Hi everyone! Today I am so pleased to welcome back Heidi Cullinan with another installment in her author interview series. Today she is talking to Atom Yang (and you can check out past interviews here). Please join me in giving Heidi and Atom a big welcome!
Hi, everyone! Heidi Cullinan here, with the next installment of my monthly column talking about books and authors I’ve discovered I think you might enjoy. As much as possible, I’ll be talking to those authors in an in-depth interview. We’ll dish about their projects current and future, the books they love, and any and everything that comes up along the way.
Today I’m talking to Atom Yang. Atom is a writer who grew up on a steady diet of comics, cartoons, and movies that made him want to be a storyteller–except his characters would look like him and his friends. You can find him lurking on his eponymous website; randomly chirping on Twitter; posting pics of men, food, and books on Instagram; and sometimes conversing on Facebook.
We’ll be talking about his latest release, Tea at the End of the World.
Herc thought he had the perfect life: a great partner and a meaningful career as a psychotherapist—until his partner left him a week ago and Herc became too depressed to see his clients. When a random meteorite punched a tidy hole in his car’s engine, it seemed like the world had it in for him, but bumping into Pyotr, the handsome older man who’s moved in a couple of doors down and happens to study things like falling stars, life might be looking up for Herc—and more may be falling than the skies in this light-hearted, apocalyptic romance.
If you follow me on social media, you’ve heard me sing Atom’s praises. I loved Red Envelope, but I’m absolutely over the moon for Tea at the End of the World. I love Atom’s writing style, his voice, and the way he makes me feel cozy but always keeps me guessing.
Welcome to the interview, Atom!
Atom Yang: Howdy, Heidi! Thanks for the interview and the kind words. I’m terribly flattered.
Heidi: You’ve earned every accolade!
So, we’re going to dive right into it. I love your work. I love the Asian-American rep, I love the accessibility of your stories, the intelligence in them. You have clearly been around the block when it comes to fiction. How did you start writing? How did you get here?
Atom: I started writing when I started reading and thought, “I want to make other people feel this indescribable feeling I get when I read stories. I remember in fifth grade, two classmates actually paid me for my work and told me they believed in me. Isn’t that sweet?
Heidi: Well done! And yes, incredibly sweet.
Atom: Anyway, it wasn’t until high school, when my father forbade me from continuing in theater, that I rediscovered writing as a creative outlet and took it seriously. I enjoyed poetry and won awards for it, but when I went to college, I got scared and thought, I need to make a living! So I focused on prose and later, screenwriting, which wasn’t that practical, either, but I felt there would be a larger audience.
I’ve been writing ever since, although I took a ten-year hiatus when I swore it off (but during that time, I wrote a lot of nonfiction, and I was hired by an advertising firm to write short fiction for them).
I had a hard time breaking in whenever I wrote about Asian male protagonists and was even told by a film production company owned by an Asian-American guy that it wouldn’t sell and that I shouldn’t try. That was incredibly discouraging. It quieted my voice because I felt like no one, not even my own community, was interested.
Only after I fell in love did I return to fiction writing, and that’s when I wrote Red Envelope, which was my version of a winter holiday romance. The editor I worked with agreed to let me pick a “non-traditional” winter holiday and I picked the Lunar New Year (which was very traditional for me). I had nothing to lose after my self-imposed hiatus, so why the hell not write what I wanted to write?
Heidi: I wish I could say I was shocked you were told not to include Asian male protagonists, but I can’t. I am frustrated as heck, though. That trend doesseem to be changing a little now, finally, but we’ll never have enough. Also, I’ll never forgive ABC for cancelling Selfie. Not ever.
Atom: Argh! Don’t get me started on ABC for cancelling Selfie! The trend appears to be changing, but we’ll see. I don’t want to wait another twenty-five years for an Asian-American movie like Crazy Rich Asians like we had to after Joy Luck Club. I think with China as a major player in the movie industry these days, as well as Millennials putting up with less crap than we did (and having the tools to change the crap) things will begin to change. We may be at the right time in history.
Heidi: Here’s hoping for that!
I love that you wrote short fiction for your job! Was it even remotely like what you’re writing now?
Atom: Yes, not in terms of subject or genre, but in terms of how I write about things. I like to take apart an idea, see what it might be saying underneath, and then put it back together so it says that. I’m working for a deeper understanding that may overturn expectations. My employer loved this, but I remember a client wasn’t so thrilled and my boss told me, “I think you pushed back harder than they could handle.” I was disappointed, but secretly, I also felt satisfied because I do want to push against the comfort zone–that’s where the growth is.
Heidi: Completely agree.
Tea at the End of the World had this magical quality to it, and yet it was mostly about this adorably awkward couple running barefoot and making narrow escapes. I think it was how the book was so grounded in everyday things–making tea, falling in love, dealing with exes–but also full of unusual things, such as the verisimilitude of Russian tea and the difficulties of navigating the end of the world. How in the world did you end up with such a story?
Atom: Tea at the End of the World was originally part of a “disaster romance” line called Storming Love, which mashed up the disaster and romance genres. The editor who worked with me on Red Envelope invited me to write for the “Meteor Strikes” series, about meteors crashing into Earth, and I felt so lucky to be asked that I agreed before realizing what that would entail!
Once I accepted, I began researching: I tapped my friends with connections to or knowledge of astrophysics, read about asteroids and the threats they posed, and watched meteor and non-meteor disaster movies. When it came time to tell the story, I deconstructed and then reconstructed elements from the disaster, science fiction, and romance genres so that I could understand what those stories were about, pay homage, and infuse them with my own sensibilities regarding identity, ethnicity, sexuality, sublimity, beauty, realism, fantasy, etc.
Heidi: Oh, lord! I love this. You’re some crazy hybrid of Damon Suede and I, how you approach stories. I remember listening to him go into the research weeds for Bad Idea. You’re the same!
Atom: *High five* This must be why I’m drawn to your stories! I remember reading Hot Head and Dance with Me and enjoying not only being introduced to those worlds but how the stories were told. You both give a richer understanding of what it means to be human, queer, and facing the very real probability, and threat, of being loved for who we are. The characters weren’t characters who happened to be gay, or who happened to be where they were in life. They embodied those aspects. I agree with the idea of “love is love” in the way that I agree that all lives do matter (duh), but when I’m writing my stories, I’m saying, “gay love matters.” It’s specific.
Heidi: Oh my actual gods yes. Preach it!
Atom: It doesn’t mean other kinds of love don’t matter, but I’m telling stories about my community and highlighting what it means to have those dimensions in our everyday interactions with others and ourselves. This is one reason I love playing with names in my stories: it’s essential to identity.
The names “Hercules” and “Pyotr” are derived from the 1979 movie Meteor! In it, the Soviet Union and the United States are forced to cooperate, and they turn their “Star Wars” missile systems, which were previously aimed at each other, on the common threat. The US system was called Hercules and the Soviets had Peter the Great. With this as a starting point for my characters, I knew the main character was going to be a Gay Asian Male (GAM) because there are few stories written by and about GAMs as protagonists, and a Russian man. I interviewed a Russian-American friend as well as did field research to make Pyotr three-dimensional. Herc’s best friend Nestori is Finnish, and this is due in part to the close relationship the Finns and Russians have had, and why Pyotr moved to that particular neighborhood; “Nestori” is the Finnish version of “Nestor,” who was one of Hercules’ best friends in the Greco-Roman myths.
Heidi: Seriously, this is the best. I knew you were going to have this kind of answer!
Okay. Since you brought up names–want to go a little deeper on that? Want to talk about your name, your pen name, and how all this plays into Chinese culture?
Atom: In Chinese culture, names are important. You’re not just “sister,” you’re “big sister.” You’re not just “uncle,” you’re “paternal uncle.” You get placed in relation to others just by what you’re called, and it’s similar when someone asks you at a party, “how do you know the host?” They’re assessing where you are in the social scheme of things.
When I chose my pen name, I wanted something that reflected not only my real name, which is a Western name with a Chinese surname, but symbolically represent a melding of two cultures. I wanted something that was indivisible (it’s what “atom” means) and masculine (“yang”). I had to pick a pen name because of my other profession, too, but it has nothing to do with being in the closet or embarrassment with writing romance.
The interesting thing was when I was invited by author CB Lee to join a reading event she organized focusing on Queer Asian American writers held at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. One of the elderly patrons came up to me and we were chatting in Mandarin and she said, “My last name is Yang, too.”
I was mortified because I knew what that meant–we were supposed to be related somewhere along the way. I had borrowed, without consent, from an entire lineage by using that surname, because family names aren’t up for grabs, and people are proud of their families and the names that go with them, and I should have known that given not just having basic cultural knowledge, but knowledge about Chinese artists and art movements that utilized a version of “wu ming (no name)” in their works. I immediately told her my Chinese name and explained that Atom was my pseudonym.
There’s a Western author who wrote John Dies at the End and he goes by “David Wong,” because he said Wong was the most popular last name in the world; this gave him anonymity, he felt. To me, he just penciled himself into a family portrait without permission! Plus, I was so disappointed to find out he wasn’t Chinese.
Heidi: Wow, that’s super fascinating! I’m so spoiled because I was able to use my legal name. If you could rename yourself, would you? What would you do instead–use your real last name? Something else entirely? Or is there no good answer?
Atom: I think if I didn’t have my other profession, I would go ahead with my legal name. As for using my real last name right now, that’s a good idea (hmm), except I’m concerned that it’s too traceable (even though it’s one of the more common surnames). I might consider using my mother’s surname (also extremely common), because I’m closer to that side of my family and grew up with them. The family in Red Envelope is based off them (and you’ll notice they don’t have last names revealed in the story to make them an “every people.”) The other thing I struggle with is that I really like “Atom Yang”! I thought about changing my real name, but again, I’d be dealing with appropriation. Maybe Atom X or I could just go classic like Cher and stick with Atom.
Heidi: As my husband is currently in the throes of Madonna’s latest album, I vote for Atom X. But I’ll read you whatever your name is.
Atom X: Great! Thank you! (I’m kidding about the “X” for now. Can you imagine the work with rebranding?)
Heidi: LOL, yeah.
Switching gears a little: Who are your author heroes, your early (and current) influences? Who are you picking up to read right now?
Atom: My author hero is Alan Moore.
Heidi: So much makes sense right now.
Atom: Does it? Wow, so you’re familiar with his work? I feel like we just did a secret handshake!
Heidi: I am actively reigning myself in right now so Jay doesn’t email me going “why is this suddenly all about comics?”
Atom: I need to be where you are so I can hug you. Comics is just the medium–I loved the romance in Moore’s work! He said that in any story, you’ll find elements from all the genres. The love story in The Saga of the Swamp Thing was beautiful. And doesn’t Dreamspinner have a series of romance manga? I haven’t read any M/M romance comics, manga or otherwise, but I know as a genre, it exists in that form, too.
Heidi: They do! Okay… so, as to why I said it made sense your author hero is Alan Moore… I’d say at minimum you have that rich, comic book world mindset, that richness and layering and yet ability to withhold–if you’re going to write about a tea-loving Russian, you’ll use just enough detail to make the story sparkle but hold back the absolute mountain of information you also know, choosing to let that bleed in naturally instead of soaking the story. But to Moore specifically, I’d say you’re not afraid to take us places, and you do it in a way that feels natural and right, not edgy. Because there are authors who go to new places practically pinning up signs announcing the right turns they’re taking–which is a choice, no shade–whereas you work really hard to make the reader feel they somehow already knewall about how to drink tea like a Russian.
And obviously, especially in TATEOTW, the stakes are mammoth. The actual end of the world. Except it also isn’t. I mean…Moore.
Atom: You so get me. Thank you. I heard once that the world ends all the time, it’s reality that keeps going on; and what that means for me is that the concept of “the world” is what we overlay onto reality, and yes, this is subject to change depending on who tells the story, and where we are in history.
Heidi: I love this.
Atom: So the world is ending for a lot of people right now, and they’re fighting it with oppressive and regressive laws that attempt to halt or reverse transformation, and it causes a lot of suffering. But back to Moore! His writing inspired me to write and continues to inspire me. My early influences include him and Madeleine L’Engle, Judy Blume, Haruki Murakami, Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison, Banana Yoshimoto, Jerry Spinelli, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Poppy Z. Brite (Billy Martin), Octavia E. Butler, and Margaret Atwood.
Heidi: Banana Yoshimoto is new to me, but I just looked her up and I’m ready to dive in! Love Murakami too–such a list you have here.
Atom: My original major in college was World Literature and Cultural Studies, which was where I was introduced to many of these writers, but I switched to Creative Writing once they accepted my application (mwahaha). I’m thrilled to introduce you to Banana Yoshimoto! She was a rock star in the literary world–I was introduced to her in college, and the professor explained that in Japan, due to the 99% literacy rate, writers are considered celebrities more than in the States.
Heidi: I did not know this. You just made so many scenes from anime and manga that much clearer.
Atom: Cool! And check out her collection of stories, Kitchen. Such a delight.
As for my current influences, they are Ken Liu (a friend gave me a book of his work, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and I was hooked; his short story, “The Paper Menagerie,” is “the first work of fiction, of any length, to win the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards” according to Wikipedia), Ted Chiang (his short story, “The Story of Your Life,” was adapted into the film, Arrival), and Alice Walker (I listened to her read The Color Purple and it was a religious experience). Right now, I’m reading Roan Parrish, Steve Berman, and you off the top of my head–my reading list is way too long and I’ve got several books and audiobooks going, with the audiobooks clipping along because I’m a slow reader. I recently discovered Francis Lam of The Splendid Table on NPR, and I love listening to him talk–apparently, he also writes, and he edits cookbooks such as Tacos: Recipes and Provocations that deals with great food and racism! How awesome is that?
Heidi: Highly awesome! I love how all over the place you are. I can totally see that in your writing, bringing all that ether into a manuscript and distilling it into your own new creation. Love it.
Atom: Thank you! When I was younger, I thought being all over the place was a bad thing, because everybody was always telling me to pick one thing or fail. It’s actually been an asset. I relate to so many more people, and can write many different kinds of characters, than if I had only one interest. If all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. I’ve got a freaking toolbox, baby!
Heidi: When I was first shopping manuscripts in the early 2000s, an agent gave me one of those “you’re never going to make it” smiles when I said I wanted to write in all kinds of genres just like all my favorite authors. I think of that often and smile. Here’s to being all over the place!
Atom: It’s satisfying proving doubters and nay-sayers wrong.
Heidi: You mentioned how few stories are written by and about gay Asian males. I feel this. Actually, I discovered you because I was trying to find Asian OV voices in gay romance since I was writing an Asian character in The Doctor’s Secret, and I wanted to be able to point to people who knew how to do what I was doing better. I had trouble.
Atom: Me too. I couldn’t find any GAMs writing gay romance. There were some writers pretending to be Asian (I could tell from the pen names that they didn’t know they were using a surname as a first name, for example). The MM romance community tried to be helpful, but I think people knew that there weren’t many of us (at all) around. I wanted to assure readers and writers that I wasn’t here to point and shame; I was doing market research. Apparently, I’m a unicorn!
However, I haven’t written as much as I could have to fill this niche. Part of that has been feeling discouraged, especially with what went down at one of the more successful independent publishers where the editorial director said they’d never put a POC on the cover. This wasn’t anything new, but for some reason, it really hurt and I backed way off.
Heidi: Yeah, there’s a difference between “never” and “with care.” For example, it’s my habit to mostly include only one male on the cover of my gay romances. I’ve learned over the years that because I’m so widely read in mainstream romance, I’m more likely to get picked up by “accident.” I cannot tell you how many letters I get a year saying, “I bought X because I assumed it was straight romance, and then I read the first chapter and was surprised. But I liked it, so I kept going, and now I’ve read all your books.”
Atom: I love that you’re a gateway drug. People who picked up Red Envelope on a whim have told me how much it changed their perception of Chinese (Asian) families and their responses to gay people. Not that there aren’t problems, but I was tired of the stereotype when I knew differently. I wanted to see another representation, along with stories of gay people not dying from AIDS, and not losing the love of their life to bashing, and not killing themselves, and not being the sidekick in service to the straight characters.
The other thing I learned from Moore was that stories are magick: they enchant. In the Talmud, it’s written that saving one person is akin to saving an entire world; destroying someone destroys a world. I think the same applies to minds: we change minds, we change worlds. What better way than to do that through stories? But ever since Dance with Me I’m a huge fan–tell me more about what you’ve been doing!
Heidi: OMG, what I’ve been doing most lately is flailing. And writing incredibly slowly. I think I just ran out of the adrenaline I was using to recover post-Samhain and my brain said, “You’re going to chill now.”
That said, I am finally going to finish Rebel Heart, my first bisexual woman/lesbian story, hopefully within the next month. Though I’m still writing it, I already have the cover. This time, I put two women on because it was so incredibly important to me, as this is the first time I am represented in one of my stories as a main character.
Atom: Wow, that’s powerful.
Heidi: I also put the POC on the cover of every Copper Point series book because it was important to me–these books are getting an insane push from Dreamspinner, and I wanted that melanin in the middle of that.
Atom: Yes!! That’s awesome. I so appreciate you doing that.
Heidi: I think the key is to decide what’s important to you as an author and what will work for the books. I know AOC in romance, straight and queer, who avoid putting POC on their covers or do so very carefully. I know others who insist on them. Both answers are right as far as I’m concerned–so long as someone isn’t telling you that you can’thave POC on your cover, or must have only one person on the cover. There are advantages to subtlety, but if they come at the cost of the author feeling erased, it’s no good.
Atom: I agree. When I independently published and re-released Red Envelope and Tea at the End of the World, I designed extremely different covers from the original.
Heidi: There are quite a few stories by non-Asians with Asian protagonists, but speaking as one who has also written an Asian protagonist, there’s a world of difference between own voice and borrowed voice. What do you feel you bring to your stories, being gay and Chinese–whether or not you write Asian protagonists?
Atom: I feel like I bring a lived experience when I write about gay and Asian (specifically Chinese) characters, but the general thing I bring into my stories is the sensibility of the outsider who’s not necessarily a loner, and someone who can see more than one perspective. With regards to being gay, there’s a movement from shame to acceptance to celebration. There is a bit of that with being Chinese within a Western culture, too, especially when combined with gay culture where there’s a distinct and well-documented prejudice against Asian men (it exists in straight culture, too, but I’m speaking to being gay and Chinese).
However, my mother raised me to be proud of my heritage, and she got on my case if I ever showed embarrassment for our language, food, or any aspect of our culture that was rooted in judgment from “Americans.”
Heidi: This is one of the best arguments for OV authors I’ve seen. Because I knew a lot of that from research and paying attention, but I’m here to tell you, there’s nothing like living in that space to be able to represent it. Thank you for writing your books! Please write many, many more.
Atom: Thank you! And I will. I mean, I can’t promise anything–sometimes writing feels like a day-to-day commitment that builds up to a habit, like going to the gym. Other days, I think I’ll write for the rest of my life, no problem. And I also want to say, I appreciate borrowed voices, too. There are many writers who are not gay men or of Asian descent who have written wonderful stories that demonstrate respect. I think “borrowed” is so much better than “appropriated.”
Heidi: Very important follow up: do you have recs?
Atom: Way too many! I prefer to give tailored recommendations based on what people tell me they like, so I’m going to do that thing where I try to get at the heart of your question, and so I think my biggest recommendation is to explore. Join a romance group focused on multiculturalism and diversity on social media. Check out the hashtag “ownvoices.” Not every story or author is going to do it for everybody, but keep adventuring out of your comfort zone.
When I worked as an American Sign Language interpreter, I had the privilege of interpreting Alice Walker and during the Q&A, someone asked her, “How do we get more people of color into our neighborhoods?” And she wisely responded, “Move to where there are people of color.” Columns like this one you’re writing totally helps to introduce and make accessible authors and books that would have otherwise been difficult for the majority to find on their own. I’m so grateful for it and to be interviewed by you.
Heidi: I enjoy the heck out of writing this column. I can already tell I’m going to look forward to it every month.
I had more things I wanted to talk about, but we’re already getting pretty long, so I’m going to pitch you one last thick question: What’s most important to you about writing a story? What are you trying to convey for your readers, what are you wanting to remain as your stamp on the literary world? Also, related–is there anything you really want to write, whether you’re already working on it or simply dreaming about it?
Atom: The most important thing for me about writing a story is evoking a meaningful, emotional experience where we gain a deeper understanding and acceptance of ourselves, in all our flawed glory, by disassembling what we thought we knew and reassembling the same pieces into a better configuration. And that’s also what I’m trying to convey to readers, that we can refuse a dominant narrative that we’re monsters, outsiders, unwanted, or unworthy–and master our own narrative where we’re the protagonists.
As for my stamp on the literary world? Perhaps that will be for time to decide, but that I got to tell my stories alongside others, and that readers found my work important to them, will be enough.
I’ve been working on a story about Western-style (European) witches and Daoist-Buddhist priest-warriors for a few years. I’m on the third major rewrite and I think I’m going to toss the whole thing and start over–I need to respect the narrative and where it wants to go instead of shoe-horning it into something it’s not; I need to respect my voice as a writer, really.
There’s usually nothing in particular I want to write. Whatever catches my imagination, that’s what I go for, and I give it my all.
Heidi: I feel this so intensely. I have series (hello, looking at you, The Roosevelt) that will only move forward on their timeline, and never go where I plan. I try to balance stories that need time with stories that I can produce more according to deadline, but that’s the eternal struggle for all of us, I think.
Well, this has been an amazing interview and I want to keep going until the end of time, but sadly we need to wrap this up. Someday we’re going to meet and go out to dinner and do this in person! Thank you so much!
Atom: I am looking forward to that day and many more in the future. I enjoyed every single minute of this conversation. Thank you again for the interview and for boosting the signal.
An author of contemporary, historical and paranormal romances featuring LGBT characters, Heidi Cullinan is best known for stories of characters struggling with insurmountable odds on their way to their happily ever afters. Her latest release is book two in the Copper Point: Medical series, THE DOCTOR’S DATE. Book three will be released this August from Dreamspinner Press. Find out more about Heidi at www.heidicullinan.com and be sure to follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Atom Yang is a writer who grew up on a steady diet of comics, cartoons, and movies that made him want to be a storyteller–except his characters would look like him and his friends. You can find him lurking on his eponymous website; randomly chirping on Twitter; posting pics of men, food, and books on Instagram; and sometimes conversing on Facebook.