Vanessa Len is an Australian author of Chinese-Malaysian and Maltese heritage. An educational editor, she has worked on everything from language learning programs to STEM resources, to professional learning for teachers. Vanessa is a graduate of the Clarion Workshop in San Diego, and she lives in Melbourne. Only a Monster is her first novel and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Only a Monster?
Only a Monster has a central rivalry between a monster girl and a monster hunter. I was inspired by that feeling when the hero of a story isn’t necessarily the hero of your story. When I was growing up, I didn’t often see myself represented in movie and TV heroes. But I did sometimes see myself in ‘bad guys’—nameless characters who would turn up just for the fight scenes, and would get beaten up or killed by the hero.
It gave me the idea to write about a very classic upright, decent hero from the point of view of someone who has to fight against them.
Are Joan, Aaron, Nick, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
I didn’t base any of my characters on real people. I created the characters in a variety of ways, but I would say all of them contain the seed of an archetype (eg Nick is a classic hero who protects the weak and vulnerable from monsters). Some characters were built directly from individual street fashion photographs—I looked at thousands of portraits, and saved the ones that gave me a strong sense of character and personality. (That was how I came up with Ruth—she seemed to jump out from a photograph fully formed, with a name and full personality.) Other times, I built characters from the ground up, giving them backstories, families and personalities, but wasn’t able to find any photograph that matched the exact feeling I had when I thought of them. (That was the case with Aaron.)
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
I did a lot of development work before I started writing the manuscript, so most of the evolution and revision happened off the page. Having said that, I did have to cut some scenes I really loved—one was a scene between Aaron and an old school friend of his from the Nightingale family.
What drew you to set the majority of Only a Monster in 1993 (as opposed to other possibilities)?
I wanted a model of time travelling where characters wouldn’t be able to meet past or future versions of themselves. That meant I’d have to send Joan back to before her own birth (or forward). I didn’t want to set this book in the future, so I chose 1993 because it was before Joan was born, but not so far back that the book was no longer an urban fantasy.
I also wanted to cut her off from all of her friends and family—anyone who could help her—so that she would be forced to work with Aaron (a boy from an enemy monster family).
How familiar were you with 1993 London? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Only a Monster?
I wasn’t familiar with 1993 London at all, so I did a lot of research (and spent a lot of time staring at Google Street View and laying various maps on top of each other!) I chose London because I knew it was a very documented city, as well as being very multicultural, which made it a perfect setting for a diverse urban fantasy/time travel book.
I’m not sure how long I spent solely on research, but it took me several years to develop the world of monsters, and part of that was devoted to research.
Have you ever visited London? Do you have any favorite places in the city? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss?
I was lucky enough to be able to visit London just after I finished writing the bulk of book 1, and just before the pandemic. I really loved Holland Park—where the book begins. It’s a beautiful hidden park in Kensington—and the ruins of Holland House (an important setting in the book) are still there.
Only a Monster is listed as the first book in a new series. What are your plans for the series? Do you have an idea how many books there will be to tell the story you have planned?
There will be two more books in the series. I did the development work for the whole world and the backstory of the books before I started writing book 1, and I know the structure and arc of the overall trilogy. In Book 2, we’ll learn more about the world of monsters and the backstories hinted at in Book 1, and we’ll also see some of the ramifications of Joan’s actions at the end of Book 1.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
League of Liars by Astrid Scholte, A Little Bit Country by Brian D. Kennedy, All That’s Left in the World by Erik J. Brown, If You Could See the Sun by Ann Liang, We Who Hunt the Hollow by Kate Murray, Forestfall by Lyndall Clipstone, and some early manuscripts by friends.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?
I was very lucky to have other debut authors reach out to me as soon as my book deal was announced, and I’ve found so much support from other people publishing their first books. I would say that there are support networks out there, ready to help you!
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
I used to do the classic read-under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight so that my parents wouldn’t know I was still awake, reading, but I didn’t feel I needed to hide specific books from them. They let me borrow anything I liked from the local library.
Is there a book you've faked reading?
Not since university haha. I think I was supposed to read Rabbit Run one week for class, but didn’t get around to it.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Is there a book that changed your life?
I remember seeing His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik in a bookshop for the first time, and being absolutely amazed that someone I knew had written a book—and it was here, in a bookshop, in Australia. Before that, the idea of being a published author had seemed as remote as being an astronaut—not something a regular person could do. But here was Naomi’s book in a shop, and for the first time I thought ‘hey, maybe I could do that too’. I didn’t actually start writing that book for a long time, but holding His Majesty’s Dragon was one of my first steps to publication.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
I think everyone should read Deep in Providence by Riss M. Neilson—it’s an upcoming YA fantasy about three girls who turn to dangerous magic after a friend dies. It’s beautiful and poignant, and the character work is incredible.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
I’m watching and enjoying Severance at the moment—it’s a science fiction show in which work and life selves are completely severed. I’m also looking forward to the new seasons of Upload and Umbrella Academy.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
In Melbourne, we were in strict lockdown for more than 250 days over the last two years (more than 250 days of only being allowed outside for 1–2 hours a day, within 5–10 kilometers of your home, no one allowed into your house, curfews...) I think before this, I’d have said I’d like to spent the day relaxing at home, but now I’d like to spend a day on a beach or in a forest or in the mountains, with friends and family.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the sequel to Only a Monster right now, and I’m also beginning to sketch out Book 3!