Our Friend is Here! An Interview with Michelle Quach, Author of Not Here to Be Liked; On Her Feminist Debut, “Unlikeable” Characters, and Challenging Expectations

Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.

If you are looking for your next feminist read that is as funny as it is complex with characters feel real and relatable, then I would kindly like to nudge you in the direction of Not Here to Be Liked by Michelle Quach, a young adult feminist contemporary romance that releases in September. When I read Not Here to Be Liked earlier this year, I thought to myself: finally; finally a feminist contemporary that I can relate to, that tackles head-on the intersectionality and complexity of feminism in its most human and down-to-earth form. Suffice to say, I fell in love with this book’s witty and sharp humour and how it openly and vulnerably lays out the messiness of feminism, high school politics, and love.

An illustration of a grey cat wearing a navy fisherman's

I knew that when I read Not Here to Be Liked, I absolutely had to get Michelle to visit us at the Pond – I wanted to pick her magnificent brain and deep-dive into her thought process of writing this wickedly awesome book. This post feels like it’s been a long time coming – it’s been in the works for some months now! – but I have the immense delight of having the author, Michelle, visiting us at the Pond today as a grey cat wearing a fisherman’s sweater and nibbling on a croissant!

I loved interviewing Michelle, and I hope all of you will enjoy reading her answers as much as I did. But, in case you haven’t heard of her awesome feminist debut, let me quickly introduce to you all Not Here to Be Liked!

Not Here to Be Liked by Michelle Quach

Eliza Quan is the perfect candidate for editor in chief of her school paper. That is, until ex-jock Len DiMartile decides on a whim to run against her. Suddenly her vast qualifications mean squat because inexperienced Len—who is tall, handsome, and male—just seems more like a leader.

When Eliza’s frustration spills out in a viral essay, she finds herself inspiring a feminist movement she never meant to start, caught between those who believe she’s a gender equality champion and others who think she’s simply crying misogyny.

Amid this growing tension, the school asks Eliza and Len to work side by side to demonstrate civility. But as they get to know one another, Eliza feels increasingly trapped by a horrifying realization—she just might be falling for the face of the patriarchy himself.

Find and pre-order Not Here to Be Liked on:
Goodreads | Bookshop | Indiebound | Amazon

Author Interview: Michelle Quach

CW: Hi Michelle! A big and warm welcome to The Quiet Pond; it’s so good to finally have you visit us! For our friends out there who are only meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Michelle: Hi there! Thanks so much for having me—I’m so excited to be here at the pond. I write YA contemporary romance, but until very recently, I was also a full-time graphic designer. I grew up in Southern California and now live in LA.

CW: I’d love to learn more about your writing journey. What inspired you to be a writer? What has your journey as a debut author on the road to publishing been like? 

Michelle: I was an only child, and very shy, so books were primarily how I learned about the world. I read so much that I was always a pretty good writer at school—I even won a bunch of contests as a kid. After college, though, I didn’t think I could make any money writing (I was, and still am, a very slow writer), so I became a graphic designer instead. For years, no one knew that writing had once been such a big part of my identity!

It wasn’t until I finished drafting Not Here to Be Liked that I revisited the old dream, and I was very fortunate that my journey from that point was a quick one: I got my agent through PitMad, we went on submission about a month after I signed, and we sold the book a few weeks later. That was almost two years ago, and now my release date is right around the corner! So wild.

CW: Congratulations on your splendid debut, Not Here to Be Liked! I loved your sharp and nuanced exploration of feminism and how feminism can sometimes intersect with race. What was your ‘spark’ for writing Not Here to Be Liked?

Michelle: Aw, thank you! Like a lot of other YA authors, I wrote Not Here to Be Liked for my younger self. So I wanted it to be a romance, and I wanted it to be funny and not take itself too seriously—but being me, I needed it to be about something more, too. I had the initial “enemies-to-lovers on a school paper” premise from the beginning, but the feminism angle came more organically as I thought about their conflict and what the larger implications could be.

As for Eliza herself, I always knew she would be Asian, and not just because I wanted to see more diverse representation in romance—I was also really interested in showing a POC character grappling with her identity outside of a typical child-of-immigrant narrative.

CW: I absolutely loved Eliza as a protagonist. She’s astute, ambitious, and a little prickly, which is what I loved. When Eliza suffers a loss to a position she deserved, to someone much more inexperienced but comparatively more ‘likeable’ than her, it sets off a chain of events that ultimately explore feminism. Why a story about feminism? (And was there a personal experience that you drew from when writing this story?)

Michelle: In high school, I wasn’t as “unlikeable” as Eliza (or at least I don’t think so…!), but I was very aware of the double standard when it came to how girls and boys were perceived as leaders. Back then, though, my reaction was just, “Well, that’s how it is.” Whenever I ran for anything, I simply tried extra hard to live up to all the impossible expectations: confident but also feminine, smart but also approachable, and above all, nice. That still really strikes me, all these years later. Not least because sometimes, despite having a much better understanding of sexism and racism now, I still default to seeming as inoffensive as possible. When you’re female and a POC, there are a lot of unspoken rules about how you’re expected to act, and I wanted to explore how those forces can affect us all—even a girl who thinks she doesn’t care about any of it.

CW: I feel like the title of the book is a great play on her character and the often criticisms people have for ‘unlikeable characters’, particularly for women of colour. What do you love about unlikeable characters? What was your thought process when making Eliza an, what some people may call, ‘unlikeable character’?

Michelle: Unlikeable characters, especially when they’re also unreliable narrators (and I would argue that Eliza is both), often seem to have a mind of their own—they’re flawed and unwieldy, just like real people. As a writer, I enjoy the creative challenge of getting a reader to feel invested in a character who just doesn’t give two Fs about you.

Eliza’s unlikeability also complicates the book’s feminist themes in a way I found really interesting. I am fond of her, of course, but sometimes she isn’t that nice, and you do have to wonder—does she lose the election because she’s a jerk, or is it because of sexism? But also…is sexism the reason why we care that she’s a jerk? It’s intriguing from a literary point of view, but it also reflects how muddled these things can be in real life, too.

CW: We are seeing a wave of younger feminists who are now more cognizant of how sexism can also intertwine with race and age, etc. What do you hope young feminists take away from Not Here to Be Liked?

Michelle: Feminism is always going to be complicated as long as sexism is complicated, but it’s heartening to see young people becoming more aware of how multifaceted it is. The one thing I’d like readers to take away from my book is that it’s okay to struggle with making sense of it all, and it’s also okay to make mistakes and learn from them, just like Eliza. I hope her journey will inspire lots of discussion—and yes, even critique.

CW: Let’s take a second to celebrate you! What is something that you are most proud of about Not Here to Be Liked and/or your writing journey, and why?

Michelle: Honestly, just finishing that first draft! I’d been trying to write a book for years, but it always seemed so daunting—I was such a perfectionist that I could never get past a few pages. With Not Here to Be Liked, I wouldn’t let anyone read a word until I typed the last sentence, because I was so afraid I’d give up if the feedback was bad. So finally getting myself to the end was hugely satisfying. Incidentally, I also just finished my first draft of Book 2, and that was very satisfying, too. Never gets old, apparently!

CW: Thank you so much for visiting us, Michelle! It was so wonderful to have you. My last question is a question I ask all of our guests: What is a food that reminds you of ‘home’ – wherever or whoever that may be?

Michelle: What a great question. For me, I’d say salted fish fried rice, or as it’s called in Cantonese, 咸鱼炒饭. When I was a kid, my dad would make it for me whenever I went to the restaurant where he worked. I’ve never had it better anywhere else.

About the Author

Michelle Quach is a graphic designer and writer living in Los Angeles. She’s Chinese-Vietnamese-American and a graduate of Harvard University, where she studied history and literature. She loves rom-coms, characters who don’t always do the right thing, and any dog that kind of looks like her dog.

Her first novel, NOT HERE TO BE LIKED, is available Fall 2021 from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in the US and Usborne Books in the UK.

Michelle is represented by literary agents Jenny Bent and Gemma Cooper (The Bent Agency), as well as film agent Mary Pender-Coplan (UTA).

Find Michelle on: Website | Twitter | Instagram

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