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Muddy meets author and activist Winnie M Li

Ahead of her appearance at Suffolk's Primadonna Festival (29 - 31 July), award-winning author and activist Winnie M Li talks to Muddy Stilettos about her new novel, #MeToo, misogyny and her favourite place to visit in our county. A varied mix then!

July 2022 sees the return of the Primadonna Festival to Stowmarket in Suffolk, and with it an influx of brilliant literary minds to our county. Author, former film producer and survivor of a sexual assault Winnie M Li, will be among the fabulous line-up. She’ll be speaking at one of the most hotly anticipated sessions of the festival, How Men Can Help, discussing #MeToo, male allyship and what needs to change in the battle to end misogyny and sexism. 

Winnie M. Li

Before she takes to the stage and gets stuck into these meaty subjects, we caught up with her to chat about her new and very timely novel, Complicit, which explores #MeToo in the Hollywood film industry from the perspective of the producers. Her second novel, Complicit has been described by the UK media as “spellbinding”, “visceral”, “grippingly readable”, and “a must-read”, so yes, you’ll want to add this to your to be read list immediately!

Let’s meet the impressive woman behind the accolades…

Hi Winnie, can you sum up your new novel Complicit for us in one paragraph please? 

Thirty-nine-year-old Sarah Lai teaches screenwriting at a local college, but was once an aspiring film producer ten years ago. When she’s approached by a New York Times journalist about a powerful male producer she once worked with, she’s forced to confront the truth of her ruined career in the film industry – and how she may have been complicit. While capturing my own passion for cinema, and the supposed fun and glamour of Hollywood, Complicit questions how much our individual ambitions affect our moral decisions, when our workplaces are already such an unequal playing field.

How much of Complicit is based on your own experiences of the film industry? 

A lot! I worked for a London-based production company for 6 years, so much of the book is drawn from my own familiarity with the industry. I’ve been to Cannes, I’ve been to the Oscars, I cast A-list actors before they became famous. I wanted to capture all the supposed glamour of that world, while also showing the hard work, graft, and inequality of it. Sure, there are some similarities between the main character Sarah and myself — but the characters themselves and the situations are entirely fictional. 

What do you want readers of Complicit to take away from the novel?

That behind the glamourous façade of the film industry, there’s a lot of hard work, crushed dreams, and even trauma. And yet, we remain enamoured by the movies — even those of us who still bear the scars from working in discriminatory settings. As young women, we can be so passionate, so eager to make a mark in our professional fields — that eagerness can be taken advantage of. But hopefully as women we can find a way to support each other professionally and bring about community and change.

What sort of feedback are you getting about Complicit from readers? 

I’ve been getting amazing feedback from readers!  Many of them say they couldn’t put the book down, it’s a perfect beach read,  and have read it in one or two sittings.  But more importantly, many readers have shared with me their anecdotes of when they were treated a certain way as a young woman in a workplace, how they wish they’d spoken up more, and how they missed out on opportunities that were given so much more easily to men. Readers have also said they’ve learned a lot about how a film gets made and how the industry really works! 

What’s your 10-second pitch to persuade people to come along to the festival?

It’s a brilliant weekend celebrating women, diversity & storytelling in a lovely, intimate, summery setting. 

Tell us a bit more about the talk you’ll be taking part in at Primadonna: How Men Can Help?

It’s myself, Sophie Gallagher, and Jordan Stephens (of RizzleKicks) — all of us looking at misogyny, gender inequality and how men can help level the playing field. It’s not enough for men to say, ‘Well, I’ve never raped anyone, so I’m not part of the problem.’  Men can be much more than just passive bystanders or non-perpetrators. There’s a way they can use their male privilege (privileges of voice, status, wealth, power) to be better allies for women — and to make sure our workplaces and our society as a whole are as inclusive and as equitable as possible. 

Primadonna is a brilliant festival for aspiring writers. Any advice for people who feel they have a book in them but are too scared to take the plunge?

Go ahead – take the plunge!  But you don’t have to see it as a plunge, more like slowly lowering yourself into a refreshing pool at a pace that you’re comfortable with. I’ve wanted to be an author all my life, and throughout my 20s, alongside my day job, I was working on a novel (which thankfully, will now never see the light of day!)  Over the years, I took writing courses, went to literary events like Primadonna, and finally embarked on a Creative Writing MA in process of writing my first published novel. Being among writers and avid readers, realising that it IS possible to one day be published, and most importantly, taking your writing seriously are the first few steps towards having the writing life you’d like to have. I’ve got some more tips on giving yourself time to write here.

Have you found writing novels has helped you cope with the trauma of your past? Would you suggest writing as an outlet for other woman who’ve been through a similar experience? 

Yes absolutely.  My own rape took place in 2008 at the hands of a stranger, not in my own workplace.  But it changed the course of my life — most notably by making me realise how much I needed writing to make sense of the world, and how I could use that creativity to find my own voice. Even if you’re not aiming to get published, writing is a powerful way to personally reflect upon and address your past experiences. And no one else needs to read it, if you don’t want! You can write just for yourself. I helped develop a free writing guide for survivors of sexual abuse and violence, that anyone can access online here.

Any plans for another book?

I’m working on my third novel, which won’t be about for another year or two. But it’s about a road trip, since I’ve always loved travel. Only, after the lockdown and recently becoming a mother, I haven’t had a chance to travel as much!  So for research last autumn, I did a road trip with my toddler and partner across America — that was an adventure!  

Finally, is there anywhere you would love to visit while you’re in Suffolk?

Sutton Hoo!  I’m a huge archaeology and pre-history fan, so I’d love the chance to visit the Sutton Hoo site and try to imagine how people lived, worshipped and honoured their loved ones during that time period. 

Find out more about the Primadonna Festival (29 – 31 July) here. Buy a copy of Winnie’s novel Complicit here.

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