I've always been intrigued by the concept of the "red thread of fate," so when I learned of a book by that title being published early this year, I jumped at the chance to follow that thread.
The author of Red Thread of Fate, Lyn Liao Butler, is a Taiwanese American adoptive mother who has written this thrilling drama about adoption, families, friends, life, death, betrayal, and the threads that connect us, whether we want them to or not.
I loved this opportunity to connect with Butler, who shared a detailed glimpse into her writing process, stellar housekeeping rules, and killer taste in music.
You've published two books now and have a third on the way; the first, The Tiger Mom's Tale, was a journey three-and-a-half years in the making, and the second, Red Thread of Fate, has been released less than a year later. How were these experiences different from one another?
Both my first and second books took a long time and many versions before they became a book. As a new writer in 2015, I had no idea what I was doing. I have no background in writing and have never taken a writing class (except what was taught in school). But I was eager to learn from critique partners and authors ahead of me, and I attended workshops and read anything I could find online. Both books went through so many rounds of edits that I don't even recognize them from their first versions. But I'm proud of the end products and how far I've come as a writer. My third book was written during the pandemic. It started off as book club fiction/women's fiction, and somehow turned into a thriller. I wrote this one much faster than the first two, but it still went through so many versions that it is completely different from what I started out with.
On your blog, you described the process of finding an agent as frustrating. Once you had secured an agent, what was the process like while your agent shopped your novel?
It took me 3.5 years and 3 manuscripts to sign with an agent. I honestly never thought I would ever find an agent who loves my books, and then Rachel Brooks from BookEnds came along. She is the perfect agent for me. She responds fast, is editorial, professional, and always has great strategies. She answers my questions (even the really stupid ones) and believes in my books, which is so important when finding an agent. While we shopped the first book, we were hard at work on the second one, Red Thread of Fate (RTOF). Rachel had actually requested the full for RTOF and remembered it from when I queried her the year before. She loved the concept but not how I structured it, so I reworked it while on sub. When my editor bought The Tiger Mom's Tale, she also bought RTOF. Rachel understands that I write faster than traditional publishing, so she's always trying to rein me in (lol) and advise me on what our next steps should be. I'm so lucky to have her in my corner as a partner in my career and also as a champion for my books.
During the process of looking for an agent, you tapped into Twitter and critique groups. How important do you think critique partners are in helping authors improve their work?
So important! I queried my first book without anyone ever having read my manuscript, which is a big mistake. Once I realized I needed feedback, I joined two critique groups, started connecting with writers on Twitter, and found my first critique partner from Twitter. From there, I developed relationships with other writers through Twitter, joined Women's Fiction Writers Association and met more writer friends, and they have been such a great source of support and critiques. You need as many eyes as you can on a manuscript at first, to see what is working and what isn't. And since everyone's opinion is different, it was great to get all different opinions, and then I processed their thoughts to see if they work for what I'm trying to convey or not. Even now, I had two critique partners recently read an entire manuscript that I wrote in two weeks as I wrote it. I literally threw pages at them as I wrote them, and just as quickly, they threw them back at me. I am indebted to them and would do the same for them.
For readers who don't know, you are an adoptive mother. Red Thread of Fate centers around the topic of adoption and examines it from two points of view: one from the view of a family member, the other from the view of a stranger. Did you want to highlight the differences between these, and if so, in which ways?
Yes! I never in a million years thought I would be an adoptive mother. It was something that just kind of happened and I wanted to show how the whole process affects both the parents who adopt and also all the other people involved. We cannot imagine our lives without our son. We were led to him somehow, which was why I wanted to write a story about how people are connected to each other without even realizing it and that you will eventually find the people that are supposed to be your family, even if they aren't a blood relative.
Originally from Taiwan, you moved to America when you were seven. How would you say being a Taiwanese American has influenced your writing?
I grew up knowing I was "different." We lived in a very white neighborhood where I was one of only about five families who were Asian. At the time, I didn't understand what it meant but now looking back, I see how people treated me differently because I was Asian. I got teased a lot but also had many people who stood up for me that I didn't even know about until recently. And I attended a very white, upper-class college where that divide was even more obvious. One of the reasons I wanted to write books was to give people like me a book that maybe they could see some part of themselves in. Not all, since everyone's experience is different, but hopefully a moment or two where they are like, That's happened to me before too! So yes, my background has influenced my writing a lot.
In Red Thread of Fate, one of the characters reflects on Americans' propensity to hug and kiss when they meet. Are there other cultural differences between Taiwan and America that surprise you?
The hugging and kissing on greeting is something I have never gotten used to—LOL. Most of my friends don't know this about me, but I am so uncomfortable with that. I can't tell you how many times I've head-butted someone because I'm pulling back awkwardly or leaning in too fast. The other cultural difference is taking off shoes when we come into the house. I was brought up to always take off our shoes. But growing up, all my friends wore their shoes in the house, and I was horrified. I couldn't understand this concept. My husband grew up wearing his shoes indoors but when we were dating, I quickly had him learning to take off his shoes whenever we came inside. Now our house is "shoes off" as soon as we come indoors. For the Asian culture, it's a sign of respect, but also, who wants to track all that dirt and dog poop you've probably stepped in from outside into your clean home?
If you could compare your style of writing to that of another author, who would you say your writing is similar to?
I would never compare myself to this author since she is my idol, but I will say she influenced my writing. I love Liane Moriarty's books. She is the reason I became a writer. She has definitely influenced my writing style and I aim to be as good of a storyteller as she is. Although, some of my negative reviews have said my writing is "melodramatic," so maybe I need to work on it some more! Ha!
The structure of the novel is a combination of present-day scenes and scenes from the past. Why did you choose to structure your novel this way?
The book was originally in three parts with parts one and three from Tam's POV, and part two from Mia's POV, but from the grave (so speaking after she died). My agent didn't like this structure. It took me literally years to try to figure out how to get Mia's POV without having her speak from the dead. And then one day, I finally realized that if I took the story back to three months before the accident (which is where Tam's story starts) and tell them from Mia's POV, I could get her view across and move forward until her storyline collides with Tam's at the accident.
I have a terrible time with plotting. Are you a plotter or a pantser? How do you develop plot as you go along? How do you stay organized?
I used to be a pantser and then realized quickly that doesn't work. Now I am a die-hard plotter. Now I don't start writing a book until the entire thing is plotted out and I have a chapter-by-chapter outline. I usually start with an idea and write a very long synopsis of what I think is going to happen (which gets revised as I think up new plot twists and points). I also start a timeline so I can keep the events clear—meaning I make up actual dates when things happen so that I don't get confused about when things are occurring. This timeline can go back as far as when a character is born and when they graduated or got married. From the timeline and the long rambling synopsis, I then plot out what happens in each chapter. I use this chapter outline to move scenes around, to make sure that something is happening in each chapter and that the events make sense. Once I am satisfied with this, I finally sit down and actually write the book based on this outline. I wrote a book in two weeks once because my plotting was so detailed that by the time I sat down to write the book, it kind of wrote itself.
As an editor for a literary magazine, my pet peeve is pieces that begin with weak first lines. Your novels have some killer first lines. The Tiger Mom's Tale begins "Alexa Thomas had just bitten into a sesame ball when her mother told her she was in love with a woman." Similarly engaging is the opening line of Red Thread of Fate: "She was on the phone with her husband when he died." How do you decide which is the right opening line for each novel?
I'm like you. I hate weak first lines. I've been fortunate in that so far, with each book I've written, I always seem to have a first line that pops into my head, and then the story takes off from there. I actually came up with the first line for The Tiger Mom's Tale first, and then had to add the story around it. Same with RTOF. I guess this is backward to what people usually do. They come up with the story first.
Do you believe in fate? Do you believe in love at first sight?
I do believe in fate, but I don't believe in love at first sight. I think fate brings us together with people who are meant to be in our lives if we are just smart enough to see it.
If you were stuck on a desert island—with a fabulous entertainment system—and could only take one movie, one book, and one album, which would you choose?
Movie: Dirty Dancing.
Book: The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty.
Album: I have three and would have to blindly pick one: Viva La Vida by Coldplay, Day and Age by The Killers or The Best of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole
Often when I'm feeling burned out, I turn to my guilty-pleasure reading pile. Do you have any guilty-pleasure reading? Do tell.
I love books, all books, so nothing is considered guilty-pleasure. I read everything—thrillers, romance, adventure, mystery, women's fiction, fantasy, nonfiction, cookbooks, cereal boxes, instruction manuals, ketchup bottles, whatever I can get my hands on. I am always reading. I read when I eat, watch TV, take a bath, walk, talk on the phone. I inhale books and my mom is always telling me I'm going to hurt myself because I read while doing everything. So if I had to say what my guilty pleasure is, it's reading while doing everything because most people don't consider it polite to always have my nose in a book.