Exclusive Q&A With Winnie M Li AB’00 (Writer, novelist, activist)

Winnie M Li AB’00 is an author and activist based in London. Last year, her second novel, Complicit, sold in a hotly-contested five-way auction to Simon & Schuster in a major two-book deal — and it will be out on August 19, following its UK publication in June. Inspired partly by the #MeToo movement and partly by her time working in the film industry, Complicit follows on from the success of Winnie’s award-winning debut novel Dark Chapter (which was a fictional re-telling of her own real-life stranger rape). In this interview, Winnie discusses her two novels, her activism, and her career as a creative.  (You can pre-order Complicit here.

Q. A lot has happened since your first novel, Dark Chapter, was released. Can you share a little bit about the impact the book has made?

A. It's funny, because I often don't have that moment where I sit back and look at everything, because you’re always just trying to move on to the next project or keep working until you get the next book written. For me personally, I've wanted to be a writer my entire life from the age of six. So being able to finally get that first novel out there, and have it reach that many people was amazing. It takes a lot of work to write a novel - not just the process of writing it but also querying and trying to acquire an agent and a publisher. And maybe, for me, it took something which was that personal, that deeply rooted in my own experience, which also tied to my own activism and my own beliefs, to fire me up and get me through that whole process.

I wrote Dark Chapter, unwittingly, as a suspense novel. I suppose I used suspense and crime fiction as a template to capture that experience moving back and forth between the victim and the perpetrator’s perspective. It was published as crime fiction and nominated for the Edgar Award. Eventually, it was translated into ten languages and right now I’m adapting it into a screenplay.

The whole project was even more emotionally loaded for me because my own personal experience was at stake, on top of the usual anxiety any writer has about getting a publishing deal.  I obviously wrote the book to address the issue of sexual violence, which I feel like has often been misunderstood, or misrepresented. What probably means the most to me is I've had other survivors share with me they felt I was capturing elements of their own experience, too. Hopefully, somebody who hasn’t been through that experience can kind of vicariously understand the impact that trauma has on the victim’s life, through reading the book.

Q. Has your reaction to survivor stories changed as you get further away from the incident?

A. Certainly, and a lot of it's about the professionalization of working around this issue. In the beginning I was quite open with my friends about what happened. But the first time I spoke with journalists about my experience, I was incredibly nervous. Now I’m quite used to speaking to the media and I give public talks. So that kind of emotional power and anxiety and trauma about sharing your issue publicly is no longer there for me. Every time I hear another woman or man share their story, it’s incredibly powerful. I recognize that it took something for that person to share it. Every once in a while, I will hear a story that just knocks me sideways. It can get quite heavy and at the end of the day, I'm not actually a trained counselor. I think many other survivors who are activists also find they get a whole lot of disclosures and stories coming to them, and it can get emotionally exhausting. And yet at the same time, that is why we're telling our stories to begin with: to have that kind of open dialogue.

Q. Your new book, Complicit, touches on the #MeToo movement’s impact on the entertainment industry. What made you want to explore that for your second novel?

A. Initially I was reluctant. Dark Chapter came out in 2017 and then the Weinstein allegations happened that October. My hardcover had just come out in the U.S. and I was in the thick of promoting it, when all this stuff about Weinstein started happening. Every time there was a new allegation in the Hollywood Reporter, I would be clicking on the headline. There was a buzz in the air, it sounds horrible, but there was so much stuff happening, and so many headlines coming one after another.

Around that time, I met up with my then literary agents, who told me a lot of editors were asking about my next book.  I had an idea for a historical novel I wanted to work on. They said ‘well you know, historical is good, but at this point you're quite well known for writing about contemporary feminist issues, would you be interested in writing about what’s happening in the moment, since you're quite well placed as a survivor and also as somebody who's worked in film?‘ And my reaction at first was “Oh, man, I don't know.” But finally, I said yes, but I can only do this if I can think of a way to structure the book that is interesting for me, where it's not just about sexual violence, but also about the broader film industry and the broader power structures that govern our workplaces.

There’s #MeToo in the story, but it’s mainly about a young woman who wants to make it in the film industry. She doesn't want to appear on screen, she wants to work behind the scenes. I felt you don't often see that in fictional narratives about the business. It starts with her being contacted by the New York Times to ask her some questions about her former boss, a famous male producer who she worked for 10 years earlier. This causes her to reflect on what happened 10 years ago, and how she got started in film. I wanted to explore that a bit, but also write it by creating suspense in terms of a larger news story that is also breaking in the present day.

I wasn't really intending to write a crime novel again, only to use suspense to draw the story out, but now I find that the book is being marketed as crime fiction. I never actually saw myself as writing in that genre. But now both of my books have been published like that. It’s fine, it's a huge genre. It's a lucrative one. But it also was something I never really expected.

Q. Since the beginning of the movement, so many high-profile individuals throughout the entertainment and media industries have been affected by these stories, in many cases losing their jobs. What will it take to finally eliminate these types of power dynamics from the workplace?

A. In the ideal world, equal distribution of wealth across gender. As an artist I don't want to say it comes down to money. But if you look at the film industry, it's about money! Complicit explores that. I remember what it was like to be a producer thinking ‘Oh, I just need to find another half a million to make this film happen’ and where is that money coming from? Men are traditionally the ones who make the decisions - the ultimate casting decisions, who decides to greenlight projects, and they are the ones who have the money to begin with to be able to finance projects.  That creates a whole power structure in terms of what projects are allowed to happen and who could be leading those projects. As you go further and further up the corporate ladder, you still get more men in power positions. I wanted to explore different hidden ways in which opportunities are given to men that aren't given to women.

Q. Do you feel that America and Britain have addressed this issue differently?

A. In the UK, you don't have the studio system here in the same way as in America, and you don't have as much money in the British system. In the UK, people in the arts tend to already have family money and can afford to go into the arts, because the arts don't pay very well at all. That was one reason why I found it so hard to even get a job in the first place in the UK, because it was generally comprised of people whose families or friends were already in the industry. It’s very hard to get your foot in the door - even harder than in the U.S. because there's just less money and available jobs. Consequently, after #MeToo, you didn't have that same kind of house cleaning, because it wasn't occurring in bigger, more structured companies that had policies put in place about these issues.

One of the reasons I wrote
Complicit was I remember speaking to somebody who said ‘I don't understand with regards to Weinstein, why wouldn't these women just go to HR?’ I think most people don’t understand the fly-by-night nature of things in this business and how resources can be so completely stretched that nobody has time to deal with an HR issue, or it’s just you and your boss and one other person in the company. Weinstein was ultimately convicted because the state of New York charged him. I don't think there's been any similar action toward an accused figure in the UK. The whole conversation about sexual assault is much more hidden than it is in the U.S.

Q. How did the Clear Lines Festival come about?

A. I started writing Dark Chapter in 2013. I’d worked for a film production company for six years prior to my rape in 2008, but afterwards, I went through this whole period of not being able to find work again. I couldn't get another job in the film industry. I started to become more of an activist around the issue, mainly just starting by writing. I wrote a short play about being a rape victim and trying to reintegrate yourself into society. It played at a small theatre fringe festival in London. That's when I started to realize that there was quite good theater work being done around this issue, mainly written by survivors. I thought somebody could put together an arts festival that created a platform for all this art to be seen. I wanted to create a space that brought together people who care about the issue, people who had personal experiences but wanted to engage with art that addressed it from a lived experience perspective, and from a creative perspective. It’s ultimately about creating a community, through the arts, to have more open conversations about these experiences.

If I wasn't trying to have a writing career, I could do more with Clear Lines. I had to reflect on what my priorities are. At the end of the day, I'm a creative. I want to be writing. If I could find other people that want to work with me on continuing to run it, that would be great.

You could spend your entire life being an activist around this issue because there's so many different aspects of it. For me, the activism I do is the writing work.  I'd be happy if Complicit helps lend itself to people reevaluating the way companies are structured and what practices are in place for safeguarding young people starting out, both in the entertainment industry and outside. It’s very easy for people to say Miramax during Weinstein’s reign was an outlier. Yet every industry is structured around differences in power in some ways. That’s the conversation that needs to occur.

Q. What advice would you give to Harvard students looking to become novelists?

A. When I was at Harvard, I loved writing, but I got it into my head that being a writer is not a lucrative job, which is true. I mean, there are ways to make it lucrative. I think I'm finally at the point where I feel like I am earning a decent salary as a writer. But for many years, I wasn't. So you have to love the art itself. The act of writing needs to be a positive and beneficial experience for all those years that you're not actually earning anything decent. If you love what you're doing, that is 100 times better than doing a soulless job that you hate. That’s something that we all face in our modern 21st century lives. It takes a fair amount of perseverance in some ways. It’s about being a good writer, but any writer can always be improving. So even though I’ve written two novels, there’s still always ways to improve my writing. I always want to get engaged in forms of storytelling that will improve my craft as a writer.

Even more importantly, make sure that the thing that you’re writing about, especially if it’s a novel, is something that completely fires you up. Because it’s a long, hard road, writing a novel, and then also finding the book deal and promoting it. Your subject needs to be something that you’re definitely passionate about. Because if you’re not passionate about it, you’re going to get bored, and you’re probably going to hate the project. Several years of your life are going to be devoted to this project. So it’s about finding your passion, both in the craft of writing, but then also in the subject matter. Finally, it’s also just being persistent, because most novelists I know have written a novel that never got published. Most people have their first novel sitting in a drawer somewhere. I know exactly where mine is! I never want it to see the light of day, because it’s kind of embarrassing. But I did take elements of it and applied them to Complicit. Nothing’s completely lost in that first go, it’s about constantly learning, enjoying the craft, and remembering how important it is to still enjoy the craft. But most importantly, finding something you're passionate about.

Photo credit of Winnie M Li: Grace Gelder.

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