Zibby is joined by Jean Chen Ho to talk about her debut novel, Fiona and Jane, which started when Jean began weaving together short stories about the same pair of Asian American friends. The two discuss Jean’s daily writing process, as well as why she’s now less daunted to complete her upcoming standalone novel and the research she’s currently conducting for it. Jean also shares what inspired her to create this book’s piano instructor storyline and casually mentions that she’s completing her PhD in literature and creative writing at USC.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jean. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Fiona and Jane.

Jean Chen Ho: Hi, Zibby. It’s so nice to be here. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for giving me the world news update. I will be checking in with you for my updates from now on. Oh, my gosh, imagine. The world is so crazy. Anyway, Fiona and Jane, let’s talk about this. Fiona — we go into this setting. We have a secret come out right away. There’s something with her dad. It has ripples on the rest of the story. Things aren’t what they seem, necessarily. As a young woman, she has to figure out how to deal with everything. Then of course, we have her friend and her story and how everything intersects. How did you come up with this? Why these characters? Why you? Give me the whole story. Just tell me the whole story.

Jean: Before I started working on this book or I knew that I was working on a book, I was just writing short stories trying stuff out. I had always been interested in writing stories about friendship between women and girls. Before I started working on this project, I was playing around with just thinking about how Asian American women relate to one another. Because I am from Southern California, I also found that most of my stories were set in LA. Eventually, as I was trying to write these kinds of stories or maybe the stories of Fiona and Jane, I was moving forward with the structure of having a book that was told in two voices. Fiona and Jane is told in alternating voices. There are first-person stories told from Jane’s point of view. Then there are third-person stories told from Fiona’s point of view. As I was working on the project, I also found that I wanted to play with different eras of their friendship. The first story that you mentioned, that’s when Jane is a senior in high school. She’s just turned eighteen. The book moves into the past and into the future. By the last story, these women are almost turning forty. It really encompasses more than twenty years of their friendship. I was really interested in just exploring what a long friendship could look like.

Zibby: Do you have a friend like this that you kind of based it on?

Jean: It’s not just one friend. I have a group of friends who I’m still really close to from high school. Fiona and Jane had been friends since the second grade. My group of friends, we don’t go back that far. We probably met in junior high, so we grew up together. I definitely drew, if not from the particular circumstances of our friendship, I definitely did draw inspiration, however, from just the emotional ups and downs that we went through.

Zibby: Wow, there is nothing like old friends. That is for sure. When did you realize you loved writing short stories? How did that happen? Was that always the genre that you were naturally attracted to from the beginning?

Jean: I think that I had always loved reading short stories. One of my favorite story collections of all time is Dubliners by James Joyce. That collection is sort of loosely linked just around the city of Dublin, so you find all these characters that are in the city. Then another is Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones. I think that I had always been too intimidated to say, I’m writing a novel. I am working on a novel now, and so I’m no longer as afraid to say that. When I was starting out when I was in my MFA, I just wanted to try short pieces and try to figure out how to make a thing that was twenty-five pages, thirty pages as compelling as I possibly could. As I was working on Fiona and Jane, the first story that I finished in the book was The Movers. That story comes later in the book chronologically. The women are in their thirties. After I finished that story, I found that I wasn’t done with these characters yet. I wanted to know more about them. At that point, I didn’t know about their childhood. I hadn’t discovered this family secret that Jane discovers about her dad. I was just really compelled to write into these characters and find out more about them. That’s where the project began.

Zibby: Interesting. What about the piano teacher?

Jean: What about her?

Zibby: The piano teacher starts this introspective look into sexuality and relationships. What do we think about this coming from the piano teacher herself? Now I’m like, what happens with piano lessons these days? I don’t know. My kids play guitar now. Tell me about that character and how that piece of the puzzle unraveled in that way.

Jean: This is in the first story, for your listeners who haven’t read the book yet. Jane starts having a little crush on her piano teacher. Jane is eighteen. This piano teacher is a grad student. She’s in her twenties. She’s a little older. They have a little flirtation. I think that there were multiple things going into the creation of this character. First of all, if you’re an Asian American kid growing up at the time that I did in the eighties and nineties, one of the things that you probably did was, you had to take piano lessons. I don’t know why this is a thing, but immigrant Asian parents —

Zibby: — I also had to take piano lessons, by the way.

Jean: Okay. Do you have immigrant Asian parents?

Zibby: I don’t, but I felt like everybody at my school had to take piano. I feel like it was required or something. In fact, I actually took it at the school, so maybe it was part of my curriculum. Although, I feel like it was just me on this random platform above the gym, and the piano teacher, while everybody else was at gym, now that I think about it. I think I’m going to have to call my mom and find out. Why was I up there on 9M floor or whatever? Anyway.

Jean: Was it a replacement for PE? I would’ve actually loved that. I hated PE growing up.

Zibby: I didn’t like PE because we had change into — we used to have to wear these — I can’t even discuss these bloomers under our uniforms. This is when I was in lower school. It was a whole thing, and then change into shorts.

Jean: Okay, so you also had to take piano lessons.

Zibby: Yes.

Jean: You said that your kids — you’re not making them go through this torture.

Zibby: My older kids, I did. Honestly, I don’t think I could handle hearing the practice for any more kids if it was the same quality level as my older kids. They would not be ashamed to admit it. We went to this big piano — I’m sorry, this is totally off topic of your book. They didn’t practice enough. We had to go to this big recital with a bunch of our family friends. Everybody’s kids got up and were playing these things. My son, with his two fingers, played the Batman theme song. I was just sitting there like, oh, my god, let the floor open up. Obviously, I didn’t have my kids practice enough. It’s my fault.

Jean: That’s hilarious, oh, my god. I feel like I’ve had recurring nightmares. I used to have recurring nightmares of going to a piano — I had to take piano lessons. I would have nightmares of going to the piano recital and all of a sudden realizing that I had not practiced enough. I had forgotten everything, and just making a complete fool of myself on the recital stage. All of which to say, I wanted to play with this idea of a kid who was taking piano lessons, which, to me, felt like a very quintessential Asian American immigrant kid experience, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe it’s just, everybody had to go through that torturous experience. Then I wanted to sort of subvert that idea of this piano virtuoso and have Jane start to have this romantic attraction to her piano teacher. I didn’t think of it this way when I was a kid, but there is something romantic about learning how to play the piano because the teacher is sitting right next to you. They’re showing you how to place your fingers. I don’t know. Maybe as an adult, I’m mapping that onto the experience. She has a little crush on this young woman. At the same time in that story, she goes to visit her dad. He actually comes out of the closet. It’s okay that that’s the reveal that happens in the story. I wanted to set up Jane’s relationship to her dad and then her relationship to her piano teacher as a point of tension.

Zibby: I loved that. It also raises this whole, is sexuality learned, inherited, in your DNA? It just raises all that good stuff, all that conversation. Did you grow up in LA? Are you there? Do you live there now?

Jean: I am, yeah. I am here now. I didn’t grow up in LA proper. I grew up in the suburbs. My parents still live there. I go and have dinner with them almost every week. That was interrupted, sadly, in the last couple of years by the pandemic. Now we’re vaccinated. We’re back to having our weekly Sunday dinners.

Zibby: That’s so nice. I was just there until two days ago. Oh, well. We could’ve done this out there in person.

Jean: Are you in New York or DC?

Zibby: I’m in New York now, but I’m out there a lot. My husband’s work is mostly there. Tell me about your process when you’re writing. Where I’m seeing you now, is that where you like to write? Do you like to go outside? What times do you like to write? What’s your whole thing?

Jean: I’m sitting at my desk. You can see that I have this giant plant behind me. Gosh, my process is that when I’m in a good groove, I’ll wake up early in the morning. I’m a morning writer. Then I’ll start in my notebook just to create a bridge between my dream brain and then my alive brain. I don’t like to go straight to the computer when I start working just because I feel like I want to write longhand to get those juicy dream-state ideas going. Then I’ll drink coffee. Then I’ll go to my computer. I’ll write for an hour. I only make myself write for an hour. Most times, I’ll go over an hour, but once I do an hour, I feel like I’ve done my duty for the day. It’s very low stakes. I know that some writers, they have a word count goal if they’re working on a project. I can’t do that just because, for whatever reason, it doesn’t work for me. Instead of having a word count, I go by time and number of days. I try to, like I said, write for one hour a day. Then because it’s so low stakes, I often will go longer than that. Then the other really important thing is that I don’t look at my emails or check my phone messages before eleven o’clock or noon if I’m being really good. Once I start looking at Instagram or checking my messages, it’s all over. I’ll just be on my phone for two hours, and I don’t even know where the time went. That’s definitely a restriction I have to put on myself in the morning.

Zibby: Wow. Once, I went until nine. I thought that was a huge victory. I also missed something I needed before then, so I was like, I can’t do this. This is ridiculous.

Jean: This is only when I’m in a good writing groove.

Zibby: Okay, I got it.

Jean: I’ve been doing book publicity for Fiona and Jane for the last month and a half, so I have not been writing. I have been waking up and checking for emails and messages from my team every day first thing when I wake up. I’m not being that virtuous right now.

Zibby: Have you done any in-person things, or all virtual?

Jean: Mostly, virtual. I’ve done a couple of in-person things. One was outdoors. That was really nice to just hang out with people. We had to be vaccinated. Then one was indoors at a bookstore, at my local indie here in LA. Everybody was masked. I was a little bit nervous about the indoor event, to be honest, but I was also excited. Now I’m really glad that that happened. Doing a virtual event is really wonderful because it’s much more accessible for people in other places, but there’s nothing like an in-person event. There’s just that energy in the room. That was really pleasant.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Tell me more about your novel.

Jean: I’m working on the second book. It’s a novel. It’ll be really different from Fiona and Jane. Part of it will be set in the nineteenth century. It is a very much more researched book than Fiona and Jane is. Part of the book is about the formation of Los Angeles Chinatown. I’ve been doing a lot of archival research on how the Chinatown here was founded. The Chinatown that stands today is not the original Chinatown because the original neighborhood that the Chinese immigrants lived in in the mid-1900s was destroyed. Then the community moved about a couple miles north and established this new area. Even though there are lots of historical records to look at, there’s not a lot of voices from Chinese Americans themselves, especially before the turn of the century. As you can expect in the annals of history, there are almost no women. There’s no people of color in the official records. It’s all wealthy, land-owning white men who are either writing memoirs or I’m looking at their business ledgers that have names of their contracted Chinese laborers. It’s really interesting to piece together that stuff and also read for what’s in the silences. Part of my project is inventing or listening to those voices that haven’t been recorded and seeing what comes out of there.

Zibby: Wow, that must be fascinating. That sounds very .

Jean: I’m excited. I’m excited about this new project.

Zibby: When you’re not writing for an hour a day, what do you do with the rest of the day?

Jean: Today, I’m going to get a haircut.

Zibby: Nice. It’s so funny, my husband, when we got together and we’d be doing our own thing all day or whatever, I’d always be like, “What were you up to? What’d you do today?” He’s like, “I hate when people ask me that,” on a day when he wasn’t working or something. He’s like, “I don’t know. What do I do? I don’t know. Why does everybody always want to know?” I’m like, “I’m just being polite. What are you hiding? What are you doing?”

Jean: Where are you going for the rest of the day?

Zibby: Exactly. I’m like, “Are you paying bills? It’s okay. You can tell me.”

Jean: I think mostly, I’m reading. I’m working on a book review right now. Oh, and I am also a PhD student. I’m finishing up my doctorate in literature and creative writing at USC. I’m set to graduate.

Zibby: Oh, yeah, that. Oh, yeah, I forgot I’m getting one of the hardest degrees to get in the entire world. Sorry.

Jean: I’ve been out of coursework for a few years, so it’s just been very self-directed with my advisors giving me feedback and stuff. Because I’m not going to campus anymore, it just sort of feels like, oh, this is another project that’s ongoing. It’s been ongoing for years. I’m set to graduate in a couple of months, so I’ll be out of here.

Zibby: Wow, very cool.

Jean: I also watch a lot of reality TV. There’s a whole range of things that I’m doing.

Zibby: Excellent. Somebody on Instagram put a comment on something and said they wanted to do a show called, instead of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives — what did she call it? Books, Beverages, and something else with a B. I don’t know.

Jean: Babes, like hot babes.

Zibby: Babes, maybe, yeah.

Jean: I would totally love to be a part of that. Books, drinks, Channing Tatum.

Zibby: Totally. Advice for aspiring authors, what’s your advice?

Jean: Gosh. I would say, find a community of other writers. When you’re working on a project, when you’re just trying to figure out what your book is about, it feels really lonely. At least for me, it felt like there were times when I was just writing into a void. I didn’t know where I was going, if anybody was ever going to read this, if I would ever sell it. You have to be really self-motivated. You have to have a lot of faith. My book took five years to write. Like I said, I only do an hour a day, so maybe that’s why it took so long. I’m just kidding. There’s definitely fallow periods where I’m just like, I don’t know what Jane wants. I don’t know who Fiona is in this moment. Having a community of writers, not just teachers and mentors, even though having mentors is really wonderful too, but having writers who are also just working their way through it and working on their own manuscript. You can trade work and be accountable to one another without necessarily being on the hook to give feedback. If you want to, you can. Throughout working on this book, I had a writing group. The three of us would just meet up once a month. That was a really nice way of feeling like, okay, I have to, by this meeting date, have something to show my writing group.

Zibby: Got it. Amazing. Jean, thank you. I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.

Jean: What are you going to be doing the rest of the day?

Zibby: I have two more podcasts, picking up my kids at school.

Jean: That’s a lot of stuff. That’s enough.

Zibby: And it’s later here.

Jean: That’s right, okay. We have to stay updated on what’s happening in Ukraine.

Zibby: Yes, updated on the news, which is crazy.

Jean: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming. Buh-bye.

Jean: Bye.


FIONA AND JANE by Jean Chen Ho

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