blackbirdonline journalSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
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Panel Discussion
Moderator: Hanna Pylväinen. Panelists: Helen Atsma and Marc Gerald
captured November 16, 2017

Hanna Pylväinen: For those who don’t know me, I’m Hanna Pylväinen. I’m a fiction professor here at VCU, and I’m just going to be asking some questions that hopefully you guys all agree I should have asked, and then when that’s over we’ll open it up to questions you might have. So, you know, while you’re sitting there you can kind of chew on something to ask that will make you seem clever and insightful and not trying too hard and nice and concise. Good luck. But anyway, so I was thinking for this panel we would try to imitate the writing process. We’ll start with Jade, then we’ll go to who looked at her book next, which usually, theoretically, is the agent and I assume that is true in this case, Marc Gerald, and then we’ll go to the lucky editor who purchased this book, Helen Atsma. So Jade I was just wondering: you do not have an MFA?

Jade Chang: I did not have an MFA.

HP: Right. So, what I’m wondering if you could talk to everyone about is the moment that you not only conceive of the idea of a novel, but you’re like, “It’s a novel,” not, “It’s a short story,” and then how did you make the transition to, “Yes, I have the hubris, I will write a book”? Which I think is really one of the hardest life transitions to make.

JC: I will say, full of hubris, that that second part was not that hard for me, but—the deciding to write a book part, you know, wasn’t that hard for me—but, before I wrote this book I had written a lot of unfinished short stories, unfinished plays, you know. I never got an MFA but in college I did take a lot of writing classes, you know, where we only wrote short stories and then I started writing a novel and I realized, oh, the reason I had never finished those short stories was I just don’t like writing short stories. You know, writing a novel just felt so expansive and there was so much space to kind of play with and to do different things in, and it almost felt relaxing in a way.

HP: You have this idea when—like when are you—I feel like I read somewhere you were at a party? So other people go to parties and they get hungover and you go to a party and your like “Oh my gosh this novel.”

JC: I took a job at a luxury magazine, kind of a silly job, and the reason I took it was because I had been working as a journalist previously and it was too hard for me to write during the day and then to try to write at night as well. But it turned out that this job that I wasn’t honestly taking all that seriously to begin with ended up influencing every single thing in this book. So one of the things that I did in this job was I went to parties and one of the parties that I went to was a celebration for the Trump Tower Dubai. This is a building that does not exist, it did not exist back then either, it was basically a party for an ego.

And it was this massive over-the-top party in this huge mansion in Bel-Air; Wolfgang Puck, the celebrity chef, was there, you know, making hors d’oeuvres himself sprinkling 24-karat gold dust on each one. Christina Aguilera was singing on stage, Cirque du Soleil performers were kind of stalking around the crowd, and as I left, you know, as I was waiting kind of at the valet stand, one Bentley after another like pulling up in front of me as my like battered, little Mitsubishi Lancer, you know, came limping up to the curb. I opened the gift bag and usually there is like, some lipsticks, or you know a face lotion or something in these gift bags, and I opened this one and there was an iPod touch in it—this is how long ago it was, it was in 2008—and driving away from that party I just felt like this is crazy, this is like the end of a particular type of world, you know? Already at that point you saw the signs of the coming financial collapse and the fact that this kind of excess that basically felt like it was eating itself existed in that moment in time really just made me feel like, “This is it, like everything is about to change and I want to write about it.” Yeah so that was a huge part of it, but, I mean, there were so many other kind of small nudges as well.

HP: What about the actual drafting and rewriting process? I mean did this just, are you one of those like magic people, just, you know, appeared and, or was it just this . . .

JC: The muses just speak to me.

HP: Right, right, right. I mean I don’t believe in the muse at all, maybe you do, I didn’t want to crush your dreams.

JC: No, I really don’t. You are your own muse. Sorry, I also don’t believe in that. But, I . . . no, it took me a long time to write this book. It took five years—they felt like very long years. I, you know, I plotted it out, I knew what kind of story I wanted to tell; I knew that I wanted it to be a road trip. And in a way a road trip really lends itself to plotting, you know, ’cause you have to go from one place to another. And I basically just, I—well what’s kind of amazing actually is one of the other finalists is a book by my good friend Margaret Wappler, who wrote Neon Green, and she and I actually sat together, like across from each other with our laptops, pretty much two or three times a week for five or six years working on these books. Oh yeah, so it’s really crazy that they ended up being, you know, finalists for this prize. But yeah, so that was the slow, tortuous process.

HP: OK so now, a little bit more craft-based question here: my students will laugh at me, but I was wondering how you landed on the structure for the book, and if you could maybe talk a little bit about how you see the structure as supporting the novel’s aboutness.

JC: Wow, that’s a good question. OK, some of the first pages that I wrote were the very first chapter of the book and so Charles Wang’s voice really was a thing that kind of came to me, you know? He was, is the kind of man that I know in real life, you know, who definitely exists out there in the world in multitudes. But I hadn’t really heard his voice in literature that much before. And so I wrote that, I wrote that chapter, I had a lot of fun with it and I knew that I wanted to write a lot of it from his POV—but I also knew that I couldn’t necessarily sustain that level of intensity and hubris and over-the-top-ness for an entire book.

And so, I really—I also wanted to tell the story of an entire family, so, I thought, OK, I want to give each one of them, you know, their own point-of-view chapters. And I really love writing in close third because I feel like it’s, you know, it’s a first person that you can switch between, so, ’cause often books that switch between different first person narrators, that’s really hard to do, it’s really hard to do successfully. And switching between different people in close third is an easier, you know, it’s kind of like a cheat to that, I feel like. And I do, I do feel like having different voices does help you kind of propel the reader across the country.

HP: One of my favorite parts of your book was your decision to include untranslated Chinese dialogue for the reader to decipher. I was wondering if you can talk about your decision to do that.

JC: Yeah that was, you know, was kind of something that I knew that I wanted to do from the very beginning because I really wanted to—you know, there’s always that question of “Who is the book written for?” right, and “Who is the audience?” And I mean, I was interested in writing a book in which I did not decipher myself for somebody else, that I didn’t sort of have to present an explanation, that I could present these characters as they were in their real lives and the way that these characters really speak is they alternate between Chinese and English. And I mean, you know, I did make some concessions; like originally I didn’t want to italicize the Chinese at all, but Helen actually pointed out that there are some sections, for example when they say “she me”—which just means like “What?”—it’s essentially it’s spelled “s-h-e” and then “m-e” and so when you just, if you just came across that in a sort of pile of dialogue it’d be a little confusing because they have English words attached as well. So that—and I never want to confuse deliberately, you know? So that was a good argument to kind of put them in italics, but it’s interesting, I thought that there would be some pushback from Helen on that and there wasn’t at all.

Helen Atsma: It wasn’t a . . . wasn’t a question.

JC: Yeah, yeah, which is, I feel like that is actually something that is kind of indicative of how just the way we read is changing, which is kind of exciting.

HP: Helen did you want to respond to that at all or anything? You can jump in.

HA: We never talked about it, because it was never something that, that I would ever have thought to change, frankly. I felt like it was kind of crucial to . . . to the reading experience of the book and, yeah, in terms of italicizing the romanization of some Chinese words, that was important so that readers didn’t think there was a typo in the book. Like, I wouldn’t want anybody to think or think, “What is this word, I don’t know.” But, yeah, I felt like, and I also never felt like it was also confusing, I felt like the readers could pick up—you had enough context around it so, so the reader could always kind of have a general sense of what was going on. But I grew up too—we talked about this, we had this conversation before I bought the book—I grew up, I’m the daughter of immigrants from the Netherlands and so there were a lot of languages in my family too, and I felt like that was part of the, of the experience of showing what it’s like to be in a multilingual family and you’re gonna, you toss phrases in kind of all the time.

JC: You know, and I think the one other thing is, there’s, ’cause there’s been a lot of discussion about that choice but the fact is there are so many languages in the book in the sense that the art world is its own language, the fashion world is its own language, finance its own language. And if you know the formulas that I reference, if you know the designers that I reference, you have a different understanding of the book. And yeah so it’s, you know, we, we use language in a lot of different ways.

HP: So this is somewhat related, but did you have any fears before you published of being pigeonholed as an Asian American writer? Like, did, you know, and then, so, that’s sort of part one of the question and part two is do you feel like the experience of publishing bore out any of those fears or eased them? Does that make sense?

JC: Yeah. Well, I think that I took a little issue with the question itself because I am an Asian American writer, you know? Like it’s, no matter what I’m writing about that is part of who I am, and so what I’m interested is that in itself not being a pigeonhole, you know? Never feeling like there’s only one way that you can tell a story, there’s only one way that you can do a particular thing. In terms of whether or not the experience itself—well, so, you know, I’ve, I’ve, the book came out in October, I’ve been talking to a lot of different people, I would say that almost every reporter, you know, every radio show, anything, there’s definitely been a real interest in asking me, “Do you see yourself as American or do you see yourself as Chinese?” And my answer is always both, you know, a hundred percent both, and completely multilayered in both ways and yet the desire is still there to kind of like push that question and try to push an answer from me. Yeah, so that, that was both expected and unexpected I’d say. Yeah.

HP: A little bit of both.

JC: Yeah, yeah.

HP: I was also wondering if we could then, we’ll kind of just move on to some of the, the process things.

JC: Sure.

HP: So you write the book, you end up ultimately with Marc as your agent.

JC: Well, luck. A lot of luck. OK so, I finish this book in November of 2014. I was lucky enough to have had a friend from college who was an editor who recommended a few different agents to me. I wrote query letters, sent the book to all of them, they all requested the full manuscript and then I waited and waited and waited for months. I guess according to other people I did not actually wait that long, but it felt like a really long time to me. And in around March of 2015, I . . . I just had this one day where I was like “Oh forget it, I can’t wait any more,” and I just—in this kind of mad dash—I sent the book off to several more agents. They were all kind of completely cold calls, or cold queries, but the one difference for anyone out there who’s, you know, who’s sending out a book, the one difference is that I didn’t write—I wrote, you know, still like a pretty traditional query letter but in query letters there is always this little paragraph at the beginning of like why I contacted this particular agent, and you know, usually people just kind of write “I really like this book that you wrote, that’s why I contacted you.”

But I really just kind of, I think it was just the mood that I was in I just kind of went for broke and wrote like slightly emotional kind of opening paragraphs to each of the agents and all of those agents kind of responded immediately, offered representation really quickly. And so Marc was one of those, was in that group of agents and I contacted him because he represented Eddie Huang who wrote Fresh Off the Boat and . . . but he does not represent a lot of fiction, almost none. Mostly he represents rock stars who write memoirs. It’s true, it’s true. But yeah. Do you want to take it from there? You got my query and then?

Marc Gerald: I guess that’s kind of true. I was sort of not the likely first point of contact for a book like Jade’s. I received the letter that Jade referenced when I was just getting off the plane to go to South by Southwest—which is a music festival, so point taken—and, but I was really floored, I mean you can tell, if you haven’t read the book, you can tell from Jade’s amazing gift to bring together ideas that are big and smart and rambunctious and fun. You could just tell from the letter right away that she just was a writer and I started reading the book on my taxi on the way back to the hotel and for the next like twenty-four and then forty-eight hours I really read it pretty compulsively while at the festival, just asking for 1,500 pages.

I think Jade and I talked after probably reading, after I read the first hundred pages and I was like, “This is awesome,” and we realized we had sort of some interesting parallel stories that took us to interesting places, you know, from our, from our mutual pasts and I just kept reading and reading and getting to know Jade and introducing her to the team of people at my company who could help if we were going to represent Jade and got to know her, you know, in that fashion and then ultimately traveled out to Los Angeles, met her on a Friday, and within seventy-two hours we were really in the marketplace by Monday, Tuesday; it had moved that fast. You know and most of the books I read involve a great deal of development and most of the projects I work on develop, you know, start with ideas and proposals and, you know, they were more often nonfiction like Jade said and this is a book where I just had to get out of the way, you know, I really loved what I’d read and I knew that from a creative point of view I wasn’t going to have much to contribute; I could just be excited to read it. I didn’t need to send her back to do arbitrary notes, the work had been done and whatever was left to be done could be done by somebody much better than me like Helen, so.”

HP: So you basically just got really lucky?

JC: I got really lucky.

MG: Me? Yes, obviously. Jade had done her homework like she said. It wasn’t arbitrary that the book ended up on my desk; I think it spoke to Jade’s ambitions to not just write a quiet book that got read by few people, but to write a big book that changed people’s lives and made people think and, you know, set the table for something—a larger conversation and an amazing career. And as a literary agent that’s, that’s what excites you. Or me.

HP: So was there something in particular, you know, in the early pages of her book that made you think, “This is it, I want to, want to gamble on this. I want to run with this”?

MG: I mean it’s really a page-one kind of book, so we just figured you feel it really quickly and if you like, if you’re in for this book, you’re in for it from page one.

HP: Do you have a pet peeve as an agent? Like is there something that crops up in a manuscript, and you’re just like, “No way, I’m never representing that”?

MG: That’s hard to answer. I mean there’s probably categories that I can read and think, “Wow that could be amazing but it’s like a foreign language to me.” But, no, not really.

HP: I just, I heard someone say once they can’t stand when a character looks in the mirror and that it always happens on page thirty.

JC: People always hate . . . Although that might happen on page thirty in my book—a character does look in the mirror.

MG: For me . . . I was trained ’cause I came from an editorial background—I mean, like not really, but like a little bit—and to dispense with like long geographical [unint.]. Like things that just take too long to get to it, where you’re like, you know, hearing, hearing pages of description about a city before you kind of get into it. I’d rather sort of be into it and then hear about the city.

HP: So, can you talk a little bit about how you ended up as an agent, coming from Columbus, Ohio and now, somehow you represent as Jade was putting it “rock stars” which is true.

JC: It’s literally true.

HP: Yeah, like, Eminem, and I don’t know if you ever heard of him. Like 50 Cent, probably never heard of him either. Kevin Hart, Tig Notaro, Nikki Turner, do you want me to go on? Fred Wilson, Jade Chang. So what, you know—

MG: Well, I think the reason that the three of us are such great conspirators in this is that we all come from sort of somewhat outside the system. And so, you know, Helen will tell you her background, but it’s really such an unusual story when it comes to publishing, and Jade too. And I mean my story is a little bit different: I never worked at a traditional book publishing house before I became an agent and I never worked at an agency. I just made that shit up, you know, with an AOL address and a dog by my feet and bills to pay.

And, you know, I was publishing indie books and I was lucky enough to work in categories that other people weren’t. One of my first clients was a novelist from Richmond, Virginia named Nikki Turner, who is a wonderful writer, who was writing about, you know, what it’s like to grow up in a very different Richmond than this. And, you know, I started developing and selling books on my own with not a great deal of understanding of what the market was like as a whole or what the business was like as a whole; but I was fortunate that the people who liked my books, you know, wanted me to represent them and a lot of them were famous people who I was writing to with an AOL address and just saying, like, “Dude, I should do this,” and they had a lot of famous people who could have represented them at very big agencies who knew what they were doing and had experience, but I’m a good salesmen and it was cool stuff. So I came at it from a really different point of view. It’s really a hard thing to duplicate and, but it’s proof that passion wins.

HP: Yeah I was reading that you commission novellas from hip-hop stars essentially and it sounds like that was essentially your own idea to do that.

MG: That’s true, that’s, that’s . . . I was a crime buff. I started as an editor at True Detective magazine. That was where I was getting that great editorial advice that I mentioned earlier, and I was producing a lot of really bad reality TV shows, but along the way I was publishing books by crime novelists of the fifties, sixties, and seventies and I set up an imprint at Norton, just completely random—it’s a great house and I don’t know why they listened to me, but they did—and I did a bunch of books and those were the books that sort of triggered the next series of events. And when I became an agent, I mean it just sounds so weird but I just became an agent having a lot of people who really liked what I did and figured it out and I was just lucky to represent great stuff.

HP: And do you have any just general advice for writers who are looking to get an agent?

MG: You know, I get so many submissions all the time—not as many as most people because I really don’t put myself out there, this is rare and I’m really pleased to be here, it’s a beautiful event so thank you. But I don’t really put myself out there so I’m not getting a zillion submissions like some agents who are, you know, really in the space and are really recognized in that way. You know, I think the key is just to write a dazzling note and to have something that you want to talk about and a point of view, and you know, brilliance shines. And for me personally I love working with outsider voices and people who otherwise don’t have a stake in publishing now. That’s sort of my bet, my particular obsession, so you’re more likely to capture my attention from that point of view.

HP: OK you’re briefly off the hook. You can sit back, you did good. So, Helen, I wanted to turn to you—maybe you can actually just start by telling us what this interesting backstory is, how you’re an outsider and ended up on the inside of the publishing world.

HA: Jade just said “cows.” So my parents are immigrants from the Netherlands, and they had me late in life, so they grew up there during World War II and immigrated to the States in the fifties. And I grew up on a dairy farm in Oregon and went to a small liberal arts school out in Oregon and had an interest in the publishing world but had no idea what that really meant and also was thinking about applying to grad school to maybe become like an English professor or something, and on a whim I applied to the Columbia publishing course, which is in New York City, and it’s like a summer-long program at Columbia University, and a lot of stars aligned. It was a good summer and after that course I got a job as an editorial assistant at Little, Brown working for a wonderful, wonderful editor—I noticed the Peter Warner novel that won the award, I was the editorial assistant on that book.

That opened a lot of doors for me. I had never—I was kind of a country girl. And to what Marc was saying and to what Jade was saying I think coming from a rural background, coming from a place where people shop for books at Target, coming from a small community I am always attracted to voices that are not necessarily about being the person in Brooklyn who is going through a midlife crisis at age twenty-five—which is not to say I haven’t edited those books—but I am always much more interested in a novel that will take me to a place I haven’t been before, wherever that may be and actually Hanna and I were talking because I was interested in We Sinners back in the day and that was another book that I found transporting some years back. So, I was the underbidder, I didn’t get to see, it was a sad publishing story for me and a happy one for her. So editors lose books, too, that they love sometimes.

And publishing is an apprenticeship process, most jobs, I think Marc has had an unusual path, and the agenting side can be a little different. You know, everybody has a different story but traditionally you’re an assistant for a senior editor or executive editor for quite a few years—in my case it was about five and a half—and it’s through that process if you have the good fortune of working for someone good, where you, you basically are just looking at everything they do to help select and edit and publicize and publish a book and there’s a lot of paperwork involved, there’s a lot of boring things involved, there are a lot of really exciting things involved in that, and it takes a long time to kind of figure out all the pieces of it. And then slowly as a young editor you start to kind of make connections of your own, often with younger agents, sometimes it’s the assistants of the bigger agents, and if it’s something you stick with, acquire books of your own and build up your own list and eventually, you know, you remain at that house or move to another house where there is a position for you. It’s a . . . there’s really no education you can get for it other than by doing, essentially, in terms of how you go on this path.

HP: OK so, can you give us the real talk on the market? So you read a book, you really, really love it and you’re like, “There’s no way book clubs of America are going to read this.” Do you buy it anyway? Do you, as the house, acquire it?

HA: And you say that because it’s like so experimental or something?

HP: Yeah, it’s like super literary or experimental or I don’t know.

HA: I mean, I think a great book that’s wonderfully written will find an audience, and I think the question is how big is that audience, and is that an audience that at my house and my role I’m good at helping find? And so, there are a lot of questions, you know, we’re not a nonprofit, I have to sell over time, but I think, with the exception of incredibly experimental fiction, I see great writing of all stripes cross my desk and cross the desks of the editors who report to me at HMH and we—if we think it’s terrific and we think we can identify the audience and we think we have a team of publicists that can help find that audience then we’ll go for it. And so that means we are a house that does story collections still, you know, that means we are a house that does work in translation, and that also means we’re a house that will chase a book that we think, you know, can go big across the country.

That doesn’t mean that we’re offering the same amount of money for those books, and that doesn’t mean those books are going to get quite the same campaigns but it means we have a vision for them. There are some books that cross my desk that I think I don’t have the vision for it and I don’t love it. I mean it’s such a job of passion, that’s really the main thing I would say and I think a lot of editors are seen as being gatekeepers which is true on some level, but I don’t see it, even though a lot of my job involves saying “no,” I really see it as a job that’s about the “yes” moment. And I mean to pick up narrative—so Marc, I remember, so I’ve been at HMH for about two and a half years, it’ll be three pretty soon, I’d been there at that point a month or something and Marc called me on a Monday morning; we hadn’t done business before, I knew him by reputation, which is good, and he said, “Look I have this novel, let me pitch it to you.” And the minute I heard the title and the pitch I thought, “Oh I’m in, like that’s going to be the book I take home tonight to read.”

And I was kind of complaining to Marc because on the plane ride, by the time I got on the plane to come here this morning and until now I think I’ve had seven novels that have been submitted to me by different agents; so every night I’m kind of sifting and thinking, “What’s the thing I’m going to look at?” And I have an assistant who reads behind me or in front of me sometimes, but I thought, “This is the one I’m going to read.” And then I came home, I think I started reading it at my desk, actually I know I did; it’s absolutely a page-one read. I think Wangs vs. the World, if you, if you love it, you are in on the first page. And not everyone will, like not every book is for every person. I would rather publish the books that inspire polarizing opinions, which is not necessarily the Wangs, but that inspire great passion, or there’s other people who are like, ”It’s not for me,” rather than the book where everyone’s like, “It’s kind of good, kind of good.” The “kind of good” book is just the one that everyone’s like, “It’s pretty OK,” where nobody really loves it but nobody really hates it. I just—I don’t want that, I want a book that inspires passion, and for what I do I need to be passionate about it. So I read it overnight and I called you on the Tuesday and I was like, “This needs to be my first acquisition for HMH. How are we going to make this happen?” And then Marc said, “Yeah I have twelve other people who also read a chunk of it and love it, but I love what you’re saying. Let’s keep talking.” And then I had a conversation with Jade probably a few days after that, and it felt good.

HP: Can both of you talk a bit about your relationship, your working relationship, with each other?

JC: It’s been really easy. You know, I feel like I worked on this book for so long and I do, you know, have so many friends who ended up publishing books way before me, and many of them have had, you know, really fraught relationships with their editors where there’s fights, where there’s—you know, they won’t budge on a particular thing, things like that. And I don’t know, I mean, we just really never had that relationship; I think I’m very reasonable.

HA: As am I.

JC: And I think Helen is too, so maybe it’s just that we’re very nice people, but I think also, just—

HA: The vision was in alignment, though, from the beginning.

JC: Yeah, like what we really wanted to achieve at the end was—

HA: Was clear and I think that first phone call is, is a really important one, and it’s the call where on the one hand it’s like a dance, right? You’re kind of on a first date, like “Here I am and I work at this house, and we publish these books and—”

JC: “Do you like me yet?”

HA: It’s a lot of fun. And Jade’s like, “And here I am and I wrote this book and I know these people.” And we, you know, so there’s part of that but I also really, in your case, I think, you know, the actual editing involved, some pruning, there wasn’t major plot-point shifts that, that needed to happen. But I think I felt at that point that the book needed to be about fifty pages shorter? Is that what I told you?

JC: I think so.

HA: And I don’t think we quite got to fifty pages shorter, but we had a philosophical agreement that that could be possible. I always try and put things like that up front. I never want to say, “I love your book, and it’s great, and I’m just going to send it off to copyediting.” And then a month later say, “By the way, actually, I think we need to cut, Andrew, everything, and we’re gonna . . .” I just, I want to be clear and if, and if the author has a different vision and that isn’t aligned with mine, that is fine, it is the author’s book, the author is the artist. Like, we are, we are the business side of things—but that’s where it can get really, it can become an antagonistic relationship, I think, when people aren’t kind of clear about what they want and what kind of expectations . . .

JC: Yeah, or if you go, I mean, you know, speaking of that first conversation, so I spoke to all of those twelve editors, and, you know, most of them felt like there was a potential of us really kind of seeing eye to eye—but there were a couple of people, I remember one person who was like, “Andrew has got to go, man. I just, I don’t like this whole comedy thing. I don’t know, I don’t really like comedy in general.” And so with that one I felt like, well—

HA: It’s not the right fit.

JC: Even if they win the auction I don’t know if I want to go with them. Yeah. Whereas with you it just really felt like we wanted, you know—and I think that a lot of the things that you suggested were sort of like ways to bring out emotion, you know? Ways to kind of make the reader connect with a character more and obviously I wanted that, like I wanted that to happen as much as possible, so yeah.

HA: So then what happens, because like this is kind of a publishing conversation, at a house like HMH it is very much a team effort, and the job of an editor is on the one hand, the job is editing and the copy is very important and you’re editing the text and you’re also working to come up with a descriptive copy for the book and you’re positioning it. But you’re working with a large team of people—publicists and marketing people and book designers—you want to make sure everyone’s on board with the book and you’re not always going to get everyone on board and you don’t want that either necessarily because, you know, people have different opinions especially with fiction. But you want a consensus that we’re excited about this book, we’re excited to bring this author on and we’re going to support this. At the same time I was talking to Jade, I was sending the book around for reads and then other people were weighing in and definitely it was unanimous that everyone really loved it and wanted to work on it. And it doesn’t always happen, and editors get shot down too. Sometimes there are books you want to pursue and others don’t see it, and that’s, that’s hard; it’s hard because it’s a labor of love, I think, for the editors as well, but when in a happy moment it comes together in a good way.

HP: So I wanted to make sure we leave time for your questions. Does anyone have questions for any of the three up here?

Audience: This kind of relates to one of the questions that was asked earlier. You mention before that you didn’t want to talk about the typical, like, immigrant experience. I wanted to ask about negotiating things—the idea of the Asian American experience, like perpetuating the bootstrap myth, being the new face of whiteness, having specific privileges but still being marginalized. What anxieties have specifically informed your writing?

JC: You know, it’s really interesting. Those particular anxieties that you bring up, I think those are things we started talking about more and more, more recently, right? They’re really part of our kind of new conversation about race. When I started writing this book in 2009, the term microaggression, for example, was not used; I mean, at least I hadn’t heard it at that point. And so with something like that, I remember if you are a person of color in America you definitely have the experience of people saying, “Where are you from?” And then you say, “LA,” and they say, “No, where are you really from?” And it happens over and over and over and over again but I had never seen that moment in TV or film, or in books, which seemed crazy to me. I mean perhaps it has occurred but I feel like I’ve watched, you know, most of the shows and movies in which it would be most likely to happen and I had never seen it, and I knew that I wanted to write about moments like that.

And it was interesting as, really after the book sold—like after I finished the book—the, our national conversation about race really shifted right around then. So, so some of those things that are kind of more nuanced, I feel like maybe I didn’t even necessarily start thinking about until I’d finished this book. So they’ll definitely play into the next book. But in terms of anxieties about race or about sort of like the role of Asians in America, I feel like from a political viewpoint, I totally am on board sort of with the inherent evil of the model minority myth and how that is just, you know, a tool of white supremacy essentially. But in terms of how those anxieties really kind of played into my writing, they didn’t really. And I think it’s because I grew up in Los Angeles, I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and I grew up in what I realize now was a pretty unusual situation. Where, for example, the high school that I went to . . . pretty much entirely Asian, Latino, and Persian. And anyone who—there were also a lot of Jews, a lot of Mormons, and a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Yeah it was just a completely different kind of setting, so we didn’t have—most of the cheerleaders were Asian, you know—we didn’t have that sense of, oh, the blond-haired, blue-eyed like supermajority. You know, that wasn’t—it just didn’t figure into our thinking very much. And so because of that, you know, once I started reading more and more immigrant literature where—that did deal with those anxieties, I really, what I really wanted to do was just to reject them and to reject them by writing characters that didn’t even kind of deign to consider them, you know? By writing characters who were just like, “We’re central to the story of America. We’re here to recreate this world in our own image.” So I really tried to kind of go at it from a like punch-you-in-the-face kind of way as opposed to, you know, bowing and worrying kind of way.

Audience: What was in that emotional letter?

JC: It’s hard for me to remember. I don’t know if Marc remembers either.

MG: I know, I was kind of mad that like as this event was—I mean, like as I was arriving today I was thinking to myself, “I should have brought that damn letter,” because it actually, it is so amazing. So if there’s an online site involving the award and you feel comfortable with me sharing, I will.

JC: Maybe I’ll reread it and we’ll see.

MG: It is a good textbook example of how to get a busy person’s attention.

JC: But I also think part of it was just it was so sort of from the heart—like at that moment I felt such a sense of despair and just a sense of “I know I wrote a good book and I know—”

MG: It didn’t come off as despairing at all. It just came off as big and, you know, kicking doors down and wanting to get noticed as opposed to being quiet about it and humble about it. You know, you see a lot of different letters and it’s a hard thing to gracefully put yourself forward, and it’s even more fun to watch somebody do it from both a place of absolute, like, shout-from-the-rooftops ambition and then also from a place of amazing, like, incredibly cool writing and then from, from all the other things that Jade is.

Audience: You mentioned that the writing process took about five years, I believe. Would you say that during that time you paused or sort of worked on other pieces? And did those pieces impede or influence anything you were writing?

JC: I definitely did. I’m kind of lazy. I definitely—both. I’m a, I can be a very hard worker but I also, you know, they’re definitely also were times where I just felt like, “All right, I’m still writing this book, let’s just take a little breather.” You know for part of that time, I was still working as a journalist so I was writing articles and things like that, and that often would really take me away from the book. There was another period where I actually wrote a TV pilot with a friend of mine and that was, like, a very involved kind of four or five months where I really didn’t work on the book at all.

But what really kind of propelled me into finishing the book was I took a job at Goodreads, which you guys probably all know about. But for those who don’t, it’s sort of like Yelp for books. It was actually, I was friends with the founders of the company and the day that I said yes to the job I saw this photo online of a pillow that was being sold on Etsy. And on the pillow was embroidered the words, “If you don’t work on your dream, someone else will hire you to work on theirs.” And my friends had literally hired me to work on their dream at that moment and I just thought, “Oh no, I gotta get going.” And so really pretty much from that day forward I would work at Goodreads during the day and then every single evening from, pretty much from six to midnight I would go to a café or bar or coffee shop and—you know, places where it was totally embarrassing to have a laptop—and just sit there and work and then I finally got it done.

Audience: Hey, Jade. I’m a native New Orleanian, and so I was wondering what inspired the Louisiana interludes in your novel, whether there was a lived experience or research?

JC: I love New Orleans. I feel like, it feels like this city that’s kind of both out of time and out of place, and I feel like if you were just to kind of be blindfolded and dropped off there, for the first few moments you wouldn’t even know what country you were in, you know? Like you could be in some part of Europe. And I—there are just these kind of uniquely, I guess uniquely American but also just very uniquely themself kind of cities that I wanted the Wangs to journey through. And, and also I knew that I wanted them to go to a cabaret, and that—so the cabaret, that did not happen to me in New Orleans, it actually happened in Los Angeles in the basement of a Mexican restaurant. But it was kind of based on a thing that I saw, but it felt like it would be very appropriate in New Orleans.

HP: So I think we have time for just one more question.

Audience: Who owns going forward—let’s say there might be a movie. Who owns that and how does that work?

MG: Traditionally those rights stay with the author. You know, if you find that there’s a publisher who’s trying to get TV and film rights on a book that you’re doing, you probably should take a close look at the contract because it probably isn’t a very legit publisher. It’s just a publisher who’s trying to overreach.

Audience: Is that typical?

MG: It’s typical.

HA: Yeah, it’s typical. I’ve never, I don’t think I’ve ever edited a book where the publisher had the film rights.

JC: Though a lot of YA books, they end up, yeah—

MG: There are, there are people trying now to—it’s definitely, you know, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to make money as a publisher and there’s definitely publishers who are consolidating within larger media companies and feel that they have something to add to the process. But I’ve yet to see evidence that they’re actually adding to it so, you know, I can’t see any reason to give a publisher those rights, and most of them don’t ask.

HP: Thank you everyone for coming. Thank you, Marc and Helen, for taking time out of your very busy lives, and Jade who just got off a plane from China two days ago and yet is here. Thank you so much.

JC: Thank you. Thanks for being here, guys.  

Hanna Pylväinen is the author of We Sinners (Henry Holt & Co., 2012) and an assistant professor of fiction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Julie Geen is the VCU First Novelist Fellow and a third-year MFA student in fiction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Helen Atsma is Jade Chang’s editor and the editorial director of fiction at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Marc Gerald is Jade Chang’s agent and a literary agent at United Talent Agency.

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