Susie Yang, WHITE IVY

Susie Yang, WHITE IVY

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

Susie Yang: Hi. It’s good to be here. Hello again.

Zibby: Hello again. I know. We’ve just been chatting. Now it’s official, though. We can officially make it sound very polished and awesome.

Susie: It’s very fun to be here.

Zibby: White Ivy, congratulations on this amazing novel. So great, so captivating from the very beginning. This main character you’ve created, I feel like I could spot her on the sidewalk at this point. You made her so real. Even the way you describe her posture, the way she walks, everything about her seems so real. Now of course, I have to keep my belongings close so she doesn’t swipe anything. First of all, tell listeners what White Ivy is about, please.

Susie: White Ivy follows the characters of Ivy Lin from when she’s fourteen to twenty-seven. She falls in love with the son of a state senator when she’s a child. They reconnect again as an adult. The entire arc of the story is Ivy trying to capture Gideon’s heart and marry into his very patrician, WASP family. It’s mostly set in Boston, but there are parts of her life where she goes to New Jersey. She spends a summer in China. All of these experiences inform her worldview and leads her to make the decisions that she makes in the book as she strives to get what she wants in life.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, the scene where you have her entire family storm into Gideon’s house on that first sleepover and they’re all waiting on the couch and her brother’s eating pancakes, it was so awkward and tense. I just was recoiling inside myself. It was like, oh, my gosh, this poor girl.

Susie: I think awkwardness is an underused emotion in books. It’s such a common emotion in real life, secondhand emotion. It’s very visceral.

Zibby: It’s so true. How did you come up with this story idea?

Susie: When I decided to write the novel, I gave myself a year to finish the complete draft. The first thing I had to decide was, what kind of book did I want to write? I’ve always been drawn to anti-hero characters, so think Becky Sharp or Scarlet O’Hara or Tom Ripley. I knew that I wanted to create a pretty unique, strong, female character who would go to great lengths to get what she wanted. That would obviously involve moral compromises and manipulation. Then the first sentence of the book, “Ivy Lin was a thief, but you would never know it to look at her,” that came to me out of the blue. Then once I had that, the entire arc of her story came to me at once. That hasn’t changed from the very first sentence. I always kind of saw the whole vision of the book. A lot of the revisions and the different drafts was just making sure that it was a pleasurable read and getting all of the details correct and the sequence of events correct.

Zibby: Wow. Go back to when you decided to take a year to write a novel. How did that fit into your life? Where did that come from?

Susie: My life plan. The short story is that I’ve always written for fun. It was always a hobby of mine. I come from a Chinese American background. My parents wanted me to be one of three professions: a doctor, a lawyer, maybe an engineer. I always thought of writing as a hobby. I never thought of it as a career path. I was running my own tech startup in San Francisco for around three years at that point. Something in me just changed. I call it my quarter-life crisis. Wait a second, is this really what I want to be doing for the rest of my life? I’d always been trying to write a novel just in my free time. Classic problem is I couldn’t ever finish one. I have a hundred chapter ones on my computer. I thought if I don’t give myself that pressure to say, let me just put an arbitrary deadline on this to prove to myself I could do it, then I’ll never ever do this. I just decided to make that time to do it to see if I could.

Zibby: So you’re very young, then?

Susie: I’m thirty-two. At that time, I was twenty-six, twenty-seven, something like that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing. That’s particularly amazing because this book is so good. I feel like sometimes you need more life experience to really inform a book, but maybe that’s what I just fool myself to think.

Susie: I think it’s a vivid imagination.

Zibby: Maybe. Okay, maybe that’s part of it. Ivy grew up at first with her grandmother in China and then tragically, almost, got sent across the world in an airplane by herself to reunite with her parents who she didn’t even remember and who she was raised by until her grandmother eventually meets them there. A lot of this is about a sense of place and identity and belonging and how out of place she feels in America. Even with her own family, she never really ever feels comfortable. Tell me about that sense. Is that something you are familiar with? Do you have family who’s first — does that come from a personal place or just a societal, imaginative place?

Susie: That’s super personal. I was born in China. I came to the US when I was five. Even despite that, I’ve moved around so much growing up. My dad changed jobs a lot. I was talking to somebody about this, and I think I’ve gone to eight different schools before college even. That feeling of always entering a new environment and observing people or adapting and always looking at the scene through an outsider’s point of view, that’s something that’s very natural to me. I’m really drawn to that in books as well. I love books that always examine a group or a club or a society from the point of view of somebody who doesn’t belong there because that’s the point of view that I’m most comfortable with. It was really natural for me to structure the story of Ivy around that perspective. Ivy’s experiences also inform her feeling of being an outsider. She goes to this very private school that’s full of very wealthy people, but she’s not wealthy herself. Then there’s the fact that she’s an immigrant. All these factors also contribute to her feeling of wanting to belong and wanting to understand what values her classmates have and trying to absorb them as her own.

Zibby: The way that you wrote about her first immersion into this new lifestyle when she was walking around Gideon’s house, not to keep coming back to this scene, and just looking as he is casually like, that’s our summer cottage, and her just being like, what? It’s neat to see her. You could feel her eyes widening and all of that. What does it feel like to have this book coming out into the world? Are you so excited about it? How does it feel?

Susie: Honestly, it’s just been such a strange year. I feel like at normal times it would be very much, you’d be out and about in the world. I could hold the book and see people in real life. This year has been so strange. Even all the feedback I’m getting, it really is just through the internet or Zoom calls and things like that. It feels, in a way, I’m isolated from the effects of it having come out. It hasn’t come out yet, but just from the early readers and early reviewers. In a way, I’m glad because of that because I feel like it makes it feel less distracting. There’s people who are like, I read it, I really liked it, and that’s been amazing. In a sense, my life is still very much me going in my pajamas to write book two and taking these calls with you to talk about the book.

Zibby: Wait, tell me — sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. I wanted to hear about book two right away, so I had to interrupt you.

Susie: I’m two-thirds in, so I feel like I’m not going to describe it really well. I’m still in the weeds. Essentially, it kind of talks about the same themes. I realize I’m still really interested in the theme of reinvention. It’s about a couple. It also spans around a decade. It’s set between US and Beijing. It tackles the Chinese entertainment industry. It talks about people’s different agendas. Those are themes I find myself drawn to, this constant identity politics and comedy of manners and observing a strange society with an outsider’s eye. That’s the most big-picture I can think about it right now.

Zibby: Now you’re an American living in the UK and also temporarily in Florence. You’ve continued to put yourself in these situations where you are not —

Susie: — I know. It’s a disease.

Zibby: Might I point out to you that you have this issue. Just saying.

Susie: Yes. I always tell myself, I’m going to settle. I’m so tired of moving. I’m so tired of moving. I just want to settle down. I seem unable to do that.

Zibby: At least you’ve come to a fragile peace with it, and it’s good material if that’s your central theme. You’re just getting more material.

Susie: I tell myself that. It’s all good for the experiences.

Zibby: Wait, go back for a second to after you finished writing White Ivy and finished tinkering. How long did that process take? Then I want to hear about how you sold it, the publishing part of it.

Susie: I feel like that was really where I learned to become a writer. When I wrote the first draft, I truly had no idea about — I didn’t get an MFA. I don’t have writer friends. It felt like I was writing it for myself to see if I could do it. I had no idea how it worked, even. When I look back now, I’m like, oh god, that first draft was horrible. I went to this conference called Tin House. It was in July. Around that time, it was in the year of me writing the first draft. I had around probably seventy, eighty percent of the first draft done. They had agents come to Tin House. I actually sat down next to Jenny who is now my agent, but it was completely coincidental. She was like, “What are you working on?” I think I pitched my book as an Asian American Edith Wharton-type book or something like that. She’s like, “Great, send it to me when you’re done.” That really lit the fire under my butt. I was like, wow, there is somebody waiting to read it, and she’s an agent. Around October — actually, it was Halloween. A few months later, I sent her the complete first draft. I had done my research. It was what to expect. I assumed that we’d go back and forth in revisions. She read it in one day. She emailed me back the next day and was basically like, “Oh, my god, can we meet up?” I was living in New York at the time. She’s in Brooklyn. She’s like, “I’d love to represent you. I think it’s ready to be sold.”

Zibby: What?

Susie: I was like, I don’t know about this. Are you lying to me? Can I trust you? She was basically like, “I think it’s ready. I can’t think of any revisions that I would want you to make.” I trusted her. That was November. Then she sold the book in December one month later.

Zibby: Wow, that’s awesome.

Susie: That’s how it was sold. The next part is where I actually learned how to become a real writer. I went through six drafts of edits with my editor, Marysue at Simon & Schuster. Wow, I learned, essentially, craft. Everything before that was just almost instinct and fumbling my way, kind of throwing words at the wall and seeing what stuck. Through the different drafts, I feel like I actually learned why something was working, how to make something more compelling. My writing got better. It felt like I wrote it very quickly if I say one year. Actually, I consider it, really, a three-project because it took two years of edits after with my editor.

Zibby: So now we don’t feel as shamed that you just whipped this thing out.

Susie: I’m ashamed. I look at my draft, I’m like, okay.

Zibby: Oh, stop.

Susie: No, really.

Zibby: How do your parents who wanted you to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer feel about having a novelist as a daughter?

Susie: It’s so funny. When I decided to do the one year to write the book, I actually didn’t tell anyone about it except for my husband. I was like, “I’m going to do this.” He’s like, “I support you,” obviously. I didn’t tell my friends. I didn’t tell my family. We were still running the company. It wasn’t until I got my agent that I told my family. I was like, “Guys, I signed with an agent.” They were like, “What does that mean?” I explained everything to them. Then when the book sold, I think that’s when it became real. I remember my dad — of course, they were like, “Can we read it? Can we read it?” I was like, “No, not until it’s totally done.” I think his first question was something like, “Are you going to write more books, or is this just a one-time thing that you wanted to try out?” That was really funny. Then when I actually had the production copy everybody’s reading now, I sent it over to him. He was giving me real-time feedback on all the chapters and things like that. That was definitely an experience. Never thought I’d have my parents read a sex scene that I wrote.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, not high on the list when you’re growing up of imagined activities. Is your husband a senator’s son? Did you have to do some research into depicting that character?

Susie: I definitely did research. I actually hate research, so I’m an extremely lazy researcher. My copy editor had a lot of work. She would fact-check things for me. I think that was actually one of the issues. There was a difference between a state senator versus just a senator, and so had to change a lot of the details, a lot of googling.

Zibby: What was your tech company? What did it do?

Susie: It was called . It actually taught people how to build web apps. When I graduated from pharmacy school, I was like, I hate pharmacy school. I don’t want to be a pharmacist. I actually moved out to San Francisco at the time to work in tech. I ended up starting a company. I taught myself how to code, and then I understood the resources that were available. Then I thought, these aren’t that great, at the time. I started a company that, essentially, they do videos. We did videos that teaches people how to build things like Etsy or Yelp so that people could launch them as startups.

Zibby: That’s so cool. Now I’ll have to go and see that on the side. I always am frustrated. My website is on Squarespace, and so I’ve learned how to use that. Sometimes I’m like, oh, but I’d really rather — if only I knew how to do this, I wouldn’t have to wait for someone else. I like to do everything myself. My daughter does coding classes now. I’ve missed the coding boat, I think, but maybe a site like yours would’ve helped.

Susie: Not anymore. There’s way better ones now than the site. It’s still up, but it’s so out of date.

Zibby: All right. Well, I’ll put that on the backburner of things I’m going to teach myself to do these days. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Susie: My gosh, I don’t know that I’m qualified to give advice to aspiring authors.

Zibby: You’re qualified. You count. You are an author. You sold a book.

Susie: I’m trying to think about what really helped me get through the slumps. One thing that really helped me get through — I’m the sort of person where I always need to understand the vision of what I’m writing because that’s what pulls me through the bad writing and also when you get tired of certain things. The advice was, I’ve read it somewhere, which is, write something only you can write. That was such a touchstone for me because I’d always think, is this the most interesting thing? Is this worth writing? Is this going to be interesting to anyone but me? During all those times of doubts, I would always think, at least nobody else can write this specific book with this specific vision. That made it worthwhile for me personally. I would say that one really got me through a lot of the hard times. The other advice actually came from my agent, which is just to think about writing as the long term, as a marathon, not a sprint. I tend to work in really intense spurts where I just want to get it done. I have a really impatient personality. For me, it’s like, this finished. It was calming down looking at it from a long-term point of view. What kind of stories am I going to be interested in writing? What ideas do I have? and jotting those down. So not being in such a rush and not giving myself so much pressure to have it perfect the first draft or the first time around and to look at it like a marathon.

Zibby: Good advice. Excellent. Awesome. Thank you so much for chatting about your book and for the great book and the great read. I half-expected you to look like your character, but you don’t at all. You’re very pretty.

Susie: Thank you. One of the questions I always get from my friends is always, “Is that you on the cover of the book?” I’m like, no, clearly, you don’t know me that well.

Zibby: I actually haven’t seen the cover yet because I read it online.

Susie: When you see it, it’s not me.

Zibby: All right. I’ll tell you. Now I have inside information as to what you really look like. I hope next time we see you — you’ll probably be living in five other countries. Maybe if you ever breeze through New York, I’ll cross paths with you.

Susie: Hopefully when all this is over.

Zibby: Yes, exactly.

Susie: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming. Good luck with launch. Buh-bye.

Susie: Bye.

Susie Yang, WHITE IVY