“I actually got so carried away with some scenes that I’m like, ‘Wait, what’s the point of this scene again?’ It was the most fun that I’ve ever had writing a book.” Jesse Q. Sutanto joins Zibby to talk about her book, Dial A for Aunties, which is currently the #1 book in Humorous American Literature on Amazon. The two discuss Jesse’s global experience, how she has four books coming out next year, and why it is so important to have writer friends.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jesse. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Dial A for Aunties.

Jesse Q. Sutanto: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Jesse, this book was so funny and so entertaining. I got such a kick out of it. It’s really funny. I loved it.

Jesse: Yay! I’m so happy to hear that.

Zibby: I’m not the only one because already, it’s number one in humorous American novels or something on Amazon. It hasn’t even , wow.

Jesse: How crazy is that?

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners what your book is about and what inspired you to write it?

Jesse: Dial A for Aunties is about a young wedding photographer who accidentally kills her blind date, as you do. Then she has to get the help of her very meddlesome mother and aunts to help her hide the body while at the same time catering to the wedding of a billionaire. Good stuff.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. First, I have to ask right away, has this already been optioned as a movie? This seems just like a movie to me.

Jesse: Yes, actually. The movie rights have sold to Netflix. That’s really exciting. They have a director attached and a screenwriter. Things are moving along really nicely.

Zibby: Wow, that’s exciting. I am not surprised. It read just that way. I can’t wait to watch it as a movie as well. How did you think of this? Tell me a little bit more, in the beginning of the book, you open up more about your own family and how originally your family was from China. You went to Indonesia. I didn’t even realize there was such a — I shouldn’t say I didn’t realize. You came to Indonesia. Then there was a language issue between you and your parents as they put you in different schools. Some of you were speaking different dialects of Chinese and some in Indonesian, some in English. Even communication became a challenge. Tell me a little bit about your global existence, if you will.

Jesse: My family is a family of immigrants. We’re all ethically Chinese because all of my grandparents immigrated to Indonesia when they were little kids. In order to fit into the Indonesia culture, they changed everything. They changed their Chinese names to Indonesian names to fit in better. At first, it was going well. Then in the nineties, we had ethnic clashes. Then my parents sent me and my brother to Singapore just to make sure that we were safe. My brother and I actually grew up with our cousins in Singapore. The first language in Singapore is English, so that was what we grew up speaking. We kind of forgot our Indonesian. It was so bad. Our Indonesian is terrible. Then when my parents came to visit, it was really hard talking to them. They were like, “Why are you speaking English to us? Speak Indonesian to us.” I would try. I would be like, “Can I have that thing?” I wouldn’t know what that thing is called. I would be like, “Can I have that, that, that?” It’s just super broken and really horrible. Then of course as teenagers, we were just so horrible. We would make fun of our own parents when they tried speaking English with us. We’d be like, “That’s not how this word is pronounced.” There was just such a big divide in terms of languages between the generations. I really wanted to address that in Dial A for Aunties. In their efforts to give my brother and I a safer environment to grow up in, it kind of led to this divide being created between our generations.

Zibby: Your first language, then, was Indonesian, correct? Then you learned English in Singapore? How did it work? Or Chinese?

Jesse: My first language was Indonesian up until the age of seven, which was when I moved to Singapore. Then it became English. Then I have a seven-year-old vocabulary of Indonesian. I can’t read the Indonesian newspaper. Then I also don’t really feel a hundred percent comfortable speaking English or Mandarin because I picked them up when I was seven. I kind of feel uncomfortable with all languages, actually. I guess I would say I’m most comfortable with English.

Zibby: See, that’s so ironic because this book is written so beautifully. You would never know. You wrote it in English, right?

Jesse: Yeah, I did.

Zibby: It’s not translated or anything.

Jesse: No.

Zibby: I’m so impressed. I am not a big language person. I took French for a hundred years, and I can barely remember how to ask for — all I can remember how to say is, can I sharpen my pencil? which is the most useless phrase. People don’t even use pencils, do they? I don’t know. Anyway, so I’m always so impressed with people who have a command of different languages. You have this trifecta of them, this linguistic trifecta. Yet you’ve written this beautiful book which is so funny. Bravo. You get even more props.

Jesse: Yay! Thank you.

Zibby: What was your process like for writing this book?

Jesse: It was actually really surprisingly easy. I’m a pretty fast writer. It took me about six or seven weeks just to get the draft out. Writing it was so natural. I didn’t know the aunties’ personalities before I started writing it. Then as soon as I wrote each scene, I was like, oh, of course big aunt and second aunt would have this rivalry. Of course, mom and fourth aunt would just really hate each other. Wait, I have to clarify, not because of my mom and her sisters. They would murder me. My mom and her sisters get along beautifully.

Zibby: I totally believe you.

Jesse: I don’t know where I got the idea from for all those sibling rivalries.

Zibby: It’s a mystery.

Jesse: Somehow, they just popped into my head. I was like, oh, my god, of course they would be making all these snide remarks and stuff. I actually got so carried away with some scenes that I’m like, wait, what’s the point of this scene again? I’m just having too much fun with the aunties arguing with each other. It was the most fun that I’ve ever had writing a book.

Zibby: You can tell. You just can tell. It’s really fun to read also. This isn’t your first book. How did you have another book come out two months ago?

Jesse: This is actually my nineth book. I’ve had a lot of failures along the way. Actually, The Obsession, which came out two months ago, was my fifth book. It sold in 2019. Then in early 2020, I sold my children’s book. It was funny because as soon as it sold, I told my agent, “Forget about it. I just wrote this adult book. I need you to read that now. Please just drop everything else and read this one because I think it’s something special.” She read it. She was like, “Oh, my god, we have to go out with it now.” We went out to publishers with it right as New York went into lockdown. Then everyone was quarantined at home. Everything happened so fast. Then they were like, “We want to publish this in April of 2021.” We were just so shocked by how fast everything happened. It just happened that way. What’s crazy is that next year I will have four books coming out. We’ll see how I cope with that, probably not very well.

Zibby: What are those books?

Jesse: Next year, I will have the sequel to Dial A for Aunties, two YA novels, and one middle grade novel. That will be really fun. It’ll be a fun year.

Zibby: How do you just crank these out? Where do you like to write? Do you outline first? What’s your process? How are you so efficient?

Jesse: I like to say that I’m powered by caffeine and Asian guilt. I know it sounds silly, but it’s so true. Literally, about two to three months after I sell a book, my parents will be like, “So when are you going to sell the next book?” I’m like, okay, the pressure’s on. I do write really fast. I’ve learned to write really fast ever since I had kids. I know that I just have this one to one and a half hours in the morning before they wake up to write. Then I just get up. I’m like, write really quickly! Then they get up. That is it. My day is done. Ironically, this has pushed me to learn to write really fast. I do outline. I find that the more I outline, the more efficiently I can write. I guess at this point, I’m approaching it more as a project than an artistic endeavor, if that makes any sense.

Zibby: It totally makes sense. It’s something you have to get done. You give a busy mom something to do, and you just do it.

Jesse: I feel like the old me, pre-kids, I had so much time, and I wasted it all.

Zibby: I know that feeling very well.

Jesse: I wrote so much slower. I don’t know what I spent my time doing. I look back at past-me and I’m like, what were you doing with all that free time?

Zibby: It’s so funny. Somehow, though, when there’s too much time, it’s impossible to be effective. Sometimes you just need that. A certain personality type, I think, needs the pressure of finite periods of time to get things done. When I have the whole weekend, I get so much less done than when I have three hours on a Wednesday morning.

Jesse: Yes, exactly. You totally understand because you’re running this incredibly successful podcast. I don’t know how you do it because it requires so much organizational skill.

Zibby: Luckily, I have organizational skills. That’s good. Really, I do it because I love it. How fun? I also do things at the same time. I have to say, I read a lot of your book — my gym finally opened up in my building, so I could read on the elliptical machine. I could read before bed. Books, there are some that take me weeks and weeks and some that I can power through because they’re so consumable. I think it’s just how you use your time and trying to — you know what it’s like, right?

Jesse: Yeah, exactly. That’s so funny that you say you read on the elliptical because I read on the treadmill. That’s my reading time.

Zibby: Awesome. With an actual book or with an e-book? How do you do it?

Jesse: With my e-book.

Zibby: With your e-book. Holding it up or putting it on the thing?

Jesse: Oh, no, I have a little stand on the treadmill. I’m jogging really slowly. Then I’m reading.

Zibby: I feel like it’s a better workout if I don’t use the arm things because then I have to use my core to not fall off the machine.

Jesse: That’s such a good idea. I’m going to have to try that.

Zibby: It’s probably a terrible idea. I should not be recommending this. It’s true. I kind of have to twist a little bit as I am reading. It obviously isn’t working.

Jesse: No, you look great from what I see, shoulders up.

Zibby: Shoulders up, that’s how I’m going to live the rest of my life. After this pandemic is over, I’m just going to get some sort of giant box and put it right here.

Jesse: Oh, my gosh, I hear you.

Zibby: Too funny. Having written nine books and having so much on the horizon, which is super exciting, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Jesse: What advice? Gosh, I have so much.

Zibby: Great, go for it.

Jesse: It’s so difficult to narrow it down. My number-one advice would be to aim low. I feel like writers have really high standards. They’re like, I have to aim for perfection. Then that kind of makes us procrastinate even more. As soon as I started thinking, okay, my first draft can be terrible and I can just edit it later, that was when the words started flowing for me. Lower your standards. It’s going to be okay. You can fix it later on. That would be my number-one advice. My number-two advice would be to make as many author friends as you can because they’re just the best. They’re the only people that understand what the journey is like. My family and friends, I love them and we love each other, but they just don’t really understand what it’s like to be querying agents or being on submission to publishers, all the ups and downs. Writer friends, they are your people. They’re the ones you want to whine to so you don’t annoy your family.

Zibby: Who are some of your writer friends? How did you make them?

Jesse: It’s funny that you should ask that because one of them is Laurie Flynn, author of The Girls Are All So Nice Here. I think she came on your podcast not long ago. I got to know her — I don’t really remember. I think I just messaged her asking if I could have an ARC of her book because it sounded interesting. Then as I read it, I kept messaging her. I was like, “Oh, my god, I’m at this part. I can’t believe this happened.” She didn’t block me, so then I was like, yeah, you’re my best friend now. We get along really well because we both have little kids.

Zibby: Does she know that you’re her friend? Has she ever responded to you? Let’s just be totally open here.

Jesse: She might suspect it. No, we talk every day.

Zibby: I was starting to get a little worried. Not being blocked by someone does not make you friends.

Jesse: Luckily, she was really, really responsive. We started chatting every day about how — we whine. Okay, I whine to her every day about how hard it is to look after the kids and then tackle edits or deadlines and things like that. It’s been so nice having someone who is as driven. I think most writers aim for one book a year, which I think is really amazing already. Then Laurie and I are just really intense and hardcore. We’re like, two books a year, yeah, without really understanding what the ramifications of that are, which is that we don’t have time for anything else. It’s just writing and then kids and then writing and kids. It’s really, really nice to have her to share this journey with.

Zibby: Awesome. You can always commiserate with me. I feel like I have no time either. I feel like nobody has any time anymore. That’s so nice that you guys connected like that. That’s awesome. Who knew? What a great way to reach out. I love it. It’s great. Awesome. Wait, by the way, where are you in the world? Are you in the United States? Where are you?

Jesse: No, I’m in Indonesia. It’s actually 10:25 PM here. It’s wild.

Zibby: Wow, good to know. I just couldn’t tell. Sorry, that question sounded totally random. I was wondering if you were around the corner or very far away. There you are. Excellent. Jesse, thank you so much for this totally entertaining read which I completely enjoyed and for an equally enjoyable little chat this morning. Thank you.

Jesse: Thank you so much for having me. I really love your podcast. I just love that it’s so mom geared. I just relate to it so hard, which is so important during this time where we’re all kind of locked away in isolation. It’s actually been a bit of a lifesaver.

Zibby: Aw, thank you. That’s awesome. I appreciate that. Delighted to have you on. Have a great day, Jesse. Take care.

Jesse: You too, Zibby. Thank you so much. Buh-bye.

Zibby: My pleasure. Buh-bye.


DIAL A FOR AUNTIES by Jesse Q Sutanto

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