Vivien Chien photographed by Ed Dubiel

By Linda Feagler
Vivien Chien’s passion for writing began when she was a second-grader at Parma’s Pearl Road Elementary School.
“My classmates brought in toys for show-and-tell, but I decided to write a story about a day at the zoo that featured all of my friends,” the 42-year-old Parma resident recalls. “They loved it, and I was hooked.”
After traversing a career path that included working as a trainer for U.S. Bank Home Mortgage and a receptionist at GIE Media Inc., Chien decided to get serious about the craft to which she aspired. The budding author joined the Northeast Ohio chapter of Sisters in Crime, a national organization devoted to offering advice and support to women crime writers. In addition to authors, members include publishers, booksellers, agents, librarians and fans united in their love of whodunits. During meetings, she got to know Cleveland author Casey Daniels, who introduced her to an agent on the lookout for a writer who could develop an Asian American mystery series. Chien took a chance, submitted a proposal and was awarded a three-book contract.
Her first cozy mystery, “Death by Dumpling,” was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2018. It introduced readers to the life of Lana Lee, the 20-something, full-time manager of her parents’ Ho-Lee Noodle House — and sometime amateur sleuth. Kirkus Reviews lauded the plot as “A charming debut with plenty of red herrings,” and predicted a bright future for the new novelist.
The praise was spot-on. The book garnered legions of fans and led to the series Chien continues to pen. Her ninth offering, “Misfortune Cookie,” published in June, follows Lana’s adventures at a restaurant convention in California, where she’s caught up in the mayhem surrounding the suspicious death of a journalist at the iconic Hotel Laguna. It’s a story Library Journal calls “Delectable … another tempting, too-good-to-miss treat for culinary cozy fans.”
“I think readers respond to Lana because she’s easy to relate to,” Chien reflects. “Many tell me they have women like the ones Lana knows in their lives, or that they grew up in an Asian family, and what Lana experiences is true for them, too.”
Here, the author talks about her favorite writers, what makes a good mystery story and ways in which her readers inspire her.
You mention that your experience with writing began as a child. Back then, did you dream of becoming a mystery writer?
Not at all. I really got serious about writing in 2007, when I was 26 years old, and started taking courses at Cuyahoga Community College. I signed up for a class called Fiction Writing because I thought it would give me a broad overview of fiction in general. But on the first day, the instructor announced that the focus would be only on mysteries, and that we’d have to write a short story in order to pass. My first thought was, ‘I’m not having any of this. I’m going to drop the class.’ But then I thought, ‘Wait a minute. This might be a really good opportunity to broaden my horizons as a writer.’ I decided to challenge myself and write something I’d never attempted to write before. So I stuck it out and fell in love with the genre. The story I wrote for the class was called ‘It Takes Two to Strangle.’ Maybe someday I’ll turn it into a full-length novel.
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
Back when I was a child writing stories, I learned that the idea of creating something was very important to me. It’s a gift to be able to do so.
What makes a good mystery?
The story should have many working pieces that confuse the reader. You’re reading the book, and you think, ‘Wait a minute, this just happened. But then there’s also this.’ So many possibilities arise and you have to decide which one you want to focus on.
Who are your favorite writers and why?
Anne Rice compelled me to write. Sue Grafton propelled me to write mysteries. When I read Anne Rice’s ‘Interview With The Vampire’ for the first time, I was 13 years old. It wowed me like nothing ever did before. Although I’ve never set foot in New Orleans where the novel takes place, I felt like I was there. That’s when I realized that I wanted to take readers on the kind of journey Anne Rice took me on — one in which I would meet characters who would feel like friends.
I read Sue Grafton’s ‘A is for Alibi’ — the first book in her Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series — in that class I took at Tri-C. It was then that I understood the impact of creating a female private investigator in a genre that is not predominantly female. Kinsey feels like an old friend, and it’s such a comfort to go back to the series and re-read it.
It was heartbreaking when Sue Grafton and Anne Rice passed away. I wish I could have shaken their hands and told them how they changed the course of my life.
The titles of your mysteries are playfully clever. How are they chosen?
The publisher suggests the titles, I roll them over in my head for about a month, and then develop the plots around them. When St. Martin’s Press asked me to write the first book, they understood that the Asian voice in America is not represented enough in fiction. The only parameters the editors gave me were they wanted a story involving an Asian American who worked in a restaurant. I took the next steps and decided to make her mixed race like me, and include the way I felt when I was in my 20s. During that time of life, many people believe their life is going to go one way, and think something is wrong with them if it doesn’t. I want to be the voice that says, ‘That’s not weird, that happened to me, too.’
Although Cleveland’s east side is home to a vibrant Asian community, you opted to set Asia Village, the plaza where Ho-Lee Noodle House is located, in Fairview Park. What led you to make the west side a star in your stories?
One reason is that I’m a west sider, so I wanted a plaza over here. The other reason is that I knew I was going to be writing about crime, so I wanted to make my own fictitious place where a lot of crazy things happen.
Your mom is from Taiwan and was raised there. Your dad is an Italian American who was born in Cleveland. Were there any challenges growing up in a mixed-race family in Parma in the 1980s?
It was very hard. I didn’t look the same as the white kids in my classes and I was made fun of a lot, especially when it came to my eyes. I tried to hide the fact that I was Asian until my late teens. It was then I realized that I had to be the one to stick up for myself and embrace my heritage.
What are the distinct similarities and differences between you and your heroine Lana Lee?
I look at Lana as my alternate timeline. At one time, my mom owned a Chinese gift shop at Southland Shopping Center. Lana is who I would have been if I’d been expected to work there. But I did add pieces of my personality into her character. Like me, Lana’s hair is always an odd color, and when she mentions a song she’s listening to it’s usually one I was listening to while I was writing.
You dedicated your eighth novel, 2022’s “Hot and Sour Suspects,” to “cancer survivors and fighters.” In the book’s a


cknowledgments, you shared the news that you’d been diagnosed with stage 3 clear cell ovarian cancer during the summer of 2020, underwent surgery and chemotherapy which led to a clean bill of health in March 2021 and that the cancer returned later that year. You credit writing as a labor of love that kept you grounded. How did you keep your spirits up and cope during this traumatic journey?
Writing was an escape for me. I used the Ho-Lee Noodle House as someplace else to go. One of the things I struggled with and worried about during chemotherapy was a condition known as chemo brain, in which my mind would draw blanks. The biggest thing about cancer I want everyone to know is: It’s more mental than anything else, and it’s crucial for you to keep your spirits up and your mind sharp and clear because you can go downhill superfast if you don’t. I’m a private person when it comes to medical issues, so at first I was reluctant to let people who read my posts know that I was going through treatment. But when I did, the outpouring of support was overwhelming. Many offered to help in any way they could, and some shared their own poignant experience with the disease, mentioning they took my books with them to read during their treatments. Sadly, others wrote that they’d felt shame in telling people they had cancer and I was helping them dispel that misconception. When I read that, I knew I had to keep writing because I had a purpose that would propel me forward through my own treatment.
How are you feeling now?
My last chemo treatment was in April 2022, and I started writing ‘Misfortune Cookie’ a month later. I’ve passed the year mark of being cancer-free, and I feel mostly good.
What’s next for you?
My 10th cozy mystery in the series, ‘Peking Duck and Cover’ will be released next year. Since Peking Duck is a favorite dish during Chinese New Year, the book will focus on that beloved time of year.