting me know, but did you keep reading? Because if you kept reading, it doesn’t really matter.

LAYNE: That’s not that rude.

SANDRA: Like, it doesn’t really matter.

LAYNE: Is Canada like the Midwest in this way, that we’re just like really, really subtly rude and passive aggressive?

SANDRA: Oh, yes.

LAYNE: I feel like we have that in common.

SANDRA: Yeah. Yeah, that’s the whole country. Like, I live on the prairies, which is like our version of the Midwest, but it’s the whole country. Yeah. Super passive aggressive.

LAYNE: That’s so interesting.

KRISTEN: We’d fit right in.

LAYNE: We would fit right in. We could move to Canada, Kristen!

KRISTEN: Great!

SANDRA: Yes, please do! Come. Come visit.

LAYNE: Oh man. I think about it a lot. Things are not going so great down here.

KRISTEN: They are not.

LAYNE: I also wanted to talk a little bit about Cleo’s relationship with Naomi, the Japanese-Canadian police constable, who is kind of on her case, and then not on her case, but is, like, an ally to her throughout this. I thought their relationship was fascinating.

SANDRA: Oh, good. Yeah. What do you think about it? Tell me more.

LAYNE: Well, obviously Naomi cares about her and doesn’t want anything bad to happen to her and feels a sense of responsibility, cause she was one of the first people that had contact with her after this incident. But also, they both know that Naomi is being put on this case basically because she’s an Asian woman and like, not even—like, Cleo is of Chinese descent, and Naomi is of Japanese descent, but other people are just like, oh, you’re both Asian, you’ll get along. So they feel that pressure, but they do actually have a lot in common as well. It’s that interesting tension.

SANDRA: I’m glad you picked up on that. I mean, that’s a kind of a weird circumstance, in my actual lived experience, I guess, when you see other people of color. For me, as a Chinese-Canadian woman, seeing other East Asian women in a white space, then it’s like, is that a friend or is that going to be someone who wants to compete with me?

Because that happens, right, with nonwhite people in white spaces. It could be like, who wants to be closer to whiteness? Who wants to go through the motions and the processes and be in the system of whiteness and benefit, and who wants to just be themselves? And everything in between along that spectrum.

So I wanted to explore that just a little bit. And I felt like Cleo would—as a character, it would make sense for her to cling to this person who through her actions has proven that she understands a little bit better where Cleo is situated, you know?

So there’s comments about big strapping white guys and stuff like that, right? And it’s well-known in Canada, the RCMP is not super inclusive. So I figured I couldn’t not mention that either, cause that’s the reality of the world that they’re in. And so what is that like for an East Asian woman who’s an RCMP officer? Cause you don’t see many of those. In all of my life, I’ve ever only seen one, personally. So I’m like, okay, what would that be like? And how would that affect how Naomi approaches, you know, a quote-unquote victim that looks like Cleo?

At one point, my editor was like, so is there a romantic thing happening between them? I’m like, no, because I don’t want to go in that direction. I wanted to make it focused on Cleo’s little family, and the sibling relationship, and the parents. And I just didn’t feel, bandwidth-wise for myself, like I was equipped to also put in a romantic storyline. So I didn’t deal with that. But I mean, who knows, right? If they had become closer friends, who knows?

LAYNE: I was shipping them a little bit.

KRISTEN: Yeah, me too.

LAYNE: I was kind of like, hmm, I know it’s not the time, we’re going through a crisis. But like, maybe later.

SANDRA: Yeah. Yeah.

LAYNE: But Naomi is such a great character, cause, at least in speaking to Cleo, she’s so straightforward. She’s like, look, we both know this is bullshit, and here’s why. But then she has to be different with the detectives and the other people that she’s dealing with, the tension between who she really is and the role that she has to play professionally.

SANDRA: That’s right. Thank you. That is that whole phenomenon of code switching, which we all do, right? Whether we’re women in a patriarchy or nonwhite people with white supremacy. You learn to code switch, depending on who you’re around.

And that’s also about that line. How much do you say, how much you keep on the other side of the line? So yeah, I’m glad that came through too. Cause I find that I can’t write characters or a story with characters like these, if I don’t deal with that, because that’s the reality of life.

LAYNE: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show today, Sandra. It was great to talk to you. Could you tell us a little bit about what’s up next for you and where people can find you on the internet?

SANDRA: Sure. Unfortunately, I am still on Twitter and handle is @s_g_wong. I’m a lot on Twitter, so you will probably find me there. I’m also on Instagram @sgwong8. And then there’s just my website, sgwong.com. So that’s me.

What I’m working on is, a couple of things. One is, I mentioned that I write romance, so I have a romance novel out on submission right now. So I’m hoping to see that published at some point in the next few years. And what I’m writing is a second suspense novel. Don’t want to say too much about it, because I don’t want to jinx myself, but this one will be different for sure. There’s going to be more than one narrator, so that should be interesting. So I’m going through the challenge of coming up with those multiple narrator voices that are distinct, you know, that are really clearly different people. So that’s fun. That’s interesting.

KRISTEN: Yeah, that’s always a challenge, especially having written a series character for awhile, to try to move into the multiple points of view. I’m working on that myself right now. And it’s interesting.

SANDRA: Yes. Yeah. You can call me anytime, Kristen, and we will commiserate over how freaking hard it is.

KRISTEN: Wonderful!

LAYNE: See, I think it’s hard to write a book in just one voice. I get bored. I’ve always had multiple POV.

SANDRA: Yeah.

LAYNE: I tried to write just one voice and I was like, oh my God, you again? I gotta switch it up.

SANDRA: I will DM you when I need to remember that. You can just tell me, like, listen, lady.

LAYNE: It’s so fun with multiple POV, cause you can play with the things that they say differently. Like, it’s one person’s perspective, then the other person’s perspective, and the truth is somewhere in the middle, and the reader has to figure it out. That’s what I think is so fun about it.

SANDRA: Yes. And that actually speaks to the heart of this book that I’m working on. It’s like, what is the truth? And does it actually change depending on who’s telling the story? So I’m definitely in that.

LAYNE: Well, that sounds awesome. We will look out for that in the future, and your romance novel, and anything else you’re up to. And everybody, you can go get In the Dark We Forget, it is out now at the time this episode airs. Thank you so much, Sandra!

SANDRA: Thank you, Layne and Kristen! I had so much fun, thank you so much.

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