Like thousands, if not millions, of other aspiring novelists, Jade Chang toiled over her first manuscript (make that manuscripts) for years and years. And then more years.
The Los Angeles-based journalist spent her days editing a magazine and her nights hunched over her laptop, as she tapped away in cafés and even the lobby of a hip hotel.
“Often I was there working so late that the lobby turned into a nightclub,” she says. “Sometimes I would keep working – it was like, ‘Who’s that girl on her laptop?’ – or I would pack up my pages and join the party. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s time.”
So imagine her disappointment when her first novel, which she had worked on for half a decade, failed to impress. When she sent it to agents, she received “very encouraging nos, but they were nos nonetheless”.
“I sent it out in 2008, right after the great recession began, and it was a terrible time. The general response was, ‘We like it, but we don’t even know if there’s going to be a publishing industry any more’,” she says.
Chang could have scurried back to her day job – at luxury magazine Angeleno – and filed her first manuscript in the drawer marked “broken dreams”. But her obsession with writing – creating indelible characters, complex personal histories and intricate worlds – was sturdier than that. So she fired up her laptop again and did what any determined novelist-in-training would do – wrote another story.
After five more years of hunched shoulders and tapping fingers, Chang emerged with The Wangs Vs the World, which follows a once-mega-rich-suddenly-poor Chinese-American family who take a wild road trip.
Chang’s protagonist is Charles Wang, a brash Taipei transplant to Bel Air who built a cosmetics empire. The book opens at the start of the financial crisis, in 2008, and Charles has just lost his fortune. The fallen tycoon’s only hope is to return to China to reclaim his ancestral property and build a new life and empire, but first he has to pull his son out of college and his daughter from private school, load them and his second wife into his car, and drive almost 5,000km to upstate New York, where his other daughter, a disgraced art-world “It” girl, has taken refuge.
“You read a lot of immigrant novels that are about pain, about people who can’t fit in, and they just want to be like their white neighbours,” says Chang, sipping lemonade at a French café in Los Angeles. “That was not my experience growing up at all. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and my life was fun. I definitely had a lot of friends. I wasn’t standing on the outside of the party looking in. Anyone who is a writer is also an observer, but you can also observe from the middle.
“I really wanted to tell a different immigrant story, about an immigrant family that doesn’t necessarily want to fit in. Nor do they see themselves as ‘other’. They are central to their view of the country.”
Breaking – make that smashing – the formula of the immigrant novel proved to be a good move. She sent her manuscript out as a cold submission to the literary agent of author/chef/television personality Eddie Huang (Fresh Off the Boat) and he took on the book almost immediately.
“I felt like he got what I wanted to do,” says Chang. “That I was trying to write a book that was fun, and big and exciting. I wanted to write a book that wrestles with a lot of ideas and yet was totally enjoyable to read and he understood that immediately.”
The Wangs Vs the World went to auction. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt snagged the prize and has made it the publishing house’s lead book for October, no small honour for a book that stars characters of Chinese descent.
As Chang’s October publishing date approaches, the buzz about The Wangs is growing – Entertainment Weekly has dubbed it one of its “25 books we can’t wait to read in 2016”, and Publishers Lunch named it one of its “buzz” books for autumn.
Beyond the hype is a moving picaresque with characters fresh to American literature. Says author J. Ryan Stradal (Kitchens of the Great Midwest), “Chang’s debut novel is a heartbreaking, hilarious and honest American epic: a road trip that’s an escape from our parents’ American dream, toward an unknown destination that’s both more vulnerable and hopeful.”
Chang, who grew up speaking Putonghua with her parents, insists the Wang family is not a thinly veiled version of her own clan.
“What we do have in common with the Wangs is that our family had to leave mainland China and they moved to Taiwan with the Nationalists. We are part of that diaspora, but we were never fallen millionaires. We never had a mansion in Bel Air.”
When asked why so many contemporary Asian-American novels focus on super-wealthy characters and their relationship to money, Chang shrugs and says, “I’m not sure this is just an Asian thing. Money is a big theme in a lot of American books written after the recession. That’s what we’ve been thinking about. This is just part of living in our contemporary society.”
Still, she loves recent bestseller Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan, which has helped pave the way for The Wangs.
“The book was enormously enjoyable,” she says. “It made me want to go to Singapore and eat everything. I also think it has the best title ever.”
It’s a “stellar” time for Asian-American literature, says Chang: “Viet Nguyen just won the Pulitzer for The Sympathizer, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You was a huge hit last year. Alexander Chee and Hanya Yanagihara wrote beautiful, well-received books that are not about Asian people at all. I can’t think of a time that’s happened before … It’s exciting that there are all sorts of Asian-American stories – and stories by Asian-Americans – being told now. I think that’s the result of a lot of work and struggle, and I’m very grateful to be part of this moment in time.”
As for her hopes for The Wangs? “That the book finds a really engaged audience and gives readers a lot of enjoyment and gets people excited about the themes raised, such as how we value things as a society, how we think about beauty and art, and how we think about race. The worst that could happen is that everyone thinks the book is just OK. I would rather be hated than for people to say, ‘Well, that was just, uh, fine, and so what?’”
As she waits for The Wangs to take their place on the literary stage, Chang is working on the next book – she’s keeping the title and storyline under wraps – and trying hard not to think about what it might mean to be the next big thing in literature.
“I’m sure once I get closer to my publishing date, I’m going to get some serious nerves. But right now it’s just exciting. It’s all been an amazing ride.”