Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Today at Twinja Book Reviews...Female Go Getter Helen Wan

I received Helen Wan's book as an ARC in the fall. I devoured it in a few days, mainly because it featured a strong female of color protagonist in a corporate setting. There was quite a bit of truth to the story, and women, not just ones of color know just how difficult it is to survive in what has become a world ruled by men. Her book spoke to me in ways I haven't felt were truthfully portrayed in our media, so we at Twinja Book Reviews are glad to introduce her, so that you might come to know her through her writing too.

1. First off, tell those who may be meeting you for the first time, who you are, and anything you would like them to know about you.

It’s a pleasure to meet you!  Thanks for inviting me to spend some time with the readers of Twinja Book Reviews.  I’m Helen Wan, and I’m a writer, lawyer, and new mom.  My first novel, THE PARTNER TRACK -- about a young woman of color’s journey in corporate America – was just published by St. Martin’s Press.  Honestly, I never expected to give birth to a first book and a first baby in the same year, but if you want to make God laugh, just tell her your plans.

2. What prompted you to write this book in the first place? Were there events in your life that led to the first draft of this book? Or was it a story that you felt needed to be told?

I definitely feel it’s a story whose time has come.  What prompted me to write it?  Over a decade ago, as a 25-year-old fresh out of law school, having just landed at my first job at a huge corporate law firm, I quickly realized that all the skills that had served me so well until that point in my life – knowing how to study hard, get good grades, take tests well – were suddenly out the window.  ALL of us were “good at school,” so that alone wasn’t good enough anymore.  There were predictable, observable patterns of who among us was succeeding and who was not, who quickly found powerful mentors to take them under their wing, who did not, and it all had to do with how well and how quickly one could master the art of fitting in to that corporate culture, perfecting all those “soft skills” that are simply not teachable in school.  So, if you didn’t happen to grow up with a background where you’d been exposed to this culture and its set of unwritten rules, you had to teach them to yourself, ASAP.  I looked around and realized there should be some sort of “decoder ring” – a primer or handbook for those of us who felt like fish out of water in that very privileged, rarefied environment.  I remember walking into a bookstore trying to find a novel about how to succeed as a young person of color in corporate America while remaining authentic and true to yourself.  Finding none, I decided to write that book myself.  

Now, all these years later, that book is finally out in the world.  And I’m so thrilled by the overwhelmingly warm and enthusiastic reader response!  I treasure and save every single email and comment I’ve gotten from people who say, ‘Thank you for telling this story.’  One of my favorites came from a young African American law student who had just finished her first summer working at a large, prestigious law firm (much like Parsons Valentine, the fictitious firm of my novel) and told me, “I only wish I’d read your book at the beginning of my summer, rather than toward the end.  It would have made me feel so much less alone.”  Well, there’s no higher compliment I could hope for than that.  That really meant so much to me.

3. I am Afro-Cuban American. But through simpler terms, Im a Black born American. As a Black American, there were many times I was extremely uncomfortable with the many of the examples of "White, male, cis gendered" privilege brought out by the characters in this books. Would you say you've experienced these forms of shapeless ignorance firsthand, or through the experiences of others? Or was it just to create conflict for the book?

Some of the scenes in the book are based on ones I experienced firsthand, others on anecdotes told to me over the course of many years by friends who are themselves “diverse” men and women who work in various settings (not all lawyers, by the way).  Of course, the book is a work of fiction, but it was very important to me to keep the portrait of a young working woman’s life in this setting as realistic and close to the truth as possible.

4. In your book, you choose to censor the "N" word. I can understand this, and while Im censoring the word for this interview, it's not often something I do. The word is ugly, and often makes people uncomfortable, and I for one don't censor it, because I find it should make people uncomfortable. Many classic books are banned or being edited to be "politically correct" just for their use of the word. Was it a conscious decision for you to avoid writing the word, despite a character making the mistake of using it? Or did you feel as though it may offend readers?

Hm.  Interesting question!  I don’t think I consciously censored myself in the writing of that scene.  I agree with you the word should make people uncomfortable.   

5. I have to say Ingrid definitely had some serious nads. I really didn't want to make your interview about you being an American author of Asian descent, as I try not to make an author's race a bigger deal than their work, but I've read many books with American Asian women written so stereotypical, your choice to avoid that route was by far the best decision a person could make about breaking stereotypes. Was it difficult convincing a publishing house that a woman of color could be more than just a caricature?

Ha, ha!  Um, how much time you got???  Your question is a very astute one.  During the loooong period of gestation for this novel, I definitely encountered obstacles trying to convince mainstream agents and editors in the publishing industry that this type of story did indeed have a ready and eager audience.  The problem with my book, I kept hearing over and over, was that it did not fall neatly into any “genre” that the publishing industry knew how to market:

First, my book featured an Asian American female protagonist, but I was told the rest of it didn’t read like a traditional “ethnic novel” -- a term that I find to be of limited utility anyway.  (Nary an arranged marriage or soul-searching trip to China in the entire manuscript!  This was apparently confusing to some folks.)  Could I please make it either much more “Chinese” or just take the “ethnic part” out entirely?  (I was asked by one agent whether I had ever considered rewriting this book, but “not from the point of view of a minority.”  Um, no.  Just, all kinds of no.)

Second, it featured corporate intrigue and a billion-dollar merger as part of its story line, but who’d ever heard of a legal thriller told from the perspective of a Chinese-American woman??  

Finally, my book also was intentionally written in a direct, snappy, straight-ahead style, and has a romantic love interest and flirtatious banter, so could it be “chick lit”?  (See comment above re: the term “ethnic novel.”)  But the consensus came back that it wasn’t really “chick lit” either because who had ever heard of chick lit about race in the workplace and identity politics?

So the basic challenge for me boiled down to the fact that the mainstream publishing industry knows very well how to market Amy Tan, and they know how to market John Grisham, and they know how to market Lauren Weisberger, but no one knew how to tackle the marketing of Amy Tan Grisham Weisberger.  

That’s why, finally, eons later, I was VERY LUCKY to meet the right agent who then introduced my book to the right editor.  And I’ve been so incredibly grateful for everything that has happened since then.

6. Do you think in "Corporate America", that it is more difficult to be a woman? Or a person of color?

Hm.  Another interesting question!  I’ve always been interested in the implications of "double-occupancy" outsider status -- that unique juxtaposition of being not only a woman, but also a person of color at the same time.  Since I’ve been a “twofer” all my life, I don’t really know how I’d be able to separate out the two and evaluate them against one another.  I have found it interesting and instructive that I get similarly enthusiastic reader responses from white women readers and non-white male readers alike (and, for that matter, some white male readers too)!  Perhaps there’s more commonality of experience in corporate America than people might imagine.

7. You're welcome to take this question loosely, but in your honest opinion, what are more productive ways writers and readers can do to prompt the publishing industry to start making strong efforts in signing authors of color, and publishing stories featuring more people of color as main characters? And not just side characters to aid white protagonists?

Publishers listen to that all powerful sales number.  Writers and readers need to vote with our feet.  It’s important for us to support authors of color, and those books that try to tell new, non-traditional stories, whenever we can.  That, and also provide more pathways for diverse men and women to enter careers in the publishing industry themselves – where they can be in a position to influence acquisition decisions.  If the gatekeepers themselves begin to represent a greater, more diverse set of viewpoints and cultural backgrounds, I think we as readers will all wind up with richer literary choices in the long run.

8. What are three books that really stood out to you in your lifetime? What were they about, and did they encourage your journey to become a writer?

Oh, there are so many books that inspire me.  If I can name only three, I’d say THE REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro for its gorgeous, devastating portrait of quiet restraint; BLACK ICE by Lorene Cary for its moving and clear-eyed account of what it was like being a female minority student breaking barriers in a highly privileged world; and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee because it just takes my breath away: not a single word is wasted.

9. I have to say, I really enjoyed giving your book a 5 star review! As a woman of color, the book really spoke to me, and I look forward to your future projects. Where can one find you to learn more about what's to come for you, or just to know anything "Helen Wan?"

Oh, thank you so much!  I really enjoyed your smart and thought-provoking questions.  And yes, I’m already at work on Book 2.  It isn’t a direct sequel to THE PARTNER TRACK, but it explores the themes that have always fascinated me – group dynamics, and how our cultural and personal backgrounds influence our personal and professional choices.  Also, I’m a sucker for a good underdog story!  I look forward to keeping in touch with you and your readers.  I always welcome and learn a great deal from reader feedback.  You can contact me and get updates about what I’m up to at my website:  www.helenwan.com.  And please follow me on Twitter @helenwan1 and on Facebook at Helen Wan's Facebook Page

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