Issue 66: Writing an honest graphic novel with Victoria Ying
16 min read

Issue 66: Writing an honest graphic novel with Victoria Ying

I was excited to talk with Victoria Ying about her new YA graphic novel, Hungry Ghost, which follows teenager Valerie Chu as she grapples with an eating disorder, her friendships, and family dynamics. Having written about the cultural dimension of eating disorders and recovery, it excites me to see more books depict these nuances. We chatted about the creative/publication process for graphic novels and how to write a story about eating disorders that feels true. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Light spoilers for Hungry Ghost follow.

The book cover for Victoria Ying's "Hungry Ghost." The cover has an illustration of a Chinese teenage girl holding pink and red flowers, looking weary and with her torso slightly x-rayed so you can see the flowers growing within.
Hungry Ghost by Victoria Ying

Nicole Zhu: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and what your creative path was as an author/artist?

Victoria Ying: I started out in art when I was in middle school. I just fell in love with comics. I loved manga—my favorites were Inuyasha and Ranma ½. My heroes were always these Asian women who were writing comics. I went to art school with the intention of getting into comics full-time. The school was more focused on entertainment, so I decided to take the more economically stable route. I pivoted and focused on getting into animation because they had a lot of the same overlap in terms of skills and things that I enjoyed.

I graduated and did the Talent Development Program at Disney Feature Animation. After the program, they hired me full-time. I was at Disney Feature Animation for about eight years. I worked on Tangled, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Moana. After that I went to Sony Pictures Animation, where I worked on a very awesome pitch that ended up getting canceled. But I got to work with a really amazing female director and the vision was so cool. I'm so sad that no one's ever going to see that movie.

I had an opportunity where I could actually do publishing full-time because a window opened up to me. I left animation, and at the time I was still doing a lot of freelance and teaching. I've also taught at Art Center College of Design and the UCLA master’s film program. When I was at Disney, I was doing what is called visual development, which is concept art. But I hadn't actually chosen the path in which I could tell stories, and I didn't know that was even available to me until I was already at the studio.

I wrote my first book as a prose novel and then I redeveloped it as a graphic novel to try to capitalize on both of my skills. That was my first book series, City of Secrets and City of Illusion, which came out with Penguin in 2020 and 2021 respectively. My newest book, Hungry Ghost, is very different because it's a very personal story that uses a lot of my own experiences growing up Asian American and having an eating disorder.

NZ: It's really been a full journey back into your original passion in publishing!

Hungry Ghost is a YA graphic novel. I can't tell you how much I think it would have meant to me to have had this kind of book when I was a teenager. Why was it important to you that this story reach this particular audience?

VY: I struggled with an eating disorder (ED) not in my high school years. Actually, it was a little later for me, but I felt like a lot of the media depictions that I saw of having an ED, or even reading ED memoirs, didn't all necessarily connect to my experiences. I felt like our cultural experiences and the context in which we think about food and the ways that our families react to this type of diagnosis is very, very different than what I had seen depicted.

Both of my books have come about because I had an idea for the climax of the story—what is that emotional turning point? How do we get here? Who are these people, and what are the circumstances in order to make this moment land? The fun thing about storytelling is getting you to that point and making that moment really feel earned.

I love memoirs, it’s one of the genres I read the most, but I think that with fiction, the ability to create structure in a familiar rhythm is very useful to get to a conclusion that is more satisfying in some ways than what happened in real life.

NZ: What excited you about this project? What made you nervous about embarking on it?

VY: My first book series is a middle grade steampunk fantasy, so wildly different than the book I'm putting out now. I never thought that I was going to write a book that was so close to my own experience. The books that I loved growing up were all fantasies. I always thought that my life was not that interesting.

I feel that coming to this story after writing a fantasy was really different, but at the same time, it helped me grow as a person— to really think about what I'm trying to say as an artist and an author. I think this book came to me because I felt like it needed to be told. There was just something about it that was undeniable for me as a creator, like I just couldn't get past it. So I wrote it really quickly. The art process was much longer, because graphic novels take forever.

NZ: Did you learn anything new about yourself when writing this book?

VY: Definitely. I've always had a really hard time journaling. The idea of writing in a diary always felt like there was someone watching me, even if there wasn't. Writing this book actually did help me because I was able to use my storytelling skills and talk about a lot of those feelings without it actually being so literal. Weirdly, if I write for an audience, it's less self-conscious than when I'm not writing for an audience.

I don't feel like writing is therapy…it is a way to do therapy, but I'm not writing novels in order to work out shit in myself. But I definitely feel like I learned something about the way that I process feelings, which is probably what journaling would do. [laughs]

NZ: You mentioned a little bit about the creative process. Working on a graphic novel is quite rigorous and labor intensive. Can you give an overview of how graphic novels come together? How has this one differed from the other graphic novels that you've worked on?

VY: I wrote my first book as a prose novel and I did it during NaNoWriMo, which is one of my favorite months of the year. I always do NaNoWriMo, still to this day. It's so fun. I’m naturally very competitive. It activates just the right reward centers in my mind.

Then I started on the journey to get an agent. With the prose novel, I got no response. I would show it to friends and other authors, and they were like, “Why don't you do a graphic novel? You make art. Why not?” I did some practice pages and I actually found that I really enjoyed doing it. I ended up doing a graphic novel and then selling it to Penguin.

My agent for my last book series ended up leaving the business, which unfortunately happens all the time. For my second book, I actually wrote the script, which is not common for graphic novels. I like to see the whole book written out to see the structure of it. I can't do a tight detailed outline because it will never ever be the same book. I queried that book with agents. Having already sold a series before, it was a little easier to get it this time.

After I wrote the script, we sold it with a pitch package which comes with some pages, the look of the book, and something kind of cover-ish. We pitched it to a bunch of publishers and it got a big response. Once we settled on a publisher and editor team, I did thumbnails. I actually drew the whole book out in really rough little drawings. That's pretty much the first time you can actually see the book. I feel like for graphic novels, that thumbnail stage, that's your first draft. The script is not anything like a novel. It's like how a movie script is not a movie.

I sent that to my editors. They gave me notes, we see what's working, what isn't working. Then I would go to final inks. I don't do a pencil stage like some people do. I just finalize the art and then I have help with coloring. We sent it to my colorist, Lynette Wong, who is amazing, and she's just done such great work for me and a bunch of my books.

NZ: I always feel so bad with graphic novels because I just plow through them so quickly. But there's so much work that goes into every page.

VY: You know, I hear that a lot. But on the other hand, I think about movies. A movie is an hour and a half, right? And hundreds of people spent years on it.

NZ: That's a good perspective.

For Hungry Ghost, how did the art style/mood take shape? What was your creative process there?

VY: Honestly, these books are so much work. When I was finding the style of the book, I wanted to find a style that I knew that I could draw without getting bored of, but also was efficient. I landed on this really simplistic style that also allowed me to use a lot of 3D models for the background.

The colors—that's actually from the original pitch. I knew I wanted it to be a limited palette because I love black and white graphic novels, I love manga. If I could do black and white, that'd be amazing. But I think American publishers really like color. Even if it's not representational color, I wanted to get as close as I could to manga styling because I feel like it's so much easier to read.

NZ: It's a big project and knowing how you can be taking care of yourself and get to the end, but still emphasize the things you want to be emphasizing, makes a lot of sense.

VY: A lot of people from illustration want to do graphic novels, but the graphic novel is its own thing. As an item itself, each illustration is not that important because they add up to one final project. Finding creative ways to make art that is appropriate for the story you're trying to tell but also efficient—that's what's most important to me.

NZ: Earlier, you mentioned that in your own reading and research of eating disorders, they tend to skew very white and not very representative of the people who experience them. In Hungry Ghost, Valerie faces some unique challenges as a Chinese American teenager, from communal eating at Lunar New Year to specific foods. How did you approach depicting mental health with specific cultural dimensions, both in terms of the experience of ED and recovery?

VY: I tried to not think too much about whether it’s going to connect with a reader. I was much more focused on answering: Is this honest? Does this feel like my experience as closely as I can? Does this feel true?

I'm really glad that it's connected with a lot of people, and it's interesting because it's connected to people from different backgrounds too, not necessarily Chinese. But those little moments, because they do have that specificity, they feel more universal. I feel like I try to not get too into it because I'm afraid that if I look at it too long, I'll make it more self-conscious.

In terms of recovery, this story doesn't deal a lot with it just because we're at the very beginning of a recovery journey. I do feel like I want to write that story too, because it is really different. It's not tidy, which is the other reason why I kind of ended the story where I did.

I've read a lot of ED memoirs and a lot of them talk about the gory details. Sure, it's salacious and it's fun, but I think the thing that was most salient about my own experience was actually what was going on in my head: the obsession—to the exclusion of everything else. That was the experience I really wanted to make clear. It's not really about what happens in the bathroom. It doesn't really matter, because that's not most of it. Most of it is just spending 80% of your day thinking about your body and food. That is awful. I really wanted to communicate that to people who maybe haven't been through this experience.

NZ: Definitely, it narrows your life and narrows your sense of self. It's more about what you can and can't focus on, because you can't imagine certain possibilities for yourself, or you don't think that you're deserving of certain things.

VY: One of the climaxes of the story is the relationship between Val and [her friend] Jordan. That moment, it was also about the fact that she didn't see that, very clearly, that guy was not into her at all. He was into her friend. I made that extremely clear, but the character couldn't see it. I find it really interesting how readers can't see it until it happens. That's kind of the thing that happens when you have ED, you're so tunnel visioned in and you’re so selfish in this way to the exclusion of being able to see the totality of your life, other peoples’ lives. It's so, like you said, narrowing. You live in a tiny little box.

NZ: I'm glad you brought up the dynamic of Valerie and her mom, Valerie and her friend Jordan, because those were the two that stood out to me the most in the book as the ones that anchored the story. I really like that they’re both quite complex and resist neat categorization. There's conflict and there's repair. I was curious if you could talk a little bit more about how you developed these relationships and tried to capture that complexity?

VY: Jordan as a character is fully fictional and the storyline that happened there—fully fiction. But I wanted to write a character who could show Val the other direction. That's what I think good B plot does: these are the options for your life. I really wanted to create a character who was like that, but at the same time wasn't totally two-dimensional, someone who was complex and who felt like a kind portrayal of a fat person.

In terms of making their friendship feel real, that was a challenge for me, just because you get so little time to impart that to a reader. I tapped into a lot of my teen friendships and the moments that I felt were really true.

The apology scene was actually really hard to write. When I wrote it, I sent it to my editors and we worked on it for a long time. I think that's the benefit of having a team when you're working in publishing because they can really spot moments where this feels like it happens a little too fast or like it doesn't quite feel earned. We definitely went back and forth on that one four or five times. It really came down to the specifics of language, because the whole book is not very long. It was just trying to find the right dialogue.

It's complicated. We all have to be able to find ways to continue relationships when we hurt each other. That's just what people do, right? So we wanted to be able to show a healthy apology. I wrote this in 2018 and #MeToo was going on. Seeing all the bad apologies and being able to have that reference was very helpful.

NZ: I loved how you illustrated something that's really difficult to talk about in the book’s ending: how you can still prioritize your own healing even when your loved ones may not understand how best to help you. It's bittersweet—figuring out it’s a journey you need to embark on for your own well being really spoke to me. I was curious about the process of writing that, and why that felt important to you to emphasize.

VY: I think stories, especially Western stories, want tidy endings. They want everybody to have a happy ending and ambiguity is not exactly embraced. When I was pitching this book, because I had a lot of interest from publishers, a lot of them actually came back to me with a couple of notes. That was a really telling moment. There were a number of them who were like “we think that the mom should get a come-to-Jesus moment,” or the mom should have a comeuppance of some kind. Neither of those things felt real.

I don't think that that's going to happen for a lot of people, and when you put that in a story, it makes it feel like you should expect that. I really wanted to make it feel ambiguous in that way. You just have to find your own peace and you can still love each other. It's complicated, and maybe they didn't do everything right. It was definitely a thing where writing that scene was easy and difficult, because I don't want you to feel like that was an unsatisfying conclusion. But at the same time I also wanted it to feel a little unsatisfying, because this is the reality that most of us are going to have to face.

I think that’s the power of fiction, it shows us how we can change. But the idea that someone else is also going to change? I don't know. I feel like that isn't necessarily true, and I don't think that it necessarily works.

NZ: Obviously this project required tapping into a lot of your own vulnerability. How did you take care of yourself in the process of working on it?

VY: When I was writing it, it was very difficult, but again, I wrote it pretty quickly. I wrote it in about a month, maybe a month and a half. When I was drawing it, I was able to disconnect from it. I was able to compartmentalize those feelings because I was so focused on the craft.

Reading it again, I still have all those feelings. The art for the book took about a year, so if I was feeling the way I felt when I was writing it for a whole year, that would be really difficult. Also a lot of therapy!  Bonus: my CPA told me that if you use your therapy in your work, you can write it off on your taxes.

NZ: What were some of your inspirations while writing and illustrating Hungry Ghost? Whether that was comic books, graphic novels, other books, or artworks that you felt were in conversation with it or influenced it.

VY: I was obsessive about reading ED memoirs when I was in the height of my ED. I was thinking about books like Portia de Rossi's Unbearable Lightness, Roxane Gay’s Hunger. A lot of nonfiction books thinking about fat activism and fat justice, like Fearing the Black Body. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is probably the graphic novel that I really felt connected to. It tells a very different story but at the same time, the way that she talks about her own feelings and experiences was something I really wanted in this book. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is a big influence on me, but it came out after I wrote the book. So it was more about the art, it’s so beautiful.

Rapid fire questions!

NZ: Tell me about your writing routine.

VY: I have a terrible routine because I have bad ADHD. What does work for me is, at the beginning of the week, I will have a list of “Here's what I need to get done.” Some things are daily practices, but otherwise when I do it, it's totally up to me. I don't think that there's ever been a way to kill my creativity more than a routine.

I write wherever, whenever. But what I do is I usually try to have a goal, which is what NaNoWriMo really taught me. That's one of the things I took away from it: you need to write this many words in a day and other than that, there are no rules.

NZ: What are three things that are bringing you joy right now?

VY: The weather in LA. I know it's super weird, but it’s just so cool to be alive in a time when you could just see stuff like that. Venus and Jupiter are in conjunction, which I don't super know what that means but my friend is an astrologer, and he told me to go look at it. Last night I went out and took a look, and they're so bright in the sky. And maybe my cat? He's been very cuddly and cozy lately.

NZ: What are you reading that you can't stop thinking about?

VY: I just finished John Greene’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. I was in the right mood for it. I also just read Verity by Colleen Hoover. I'm not a big romance person and everyone's so obsessed with Colleen Hoover. I found one of her books that was a thriller. I thought it was really fun and fast paced.

You can find Victoria at her author website and on social media: Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Subscribe to her Patreon where she posts works in progress and behind the scenes content. She also wrote and illustrated the forthcoming Shang-Chi graphic novel for middle grade readers, out October 7. Preorder Hungry Ghost, out April 25, anywhere books are available!

A tweet that says: "if you ever told someone you 'really liked their short story and could totally see it as a longer work maybe even a novel' I would just like to say why did you do that. It's like handing someone a cursed amulet. You are going to hell."
via @boneless_koi

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I read and loved Victoria Ying’s graphic novel Hungry Ghost! I’ve been busy prepping for my first writing class this Saturday, so I’ve been rereading a lot of short stories and books. I’m excited to start Jenny Odell’s new book, Saving Time, which is out March 10. I came down with the stomach flu last week and it was exceedingly miserable, though it did give me the opportunity to finally catch up on both seasons of The White Lotus.

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~ meme myself and i ~

This capybara song is stuck in my brain. English teachers when they’re looking for a specific answer. My brain trying to decide which hobby to do at any given time. Ava when Janine tries to improve things at Abbott Elementary. A person announcing they’re leaving social media. Look at this cat’s pupils dilate when they see their favorite toy!

A cycle between two states: "wow I'm healed" and "I will never be okay again."