Author of Meet Cute Diary Emery Lee is back for another interview about his news rivals-to-lovers cafe romance Café con Lychee! Café con Lychee tells the story of Theo Mori and Gabi Moreno, two high schoolers with a complicated relationship and a fair amount of bad blood between them. But eventually, they have to set their rivalry aside when a trendy gentrifier cafe comes to town and starts stealing business from their family’s cafes. Will they be able to save their businesses? Why do they have such intense beef? Keep reading our chat with Emery to find out!
Keshav Kant: Okay, we love an angry gay; we do! But poor Theo is out here ready to burst a damn vessel, so I have to know, what was the inspiration for Theo being the ball of angst and anger?
Emery Lee: What are teens if not balls of angst and anger? Haha, but honestly, I find as a reader and writer, I most relate to characters who are very intense in their feelings, especially when it comes to teens. That’s a really emotionally-charged time, and it can be really hard to work out your feelings in a healthy way if you don’t have the right support system, so I really wanted Theo to embody that.
Keshav Kant: On the other hand, Gabi is a very passive person, he’s sort of going with the motions for the most part, and that contrast between the two of them makes for significant friction. Was that something that you mapped out before you set pen to paper or something that occurred more organically?
Emery Lee: It was definitely organic! I don’t do a whole lot of planning before writing. I mostly just have a feel for what I want the characters to be like and it’s largely all vibes, then I throw them into the ring and see what happens.
Keshav Kant: Speaking more on their differences because Theo and Gabi, at first glance, are opposites, a large portion of the story is devoted to Theo’s passionate dislike for his family’s cafe while Gabi is desperately trying to cling to the cafe his parents want to let go of. I think it made for great shows of relationships with legacy regarding familial ties and trauma, so please let me know more about how you went about fleshing out that emotional journey for both characters.
Emery Lee: I think Theo and Gabi are less opposites and more two different sides of the same coin. They’re both buried under the weight of their parents’ expectations, so even while those expectations are different, the results are very much the same. You have two kids who are afraid to let their parents down but show it in entirely different ways.
Gabi becomes a people pleaser who’s afraid to embrace who he is and Theo pushes everyone away, feeling like he’s ultimately going to disappoint everyone so having an active hand in that keeps him in control. They’re essentially two sides of the helplessness that a teen goes through when they’re held to impossible expectations, and I wanted to showcase how this manifests differently because most people think of “fear of disappointment” as resulting in a Gabi-like character, and it’s so rare to see that in someone who lashes out like Theo.
Keshav Kant: Now focusing on the cafes for a sec, I love that you highlighted that the gentrifier’s cafe was known to be not even remotely as good as the Mori or Moreno’s cafe when it came to taste. However, people still went to the new place because it was “trendy” and more social media-friendly. Given the social context of us still being mid pandemic, with so many small family-run restaurants and businesses shutting down because of the lack of social media presence, was this an intentional decision from the jump or something you felt compelled to talk about in greater detail once you saw the scale of impact COVID had on family-run places?
Emery Lee: Honestly, that had nothing to do with Covid whatsoever! I wrote the book in 2019, so well before I had any idea Covid would be a thing. The thing is, Covid put a spotlight on the closing of family-run businesses, but gentrification isn’t new. Mom-and-pop shops close all the time as the owners get chased out of town by mega-corporations looking to make a quick buck.
And frankly, I’ve never spoken to anyone who genuinely felt like these big chains make better food than the local places, but the reasons tend to fall to things like “but it’s in a better neighbourhood” or “easier delivery” or “that place isn’t as cute”. And more often than not, “bad neighbourhood” just means “neighbourhood full of people of color” and “not as cute” just means “not as white”. So this just felt like a natural course of storytelling for that to be an issue that both cafés ran into.
Keshav Kant: Also, staying on the cafes for a moment! The Mori’s don’t own their cafe. Instead, it’s owned by Theo’s ass of an uncle. I read it as commentary on the predatory lending/landlord ship habits that exist within communities of colour, even within families. Is that how you meant it, or am I just doing too much?
Emery Lee: Haha, that’s a great way to look at it! For me, it was less about the lending practices specifically and more just about the way communal nature of family within communities of color. I think a lot of people in the U.S. look at the nature of the Mori’s café and think “how could this happen?” Meanwhile, a lot of people in the East might think it’s unfair for Theo to lash out against their situation.
Also, we see Theo’s parents torn between both, and I think that’s just a really clear depiction of what it feels like when you were raised in these communities and feel those strong community ties, but you also know that you can’t keep living in this situation. It’s a fine line to walk between losing your community and being stuck in a toxic space, and I think a lot of PoC are struggling to walk that line.
Keshav Kant: Before we wrap up, what’s something you’d like readers to know before they dive into Cafe Con Lychee?
Emery Lee: Café Con Lychee is a romcom, but it also touches on some more serious topics. Go in for the fun, but also bring some tissues!
Keshav Kant: Last question! We got Meet Cute Diary, and Café con Lychee comes out next week, so what’s coming down the pipeline next that we can all keep an eye out for?
Emery Lee: I’ve got a short story in the All Signs Point To Yes anthology out later this month, and another one in the Transmogrify anthology out next year!
If you haven’t already, grab a copy of Café con Lychee over on Emery’s site linked here!