Interview with Joy Liu

What's the story behind Watermark?
When I went on a class field trip to a sleepover at the Tampa Aquarium in the 12th grade, I didn't expect to find inspiration for a novel. But waking up to a scene of pink coral and butterfly fish, I wondered, how can they possibly account for all the fish that are in this tank?...What if there was a creature in the tank that they didn't know about? I had a vision of a mermaid peeking out from behind the rocks. And that's how the idea for Watermark was born.

After a series of starts and stops, I wrote Watermark over a couple of years in medical school. I used NaNoWriMo as a chance to write my novel seriously. I made final edits and worked with Charis Loke, my wonderful book cover illustrator, the following year.
Who is your favorite character in Watermark?
I could talk at length about all of my characters, because they have lives of their own and fascinating histories that aren't explicitly stated in Watermark. All of them have qualities that I love, but all of them have flaws, too.

Writing about Urhoa and Ihle was a lot of fun. Urhoa is pensive, and a bit on the conservative side. She wants to abide by the laws, but does reprehensible things in self-interest. Ihle, on the other hand, was always caught between two worlds, and never felt like she belonged to either, so wanted to make a world for herself and the others like her, laws be damned.

I struggled with accessing Luke's emotions. At first, I wanted him to be "tough," but he became unreadable--literally. Then, I wanted to state exactly what he was feeling so it would be clearer, but he became whiny. Finally, I wrote how I would have acted in his position, and his character blossomed.
What themes were important to you in Watermark?
I loved creating the fantastical society and culture of the urtan, and exploring inclusion vs exclusion (of split-tails). I wanted to show how the edict of self-preservation could backfire, and how doing the right thing is ultimately more important. I also wanted to write about psychological trauma and pain medication abuse, two things I see too frequently as a physician, and how Luke's efforts to fulfill his Mark were really part of his healing process.
What was the hardest part about writing?
Persistence. It's easy to make excuses like, I have to get up early for work, or, I'm tired and deserve to end my day watching TV and eating cookies. It is far harder to actually wake up at 5 am every morning and dedicate an hour to writing stuff, 50% of which you know you will delete a few months later. But that few months later, it is worth it.
Who are your favorite authors?
This is like asking, of your friends, whom do you value most? It's a bit unfair. Here are my top 5, not ranked in any order:

Stephen King: making suspense seem easy
Neil Gaiman: his dark whimsy and the Sandman series
Robin Hobb: the skill to breathe such life into her characters
Toni Morrison: such dexterity and rawness of language
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in quiet, middle-class suburbs. We moved around quite a bit because of my father's work, and spent a year each in San Diego and Houston. I went to sleepovers and birthday parties, learned how to swim, and read all the books I could. I learned that although new places could seem very different, people were not so different in terms of what they aspired to be and cared about.

I started middle school and graduated high school in Gainesville, Florida, and consider this to be my hometown. In Gainesville, I made friends for life and met some of the kindest people I will ever know. The themes that culture can clash but co-exist and that natural beauty is important to protect are ones that I want to share in my writing.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
Most of the time, I'm at the hospital--my job keeps me busy! When I'm not there, I catch up on Netflix series (just finished Jessica Jones), spend time in Rhode Island with my wonderful fiancé, and am always up for exploring new eateries around town. A few of my favorites in Boston include Sweet Cheeks BBQ, Orinoco, Ho Yuen Bakery, and Barcelona.
What are you working on next?
Short-term: I'm going to complete a local project that I've been working on since junior year of college: a history of Alachua General Hospital, a community hospital in my hometown in Florida.

Long-term: I have plans for a fantasy trilogy that mashes magical systems based on the concept of threads and trees, respectively.
Published 2016-01-23.
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