Young, smart - and published
The Star, Starmag, Bookshelf, 1 October 2006
Fifteen-year-old Lim May Zhee is not just your average self-published author. Alexandra Wong tracks down this fifteen-year-old to her school, and finds out that she does not only have talent to burn, but has tons of resourcefulness, resilience and maturity to take her far.
Flitting around in her black cockail dress, she looks a trifle young to be a fulltime staff. Like the people I talk to, I reckon she is probably a college intern hired to take care of the attendees of the local authors’ gathering in MPH Bookstores, 1Utama.
Her presence goes largely unnoticed until shortly after Lilian Too delivers her speech. She goes up to the floor and in a clear and steady voice, begins to address the cadre of venerable writers.
“Hi, since everybody has spoken their mind about virtual books, perhaps you might want to hear the point of view from a teenager’s perspective. My name is Lim May Zhee, and I’ve just self-published my first novella, Vanitee Bee.”
Two days later, I walk into the school grounds, rended by conflicting emotions. The initial euphoria of scoring a potential scoop is rapidly evaporating, replaced by a growing burgeoning sense of apprehension.
After her crowd-stirring performance, she had breathlessly feted by instant admirers. Some even ask if she is the daughter of Yvonne Lee, acclaimed author of The Sky Is Crazy fame. The potential of her turning out to be narcissistic teen tyrant was a foreboding possibility, and the last thing I wanted to deal with, after waking up at an ungodly hour (because I had to conduct the interview at her school) and enduring an hour-long commuter ride into a strange town (it was my first time to Klang), armed with vague instructions that “the school is somewhere in town”.
I’d had a glimpse of that potential feistinesss during our first lengthy chat after the authors’ event.
She was a literary Maria Shaparova, sending deceptive dropshots and stunning smashes over the verbal court. Her questions ranged from professionally cautious, “So, if I am interviewed by you, does this mean I can't accept any other interviews from people?” to plainly precocious, “Would you rather buy an iDog or a wallet for your boyfriend?”
“Well, consider it a chat. If it doesn’t get published, I’ll buy you ice-cream, ” I dangled a lame incentive as succour.
“I am fifteen, not five,” back came the swift retort, followed by a deft save, “but yes, ice cream would be fine.”
She is more fiery filibuster than vanilla pie, but I’m intrigued. Definitely more intrigued than the jaga who directs me to the principal’s office today. “You have to get his permission on to speak to our students,” the uncle apprises me. I gather from his non-plussed expression that this is not the first time journalists have dropped by to interview their star.
The recess bell tolls, and a horde of students bound boisterously down the stairs.
I can barely recognize the girl in white shirt and brown skirt who stops in front of me. Bereft of make-up, and she’s all scholarly and teenagey, quite unlike the self-possessed young woman who wowed the adult audience with her articulate speech two days ago.
After some demurring, we adjourn to the teacher’s room downstairs. I remark that she is markedly less feisty than her online personality. She admits to being more daring online. She even declares brazenly, “I wouldn't mind a bad review on the front page of The Star because being a published writer made me learn how to take things in my stride.”
Ah, that now-infamous book that almost never happened. The thing about being a fifteen-year-old author is, people don’t take you seriously. Out of over 100 people she wrote to, only one person responded.
But that one good samaritan made all the crucial difference. She referred May Zhee to a contact in MPH, who saw enough potential in her eponymously titled book, Vanity Bee and recommended it to another publishing house, and voila, history was made.
I ply her with the usual questions.
How did you get inspiration for the book?
For Vanitee Bee, nothing in particular inspired me because that's the kind of book I have been writing about my whole life. Teen life with a mixture of fantasy. Everything in life, the books I read, the movies I watch, everything inspires me.
What was the most difficult part about getting the book published?
Writing the book was easy, because when you feel so passionate about something, it just comes naturally. The hardest part was probably getting the support from my parents. I undersatnd my parents’ fears – they were just worried I would sideline my studies for this. But I knew I was capable of balancing this and my homework, and in the end I did it myself because there was no other way.
So are you saying your studies were not affected at all?
Nope, my studies were unaffected. I scored straight As for PMR, which took place while I was in the middle of writing and editing the book.
Without your parents’ financial resources, how did you manage to pull it off?
Take everything into your own hands! The only thing I could afford to pay for was copy-editing, besides printing of course. I had to do proof-reading myself and I hated it! Everytime I proof-read the book, I will have this urge to edit the book and I was too late in the publishing process to edit a lot. I remind myself constantly that after the book is out, I will make my patience and effort worth it. Luckily, I am the kind of resolute person who puts my whole heart into things of that importance. I sidelined social life, entertainment and when situation permits, my studies.
What can an adult gain from reading your book?
I wasn't targetting my books at adults but I really hope adults would be able to see things from a teenager's angle through my book. Because I write as the first person and the theme of the book is really what goes on in a teenager's mind and life. Half of the book is the thoughts of the Lindsay Vanitee, my lead character. Some adults just do not see things the way teenagers do anymore, or rather, they have forgotten what it feels like to be a teenager, especially on topics like sex and rivals.
Do your friends treat you any differently now that you're a bona fide published author?
Surprisingly, no lar! Why like this ah? Shouldn't they be kissing my toes, begging to be added in my MSN list? Just joking! This is a good thing, actually. People who dislike me still dislike me and people who like me are very happy for me. And so the circle of life goes on.
Why did you wear a school uniform at your book launch?
“I am a student. Why should I hide that fact?”
How did you develop such an impressive vocabulary?
“I create my own thesaurus. I write down new words and sentences I come across so that I know how to use them in future.”
What keeps you going despite the pile of rejections?
“A long time ago, a friend and I wrote to a local editor to ask her for this chance to write a teenager's column in a newspaper. Okay, it sounds stupid...but really, that's what we did! She didn't reject us or worse, ignore us. She actually replied and said she will think about it, and we all know what that means, but I was really happy that she even replied us two naive teenagers. Someone said success is when opportunity meets preparation, and I’m just preparing myself for that window of opportunity.”
All that confidence, and talent to burn too. I tell her that if I were 15, I would hate her.
She laughs and informs me modestly, “Actually a lot of writers in the
Now that Vanitee Bee is already selling fast, she is hard at work on the sequel, as she plans to turn the novellas into a series, like Charmed. Naturally, all that writing gets squeezed in between homework, household chores, bedtime curfews and all.
But she recognizes challenges as part and parcel of a writer’s life. “I already decided to make writing my job when my first letter got published in Youth2 at 13. Writing is a worthy trade, and I know you may not earn much, but it doesn’t matter that much. I mean it matters to support your life, but it doesn’t matter if I can earn a lot or not, because at least I’m doing something I love.”
An adult couldn’t have said it better.