Following the conclusion of her middle grade fantasy duology, the Winston Chu books, Stacey Lee returns to her historical YA roots with murder mystery novel Kill Her Twice, which takes place in 1932 Chinatown Los Angeles. When sisters May, Gemma, and Peony Chow discover the body of movie star Lulu Wong, a hometown celebrity, the siblings worry that justice will not be served and endeavor to honor Lulu’s legacy—and prevent the killer from striking again—by solving her murder. As the trio investigate, they’re met with resistance from the police, who underplay Lulu’s death, and political forces that want to paint Chinatown as a place full of “drunken and slovenly” people. In a conversation with PW, Lee discussed writing her first murder mystery, her foray into middle grade, and how her research informs her novels.

In your 2019 Q & A with PW, you said you “do a lot of research in order to find the story. For me, I always seem to look for the place first.” Was that also true of Kill Her Twice?

Yes, it definitely was. I had always wanted to set a book in Los Angeles, which is where I grew up, and which is actually where I am currently—my parents still live in the same house I was born in. I come back pretty often. And of course, Chinese people have been here for a long time. There were so many fun elements to work with—especially with old Hollywood, which is right near Chinatown, at least during that time period—that I thought I could use to create Kill Her Twice, which is the first murder mystery that I’ve written.

Why did you choose to set Kill Her Twice in 1930s Hollywood?

It just felt like it was a natural fit. Have you ever seen Chinatown with Jack Nicholson? I had purposefully never seen it, because I knew that a movie set back then wasn’t going to be very flattering to the Chinese. I have a hard time with a lot of the Chinese stereotypes that are in those kinds of movies, and watching them can be triggering for me.

When I finally did sit down to watch it, I thought it was a necessary thing to do before I wrote a book that took place in the same time period. In the movie, Chinatown represents the “other.” Who knows what goes on in Chinatown? The movie takes place from Jack Nicholson’s perspective, so Chinatown was like a completely foreign country to him, if you will. So, I thought to myself, “I want to change that narrative. I don’t want people to think of Chinatown as this evil, mysterious place where bad stuff happens.” I wanted to show people that there were young girls there, and they were doing some remarkable things. I wanted to say, “This is a place you and I could visit and we would not be in danger.” [Chinese American film star] Anna May Wong grew up in 1930s Chinatown, and back then, it wasn’t the scary place that it was made out to be.

Speaking of Anna May Wong, in your author's note, you quote her as saying, “When I die, my epitaph should be: ‘She died a thousand deaths.’ ” Did that play a role in inspiring the murder mystery premise?

It absolutely did. She was so villainized; so many of her roles were as the villain. She eventually got fed up with that and I think she moved to Europe and pursued film there, where she had a little more freedom in her roles. I wanted the victim in this story to be based on her, which is how I created Lulu Wong. It’s sort of like art imitating life, if you will, because it’s her death that’s the catalyst for the protagonists to get involved with finding out who the murderer is. What better way to show how this sort of perception can result in something so horrible?

Some protagonists from your previous novels are also based on historical figures. What does your process for creating characters based on real people look like?

I don't want people to think of Chinatown as this evil, mysterious place. I wanted to show people that there were young girls there, and they were doing some remarkable things.

I read a lot about Anna May Wong’s life, which really helped color in my descriptions of Chinatown. I didn’t know much about her until I started doing research for this book, which was around the time the quarter with her face on it came out, so she was already in the zeitgeist.

But I’m always careful not to use the person’s name or suggest that this was actually Anna May Wong’s life, especially because I want to have the freedom to play with that in the story. I just like having those kinds of details to give readers something interesting to spark their curiosity and compel them to learn more about these people and to find out the real story on their own.

Actually, a book came out a few months ago about the life of Anna May Wong by Katie Gee Salisbury called Not Your China Doll. So, there are all sorts of wonderful actual true accounts of her life.

How challenging is it to puzzle together the appropriate historical elements to communicate the story you want to tell?

Often what happens is, when I start doing research, learning about the different elements associated with a particular place or time period adds to the plot—it helps me develop the plot. I didn’t know so many of the things that had happened in Los Angeles Chinatown until I started doing the research, and that led to some of the plot lines. A good example: the more I learned about the history of Union Station and how it affected Chinatown, the more it became part of the story.

I also learned about the Los Angeles Chinese massacre of 1871. Articles I read say up to 19 people were killed. And this had a profound effect on the Chinese and on Chinatown. I feel like learning that shaped how my characters thought and felt about the different places they went to, because an event like that is going to be burned into the collective memory. So, while some of my research might not make its way into a plot point, it’s always affecting the story.

While most of your backlist is YA, you’ve also published two middle grade novels. How has your experience writing them compared to developing your YA novels?

I’d say that the process is about the same in terms of finding the character and plotting out the story. And there is definitely a lot of research involved. The Winston Chu series was set in San Francisco, and even though I live very close to San Francisco, it’s still important to me to really understand the city.

I thought I was going to write shorter books for middle grade, but I ended up writing the same length. I think that’s just how my brain works: “This is the middle, this needs to be right here, it needs to have this many chapters before this inciting event.”

I think there was a lot more freedom in terms of language and humor, which is always fun. There have been a lot of times where I wrote humor into my historical fiction, and it didn’t pass muster with my beta readers or my editor because it just felt too young. I also think my natural humor is probably more like middle grade potty humor.

As someone who’s mostly written realistic contemporary and historical novels, what compelled you to write a middle grade fantasy?

Part of that was informed by the Riordan imprint, since all the books are based around cultural mores. And I really enjoyed doing more research into the cultural folklore that I didn’t grow up with as an Asian American. I have my kids enrolled in Chinese lessons because I don’t speak any Mandarin or Cantonese. They would tell me about the cultural folktales they learned and I loved them so much. I even realized that they were very similar to a lot of the more Western folktales that I had grown up with. All around the world, we’re hearing the same stories with the same lessons and emotional arcs, they just look a little different. So, writing Winston Chu was my chance to learn more about these mythologies.

Writing with a little bit of fantasy, and being able to create and not have to worry if I was being historically accurate was so much fun. I created a character that was a mustache. It’s called Mischief Mustache. I thought, “How fun is it to be able to create a character that’s just a living mustache?”

Kill Her Twice by Stacey Lee. Putnam, $19.99 Apr. 23 ISBN 978-0-593-53204-1