This week we’re thrilled to welcome Kirstin Chen, whose debut novel, SOY SAUCE FOR BEGINNERS, launched just last week. It’s the story of Gretchen Lin, who, adrift at the age of thirty, leaves her floundering marriage in San Francisco to move back to her childhood home in Singapore. There, she finds herself face-to-face with the twin headaches she’s avoided her entire adult life: her mother’s drinking problem and the machinations of her father’s artisanal soy sauce business.
Soy Sauce for Beginners was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, as one of “Ten Titles That Will Broaden Your Point of View” and was chosen as a “Book to Pick up in January” by Oprah.com. Glamour magazine has called it a “perfect blend of family drama, complicated romance, and behind-the-scenes artisanal brewing of the world’s most unsung condiment.”
Kirstin took the Deb interview and has offered to send a copy of Soy Sauce for Beginners to one lucky commenter anywhere in the world. Thanks for being here, Kirstin, and congratulations on your launch!
What was the inspiration behind Soy Sauce for Beginners? When and how did you begin writing it?
Soy Sauce for Beginners grew out of a short story I wrote at the end of my first semester of graduate school. As a Singaporean living in the U.S., I wanted to explore the different ways in which we create our own notions of home. Much like the novel, the story is about a young Singaporean woman who has made her home in San Francisco, only to have to return to her birthland after a series of unfortunate events—the collapse of her marriage, her mother’s worsening health. Up until that point, every story I’d written had been set in the U.S. This was the first piece of fiction I’d set in Singapore, and when I got to the end, it somehow felt unfinished; I knew there was more I needed to explore.
I’ve heard Soy Sauce described as a “foodie love story”—I love that! Why did you choose to have the Lin family run a soy sauce business? What are some things about how it’s made and used in food that might surprise readers of your novel?
Before I decided on soy sauce, I was just searching for a business that was realistic and even somewhat mundane: a factory that manufactured mannequins, for instance, or one that made the springs in ball-point pens. In fact, I chose soy sauce solely for its ubiquity. At that point, I knew nothing about it. I thought soy sauce was this salty black liquid in a plastic bottle. But real soy sauce—the kind that’s aged in jars for months or even years—isn’t even black. It’s a translucent amber-brown and much less salty. There’s also none of that metallic aftertaste you get with the commercial stuff.
What are the hardest and easiest things about your job?
The easiest or best part is being able to approach my job the way one would approach any craft—as something that can and must be learned over time. This means that I’m not expected to be an expert at my job right away. This also gives me the freedom to practice and experiment without having to obsess over the finished product. The goal is to just keep improving. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the 10,000-hour rule, so even though I often write things that aren’t worth keeping, I trust that every minute I spend writing moves me forward. I think I once calculated that if I kept writing at my current rate, I would be a “genius” by the time I was 55.
The hardest part of my job is separating the business of publishing from the writing. I remind myself daily, sometimes hourly, that I can’t control how my work will be perceived; I can only control what ends up on the page.
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Find some readers you really trust and learn to accept their feedback. Once you’ve mastered that, learn to trust your instincts and to disregard feedback when you know you’re right.
What’s your next big thing?
I’m working on a novel set on a tiny island off the coast of southern China in 1957—two years before the devastating famines of the Great Leap Forward, and several years before the Cultural Revolution. Needless to say, it’s very different from my first book.The story opens with twelve-year-old Ah Hun reporting his grandmother to the authorities for destroying Chairman Mao’s portrait. As a result, his already blacklisted family falls into even deeper trouble. Ah Hun’s mother decides to move the entire family to Hong Kong, but when she attempts to procure the necessary visas, the authorities force her to leave behind one child as proof of the family’s intention to return. With Ah Hun’s younger sister stranded on the island, the rest of the family must come to terms with the role they played in her abandonment and the sacrifices they must make to be reunited.
Writers, how do you separate the business of publishing from the writing? Readers, what are your notions of home?
GIVEAWAY! Comment on this post by noon EST on Friday, January 17th, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of Soy Sauce for Beginners. Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!
Kirstin Chen was born and raised in Singapore. A former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, she holds an MFA from Emerson College and a BA from Stanford University. She currently resides in San Francisco, where she’s at work on her second novel.