Not new to the world of writing, Lio Min has profiled and interviewed many musical acts, including Japanese Breakfast, Rina Sawayama, and Mitski, and has had features in Nylon, Catapult and the Atlantic. Their debut novel Beating Heart Baby is a best friends to enemies to lovers story with AAPI leads, which explores the different ways love can show itself, celebrating first love and indie rock music. PW spoke with Min about their process of writing for a YA audience, the challenges that arose while crafting a novel, and how anime influenced their story.
What was the catalyst for your debut?
There are a few things that went into writing this particular book at this particular time. I would say that the dominant force was the fact that I come from a decade-plus career in and out of music journalism, starting off in live music and then moving into more feature and interview reporting. And so I had all of this information that is not necessarily unique to me because there are a lot of people that move in and out of this world, but it was more just the experience that I had of watching this class of specifically Asian American musicians who were at various points in their career, their level up. The summer that I started writing Beating Heart Baby, summer of 2018, I had a really formative experience working with kids. It was one of those things where I started to see just how early on their conceptions about the world, about gender, were being formed and how that changed the way they related to each other. Even when they were as young as four or five years old. There was a part of me that was like, “What can I do to put the energy and thoughts that I have about the way things could be into a space where [young people] can understand.”
Another thing is that I’m a huge fan of a lot of shōnen anime. I still watch and read a decent amount, but I’ve always had a gripe with the way that they treat gender in a lot of these shows. There are a lot of [examples in popular anime that deal with] gender and sexuality, and the way that these things are not as static as they could be. And in a lot of ways they really codify certain gender status quos too. Part of the conception of Santi and Suwa, the two characters at the center of the book, was what can I do to write basically a shōnen anime or use the beats and feelings of shōnen anime in a non-My Hero Academia setting. [I wanted to write a story without] powers or casting spells, but with that same level of introspection the young male protagonists have, while portraying the fervency of their desires to change and [their] impact on the world.
Was there a particular anime you were thinking of when you wrote this?
Full Metal Alchemist is straight up my favorite series of all time. But as far as BHB itself, the story sprouted from Hunter x Hunter, which was another one that I read when I was a kid and revisited as an adult. I thought the depiction of Gon and Killua’s friendship was cool when I was a kid. But as an adult, the bitter sweetness of that relationship really came through—and the idea that this person who you find out in the wild unlocks a part of yourself that you didn’t know existed until you met them.
Another [influence] is FLCL [Fooly Cooly or Furi Kuri], specifically the imagery. And again, the idea of this kid being shaken out of their status quo and being forced to change by these outside forces, which are just confirming something that they’ve known and wanted but didn’t know how to do on their own. [The anime] was overall very atmospheric. There’s also rock music; the music of The Pillows was something that I listened to a lot while I was working on BHB.
As you mentioned, you’ve written a lot of articles about music and pop culture. How has that helped in crafting your book?
There is that part of [writing articles] where, interviewing artists who are teetering on a fulcrum of where their career is going to go and how [will] they decide to make this [career] the rest of their life. Artists have to grapple with which version of that trajectory they are choosing. There were people I’ve interviewed before where I knew they were going to be as big as they are now. The most ready example is Japanese Breakfast, where back then I knew that she had a vision for how the next few years were going to go. I’m not going say that it’s manifesting, but it’s the idea that energy is palpable to people who encounter it.
What I’m trying to do with BHB is to give the impression that a key like that can be found if you quest along a little bit more in your life. Of course, the more backstage elements of the story are from being in that [music] world. It was important to me that those parts were true, even if I couldn’t go as hard I might have wanted to [in researching details of the music industry].
One of the other beats that I had as a reporter was internet culture. The first story that I ever sold was about this very complicated web comic called Homestuck. I come from a deep fandom background where I’ve been privy to the dynamics of online communities and the relationships that are forged in these spaces. Anime can be a part of that, but it could be any number of things where, because no one else in your real life is part of this subculture, what does that do to your psychology when you meet someone who is simpatico to you. That part, along with a reporting background, is a huge part of the book.
What music were you listening to when you wrote this?
I made three playlists concurrently with the creation of the book, which were basically the spine on which the book is built around. There’s one that is [similar to how] the chapter titles are, track by track, [which is] the book, in songs. And then there is one version of the playlist that is all songs, lyrics, and moods from Santi’s POV. And then there’s one that’s all from Suwa’s POV. See the playlist here. As far as artists who are singularly important to those playlists, Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, Jay Som, Brockhampton, and specifically Kevin Abstract, who is an openly gay man in R&B and hip hop. Frank Ocean was also a huge influence and this band Car Seat Headrest, whose [lead vocalist] came from a very internet-y background.
Is there anything that was in your draft that didn’t make it into the final book?
I would say that compared to the first draft of this book, there are maybe two scenes that actually have any bones in the book, as it stands. I rewrote this thing cover to cover several times. Part of it was this is the first long-form fiction I’ve written since I was 11 or 12. I would say that in terms of what is very different, there were versions of the book where the gaps in time were a lot longer, and the character of Suwa’s father changed wildly from draft to draft, as I figured out exactly what it was that I wanted to say about East Asian masculinity and the structure of patriarchy that both ambiently and very rigidly immediately informs your life. But as far as the beats of the book, they were always going to be that particular journey. There was also a version of the book that I never put down in writing, but I thought about a lot, where the ending was more bittersweet. There is another unwritten version of the book where I’m like, “I really could have just twisted that knife,” but I wanted to remain hopeful. I want readers to walk away from it feeling as though they saw the moment that a flower bloomed.
What can we expect from you next?
I am trying to write another book. It’s been happening mostly in stops and starts, but in the same way that BHB’s elevator pitch is about boys, bands, and Los Angeles, the second book is about girls, grief, and video games. Similar to how the world of shōnen anime is the ambient companion to BHB, the world of magical girls is the ambient companion to this [next] book, or at least that’s what the hope is. I could tell that I was ready to start writing it once I started putting together music for it. The story and the characters are coming together. Some stuff is starting to happen with Beating Heart Baby where I have to pay a little bit more attention to promoting it and all that. Once some of that is out of the way and I have a little bit more head space, I’ll try to free up more time to give myself the chance to really just sink into it. It’s going to be different and it’s going to be a new challenge.
Beating Heart Baby by Lio Min. Flatiron, $18.99 July 26 ISBN 978-1-250-819093