Dominic Lim, writing a much-needed love story

This Q&A comes from Biblio Lotus team member Niki G., Eckstrom-Columbus Library, who says, "Hi everyone! I'm excited that I have the opportunity to share with you this interview with author, songwriter, and storyteller Dominic Lim." You can also watch the full interview on YouTube!

Before we begin, mark your calendar for these upcoming events featuring Dominic, author of the debut novel All The Right Notes and the forthcoming Karaoke Queen, which will be released in September:

  • Friday, March 8 from 3 to 4 pm (registration required)
    Eckstrom-Columbus Library
  • Saturday, March 9 from 10 to 11 am
    Tucson Festival of Books, Student Union Kachina
    Panel: Everybody's Got A Secret
  • Sunday, March 10 from 1 to 2 pm
    Tucson Festival of Books, Student Union Kachina
    Panel: Small-Town Romance
  • Sunday, March 10 from 4 to 5 pm
    Tucson Festival of Books, Koffler Room 204
    Panel: Ask Me (Almost!) Anything: Romance Author Edition

Learn all about Dominic and his book by visiting his website

How exciting that the book has received a lot of accolades. I don't know if you were surprised by all the love.

I was, for sure. It’s been such a joy and I'm so lucky that my first book was so well received by the public and reviewers.  I think it's hard for us, as people of color, as Asian writers, particularly as a Filipino writer, to get our books to be noticed by the public.  For me as a debut author and someone who's writing queer romance, that amount of attention was very surprising. But just I'm so blessed that it happened.

I recently started incorporating more romance into my TBR list because there are more people of color and queer authors writing stories.  What drew you to romance and why start with this genre?

I think we have a lot in common because I don't even think I read any romances until after I'd finished writing the book. I didn't sit down at my desk and go “Okay, now I'm gonna write a romance.”  I didn't even know what the tropes were until after the book was starting to be publicized. I sat down to write the book that I wanted and it happened to be a romance only because I wanted to write a story that was full of love and joy and not informed by intergenerational trauma or queer trauma or oppression and it was important to me to put out a joyful book. One of the beautiful things about romance is that it is defined by a happily ever after and we need those stories, especially people who have been historically underrepresented in literature. I listen to a podcast by author, Kosoko Jackson, who also writes romance and YA books and he said he wants to get to the point where Black authors don't have to always write about Black excellence and I think that's an excellent point.  As Asian authors, I want us to be able to get to a point where we can just write about us living our daily lives, like running into the guy that we fell in love with in high school and trying to get together with him, not about having to overcome great obstacles. Why can't we have those kinds of stories?

What were the joys and the pitfalls since this was your debut novel?  I sense some perfectionism in you, and I feel like everything that was written down was intentional.

It was an interesting journey. My editor is the wonderful Alex Logan at Grand Central Publishing.  Like you, she assumed that everything I wrote was very intentional.  Her edits to me were very light because she did get the sense that it took me a long time to get to the point where each period was exactly where I wanted it to be. Because this was my first book, it took me 3 years to write. I workshopped it. I gave it time to bloom in my head. I am that kind of perfectionist writer. I kept editing and editing. I love doing that. The second book was different though.

Do you have literary influences? 

I don't think I ever intentionally patterned myself after any writers. My mom taught me how to read.  When we moved here from the United States, I was just a baby and my mother had been an English teacher in the Philippines.  We landed in Virginia, and no one would hire her to teach English because she's an immigrant and she's Filipina and it's the 80s. She taught me how to read before I got into kindergarten. I read so much.  A lot of what I read was fantasy and Greek mythology because I was subconsciously looking for the “other," the fantastic, because from a very early age I knew that I was queer.  I mean, of course I knew I was a Filipino living in primarily white Virginia.  But I also knew from a very young age that I was gay. So, I drifted towards sci-fi and fantasy because I was looking for other people who lived outside of the margins of normality.  And as I kept reading and taking writing classes, I wondered who are the authors whose writing really speaks to you and most resembles what you would like to be able to do?  Those writers for me include Michael Cunningham, Michael Chabon, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith - beautiful, lyrical literature, whose sentences to me sound like music in my head.  Those are the kinds of writers that I gravitated towards, and I had always intended for my first book to be a literary novel of some sort. And it just didn't happen that way.

The humor [in the book] is great!  I love Quito as a character because he seems so real to me, and I loved his thoughts and how very out there he was with his anxieties, his people-pleasing, his need to constantly reevaluate. Did you base any part of that on you or is he an amalgamation of different people or characters?

Of all the aspects of Quito that most resemble me, it is probably the personality quirks. People assume because he's a musician and I'm a musician that that's the biggest commonality, but I'm not actually a pianist. I can play piano, but I'm not a very good pianist and I'm not really a composer either.  I'm foremost a singer, so musically I have more in common with Emmett, but Quito's personality is most like mine.

The family dynamics were also interesting, especially the relationship with Mr. Cruz.  Was this based on your real-life relationship with your father or was it also an amalgamation of different experiences from people you've known?

Well, let me say there are four siblings in our family. I'm the oldest of three brothers and one girl, and out of the four of us, three of us are queer. This is a very interesting family and my younger sister read the book and she texted me and she’s crying and she said, “The dad really got to me because that dad was the dad that we all kind of wished that we had.” Mr. Cruz was not really based on our father, but more of who I wished he could be.

I would have loved him as a father as well.  He's so mindful of how things affect Quito and is sort of helping to direct his [Quito’s] happiness, too.  I really felt that though this was a queer romance that it is a universal story. It could be so many peoples’ stories, who feel like they are not good enough for this person or misjudging the way other people perceive us. This story really transcends and having stories that aren't tied to trauma or racism, but joyful love is one of the successful things it achieves. and again I don't know if you were doing that intentionally and or that was a happy accident.

It's very intentional for me to populate the book with queer characters and people of color, usually they're both, and to have them all have happy, mostly fulfilled lives and for the conflict not to come from their identity issues, but from just normal day-to-day things. So yeah, that was very intentional. As I mentioned, I wanted that joy to be out in the world and I knew that for this book, the people who would be reading this book, that the chances were fairly high that these characters would be some of their first instances of those kinds of people that they experienced, and meeting readers afterwards who say, “I'd never seen a nonbinary character or even been confronted with people using 'they, them'  or whatever." Or readers who say, "I didn't know that much about Filipino culture until I read this book."

A lot of Filipino books in the past have been geared towards the Filipino gaze and I think that is important and we need those books.  This book is not necessarily written just towards the Filipino gaze.  It is written for my Filipino readers and my Filipino queer readers, but it is also written knowing that other people will be reading it.

Though this book has some dark themes like grief and loss there is a lot of humor that kept the tone light. There was this funny part where Emmet and Quito are in Mr. Cruz’s house in a closet, and I won’t spoil the line, but it was really funny.  You have great double entendres throughout the book.  I know you said your [personality] quirks are part of Quito's character, but is this also your sense of humor?

This is definitely my sense of humor. This is just how my brain works. One reviewer called my humor snarky, and it is pretty snarky. I lived in New York, and I was very much part of the queer community in New York in the early 2000s and there is this culture or tradition of being able to clap back. A lot of that kind of humor found its way into Ujima, but a lot of situational humor, like being in the closet, as you said, that just comes from my own brain, because that's just how I am.

Quito plays the piano as an accompanist for the choir and music is a big part of the storyline.  You said you were a singer. [Like Quito in the book] was music a way to escape life's challenges or be a way to protect yourself?

That's an interesting question.  I've been a singer for as long as I can remember, and I think for me it's not a matter of protection. In a musical, people start singing because the emotions get so big that they can't speak them anymore. They have to sing them, and I think that’s why I became a singer and why music was so important for me is because I wrote in a journal, but I've always been the kind of person who feels things very deeply and in a big way.  For me, the best outlet to explain what was going on inside of me was music and singing.

You wrote and incorporated the song lyrics for Quito and then released yourself singing A Part I Play, which evokes a lot of emotion and is very beautiful. You wrote that song just for the book, is that correct?

Yeah, what happened was that the song itself only really arose through the writing of the story and it was a part of the story plot. As I was writing the book, I made the decision to manifest the song because I needed to understand what the song was and how it would inform the characters and the plot. After that, I knew that it would be cool to have it out in the public because it would enhance the reader's experience and help sell the book to a publisher. As I was writing it, I approached my friend Martin McGinn, an incredible composer, and we worked together.  He wrote the music. I said it should sound like this or sound like that and he wrote it in like a week. It was during the pandemic, so we did it completely apart. I changed some of the lyrics to track better to his music and I suggested a couple of changes to the music and then we recorded our parts separately and then it was mixed together.

[The character] Ujima is such a contrast to Quito in terms of their confidence and outgoing personality, they are very lovable and funny, and they infuse and buoy Quito with support. As a nonbinary character, they have their own journey that gets a little highlight at the end.  What influence did you have in building Ujima's character?

Ujima's character was based on a friend of mine in New York whom I briefly dated.  He is the kind of person who is big and out there and extremely talented and very funny, but there is also a warm, beautiful center to him. He's just one of the most kind, caring people I've ever met, so I wanted a person who contrasts Quito, who is larger than life to help guide Quito through some of the decisions that he makes. Ujima shows up in my second book, Karaoke Queen, towards the end and then my intention is, and I've already talked about this with my editor, that Ujima is half of the focus and romantic half of the third book.  It's because it is literally the only thing people say in terms of what I should be doing next and it’s always, “Will you please write their love story?”

There are so many other ways to that the book breaks racial and gender stereotypes.  In one section of the book, alto or soprano roles don't have to be solely for female singers. And then thinking about character’s names – I was curious about the name Emmett for the hunky jock turned heartthrob action star for a mixed Japanese American character. How did you choose the name?

I knew that he was going to be Japanese or mixed race, so the [last] name Aoki came from a friend of mine. But Emmett was because it is the name of the kid I had a crush on in grade school and I always thought it was the best name ever.

We were talking before about not historically having broad Asian representation or even queer representation in books or media. It's starting to feel more normalized, I think, but with COVID, there were so many Asian hate crimes. Book banning continues to be on the rise and LGBTQ+ and BIPOC books face a very real danger of being removed from shelves in certain communities. What are your thoughts about the future of diverse representation given the pushback from conservative communities? Do you have an opinion on white or straight authors writing BIPOC or queer characters?

That's a big question. I personally don't have a problem with white authors writing characters who are nonwhite and I don't have a greater problem with anyone writing characters who are not of the same identity as them because you know we are writers and we need to be able to imagine what it's like to be someone who is not ourselves, but at the same time it is extremely important for the publishing industry and for readers and for people who buy books and get books from the library to support writers who do write in their own voice. I still like the idea of own voices of authors who are writing characters who are their own identity.

I think there was a little bit of a hubbub last year and I think it happens every year when Goodreads releases their list of top romance books. These are books chosen by readers. It's not a jury or anything, and out of this very long list of the nominees, I think there was maybe one author of color and that is such a big disappointment.

I would like to say that my own publisher, Forever, is a fantastic, supportive imprint of Hachette in that they support diverse authors and Hachette does that as well. I see other publishers doing that and it needs to continue and readers really need to support our stories. 

What are you reading now?

The Celebrants

Redefining Realness

Forget Me Not