Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling author Jean Kwok about her evocative new novel, THE LEFTOVER WOMAN. Jean shares her gratitude for Zibby’s influence in the publishing world and delves into the novel’s plot, which revolves around two mothers connected by China’s One Child Policy. The episode explores themes of maternal love, sacrifice, and the complexities of adoption. Jean discusses her writing process, including how personal experiences and research influenced the characters, and also touches on her upcoming projects and offers advice for aspiring authors. The conversation highlights Jean’s journey from a traditional Chinese upbringing to studying at Harvard, underscoring themes of resilience and determination that permeate her work.


Zibby Owens: Thank you, Jean. I am so happy to have you back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Leftover Woman: A Novel. So excited.

Jean Kwok: I am so thrilled and happy to see you again, Zibby. Oh, my gosh.

Zibby: Thank you so much for putting me in the acknowledgments. That was so sweet. Thank you.

Jean: Of course. Of course. You are such a force in the publishing world, as is commonly acknowledged. As a member of your author board of Zibby Books, I have a close-up view of how much you really genuinely care about being innovative, about helping authors, about making sure that attention goes to the worthy, attention and resources. We are all very grateful to you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. That was so sweet. I told you this over Instagram, but as I was finishing the book, I got my first pedicure that I haven’t gotten in an airport in maybe a year or two, and only because my daughter was getting one and begged me to do it. I was close to the end. I had to finish. They were like, “Okay, you want to get up and go to the dryer?” I was like, “No, I need to just sit here, please.” Then five minutes later, they came back. They’re like, “Would you like to get up?” I’m like, “No, I have to keep reading.” I got so, so into it. I didn’t see it all coming. The whole thing was great. It was really cool, really great.

Jean: That’s so good to hear that because that’s, of course, what every author wants, that the reader is sucked in that they’re like, just leave me alone. Let me finish. Let me figure out what happened. It’s always a challenge, especially since, as you know, this book is about two mothers, two worlds, and one impossible choice. It was hard for me to figure out how to have an ending that would not be too much one way or another, that emphasizes unity and motherly love and is kind of unexpected but yet earned. That was what I was trying to do.

Zibby: Wow. Maybe go into what the book is actually about for other people now that I’ve gushed about it.

Jean: The book is about a young woman in China who gives birth to a baby during the One Child Policy. She’s told the baby dies shortly after birth. She grieves terribly. A few years later, she finds out that the baby had not died but had been given away for adoption by her no-good husband to a wealthy American couple for adoption. When the book opens — Jasmine Yang is her name — Jasmine has followed her daughter to New York to get her baby back. The book is told from two points of view, from that of Jasmine, the biological mother, and that of Rebecca Whitney, the wealthy adoptive mother who desperately, desperately loves her daughter.

Zibby: You have this whole subplot of Rebecca’s attempt to acquire a manuscript by, basically, the Sandra Cisneros-type author who has a new, amazing book coming out. You reveal a lot of, theoretically, insider talk about what it’s like being left out of an auction. What do you have to do to get on this author’s good side? There was so much stuff about publishing. You, of course, are a massive best-selling author. Talk about what that came from. Did you see all that stuff related to your own books? Just give me a little color on all of that.

Jean: That was so fun to write. That was really fun. Rebecca Whitney, she comes from old money. I did not mean to suggest that people in publishing all live in penthouses and brownstones like Rebecca does. She is the modern woman trying to have it all and trying, like all of us, to balance success and ambition and love for her family. Like so many of us, she is judged so harshly. It’s like so much of what you do is about, Zibby. It’s about how we’re kind of just killing ourselves trying to be everything to everyone. Somehow, the judgement that’s laid upon us can be pretty devastating. You never feel like you can do it all. You never feel like you have enough time or resources to give everybody all. Rebecca is indeed top brass at a publishing house. She goes through all of the struggles that we do in publishing with competing for a top manuscript and dealing with having a limited budget and dealing with a fickle readership. She gets embroiled in an industry scandal due to some mistakes that she’s made. Her career is about to come toppling down. Yes, all of that is happening while this whole other story is going on with her child.

Zibby: I won’t give anything away, but just the trust that you have to develop or that you need in order to have a successful relationship with your author and how as an editor or a publisher, you have to have this blind faith in whatever the author is telling you, but what if that leads you astray? You don’t know.

Jean: No, that’s right. That’s right. Indeed, in the book, what we find out right away with Rebecca is that she trusted an author. The book took off. It was doing brilliantly, nominated for everything, hitting every list. Then she found out that the author had lied. That pulls down not only the author, but everybody associated with it, with the publishing house, her team. Rebecca’s boss is like, “You’ve got to fix this. Whatever you do, you have to fix it,” which is why Rebecca is desperate to land this other author who she thinks will give her the chops she needs to move her imprint forward. Publishing is an incredibly competitive field for the authors, but also on the other side. You know about that, Zibby. What is your experience? What do you think about it?

Zibby: I don’t know. I would never feel bad for being excluded from an auction. We can’t play in that space where books are going for a bazillion dollars. That’s just not where we are as a boutique publishing firm. It’s a bummer to see a manuscript go and be like, oh, my gosh, I wish I had had a chance to read that. That sounds like something that would’ve been up my alley. You have that, for sure. Tell me about the writing of this story and even where you were in your own life as you wrote it.

Jean: Of course, as someone who has a full career, these are all issues that I deal with. The Rebecca aspect of it, juggling family and life and a husband and kids and while really trying to function in a very high-powered field is a challenge that I understand. I remember when I had my first baby, and we took an international flight. My husband changed the baby’s diaper on the plane. You should’ve heard those flight attendants. It was like the second coming. They were like, “ so clever. He was so wonderful.” I was just like, I changed a diaper too, but nobody cares. Nobody cares. Anyway, that was Rebecca’s story. Then Jasmine’s, of course, is very much based on my own upbringing as a Chinese girl in a very traditional family where women were not expected to grow up and go to college. I was very poor. We worked in a factory. I worked in a factory as a child, in New York City of all things. There was no expectation of, go to an Ivy League college. It was really, work in the factory your whole life or go and marry, if you’re lucky. Find some man willing to marry you. Then you can bear him sons and cook for him and clean for him.

These were very important skills which I utterly lacked in every way, Zibby. I was the worst — I still am — housekeeper, cook ever known to man. They despaired of me. I looked at those two choices. I was like, you know what? I’m going to go to Harvard. Years later, that’s actually what I wound up doing, but it was a long, hard road from that run-down, unheated apartment in Brooklyn and the factory in Chinatown to an Ivy League school. I was glad that I had that escape route, but I knew so many people who didn’t. The One Child Policy in China was devastating families in so many different ways. I knew those daughters who had been left or abandoned or given for adoption, but I also knew people who had adopted those daughters. I knew their story and their love as well. I always knew that this was a book I needed to write.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my gosh. I know we talked about this with Searching for Sylvie Lee and your background and just the unbelievable resilience and strength and drive that you had to go to not just an Ivy League school. Back then, why? Where did it come from that you were like, no, I’m going to go to Harvard? Where? Where did that come from?

Jean: That’s such an interesting question. I think that desperation can do a lot for you, and the lack of talent in traditional womanly traits. There was no way I was going to be able to take care of a man because I’m opinionated and argumentative and also a daydreamer. I was one of those kids that was always staring out the window instead of doing the practical things I was supposed to be doing. People sometimes ask, how was it that you managed to get to Harvard with no — believe me, I did not go to any kind of extra classes or coaching or anything like that in terms of any tests or applications on that route. What I always say is I took it seriously. I knew that that was my way out. Harvard, I set my sights on because it had a need-blind admission policy. I knew it was one of the schools that if I got in, they would arrange it so that I could go no matter how little my family could pay. It was also the only school my parents had ever heard of, so it was like, all right. That would increase the chances of being allowed to go.

I was serious. I think there’s a real difference between being serious and knowing you don’t really have a safety net and wanting something and thinking, maybe I want to do it. Maybe I don’t know. I don’t know. Something I like to talk about is that I think that we have our short-term happiness. Believe me, I am easily seduced by chocolate and movies and hanging out and lying on the couch instead of doing the things I need to do. I have learned that there’s long-term fulfillment that comes from actually being serious and taking the time and taking the effort to do something well. Somebody said this to me recently — I don’t remember who, but it was very wise. It was that how good you’re going to be at something is measured by how much you can tolerate being bad at it. What that means is that if I want to learn to ice skate and I am terrible, terrible, but I can tolerate being terrible and I keep at it and I go on being terrible instead of being like, oh, my god, I don’t like this, I’m leaving — I wasn’t great at school. I didn’t speak any English. I almost flunked out. I was in the worst reading group. I remember wishing I could be with the smart kids, and I wasn’t. I think that if I can tolerate not being good, and sometimes you have to tolerate for a really long time, really long, you can become great. You can become great at it. If you’re serious and you have the passion, I think you can really do anything.

Zibby: Wow, that was very inspirational. Thank you. That was great. Back to the book for a minute. Do you feel you wanted Rebecca to be a likable character? Did you want us to be questioning her and her personality? How did you want the reader to feel about Rebecca?

Jean: I can tell you how I feel about Rebecca.

Zibby: Okay, let’s do that.

Jean: I love Rebecca. I completely love Rebecca. I completely love Jasmine as well. That was the difficulty because this is an impossible situation with one child and two mothers. When you are the author of a book, you have to be willing to have your characters make terrible, terrible mistakes. They both do. Both Jasmine and Rebecca make terrible choices. There are ways in which Rebecca’s vision is limited. That’s a part of, actually, the big plot twist in the book. We see how limited her vision is in some ways, but she’s doing her best. She’s trying. She is, at heart, a really good person who’s doing her best. I have had readers who — Camp Rebecca/Camp Jasmine. They tend to go one way or another. Sometimes they love them both or they hate them both. I’m really squarely in both camps. I think that they’re both wonderful women. In the end, what I want the book to say is, actually, I want the book to emphasize unity over division and that the most important thing is what these two women have in common, and that is their absolute love for that girl and their willingness to sacrifice everything for the child.

Zibby: Interesting. I love it. I also really loved Anthony, the childhood love, sort of, of Jasmine back home and how he was still wearing the bracelet when they got reunited and just how you wove that relationship in all its forms throughout the book. I was kind of rooting for him too.

Jean: I’m glad. I love him too. He’s also flawed. I love that first little cute-meet at the beginning when Jasmine and Anthony run into each other again after all these years. Anthony was her childhood best friend. They had never had a relationship of any sort, but she was married off very young to someone, almost, really for money. They see each other, and he kind of stalks off because he’s like, you ditched me. You didn’t care for me. She’s like, what? What are you, two years old? Then indeed, she catches a glimpse of a bracelet that she had given to him when he was fourteen years old, and he’s still got it on. What does that mean?

Zibby: I loved that. All the times they would meet up and didn’t know where it was going to go, I loved that woven throughout as well. Which character came first for you when you were writing this, Jasmine or Rebecca?

Jean: It’s funny. Actually, they both came pretty much at the same time. What’s interesting is that I wrote them both in first person. In the original draft of the book, both Rebecca and Jasmine were written in first person. Then I felt I needed a little bit more distance from Rebecca, also that it would be easier for the reader to differentiate the two voices. Then I moved Rebecca into close-third point of view instead. It’s funny. Rebecca’s white. I’m not. Jasmine’s Chinese. I am Chinese, of course. There were a lot of ways in which I had to really project myself into both characters. Rebecca’s in the publishing world, which is my world. It’s a world I know really well. I love being in that world. I love the inner dirt of the world, all the gossip that we share about, oh, my gosh, did you hear what happened at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year? Who disappeared to a hotel room together? That kind of dishy-ness is just so fun. That part of Rebecca’s life actually came very easily to me. Of course, Jasmine, I have a lot in common with Jasmine with the attitude towards women and feeling oppressed and feeling like you don’t have a voice. Jasmine finally finds her voice because she loves her child so much that she decides to take action and break from her life. Jasmine’s whole life in rural China, I had to do a lot of research. I interviewed a lot of people. I was born in Hong Kong, a big city in China. I never really lived in a rural village in China. The book was written during the pandemic. There was no chance of me actually traveling there, which I like to do to do research. Both characters were really fun to write but also very challenging in their own ways.

Zibby: Interesting. What are you working on now?

Jean: I do have a book due soon. It is a murder set at Harvard. I actually just spent the summer traveling to Cambridge and Harvard to just go through everything, go through Widener, the libraries. I’ve been interviewing people I knew there all about the Adams House swimming pool. I don’t know if you know, but there’s a swimming pool — it’s not there anymore, but it was there when I was a student — where people would swim nude. All kinds of things would happen in that swimming pool.

Zibby: Wow. Who knew?

Jean: Who knew, right? Who could expect this kind of thing? That’s my new book.

Zibby: That sounds really good.

Jean: That’s coming. Not yet. The Leftover Woman first in October.

Zibby: Okay, sorry. I sneak peek.

Jean: No, no.

Zibby: What have you been reading lately that you really like? What stories or books have you — or even films or just things that you’ve been obsessed with lately.

Jean: Oh, my gosh, there have been so many wonderful books lately. Actually, I’m writing an article for you, Zibby, with a round-up of books. I’m going to get that to you.

Zibby: Why, thank you.

Jean: The many ways in which Zibby has an influence on our literary life. There are so many great books out. Yellowface is the great publishing dishy book that’s out and everyone’s reading right now. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, I absolutely loved. I read that book, and I just could not put it down. I love some books by Zibby Books, like Hedge.

Zibby: Oh, thank you.

Jean: That came out earlier this year by Jane Delury. I think that that is just such a beautifully written, complex but really fun-to-read book where you have relationships. You have love. You have romance. You also have a mystery. Sometimes I think those are the best types of book where you have all of this depth, but you still have this propulsive plot element to carry you through. I think that’s a really beautiful book. I’m actually Jane’s author mentor. I loved being in touch with her and talking to her about the process and what she was going through and all of that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, this is literally the first time someone’s ever said that they have been reading a book published by me, published by Zibby Books.

Jean: You just started, right? You just started.

Zibby: I know, but still. It’s very nice of you. Jane is a beautiful writer, absolutely beautiful. Hedge was beautiful. Yay. Give aspiring authors some advice. What advice would you have? What should they do? What should they look out for? How do they become you?

Jean: Well, I don’t know if they want to be me. I think that one thing that’s always very hard for writers to think about is, when do I make changes, and when don’t I make changes? You get so much advice. You also get pressure to make changes to your book if your career goes to a certain place. We all start by writing for ourselves. Then if you want to make a career, you actually have to write for other people at the same time. You have an agent. You have a publisher. Everyone has an opinion. It’s not true that we are always right. I think that we wish we were always right. I have certainly benefited from advice. There’s been many, many times when the fact that I listened to advice helped the book tremendously. When do you listen, and when are you going astray? What I always say is that I think we write out of passion. We write, and that passion translates onto the page. In The Leftover Woman, the passion of mine that’s on that page is my own experience as a Chinese woman and feeling like I wasn’t heard and I wasn’t seen and I wasn’t allowed to be heard or seen. That passion, you have to keep alive. It’s like a flame that’s in your work. Absolutely, listen to advice if you feel like it’s taking you closer to where you go. It’s better to have a creature that’s maybe not typical but is vivid and alive and visceral and raw than to have a kind of corpse that is perfectly proportioned but is just lying dead on the page. I think we know that, right, Zibby? When we read books, when you get a manuscript, you read it, and you feel, oh, this is alive. This is passionate. This is something I can burn for. As opposed to something where you’re like, yeah, it’s got all the right characteristics, but it doesn’t do much for me.

Zibby: If only there was a way to bottle that sauce when something just works. It’s hard to break down why, but you know it when it happens, on both sides, reading, writing.

Jean: It’s just like love. It’s just like chemistry. You go on a date. You’ve done all the research. They seem totally fine. You’ve even done a Zoom. They look like the picture. Then you go on the date, and you’re like, whoa. Somehow, no, no, no, or yes, yes, yes. Sometimes you think, , but you feel that chemistry. You think, oh, okay, actually, maybe. It is indescribable. It’s very, very hard to predict.

Zibby: I love that, relationships with books being like chemistry, when you’re dating, between people. That’s really interesting. I like that a lot. Thank you. Jean, thank you for The Leftover Woman. Thank you for the propulsive, un-put-down-able read that I found just totally immersive. I just love you and your story and your enthusiasm and your kindness. I’m so glad we’ve gotten to know each other between books and all of that.

Jean: I feel the same way, Zibby. I want to thank you for being the incredible person that you are, personally and professionally. We have connected also on personal issues. You have been so supportive and lovely in every single way, and for what you do for us and for books and for authors. Thank you, Zibby. Thank you. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. This was so nice. Thank you.

Jean: This was so great.


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