In conversation with Grace D. Li



Joining me on AD this morning is Grace D. Li. A graduate of Duke University, Grace is currently attending medical school at Stanford University. She recently released her debut novel, Portrait of a Thief, which was an instant New York Times bestseller, and named a Most Anticipated Book of the Year by The Washington Post, Bustle, and more. 

“Fast-paced, thrilling, and action-packed, Li’s debut is riveting,” I wrote when I included the book as one of my top picks in my Daily Hive April column

Portrait of a Thief is currently in the early stages of development at Netflix to be adapted for television, with Michael Sugar spearheading the production. 

When I talked to Grace, I was curious about how she could write such a fantastic novel and balance medical school at the same time. We also talked about Asian and LGBTQ+ representation, the Netflix show, and what Li likes to do for fun. 

Grace Li by Yi Li

Congratulations on a tremendous debut. How does it feel to see Portrait of a Thief in the wild?

Thanks so much! This all still feels very surreal to me, I may or may not have teared up the first time I walked into a bookstore and saw my book on shelves. I finished writing Portrait of a Thief during the pandemic, when I needed some joy and escapism in my life, and so it means the world to be able to share this fun, wildly self-indulgent book with readers

You’re a medical student at Stanford University by day, and a writer by night. How do you manage to fit it all in?

An overdependence on my Google Calendar! In all seriousness, though, I set aside time for writing and guard it jealously. Writing time is a commitment in the same way a class is, and using that time only for writing—not emails, or errands, or any of the other countless things that crop up in everyday life—lets the story settle in me a little more deeply. I read a great piece a while back that asked, “Do you want to be known for your writing or your swift email responses?” Ideally I want to be able to do both, but prioritizing is important!

Portrait of a Thief is diverse in many ways, in that it tells the story from the point of view of five Asian American students, and there’s also some LGBTQ+ representation as well. Did you draw inspiration from anyone in real life for your characters?

I wanted to write characters who could’ve been my college friends. The Asian diaspora experience is varied, and no one character or book can possibly capture all of it, so I just aimed to have fun with the characters! All of the characters have a bit of me in them, because otherwise I couldn’t write them, but I also drew inspiration from my younger sister for hypercompetent con artist Irene Chen, and looked to many of my friends in tech to capture Alex Huang’s early disillusionment in Silicon Valley and her eventual decision to join as the hacker of the crew.

I’m thrilled that producer Michael Sugar will be developing your book for Netflix. What did it feel like to hear your book will be adapted for the big screen? 

Those weeks were probably the most exciting—and stressful!—of my life. Thinking specifically to my Netflix call, the team kept mentioning Netflix original movies and TV shows (Lupin, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Bridgerton…) and eventually I said something along the lines of “Yes, I know, I watch a lot of Netflix.” So clearly I had some trouble keeping my cool! This process has all been so exciting, and I feel really good about the people working on this project, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that everything goes smoothly.

I read that an Asian American author you look up to is Weike Wang, and that you read her debut, Chemistry while at Duke. Have you read her latest, Joan is Okay? It was one of my most memorable reads of last year. 

This is the best question, because I adored Joan is Okay. I inhaled it in a single setting earlier in the year, and then read it again recently because I wanted to experience it again (and because I run a book club here at Stanford, and so of course I chose it as one of our reads!). Weike Wang continues to write stories that make me understand myself better, and I feel so lucky we have this keen, incisive, dryly funny examination of medicine, family, and identity. 

What are some books on your current TBR list?

So many! I’m about to start Adrienne Celt’s time loop novel End of the World House, and I also have Sayantani DasGupta's Debating Darcy and Emily X.R. Pan's An Arrow to the Moon waiting for me. I’m looking forward to You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi (what a perfect title!), as well as Rebecca Mix’s The Ones We Burn and Jamie Pacton’s The Vermilion Emporium, both gorgeous fantasy novels out this November.

When you’re not studying medicine or writing engaging characters and thrilling novels, what do you like to do for fun?

Most of my time is spent doing the above! I also picked up tennis again during the pandemic (after a decade out of practice!), and have gotten much more into cooking. Anyone on the lookout for a new cookbook should check out Betty Liu’s My Shanghai, which I consult almost every evening. I’m also a tour guide at Stanford’s art museums, so on some weekend afternoons you can find me there talking about my favorite art pieces!

Portrait of a Thief is available for purchase in hardcover format from Indigo and e-book and audiobook format from Kobo. Check Penguin Random House Canada for additional retailers.