Zibby speaks to creative writing professor and author Jane Wong about Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, an incandescent, blazing memoir that she describes as a lovesong to her mother and to growing up in a low income, working-class Chinese American immigrant family. Jane talks about her family’s immigration story and fractured American Dream; her father’s gambling addiction; her beautiful, lyrical writing style (she’s a poet!); and her recent trip to Atlantic City–a powerful, emotional return. She also describes her writing process and her recent book tour, from Seattle to New York City’s Chinatown, with her mother by her side.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jane. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City.

Jane Wong: Thanks, Zibby. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: Can you tell listeners a little bit about your memoir and even why you decided to write a memoir to begin with?

Jane: That’s a great question, goodness. I’m a poet in my deepest heart, I suppose, and so writing memoir was pretty scary for me, moving into nonfiction because you can’t hide behind a metaphor. The book began as kind of an extension of my poems, a little bit of the stories that are hidden within them and really fleshed out and given more breath, given more space to roam. How I would try to describe what the memoir is, is a bit of a love song to my mother, for sure, but also what it means to grow up low income, working-class Chinese American immigrant baby and trying to make do with what you have. Certainly, the story starts with my father’s gambling addiction and the time he spent in Atlantic City. I just spent time in Atlantic City this past week. It was my first time going back in over twenty years. It was really emotional. What happens to our family as a result of, really, this desire to make something of someone’s life, the American dream, all of that coming crashing down and rebuilding and resilience and what happens to adult me too — I definitely didn’t want this to be a book that was just situated in a very specific moment in time, but rather thinking about the past, the present, and the future. I do take some risks in memoir, such as creating a character who kind of exists in the future space. Her name is Wongmom.com. There’s a lot in this book. At its central core, really, truly, it’s a love song to my mom, which everything is that I write.

Zibby: You really write in such a gripping way. It’s no surprise that you’re a poet because the way that you write each sentence, even, is just so beautiful. The construction of them, it’s all clearly very thought out. It was great. I read a lot of memoir. This was particularly, on a sentence level, just so done. I can’t even make a sentence today, so there you go, as a contrast. What stuck me right away is you as a young girl just so sad, really, and watching your mom and trying to understand that what is happening is perhaps not what is supposed to be happening. You’re not supposed to have your dad go for benders for days on end and have your mom be on the beach with you and being like, I don’t know where he is, having to pull him out, and then him just disappearing, basically, from your life for so long and having to come to terms with that. You obviously go into your feelings, but it’s not something that can be just put aside lightly, which is probably why you’re still revisiting it now and all of that. Tell me a little bit about the lingering effect of even your dad’s relationship. I know it’s a love letter to your mom, but by contrast.

Jane: It’s really interesting in thinking about my mother as my everything in my life. I just recently spent a lot of time at home. I’m back in Seattle now. To be in her garden space and to see all those vegetables thriving and growing and what we can make out of something that was so difficult — she was arranged to marry my father. He was a stranger to her. It was kind of her ticket out of the rural countryside in China and out of poverty, really. When she came to this country, my father was this figure of potential hope. What occurred, obviously, was estrangement and a lot of other really difficult things that she tried to shield me from as a young child. I think my father becomes this character because in many ways, I don’t know him. I haven’t had him in my life since I was a small child. What was really difficult in writing the memoir was to be honest and true and real about the damage that he’s done to our family and what estrangement means to a small child but also to an entire family unit. In terms of my own relationships later in life, there’s a stream of terrible ex-boyfriends in this memoir. I was so worried about people being like, oh, she has daddy issues, which is so messed up in terms of being such a gendered idea in thinking about familial trauma. I actually write about it directly because I was so afraid people were going to just dismiss me as that when in fact, it’s so much more complicated than that.

I think that my father becomes this almost larger-than-life character because he isn’t in my life. Again, the hardest thing was to be true and real about the domino effect of what happened when he left our family but also create a lot of empathy for him, and a lot of forgiveness and a lot of care. At the end of the opening chapter, I do imagine strolling with him on the boardwalk when he’s in his nineties and hoping for that reconciliation. That’s what I can do, even though he’s not in my life, as a daughter. I still hold a lot of affection for him and care and hope for him in what life he’s had for himself. It’s an emotional ride. I will tell you that this memoir was incredibly vulnerable to write. I thought to myself, if I’m going to do this, I might as well give all of myself to it, mostly because I don’t know if I have another one in me, is what I’m trying to say. It took so much out of me. Also, it gave so much back to me by the time I finished writing this. To record the audiobook, for instance, was so powerful since my mom can listen to it. It feels really special. This is the first book she’s read of mine even though I’ve had two collections of poetry before. I think there is something about writing in prose that offers a bit more — it’s a little more accessible in some ways in terms of storytelling, a little more direct.

Thank you for your kind words about the lyricism on the sentence level. I will say that I so badly wanted to write every sentence with meter and in rhythm. I had to let go of some of it because you can’t sustain it for three hundred pages. I tried my best. I also loved being back in scene and doing scene work and dialogue. Even though this is nonfiction, there’s still so much to do in terms of the multifaceted way we can describe the characters or the real people in our lives, including myself, which was hard to really take a close look at who I am, who I’ve grown to be and will be. I feel like there’s so much in this book that is written all the way up to the immediate present to the degree in which — I think I wrote up to the minute in my life until I handed my final notes to my editor, which is a big risk. Memoir sometimes takes place in a certain time in one’s life, whereas this one went all the way up to the minute, including my ex-fiancé.

Zibby: I did the same thing with my memoir, Bookends. Every time it came back for the final copyedits, I was like, I’m just going to write another little paragraph, add another thing or two here because this is what’s happened since.

Jane: Right. It’s never-ending in many ways to try to make the constellations, the connections from what’s happening at this very moment to all the other moments and scenes and memories that happen in the book as you’re writing them. It almost feels like ten years from now looking back at this, I wonder what I would think about this version of myself then, too. It’s also a time capsule in some ways as well.

Zibby: To your point of, you’re not sure you can do it again, I feel like once you tell — this is just my two cents. Once you tell that fundamental thing that you have to write about, then subsequent memoirs become — unless there’s another life-changing thing that happens, you’re not compelled to write it. It has to be something or a different lens completely, my relationship with dogs or something, but that’s not a memoir in the same way as these — I don’t know. I feel like there’s always one fundamental memoir per person of their whole route. Then there can be subsequent. You know what I mean?

Jane: I like that, the roots and the tendrils that spiral out into another sprout. I like that.

Zibby: There we go. Tendrils and sprouts, we’re on a roll here.

Jane: Oh, no, the weird poet. I always do this. I always talk in these strange metaphors.

Zibby: You also, though, taught me a lot. I’ve been to Atlantic City a couple times, actually. I’ve stayed at the Revel when it was built. You wrote about that in the book. I actually went there once when I was pregnant. Oh, my god, don’t even ask. I was dragged there. I spent the whole time reading in my room, which was actually pretty because it was right on the water. I just sat on the bed like a beached whale and read my book, and that was it. It had some good restaurants, I have to say. Anyway, I’ve been to Atlantic City. I did not know the history of why boardwalks were even boardwalks with the wood planks and how they used to come off at night and get stored away. It was so that taxi drivers and cars didn’t have to get sand in them from the beach. That’s so cool. Who thought of that? I don’t know. I never would’ve known that had I not read your book, so there you go. I like how you mixed in the rise and fall, if you will, of Atlantic City with your own narrative.

Jane: Oh, yes. I feel like that city in particular — again, I just returned after twenty-odd years to Atlantic City, which, I will say, was such a homecoming. It was so generous. I feel like my entire memory has been changed a bit as a result of this most recent visit because it was kind of a reprise. When we went there, obviously, my father was being brought there to gamble. We would get free hotel rooms. It was just this really predatory act on behalf of casinos to target, specifically, low-income Asian American families. As a kid, we didn’t have much money. My father was going into debt. My mom never let me play any boardwalk games. It was so sad. Can you imagine being a kid and just walking down the boardwalk and being like, no ice cream for you, no game? We just didn’t have the money. My mom was like, “We can’t waste it on that. We need to use it for food.” Going back just last week onto the boardwalk and finally, my mom giving me a few dollar bills and playing the claw game and boardwalk games, it was the cutest thing.

It was one of those moments where the whole city has changed for me in my mind. I met so many wonderful people in Atlantic City that are trying to really continue the tradition of a lot of the restaurants that are still there and to be so proud to be from a place that’s both very gritty but also at the same time still holds a lot of beauty. The ocean’s still there. I think that that’s just so special. I couldn’t go into Caesars Palace. I just stood there. That’s the one that my father went to the most. Mighty Writers, a wonderful organization that supports young writers, invited me out, and my mom, to Atlantic City. They put us up in the Tropicana hotel. To walk through the casino, it was pretty emotional. My mom and I decided to play the slot machine just once because we’ve never gambled. Neither of us have ever gambled before. We were trying to really make this our story versus my father’s. Anyway, yes, the Revel, all the history, did a lot of research.

Zibby: Wait, what happened? Did you win the game, the slots?

Jane: Definitely not. We didn’t even know how to play. It was kind of embarrassing.

Zibby: I was waiting for, and then we hit the jackpot. It was this perfect full-circle moment.

Jane: No. We lost three dollars.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Jane: We couldn’t even figure out how to play. It was too many lights. We literally were staring at it. How are people doing this? We don’t know what to do. We just left and got ice cream or something like that. It was cute. It was a really powerful return. I can’t believe you stayed at the Revel.

Zibby: Twice, oh, my gosh. It’s not that far from New York for an escape. Too funny. Tell me about the act of actually sitting down and writing this. Did you cry? What was it like? Where did you do it? How long did it take you? Give me a mental picture of it.

Jane: The book began as essays. There are a few singular essays that are now chapters. I think I began this in 2017, so not too long ago, but a chunk ago. It really began with Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City. Also, the Cheat Sheet for Restaurant Babies was an early one as well. I was writing these singular essays, at the time, with this hope of finding a way to braid them later. It was a little intimidating for me as someone who’s coming from a poetry background. I was realizing, I was like, I have pages. I have space. I can put in research. For me, it was really a delight to be able to take my time. You can write a poem in a day. You can write a poem in an hour if you really want to, or maybe fifteen minutes. You certainly can’t write an essay or a chapter of a memoir in that short period of time. It’s just not doable. That started there.

When I worked with Tin House on the book later, this was December of 2021, only ninety pages of the book were written. I wrote the rest of it really very quickly. It’s funny, when I think about how long the first ninety pages took and then what happened later, it was all in my head and my heart. It was pouring out of me. It was so visceral. I definitely avoided certain chapters, the harder ones. I saved the hardest ones to write last. I feel like I saved The Object of Love last. Certainly, the last chapter too, even writing about writing, that was hard, which is funny because I make all my students write about writing. It was definitely a lot of crying but also a lot of laughing. I probably laughed more than I cried while writing this book because I just wanted to give myself that joy of some of the goofier moments in the book. There was a lot of phone calls with my mom, certainly. Sometimes when I was stumped to write a particular moment or scene, I would call her. I would just ask her a very, very broad question, which was, “Tell me something I don’t know.” She would just be like, “This happened to me.” Then I would write it into literally whatever I was stumped on. That happened a lot.

I ate a lot of snacks while I was writing this book. I feel like I am the type of writer who has to have about five different bowls of snacks when I’m writing. While I like to think I like to write on a desk or anything, I always write in bed. It actually becomes quite messy. I’ll be honest. There’s Cheez-Its in my bed. That’s me writing the book, ultimately, is writing in bed, which is not great for my back or anything. For some reason, I am drawn to this cozy space. I sometimes write on a desk, but it’s just not my thing. A lot of the things that happened while writing the book is very immersive. For instance, when I was writing the end of To Love a Mosquito and I didn’t know how to end that particular chapter about my brother, I called him up and I said I love him. I ended it that way, by actually calling him and telling him I love him, which is something I’ve never said out loud to him. Calling my mom, calling my brother was to make it happen. There was a lot of immersive writing as well. Immersive writing, snacks, research, poetry, all of those things, and sometimes a glass of wine, yes.

Zibby: The truth comes out. Wine and Cheez-Its gets you to the finish line.

Jane: Wine and Cheez-Its. Get with it, yes.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Tell me about the tour you just got back from. Where did you go? What was it like? Were there questions asked that really stumped you? Was there something you found yourself really loving talking about? What was expected, not expected?

Jane: Thanks, Zibby. I feel like it’s been kind of a blur. The tour, I was a little bit of everywhere. Obviously, here in the Pacific Northwest; Seattle; Portland; Bellingham, where I teach. I went to the Bay Area, LA, Iowa City, which was kind of a fun but intense return back to where I did my MFA at Iowa. Of course, my New York/New Jersey part of the tour. I think the most emotional part of the tour was definitely this latter half in New York City and New Jersey. I had a few readings in Brooklyn and New York City’s Chinatown and, again, Atlantic City, Jersey City. I will say that being in New York City’s Chinatown at Yu and Me Books was really emotional because I used to go to Chinatown all the time as a kid. Reading at this beautiful Asian American-owned bookstore, Yu and Me, it was so cozy. I feel like the whole vibe of that particular reading got really vulnerable immediately. Some of the questions and conversations were about writing from archives that are incomplete. It got deep really quickly, that conversation, which was so moving. Obviously, as I mentioned, Atlantic City visit was phenomenal. Mighty Writers, they hosted me. They actually had a youth group who does a lot of traditional Chinese dances, Dynasty Alliance. A bunch of young people did a dragon dance on behalf of the book. It felt like just such a generous event.

I have to give a shout-out. The whole tour, the highlight, for sure, is having my mom on tour with me for some of it. She came out to Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle, where I live. She launched with me as one of my conversation partners. I will say that the end of that reading — I didn’t cry the whole reading. I somehow made it through. At the end, I got emotional because my best friend, Michelle Penaloza, who also hosted me at Elloitt Bay, asked a question about labor and work. The book is also a lot about work at its fundamental core. I started to cry because my mom still works night shift at the USPS. I worry about her all the time overworking herself. She stops me, and she says, “Mommy is strong. Don’t forget that.” She literally picks me up, literally physically picks me up and spins me around with her massive muscles. She’s like, “I’m strong. Don’t worry about me.” Everybody just started screaming. It was so emotional. She’s such a ham. She’s so funny. She was on tour with me in Seattle but also in my Jersey events. She was there. She was kind of a mini — as she should be. Moms are celebrities. It was very special to have her on stage with me for quite a few events. That’s definitely a highlight, for sure.

Zibby: Wow, that is so special. Oh, my gosh. The other day, I saw this man on top of a ladder trimming this bush or doing something with the electrical wires. I don’t know what was going on. He was all hunched over. I’m like, this is so awful that this is the state of our country, that you have to keep working until the end of your life, essentially. It was one of those moments.

Jane: It’s really hard because as somebody — the book really speaks to a lot of my discomfort with my upward mobility too. I’m a professor. There is one chapter, the name of it’s Snow, Gloom, Rain, Pandemic, Gloom of Night. It’s the idea that, obviously, the postal service delivers no matter what. There’s something about at the very beginning of lockdown in the pandemic where I could work from home. I have the privilege to work from home, even though it was difficult, of course, teaching online. My mom was not. She’s an essential worker. She had to go to the facility. I was so worried about masking and everything. I somehow got my vaccine before she was eligible to get her vaccine. All of that. I feel a lot of deep feelings about, what does it mean to be the daughter of somebody who’s clearly worked so hard in so many physical labor, and yet here I am feeling so privileged in what it means to have this education and to be able to write?

My mom is the original writer. She’s the original poet. She’s a storyteller. I’m the first in my family to even graduate traditional high school who was able to actually be a writer in terms of language skills and the privilege to have that time to write. I think about that a lot. I think about what it means to follow your creative desires as a working parent. I know for a fact that she is now making a lot of space for that, for her own life because her kids are grown and whatnot. All her time is spent in the garden. All her time is spent hanging out with friends storytelling. She’s a writer, but she’s never written on paper. She’s a storyteller. I want to really emphasize, I really think that writing is about storytelling at the end of the day. It’s all, for me, coming from a family of oral storytellers. Yes, I write it down on paper, but these are not all my stories. I think about that a lot.

Zibby: Jane, congratulations. So exciting. Thank you for sharing these details with me and the listeners and everything. Congratulations. No pressure to write another one. You go back to doing whatever you love. Keep being a poet and all that great stuff. Congrats.

Jane: Thanks, Zibby. That means a lot. Thank you for your generosity and sharing a bit about your own journey, too, as a writer but also as a person just moving through the world. I feel like it’s such a bewildering time. I feel like if anything, writing or doing anything creative has kept me really grounded in seeing what’s beautiful even when there’s something so terrifying in the world. I will always be writing poems. I’m dreaming up other things, maybe even a novel. I’m always tinkering with things. I also do ceramics. I’m definitely going to do more of that this year. Thank you so much for all your beautiful questions and for reading.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Have a great day. Thanks so much.

Jane: You too. Bye, Zibby. Thanks.

Zibby: Bye, Jane.


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