A Life of Books: Tracey Lien, author of All That’s Left Unsaid

All That’s Left Unsaid, the debut novel from Australian-born Tracey Lien has been praised by as “an unforgettable debut, utterly compelling from start to finish” by bestselling author Liane Moriarty. Lien, who earned her MFA at the University of Kansas and was a Los Angeles Times reporter currently lives in Brooklyn.

Her book follows a young Vietnamese-Australian woman who navigates the complicated tangles of her family and community in the wake of her brother’s murder.

Debutiful asked her to answer our recurring A Life of Books questionnaire so readers can get to know her better.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

I am always a bit embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t much of a reader as a child. Instead, I watched a lot of television—The Ricki Lake Show, Judge Judy, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Bold and the Beautiful, Huey’s Cooking Adventures. There was even a brief Jerry Springer phase. I would attribute this to growing up in a household where there weren’t a lot of books—my parents are fluent in Vietnamese and Chinese, but not English—but I know many children of refugees who were voracious readers. And so, I’d chalk it up to the fact that these daytime TV shows scratched my storytelling itch. They were dramatic and scandalous and easily accessible, and as a child I didn’t think to look elsewhere for a story fix. I wish I had! I’d love to be able to say that my childhood was defined by The Baby-Sitters Club instead of Brooke and Ridge’s on-again-off-again relationship on The Bold and the Beautiful

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

I did eventually find my way to books, and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. And it’s been so enriching! I feel like a doofus stating something so obvious, but maybe there’s someone out there who needs to hear it—someone who thinks that they “don’t like to read” or that it’s just “not their thing.” They probably just haven’t found their book yet. Which is why I believe children should be exposed to all kinds of books and encouraged to read critically and widely.

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

I Cliff Notes’d my way through high school Shakespeare and was frustrated by most of it. And, to be clear, it’s not like I’ve suddenly gained in adulthood the ability to read and understand Shakespearean texts—I am still way out of my depth when it comes to the language. But I can at least follow what’s going on now and wrap my mind around the significance of the stories, which has given me an appreciation for Shakespeare.  

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

When I was sixteen, I thought that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was the bee’s knees. I evangelized the heck out of it! I have not gone back to re-read it because I’m worried that I might not feel that way anymore. I’m going to let sleeping dogs lie. 

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

I relied so heavily on the works of other authors to guide the direction of All That’s Left Unsaid. As a first-time novelist, I looked (and continue to look) to others to see what’s possible. I learned a ton about structure from Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth and Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek. I learned about compelling hooks and mysteries from Jane Harper’s The Dry and Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. I learned about leaning into the places you know and depicting them with love and honesty from Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe and Cote Smith’s Hurt People. And I was emboldened to center Asian Australian characters after seeing Asian and Asian American characters depicted with such nuance and complexity in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, and Ling Ma’s Severance

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

I have that thought all the time, and it’s usually accompanied by the thought, “I wish I was at a level where writing something like this was within the realm of possibility.” Novels that have motivated to keep working at it include Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun

What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?

This year was the first time I returned to Australia since before the pandemic, so I stocked up on and have been reading books by Aussie authors. Hayley Scrivenor’s Dirt Town (available in the U.S. under the name Dirt Creek) is an engrossing murder mystery set in rural Australia. I really love books told from the point-of-view of sassy, opinionated children, and Hayley nails it in her debut. Stateside, I recently finished Katie Gutierrez’s More Than You’ll Ever Know, a juicy crime thriller that poses big questions about female desire, what we owe the people we love, and the ethics of true crime. 

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.

Another book! Weeeee!

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