Jean Kwok: Hi. I’m so honored to meet you. Hello.

Zibby Owens: Hi. It’s so nice to see you.

Jean: It’s great to see you too. I am such a fan of yours and of your show. When they said you were interested in talking to me, I was just thrilled.

Zibby: Aw. I’m a fan of yours too, so this works out perfectly.

Jean: You’re so kind. How are you?

Zibby: I’m okay. Thanks. I’m okay. How about you?

Jean: It’s a crazy time, right?

Zibby: It is a crazy time.

Jean: Especially today. I just have to survive this.

Zibby: I know. Being mid-election results is a tricky time to have anybody focus on anything else.

Jean: It’s a great break. It’s great to do something else for a little bit because I’m just obsessively watching CNN. What’s going to happen to us?

Zibby: I know. I know. Finally last night, I was like, I’m just going to go to sleep. I can’t do this anymore.

Jean: I have to put it away. I have to not keeping looking at it every two seconds because it feels like the fate of the world is in the balance.

Zibby: It certainly does.

Jean: It’s really, really hard, but thank goodness we have books. We have other ways of reaching people.

Zibby: I completely agree. Let’s talk about your book because that’s why we’re here, give you some more room to promote your amazing work of fiction. Would you mind telling listeners what Searching for Sylvie Lee is about? Then I want to hear what inspired you to write it.

Jean: Searching for Sylvie Lee is the story of two sisters and a mother. What happens is that the dazzling, beautiful, successful, older sister, Sylvie, goes to the Netherlands to visit her dying grandmother, and she just disappears. Her younger sister, Amy, who’s always been in her shadow — Amy’s the stuttering, shy one. Amy has to pull herself together and try to find her beloved older sister. It’s this story about these deeply rooted secrets that tie these three women, Sylvie, Amy, and her mother, together.

Zibby: Amazing. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Jean: The inspiration for this book was actually deeply personal. My brother, Kwan, who was the dazzling, brilliant one in our family, disappeared about ten years ago. He was the one that we had always looked up to. He was the one that we always went to when there was a problem. I was the black sheep of the family, so nobody ever listened to me. I grew up in a very conservative Chinese family. I am the youngest of seven children.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, seven children.

Jean: Exactly, and I’m a girl. The two markers of hierarchy were age and gender, so I was at the bottom of the bottom my entire life. My brother and I, we really loved each other. He always was so great. There was never any jealousy between us, maybe because there was a ten-year age gap as well. When he disappeared that night, I really thought, oh, my god, there’s nobody to turn to. The person who has to figure out what happened and take charge is me. That is the beating heart of this book, that feeling of loving someone so much and having relied on them your whole life and then needing to grow as a person in order to try to help them.

Zibby: What happened with your brother?

Jean: What happened was that — it happened right before Thanksgiving, so right around this time of the year. At first, he hadn’t called home when he was supposed to call. That’s the kind of thing where you think, for a responsible person, that’s strange, but it can happen. You can get really busy. You could forget. Nobody had been able to reach him. People were kind of alarmed, but not really panicked. When he didn’t come home for Thanksgiving, that was a true sign that something was wrong.

Zibby: How old was he at the time? How old were you? When was this in life?

Jean: I was in my thirties. He was in his forties. I was already living in the Netherlands. I was getting these panicked phone calls from my family in New York. As you may know, I was born in Hong Kong. I grew up in New York City. We grew up extremely poor. We’re a working-class immigrant family. I lived in an apartment in Brooklyn that was unheated for most of my childhood. I worked in a clothing factory with my brother and with my family from the age of five through, really, most of my childhood. That was our background. Kwan had always been the person that I looked up to and who kind of showed me a way out of that circle of life at the factory where you’d go in as a child and you leave as an old woman dragging plastic bags home to your apartment because you really never leave the factory.

Zibby: Sorry to keep interrupting. Wait, so did you go to school, or were you working? Did you go to school, or not?

Jean: I did. We all went to school. What would happen is that my father would pick me up — I would wake up. I would go to school. My father came and picked me up after school. I would go to the factory in Chinatown and work until nine or ten at night. All of my homework, all tests, everything, had to be on the subway or during breaks at the factory. My brother, Kwan, and my other brothers who were ten years older, they were in the high school phase at that point. They did the same thing. They had, of course, much more pressure. They had SATs. They had papers, projects, tests, all of which could only be squeezed into those train rides or breaks at the factory. What was even worse was that, for them — I would go home around nine or ten at night with my parents, which is late for a little kid. For my brothers, they actually went on to a second job waiting tables at a restaurant until the middle of the night. In fact, that was how I actually began to write. I didn’t decide to be a writer, but the moment I began writing was when — I remember one night. I was sleeping on my mattress on the floor because we didn’t have beds. Oh, my god, you do not want to be sleeping on a mattress when your apartment is overrun with vermin the way ours was because you would just hear the mice racing past you in the night. I’m a very terrified-of-vermin person to this day. When I go in the garden, I put on a radioactive suit. I was the same when I was a kid. I was just terrified of things crawling on me. I would be constantly making noise and banging around me to try to keep things away.

In any case, I was already asleep. One night, Kwan came home. It was the middle of the night. He laid a package on my pillow next to me. That was so unusual because we were paid one penny per piece of clothing that we did at the factory. After a long process of processing the clothing, we were paid one penny per piece. Of course, piece work is also illegal, but that’s a whole other story. There are a lot of things in my childhood that were illegal. We were paid by the piece instead of by the hour. You can imagine. We had debt. We had rent. We could barely afford food. It’s a hundred pieces of clothing before you have a dollar. I really didn’t have toys or anything like that. It was amazing to get this gift. He had somehow managed to save enough to get me a gift. What amazes me to this day is that he had not given me a toy or a piece of candy, but he gave me something that would change my life. He got me a blank diary. He said, “Whatever you write in this will belong to you.” That was just a powerful idea for a kid who had changed countries, changed culture, changed languages. I didn’t speak a word of English when I came to the US. I suffered for it greatly in school. It was just amazing to have a place where I could put down my thoughts and my dreams.

My parents had gone from being parents to being people who were even more scared and confused than I was. Kwan was a really important person in my life. He was the first person to leave the family. He went to MIT. He showed me that there was a way out. He would help me by giving me things like a typewriter to work with. Eventually, I followed him. I went to Harvard as well. I kind of began the rest of my life in his footsteps. The fact was still that he was the older brother. He was the one who was listened to at home. When things went wrong, he was the one who stepped in and fixed them. When he did not come home for Thanksgiving, I remember I just thought, oh, my god. I realized that this was something that was going wrong on a level greater than any I had ever experienced before. This was not failing a test or the normal things that go on or some guy breaking up with you. This was really serious. We didn’t know what had happened to him. He wasn’t in a relationship at that time. It wasn’t like we had a girlfriend or a wife who would know what he was doing day by day.

Finally, we found out from a friend that he had flown to Texas to buy an airplane. We’d grown up. He became quite successful. He was a scientist. He loved everything that went really fast, so he was a pilot as a hobby. He’d gone to buy an airplane. That was all we knew. Of course, I start trying to call small airports in Texas. Do you know how many airports there are in Texas? There are really a lot of airports. He picked the wrong state to disappear in. That is not a good place to disappear. It was just impossible to figure out where he was and what had happened. Finally, I hacked into his email. Once I did that, I was able to retrace his steps. Of course, all these things are going through your head. What happened to him? Was he kidnapped? Did the sale go through? Did they trick him? So many things could’ve happened between that airplane purchase and his disappearance. We found out that what had happened was that he had bought the plane. Everything had gone well. He had taken off, but he had not landed. That was the next stage of the mystery, was to try to figure out what happened to the plane. Something that I never realized before was that if you have an accident in a car, you are found because you are by a highway or you crash into someone’s house.

If you crash in an airplane, actually, a lot of people who crash in those small planes, especially if something happens in a wooded area, they’re never found. An airplane may seem large to us, but it’s actually nothing compared with the forces of nature. They can just disappear into the woods. You never know what happened to that person. There was a period of a couple of weeks when we were trying to track down what had happened to him, amazing volunteers, search and rescue. You’re thinking every day, oh, my god, he might be dying of thirst with a broken leg next to that plane. That’s the worst thing. You don’t know if any delay is making the difference between life and death. What happened eventually was that they did find his body. He had been flying it home to West Virginia. Somehow, in the mountains, a sudden storm had come on. He had to lower the plane to escape the lightning and thunder of the storm. In doing so, he nicked a tree and crashed into the side of a mountain. When that happened, he had died instantly. It was, of course, the worst thing that had ever happened to me, to hear this news. In a way, it was also a relief to know. Just the act of knowing is a gift in a time like that. It’s a tremendous loss, but I was really grateful to all of the volunteers and the air force and everyone who had looked for him and actually found out what happened.

When I set out to write Searching for Sylvie Lee, which is my third novel, I wanted to talk about this story, but I couldn’t do it. It was so painful. There was so much that was tied between me and story that I just couldn’t move forward. Then I realized I need to not make it a man who disappeared. It has to be a woman. The moment I made the story about two sisters, it changed everything. Sylvie and Amy took on their own life. Of course, the emotional engine is still there because that’s at the heart of why I wrote this book, and also, many issues about language and culture. How well do we really know the people that we love most? What secrets are we hiding from the people we love the most? What secrets are they hiding from us? Once I made that change, then the story just flowed and came out as if it were complete.

Zibby: Wow. What a story. First of all, I am so sorry for your loss. Second, I’m incredibly impressed by your detective skills and ability to have figured out what happened at the time. I’m just so sorry that that all fell into your lap and that you had to live through that. Also, going back to your childhood, the fortitude and immense mental willpower and just strength to get through that type of childhood and still end up at Harvard — I went to this cushy private school, and kids couldn’t even get into Harvard, falling over each other to try to get in. I am just so impressed. I didn’t know that entire backstory. The novel, which I did read, I didn’t even realize — now it, of course, all has so much more meaning to me. Thank you for sharing that story. Then I also saw that your mother has passed away. Not to open up every old wound you have, but I wanted to hear what happened with her. I know it was about ten years ago. You’ve written a lot about that. I wanted to hear about that and how maybe that affected this other trauma. When, in sequence, did everything happen? This is a lot of questions. How were you able to move on and go back to writing, go back to focus after everything that had happened?

Jean: Zibby, this is what I love about you and why I’m such a huge fan of your work. You go right to the heart of why people do the things they do. I think that I kind of write from trauma to trauma. If I try to write about something too directly, then I can get blocked. Writing, for me, is a way of transforming the things that happen to us. I think that’s what books are about. Books are about connection and communication. Yes, maybe you went to a cushy private school, but you had your own problems. Life is hard for us all. Life is hard in so many ways. The great thing about books is that you can live somebody else’s life, but you can also connect to them and realize how much they are like you and how many struggles they’ve gone through that are actually, at heart, similar to the struggle that you went through yourself. My mother is indeed a very big influence in my books. Tragically, my mother died after my brother. This is how life is so unexpected. It’s one of the things I say to people. Love the people you have around you. Try to appreciate having them around you because you can never know what’s going to happen. I never ever anticipated that I would lose my young, healthy, vibrant brother before I lost my mother.

My mother was, of course, a tremendous loss and influence in my life. When I was little and we were working in the factory and I was going to sleep on that mattress on the floor, I would look up and every night of my childhood, my mother was sitting up late falling asleep over these bags of clothing that she had brought home from the factory. Because the apartment was unheated in New York City, which is, of course, incredibly cold in the winter — in the back of the apartment, in fact, people had thrown bricks through the windows. The landlord hadn’t bothered to fix it like the landlord had not bothered to fix many things. In the front, they did fix the windows because, obviously, they didn’t want a complaint. In the back where nobody could see, they didn’t. Our windows there were only covered with black plastic bags and duct tape. The wind would gust against them all winter. We did the only thing we could, which was that we turned on the oven. We left it on day and night throughout the winter so that it was this little source of heat in the kitchen despite the lack of glass in the windows. My mother would just sit by that oven and fall asleep next to the oven every day working hard.

In my books, of course I talk about language gaps and about the differences between the first generation and the second generation, but I have a lot of sympathy for the first generation. I am a first-generation immigrant myself, and I know what my mother went through. I know what it’s like to be the person on the subway who is dressed weird, who maybe smells weird, who’s carrying a lot of plastic bags, and oh, my god, does not even speak English. To us English-speaking folks, it feels almost like an insult that somebody didn’t bother to learn English because English is the universal language. We have the luxury of traveling everywhere over the world and everyone bends over backwards to speak English to us. We never have to think, how good’s my Russian? What if I had to speak Russian to everybody in the world? How well would I be able to do that? It’s very easy to make a judgement about somebody based upon how they speak and what level their English is at. I saw people making that judgement upon my mother my entire life. She never learned to speak English. The only words she ever learned of English was, when boys would call the house, she would pick up the phone and she would say, “She not home.” Then she would hang up the phone. That was the only bit of English she ever learned.

I saw what she looked like from the outside. I knew what she was like in Chinese from the inside. When I wrote Searching for Sylvie Lee, for example, the narrative is told by these three women, Sylvie, Amy, and Ma. They’re all thinking in their own languages. Sylvie was raised in the Netherlands with her grandmother. Sylvie is thinking in Dutch, which I also speak because I married a Dutch guy and I’m now living in the Netherlands. Amy is thinking in English. Ma is thinking in Chinese. You have moments like when Amy goes to see Ma and we see Ma for the first time. We see how Ma, from the outside, is this quiet, beloved-but-simple woman who’s kind of getting berated by the customer in the dry cleaners. Then we open into Ma’s chapter, and we realize this is a completely different person in her own language. She’s deep. She’s poetic. She has a wealth of feeling that she cannot communicate in English and that she also, tragically, cannot even really communicate to her own daughter. That’s what happens in an immigrant family. We come to the US. Oftentimes, the younger generation does not know the original language as well as the parents. The parents don’t pick up the new language as well as the kids. Then you have this huge language and communication gap between the people who actually love each other the most.

Zibby: Then what ended up happening with your mom?

Jean: My mom died of cancer. We knew that she had been sick for a while. She was doing really pretty well until the very end, so she didn’t suffer very long, for which I’m glad. We knew she was getting old and getting frail. When she passed away, it was a different kind of grief. It’s always a huge shock. It’s always really terrible. I still have dreams where everybody’s alive. Then you wake up and you’re just confused by what’s reality and what’s not reality. It was different. My brother, who disappeared so suddenly out of nowhere, that was just such a shock. You’re knocked for a loop because you did not see it coming.

Zibby: Wow. I, again, am just so sorry for all the stuff that you have been through. I’m curious about your family. I know I’m barely talking about the book now, but you have such a captivating story yourself. Was your mother still working in the factory? What happened to your older siblings? Were they able to achieve a point of comfort in their financial situations that your parents could stop working? What ended up happening?

Jean: We all, luckily, wound up doing well and getting out of the factory. Because I have these older siblings, they worked really hard. They were actually able to take my parents and us out of the factory. My mom had a lot of happy years along with my father. My father was pretty sick when I was a kid. He died when I was pretty young. My father wasn’t as much of the day-to-day life of the family as my mother was. My mom had a lot of happy years. I remember, my brother, Kwan, and I understood she was getting old even before she began to get sick in any way. We would make sure to take her on trips to Las Vegas. Can I just tell you, don’t go to Las Vegas with your mother. I love my mom. It was great to be there with her. She was like, “Those girls are not wearing anything. Don’t look.” We would go through the casinos blind. She’s like, “They’re gambling, oh, my god. Come on.” She really liked the food. She liked all the buffets. She liked the big hotel and stuff like that. We had a good time. We took her on a lot of trips. We had a lot of really good times with her. I guess it’s one of the ironies of life that when my brother died first, I had all these photos of the three of us that I had taken, really, to remember my mother. Then instead, it was my brother who had gone.

I will say that that was the time in my life when my debut novel, Girl in Translation, was published. It was surprisingly very successful from the moment it was published. I was really happy that they were able to see that. They just saw the beginning of that. At first, my family was kind of surprised that I do write about my past. Searching for Sylvie Lee is, of course, in many ways, about the disappearance of my brother, but also the price of the American dream. Who pays and how do you pay for achieving that type of success? What happens if you’re not capable of achieving the American dream, of achieving that success? That’s what Sylvie Lee is about. My first book, Girl in Translation, is really about those years when we were really poor and living in that apartment and working in the factory. I remember they were a little bit surprised that I had written about it because people who come from a background like mine don’t usually grow up to become writers. I had that instinct as well for a long time that if you’re able to escape that life, you want to put it behind you. You want to forget about it. You feel ashamed of it. It feels like nobody else ever had anything comparable to what you went through. You just want to move on.

I had written the book as fiction thinking that nobody would ever read it and that nobody would ever ask me, is this based on your real life? Then of course, my books became very successful. Everybody was asking me, are your books based on your real life? My family, they were a bit in a shock when that came out. Then I think it really turned to pride because so many people were so kind and had the generous reaction you just had which was, how amazing that you survived that and managed to come through whole and in one piece. I think that that shame has turned into pride. I give a lot of credit for who I became and coming through as, I hope, as a kind person as opposed to a bitter, hard person — that can also occur when you reach success. I really give credit to my mother because my mother really brought us up to say, the most important thing is who you are and the people you love. The things you have — yes, it’s nice to have enough. It is essential to have enough. Once you have enough to eat and to live, after that, it’s really all about who you love and who you are.

Zibby: Wow. That’s so nice. It’s so important. It’s so important to get that message out and find what unites all of us. In a time of such divisiveness, stories like yours are so important to hear. Messages like your mother’s, they just go to the root of what is common and shared among everybody no matter what the background or circumstance is like. Jean, I am just in awe and so impressed. Now I have to go back and read your first two books which I haven’t read yet. You’re giving me more work here.

Jean: I think you are so right. We are in a time of such divisiveness. This is a moment when books can do so much for us. It’s something that I think about when I’m writing. I don’t want to preach to anybody. I want the book to be a really fun read just by itself. It’s a page-turner and a mystery and suspenseful. You can turn the pages just enjoying the story. I also think that the reason I do these things with language and with culture and race and immigration in the books as underlying themes is that I hope that somebody who’s reading the book just for enjoyment and pleasure might pick up something else about, what is it like to not speak the language? What is it like to be judged? The great thing about novels is that it’s the one medium where you are really placed inside someone’s mind regardless of gender, color, race, socioeconomic status. It does not matter who you are. You really walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. That’s an opportunity for the author to show the reader, this is what it’s like. This is what happens.

Especially since Searching for Sylvie Lee was a Read with Jenna Today Show pick, I reached a wider audience than I had before. I reached some people who had really not read books like mine. It was really great. They say, wow, I had no idea that somebody who might be of another race but who might speak English perfectly could still encounter racism the way that your characters did. I had no idea how frustrating it must be to be Ma and to be kind of trapped within this bubble of not being able to express yourself truly the way you want to, to the world and to your own children, to listen to your children be on the phone and not know what they’re talking about. That’s just so difficult. Yet so many people go through that. I do see a book as a means of connection, absolutely.

Zibby: It’s great. A lot of books serve as a tool to share your voice, to find your own voice. I feel like your book actually helped you find your mother’s voice, the voice that maybe you never got to experience and that you didn’t want to be lost. That’s just beautiful. That’s amazing. I say this, by the way, to my kids a lot. How would you like to be dropped in Tibet? You try to talk. I took French in college or whatever, but I’m not particularly good at languages. To drop me in another culture, no matter what people said about the importance of that language, it’s not going to make me be able to learn it or master it any faster. Everyone has skills. Some people are foreign language people. Some people are not. To have that one skill out of so many be the thing that determines your intelligence is something that not enough people think about on a day-to-day basis. You’re absolutely right to highlight it and all of that. Now I have to find out, what’s going on now? Are you writing another book? What’s happening with you in the future? Sorry, I’ve been captivated. I’m running long on this interview, and I didn’t ask you anything I wanted to ask you.

Jean: I’m loving our conversation as well. I am actually finishing my next book. I’m really excited about this book. It is a mystery, thriller, an immigrant story kind of like Sylvie Lee. What happens is that when the book opens, we are reading a letter from a Chinese woman to someone she loves. We don’t know who she’s writing to. She is begging this person for forgiveness for her role in a murder. We know that somebody was killed. We know that she was involved in it. It was a person who was very important to the person she’s writing to who she loves more than anything in the world, but we don’t know who any of these players are. She says, I hope that when you hear my full story, you will forgive me and that maybe you will come to me and we could be reunited. Then we rewind fifteen years, and she starts to tell the story of what actually really happened all those years ago. It’s only at the end of the book that we find out who she’s writing to, who got killed, and why she really did everything she did.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, now I can’t wait to read that.

Jean: We’ll send you a copy as soon as .

Zibby: Please do. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Jean: Yeah, I have a lot of advice. To go back to my own problems with writing Searching for Sylvie Lee, I think that, as a writer, you kind of have to walk this line. On the one hand, you need to write from your burning passion. You need to write from your trauma. You need to write the things that make you uncomfortable, that hurt you. What I do think is wonderful about that is that — sometimes stuff happens to us and it just seems like, why is this happening? There’s nothing good in this. There’s nothing redeeming. This is so unfair. This should not be happening to me or to this other amazing, kind, wonderful person. I find writing to be a kind of magical thing. I guess it’s giving your attention. When you pay attention to something like that, when you describe it, when you tell it to someone else, it transforms something that is senseless into something that is a means of connection that we can learn something from, into a thing of beauty. I would say that as a writer, yes, you need to write to that place. You need to write that truth. On the other hand, sometimes it can be too right on the nose. It can be too hard to go forward in that way. What you have to do is just change the thing that’s silencing you. It could be a change like I did from changing from a man to a woman and letting the book take on its own life. It could be that you have a character in your book that is a censoring character that might be connected to somebody in your own past that didn’t want you to speak. I would say, just kill that person off. There’s nothing wrong it. Just kill them off. It’s fine. I mean, not in real life.

Zibby: I know. I know.

Jean: In your book, just get rid of them. Sometimes if you do that, that can be pretty magical. Suddenly, you’re able to tell things that you were afraid to speak about before or change them enough that you can deal with having them in your book. That is what I would say. Maybe one last thing to say to aspiring writers. Sometimes it’s very hard to know what advice to take and what advice not to take. I would say, yes, absolutely, be as open as you can. On the other hand, you wrote what you wrote for a reason. I always think that it’s better to have a living, vital, imperfect creature than a perfect corpse lying on a slab that is maybe in total proportion but is no longer alive. Whatever that vital spark is that is making you write what you write, you have to nurture that and keep that alive.

Zibby: Wow. This is amazing. I feel so fortunate that we got a chance to talk. I just wish we could talk longer. Now I want to stay in touch and meet you and all of the rest. I’m so glad our paths have crossed in life. I’ll email you after. Thank you, Jean. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for showing everybody what’s really important about life in so many ways and also for the entertainment that your books provide. It’s a one-stop shop with you.

Jean: Zibby, thank you so much. I do want to say before we get off that you do so much to promote reading and authors. You have incredible, impeccable taste. I have been a really big fan of yours for such a long time. I’m so happy we got to meet and that we had this chance to talk.

Zibby: Me too. Thanks, Jean.

Jean: Take care. Bye.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.