C.B. Lee is an Asian American young adult author. Not Your Sidekick is her second novel, and she has another on the way. When she is not writing, she enjoys rock climbing, science, and television.
Not Your Sidekick follows Jessica Tran, the one normal person in a family of superheroes. She gets an internship with her town’s notorious super villains and battles a crush on one of the most popular girls in school. Things start to get dangerous when strange things start happening in her city, and Jess must figure out how much of a hero she can be.
How did you get your start writing?
I’ve always loved stories, and I definitely started pretty young, whether it was coming up with elaborate plots for my action figures and stuffed animals to act out or writing them down. I started keeping a journal in middle school and would always be writing down my ideas, adding to this long fantasy story I’d come up with.
When did you know you wanted to write professionally?
Being able to write and share my stories was something I always wanted to do, but I went down a few career paths, including pursuing a graduate degree in earth science. (laughs) I loved science, but I found soon that academic life and a future in research wasn’t for me. I’m happy now working at the environmental education nonprofit I’m at, as I get to work directly with kids and I have time to write.
I didn’t really think writing professionally was a possibility for me; everything I had imagined about it was that it seemed incredibly difficult to get published, but I had never tried. I thought about it and realized if I didn’t try, I’d never know, and I’m so glad I took that plunge because it’s been an amazing ride.
Not Your Sidekick features a strong bisexual, bi-racial Asian girl as its protagonist. Did you ever consider making her anything but that?
Jess has always been who she is from the very start of this project. It’s very deliberate, from the title to her heritage; a bit of a play on realizing that many of the Asian American characters that you see in media are very often supporting characters or “sidekicks,” there to prop up the straight white protagonist.
Being bisexual and Chinese-Vietnamese seemed like the height of invisibility for me; I wanted readers to see Jess and that specific intersection of sexuality and race, and for her to be the main character and have her own story.
Not much media ever openly says bisexual, yet you were unafraid to. Why do you think it is such a taboo?
It’s rather strange when you think about TV and how they’re starting to feature characters in the LGBTQ+ community, and yet at the same time it seems like such a dirty word for them, or they don’t want to “label” a character for whatever reason, or even have that character state that they don’t want to be labeled. Actively having a character define themselves, firmly without vagueness or question, is helpful, especially in mainstream media, because it helps show people that they aren’t alone, that this concept exists, that it’s a possibility for them. There simply aren’t enough characters in the LGBTQ+ community being portrayed in mainstream media.
The sequel stars Jessica’s best friend Bells, a transman. What was your inspiration for him?
(laughs) I love Bells. He’s a fun, wise-cracking, sarcastic, shapeshifting, capslock-loving guy who is an amazing hero. The entire series is about these kids who are sidelined, and otherwise marginalized for not having powers, having “useless” powers, or, in Bells’ case, being used as a scapegoat by the government. His story is all about how he defines himself as a hero and continues to be one, even as he’s being labeled a villain. He’s inspired in part by a few amazing friends of mine, but in the writing, he’s become his own person, most definitely.
What made you decide to make the story for young adults?
I love writing in this genre; it’s this amazing time where youth are learning about themselves, being exploratory, figuring out who they want to be. I find the challenges addressed in these works have so much meaning. I think there’s definitely a need for more LGBTQIA+ protagonists for teens to see themselves in.
I feel like a lot of people look down on young adult novels and that it’s not “literature,” simply because it’s aimed at teenagers. I love the young adult genre simply because there is so much value in teenagers finding themselves and reading stories about other teenagers and wanting and hoping for stories of their own, finding joy in these characters and drawing parallels from them, experiencing wonderful and fantastic things.
Your world is so vivid and easy to be immersed in. What inspired this post-apocalyptic superhero world?
So the Nevada town where Jess lives is inspired by a real place: Red Rock National Conversation Area. It’s a beautiful area, filled with stunning canyons in oranges and reds, and one of my favorite places for hiking and rock climbing. It’s pretty desolate, and there are lots of places out in the desert, it feels very postapocalyptic as you’re driving on a one-lane highway, and the landscape stretches out to the horizon, and every once in awhile you’ll pass on an abandoned house, or an old diner, or the remnants of a rusting car.
I’ve always found post-apocalyptic stories fascinating, and I wanted to explore a world that was on its way to healing, even though there were remnants of a huge catastrophic event. So there are elements of Andover that seem pretty normal–suburbia, high school, country clubs– but mixed in with all of that are warnings for radiation, a huge disconnect between inside and outside the city, and of course, lots and lots of tech. It’s an interesting aspect of the world how the event that catalyzed all the superpowers was also this disastrous event for the everyone, so it was a lot of fun to imagine it.
Since we are a site called Talk Nerdy With Us, we must know, what makes you nerdy?
I’m a huge nerd! I’ve loved science fiction and fantasy, especially since I was a kid. I play Magic the Gathering as well as Dungeons and Dragons; I love tabletop games; they’re so fun and social, and a great way to spend time with your friends. I’m pretty nerdy in all my interests; any time I get into a new book series or TV show I go all in. Cosplay, conventions, the whole nine yards.