Q&A with Grace Li ’17, Netflix-Optioned Author of Portrait of a Thief

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When and how did you first come up with the idea for Portrait of a Thief?

A true story, actually! Several years ago, there was a mysterious string of robberies across Western museums, and all the pieces of art stolen had originally been looted from China. As a recent college grad (and a longtime fan of heist movies!), I wanted to examine what these thefts would look like if they featured Chinese American college students, and what it might mean for children of the diaspora to bring lost art back home—art as metaphor for power, but also identity and belonging.

Which character in your novel do you relate to the most? Why?

All the characters in this book have a little bit of me—Daniel is pre-med, like I was, and Lily has my childhood in Texas (and my as-yet-unfulfilled dreams of being a getaway driver!)—but the story opens and closes with Will for a reason. He’s an oldest child, an art history major, and though he’s ambitious—and reckless—enough to say yes to a heist, he is also deeply, fundamentally terrified of not being good enough. As a child of immigrants, a career in the arts has always seemed out of reach for him, and so he convinces himself that he doesn’t need it anyway. As someone who once thought my stories would only live on unfinished word documents, Will has a lot of my fears (and dreams!).

Has being a medical student informed/enhanced your perspective as a writer in any unique ways?

What I love about medicine—and writing—is its emphasis on observation. It demands thinking about the world and the people in it deeply, and that’s something I always aim to bring to my writing.

What about your experience in Teach for America? Has that informed/enhanced your perspective as a writer in any unconventional ways?

Honestly, I think the most important condition to being a writer is being an active participant in the world! Teach for America was transformative for me for many reasons, but most of all because my students challenged (and amazed!) me every day. Speaking of being an astute observer of the world, there’s no profession that requires it more than working with kids. The instant you turn around, something new and unexpected is happening.

What’s your favorite creative writing class that you took at Duke?  Did it influence this novel in any way?

Any and every fiction workshop by Professor Christina Askounis. On a craft level, writing short fiction did wonders for my understanding of sentence structure, but more importantly, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without her smart, sharp feedback and belief in my words. I’d also recommend Professor Katharine Dubois’ Romance Fiction class, which swiftly dismantled many of my preconceived notions toward romance, as well as showed me possibilities of character depth and development that I’m constantly trying to emulate in my writing.

What’s your role in helping with the upcoming Netflix adaptation of this book?

Such a fun question! It’s a dream come true to be working with Netflix to bring this book to TV, especially because from the very first call, they understood my vision for this story and the importance of representation and Asian American identity. Lots more to be revealed in due time!

If you had to choose an Asian American author whom you look up to/whose work you admire, who would it be?

I first read Weike Wang’s novel Chemistry when I was at Duke, and it changed my life. It follows a young Chinese American graduate student in chemistry, and it was the first time I felt like a book had been written just for me. It’s what made me realize I could write deeply personal, honest books, and that maybe other people would read them. When I found out her blurb would be on the cover of my book, I cried.

If there’s someone at Duke you’d consider your greatest mentor and lifelong inspiration, who would it be?

I’m forever grateful to Drs. Jenny Wood Crowley and Michael Gillespie, who led the A.B. Duke Program while I was at Duke. Their guidance, support, and kindness changed my life, and they made Duke feel like a home away from home during my four years. I also have so much love and gratitude for Drs. Avshalom Caspi, Hunt Willard, and Megan Allyse, my mentors, professors, and now friends.