Book publishing, tech industry and savoury fried bread

Rose Lu

April 14, 2020

When I sit down to write questions for a new interview, it’s like sitting down to read a book - you have to be comfortable and prepare for an adventure. It starts off by typing the name into Google: “Rose Lu”, then you wait. I open every single link on the first 3 pages (there are so many wonderful gems past the first page, I promise). When a person has done interviews in the past, I get a bit excited and nervous. When a person is a writer themselves, I get way more nervous... How do I ask questions that they will enjoy answering? That they haven’t been asked before? That aren’t too obvious but also don’t come off too nosey?

I haven’t met some people on Storyo but an hour into reading their blogs, copy-pasted bios, perusing through their social media pages, listening to radio interviews they might have done, I get a feeling of comfort - just like the book characters, they feel familiar.

Rose Lu was suggested by Serena Chen in her interview a few months ago. In the current times of social isolation, looking for connection and inspiration (and all other -tion’s), I reached out to Rose and here I am, being a full-blown stalker on the internet.

Many people wrote about Rose and her recently published book “All Who Live on Islands”, on racism and culture and family. On Rose being a mechatronics engineer and a writer, a daughter of Chinese immigrants. On her Masters of Arts in Creative Writing.

I am excited to have Rose share her stories and indulge my curiosities on Storyo!

What do you spend most of your energy on? Mental and physical - is it the same thing for both?

Lately I’ve been trying to prioritise exercise, especially yoga. In 2018 I was doing my Masters in Creative Writing full time, while also working part time, and since then it’s been really hard to break the habit of working every day. I really need to though, my hands and wrists are definitely not enjoying the sheer amount of typing I do on a daily basis. I’ve been trying to get better at having slack time instead of productive time, because my default is to pack days with projects, classes and social engagements. It’s so important to have that space for the creative process, and for problem solving.

I’ve started thinking about the next book too. The ideas are still in their infancy, so I don’t think I will begin writing it anytime soon. I’ve had a lot of people asking me if I’d ever combine my technical work with my writing work, and for a long time I was very resistant to the idea, but I think my next book will be a work of fiction set in the tech industry. My initial hesitancy was because I’ve never encountered a book about the tech industry that held my attention. The ones I’ve seen tend to focus on the ludicrous aspects of working in hyper-capitalistic American companies, and often the narrative is focussed on the company or it’s founders, rather than the people working in the industry. I want to write a story that gives a closer portrait of software developers, how they view themselves and the world, and what motivates them. As someone who is constantly switching between different communities, I notice that software developers (including myself) tend to have deeply embedded common traits, like the need to be constantly problem solving, even if it isn’t appropriate in the given situation. I find it interesting how much work can shape who we are as people. I’m playing with some ideas and situations like this, and hoping that they’ll form something cohesive eventually.

Sometimes there is this epitome of success that people who study the same thing share. In finance, it might be being a partner in one of the big 4 consultancy firms; in medicine - having your own practice. What was that epitome for you when you studied engineering and when you did creative writing? Have they changed with time?

I find success really difficult to talk about! Growing up, there was no one that expected me, or pushed me, to excel in any field. My parents just wanted me to have a stable career and live a normal life. I think this is reflective of their experience growing up in a poor rural area, and then moving to Aotearoa with next to nothing. There was only a brief blip in the middle when my dad was working in Shenzhen that my parents had anything resembling money or status. It’s meant that they’ve never been too proud to do any type of work to get by, and that diligent humility has meant they’ve never wanted much for their kids apart from happy and comfortable lives.

So when I went to engineering school and got my first engineering job, I didn’t have any expectations beyond adequately compensated drudgery. This is my eighth year in the tech industry, and I’ve enjoyed each job more than the last, but I think this is mainly due to having enough experience that I can choose to work for companies with good culture. I don’t know what “success” would look like for me engineering career wise. My priorities are currently working with good people, and creating products that are genuinely useful. I don’t feel motivated to endless climb some sort of ladder, the higher stress and workload that would come with that isn’t appealing. I’m pretty skeptical about Big Tech’s ability to change the world for the better, so I’m happier working with smaller companies who are realistic about their impact.

Writing wise, I am really aware that I’ve had an incredibly easy journey compared to a lot of other people. There was only 18 months between starting my manuscript, and the publication date of my book. This is already a milestone that many people spend years chasing, and I often feel quite self conscious about how successful I’ve been in a short time. The thing about writing though is that there’s always someone selling more books than you, getting better reviews than you and winning more prizes than you. The NZ publishing industry is also very small and insular compared to that in other countries, so it’s quite rare for our books to have that same household name recognition that you have with overseas books, which is a shame because they’re just as good. I would love to have an overseas publisher for AWLOI but I have no idea how I could make that happen!

An article about Rose Lu from the magazine “The Grill” with the photo of her kneeling down at the grocery store

You can find a lot of info about your book and your writing on the internet but not too much about your engineering work. Tell us a bit about your current role at Flick Electric?

I’ve been at Flick Electric since November 2017 and I’m actually about to start a new role with Buildkite at the end of April. I started as a Senior Developer at Flick Electric and then moved into a Technical Lead role about a year and a half later. At work I tend to be more of a generalist than a specialist, so I’m conscious that I often end up doing the tasks that other developers aren’t as good at, or aren’t naturally inclined to pick up, which is always the work around culture and diversity.

Hiring was one of my main responsibilities at Flick, and it’s been an immense privilege to be able to build a supportive and compassionate tech team. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s important to have workplaces that allow people outside of tech industry norms to succeed; there really aren’t enough of them. Compared to developing features, it’s incredibly emotionally draining and much more complex work. Changes in leadership meant that I was managing upwards quite a lot, and having to explain quite rudimentary concepts to people who were looking for “quick fix” type solutions to culture and diversity work.

We haven’t done any hiring in the last eight months so I’m back to writing code and it’s been a welcome change. Writing code is very straightforward and computers are consistent and predictable. I like the fact that I get to build things, I couldn’t imagine doing a job where you didn’t make something.

I’m currently working a four day week so I have the time to take on ad hoc writing commissions and prepare for events, and I’m continuing this when I start with Buildkite. Many people ask me if I’d ever write full time, and I don’t think they realise how little money there is in literature. I’m about to file my taxes for the financial year, and I’ve earned less than $4000 from writing — and this is in a year I’ve published a book! There are very few authors in Aotearoa who can write full time, and most of the ones that do write genre fiction. It’s different in other countries, where there’s a strong tie between academia and literary writers, but here there isn’t much of a stable support system for authors.

After reading some of your writing, it made me think of my own culture and roots. When you close your eyes and think “home”, what comes to mind?

I’m coming up six years in Wellington, and that’s the longest I’ve ever lived in one city. I don’t feel like I have a singular home, but rather there are places where I feel “at home”. Aotearoa as a whole feels very homely, especially since I’ve lived in so many different places around the country.  I think this is a pretty common experience for third culture kids. I’ve never felt entirely comfortable anywhere, but you learn to build your own experience of belonging.

I spent about four months in China a few years ago and I was surprised at how quickly I felt at home there, given it had been two decades since I spent any significant time there. I know many immigrant kids that have completely the opposite experience, but I think because I had retained a fair amount of Mandarin, I was able to fit in pretty easily. I looked like everyone else for a change, and that went a long way.

Rose Lu and poet Nina Mingya Powles host a shared dinner event for Verb Wellington

What are some of the values and missions that you are driven by?

In Aotearoa, like other predominantly English speaking countries, it’s so easy to have the default be Pakeha culture. People don’t even realise they do it a lot of the time, they just think it’s normal. I’d often be in a situation with a mainly Pakeha group and someone will make a passing comment that assumes a white middle class upbringing, and they won’t even be aware that this isn’t normal for a lot of New Zealanders. We’re a country of migrants, some more recent than others, and I want to bring more understanding into what our collective identity is, rather than just adopting that of the colonisers.

In general I’m motivated by things that empower communities, rather than individuals, which I sometimes grapple with when it comes to making art. It can be quite centered around the creator, even though most of us are nothing without our communities. I admire the work that people like Rosabel Tan do, who has been an absolute champion for the visibility of Asian New Zealand artists.

Without knowing the full stories, It is easy to get overwhelmed by the list of achievements that people might have online, especially looking through a social media lens. Could you please share some of the personal or professional challenges that you have experienced?

Social media is so weird. Most people who I know that are popular on social media are not that well adjusted when it comes to real life. Part of publishing a book means you have to do a significant amount of your own promotion, and I’ve found it very weird to be hustling my work in this performative and public way. It goes a lot against how I want to engage with social media but it’s been a necessary evil that I’ve had to do. The internet can be a very draining, rage fuelled place and I’m not into that. Jia Tolentino writes a great essay in her book, Trick Mirror about this.

I don’t often post on social media about my job as a software developer. I’ve often felt like a complete outsider in the workplaces. In my first job I was one of three women in an engineering team of fifty people, and I had nothing in common with any of my colleagues. It wasn’t until I moved to Wellington that I realised there were people who didn’t hate their jobs, and actually hung out with their coworkers. Since moving to Wellington I’ve been much more selective about places that I work, and I’m very lucky that I can do that. It’s the only reason that I’m still working in the tech industry. There are some awful workplaces in my field, and most of them don’t even realise how bad they are, because they’re run by white men for other white men. The collective blindspot is huge.

The biggest challenges I’ve faced in my career have been completely unrelated to the actual job itself. Before having my first professional job, I didn’t know anyone who had had one. There were many basic things, like negotiating salary, that no one had ever told me about, and I was in a role where I was vastly underpaid because I didn’t know how to have that conversation. I had another job where the culture was awful and I was coming home crying every day. The leadership kept assuring me that they wanted to change, and they wanted me to help them on their journey. But after a few months and no momentum, I realised that the gap they needed to bridge was too much and that I couldn’t do it for them, they needed to work on it themselves. After I quit I realised that I’d spent too much of my life doing emotional labour for the men around me and decided to actively avoid situations like that, even though it's meant that there are far fewer places I’d be willing to work for.

What brings you joy in a day to day life?

Sorry to be a sentimental sap, but I love my partner a lot. I was afraid I’d end up in one of those doomed heterosexual relationships where the guy is a weenie, but my partner isn’t that at all. He’s so compassionate and thoughtful, and an incredible cook. Chinese people are often astounded at the accuracy of his Chinese cooking. I mean the bar is low, but he did make me 油条 (youtiao, savoury fried bread, similar to churros or frybread) on my birthday.

油条  (youtiao, savoury fried bread) prepared by Rose’s partner

I have to ask - how are you feeling in the midst of COVID-19 crisis?

Initially going into lockdown was a shock. I found out about my new role at Buildkite on the same day lockdown started, and it felt surreal to voluntarily add more chaos to a situation that was already so uncertain. Overall I feel incredibly lucky though: to be able to work from home, to have gotten a new job, at a time where so many people’s work has been upended, or become much more dangerous. Especially for my friends that work primarily in the arts, the work for the remainder of the year has virtually all been cancelled, and that’s a hard financial and mental state to be in. It reinforces how privileged you have to be to work in the arts, to be able to weather unpredictability like this requires support from other work or a partner/family. There are support packages coming in from the government and CNZ, but it’s a huge cognitive load to be able to navigate the necessary paperwork, and there’s no certainty that you’ll be granted funding.

At a personal level I’ve been surprised at how quickly I’ve adjusted to the daily rhythms of lockdown, as per the prediction of dystopian novels. In some ways it has been enjoyable how small and localised my life has become. I try to have one day of the week where I have minimal screen time. There are several tracks within a 15 minute walk from my house, and so my bubble and I have been going out for long bush walks on the weekend. I’ve got two weeks between jobs to work on an adaptation of my book for RNZ’s reading programme. It’s good to have a creative project that’s still on, given all the writer’s festival cancellations over the next few months. After that, who really knows! I’m hopeful that some writers festivals that were due to be held in late 2020 still go ahead, and my partner and I were planning on moving to Taiwan in early 2021. Fingers crossed some of those things still go ahead!

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?

I’d love to hear from Jean Teng, who has done so many funny, insightful and hunger inducing articles for Metro, Helen Yeung, a writer and designer that started Migrant Zine Collective and Suki Xiao, an inspiring friend who is a lawyer-turned-agile-coach-turned-life-coach.

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