Susie Luo, PAPER NAMES: A Novel

Susie Luo, PAPER NAMES: A Novel

Zibby is joined by author Susie Luo to discuss her highly-praised debut novel Paper Names, which tells the sharp and propulsive story of two families who are brought together by an unexpected act of violence. One is a Chinese family of immigrants, and the other is a wealthy white family with a secret. Luo talks about identity in connection to her complex characters and herself. She also shares her journey to publishing this book, from college to corporate work to writing full-time. The episode concludes with a peek into her writing process and the work she has in progress!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Susie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Paper Names.

Susie Luo: Of course. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: I love this because here I am on the Upper East Side reading about the Rosewood on the Upper West Side and the trips to the Hamptons and all of that. This is really wonderful. Thank you.

Susie: I definitely get inspired by what’s around me.

Zibby: Are you in New York?

Susie: Yeah, I live on the Upper West Side.

Zibby: Great. Awesome. Why don’t you tell listeners what Paper Names is about?

Susie: Paper Names is a story about two families who are on different tracks of the American dream. Then they’re set on a collision course with each other. One is a Chinese family who immigrate to the States. The other is a white wealthy family with a dark secret. An unexpected act of violence happens at the beginning of the story. That ties the two families together. Then we follow the characters over two to three decades as they make decisions that both reflect on who they are and who they want to become.

Zibby: It’s amazing. You are a great writer. I feel like you immediately get us into the scenes. I am so rooting for Tony even though I shouldn’t be rooting for Tony. You have all these complex characters. I’ve always wanted to read — maybe this sounds silly. Growing up in New York City, I always want to know more about the lives of the doormen. I even wrote an article about this for Quest magazine a long time ago, “What Your Doormen Must Be Thinking About You.” I should send it to you. You give the whole backstory of Tony’s life. Even though he does things that we might not agree with, you also paint him in a way that we want to root for him and his family because here he is, this amazing engineer coming over and being a doorman and studying. This image of him in the lobby with the dictionary is so amazing. Tammy, you did nine-year-old-girl talk very well. I have a nine-year-old, so this was particularly interesting for me. I feel like the way you paint people where we see all their weaknesses, like Oliver hiding out and not helping, but then make them sympathetic by whatever’s happening with his grandfather, it’s very cool the way you did it all. I really enjoyed it.

Susie: Thank you so much. Thank you for taking the time to read the book. Honestly, on this publishing journey, publishing’s such a black box. There’s so many ups and downs. Something I keep trying to remind myself is I just never thought people would ever read what I wrote. I just always want to be grateful and thankful for having that.

Zibby: It’s fast-paced. It’s easy to inhale the book, which I love, for time-starved readers. Also, you just can’t help rooting for everyone in different ways. Was that your intention? Is that just what I’m taking out of it? Tell me about where, even, the germs of this idea came from and all of that.

Susie: I started writing Paper Names the first month of lockdown, so May 2020. We were all on pause, isolated, not seeing our family and friends. During that time, it also struck me that I was missing the small daily interactions, like saying hi to my doorman, saying hi to the security guard outside my office, the cafeteria lady who I always saw. I see these people sometimes more often than my closest friends and family. I’m sure everyone can relate to that. These are interactions that really fill up the fabric of our lives. That’s where the germ started. I wanted to explore a relationship between a doorman and the residents of a wealthy building, just thinking about, how do they interact? Past that, how do they actually think about how they’re each interacting? What would make their lives actually intersect more than just the daily small talk? That’s how I came up with Paper Names. I’m so glad you root for all the characters because sometimes I worried that it’d be difficult to root for some of them. To me, they’re so real.

Zibby: They’re so real.

Susie: When I get into writing, I actually dream like them. I think about them all the time. I go for a lot of runs in Central Park. I’m just always thinking about them. What I do love is, even though the beginning of the book is always harder to write because I’m trying to figure them out, towards the end, I’m just sprinting because I know exactly what they would say or wouldn’t say. That’s the really rewarding part. You’ve written as well. Everyone loves when you get to that two-thirds juncture. You’re like, okay, I know who these people are. Now I’m just going to be able to finish the story. Knowing you can finish it is so satisfying.

Zibby: That is a good feeling. Tony’s immigrant experience also highlights what we hear about so often. So-and-so left behind his job as an engineer. Now he’s a doorman. Here, he’s studying. This is so different because you let us — this is the joy of fiction, really, when you’re in somebody’s home and heart and mind. You see what they’re up against. Even when Tony is fantasizing that maybe after this class he’ll get a job at Netscape or something — is that what you said?

Susie: Yeah. The nineties. AOL.

Zibby: I was like, wait, what? It’s the hopes. Everybody clings on these little dreams and hopes. Then you see their hopes dashed when Oliver walks by — I think it was Oliver. Somebody walked by and was just like, oh, it’s too late for him. Why is he even bothering with the dictionary? It’s sad but inspiring at the same time. People’s perceptions, like you say, are often misaligned with what’s really going on. I appreciated that look into Tony’s psyche even though — I don’t know why I keep talking about him. I just found him to be such a captivating character. Obviously, Oliver and all of his foibles too, and even Oliver’s mom. There’s so many great characters. It was so fun.

Susie: I really enjoyed writing them. I think Tony came to me the easiest. Oliver actually came to me first. I had just dabbled with a few short stories before. Oliver was always the main character of those short stories. Something I was always interested in was what I call performative goodness. Why do we do nice things? Is it so other people can see it? What if no one can see it? Then he transformed into this bigger character. The hardest to write for me was Tammy. I loved writing her when she was young. I’m so glad you liked that nine-year-old voice because that was so fun for me to totally switch bodies and remember what it was like. I remember googling songs of the nineties, just getting back into that era. I thought it was actually really hard for me to write older Tammy because she’s not me at all, but I felt like that would be the natural implication. Oh, I’m writing myself. I think I held her at arm’s length for a long time being like, no, no, no. I know she’s a lawyer, but she’s not me. I promise. Then finally, once I really felt like she was her own character, I was able to dive in more.

Zibby: Interesting. What are some of the messages you want people to take away from the book? When you think about all of the scenes and how it all adds up to this wonderful story, when we put the book down, what are you hoping people take away?

Susie: One main topic I thought about the entire time while writing was identity. I feel like identity is so complicated. It’s always in flux. A lot of people say that your identity, it’s made up of where you were born, who you were born to, what culture you were raised in, what your family values are. I tend to see those things as more of your background. Those are things you didn’t choose. To me, your identity is made up of your decisions, the choices you get to make. I just wanted to explore what that looks like when you get to choose who you are because of or in spite of your past.

Zibby: I love that. Even through all the generations too, you really did that well. How did you get started writing? Tell me your whole story. Where’d you grow up? Who you are? Tell me about you.

Susie: I was born in China. I came over to Flushing, Queens, when I was three. We spent some time there, but I mostly grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. Then I went to Penn for undergrad and then Cornell for law school. Then I went straight to becoming a lawyer for three years in New York City. Then I left my job. I didn’t hate being a lawyer at all. A lot of my best friends are still from that law firm, so I’ll always be grateful.

Zibby: Can you say what law firm?

Susie: I was at Shearman & Sterling doing M&A law. Then I left to actually travel to Europe for a while. I went on a solo, I think it was a five-month journey through Europe. I just wanted a reset. I felt like I had been on a track all my life, college, law school, law firm. I just wanted to pause and be like, is this actually what I want? Then when I came back, I still remember I had my European backpacking clothes. I was sleeping on a friend’s couch in Brooklyn. My parents were like, “So what are you going to do now?” I was just like, oh, man. I had a few friends who had worked at Goldman Sachs. Through my travels, I had realized that one thing I did want was to work at a place that was efficient and gave me a lot of autonomy and was comprised of very smart, hardworking people because that would inspire me to be the same, but I wanted a creative job. I actually searched the word “creative” on the Goldman Sachs career portal. My job popped up. It was the number-one search result. The requirements were MBA, three to five years as a financial analyst. I had, literally, none of the requirements. I was like, I have a JD that’s a comparable — I have worked as a lawyer. I knew I would never get through HR, so I actually googled the team and found out who was leading it in New York. I just cold-emailed him. I was like, “This is why I want to work on this team. This is why I think I’d be good for it.” I emailed him at eight AM on a Friday. Thirty minutes later, I got a call from HR being like, “Can you come in today for an interview?”

Zibby: What?

Susie: They were like, “One o’clock.” I was like, I have no work clothes. I had nothing on me. I was like, “How about two o’clock?” I remember running into a taxi going to Theory, this amazing store manager running around after me being like, “Try this one.” It was like a scene out of a movie. I remember rushing into the office. I think why my interview went so well is I didn’t prep at all. I was just very much myself. I was like, “I want you to know I don’t know any finance, but I’m going to learn it.” Isn’t that how life works? It’s not just that you come in with the knowledge. Sometimes you do get some leeway to just learn it if you want. That was probably my perfect corporate job. If I had to stay in corporate, I would still work there.

Zibby: What was the job? Creative what?

Susie: I was an investment banker, but for future technologies. I would speak to big corporates and private equity about virtual reality or smart cities. It was a lot of storytelling just naturally built in. Where are we now? Where do we think we’ll go? What companies will lead us there? My boss, Brian, was great, probably still the best boss I’ve ever had. Again, I didn’t leave because it was a bad job. All of my experiences together somehow added up into writing. I don’t have any plans of leaving this writing job I have.

Zibby: Now you’re writing full time?

Susie: Yes.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so cool. Have you already written your next book?

Susie: I’m in the middle of it. I did write a whole nother book before this second book I’m writing. Paper Names, it’s more character driven. There’s is a plot, but I wrote Paper Names totally without an outline, one chapter at a time, and just pantsed it. Looking back, I felt like a lot of hooks for great novels have a more thriller or mystery-like plotline. I was like, that’s what I’m going to do next. I actually wrote twenty chapters of that book. Then I was like, I just don’t care about it as much, but I found three characters in that book who I did care about. Those are the three I focus on in the second book.

Zibby: I love that you said you found the characters. Our subconscious is so bizarre, and the way that writing works, that you create them in one, and you’re like, oh, great, now I’ll just transport them over here.

Susie: I often feel like I try to not write about what I actually want to write about because it’s too real. It’s hard to go there sometimes. I have to almost write around it to be like, okay, fine, kind of convincing myself we can go there, and then starting a new book but with those three already in the forefront.

Zibby: What do you really want to write about?

Susie: One thing that sparks my writing is often confusion. Why did that person do that? Why did this person say that to me? That was so hurtful. Even if I’m a third party witnessing an interaction that I found baffling. I just feel like every character or every person, whatever they’re doing, in their own world, it makes sense. There’s an internal logic. They’re not actually just crazy. That’s what’s so interesting to me. Why did that person do something I just can’t understand? In writing, I try to understand that person. I feel like that’s provided me with a lot of self-therapy, I guess. Once you understand someone, you can empathize with them and forgive them too.

Zibby: During the pandemic, you really missed the day-to-day interactions. You’re a writer, which can be very isolating also. Do you write at home? Where do you go to work? How do you make sure to keep those little moments in your life?

Susie: I do write at home. I have a great dog. She curls up next to me as I write. I love my home. I feel like I really try to make it a place that every night when I come home, it’s my little nest. I do write here. I try to work out every day, whether it’s yoga or a run in the park. You start seeing similar faces over and over again. It’s just nice to have a community that’s outside of writing as well. Then I also have to make a concerted effort to make sure I plan dinners and time with friends. With writing, it’s so hard because I’m my own boss. In a lot of ways, it’s like, yeah, I’m supposed to write today. Then it’s eleven PM. I’m like, I have to still write today. I wasted my whole day away. I don’t even know what I was doing. Then you feel like you never have time to see people because you’re always behind on your schedule. Just keeping busy helps me actually be productive.

Zibby: It’s that whole thing. Give a busy person something to do. It’ll get done a lot faster. When I’m like, I have to do these three things, they don’t get done. When I have to do three hundred things, they get done.

Susie: It’s like always during finals season. You’re all of a sudden uber-productive. You’ve never seen yourself this way. Then the second it’s over, you’re just a sloth on the couch.

Zibby: What types of books do you like to read?

Susie: I love to read books about complicated characters. I really love reading Zadie Smith. I really love Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. A lot of people say, I don’t like books with unlikeable characters. They have to be likeable enough so I root for them, but I just feel like everybody’s so flawed. No one’s going to like everybody. That’s what’s so interesting about books. I get to read about people doing bad things, but in a way that I can understand.

Zibby: I love that. When you were thinking of comps for this book, what were some of your comps? Just wondering.

Susie: I don’t think they were correct comps. Because I came from banking, I googled the ten best agents to send it to. The comps I had for my book were actually the two authors who inspired me to write. They were Zadie Smith and Gillian Flynn. Those were the first two books I read where I felt like the voice just jumped off the page. It felt like so much their own voices that I felt like, oh, my god, maybe I have a voice too. I don’t need to just be a reader. I can put my voice on a page. I think I comped it to — I was like, it’s like the multigenerational narrative of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and the character-driven thriller elements of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Looking back, I think it’s hilarious because from what I’ve heard from other writers, most of them don’t comp Zadie Smith and Gillian Flynn. I think they just know of more books that are more similar to theirs, but it worked, I guess. I think the real comp to my book, from what I’ve heard from my publisher and other people who have read it, is Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes.

Zibby: Oh, yeah, I did read that.

Susie: I think our style of writing is similar. Hers is not so plotty, but a lot of character switches, points of view. I love that book. I’m happy that that’s my comp.

Zibby: It’s so great. This is wonderful. I really love the story. I feel like these are characters I’m going to keep thinking about for a while. Hats off to you. It’s really great.

Susie: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me here.

Zibby: It was a pleasure. Hope our paths connect soon, especially right here in the city. Oh, my goodness.

Susie: It’d be good to meet up.

Zibby: Yes. Thanks a lot. Buh-bye.

Susie: Thanks. Bye.

Susie Luo, PAPER NAMES: A Novel

PAPER NAMES: A Novel by Susie Luo

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