Elena Bowes caught up with Susie Yang about her debut novel, White Ivy, an immigrant story with a twist or two or three. Ivy Lin is a Chinese American immigrant who turns the stereotype on its head.
Ambitious and determined to get her man, Ivy is a modern day Scarlett O’Hara. Fans of Gone Girl and The Talented Mr Ripley will feel right at home in this coming of age tale that explores class, race and identity.
You were studying to be a pharmacist, three years into your six-year degree when you decided to call it quits and pursue writing, a bit like your main character Ivy Lin with the LSATS, only you got a lot further. Can you tell us about your decision to become a writer, and did you always have this particular story in your head?
I’ve been writing stories my entire life but I never thought I’d be able to pursue it as a career until much later in life, probably after I retired. It wasn’t until I tried both pharmacy school and working in tech that I slowly built up the courage and conviction to seriously pursue writing as a career. I gave myself a year to see if I could finish a novel. I reasoned if I couldn’t do it, then I wasn’t cut out to be a writer. In that year, I developed the idea of an Asian-American social climber. The particular story I wanted to tell has never wavered, even though the details have changed through the various iterations.
After being born in Chongqing, China, you’ve lived in 14 cities across three continents. Do you think that sense of ‘otherness’ helps you in being a writer?
This is absolutely the case. Growing up, I went to a lot of schools across the US and was comfortable with my eternal role as “the new girl.” I think this is why outsider perspectives alway resonate with me. Writing is a way for me to examine my own life experiences and observations.
You attended several writing workshops in the writing of your debut novel. Can you tell us what makes a good writing workshop?
I think careful readers and a generous, meticulous teacher make a great workshop. It’s time carved out of normal life where fiction can be taken seriously, and every sentence can be dissected for meaning. I find that attention to detail enormously rejuvenating and inspiring.
“Ivy Lin was a thief, but you would never know it to look at her.” That first line resonates throughout the book. How easy was it to write?
The first chapter was the easiest to write. It became the bedrock of the book. In my experience, the chapters that come easily are also more enjoyable for the reader as well, whereas the parts that feel laboured to me will feel laboured for the reader.
Your book will be loved by fans of Gone Girl, The Talented Mr. Ripley – the anti-hero. Can you tell us what it is about the Scarlett O’Haras of this world that appeals to you as a writer?
I really enjoy seeing ambitious and machiavellian characters get thrown into difficult situations and watching to see how they overcome their obstacles, and justify their actions. Since my own personality is closer to a nihilist, it’s the “opposites attract” principle to characters who hustle. It’s also just more entertaining to watch the Scarlett O’Haras of the world.
Ivy Lin is a savvy, conniving, ambitious social climber, not particularly likeable, and yet we still root for her. How did you accomplish that?
I was really intentional about giving Ivy’s childhood its own due in the book so that readers could sympathise with her pain and understand her later decisions. Personally, I’ve always loved character backstories sometimes even more than the main story.
Ivy is torn between her mind and her heart, Gideon and Roux, her two love interests are also the foils to her character. Can you explain how Ivy connects with these two very different men?
The way I see it, Roux is someone who Ivy has more natural affinity for, but she rejects him because he represents the parts of herself she wishes to reject, like her humble upbringing and immigrant status. Gideon is who she aspires to be. I don’t think Ivy understands either men; they are simply reflections for herself.
“I saw my chance and made a story for myself – even if it was a false story. You have to give a man something to fight for. That’s the secret to a lasting marriage.” Nan tells this to her daughter, Ivy. What does she mean?
Nan is telling Ivy how to use narrative as an opportunity for gain. Essentially, Nan has done this with her own marriage where she convinces her husband that he has “saved” her, when in reality, she has engineered their entire relationship. Ivy sees this as validation for her own reinvention.
Roux says this to Ivy, “When I was a kid, I thought I could control my destiny. Do whatever I wanted once I had some money. But now I think our lives were decided for us a long time ago. Everything that’s happened so far, the way we met again – doesn’t it feel inevitable?” Ivy expresses a similar thought when as a young adult she bumps into her childhood crush’s sister. Do you think fate and destiny really do call the shots?
No. I think it can feel that way because we’re human and we need to make sense of our lives. But I don’t believe in predestination.
And lastly, please tell us something surprising about yourself.
I am a complete night owl and wrote most of White Ivy between the hours of 10pm and 6am.