Chapter no 4



—going to auction, negotiating deals, fielding calls from potential editors, choosing a publisher—are a dizzying whirlwind, but the rest involves a lot of staring at your phone and waiting for updates. Most books are sold up to two years before they’re released. The big announcements we’re always seeing online (Book deal! Movie deal! TV deal! Awards nominations!) have been open secrets for weeks, if not months. All the excitement and surprise are feigned for social clout.

The Last Front won’t come out until fifteen months after I sign my contract. Until then, there’s production.

I receive my edit letter two months after the deal. My editor at Eden is Daniella Woodhouse, a deep-voiced, no-nonsense, fast-talking woman who both intimidated and intrigued me during our first phone call. I remembered she’d gotten into some kerfuffle at a conference last year when she called a fellow female panelist “pathetic” for arguing that sexism in the industry remained an obstacle, after which all sorts of online personalities labeled her an enemy of women and demanded she make a public apology, if not resign. (She did neither.) That doesn’t seem to have impacted her career. In the last year, she’s published three bestsellers: a novel about the interior lives of murderous and sexy housewives, a thriller about a classical pianist who makes a deal with the literal devil in exchange for a legendary career, and a memoir by a lesbian beekeeper.

I was hesitant about signing with Eden Press at first, especially since it was an indie publisher instead of one of the Big Five—HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. But Brett convinced me that at a midsize house, I’d be a big fish in a small

pond; that I’d get all the care and attention I never felt at my first publisher. Sure enough, compared to Garrett, Daniella practically coddles me. She responds to all my emails within the day, often within the hour, and always in depth. She makes me feel like I matter. When she tells me this book will be a hit, I know that she means it.

I like her editorial style, too. Most of her requested changes are simple clarifications. Are American audiences going to know what this phrase means? Should this flashback be placed in this early chapter when we haven’t met the character in the proper timeline yet? This dialogue exchange is artful, but how does it move the story along?

Honestly, I’m relieved. Finally someone’s calling Athena out on her bullshit, on her deliberately confusing sentence structures and cultural allusions. Athena likes to make her audience “work for it.” On the topic of cultural exposition, she’s written that she doesn’t “see the need to move the text closer to the reader, when the reader has Google, and is perfectly capable of moving closer to the text.” She drops in entire phrases in Chinese without adding any translations—her typewriter doesn’t have Chinese characters, so she left spaces and wrote them out by hand. It took me hours of fiddling with an OCR to search them online, and even then I had to strike out about half of them. She refers to family members in Chinese terms instead of English, so you’re left wondering if a given character is an uncle or a second cousin. (I’ve read dozens of guides to the Chinese kinship nomenclature system by now. It makes no goddamn sense.) She’s done this in all her other novels. Her fans praise such tactics as brilliant and authentic—a diaspora writer’s necessary intervention against the whiteness of English. But it’s not good craft. It makes the prose frustrating and inaccessible. I am convinced it is all in service of making

Athena, and her readers, feel smarter than they are.

“Quirky, aloof, and erudite” is Athena’s brand. “Commercial and compulsively readable yet still exquisitely literary,” I’ve decided, will be mine.

The hardest part is keeping track of all the characters. We change almost a dozen names to reduce confusion. Two different characters have the last name Zhang, and four have the last name Li. Athena differentiates them by giving them different first names, which she only occasionally uses, and other names that I assume are nicknames (A Geng, A Zhu; unless A is a last name and I’m missing something), or Da Liu and Xiao Liu,

which throws me for a loop because I thought Liu was a last name, so what are Da and Xiao doing there? Why are so many of the female characters named Xiao as well? And if they’re family names, does that mean everyone is related? Is this a novel about incest? But the easy fix is to give them all distinct monikers, and I spend hours scrolling through pages on Chinese history and baby name sites to find names that will be culturally appropriate.

We cut out thousands of words of unnecessary backstory. Athena likes to write in a rhizomatic fashion: jumping back ten or twenty years to explore a character’s childhood; lingering in rural Chinese landscapes for long, unrelated chapters; introducing characters who have no clear relevance to the plot, and then forgetting about them for the rest of the novel. I can tell she’s trying to add texture to her characters’ lives, to show the readers where they come from and the webs in which they exist, but she’s gone way overboard. It’s distracting from the central narrative. Reading should be an enjoyable experience, not a chore.

We soften the language. We take out all references to “Chinks” and “Coolies.” Perhaps you mean this as subversive, writes Daniella in the comments, but in this day and age, there’s no need for such discriminatory language. We don’t want to trigger readers.

We also soften some of the white characters. No, it’s not as bad as you think. Athena’s original text is almost embarrassingly biased; the French and British soldiers are cartoonishly racist. I get she’s trying to make a point about discrimination within the Allied front, but these scenes are so hackneyed that they defy belief. It throws the reader out of the story. Instead we switch one of the white bullies to a Chinese character, and one of the more vocal Chinese laborers to a sympathetic white farmer. This adds the complexity, the humanistic nuance that perhaps Athena was too close to the project to see.

In the original draft, several laborers are driven to suicide by their mistreatment at the hands of the British, and one man hangs himself in the captain’s dugout. The captain, upon finding the body, tells an interpreter to order the rest of the laborers to hang themselves in their own dugouts if they must, for “We don’t like such a mess in ours.” This whole scene, apparently, was lifted straight from the historical record—Athena’s copy had handwritten notes in the margin emphasizing: COMMENT ON IN ACKNOWLEDGMENTS—CAN’T MAKE THIS SHIT UP. MY GOD.

It’s a powerful scene, and I felt a curdle of horror when I read it for the first time. But Daniella thinks it’s too over the top. I get that they’re army men, and they’re uncouth, but this feels like tragedy porn, she comments. Cut for pacing?

The largest change we make is to the last third of the book.

The pacing really flags here, reads Daniella’s comment. Do we need all this context about the Treaty of Versailles? Seems out of place—focus is not Chinese geopolitics, surely?

At the end of the book, Athena’s original draft is unbearably sanctimonious. Here she leaves the more engaging personal narratives behind to hit the reader over the head with the myriad ways in which the laborers have been forgotten and ignored. The laborers killed in action could not be buried in plots near European soldiers. They were not eligible for military awards because they were purportedly not in combat. And—the part that Athena was angriest about—the Chinese government was still fucked over in the Treaty of Versailles at the conclusion of WWI, with the territory of Shandong ceded from Germany to Japan.

But who’s going to follow all of that? It’s hard to sympathize with the stakes in the absence of a main character. The last forty pages read more like a history paper than a gripping wartime narrative. They feel out of place, like a senior term paper attached haphazardly to the end. Athena did always have such a didactic streak.

Daniella wants me to cut it altogether. Let’s end the novel with A Geng on the boat heading home, she suggests. It’s a strong final image, and it carries the momentum of the previous burial scene. The rest can go in an afterword, perhaps, or a personal essay we can put out in an outlet closer to publication. Or perhaps as additional material in the paperback, for book clubs?

I think that’s brilliant. I make the cut. And then, just to add some flair, I include a short epilogue after the A Geng scene consisting of one line from a letter one of the laborers later wrote Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918 pleading for world peace: I am convinced that it is the will of Heaven that all mankind should live as one family.

This is brilliant, Daniella writes in response to my turnaround. You are so wonderfully easy to work with. Most authors are pickier about killing their darlings.

This makes me beam. I want my editor to like me. I want her to think I’m easy to work with, that I’m not a stubborn diva, that I’m capable of making any changes she asks for. It’ll make her more likely to sign me on for future projects.

It’s not all about pandering to authority. I do think we’ve made the book better, more accessible, more streamlined. The original draft made you feel dumb, alienated at times, and frustrated with the self-righteousness of it all. It stank of all the most annoying things about Athena. The new version is a universally relatable story, a story that anyone can see themselves in.

The whole process takes three editorial rounds over four months. By the end, I’ve become so familiar with the project that I can’t tell where Athena ends and I begin, or which words belong to whom. I’ve done the research. I’ve read a dozen books now on Asian racial politics and the history of Chinese labor at the front. I’ve lingered over every word, every sentence, and every paragraph so many times that I nearly know them by heart—hell, I’ve probably been over this novel more times than Athena herself.

What this whole experience teaches me is that I can write. Some of Daniella’s favorite passages are the ones original to me. There’s one part, for instance, where a poor French family wrongly accuses a group of Chinese laborers of stealing a hundred francs from their house. The laborers, determined to make a good impression of their race and nation, collect two hundred francs among them and gift it to the family even though it’s clear they are innocent. Athena’s draft only made a brief mention of the wrongful accusation, but my version turns it into a heartwarming illustration of Chinese virtue and honesty.

All of my confidence and verve, dashed after my horrific debut experience, come rushing back. I’m brilliant with words. I’ve studied writing for nearly a decade now; I know what makes a direct, punchy sentence, and I know how to structure a story so that the reader stays riveted all the way through. I’ve labored for years to learn my craft. Perhaps the core idea of this novel wasn’t mine, but I’m the one who rescued it, who freed the diamond from the rough.

But the thing is, no one will ever understand how much I put into this novel. If news ever breaks that Athena wrote the first draft, the whole world will look at all the work I did, all those beautiful sentences I produced, and all they’ll ever see is Athena Liu.

But no one ever has to know, do they?


I lay the groundwork long before the novel is out, before early versions of it are off to reviewers and book bloggers. I’ve never made a secret of my relationship to Athena, and I’m even less subtle about it now. I am, after all, currently best known as the person who was at her side when she died.

So I play up our connection. I mention her name in every interview. My grief over her death becomes a cornerstone of my origin story. All right, maybe I exaggerate the details a bit. Quarterly drinks become monthly, sometimes weekly drinks. I only have two selfies of us saved on my phone, which I never meant to share because I hate how frumpy I look beside her, but I upload them on my Instagram under a black-and-white filter and pen a touching tribute poem to accompany it. I’ve read all her work, and she mine. Often we traded ideas. I saw her as my greatest inspiration, and her feedback on my drafts was foundational to my growth as a writer. This is what I tell the public.

See, the closer we seem, the less mysterious that resemblances to her work will appear. Athena’s fingerprints are all over this project. I don’t wipe them off. I just provide an alternative explanation for why they’re there.

“I was in a really difficult place with my writing after my debut flopped,” I tell Book Riot. “I didn’t know if I even wanted to keep going. Athena’s the one who convinced me to give the manuscript another try. And she helped me with all my research—she navigated the Chinese primary sources, and she helped me hunt down texts at the Library of Congress.”

It’s not lying. I swear, it was never as psychopathic as it sounds. It’s all just stretching reality a bit, putting the right spin on the picture so that the lurking social media outrage mob doesn’t get the wrong idea. Besides, the train has left the station—coming clean at this point would tank the book, and I couldn’t do that to Athena’s legacy.

No one is suspicious. Athena’s aloofness helps me out here. She did have other friends, according to all the Twitter eulogies I read after her funeral, but they’re all spread out across different states and continents. There’s no one else she was regularly hanging out with in DC. There’s no one who can contradict my account of our relationship. The whole world seems ready to believe that I was Athena Liu’s closest friend. And who knows? Maybe I was.

And yes—this is incredibly cynical, but the fact of our friendship casts an awful light on any future detractors. If anyone criticizes me for imitating her work, they’re coming after a friend who’s still in mourning, which makes them a monster.

Athena, the dead muse. And I, the grieving friend, haunted by her spirit, unable to write without invoking her voice.

See, who ever said I wasn’t a good storyteller?

I set up a scholarship in Athena’s name at the Asian American Writers’ Collective’s annual workshop, where Athena had spent one summer as a student and three as a guest instructor. The director, Peggy Chan, had sounded confused and suspicious when I called about Athena, but changed her tone quickly enough when she realized that I was offering money. Since then she’s been retweeting all of my book news, spamming my Twitter feed with messages like CONGRATULATIONS! and CAN’T WAIT TO READ THIS!!! #GoJune!

Her enthusiasm makes me a bit uncomfortable, especially since the rest of her feed is exclusively stuff about racism in publishing and the industry’s shoddy treatment of marginalized writers. But, if she’s going to use me, then I’m going to use her right back.


I research. I read every single one of the sources that Athena cited in her draft, until I’m as much an expert on the Chinese Labour Corps as anyone can be. I even try to teach myself Mandarin, but no matter how hard I try, all the characters look as unrecognizable as chicken scratch, and the different tones feel like an elaborate practical joke, so I give up. (It’s all right, though: I find an old interview where Athena admitted that she didn’t even speak Mandarin fluently herself, and if Athena Liu couldn’t read primary sources, well, then why should I?)

I set up Google Alerts for my name, Athena’s name, and both of our names in conjunction. Most of my search results are publishing press releases that say nothing new—splashy information about my book deal, memorials to Athena’s work, and occasionally mentions about how my work is influenced by hers. Someone writes a long and thoughtful piece on the history of literary friendships, and it tickles me to see me and Athena compared to Tolkien and Lewis, Brontë and Gaskell.

For a few weeks, it all feels like I’m in the clear. No one asks questions about how I came to my source material. No one seems to even have known what Athena was working on.

One day, I see a headline from the Yale Daily News that makes my stomach drop.

“Yale Acquires Athena Liu’s Drafting Notes,” it reads. From the opening paragraph: “Late novelist and Yale alumna Athena Liu’s notebooks will soon become part of the Marlin Literary Archive at the Sterling Memorial Library. The notebooks have been donated by Liu’s mother, Patricia Liu, who has expressed her gratitude that her daughter’s notebooks will be memorialized by her alma mater . . .”

Shit. Shit, shit, shit.

Athena did all her outlining in those stupid Moleskine notebooks. She’s spoken publicly about this process. “I do all my brainstorming and research by hand,” she’s said. “It helps me think better, to identify themes and linkages. I think it’s because the act of physical writing forces my mind to slow down, to examine the potential of every word I’m scribbling out. Then, when I’ve filled up six or seven notebooks this way, I pull out the typewriter and start drafting properly.”

I don’t know why I never thought of taking the notebooks as well. They were right there on the desk—at least three of them, two lying open next to the manuscript. I was so panicked that night. I suppose I thought they’d go into storage with the rest of her belongings.

But a public archive? I mean, fuck. The first person who goes in to write a paper about her—and there will be many, I’m sure—will see the notes for The Last Front right away. I’m sure they’re extensive, detailed. That’ll be a dead giveaway. Then this whole artifice unravels.

I don’t have time to calm myself, to think things through. I need to nip this in the bud. Heart racing, I reach for my phone and call Athena’s mother.


must be in her midfifties by now, but she doesn’t look a day over thirty. You can see, in that elegant, petite frame and sharp cheekbones, the wispy beauty Athena would have grown into. Mrs. Liu’s face had been so puffy from crying at the funeral, I hadn’t noticed how striking she was; now, up close, she looks so much like her daughter that it’s disorienting.

“Junie. So good to see you.” She embraces me on her doorstep. She smells like dried flowers. “Come in.”

I sit down at her kitchen table, and she pours and places a steaming cup of a very fragrant tea before me before sitting down. Her slender fingers curl around her own cup. “I understand you wanted to talk about Athena’s things.”

She’s so direct, I wonder for a moment if she’s onto me. She’s nothing like the warm, welcoming woman I’d met at the funeral. But then I notice the tired sag of her mouth, the shadows beneath her eyes, and I realize she’s only trying to get through the day.

I had a whole arsenal of small talk planned: stories about Athena, stories about Yale, observations on grief and how hard it is to make it through every minute of every day when one of your pillars has vanished overnight. I know loss. I know how to talk to people about loss.

Instead I cut straight to the chase. “I read that you’re going to donate Athena’s notebooks to the Marlin Archive?”

“I am.” She cocks her head. “You don’t think that’s a good idea?”

“No, no, Mrs. Liu, I don’t mean that, I’m just . . . I’m wondering if you mind telling me how you made that decision?” My cheeks are burning. I can’t hold her gaze. I drop my eyes. “I mean, only if you want to talk about it. I know all of this is—it’s impossible to really talk about, I know, and it’s not like you know me all that well . . .”

“I received an email from the librarian in charge of the project a few weeks ago,” says Mrs. Liu. “Marjorie Chee. Very nice girl. We spoke on the phone, and she seemed so familiar with Athena’s work.” She sighs, takes a sip of tea. For some reason, I keep thinking about how good her English is. There’s only a hint of an accent, and her vocabulary is rich, her sentence structures complex and varied. Athena had always made a big deal about how her parents had immigrated to the States without speaking a word of English, but Mrs. Liu’s English sounds fine to me. “Well, I don’t know much about these things. But it seems like a public archive is a good way to let people remember Athena. She was so brilliant—well, you know that; her mind worked in such fascinating ways. I’m sure some literary scholars might be interested in doing a study. Athena would like that. She was always so thrilled when academics wrote about her work; she said it was better validation than the . . . the adoration of the masses. Her words. Anyhow, it’s not like I’m doing anything important with them.” She nods to

the corner. I follow her gaze, and my breath catches. The notebooks are right there, piled unceremoniously together in a big cardboard box, shelved beneath a large bag of rice and what looks like a smooth, unstriped watermelon.

Wild fantasies flood my mind. I could grab them and run out, be halfway down the block before Mrs. Liu realizes what’s happening. I could douse this whole place in oil while she’s out and burn them, and no one would be any wiser.

“Have you read what’s in them?” I ask cautiously.

Mrs. Liu sighs again. “No, I’ve thought about it, but I . . . It’s very painful. You know, even when Athena was alive, it was difficult for me to read her novels. She drew so much from her childhood, from stories her father and I told her, from things . . . things in our past. Our family’s past. I did read her first novel, and that’s when I realized it’s very hard to read about these memories from someone else’s point of view.” Her throat pulses. She touches her collar. “It makes me wonder if we should have spared her all that pain.”

“I understand,” I say. “My relatives are the same way with my work.” “Oh yes?”

No, that’s a lie; I don’t know what compelled me to say it. My folks couldn’t care less about what I write. My grandfather griped about having to pay the cost of my useless English degree all four years that I was at Yale, and my mother still phones once a month to ask whether I’ve decided yet to try something that will let me earn real money, like law school or consulting. Rory did read my debut novel, though she didn’t understand it at all—she kept asking why the sisters were so insufferable, which baffled me, because the sisters were supposed to be us.

But what Mrs. Liu wants right now is company and sympathy. She wants to hear the right words. And words are, after all, what I’m good at.

“They feel too close to the subject matter,” I say. “I draw a lot on my own life in my novels, too.” This part is true; my debut novel was nearly autobiographical. “And I didn’t exactly have a smooth childhood, so it’s hard for them . . . I mean, they don’t like to be reminded of their mistakes. They don’t like seeing things through my eyes.”

Mrs. Liu nods vigorously. “I can understand that.”

I see my way in. And it’s so obvious, it almost feels too easy.

“And, well, that’s sort of why I wanted to come talk to you today.” I take a breath. “I’ll be honest with you, Mrs. Liu. I don’t think putting her notebooks up for public access is a good idea.”

Her brows furrow. “Why not?”

“I don’t know how much you know about your daughter’s writing process . . .”

“Not much,” she says. “Almost nothing. She hated talking about her work until it was finished. She got so snippy if I even brought it up.”

“Well, that’s just it,” I say. “Athena was so private with her stories while she was putting them together. They draw from such painful histories

—we spoke about it once; she described it as mining her past for scars and ripping them open so that they bleed fresh again.” We never spoke about writing quite so intimately; I read the part about ripping scars open in an interview. But it is true; that really is how Athena thought about her works in progress. “She couldn’t show that pain to anyone else until she’d perfected the way she wanted to tell it, until she had complete control over the narrative. Until she’d polished it into a version and argument that she was comfortable with. But those notebooks are her original thoughts, raw and unfiltered. And I just can’t help but . . . I don’t know, I feel like donating them to an archive would be a violation. Like putting her corpse on display.”

Maybe I’m a bit heavy-handed with the imagery there. But it works. “My goodness.” Mrs. Liu touches a hand to her mouth. “Oh my

goodness, I can’t believe—”

“Of course it’s up to you,” I say hastily. “It’s entirely your right to do as you like with them. I just thought, as a friend, I feel obligated to tell you. I don’t think that’s what Athena would have wanted.”

“I see.” Mrs. Liu’s eyes are red, watery with tears. “Thank you, June. I never even considered . . .” She’s silent for a moment, staring at her teacup. She blinks hard, then glances up at me. “Do you want them, then?”

I flinch back. “Me?”

“It hurts to have them around.” Her shoulders sag; the whole of her seems to wilt. “And since you knew her so well . . .” She shakes her head. “Oh, what am I saying? It’s such an imposition. No, forget about it.”

“No, no, it’s just that . . .” Should I say yes? I would have complete control over Athena’s notes for The Last Front, and who knows what else. Ideas for future novels? Full drafts, even?

No, best not to get greedy. I have what I want. Any more, and I risk leaving a trail. Mrs. Liu might be discreet, but what might happen if the Yale Daily News reports, however innocuously, that I now own all those notebooks?

And it’s not like I’m trying to build an entire career on repurposing Athena’s work. The Last Front was a special, happy accident—a melding of two modes of genius. Whatever work I produce from here on out will be my own. I don’t need the temptation.

“I couldn’t,” I say gently. “I wouldn’t feel right. Perhaps you could leave them in the family?”

What I would like is for her to burn them, to scatter the ashes along with Athena’s so that no one, no curious relative decades from now, can go poking through them to dredge up what should be left alone. But I have to make her think she came up with the idea herself.

“There’s no one else.” Mrs. Liu shakes her head again. “No, after her father went back to China, it was me and Athena, just the two of us.” She sniffles. “That’s why I said yes to the Marlin people, you see—they would at least take it off my hands.”

“I just wouldn’t trust a public archive,” I say. “You don’t know what they’ll uncover.”

Mrs. Liu’s eyes widen. Suddenly she seems greatly disturbed, and I wonder what she’s thinking about, but I know it’s best not to pry. I’ve already gotten what I came for. I’ll let her imagination do the rest.

“Oh my goodness,” she says again. “I can’t believe . . .”

My stomach twists. She looks so distressed. Jesus Christ. What am I doing? Suddenly all I want is to be out of there, notebooks be damned. This is so fucked up. I can’t believe I had the nerve to come here. “Mrs. Liu, I don’t mean to pressure you—”

“No.” She sets down her teacup with a thud. “No. You’re right. I will not put my daughter’s soul on display.”

I exhale, watching her cautiously. Have I won? Could it have been that easy? “If that’s what you—”

“That is what I have decided.” She glares at me, as if I’m about to try to talk her out of it. “No one will see those notebooks. No one.”

I stay for another half an hour before I go, making small talk and telling Mrs. Liu about how I’ve been doing since the funeral. I tell her about The Last Front, about how much Athena inspired my work and that I hope

she’d be proud of what I’ve written. But she’s not interested; she’s distracted, asking me thrice if I want some more tea although I’ve already said no, and it’s obvious she wants to be left alone but is too polite to ask me to leave.

When I finally get up to go, she’s staring at the boxes, clearly terrified of what lies within.


scanning for any updates about the Athena Liu collection. But there’s nothing. January thirtieth comes and goes, which is the date the notebooks would have been made available to the public. One day I search the Yale Daily News website to find that the original announcement has simply been taken down without acknowledgment, its URL broken, as if the story had never existed.

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