Zibby interviews violinist and debut author Ling Ling Huang about Natural Beauty, a piercing, razor-sharp novel about a young musician who gets a job at a high-end beauty store in New York City, where things take a dark turn. Ling Ling shares her sources of inspiration: her own job in a beauty store, a deep love of music, fascination with beauty standards and the industry that capitalizes on them, and an interest in the topics of consumerism, self-worth, and identity. Finally, she describes her publishing journey, from a draft in her notes app and a discouraging querying process to a gorgeous finished book and a second one in progress!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ling Ling. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Natural Beauty: A Novel.

Ling Ling Huang: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be on here.

Zibby: It’s a pleasure to have you. Tell listeners what your book is about.

Ling Ling: Natural Beauty is about a really talented pianist. She’s at a conservatory. She’s probably the most skilled and imaginative player there. Then because of a family tragedy, she ends up having to give up this really promising career. She’s washing dishes. She’s doing whatever odd jobs she can find in New York City, where the novel’s set. Then this stranger comes in and offers her this amazing, lucrative job at a high-end wellness and beauty store called Holistic. She decides to give it a try. She just drinks the Kool-Aid really hard. It’s a stunning place. It’s full of products and pills and procedures that promise to make you your best self. She starts to do all of the things. Things are not as they seem. As you keep reading, there are such bizarre side effects that are happening. People are kind of gaslighting her into what she’s seeing and feeling. It just snowballs from there into a wild story.

Zibby: Where did this come from? I know you have a violin background yourself, right?

Ling Ling: Yes.

Zibby: Let’s just talk first about the music piece of it and what it felt like even to be writing about a musician with dashed dreams when you’re a successful musician in addition to an author.

Ling Ling: I know that I’m successful in a lot of ways as a violinist, but the dream growing up was always to be a prodigy. I did actually go to conservatory when I was fifteen, but that’s actually just too late to be a soloist. I’ve always been in this career where you’re not young enough. You’re not good enough. Then it’s difficult because as a violinist, there aren’t too many career paths. You can be an orchestral musician. You can be in a quartet. You can be a soloist. That feels like basically it. I could never figure out what I wanted to do. I spent so much time and money pursuing this thing. It’s not unlike the beauty industry and people who spend so much time and money trying to succeed. I saw a lot of similarities between these two spaces that prioritize aesthetics. Also, you can just take it as far as you want to. I wanted to write about my love of music and how at the end of the day, if it doesn’t give me the money or the fame or the platform that I wanted, it’s still amazing to do it for me. That’s a real gift in my life, is that I can just play for myself anywhere. That was a big part of it. Just getting to write about music really made me fall in love with playing it again. That’s the music part of the book.

Zibby: It’s so crazy how because of the form of this storytelling, because it’s a book, you can’t actually hear any of the music. Yet it’s so important to the book. It’ll be great when you can have a movie with a soundtrack. I don’t know what the audiobook is like. Is there music throughout? Maybe they solved that problem with the audio.

Ling Ling: I have no idea, but I hope so.

Zibby: You should do whatever you do and put it as the backdrop for the audiobook.

Ling Ling: Let’s just end the podcast right here. I got to call the team. I love that idea.

Zibby: It would be fun. It would make it also just more immersive and all that. I also am responding to the fact that you could feel like a failure when you are such a talented musician. I’m on the outside. I don’t know anything about — aside from piano lessons for kids, I’m a layperson when it comes to — well, I learned a lot, actually, from The Violin Conspiracy. Did you read that book? Brendan Slocumb.

Ling Ling: I didn’t. I was worried that it would be too triggering. That’s also why my main character is not a violinist. I think I will have to because I want to know what’s going on with the violin world.

Zibby: I don’t mean to keep harping on the violin. Just the idea, on the outside, you can feel not successful, but everybody else could perceive you as a major success. Now we’re just talking about you. Anyway, back to the book. Why exactly beauty? What prompted this? Were you getting a facial one day and you’re like, “This would be really cool”?

Ling Ling: I’ve always been really interested in skin care and beauty. I remember at a certain point in college when I realized that I didn’t feel comfortable stepping out of my house, or my apartment then, without eyeliner on — that just accumulated. “If I don’t have a full face, then I can’t go,” eventually was kind of where I ended up. It was so much maintenance. I got sick of it. I got really interested in natural beauty and skin care as an alternative to beauty, even though it’s kind of the same industry. Then I moved to New York to freelance for violin. I wasn’t plugged into the scene, so I got a job at a beauty store. It was a natural and clean beauty store. In the first six months in New York, I moved four or five times. Some of the time, I had three to four hours of commuting to get to this store or to get to the gig that I managed to find, which were usually in Jersey or Philly or something. I just started thinking about my experiences there. I drank the Kool-Aid hard, like my main character.

Slowly, things started becoming really frustrating and dissatisfying. I feel like a failure with violin a lot of the time because that’s just how my industry works in that regard. You just have to keep pushing. I saw the same thing in the beauty industry. There’s no end to how beautiful you can become. In Korea, people are getting rid of their muscles because they don’t want to seem bulky. You siphon your calf muscles out. There’s just no end to the kind of procedures you can get done to improve yourself in both fields. It became really damaging to think about constantly improving myself and changing myself. Kind of like the main character, I didn’t think I had anything to lose by gaining beauty, but I wasn’t really thinking about whose beauty I was trying to gain. It certainly isn’t one that’s in line with my culture and my family. Growing up in Houston, Texas, all I wanted to do was be blond and tan.

Zibby: Don’t we all?

Ling Ling: It’s taken this long to love my culture and my heritage and all the ways I resemble my family. It’s representative of that journey.

Zibby: That’s so interesting. I know, there is something to the blond hair, blue-eyed Texas — that homecoming queen thing, I think leftover from Sweet Valley High books and all of those books growing up, Barbie and all that.

Ling Ling: Dynasty, all of those. My sister-in-law straightened her hair every day in school and got a nose job, all these things, because people made her feel bad for being Jewish. I know it’s not just me or Asians who feel this way.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to minimize how you felt at all.

Ling Ling: No, you were connecting. I want to make sure readers know that even if they’re not Asian American or something, this is definitely, hopefully, relatable as well.

Zibby: It’s really all about striving and perfectionism and self-acceptance. I feel like so many people struggle with, okay, maybe this is as good as it’s going to get. Maybe it’s going to get worse. When I was young, I was like, when I grow up, I’m going to have twins with blond hair and blue eyes, and they’re both going to be named Cindy.

Ling Ling: You do have twins, though, right?

Zibby: I do have twins. Thank you. Yes, I actually did end up with twins. Boy and girl. They’re definitely not blond.

Ling Ling: Not Cindys either?

Zibby: No.

Ling Ling: I love that choice, though.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. Can you say which beauty place you worked for?

Ling Ling: Yes. I worked in the West Village at CAP Beauty, which is still an existing store, but I think it’s online. The space where we worked is now a bookstore, which is cool. I think it’s a Three Lives. You might read the book and think I had the absolute worst experience there, but it’s more of a critique of the industry itself. Actually, I loved all of my coworkers. It was a fun time, but definitely wild. I sold a four-hundred-dollar water filter a few times, which I didn’t think I would do.

Zibby: What is the water filter supposed to do? Is it supposed to make your skin look better by filtering the water? What’s the hook?

Ling Ling: It’s a Berkey water filter. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that system. It’s a specific system. It’s also in this beautiful ceramic piece. It’s meant to be an art piece that’s functional. It’s beautiful. I didn’t think people would pay that much for a water filter. When I sold the first one, I was the only one working in the store. Then I realized, I don’t even know if we have one in the store. Then they were really interested. I was running downstairs and calling my boss and Slacking everyone. Do we have one? Where is it? Can I run across the street to the office? Is there one there? Then I made it a goal to sell more of them.

Zibby: Awesome. It’s too bad you can’t follow your clients around and be like, how was it? Obviously. I guess there’s follow-up, but…

Ling Ling: I’m sure they’re enjoying it.

Zibby: Is there beauty stuff you learned that everybody should know that maybe we don’t know from working in the store and researching the book and all of that?

Ling Ling: A lot of clean and natural beauty is really unregulated, especially a lot of the stuff that we’re ingesting. You’re going into this beautiful golden and rose-colored store. Everything smells nice. Then you get the beautifully packaged thing. It could just be some dude making it in his basement who has figured out the packaging. That’s definitely something to look out for. I feel like in a lot of wellness circles, it’s kind of a good thing not to have FDA approval. It’s become kind of unnecessary or even, “We don’t want that,” in a way. They couldn’t understand the vibes that are going into this thing. It’s just something to think about. Another thing is a lot of upselling. If you go to the Japan Mart nearby or something, you can get the exact same product. It’s just that it’s packaged differently. Same manufacturer, same everything, packaged differently, which ends up twenty to thirty dollars more. There’s a lot that I learned, which is really that marketing is very important.

Zibby: Yes, also for books.

Ling Ling: Also for books.

Zibby: What was your process like? When did you know you were going to write a novel? How did this all come together?

Ling Ling: This started as a long notes scroll of observations on these commutes. I loved the place. It really felt magical. It was the first time that I wasn’t doing a music job. It just felt really new and kind of bizarre to get along with colleagues who didn’t know if I played in tune or not, so “Why would you even like me?” was kind of the headspace I was in. It was great. I’d never really had this kind of comradery before with my colleagues. I love routine. Some of it was just, I love this stuff. I love how beautiful everything is. Also, everything that happened since I started working there — it was 2016, 2017. Women’s bodies are a sight of horror in America. I was working at this gorgeous place while I felt like everything about women’s rights was being threatened. It was this conflation of the two and then also living in these dingy, windowless places and commuting and then being in this stunning place, just the range that New York City has to offer depending on how much money you have. All of these thoughts eventually turned into this. It was during the pandemic that I lost, like everyone in my industry and a lot of industries — I didn’t have any more gigs, so I was like, maybe it’s time I do something with this notes scroll. That’s when I organized everything into a book.

Zibby: Then what was the process of editing and then selling the book? You just jumped into this industry with no experience, right? Now here’s the book.

Ling Ling: Here’s the book. It’s wild. I cannot believe it still. It comes out next month. I’m like, how?

Zibby: I didn’t mean it shouldn’t have. Of course, it’s great. It’s hard to win the jackpot of being an undiscovered author and then submitting. How did it work for you?

Ling Ling: I’m still in shock. I was querying all the time. I had googled how to do query letters, but I still didn’t really know. I did my best. I was just looking at the backs of books of authors I really love. The agents that I have, who are amazing, I didn’t hear back from them for almost eight months. I had already quit for four to five months. I was like, I’m doing other stuff. I’d quit. I had so many rejections. Some of them were really kind. Some of them were really unkind. I really felt like, I don’t know if this is going to happen for me. It’s become so detrimental to my health being stuck in this one little room in New York, so I just need to get a dog and not think about it anymore. One day, I heard from these agents. They asked for a hundred pages. Then I sent them a hundred pages. Maybe a month or two later, they asked for the whole thing. That’s how it happened. Then we had a phone call. I just remember walking around New York that day having landed the agent. It was the first time that I felt like I belonged in the city after years, actually. I didn’t realize how much I had depended on it or how much my identity had suddenly shifted to hinge on it from music. It was interesting. Then we edited together for maybe a year. We called them cartwheels where I worked on something and then sent it. They sent me the next thing to work on.

Zibby: That’s a pretty image. I’ve never heard that before. That’s lovely. That’s a carefree, fun way of saying, this is going to be a total pain.

Ling Ling: Exactly. That’s how it happened. Then got the deal. It’s all been a whirlwind. This whole last year has been really, really wonderful. I don’t stop and think enough how grateful I would have been maybe two or three years ago to have this life that I’m having now where I’m on your podcast. I can’t wait to go to your bookstore.

Zibby: Please come.

Ling Ling: I’m close enough. I should go.

Zibby: You are. You should do an event at the store. You should do an event. It would be fun.

Ling Ling: I would love that.

Zibby: That would be great.

Ling Ling: Everything I’ve seen of it, it looks like the most welcoming community, which makes sense because it’s you.

Zibby: Maybe we could get, even, a beauty brand or something. It’s on this strip where every other store is like, do this to your eyelashes. Do that to your legs. I’m like, what is everybody doing to their eyelashes? I don’t do anything to my eyelashes.

Ling Ling: That’s amazing. I have twenty thousand coats of mascara on right now, which is interesting. It’s been interesting marketing the book and getting ready for appearances and having photo shoots with the title being Natural Beauty.

Zibby: You have to make sure your makeup at least looks natural. I get the best stuff from the sponsors from this podcast, honestly. It’s all changed my life cumulatively. This one is Causemetics, the mascara. It’s called Causemetics. Instead of having to take it off, you just kind of pull it off. It comes right off in the shower in clumps. It’s weird, but now it never smudges. It lasts so long. Now I sound like an ad. They’re not even a sponsor now. They were a sponsor months ago. I am a total addict. I feel like it makes me look so much younger. Now I look ten years younger, which I don’t.

Ling Ling: It’s all about the feeling.

Zibby: It’s all about the feeling, yes.

Ling Ling: We’re all paying for it. That sounds great. I feel like it’d be really therapeutic to peel it off.

Zibby: Often, I just leave it. In the movies, I would always be like, who wakes up with mascara looking like that? That’s impossible. Now I wake up looking like that because the mascara just kind of stays on. Not that it matters. Sometimes if I don’t have time for a shower — I should not even be saying this. I’m like, well, my mascara’s still on. My hair looks good enough because I’ve only slept four hours. I’m just going to go on and start another day.

Ling Ling: That’s amazing. You look so well-rested and put together. I would never guess that’s ever your life.

Zibby: It turns out my face doesn’t show how tired I am on my face. Who knew this would be a huge thing? It’s become huge.

Ling Ling: Really lucky.

Zibby: Are you working on another book?

Ling Ling: I am, yes.

Zibby: How is that going?

Ling Ling: Rough. I feel like my second draft is due this week, actually, so the fact that I am not sure is interesting. It was fun. I had such imposter syndrome after the book deal that I immediately needed to prove that I could do it again. I just wrote this really whacky first draft and sent it in in November. It was six months. Then I sent it in. Now when I read the first draft, I’m like, this is a total mess.

Zibby: That is what a first draft is supposed to be.

Ling Ling: Yes, that is what I’m learning.

Zibby: That’s the point of a first draft, or even a first novel in some cases.

Ling Ling: I like that idea. I am working on the second book. It’s fun to work on something. You just finished Blank, maybe?

Zibby: I did, yes. Thank you for knowing that. Yes, but I’m about to get on a call with my own editor to have her destroy my perception that it’s actually done. We’ll see what happens. I’m working on it.

Ling Ling: We’re both working on it. I look forward to reading Blank. I love the title.

Zibby: Thanks. I look forward to reading your next one. It’s entertaining. It’s really light. I just had fun with it. It’s not going to win the National Book Award. Let me put it that way. It’s very light, but it’s fun.

Ling Ling: That’s often the kind of thing I crave and need. I feel like you can tell when an author had a lot of fun writing. The joy kind of transmutes. It’s nice.

Zibby: We’ll go with that. Congratulations on Natural Beauty. So exciting. Maybe I’ll see you in the store soon. That would be fun.

Ling Ling: That sounds great. I’d love to be there. I’ll let you know.

Zibby: Okay, let me know.

Ling Ling: Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: My pleasure. Thanks for coming on. Have a great day. Bye.

Ling Ling: You too.


NATURAL BEAUTY by Ling Ling Huang

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