Jesse Q. Sutanto has written what is so far one of my favorite reads of 2023. Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers is hilarious, sweet, and anchored by the utterly fabulous character of Vera Wong, who owns a tiny tea store in San Francisco. Sutanto has written books for young adults and middle grade readers, as well as adults, and her book Dial A for Aunties is being adapted into a film with Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off the Boat and Always Be My Maybe) for Netflix. This year alone Sutanto has four books being published, so I am truly grateful she had a moment to sit down and answer a few questions.
Robing Agnew for Mystery Scene: I just loved this book! Vera’s voice is so strong and she just gets inside your head. Can you talk about creating her?
Jesse Q. Sutanto: Vera was almost unfairly easy to create, because she is basically my mom combined with a dash of my dad, with the dial turned up to 100. All of her little snippets of wisdom, such as believing that drinking cold water would freeze the fats in your arteries and give you heart disease, are practically direct quotes from my parents. Just FYI, my parents would like all of you to stop drinking cold water.
I loved the characters so much, I wasn’t even thinking about the mystery part. However there is a mystery here: What was important to you as you were crafting the puzzle part of the novel?
This was the first time I’d ever written a whodunit, so it was a very tricky process for me! The most important thing for me while writing was to make it possible that any of the other four characters might be the killer. That nearly broke my brain.
You got your start in young adult novels. What are the differences between writing young adult books as opposed to novels for adults? I’ve noticed that YA authors who cross over to “grown up” books come equipped with the gift of pacing their books.
I haven’t had to change much between each age category. I certainly don’t “dumb down” the writing or anything like that. The main thing I do is to be very aware of the different boundaries and life goals that come with each age category. For example, in YA, my characters are all in high school, which comes with a certain set of rules. They usually have curfews, they have to abide by school rules, etc., and this naturally helps to shape the story.
I loved the setting of Vera's little tea room. There’s a great amount of detail about the different teas. Can you talk about that a bit? Research? Personal love for tea?
My grandparents all came from China, and my maternal grandfather felt strongly that I should be able to brew and serve Chinese tea competently, so I grew up learning about a lot of different Chinese teas. When I was 16, I went on a trip to China with my family and we visited a tea farm, where I learned even more about various Chinese teas. So I came into the book already with a good foundation of knowledge, not just about Chinese tea, but also about quite a few of the ingredients that Vera uses in the book. I still had to do a bit of research, but I was pleased to find that for the most part, my research served to affirm what I’d learned from my grandfather years ago.
I also loved the food. It’s a book where the food practically jumps off the page. Are you a cook yourself? Did you make yourself hungry when you were writing about it? I got hungry reading it!
I do cook, but not the complicated dishes that Vera does! I live in Indonesia now, so I have easy access to a lot of Chinese food, but this wasn’t the case when I lived in Oxford, England. I was sooo homesick then. The dishes that I put in the book are ones that I missed very, very much when I was away from home. Total comfort food for the soul.
This book was sweet, but not in a corny way. It’s well balanced by humor. Can you talk about creating that balance?
I started out by creating broken characters; everyone in the book is broken in their own way, even Vera. And from there, I sought to make them more whole by the end of the book. The humor came naturally, because again, I was always channeling my parents, and I’d just ask myself: “What would mama say in this situation?” So I didn’t really think too much about creating a balance, it was just based on whatever felt right for the scene.
Did you have a favorite character to write, other than Vera? All of them undergo some kind of transformation or growth which must have been fun to write.
My favorite character to write other than Vera would have to be Sana. Did you spot the self-insert, by the way? Sana’s mom is a writer who obnoxiously releases four books a year…ha ha! Sorry, I crack myself up. I was very tickled when I came up with the idea of Sana’s mother, and I really enjoyed exploring how having a mom like that might put extra pressure on poor Sana. (I hope I’m never like that toward my own daughters.)
What’s your favorite thing about sitting down to write every day? And what is your least favorite?
My favorite part is when you get into this magical state where everything falls away and you’re fully absorbed into the story. The words flow out faster than your fingers can type, and it’s a beautiful feeling chasing the story as it rushes out of you. Truly, nothing better than that sensation. My least favorite is some days, the words come out fighting every step of the way. I don’t know why, but sometimes it just happens, and on those days, I have to grit my teeth and grind all the way through until I hit my word count goal.
Can you name a book that was transformational for you, as a reader or as a writer?
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It transformed the entire suspense genre for me. I used to love the genre, but it was so dominated by male authors and after a while, all of the graphic rape scenes got to me. Then I picked up Gone Girl, and it blew my mind. Blew everything else out of the water. I’d never come across anything so diabolical, so complicated, and so well-thought-out. Pure genius. We’re so blessed to have Gillian Flynn’s books.
What’s next for you? A vacation? Will there be another Vera book? (I hope!)
I actually have four books scheduled for publication this year! Vera, the sequel to my MG Fantasy Theo Tan and the Iron Fan, my adult suspense I’m Not Done With You Yet, and my YA rom-com Didn’t See That Coming. I’m so excited about all of them! I finished writing a new book last month, so currently I’m on a break, but I do plan to start writing again sometime in May—an epic fantasy that’s been on my mind for years. Wish me luck because it is going to be a hefty project!
Jesse Q. Sutanto is a Chinese-Indonesian author. As of 2022, she has published six novels, including for adults, young adults, and middle grade readers. Her novel Dial A for Aunties won the 2021 Comedy Women in Print Prize and has been optioned for a film by Netflix. She currently lives in Jakarta with her husband, who is English, and their two children.
Robin Agnew is a longtime Mystery Scene contributor and was the owner of Aunt Agatha's bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for 26 years. No longer a brick and mortar store, Aunt Agatha has an extensive used book collection is available at abebooks.com and the site auntagathas.com is home to more of Robin's writing.