Bustle Book Club

Delia Cai’s Small-Town Romance Goes Beyond The Tropes

With Central Places, Cai deploys the familiar Hallmark movie plot to tell a different story.

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Delia Cai never viewed herself as someone with main character energy. One tweet changed that. “It was like, ‘As a guy living in New York with a girlfriend who has a high-powered job and is from a small town that she’s going home to for the holidays, I’m on guard. I just know she’s about to fall in love with someone who owns a Christmas tree farm. I’m the bad city boyfriend, I’m the villain here,’” the Central Places author tells Bustle. “That tweet just sort of made me realize, ‘Oh, the way my life is set up right now, living in New York, going home for the holidays, fits that very commercial narrative.’ I’d never seen myself in that kind of formula.”

While Cai’s life does fit squarely into the Christmas movie parameters — she grew up in the rural Midwest and moved to New York after college to pursue a career in journalism, ultimately becoming a senior correspondent at Vanity Fair — there’s one marked difference: Unlike a Hallmark movie’s blindingly white protagonists, Cai is Asian-American. Central Places follows Audrey Zhou, a first generation Chinese-American who returns from Manhattan to her Illinois hometown with her white, photographer fiancé Ben... only to run into her unrequited crush from high school. It’s a Matryoshka doll of a story, offering readers an unflinching examination of what it means to be an Asian-American in small-town America, enclosed in an ultra-romantic shell.

“It's not even that I watched a ton of Hallmark holiday movies. But that story is so familiar to so many people,” Cai clarifies says of why she chose to use a similar construction for her novel. Like the queer holiday epic Happiest Season, Cai taps into this existing cultural narrative, only to infuse it with her own lived experience. But as much as Cai wrote Central Places to insert her story into the greater holiday rom-com canon, she also did it to solve one other nagging question: “Why when I go home do feel so crazy and like a teenager?” she says. “It totally unlocks this vortex of emotions ... You see your [old] crush and you're like, ‘Oh my God, it's still the same!’”

Below, Cai reflects on “Linsanity,” Sex and the City Season 2, and her love of ginger.

On the book she’s reading with her therapist:

I just finished reading The Sense of Wonder by Matthew Salesses. The way I'm describing it to friends is that it's Jeremy Lin fan fiction, but that's actually probably really disrespectful. It’s very much inspired by Jeremy Lin and “Linsanity,” but it's taken the point of view of, “Here's this groundbreaking Asian-American NBA player. What was that actually for him?” So it gets into this fictional athlete's head. I'm not really a basketball or sports person, but I think it's just so interesting to imagine: Amidst that whole media shit storm, what was he thinking?

But my honest answer is that I'm reading The Body Keeps the Score right now. My therapist and I are reading it together, and she's like, "Do not try to rip through this. It's a hard read." So I just read a little bit before bed.

On using Excel as an accountability tool:

At the beginning of 2019, I was just sort of noodling around with a short story. Around that time, I made this deal with myself: “If you sit in front of the computer for two hours on a Saturday, you don't have to feel bad for the rest of the week.” Somehow, this magical contract was the secret. I started treating the novel as this freelance project with billable hours. I set a monthly goal where I was like, “This month let's do 20 hours. Next month, let's do 30.” I was logging them on a little Excel sheet billing nobody. It was really silly.

On the beverage that reminds her of her mom:

Even before COVID, I was always having sore throats. I would have strep once a year. So I got really into drinking herbal tea, and then I remember having a life-changing ginger tea at one point. It felt amazing — and medicinal. So now I'll just boil a pot of water and then boil a chunk of ginger sliced up for 10 minutes. It's my special spicy water [that makes me feel] exactly like my mom, where I'm just really into ginger.

On her preferred working conditions:

My friend got me really into these standing desks from Fully. I think mine is called the Jarvis desk, and it's so fancy that you just hit a button and it goes up and down. I'm so lazy that I haven’t actually stood at it in so long, I just raise it up and down for Zoom meetings. But I like having my external monitor and my laptop [on it] because I need a big field of vision. I don't know how people just work on a laptop screen. That's crazy to me.

On her favorite HBO series of yesteryear:

I watch a lot of whatever the prestige Twitter favorite is, but on a really bad day [of writing], I'll just watch old Sex and the City. It’s so comforting. I really love the first two [seasons] — I don’t know if that’s a hot take! — but I think it sours towards the end.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity:

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