Research Notes · 09/02/2016

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Yi Shun Lai writes about Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu from Shade Mountain Press.


Some research notes for Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, a novel in diary form in which our heroine, Marty Wu, tries to keep from falling into the big black hole between two cultures:

On Personal Style, Part 1

At the Strawberry’s discount clothing store on the corner of 42nd and Lexington, there is a revolving door fully encased in some kind of mirrored surface, and as I went through it one day in the late 90s, I saw something familiar, and turned to look over my shoulder and say to my friend in the next revolving-door compartment, “Hey! That woman is dressed just like —” right before I ran into my mirror self, trying to exit too fast.

Finally exiting to cheers and hoots on the street, I realized that you really only get over yourself when you’re willing to lay it all out on the line. Immediately after, laughing at myself with my friend, I thought, We’d all be so much happier if there was someone to witness all of our failings.


On Music

The soundtrack to The Little Mermaid, track 5 (“Part of That World”)

Just a normal ballad, not even worthy of an Academy Award nomination, even if two other songs on this soundtrack had that honor.

But this one made me wonder: Did Menken and Ashman know something about what it was like to feel like you didn’t belong? How did they know what it was like to feel like you wanted to get out of the water, already?

Really, it doesn’t matter how they knew. But I guessed there were other girls listening to that track on repeat, bright young women, asking more questions, getting more answers, and not be getting reprimanded for it.

Footnote: Menken and Ashman were hired to write the soundtrack to The Little Mermaid after they proved themselves with Little Shop of Horrors. Hmmm.

And oh, the soundtrack to My Fair Lady. What better tribute to a young woman trying to make her way above her station? Except the ending. That was lame. (Even George Bernard Shaw himself said so.)


On Location

Taiping Old Street, in Douliu, Taiwan, is the model for one Marty is simultaneously drawn to and avoids due to a particular shop on it. In real life, it is only 600 meters long. It isn’t in the center of town, and it’s a memoir from a particularly, uh, multi-faceted part of Taiwanese history, the Japanese occupation. The architecture is extraordinary, and one must wonder: What is it like, to know you must preserve history and its attendant culture, even if looking at it makes your skin crawl?


On Personal Style, Part 2

It was very dark, and only late evening, November in the Northeast nearly 20 years ago. As I rounded the corner from 6th Avenue to 51st street, late to meet a friend, I noticed a shadow looming up on the wall of the subway entrance. Whoever made the shadow was tall, walking confidently, and the way she rounded the corner made her shirt collar — I immediately knew it would be a sharply pressed white one — kick up under her chin.

“Shit,” I thought, “that is one confident woman. When I grow up I want to be — “ and then, full stop, because I was making the shadow, and I knew right then that we have the capability to fool ourselves into anything, so long as we can see what we want ourselves to be.


On Self-Help Books

Self-help books seem, in general, to have very long titles; have you ever noticed? Finding the Love You Want; The Seven Languages of Love; How to Win Friends and Influence People; Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus. And if they’re not long, they’re pithy and secretive — well, The Secret, for one; The Artist’s Way, for another.

I find them largely useless for current applications. Marty might eventually, too — but she’s not quite there yet, when we meet her. What makes a reasonably capable young woman so dependent on books that too-often spout platitudes? I wanted to find out.


On Personal Style, Part 3.

One character. One job.

When you choose a main character, you ask yourself all kinds of questions about her, and you try to answer them: What do they carry in their pockets? What do they eat when they’re feeling blue? Who would they invite to a dinner party? What’s their poison? And, since we all spend too much time working already, well, what would they want to do for a living if they had all their druthers?

Marty aspires to be a costume designer. Ostensibly, it’s because, from runway to stage, clothing and costumes serve to define us and allow us to project a little of who we are from the inside to everyone who chooses sees us. Marty doesn’t figure why she really wants to be a designer until much later.

Who works with such skins, such changeable assets? Stylists, sure. Designers, sure. But costumers, oh, costumers! Sliding between sets, working on everyone from celebrities to community theatres, working with everything from huge huge budgets to bupkis to barter… who are these people?

I found an answer that satisfied me, finally, in an interview with June Ambrose, a costume designer for everyone from Missy Elliot to Jay Z. I was out on a jog, listening to a RadioLab episode, and what she had to say about how costumes can influence the way we see ourselves made me bolt home in an effort to get work her words into my story as quickly as I could. Her part in the RadioLab is here. It starts at about 20:45.

We may never know them entirely, but we know what they wish, and maybe what they dream about.


Born in Taiwan and raised in the U.S., debut novelist Yi Shun Lai has written everything from copy for lingerie catalogs to articles about the great outdoors. She lives in Southern California with her husband and dog. Visit her online at