I've asked Susan to do the traditional publication day interview, so here we go:
Kirkus reviewed the book, calling it, "An American freelance journalist's painful account of how a hasty marriage to a Chinese man turned her life upside down...it is the author's courage to face her mistakes that makes the book worthwhile." How hard was it for you for to write about your experiences and really put yourself out there? And do you think that doing so is essential to having a good memoir?
To answer your second question first, I absolutely think it’s essential to be as open as possible to have a good memoir. There’s nothing worse than reading a memoir, only to have a million questions at the end because the author wasn’t open about the events in the book. On the other hand, it was difficult for me to write about some of the experiences in Good Chinese Wife and took a few years for me to get them all out. I certainly felt more comfortable opening up as I got older and got on with my life.
When did you first start writing this memoir? What has your journey to publication been like?
In 2008, I was a stay-at-mother and decided that it was now or never for this memoir. So I started querying with fifty rough pages that didn’t flow at all, along with a proposal that no one ever asked for. I would get a few requests for the partial manuscript, but when I received requests for a full, I didn’t have that and was usually rejected right off the bat.
Later that year, I hadn’t had any success in finding an agent. So I started working with one of several independent editors I would hire over the years. These editors all stated upfront that they couldn’t guarantee I’d find an agent or a publisher. One of the best pieces of advice, which seems so obvious, is that I should read more books in my genre. I had read most of the female China memoirs (Maxine Hong Kingston, Bette Bao Lord, Adeline Yen Mah, Anchee Min, Amy Tan, and Rachel DeWoskin), but hadn’t looked at structure, narrative arc, dialogue, etc. So I read other memoirs—many of which weren’t set in China—and paid close attention to these things.
I queried here and there over the next few years and after I finished my manuscript and worked for a solid year or more with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, I started querying at the beginning of 2012 and saw great results right away! I had half a dozen requests for the full and partials by mid-January. I remember sending you my online submission and a couple days later receiving an e-mail in which you requested my full manuscript. That happened to be the night I decided to return to Hong Kong for the first time in fourteen years. So I was a little preoccupied with that realization, but nonetheless super excited you were so interested. And just as the euphoria from booking my trip started to wear off, you offered representation! It felt right from the beginning, so I didn’t wait for the other agents to get back to me.
We worked together for five months to revise Good Chinese Wife. After two rounds of submission and a re-write, you heard from Sourcebooks ten days after you submitted to them. You always said that finding an editor was a lot like finding an agent. So again I instinctively felt that Sourcebooks was the right home for Good Chinese Wife because they were so enthusiastic from the beginning. I’ve loved every minute working with you and with Stephanie and my Sourcebooks team. It’s been so much fun!
When editing the manuscript, did you have to step back and disconnect yourself from the past in order to see things objectively?
Yes, but that turned out to be easier than I thought. I guess that’s the beauty of spending four to five years writing a book. If I had started right after my divorce, it would have been a different book even if I had spent all that time working with independent editors. Waiting eight years after my divorce before writing Good Chinese Wife definitely helped me separate that earlier part of my life from my writing life. And the more I worked with independent editors and friends who proofread my early manuscripts, the easier it was to disconnect myself from the characters in my book. When it became a team effort, as it certainly had when we started working together, it seemed less personal and more objective.
What have your family members thought of the book? Has your ex-husband or son read it?
My grandma, uncle, brother, and mother were the first family members to read it and I was worried about their reaction. Well, not my brother; I knew he would be fine. I thought my other family members would be upset I had opened up so much, that I had aired so much dirty laundry. But they’ve been very supportive and have said they very much enjoyed the book.
My ex-husband hasn’t read it and I’m not sure if and when he will. He knows about the book, but not the extent to which he’s featured in it! I changed his and most names, so I hope everything will be okay. It’s kind of a moot point now, though. He lives in China, I’m in Chicago, and we rarely see each other. Plus, he’s been perfectly nice since we separated more than a decade ago. As for Jake, he hasn’t read it either, although I have told him that he’s welcome to it anytime. I know it will be upsetting, but ultimately it should better show him why I felt compelled to divorce when he was so young.
What has it been like to read both positive and negative reviews of the book? Are you able to take it all in stride?
I’ve read a couple of negative or not-so-positive reviews of the book, which incidentally criticize my character. So it’s not just a negative commentary of the book, but of me! Luckily, those came after some amazingly positive reviews (a handful of reviewers have read the book twice in a quick succession), so it’s been a lot easier to take the not-so-stellar ones. I think my four years of rejections from agents and a year of rejections from editors have given me thick skin. So if someone doesn’t like my character in the book, it doesn’t seem as bad to me as those earlier rejections when I was so new to publishing.
Why were you drawn to writing this memoir and what other projects would you like to do?
I wanted to tell my story so other men and women wouldn’t feel alone if they’re going through similar experiences. And as for other projects, I’m currently working on a follow-up to Good Chinese Wife that traces my discovery of a relative who had fled Nazi Germany for Shanghai in the late 1930s. I was unaware of this relative until a couple years ago, and of the Shanghai Jewish history until a decade ago. Yet I had unknowingly visited most of the landmarks in the Shanghai Jewish community during the war. So I’ll weave in those experiences with my family’s history. I’ve really enjoyed the research.
Any advice for other memoir writers out there?
I would advise reading a ton in the memoir genre. Perseverance is also crucial. Don’t worry about rejection when it comes to querying agents and submitting to editors. These rejections are all preparation for later in the process if a negative review comes out or if other people start crossing boundaries after they’ve read your book. Another memoir writer warned me about that, and I really didn’t think it would happen to me. But it did! Be prepared for others to judge and scrutinize your choices, but remember it’s your story and no one can take that away!
I hope you all go out and buy a copy of GOOD CHINESE WIFE tomorrow!