Guest host Julie Chavez interviews debut author Elysha Chang about A Quitter’s Paradise, a darkly humorous and compulsively readable book (and the first one from Sarah Jessica Parker’s SJP Lit!) about a young woman who tries to ignore her mother’s death even as unearthed family secrets become increasingly inextricable from her own. Elysha talks about her job teaching creative writing to university students, her frustrations with her own protagonist and book (it took her six years to write!), and the story behind her incredible book title.


Julie Chavez: Elysha, I am so happy to talk to you today. Welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Elysha Chang: Thank you for having me.

Julie: I am so thrilled. Where are you in your whole publication run-up with interviews and all the things? Have you been doing a bunch yet?

Elysha: Not a lot, but it’s definitely been ramping up. The book comes out June 6th. Launch is the 7th and also the 15th. Things are really ramping up. I’m saying a lot of things about the book for the first time or things that I hadn’t thought of before, which is kind of fun. It’s a pleasure to relive the book for now.

Julie: So true, early days. I’m sure it gets to a point where you’re like, I’ve said this literally one million times. I prefer not to again. That makes sense. You answered my first question. What’s wonderful in this moment? You’re prepping for your debut. We are about ten days out when we’re recording this. What feels really great for you right now? What are you loving about it?

Elysha: Just hearing that people have read it. You telling me that you’ve just finished reading it. Having the opportunity to answer questions about it so far has been just surreal. That’s good and bad. It feels very vulnerable, of course. It’s really nice to be able to clarify things about it or rethink things about it that I wrote some time ago. That’s been fun.

Julie: Interesting. I didn’t even think about that. You kind of forget about pieces of it. Then people are bringing you back, and especially since readers catch and things resonate with them that you wouldn’t always expect.

Elysha: Exactly. Some lines have certainly been quoted to me that I’m trying to remember who they’re attributed to. The line looks familiar. I remember it, but which character said it? In what context? It’s just fun.

Julie: I’m so glad. What’s been the toughest about it so far? Is it the vulnerability that you mentioned?

Elysha: I think it’s hard to come up with the exact or precise answer for the book or for some interpretation of the book. People will send me interview questions or ask me questions. I can think of five, ten different answers that I think are all correct and that feel really real to me. It depends on the day. Of course, that’s why I wrote the book. If I knew the answer to the question, I wouldn’t have had to write a book about it. That’s been tough. It’s been hard to even answer the question, what is the book about? This is a flabbergasting question to me.

Julie: I wouldn’t even start to tell anyone what this book is about. I don’t know. I finished it. I’ve read the whole thing.

Elysha: That’s what I should say. I should say I don’t know.

Julie: I don’t know. Next question. I think that’ll really get you far with any interviewer. You know what’s so funny about that? That is probably my least-favorite question. I’m an elementary librarian. The kids ask me all the time, what’s this book about? I’m like, I can’t tell you that. Also, even if I’ve read it, it might be about something to me that it’s not about to you. It feels like such a huge question to try and drill down. I can see how especially for this book, which I was blown away by — I know I mentioned when we first hopped on, I was so impressed. Yes, I would struggle to say, what is this book about? The book we’re talking about — I haven’t even mentioned the title. That shows you what a great job I’m doing. A Quitter’s Paradise, which is an amazing title. We’ll come back to that. The thing I wrote down when I was taking notes afterward is that this is a book that will draw readers in, but it also draws readers out. What I mean by that is it makes you think. When I was reading it, I kept thinking, I’m drawing things out of myself that I haven’t seen before because I’m asking myself different questions. I loved it. It was so well-done. Your language is gorgeous. I have so many things to pick your brain about. I can see how people would quote lines to you because I wrote down a bunch. I was reading today. You had in there, “How does a dream work?” I just thought, oh, my gosh, you could write an entire book. That’s the title of a new book. It’s a deeply felt and written story. I don’t know if that fully captures it. I’m even struggling to find the words because it’s just so rich. Tell me a little bit, for you, what was the experience of writing it like? Maybe not, what is the book about? What was the motivation for, “This is the story I want to tell”?

Elysha: That’s a good question. I started writing the character or I started, at first, just trying to write in a voice that I think was really me trying to separate my voice from all the voices that I hear, all the influences and also assumptions and expectations. I started writing this book in my twenties, so I think that was just very loud. It’s a period of time when things are really saturated. You are a little oversaturated. Initially, the first character we meet, Eleanor Liu, really was born out of that, born out of looking for a particular voice that I also wanted to spend time with, that could sustain me working on a project for however many years that ultimately became. For me, one of the things that really made me want to write and keep writing was just keeping myself surprised by what I could produce. That was certainly in the voice. Went from there.

Julie: Interesting. You are a teacher of writing, correct? Or professor? Are you a professor?

Elysha: Yes. I’ve taught creative writing at a couple universities.

Julie: Universities, yes. Among them, Villanova, which I’ve heard of.

Elysha: Yes, Villanova and Penn. I was living in Philadelphia for a while.

Julie: Wow, perfect. You are a teacher or an instructor, a professor of creative writing. Now that you’ve gone through this process and seen the beginnings, where do you think the place to begin is for most writers? Is it with the voice or with the character? Where do you counsel your students to go?

Elysha: I don’t counsel them that way. Every person comes to writing for very different reasons, first of all, and then with, also, really very different strengths, very different projects. If I were talking to students, I would probably tell them to just focus on what makes them feel like they’re taking the most risks on the page, feel like they’re doing something really worth writing and kind of dangerous. There’s not that much to lose. You’re just at the page, so might as well go crazy.

Julie: Is that something that you ask yourself or that you focus on, taking risks as you write?

Elysha: Yes, I think so. I don’t know if I’m thinking about it that way when I’m in the process of writing. I think more that I’ll write something and then say, I’ve read or written this already. It’s a lot of trial and error for me, which I do not recommend as a method of writing. It’s very slow and inefficient. A lot of it is just writing and thinking, is this me telling the character to do something, or did the character really do this and I’m translating? If I’m controlling it and telling them to do this, it always kind of falls flat. It’s hard to find what that thing is that they do that I’m writing and yet also surprises me.

Julie: Interesting. This is amazing to me because I am somewhere risk-averse just in general. That’s sort of my personality. Hearing you talk about it, you’re right, though. You have to embrace risk to get novelty. There are so many things that have been written, been expressed, and so you are pushing past that. I’m going to be thinking about that when I’m not taking risks and I’m writing literally the same thing I’ve written over and over again. I’ll think of you.

Elysha: We have a lot of those pages. I have plenty of those pages.

Julie: This goes into what I wanted to ask you too. This book, you do such an effective job with the white space, with your page breaks and with the way that the book is even typeset. It really gives the reader enough space to think about whatever the book is leading them to think about. Was that an intentional choice for you? You also do a really good job of placing the white space, if that makes sense. Sometimes there are books with a lot of white space, but it’s not necessarily intentional. Yours feels very much intentional. Is that something that happens later on in the process for you? Do you know when you’re writing, “Oh, that’s where a break needs to go”?

Elysha: I think a lot of it happened while I was writing because there is these shifting perspectives and shifting timeframes. I did spend a lot of thought on the ordering, obviously, and then also where things would be broken and where we should take a breath away from a certain character and move somewhere else or a breath away from a certain really charged moment. Certainly, there was also editing after the fact, especially once you see it in galley form or in the PDF form where it’s laid out on the pages. It’s like, that’s an insanely long paragraph that I didn’t see in the Word document. I have to reassess.

Julie: You’re exactly right. To see it actually typeset really does change the energy of it.

Elysha: Definitely, which I was surprised by. It just lets you see it anew.

Julie: That’s a really interesting point. I had never thought about books being typeset before just learning more about publishing. It is the details and the way in which it impacts the reading experience. It’s just incredible. I love those little random details. I already said that word. Again, with the novelty and risk. Gosh, I’m going to go buy myself a thesaurus.

Elysha: The editor and publisher and the production team do so much work on that front. To lay out every page, I can’t even imagine.

Julie: I know. It does sound like my nightmare a little bit. I’d probably quit about thirty pages in. I’m done. I’m really bored with this. I got to be done. I want to talk a little bit about Eleanor, the first character we meet. Would you call her the main character in this book?

Elysha: I don’t know. I’m undecided. We talk about her a lot. She starts the book. She ends the book. It’s her first-person POV. I do think it’s a book about the family. I really do believe that.

Julie: That’s an interesting one. Eleanor is someone, for me, who feels like makes questionable choices.

Elysha: At least.

Julie: I’m trying to put it delicately. I never want to give too much away. I would read the book and put it down occasionally and be like, okay, what is she going to do here? It’s interesting to hear you talk about writing and being sure that she was doing what you believed would be true to her character as opposed to what you were putting her on, like a little marionette. Did you start out with a vision of the bookends of the book, like where you would start and end? Did you just jump in and see where it took you?

Elysha: Definitely, the latter. For me, the process of writing the whole book and also specifically, her voice felt very much like a pursuit. There was a lot of information that I felt I couldn’t access or was somehow being actively withheld from me. I think it’s because that ultimately became her character. She’s very elusive. She’s a really slippery person, very evasive, and really smart about doing it. I think she can keep pretty much everyone in her life at arm’s length. If that’s the case, it made it difficult for me to just lay out plain what she thought or felt because that was not true to her character. That took a lot of moving around. That’s sort of how the family narratives — that’s what they were born out of, was initially looking for more access, basically, into this character’s motivations.

Julie: I’m not assuming that you make the sorts of choices that Eleanor would. I feel like she’s so evasive. Are you an evasive person?

Elysha: Hard-hitting journalism here.

Julie: I’ll tell you, for me, it’s so uncomfortable to read about her because I am not that way. I think about those parts of myself that stay hidden. Also, for me to say I’m not that way, well, I’m saying that, but am I really? Is it just that I choose what I’m showing? You know what I’m saying?

Elysha: I do. One of the things about Eleanor is that I think she’s unclear on what her own personality is like and that she’s even doing this. I think that part of it is uncomfortable to watch her do these things or engage in these patterns over and over again that we certainly see and I think other characters see but that she’s just not able to understand.

Julie: Did that ever create discomfort for you when you were writing it? Are you neutral with her or with the writing of the character?

Elysha: In what context?

Julie: Just her evasiveness. Is there ever a tension there for you as the writer?

Elysha: Yeah, I was really frustrated. She’s a very frustrating person. I think frustrated on her behalf. Not on her behalf. Probably, on other people’s behalf in the book. I think part of that is if she were my friend, I would’ve treated, obviously, the relationship differently than if she were someone I invented. She was pretty frustrating. For me, the book was frustrating for a lot of years. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. I think that was a big part of it, was that she was really hard to nail down.

Julie: What were the other parts? How many years was this that you were working on it?

Elysha: I was probably writing it for — let me think. Maybe six or seven years.

Julie: Way to go. I’m impressed.

Elysha: Are you?

Julie: I am, as someone who gives up after thirty seconds on things. I’m like, this is never going to work.

Elysha: Then there were many years, also, of editing with my agent, with my editor, and obviously, waiting until publication. I think the writing and many breaks in between, of course, it was about six, seven years.

Julie: Wow, amazing. I love hearing about that because this is a crafted novel. Like I’ve said, it’s so impressive. I feel like you are a writer’s writer in a lot of ways because you leave so much room in the narrative. It sounds like because you have taken time, not only literal time, but just time and intention and depth to really think about what is on the page, I think it really shines through. I really enjoyed reading it. I found myself so invested in all of the characters, but especially with Eleanor, mostly because — this is what I mean about drawing people out. I’m like, gosh, this really shows how controlling I am. I want to control her. Can you lock it up for me? You’re stressing me out.

Elysha: It’s a stressful read.

Julie: Please use that as a pull-quote somewhere, someone. It’ll be great. It was so enjoyable. That’s what I mean. This is a thinking person’s book. Yet you could also very much just read it for the beautiful language or some of the things you put in there. It was early on in the book, but you said, “How could they go about chatting and laughing when they could lose someone they loved at any moment?” Sentiments like that, this book is packed with really perfect sentences. It was a joy to read it. I’m so glad that it’s going to be out in the world. I can see it resonating with so many people. I wanted to ask you a couple more questions about the science aspect. Are you a science person? They’re in the world of science and research. How was that the setting?

Elysha: I would consider myself interested in scientific research. When I was younger, I attempted an undergrad degree in neuroscience and immediately discovered that I was not suited for that line of study, which was good.

Julie: Understood. Great.

Elysha: It’s good to know early.

Julie: More information.

Elysha: Even knowing that about myself early on, it allowed me to find a space that I was interested in not from a work perspective or something that I would be so invested in, but really just out of pleasure. I could read whatever research papers I could understand, even, at will. I could read pop science books. I had friends who were able to major in neuroscience and who have been very good friends of mine who have helped me really to engage in all the research of this book, who are doctors of science now. Without them, I don’t think there’s any way I could’ve written those sections. There’s so much that I was allowed to see in labs and ask and re-ask of friends that I could not do with a stranger. Probably should not have with friends, but .

Julie: That’s just what they get. That’s just the privilege of loving you and being your friend. They’re fine. You did a really good job with it because I was immediately transported. I took a lot of premed classes in college. All of them, of course, had labs. The university I went to had a large research budget. Remembering some of the ins and outs, labs are just a very singular place. The way that people are there and their rhythms feel almost removed from the real world in so many ways, especially as it relates to the research. It really makes for a perfect setting for that reason, I thought.

Elysha: Just coming into, honestly, any workplace as an outsider where you have no understanding or expectation is really exciting because it’s just so taken for granted there. People are just going along with what they know and what they’ve been doing. It is very strange to an outsider. It’s fun to observe and take down all these details. I agree. It’s a very particular place.

Julie: What you were just saying now, that’s so analogous to seeing into someone else’s family. I know that’s something, as you get older, especially if you are in a relationship with someone and you are seeing their family dynamics or whatever — that’s how they grew up. That’s normal to them. Then you come in and are like, this is super weird. What are you doing? That same idea where, you’re exactly right, there are so many things that we take for granted as normal, typical, just the course of every day, whether it’s work or the way that we run our lives, and so to really come in with an outsider’s eye and a writer’s eye, you just catch so much detail.

Elysha: Right, absolutely. It’s like being a spy.

Julie: Yes. I always did think I’d want to be in the CIA, but it didn’t work out. I think I’d talk too much. I don’t think it’s for me, unfortunately. Looping back around to the teaching, since you have established that you don’t tell them exactly what to do — I would be a far more controlling and probably ineffective teacher as a result. What is your favorite part of it? Especially now that your book’s about to come out, what’s the best part of what you have to offer and what you love to offer budding writers?

Elysha: That’s a really good question. I think a lot of writers, young writers especially in undergrad — I was like this too. I think they’re really looking for a guidebook or very set instructions or foolproof advice. I do try to give some of that just because I know how unsteady the world is at that time. I remember. Sometimes you do just want someone to say, you should read this book. Here, this is a great book for you. You should definitely read it and think about it. Just something concrete. Also, helping them make space for the fact that that’s part of the gig. Part of the gig is that it’s very uncertain. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of exploration outward, exploration inward. All of that stuff, no one else can tell you how to do. I really like being there for a student’s journey through that or part of that. I just remember really wanting more guidance when I was younger. I think a writing class is always such an amazing place to get that because it so dovetails not just with your writing craft, but also with your life. I really like that part of it.

Julie: That’s such a beautiful way to see it. It is, it’s such a tricky time when you’re that age. There’s so much exploration that’s happening. Also, you’re inundated by possibility. For someone to say, “Just hold onto that for a while until you figure out the next step,” you’re right, that is a gift for them. I’m glad that you’re able to provide that and be part of their journey. That is beautiful.

Elysha: It’s really fun.

Julie: I’m so glad. I know I mentioned it earlier, but before we go, I do want to hear real quick, the title, did you decide on that? Was it decided before?

Elysha: I did.

Julie: So it didn’t change?

Elysha: No, I decided on that pretty early in the writing process. It’s funny. A lot of writing, at least for me, works like this. You start out thinking, I like the way that sounds. I’m going to keep it around for a little. I’m not sure what it means. I had already written about half the book, so I knew it had to do with the book. I just felt really strongly that this was the title, but I could not have said why. I could not really have told you a particular reason. When I finished the book and asked myself, “Is this title real? Is it just a placeholder? Should I come up with other titles?” I looked at it again and understood that it fit quite well and applied to a lot of the characters. We have characters who are ambitious and are striving and persevering. It’s sort of a reminder that for every opportunity there is to strive, whether it’s at work or in a country, anywhere, there are plenty of opportunities to just not do that. You could always just quit. Anytime we talk about a place that’s a paradise where people are working hard, it means plenty of people have also decided not to, in whatever capacity that means. It does encapsulate a lot of the characters’ complexities for me.

Julie: Also, when I got partially into the book and when that line pops up, I thought, I want to go to the quitter’s paradise. Maybe we could make an amusement park, The Quitter’s Paradise. Somebody else would have to build it because I just can be an attendee. I can’t be the striver that builds The Quitter’s Paradise, but I will frequent it. My goodness, I have loved hearing your thoughtful answers to these things. I think it is wonderful that you have more than one. That’s right. I think it’s so true to this book. It feels like it’s true to you too. I think that’s a gift. I can’t wait for people to read this book. One more plug. I feel like this would be a great book for a book club to read. It’s elevated fiction in terms of its prose and its construction. I think there would be so many good conversations to have about it. I can’t wait for someone else to read it so that I can hold them as my conversational hostage and have them discuss it with me. It’s going to be a pleasure. I won’t have friends after this either, so it’s good. Yours will leave you for asking them questions about their labs.

Elysha: Too many questions.

Julie: Mine will be like, I’m not talking about books with you anymore, Julie. Geez.

Elysha: Oh, god.

Julie: Thank you for this time. Thank you for all of the thoughts. I can’t wait to see this book in the world.

Elysha: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to be here.

Julie: A pleasure to have you.


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