Debut Aussie kidlit writer signed with US Agent: Interview with Remy Lai

I’m so happy to have interviewed Remy Lai, author and illustrator of Pie in the Sky, a hybrid middle grade novel in the style of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Remy Lai, author of Pie in the Sky

We met over scrumptious pho at a Vietnamese diner and she gave me the lowdown on her road to publication. Despite being so young, it was heartening to hear of her years of rejection (why do aspiring writers delight in hearing tales of woe on the path to publication?) and her eventual success (aaaah, that’s why). She’s a cool person, and we’re so lucky she’s moved to Brisbane!

Congratulations on your debut middle grade novel, Pie in the Sky!

Thank you so much for having me.

Please summarise the novel for those readers who haven’t found it yet:

Pie in the Sky is about twelve-year-old Jingwen who moves to a new country and feels like he’s landed on Mars. School is torture, making friends is impossible since he doesn’t speak English, and he’s often stuck looking after his (extremely annoying) little brother, Yanghao.

Have Jingwen and his brother moved to Mars? Or are they the Martians?

To distract himself from the loneliness, Jingwen daydreams about making all the cakes on the menu of Pie in the Sky, the bakery his father had planned to open before he unexpectedly passed away. The only problem is his mother has laid down one major rule: the brothers are not to use the oven while she’s at work. As Jingwen and Yanghao bake elaborate cakes, they’ll have to cook up elaborate excuses to keep the cake making a secret from Mama.

Can you tell me a bit about your writing process for this novel & the inspiration behind the book?

For a long time I had this image in my mind, of two brothers secretly baking. It was only after I realised they couldn’t speak English that the story that would become Pie in the Sky clicked into place. From there, I borrowed things from my childhood—I migrated from Indonesia to Singapore and had to learn English.

How was your journey to publication?

Very, very long. There were so, so many years of rejection. I think I have about twenty rejected manuscripts. I’m too scared to actually count. There were many moments when I wanted to give up, where I questioned myself about why I chose such a path, and then I’d get really frustrated with myself because I knew that no matter what happened, I wouldn’t give up writing.

I see you’re featured on the Pitch Wars website. What role did it have in getting your book published?

It played a very big role because after I wrote Pie in the Sky, I knew that it needed work, but I didn’t know how exactly to make it better.

I entered Pitch Wars without actually knowing much about it

I wasn’t online much. I didn’t know about the agent round. All I wanted was the edit letter from the mentors. I tend to wallow in self-doubt, and having my mentors believe in me and my manuscript was a life-saver.

It seems unusual that you’re an Aussie writer but your big breaks seem to have come in the US. Can you tell us more about that?

It just happened that way. I guess because in the early years, whenever I submitted to Aussie publishers, I wouldn’t get a response. I had no idea what I was doing wrong or right or if anyone ever read anything I submitted. And most Aussie agents were not open to unsolicited queries (I’m not sure if they are now).

The path in the US seemed less shrouded in mystery.

I could read up all about agents and writing query letters online. I started sending out queries and I’d get rejections and requests and rejections and requests. It was often disheartening, but it also gave me hope. Agents were reading my work.

I eventually signed with Jim McCarthy, at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret after a bit of interest from other agents during Pitch Wars. Jim’s the best!

When did you first want to become a writer? What did you study at uni & do you have a day job?

I’ve always written stories. English compositions were my favourite homework back in school. But I didn’t seriously consider being one until university. I studied fine arts at university. I write and draw full time now.

As an emerging Asian-Australian author, do you see any issues in Australian publishing in terms of diversity? Do you feel any explicit or subtle pressure to write certain stories or present in a certain way?

I can’t really comment about this because before Pie in the Sky, I had zero contact with Australian publishing due to the years of no response mentioned above, so I wouldn’t know if I were supposed to write a certain way. Ha!

Since this is a bibliotherapy website, is there a book you can “prescribe” for my readers?

For younger kids dealing with depressed parents, I’d recommend The Three Rules of Everyday Magic by Amanda Rawson Hill (Boyds Mill Press).

Thanks Remy!

Whipped cream clouds on the eye-catching cover of Remy Lai’s Pie in the Sky

Pie in the Sky came out 14 May 2019 in the US (Henry Holt/Macmillan) and 1 June in Australia (Walker Books).

It has already racked up starred reviews in all the places that matter, including Kirkus, School Library Journal & The Horn Book. That’s an absolute coup for a debut author, so congrats again, Remy!

For more details about Remy or to contact her for school visits in the lead-up to Book Week, see her website, where you can also find links to her social media.

For more details about Pitch Wars, click here.

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