A quarterly magazine out of Vancouver, British Columbia, PRISM international is the oldest literary magazine in western Canada, publishing the best in contemporary writing from Canada and around the world. Though best known for its fiction and poetry, PRISM also regularly publishes creative non-fiction, drama and translation.
This month, we’re sharing Jennifer Gryzenhout’s interview with New York Times best-selling writer Jean Kwok.
I met Jean Kwok earlier this spring when she visited the school where I teach to give a talk. I was immediately drawn to her: she is energetic, funny, and eager to talk about writing and being a writer.
I had read her first book Girl in Translation, which was published in 2010 and became a New York Times best seller. The novel features Kimberley Chang, a young girl born in Hong Kong who emigrates to New York City with her family. Kimberley is forced to work in a sweatshop after school, and lives in squalor in an unheated apartment infested with cockroaches. Fortunately, Kimberley excels in school – and this, combined with her boundless hope for a better future, ensure a gratifying read.
The story parallels Jean Kwok’s own life up until university. When I met with Jean, she related the story of a gift she received from her older brother while she was still a young girl living in poverty in New York. He gave her a blank journal, and told her that nobody could take from her what she put into it. This gift was a significant memory for Kwok, and was a sure step on her journey to becoming the writer she is today.
When you are working on a writing project, what does an average day look like for you?
When I’m intensely involved in a novel, I get up at 5 a.m. and work until 7 a.m. I’m naturally a night owl and hate being up early, but it’s the only way I can find enough hours in the day since I have two boys, aged seven and ten. On normal days, I get up at 6:30 a.m. Then I get my kids ready for school and work until I need to pick them up at 3 p.m. I write first, before I answer emails and interview questions, etc. I also try to work out for an hour on my elliptical cross trainer at least every other day.
Once the kids are home, I can’t get anything done until they’re in bed. Starting from around 8 p.m., I can do Skype interviews or other work I haven’t managed to finish earlier. If I’m under time pressure, I write from 8 p.m. until midnight as well. When I’m not working on a novel I usually spend those hours reading, and I go to bed earlier, too.
On your website bio you write that, after studying first physics and then English and American literature at Harvard, you worked as a professional ballroom dancer for Fred Astaire’s East Side Studio in New York for three years. You then left this to pursue your true dream, writing, and continued on to complete your MFA in fiction at Columbia University. What, ultimately, led you to writing? How have all these experiences shaped who you are as a writer?
I think that we spend our lives learning who we truly are. Once I discovered I was a writer inside, I couldn’t unlearn this aspect of myself, although my life would have been easier if I’d decided not to be a writer. When people ask me, “Should I be a writer or should I join the circus?” I always say, “Definitely the circus”. I never felt like I had a choice. I feel guilty, like an unworthy human being, whenever I’m not writing. I think that most writers feel like this; they’re compelled to write, even though they might not be doing much actual writing at that moment.
Something I love about writing is that any experience, positive or negative, is redeemed when a writer tells the truth of it. The very act of writing is transformative; and, indeed, all of my experiences have shaped me as a writer.
Kimberly Chang’s story in your novel Girl in Translation was clearly inspired by your own life. Like Kimberly, you moved from Hong Kong to New York when you were a young child with your family, and started from scratch working in sweatshops while going to school. You lived in an apartment without central heating; you were a talent in school. What led you to write this story as fiction instead of memoir?
I love fiction and the way it can tell the truth more honestly than a record of actual events. In Girl in Translation, for example, I was able to use language to allow the reader to undergo the immigrant experience instead of hearing about it. When my protagonist Kimberly doesn’t understand something in English, neither does the reader; but when she hears Chinese, the reader becomes fluent in Chinese as well. In my new novel Mambo in Chinatown, my heroine Charlie fights to save her sick little sister Lisa by getting her properly diagnosed and treated.
In real life I fought for my father, but I realise as I’m writing this that, in many ways, I felt protective of my father as if he were the younger and more vulnerable one. After we moved to the U.S., he’d lost so much of his knowledge and authority. I hadn’t done it consciously, but the relationship between Charlie and Lisa is true to how I felt about my father.
That said, I probably will write a memoir some day, when I’m old and toothless.
How did you write the novel? Did you first create a detailed outline, or did you just write out a draft? Did you write it linearly, or in pieces that you then put together? What does your revision process look like?
For me, a novel begins with a gut feeling. I need to feel both a deep emotional and intellectual curiosity. From there, it might grow into a sentence or two – what if a poor girl became a dancer? What if her sister were sick? Then I begin to listen for a voice, usually that of my protagonist. When I hear the voice clearly enough to channel a few pages, I’m ready to cast further. I sketch out a very rough story arc, dream about it some more, then fill it out further. I spend months thinking about a book before I start writing. In that time, I alternate between working on the outline and writing bits and pieces that I hear in my mind. I love working in the program Scrivener, which allows you to move pieces of the book around easily.
Then I usually make a big push to write the first draft as quickly as possible. I always write linearly, from beginning to end, although I make sure that I know the ending before I start because I need to set it up properly. That first draft is absolutely terrible and has almost nothing to do with the final book. It’s just a sketch, a pot pourri of ideas. I allow all sorts of contradictions and problems to exist side by side in this draft. However, I make myself travel from beginning to end, and many things are transformed along the way.
I then look at the entire book again and restructure it. The second draft takes much longer and is more representative of the final novel. This is the first time the true form of the book allows itself to be seen. I usually do a third and fourth draft, which is mainly polishing, and then I send it off to my agent.
My agent tends to give me a few edits before she sends it to my editor. In response to my editor’s comments, I will usually do another three to five substantial rewrites of the book. By the time the reader holds my book in her hands, it has been rewritten by me eight to ten times and gone through an additional three rounds of copy editing, where they check for logical and grammatical inconsistencies.
When you write, do you have a particular audience in mind? Or do you just write and hope that the novel will find its audience?
I have no idea what anyone else will think of my work and I’m always surprised by people’s reactions, but at the same time, I always keep my reader in mind as I write. I don’t know who he or she is, so it’s not like I’m aiming at a particular audience, but I am very aware of the reader’s experience. I want my reader to be up late finishing my book. I don’t want her to be able to put it down. I want her to learn something and to be entertained along the way. I don’t want to bore her or for her to predict what’s going to happen. At every point of my book, I try to anticipate my reader’s expectations so that I can make her experience as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible.
Your newest novel, Mambo in Chinatown, is coming out this summer and is also based on personal experience. Is there anything you would like to say about it now, in anticipation of its publication?
Mambo in Chinatown is a conglomeration of so many different elements: it’s an immigrant story, a sister story, a love story, a Cinderella story. It’s about the clash between cultures and generations; it’s about Chinatown and the professional ballroom dance world; it’s about trying to save someone you love. When I hear early reader responses, I almost feel like the review tells me more about the reviewer than the book itself. Each reviewer sees something a bit different in the novel. One focuses on the social and cultural elements, another on eastern and western medicine, another on the love story, another on ballroom dance. It’s wonderful.
You now live in the Netherlands with your husband and children, in a third culture. In a Dutch T.V. documentary, you say: “As an immigrant, you lose a large part of your own culture, but of yourself as well.” You also explain that it isn’t easy to classify your culture: you are part Chinese, part American, and part Dutch. Why do you think the immigrant story is an important one to write? How can it resonate with all readers, even those who have never experienced immigration or another culture in this kind of depth?
I think we all know how it feels to be an outsider, and that is a part of what people identify with in my books. Girl in Translation has been assigned in all sorts of courses: social studies, women’s literature, history, English, physical rehabilitation. I’ve had people who are deaf tell me how their experiences are similar to that of my heroine’s. It is my deepest hope that my books might help readers understand how much we all have in common.
Which writers do you love? Which authors have inspired you as a writer?
There are so many. Authors I love include Margaret Atwood, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gish Jen and Lan Samantha Chang. I love poetry as well: Wallace Stevens, Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, Mark Strand.
What advice would you give to writers who are just starting out?
Keep the beating heart of your writing alive. Listen to your readers as much as you can because they will give you advice that you will resist, but if you give their suggestions a fair chance, you might find that they were right. However, if something feels very wrong, remember that it’s better to have a flawed, vital piece of writing than a perfect corpse. Be true to yourself.
Read the original post at PRISM here.
Author photograph by Chris Macke