Jean Kwok

How did you become a writer?

I immigrated from Hong Kong to New York City along with my family when I was five years old. We lived in an apartment that was overrun with rats and roaches, without a working central heating system, and the windowpanes were covered with a layer of ice on the inside throughout the bitter winters. After school, I went with my father to work at the sweatshop in Chinatown, where my brothers and mother also worked. Much as I loved reading from the moment that I learned to speak English, there was no space in this life for dreams of becoming a writer.

Yet it was somehow in this difficult period that my brother managed to save enough to buy me a gift one evening. Instead of getting me a toy or piece of candy, he brought me something that would change my life: a blank diary. He said, “Whatever you write in this will belong to you.”

From that moment on, I kept a journal, which kept me on course throughout all those years of being an awkward outsider. I entered Harvard as a physics major and it was only there that I realized I would not have to return to a life at the factory. Slowly, I understood I could try to pursue that which I loved most: writing.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I concentrated in modern poetry as an undergraduate, so there are many poets I love: Pablo Neruda, Wallace Stevens, W.B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath, W.S. Merwin, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton. Novelists I admire include Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Calvino, Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt and Jennifer Egan.

When and where do you write?

I am by nature a night person but having children has cured me of this. It’s impossible to live my life and be a night person so I am now a morning person. When I’m not under a deadline, I get up at 6 a.m. so I have time to use the elliptical in our attic before I start my day. Then I write when the kids are at school. When I am under pressure, however (as I was recently in order to finish my latest novel), I get up at 4 a.m. to have enough time to exercise, shower and write before the events of the day overwhelm me.

I have an office in our attic but more and more, I find myself writing wherever I can. The only certainty is that I need to be alone and I like to have all of the curtains shut. 

What are you working on now?

I have just finished my third novel, so I am getting ready to work on it with my editor.  I’m really excited about it. Here’s the short summary: when an underachieving Chinese American woman journeys to the Netherlands to probe the cause of her brilliant older sister’s mysterious disappearance, the secrets she uncovers reveal more about her own family - and herself - than she ever could have imagined. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I prefer to call it resistance and yes, I think it’s a part of every writer’s life. As I’m working, many thoughts and fears plague me. Sometimes, I’ll freeze. I try to ease myself out as gently as I can. Over the years, I’ve developed a process that enables me to build up a book piece by piece, so that I don’t have the same fear of the blank page I once did. I accept my terrible first drafts and I spend much more time thinking about the overall structure of my novel before I actually write it.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Well, I think the worst advice was that Doctorow quote, “Writing is like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This quote has caused me much heartache and many worthless pages, but of course, I am a person who can get lost anywhere. It works for other writers but not for me.

I need to have a plan of my novel pretty much from the beginning. That plan changes greatly but it still ensures that I can think about foreshadowing, symbolism, pacing, character development and structure as I write.

I loved the book by Rosanne Bane called, Around the Writer's Block. She talks about how putting words onto the page is actually the last step of a long creative process. What we may think of as a block is simply the incubatory silence before the words flow.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Be kind to yourself. Sometimes, life can be so overwhelming that the only thing that indicates you are a writer is that burning desire itself. It’s all right if you haven’t written a word in far too long. Corporate lawyers don’t lie awake at night worrying that they didn’t get any creative writing done that day. Try to gently make the time and mental space for yourself and the writing will come.

Also this: don’t worry about being perfect. It’s most important to write something that is alive. It’s much better to create a passionate, flawed beast with a rampaging heartbeat than a perfectly proportioned corpse on the page.

Jean Kwok is the New York Times and international bestselling author of the award-winning novels Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. In between her undergraduate degree at Harvard and MFA in fiction at Columbia, she worked for three years as a professional ballroom dancer. Her work has been published in 18 countries and taught in universities, colleges and high schools across the world. She has been selected for honors including the American Library Association Alex Award, the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award international shortlist. Jean’s writing has been featured in Time, The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek and Vogue, among others. She has spoken at many schools and venues including Harvard University, Columbia University and the Tucson Festival of Books. A television documentary was filmed about Jean and her work. She lives in the Netherlands with her husband, two boys and four cats, and has just finished her third novel.