Jen Sookfong Lee's new novel, The Conjoined, is getting fantastic buzz this fall, and intriguing readers with its rich and compelling premise. A woman mourning the recent death of her mother is cleaning out her parents' house when there's a grisly discovery: the bodies of two girls in freezers in the basement. The woman cannot fathom how this happened, but knows it's connected to two foster children her mother cared for years before, and in order to understand, she must put the pieces of a very fractured history together.
Here, Lee shares with us books that played a role in inspiring The Conjoined. And because we liked the book so much, we even let her include a few non-Canadian titles (but shhh, don't tell anyone. We don't want to get a reputation).
I’m not going to lie: this is an idiosyncratic list of books that in some way contributed to the writing of The Conjoined. I had flirted with the idea of writing a literary crime novel for years, partly because I love crime fiction and partly because the very best and very worst of humanity bubbles up whenever a crime has occurred. And there’s nothing I like better than exploring what grosses people out! Anyway, here is my list of books that in some crooked way inspired me to write my hybrid of a novel.
Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery
I talk about Anne of Green Gables all the time, but it was always Emily that I most related to, partly because she had dark hair and talked to cats (I talk to every dog I see), but also because she was a writer and never considered herself in any other way.
Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
I talk about Harriet the Spy all the time too, but my very first idea of how a crime novel works comes from Harriet. She’s a strongly written hero who investigates mysteries with tenacity and grit. And everything I ever learned about writing a city came from Louise Fitzhugh’s descriptions of New York City.
Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, by Evelyn Lau
I always feel that Evelyn Lau never gets enough respect for how much she changed the Canadian literary landscape as a female writer of colour. Reading her memoir was a pivotal moment for me as a teenager: we came from the same place, had similar families, and struggled with expectations and individual desires. I owe her so much.
I’ll Take Manhattan, by Judith Krantz
My older sisters had a soft spot for romance novels and what I would now classify as erotica because I’m, like, an adult. Judith Krantz wrote smutty novels and they taught me, at age 11, everything I needed to know about the mechanics of sex, but also everything I needed to know on how to write a memorable sex scene.
Room, by Emma Donoghue
If you were to ask me about the novel that most inspired me to write The Conjoined, it would be Room, by Emma Donoghue, which is so perfectly executed and makes us all question the nature of violent crime without being an overtly violent novel. But it also shows us that in even the worst conditions, humanity still survives.
Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston
What I have always loved about Fault Lines is how Nancy Huston writes about generational time and the concept of blame. I learned a lot from her about going backwards in chronology to build a character’s depth but also a kind of inverted suspense. There is no writer today who writes the psychology of a family as devastatingly as Nancy Huston.
The Inspector Banks Series, by Peter Robinson
The Inspector Banks novels were the first books of crime fiction I ever read and I was immediately hooked. There is something gentle about the way Peter Robinson goes about his novels that I really love; Banks isn’t a violent or black-and-white investigator. Plus, I met Peter once at a festival and he asked me to hold his glass of wine while he went to the loo and I almost fainted from joy.
Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson is the author of some of my favourite non-crime novels, but she also writes a pretty good detective story too. Case Histories is the first in the Jackson Brodie series, and I love that she married the dark, moody British crime novel trope with a great big dose of absurdist humour. I describe her crime fiction as Ian Rankin-meets-Wallace-and-Gromit.
The Winter Family, by Clifford Jackman
It takes some great writing to get me to read a novel featuring men on horses (unless one of them is Prince Harry), but I really loved The Winter Family. What Clifford Jackman does so well is write scenes with intense, graphic violence without distancing us. I turned to his book again and again while I was writing the most disturbing scenes in The Conjoined.
About The Conjoined:
On a sunny May morning, social worker Jessica Campbell sorts through her mother’s belongings after her recent funeral. In the basement, she makes a shocking discovery—two dead girls curled into the bottom of her mother’s chest freezers. She remembers a pair of foster children who lived with the family in 1988: Casey and Jamie Cheng—troubled, beautiful, and wild teenaged sisters from Vancouver’s Chinatown. After six weeks, they disappeared; social workers, police officers, and Jessica herself assumed they had run away.
As Jessica learns more about Casey, Jamie, and their troubled immigrant Chinese parents, she also unearths dark stories about Donna, whom she had always thought of as the perfect mother. The complicated truths she uncovers force her to take stock of own life.
Moving between present and past, this riveting novel unflinchingly examines the myth of social heroism and traces the often-hidden fractures that divide our diverse cities.
About Jen Sookfong Lee:
Jen Sookfong Lee was born and raised on Vancouver’s East Side, where she now lives with her son. Her books include The Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, The End of East, and Shelter. A popular radio personality, Jen was the voice behind CBC Radio One’s weekly writing column, Westcoast Words, for three years, appears regularly as a contributor on The Next Chapter, and is a frequent co-host of the Studio One Book Club. Jen teaches writing in the continuing studies departments at both Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia.
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