Cecily Wong, KALEIDOSCOPE: A Novel

Cecily Wong, KALEIDOSCOPE: A Novel

Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling author Cecily Wong to discuss Kaleidoscope, a beautifully-crafted and expertly fragmented novel about sisterhood, ambition, travel, and grief. Cecily talks about her characters’ experiences with reinvention, the power of an unexpected twist, and her stunning book cover. She also reveals her favorite books, her unorthodox journey to becoming an author, and what it’s been like to write with an 18-month-old baby.


Zibby Owens: Hi, Cecily. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful novel, Kaleidoscope.

Cecily Wong: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: You are a beautiful, beautiful writer. I love your style of writing. Some of the sentences, I was just looking at over and over. They’re not overly flowery, but the way you use words and these concise things that just burst on images into my brain, it’s really awesome.

Cecily: Wow. I love the brain image bursts. That is what I live for.

Zibby: I don’t know why I get so much joy at a new sentence that does something different with not that many words, even this sentence that you wrote. You said, “I woke to the day I’d emptied, sat up in bed, and let time shake out in front of me.” What a great sentence. That’s just a great sentence.

Cecily: Thanks for saying that because I had a couple of fights over that sentence with my team. They’re like, “Is this working?” I was like, “I don’t know. I think it is.” We ended up keeping it.

Zibby: Oh, my god, I love it.

Cecily: two different iterations. Thanks. I’m glad that there’s a fan of that sentence that’s not just me.

Zibby: I am a total fan of that sentence, yes. Now that I’ve talked about your writing, which I love, can you tell listeners a little more about what Kaleidoscope is about?

Cecily: Kaleidoscope, it follows the family called the Brighton family. They’re a biracial Chinese American family that begins their life pretty humbly in Oregon. They run the town’s first organic grocery store. As that blows up, they start traveling. They go on these package tours that take them to Asia. Eventually, they end up in India where they sparked this idea for a business that they call Kaleidoscope. It’s a business that sources luxury goods from around the world, mostly from Asia and India. It’s clothing. It’s furniture. It’s jewelry. It’s this faux bohemian lifestyle store. It blows up. It takes them to New York. They find all this success. Essentially, the novel follows the two sisters in the family — they grew up super, super close — and how they contend with the shifting landscape of their family as they find success with this store and it takes them places. They’re super different. There’s Morgan, who’s the older sister. She’s the beautiful one. She’s fashion-y. She’s the designer. Then there’s Riley. Riley is the younger sister. She’s brainier and kind of snarky. She kind of doesn’t believe in what the family’s doing with Kaleidoscope. It follows that dynamic. There’s also an accident about halfway through that turns the family on its head. It follows them through their shifting relationships with each other, with the world, with their ambition. There’s a lot of travel along the way.

Zibby: It’s true. The second half was all — I was like, where am I going next? This is great. Where’s she going to take me? I haven’t been to Mumbai. I haven’t been to a lot of these places. Thank you for that.

Cecily: My favorite kind of books are always the ones where you get to see the inside. It doesn’t even have to be a country you haven’t been to, but just a strange peek into a place that you’re not familiar with. You get to do it through reading. That’s the joy of books.

Zibby: Totally. Also, being a part of somebody else’s relationship. I feel like you not only crafted such strong relationships between the girls, but also with James. I found myself really rooting for him as he vied for anyone’s attention for a long time.

Cecily: Poor James.

Zibby: Poor James, this image of him looking at himself in the mall or wherever you had him with his overly washed or something — what did you say about the T-shirt?

Cecily: It’s warped from the dryer.

Zibby: Yes, warped from the dryer.

Cecily: We all know that T-shirt.

Zibby: And getting contacts and all of that and then with his horn-rimmed glasses later. It’s just like, come on. He just can’t get it right.

Cecily: I know. It’s true. That was part of it. The book goes from small-town Oregon to New York. It was a trajectory that I took as well. There’s all these transformations that come, obviously emotionally, but also physically when you’re leaving a place like small-town Oregon and ending up in Manhattan. James and Riley kind of became my vehicle — Morgan, even — for what that could look like.

Zibby: You had this one passage. It really stuck with me. When James sees Riley for the first time in a while, she’s like, everyone should know this isn’t what he’s really like. Then she’s like, that’s the whole point of being able to move to a new city and reinvent yourself. Maybe that wasn’t the most authentic to him anyway. Maybe this is his opportunity for reinvention. Maybe it’s mine too.

Cecily: Absolutely. You’re just trying stuff out. This was kind of a collision, for them at least, of college and moving to a big city, and so they got double reinvention power. During that scene that you’re talking about, they’re both simultaneously trying to reinvent themselves. Yet they know each other from high school, and so they know what that former self used to be. That’s always a little jarring, when you meet someone from your past a number of years later. You feel like you’re a different person. All of a sudden, just their presence in the room kind of reflects back to you, this old person who you forgot that you once were.

Zibby: Totally. There was a guy I went to high school with who went by Jamie. Now he goes by James. I’m like, “I will not call you James.”

Cecily: I feel like that might be your right. It’s always hard to relearn the names when they’ve been stuck in your brain as a certain way.

Zibby: This friend of mine from college, too, Danny Goldman, who is running for congress, actually, and now he’s like, “Dan Goldman, running for –” I was like, “You are Danny to me. I am going to post about Danny. I am not going to call you Dan, ever.” In people’s quest to reinvent, they drag along some of the old-timers who might be more resistant to it.

Cecily: We’re the ones messing it up.

Zibby: You also do a nice job of giving us these little glimpses into the mom’s point of view. You jump around a little bit with whose perspective we’re taking. Even the one towards the end with how she’s feeling about some of the things that I won’t give away but that have transpired in the family, which are horrific, even just little glimpses of what it means to be her in those moments, too, were really eye-opening.

Cecily: Thanks. It was a book-long journey for me to find empathy for the character of the mom. I needed to find some closure by the end. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to find it until those last scenes. Actually, I didn’t want to write them because how do you find closure with characters who are difficult like that and are behaving badly? It took until the end. It took the whole five years for me to understand the mother in this story. Isn’t that the way with mothers in general? I think that that is kind of apt to real life as well.

Zibby: I was not expecting the last twist of information, so that’s always good. I feel like I might be the most gullible reader on the planet. Even our publishing team, they’re like, “I have a really hard time suspending disbelief, so I didn’t follow this.” I was like, “Really? I don’t.”

Cecily: I bought in immediately.

Zibby: I did. I didn’t question a thing.

Cecily: I love it. I’ve tried to stop guessing twists. My favorite books are when there is a huge twist, but there’s no hype around the twist. You don’t go into it looking for it. Then you just get floored.

Zibby: Yes, true. That happened at the end of — did you read Hurricane Girl by Marcy Dermansky by any chance?

Cecily: Not yet, but it is on my list.

Zibby: I didn’t know that anything — now I’ve probably ruined it for you, but that there was this big, surprising ending that I had not expected at all. Nobody warned me that it was there, and so it made it all the more powerful. Now I’ve warned other people.

Cecily: I’ll erase this immediately.

Zibby: It’s still really good. What books are some of your favorites, while we’re talking about other books?

Cecily: I always say that my first author crush was Jhumpa Lahiri. I love her stories. She was the first author that I read for language. I grew up in a restaurant family. I read all sorts of popular fiction because anything that was available at Costco while we were shopping is what I could buy. I grew up with Costco fiction. I read a lot of Amy Tan. I read a lot of Chinese family sagas, which was what my first book was. Then I came to Jhumpa Lahiri and started falling in love with the language. I love Jennifer Egan. I love Mohsin Hamid, Exit West and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. I love Elena Ferrante.

Zibby: More skewing literary.

Cecily: Yeah. I first fell in love with the stories, and then I fell in love with the language. I’m always interested in how to mesh the two so that you have something that’s highly readable and yet you do stop at the sentence level. That’s what blew me away about just the act of writing novels in general when I was coming to it early on.

Zibby: I feel, again, that you really executed well on the language piece and the story.

Cecily: Thank you. I appreciate that. Thank you for the love on that summer round-up for Good Morning America. That was so kind and such a nice surprise.

Zibby: Well-deserved. By the way, I was not alone. I was researching to see what happened with the book afterwards. You’re a best book of Apple and BuzzFeed and all sorts of places. I’m glad I have such good taste.

Cecily: I appreciate it so much.

Zibby: Tell me about this cover. I feel like the cover could’ve gone in so many different directions for the story.

Cecily: I think they nailed the cover. This is my favorite cover I’ve ever had. They did it on the first try, which is really pretty miraculous. Basically, I only had one request, which is that I didn’t want a human on it. I didn’t want a woman on it. They took that to heart. My editor, from the get-go, she said she had a designer in mind, who is this Vietnamese American woman who’s really cool. She was like, “I think she’s really going to get this book.” She did. She just made this. It was pretty amazing. We all just saw this cover and said, “This is it.” She made twelve iterations, but this was front and center. It’s clearly the one that she wanted. It was the one that we all wanted. As you do, we still asked for a few tweaks. We were like, maybe it could be better if we did this. We just ended up with the original. She nailed it with the feeling of escapism and taking off and leaving the New York cityscape behind. There’s this feeling of motion and heat that comes off of this cover. I think she did an amazing job. I think covers are so hard.

Zibby: Yes. I love this hint of fabric at the bottom, the pattern.

Cecily: We messed with that fabric too. I was like, maybe we could get a better fabric. We couldn’t.

Zibby: It’s great. I love all the colors and this whole — having the Kaleidoscope stores themselves to play with is so fun. In any of the marketing, did you do anything with — I was looking at your tour pictures earlier — anything with some of the bazaar-like environment of the store or recreating the store or having an event in a similar-type store or anything like that?

Cecily: You know, that’s a great idea. I wish we would’ve thought about that, actually. There might still be time. We did think about making an item from the store to give away with books. Then it got kind of tricky because there’s this whole aspect that the family’s wrestling with cultural commodification and whether or not what they’re doing is cool. To package an item and send a, maybe, piece of cultural commodification in the mail, we were like, I don’t know. Maybe this is dicey.

Zibby: You’re right.

Cecily: We did not go that way, but we did think about it. I think that a lot of the stuff that they would sell at Kaleidoscope would really cool.

Zibby: Me too. I would want to go there.

Cecily: I know. I still think that I would want to go there despite any of the issues raised.

Zibby: I know. I feel bad, but still. Tell me about getting into writing to begin with and how that happened for you.

Cecily: I came to this sideways. This was never quite the intention. I don’t think I understood that you could be a writer of books as a profession for a really long time, not until pretty much my last year of college. I was an Italian major, which was completely unorthodox. Basically, I needed to finish — I transferred to Barnard in New York when I was a sophomore. I’d taken a year off and gone to Italy to live for a year. I needed to finish this degree in three years. I promised my parents. Italian was the way forward. I was smitten with the language and the culture, and so I started doing that. Then there was this writing teacher at Barnard named Mary Gordon who ran this really amazing workshop, but you had to apply. It was pretty rigorous. I was interested. I’ve always been kind of interested in writing. She rejected me. She kept rejecting me. I became kind of determined to get into this class. Then I realized that, actually, over at Columbia across the street, you didn’t have to apply to get into the creative writing classes, and so I took one there. I wrote a short story that eventually got me into Mary’s class. I started working on this story that was essentially about my mother growing up as a kid in Hawaii in the 1960s. I just started writing this story in Mary’s class until I had about fifty pages when I graduated. I had fifty pages of, maybe, a novel and then an Italian degree and no job prospects whatsoever.

It ended up winning this award. Mary said to me, “I think you have a novel. If you can do it, I think you should try.” It was the first time it struck me that maybe I could try and do this, and so I did. I just chased it for another three years. I did it. I learned to write this way. I was completely outside of the world of publishing and writing programs. I had no idea what an MFA was at all to the point where a month before my first novel came out in 2015, I realized I didn’t know a single other writer, not one. Just Mary Gordon. I called her. I was like, “Mary, I need a friend. You must have a friend for me. Everyone comes through you. Similar age, first book out, you got anything?” She was like, “Yeah, I do.” She set me up on a friend date. Threw out a name, Julia Pierpont. We’re in a writing group together. That became my entry point into understanding the world of writing. Then I started learning things. I came to it very, very and working in a vacuum, which was an interesting way to write a novel and, I think, kind of a good and pure way, but also, I had no idea what I was doing.

Zibby: No one really has any idea what they’re doing.

Cecily: Honestly, it does, it remains true.

Zibby: Do you live in New York still?

Cecily: No. I’ve been in Portland, Oregon, for almost two years but was in Brooklyn and then Upper West Side for fourteen. Went for school, and just stayed. I married a New Yorker as well, but he wanted to come to Portland.

Zibby: There were so many specific places mentioned. When you were like, 81st and Central Park West, or now we’re on — I’m in New York now. I feel like I could bop around and hit most of these spots.

Cecily: New York was such a big part of my coming-of-age, my finding myself, as it is for these characters. It is kind of cliché to do a find-yourself-in-New York book, but I feel like each generation has something new to say about why you come to the city, what it means to you, and what you do with it.

Zibby: This didn’t come across as a cliché find-yourself-in-New York book. Although, I can’t even think of a cliché find-yourself-in-New York book off the top of my head.

Cecily: I like them all. They are for me.

Zibby: I like them too. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Cecily: I always like to say that there is so much value in the work that you throw away. Every project that I’ve done, every book, every idea has had just dozens and dozens of pages that don’t make it to the final manuscript or no one ever reads. It can be really frustrating, especially when you’re first starting out. Honestly, no, even now, it’s super frustrating. Those pages that you throw away always inform the story in this way that’s magic because you don’t see it. It’s all happening off stage. It makes your writing and your book kind of muscular in the way that you know your characters, you know your story. You don’t share it all. That’s one thing. I get that question a lot about throwing things away and all these things that never make it. I think there’s huge value in it.

Zibby: Any tips on balancing being a parent of a young child with trying to be super creative and turning it on when you need it on?

Cecily: Man, this is such a learning curve for me. I have an eighteen-month-old now. She is my first. Every day is a new day. I feel like I’m learning that myself in real time. When she was little-little, she used to sleep on a pillow in my lap, and I would write. I was like, this is pretty good. Now it’s like, no, this is never going to happen. There definitely has to be a separation of, she’s with someone else while I’m turning my brain on. No, I’m an absolute amateur. Do you have any tips for me?

Zibby: I don’t know. I wish. I waited a while. My kids are little older now. They’re seven and nine. My twins are fifteen. I could barely get anything done aside from keep up on emails. I felt like I was so busy back then. Now in retrospect, I’m like, what was I so busy doing back then that I was so stressed out about my emails all the time? I don’t even know what I was doing. I always feel really busy.

Cecily: Well, you are.

Zibby: I know, but I seem to maintain my level of busyness no matter how much content there actually is. It almost doesn’t matter.

Cecily: Just a baseline of chaos.

Zibby: I will say, though, even now — I’m trying to write my first novel that’s actually sold. I’m trying to finish it.

Cecily: Oh, cool.

Zibby: I’m having a hard time doing that with the kids around. I need quiet and time. Those things are in short supply.

Cecily: It’s a whole new game. It’s really hard to have a sustained thought that you need when you’re . I feel like during the discovery phase when you’re just coming up with ideas, maybe you can do that with a kid nearby. When you’re trying to smooth things out or follow threads or look for cohesion in a longer work, I can’t imagine figuring out how to do that with a kid around.

Zibby: Maybe it’ll end up that the way I write is better for people who also have kids around while they’re reading because it’s going to be these little, short bursts of little seeds.

Cecily: Half-page chapters.

Zibby: Exactly. Totally. Cecily, thank you so much for coming on. This has been so fun. I have so much respect for you and your work. I’m really excited to follow your career and see what you write next despite obstacles in your midst, which are also gifts.

Cecily: Thank you so much. It was really nice to chat with you. Have a great week. Looking forward to your novel.

Zibby: Thanks. Bye.

KALEIDOSCOPE: A Novel by Cecily Wong

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