For a very long time, girls and women have been given the message that as we get older, we become invisible to the rest of the world—that we need to slow down the aging process as much as possible.
Author Jesse Q. Sutanto has done her part by highlighting Chinese Indonesian aunties in her chaotically hilarious Dial A for Aunties series. And in her latest book, Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers, the “lady of a certain age” shines. The story follows the title character, a 60-year-old Chinese woman, after she finds a dead body in her tea shop one morning. Deciding San Francisco police couldn’t possibly do a better job at solving the case than her, Vera swipes the flash drive in the dead man’s hand and proceeds to try to find the murderer herself.
The book’s only been out for about a month and has been well received. And just this week, it was announced that Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey are teaming up with Warner Bros. Television to produce a new TV show based on Sutanto’s book and bring Vera to the small screen.
I recently spoke with the 37-year-old Jakarta-based writer about her protagonist, her disdain for research, balancing darkness with humor, the types of old Asian aunties we want to be when we grow up, and her (possibly) dedicating an upcoming book to me (I have it here in writing!).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Samantha Pak: What first got you into writing?
Jesse Q. Sutanto: It must have started with my love of reading, which was always there from as early as I can remember. Wanting to branch out into writing was a very natural progression for me.
SP: What were some of your favorite books growing up?
JQS: I feel so bad saying this, because I feel like all of the authors that I read as a child have turned out to be so problematic, like Roald Dahl, you know? In Singapore, we get a lot of books by British authors—so Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton. I moved on to R.L. Stine. I loved the Fear Street books! I had a whole shelf of them. In my teen years, I moved on to Christopher Pike. And from Pike, I moved on to Stephen King. That carried me through the rest of my teen years.
SP: Was there any author or writer in particular that inspired you?
JQS: The late Sir Terry Pratchett. I loved his books, I discovered them when I was out of college, and I devoured all of them. They were amazing. I had never read anything so funny, so cozy, and yet also so brilliant, and so deep.
SP: Is there a book or series of his that you particularly enjoy?
JQS: My favorite would be the Witches books. My favorite (book) would be Witches Abroad because that one’s just so funny. I love the witches! The witches are part of the inspiration for the aunties in Dial A for Aunties. Even though they were very much informed by my own aunts, if you read Terry Pratchett’s Witches, you can totally see how the aunties were inspired by them: They’re so overbearing. They just assume that they’re right all the time. And they meddle in everybody’s business.
SP: When did you think, “This is something I want to do as a career?”
JQS: When I graduated from college, I wasn’t ready for the real world. So I applied to creative writing programs. Everyone rejected me, but then Oxford (University) accepted me. And I was like, “Really? Are you guys sure?” (laughs) After that, I was like, “Well, I got to do something with it. I gotta get serious about it.” But it took me a really long time to actually get published, almost 10 years after graduating. During that time, I was working different jobs. I worked for a bit as a wedding photographer and things that had nothing to do with writing. But in hindsight, I’m very grateful that I did, because it gave me a lot of life experience that I could later use in my writing.
SP: Wedding photographer made me think of Meddy from the Aunties books.
JQS: Yeah. I’m really lazy (laughs), and I hate doing research. So you’ll find my books have a lot of photographers. In Vera Wong, we also have a photographer!
Vera Wong was tricky because there are five points of view. And again, I’m so lazy and I’ve gotta give each of these people a career! Well, one of them is going to be a photographer. One of them will be a writer. One will be an artist—I dabbled in art. And the other one will be a programmer—because my husband, he’s a data scientist. And I was like, “Well, I can just ask him, I don’t need to Google too much.”
SP: I have read both of the Aunties books and I love them both. Each auntie is such a character. Have (your actual aunts) read the books? Do they recognize themselves in the stories?
JQS: I knew that my aunts and uncles won’t read the books because their English isn’t that good. I was safe, but I also didn’t want my cousins to read them and say, “Oh my god! Is that my mom?” (laughs) So I took characteristics from everyone—my aunts and my uncles—and then mixed them all up, and gave each character parts of a lot of people. When my mom read Dial A for Aunties, she was like, “The mom is not at all like me.” And I was like, “No, because the mom is actually dad.” And my mom was like, “Oh, my gosh! She is so your dad!” (laughs)
But with Vera Wong, I told my mom from the very beginning, “Vera is you—just turn the dial up to 100.” I was really nervous to have her read it, but she was like, “I love it. I read it in two days. This one is good. I’m gonna give this one out to all of my friends and tell them to read it.” Because she’s not shy about telling me which of my books she doesn’t like.
SP: Where did the idea come from? For this “woman of a certain age?”
JQS: I had actually written the third Aunties book by then. So I was very comfortable writing about older Chinese women. And I was like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to actually have a book from their perspective?” You could literally put aunties from any culture, into any situation, and it would immediately be so much more interesting. Dial A for Aunties meets Bridgerton (laughs). Dial A for Aunties, but make it sci-fi!
I always had (Vera’s) character in the back of my mind. And so I thought, “Well, what if she finds a dead body at her shop?” I thought maybe a restaurant or a bakery. But the setting is really, really saturated. I also don’t really have that much baking experience. I actually do know a lot about Chinese teas. So why not set it in a tea shop?
SP: Also sounds like you didn’t want to have to research a bakery and how to run one.
JQS: (Laughs) Yeah, you know me too well now!
SP: You do a good job of balancing some of the darker elements with humor. Where does that come from?
JQS: I’m always joking around a lot. During my interview process for Oxford, one of the questions was, “What do you see yourself doing with an Oxford degree in the future?” And I was like, “I see myself as an author who’s so famous and rich that when I sweat, I drip diamonds.” I thought that was funny. They did not laugh. They were so stone faced, and in their very proper Queen’s English accent they were like, “Oh, all right.” And then moved on to the next question. I use humor as my defense mechanism.
SP: Is Vera Wong the beginning of a series?
JQS: I wrote it as a one off, but then I had so much fun. If the first book does well, I’m more than happy to write another Vera Wong book.
SP: Speaking of series, you mentioned earlier that you have the third Aunties book written already. I have my theories of where it’s gonna take place. Are they going to Indonesia now for the new year?
JQS: Yes, they are! It’ll be in Jakarta during Chinese New Year. That’s the most chaotic time of the year for my family.
SP: I can just imagine what shenanigans the aunties can get up to and what crime they’re going to try and cover up (laughs). So besides the setting and the time of year, what can you say?
JQS: I can say that there will be Indonesian crime lords in the mix. There will be kidnapping. Just some light kidnapping—you know, nothing over the top (laughs).
SP: Can you just imagine the aunties meeting Vera and whatever shenanigans they get up to?
JQS: Totally. If I do write it, I’m gonna dedicate it to you or something.
SP: Aw, thanks! (laughs)
When you’re writing the aunties, they’re older. Do you see yourself turning into the type of auntie you write about?
JQS: I don’t know if I will ever have that kind of unshakable confidence. But I hope to. So, if I do turn into one of those aunties, I’d be like, “Oh, yes! Thank god! I’ve evolved into my final form!”
SP: (laughs) Like a Pokemon?
JQS: Yeah. Exactly!
Published on April 13, 2023
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.