I could not be more thrilled to welcome this week’s guest, Kirstin Chen, to the debutante ball!
Kirstin Chen’s second novel, Bury What We Cannot Take, was named a best book of the year by Entropy, Popsugar, and Book Bub, and a top pick of the season by Electric Literature, The Millions, The Rumpus, Harper’s Bazaar, and InStyle. She is also the author of Soy Sauce for Beginners. She has received awards from the Steinbeck Fellows Program, Sewanee, Hedgebrook, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and the National Arts Council of Singapore.
At the bottom of the post, find details on how to enter to win a copy of this incredible book! And without further ado, here’s our interview:
The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists.
When people hear that my first novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, began as my MFA thesis (which grew out of a number of short stories I wrote in my first year), they assume that my path to publication was relatively straightforward. Of course this isn’t true. I completed my MFA in 2009 and signed with my agent in 2010 (so far, so straight, right?). My agent and I went through a couple rounds of revision and then the book went on submission in late 2011. We sent it to nineteen publishers, seventeen of whom declined. The remaining two asked to see a revision. Both of them gave me good notes, much of which I agreed with, so I decided to pause the submission process to revise the manuscript. I worked on the revision for about two months before sending it to my agent, who was so pleased that she decided to send it back to just those two remaining editors, confident that at least one of them would make an offer. Both of them declined.
By this time, almost six months had passed since we’d gone out on submission—six stressful, sleepless, mournful months during which I routinely darted out of bed at 4 in the morning to check my email just in case. My agent and I had a tough conversation about what we would do if this book never sold. I dug deep and did one more round of revision, my agent sent it out again, and, a full nine months later, we got an offer from the wonderful Liz Egan at Amazon Publishing.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I signed an NDA, so I’m not allowed to talk specifics, but right out of college I worked at a fancy tech firm that had just expanded into pay-per-click advertising. As part of the advertising team, my job was to vet the businesses that wanted to advertise on our site—the majority of which, I would soon learn, were porn websites. Because this tech firm prided itself on strict ethical standard, I had to make sure that these porn sites adhered to certain rules: no actors under 18, no non-consensual sex, no bestiality, etc… So, that part of job, having to look at a lot of porn, was awful. On top of that, the work environment was extremely high pressure. We were constantly reminded that our work was being tracked at all times, that only the most efficient and most accurate would move on to permanent positions. At the end of each week, management would round us up to announce—survivor tribal-council style—the names of those who had been let go. After six weeks I quit to go teach at a private high school.
Have you ever traveled to do research for your writing? Where did you go?
All of my books have been set abroad, so I travel often for research. Most recently I received a grant to go to Guangzhou and Hong Kong to research the counterfeit luxury handbag industry. I visited this gigantic shopping center that sold only fake handbags—some of which were extremely high quality and priced at over a thousand dollars. I also went to a handbag factory and talked to an IP lawyer who was an expert on the region. One thing this lawyer told me really stuck with me. She said that the US press often reports on how China steals intellectual property from US companies, but no one ever talks about how much those companies increase their profits by not only shifting their manufacturing to China but also by splitting up production among numerous Chinese factories in order to make their goods for the absolute lowest price. She pointed out that these companies are knowingly increasing the risk of IP theft by spreading out their blueprints, yet they seem unwilling to take responsibility for that.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What kinds of things did you read?
I was! When I was little I loved Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Roald Dhal. I grew up in Singapore which is known for its high-pressure, high-performing school system. Starting in elementary school, I was subjected to midterms and finals, and the rule in my classroom was that once you’d completed your exam, you could read a book while you waited for everyone else to get done. As a first grader, I loved to read so much that I would rush through the exam, accidentally skipping questions—and, one time, a whole back page—so that I could return to SUPERFUDGE or TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING. My mom was so dismayed by my grades that she had to forbid me from bringing books to school.
Tell us about your next big project.
I’m working on my third novel, tentatively titled COUNTERFEIT, about the counterfeit luxury handbag business, model minorities behaving badly (to borrow a phrase from writer Vanessa Hua), and what it means, in this day and age, to pursue the American dream. Set in San Francisco and Guangzhou in southern China, COUNTERFEIT’s protagonist is Ava Wang Desjardins, a disillusioned lawyer in a troubled marriage, who grows entangled in her old friend Winnie Fang’s criminal business venture. Winnie’s illicit and ingenious scheme involves buying luxury handbags from department stores, swapping them out for so-called “super-fakes,” returning the fake bags for full refunds, and then selling the real bags online. When the venture finally comes crashing to the ground, Winnie mysteriously disappears, leaving Ava to deal with the fallout. Framed as Ava’s confession to the police, COUNTERFEIT explores two Asian-American women’s attempts to shatter the “model minority” myth and demand more from life.