Q&A with Elvira Chan on her independently-published novel

Chan reflects on relatable characters and piecing together this heartfelt story about love and loss

Elvira Chan holds her book, displaying the cover with an illustration of two shadows of people walking against a backdrop of tall buildings on each side of the book. Between them is a watercolor gradient of a blue, cloudy sky. They are each on opposite sides of the book— one on top and one on the bottom. The one on top is upside down. Chan is smiling wearing an orange knit sweater.
PHOTO: Elvira Chan

By: Petra Chase, Arts & Culture Editor

Elvira Chan is an SFU graduate student in the area of counselling and human development. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communication with a minor in print and digital publishing. The following is The Peak’s conversation with Chan about her self-published debut novel, The State of Us.

The Peak: How did your undergraduate education at SFU shape and inform your experience of writing and publishing this novel?

Elvira Chan: My background in communication and publishing at SFU helped me gain a clearer understanding about how storytelling can be such a unique blend of lived experience and imagination! Nobody tells a story exactly the same way, and the idea of gathering my own experiences and memories and turning them into a work of fiction through new characters and plot ideas was really compelling to me when I first started writing. In my courses, I was often taught how to design covers, properly format dialogue, pitch a manuscript, and pull off a lot of research to support my writing. My background gave me the technical tools and skills that I needed to get started, but it was actually the people and places I had come across during my time at SFU that made the biggest difference and gave the greatest inspiration when it came to writing and publishing my novel!

P: That sounds like the perfect learning environment to successfully publish a novel! Was this something you planned to do from the beginning of your education and did your vision of what that process / final product would look like change at all along the way? Side note — the cover looks beautiful!

EC: Putting a novel out into the world has been a goal of mine for as long as I can remember; it’s something I have always wanted to do! I used to write and draw on plain paper, staple it all together, and call it a book when I was a little kid. I wrote hundreds of those “books” back then and it has been incredibly rewarding to be able to bring my dream to life. 

My vision of the final product changed more times than I can count! One of the most interesting things about the process is that I didn’t write it from beginning to end in a linear fashion. It was actually quite the opposite, where I pieced together chunks of dialogue and scenes over time, almost like a puzzle. It was a challenge to weave everything together, but one of my favorite things about the book now is that it threads through the characters’ lives over the years, and you get a glimpse of all these little moments and memories that might have been cut out completely if I had written the book from beginning to end without finding a special place for them.

Interestingly enough, the idea for the cover came quickly and stayed very true to the original design! I wanted the cover to show a different perspective depending on which way you were holding the book and to show the two characters crossing paths despite being in different places and phases of their life.

P: I want to know more about these characters! What was your inspiration for them? Can you tell us a little about your favourite moment from the book?

EC: Like my main character, I was also in a long-distance relationship during my time at university. Five years can feel like a really long and impactful time when you’re in your twenties! I wanted to write about that past experience through the eyes of new characters. I was also inspired by other people’s relationships at the time, and everything from my favorite movies to song lyrics inspired different parts of the book as well. It’s like a collage and time capsule in one, which I really love. 

One of my favorite scenes has to be when my two characters first meet! They’re both stranded overnight at a Seattle airport during a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve, and that’s when the reader discovers that the characters are struggling to accept the reality of loss in their lives (for very different reasons), and they end up bonding over it. That chapter jumps to different times over the course of that first night, and you gain insight into their past, and a lot of empathy for their situation. I think losing someone you love is a very universal and human experience, which many people may relate to in the book.

P: I’m looking forward to reading it! What is your current area of study and what are your plans for the future? Do you have more characters and moments you hope to bring to life in fiction?

EC: Yes, a hundred percent! My current book is categorized as adult fiction and leans toward a modern romance, but I’m so intrigued by different genres such as fantasy, paranormal fiction, and thrillers, and I’ve already got the gears in my head working overtime for my next one. Putting myself in a different character’s shoes and trying to understand their mindset and motivations is one of my favorite things about writing. You can elicit a wide variety of emotions and reactions through something completely made up, something you created with words and your own imagination!

I’m currently in the PBD program at SFU for counselling and human development, and my goal is to work in the mental health field by becoming a registered clinical counsellor. 

Whether it’s counselling, storytelling, or writing a book, there’s the common thread of connection at the core of it! I think it’s fair to say that I’m very intrigued by other people and what they have to share with the rest of us. 

The State of Us is available as a paperback or Kindle ebook on Amazon. Follow Chan on Instagram at @littlelvira.