Photo credit Julie Daniels
Jennifer J. Chow is excited to introduce readers to her latest odd-couple sleuthing team, young cousins Yale and Celine, and their adventures in Los Angeles' vibrant night market.
Author Jennifer J. Chow introduced mystery lovers to Death by Bubble Tea, the first in her series featuring Yale Yee, a young woman who finds herself reluctantly running a food stall at the local Asian night market after losing her bookstore gig. Together with her Hong Kong cousin Celine, Yale serves up delicious dishes and bubble tea with a side of sleuthing when one of their customers dies from poisoning.
Chow, who also pens young adult fiction and the Sassy Cat mysteries featuring Mimi Lee, infuses her cozy with a youthful dose of hipness and social media savvy, while still adhering to classic and enjoyable genre tropes. Death by Bubble Tea is a wonderfully vivid, clever, and well-imagined look at the world of Yee as she struggles to find her way, get along with her very different cousin, and solve a murder.
Mystery Scene's Robin Agnew spoke with the author about her writing, as well as her work as the president of Sisters in Crime, an international association for those committed to equity and inclusion in the crime-writing industry and community at large. Chow also shares with us her recipe for Chinese almond cookies (see below).
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: It's interesting that you began in young adult fiction. What differences are you finding between writing for young people versus writing for adults?
Jennifer Chow: What I like about writing for young adults is the newness of every situation in that life stage—and I love inspiring the upcoming generation. For adults, I enjoy exploring the complexity of today’s world and providing a welcoming community for readers within a series. (Side note: I dabbled in women’s fiction before moving on to YA stories.)
Yale Yee, the protagonist in your L.A. Night Market series, has a wonderful backstory. One aspect is that she’s been working at a bookstore run by some older sisters, and they have to lay her off as the book opens. Was the bookstore based on a real one? And why begin the book with a layoff?
The bookstore wasn’t based on a real store, but it has the warm ambiance of this wonderful shop near my family’s Chinese restaurant from when I was growing up. It was a reading wonderland, and I spent a lot of my waitressing tips there.
I began the story with a layoff because these are tough times. The slice of reality (the hard work of owning a business, let alone a bookstore) ground the novel.
I loved the relationship between Yale and her fancy Hong Kong cousin, Celine. There is a nice sisterly feel to it. Will that relationship continue through the books?
Yes! Yale and Celine work off each other so well. It was great to have that odd-couple dynamic—and they also complement each other when sleuthing.
How about the restaurant Yale's family owns? You mention your own family's Chinese restaurant. The whole restaurant culture in the book is a wonderful aspect of Death by Bubble Tea.
Aw, thanks. Yep, I grew up in the restaurant business. I remember starting off with tasks like peeling carrots and wrapping egg rolls. Later on, I graduated to cashiering duties and waitressing.
Being from the Midwest, I was new to the concept of a night market. Can you talk about the night market where Yale sells her bubble tea, and kind of describe the atmosphere for readers?
I fell in love with night markets while traveling in East Asia. They’re festive events that happen after dark. Basically, you have a place where you can go to relax at night (and often extending into the wee hours of morning). There are vendors who sell trinkets and handmade crafts. Sometimes there’s a game area where you can try your luck at carnival-type activities. If there’s a stage, you can find dancers, singers, and all kinds of performers. Of course, the main attraction for me is the huge array of food stalls; you can go to different vendors and eat to your heart’s delight.
I liked that this series has an urban setting and a younger vibe than many cozies do. Are cozies evolving to draw in new readers?
More cozies are coming out that resonate with younger readers, whether that’s due to the vibrant setting or the age and personality of the main character. Cozy mysteries are also pushing the boundaries with the topics and issues that are being addressed, either directly or peripherally. I’m also all for the diversity appearing in cozies, which realistically reflects the modern world.
While the L.A. Night Market series is your latest, you really began cranking out the work in 2022, including two books in your Left Award-nominated Sassy Cat series featuring Mimi Lee. Can you talk about that series a bit?
Ah, my pandemic series. It was wild having two books out in the same year. Mimi Lee is the main character in the Sassy Cat series; she’s a pet groomer in Los Angeles and runs a shop called Hollywoof. (What else?) She partners with her telepathic and snarky cat, Marshmallow, to solve cases. I love those two characters because Mimi’s Chinese Malaysian heritage mirrors my own and because Marshmallow is such a fun character to write. The Sassy Cat series is a trilogy and currently on “paws” (pun intended) for further books.
What makes you happiest when you sit down to write every day? What’s the hardest part of writing?
Creating a new world is my happy place. I enjoy having my characters talk to me and visualizing the scenes in my head like a movie. It’s much harder for me to dig into edits, particularly if it’s the umpteenth time going through the manuscript.
Can you talk about a book that was transformational to you as a reader or as a writer?
So many, but I’ll pick three:
- Agatha Christie—anything of hers. She hooked me as a mystery reader.
- The Joy Luck Club. Amy Tan’s book was pivotal in helping me realize that there’s a place for Asian American authors.
- Dale Furutani’s mysteries, particularly his samurai ones, because only when discovering them did I understand I could weave culture into mysteries.
You are president of Sisters in Crime at the moment. Can you share a bit about this wonderful organization, as well as the amount of work it takes to run such a large organization?
Sisters in Crime is an amazing nonprofit organization. We’re an inclusive and international crime writing community with over 4,500 members. We do things like give grants to emerging crime writers, offer an informational podcast, provide webinars on craft, supply cash awards to libraries and bookstores, and conduct surveys about the representation of women and diverse voices in the genre. We accomplish so much only because of dedicated volunteers, from everyone on the board to our various committees to our leaders in the local chapters.
We value all crime fiction writers and fans. Find out more and join us at www.sistersincrime.org.
Finally, what’s next for you? I know there’s a book two in your Yale Yee series; will there be more after that? (I hope so!)
There’s definitely a book two in the L.A. Night Market series. Hot Pot Murder comes out in June 2023. I have more potential scenarios for the Yee cousins and am also currently exploring a new series idea. We’ll have to wait to find out what the future holds…
Jennifer J. Chow writes cozies with heart, humor, and heritage. She is the twice-nominated Lefty Award author of the Sassy Cat Mysteries. The first in the Sassy Cat series, Mimi Lee Gets a Clue, was selected as an OverDrive Recommended Read, a PopSugar Best Summer Beach Read, and one of BuzzFeed’s Top 5 Books by AAPI authors. Her new series is the L.A. Night Market Mysteries, and Death by Bubble Tea, which the New York Times called “the first in a fizzy new series,” hit the SoCal Indie Bestseller List. She currently serves as President on the national board of Sisters in Crime, blogs at www.chicksonthecase.com, and participates in Crime Writers of Color.
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.