Interview with Lucy Tan
Lucy Tan is the author of What We Were Promised (Hachette Book Group, 2018), her debut novel which has been lauded by critics, with The Washington Post, Refinery 29 and Amazon all calling it one of the best books of 2018. She has been published in journals such as Asia Literary Review, McSweeney’s and Ploughshares.
She attained an MFA in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she also won the August Derleth Prize. We at 30North encourage our readers to seek out her writing, for it is very worthwhile.
30North: This is your debut novel–how did you feel once the book was published? For anyone who is looking to have their work published one day, do you have any advice for them?
Lucy: That’s a good question. It’s funny, because I first published my book July of 2018, which was almost a year ago. I have felt such a range of emotions since then, it’s hard to isolate just one. Overall, I think I feel relief. It’s a weird way to think about it, but if I’m really honest with myself, I have wanted to do this for a very, very long time–I have wanted to get a book out there. And I think about the writer that I was before that publication came out, and after, and I think of myself in some ways as a more anxious person, but as a writer, a little bit more relaxed.
When I was writing the novel I was in my MFA program and I remember waking up earlier and earlier everyday. First, I would wake up at 7:00, then 6: 30, and then 6:00, and once I started waking up at 4:30, I said this can’t be healthy. But it was good for the book, because I was thinking just about that book, and I poured all of my energy into it. I’m in this stage right now where I’m kind of recovering and writing my second novel more slowly than I did the first, which for me creates these questions: am I not doing it the right way? Because I only did it the one way, which was successful. What is it like if I’m not as focused on writing? Because after your book comes out, you stop being just a writer, you’re also an author. So you do fun things like come to colleges and have conversations with students, you’re teaching, you’re traveling–all of that requires energy. Which means you have less energy and focus that you can spend on your writing.
I think the challenge for me right now in my career is finding a way to balance the two. I’m spending time on my writing, and I’m using my focus and best energy there, while also doing what I’ll call the “maintenance work” of being an author; even though, that is not the best way to put it, because I love it. I love being an author. I love getting out there and talking to readers, and I love being involved in the book community and helping other authors. That’s a part of my job I really like–but it also requires a really different set of skills than the writing, which requires you to communicate with the most private version of yourself. The version that is not the person who would be sitting in a room being interviewed. So, that’s probably a very involved way of answering your question.
My advice to writers who are seeking publication would probably be one piece of advice I got that was really valuable to me. Early on when I was writing my novel, I met a playwright by the name of Lydia Davis, and she had been writing for a very long time, since she was in her teens. And she said, “The stuff I was writing then, when I was 18, is very different from what I am writing now. And you could say I’m a much better writer now, and many people say they are embarrassed by what they wrote when they were younger.”
But her view is that she can never write the same story as when she was 18, because she is a different person now. And that 18 year old writer had an audience, who she has moved away from a little bit. As someone who has always kept my writing pretty close to the chest, always wondering is my piece ready, is it mature, this advice made me realize that there is a version of whatever I’m working on that will mean something to someone else. Hopefully. And I owe it to myself to not be dismissive of the work that I was doing then, or am doing now, thinking that the work I will do in the future will matter more. Because I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
So my advice to writers seeking publication is to put your all into every single thing you’re working on. So don’t say “When I one day write a novel, I have this great metaphor I’m gonna use. I’ve described these trees in this spectacular way and I’m going to save it for that novel”. Things don’t work that way, because you change, you mature as a writer. So put everything you have in whatever you’re doing right now. That is the surefire way to get better as a writer.
30North: What inspirations went into the crafting of the novel and characters?
Lucy: What We Were Promised is set in contemporary Shanghai where I spent two years after college living with my parents in this luxury hotel. This became the setting of What We Were Promised. I remember when I was actually living the experience, I didn’t think I would write about it–maybe one day, I thought, but really, I was just absorbing everything, and feeling kind of alienated, because I was an English speaker. My Chinese wasn’t totally fluent, and I didn’t really have a community. So I was struggling there, a little bit, but it turned out to be one of the most important times in my life because I took notes, and then later, when I was in my MFA program and missing China–because I write best when I’m missing a place–I was able to access that passion. I think it was in the process of writing the novel that I was emotionally processing what I had seen in China, and a lot of my viewpoints of the way that people live there, and how it’s changed in the past couple decades, comparing what I saw to the sort of stories my parents told me about their lives when they were living in China in the 70’s and 80’s. It was those two years that really served as inspiration for the novel, and from there on, I was going back to China and more deliberately thinking, “Who can I interview? What can I see that will help this book take shape?”
Writing a novel seems like an insurmountable thing, but you just take it step by step, write a little bit, do a little research, write a bit more, and once you put in those hours, you realize you have something you might not have been able to hold in your head all at once. But, after all those accumulated hours, you have the first draft of a novel. And it’s surprising I think–it felt surprising to me–that the process could go that way.
30North: So, considering your experience there, in China, what obligation do you think writers have in staying true to reality in their writing?
Lucy: As an English speaker, you have the advantage of writing in a language that other languages translate into their own, more often than the other way around. This doesn’t come with rules, per se, but a sense of responsibility. To write falsely about a space where I’m not a native person could be harmful to the way those stories get out into the world. So the rule for me is that I want to get the essence of their truth, and their lives, as well as I can in my writing. Which is not to say I have done or will do it perfectly, but I think that the intention and the work has to be there.
Outside of that, I really think there are very few rules when it comes to what you can and cannot put into fiction. I had a teacher tell me that the only thing that a fiction writer promises to their reader is that the time spent with her or him will be worth it. And I’ve always really loved that idea, because it means that you can go anywhere.
30North: The title introduces us to the concept that the characters were promised better lives and new opportunities, though that doesn’t happen exactly how they anticipated. This microcosm of Chinese life, post-Maoism, and the rivalries of wealthy versus poor, or resident vs. ex-patriates, has a layered history unique to China. What was it about this culture that drove you to write this novel?
Lucy: My parents grew up in China, then they moved to the States for graduate school. They settled here. They had me here. I’m very much American. And though I’ve been to China many times, prior to living there in 2010, I didn’t have a relationship to China I felt wasn’t mediated by my parents. Living there was the first time I was making my own observations about the place. And one thing that made me uncomfortable was that I was living in this serviced apartment occupied mostly by Westerners and people employed by foreign companies, such as my dad, yet the staff were very often locals who could not communicate in the same language. These people would ring your doorbell in the morning to come change your sheets, vacuum your floor, wash your dishes, take out the trash, every single day. And that was a really strange experience for me. To have someone service our lifestyle in that way felt very privileged in a way that I wasn’t quite used to. And also, I was fascinated by the idea that these people could be handling your most intimate things: folding your panties, folding your jeans, and throwing out your trash, and cleaning your toilet, and you don’t really speak to them at all. I thought it was very odd.
And as a fiction writer, when you’re interested by something, you imagine it thoroughly, and I was curious about what it would be like to be a housekeeper in that situation. That’s how the character of Sunny came about. And I also met one of the people who worked in the restaurant in the hotel, and we became friends. I interviewed her, and tried to understand what it was like to work in that type of place. She cleaned homes at the hotel we were in, but she had engagements elsewhere as a housekeeper. That was the entrance point for my thinking about wealthy vs. poor in Shanghai, and the displacement happening to local Shanghai citizens, and also people who moved there as migrant workers to try and make a living in the city. I just think China is a place where so much is happening right now, economically, which of course has implications for the people who live there.
30North: Your novel’s filled with romanized Chinese words or phrases that may be unfamiliar to an English speaker, but develop the characters’ relationships. Why was it important to include these phrases?
Lucy: I had a tough time figuring out how to do this, because the Zhen family, the protagonists in my story, come from a culture where both languages are spoken. I thought of how to manage that: one way to do it is to have the entire thing in English; but then, there are just certain words that don’t translate. And I’ve read writing that is directly translated and it just sounds so strange. Really hyperbolic sometimes, and cartoonish other times, because the way that we speak in the Chinese language involves idioms that won’t make sense if translated directly. One way to get around that is to keep the Romanized pinyin, which is the written language that uses a type of phonetic spelling. So you can do that, and italicize it, but what that means is that you’re sort of making foreign a set of words that are not necessarily foreign to the character that’s thinking or saying it, which is also no good.
So what I settled on was this system of essentially not italicizing things, but putting them in pinyin as just part of characters’ everyday speech–but I would sometimes italicize terms that felt more modern, which the characters themselves would pause over because it was a term that was also new to them. A good example I could give is fuerdai, which means rich second generation. That’s a term that didn’t exist twenty years ago. And it’s referring to the way in that China is changing: how there is now a wealthy class and a privileged class, and how they have a specific stereotype.
30North: Could you have told this story centered around any other place in China than Shanghai?
Lucy: That’s a really great question, and I think probably not. But I can’t say for sure, because I don’t know other parts of China as well as I know Shanghai. Beijing is comparable in some ways, but it has a really different history.
30North: The issue of class is apparent in this novel. Why was it important for you to have characters in different class positions?
Lucy: Because that was so integral to what I was interested in, it’s hard to say why that felt important. When you consider China’s history, in the 1960’s, there was this very mandated and forced equality. That’s why this emergence of different classes is interesting in the context of China’s history. It has also just come about so quickly that it presents really interesting conflicts, especially in terms of social rules. For example, in China, asking someone’s salary is not a weird thing. I could have just met you, and ask “Josh, how much are you making driving this cab?”, or “Josh, how much are you making working at this TV station?”, and that would be a very normal thing to ask. There isn’t the issue of posturing, which is what I think happens when you have a longer history of class division. Part of the motivations behind class separation is to differentiate yourself from people you think are less than you. And we’re starting to see a little bit of that in China now, but of course it works very differently in a place where it hasn’t existed for centuries.
30North: Sunny and Lina are both women who don’t want to get married, wanting the freedom to choose their own paths instead. How do the ideas of sacrifice or compromise for marriage/love control women in Chinese and American culture?
Lucy: For women in certain places in China, the idea of not centering your life around marriage and family is unheard of. Sunny is from a place like this.
It’s weird when you think about how the system now functions, where in the cities women are more highly educated with high power jobs. But there is still a parental pressure to conform to the traditional role. For example, if you are a man or a woman, and you are not married, and you are past what they would call the marrying age or your late 20’s, your aunt or your mother might go to people’s square on a Saturday with a stack of flyers advertising your physical characteristics, maybe with a picture, a job, and other positive attributes that you might have. Mom or auntie might pass them around, try and make some connections for you, and this is considered normal. All of your male relatives are kind of looking around, seeing who’s available, looking forward to that day when you might be settled with your family. So there is an intense pressure for that to happen, not just for women, but for men as well. I think there’s more of a variation in terms of what families and cultures expect in the US when compared with China. I’m from the east coast, and I’m thirty years old, and I have two close friends who are married—that’s it.
30North: Sunny is interesting because she is a silent observer. She quickly learns the power of well-kept secrets in the nouveau riche of Shanghai. What is her character intended to say about the conflict between morality and power?
Lucy: I think all of my characters are at a point in their lives where they’re questioning what their values really are. Sunny starts out in this rural town, and she wants to go on to the city, because she thinks that there will be more opportunity, and opportunities to make money, but also so she doesn’t have that societal pressure to marry.
So one of her moral beliefs is that the individual is just as important as community. And she’s going to try to figure out what it means for her to be an individual. The first time she is surrounded by power is at the hotel, when she’s working for wealthy people. And before she works at Lanson Suites, and becomes an ayi to the Zhens, and sees everything up close and personal, she’s aware of this power, but also that she’s powerless within this power structure. So she doesn’t do very much about it except to think “This isn’t right, the way that we’re treated”. Once she steps into that role of an ayi, she thinks more about social mobility, and what that means for her, and what types of power are and aren’t okay for her—by the rules of her own moral beliefs—to succumb to.
One example I can give is that she never tells her employers her Chinese name. She’s always Sunny. She’s asked to give her name, and she doesn’t. So she’s someone who needs to draw this line between home and work life, because in a job like that, where you spend so many hours of the day with this other family, you can lose track of that line. So she thinks of that name, Sunny, as her uniform. The line can become blurred when your employers are giving you their passed-off clothing. What does that feel like, to wear someone’s passed-off designer clothing? And how much do you actually want that clothing? There’s a danger in wanting a lifestyle that it isn’t in your control to have.
30North: In the novel, Lina mentions how moving to the United States helped satisfy her yearning for independence; however, once moving back to China, Lena feels like she has lost a piece of herself. Do you feel this is a struggle taitais often deal with?
Lucy: I can’t speak for all taitais. I’ve known people who come to Shanghai, who love this new lifestyle. They love being part of the city, they love lunching, they love living in a nice place, and when they get re-assigned, when their company moves them to another country, or they have to go back home, they are very sad about it. But I think it’s also really, really common to feel a great sense of alienation, because you are in a place where you might not speak the local language. In Shanghai, there’s this certain kind of lifestyle that’s catered to ex-pats, and as ex-pats, you think “Great! I’m offered the creature comforts that I’m used to back home”, but also, you feel that there’s a kind of scrim between you and what real life in China is like. I definitely felt that living there. So you might always feel like a stranger, and I’m sure taitais have to deal with that all the time. And I’m sure there are women, and men, who have had lives and careers back in the States who now are in China and don’t feel productive in the way that they used to feel, and they have to find activities to fill their time. They essentially have to re-imagine their identities to fit the environment.
30North: Can you tell us about any new writing projects you’re working on?
Lucy: I’m working on a novel right now. It’s my second novel. It’s set in Wisconsin. It’s about three young women who grow up wanting to be actresses. So it’s very different, but I’m having a lot of fun with it. And I’m hoping–knock on wood–that it becomes…a book. A published book, and not just a book in my head.