Jean Kwok immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She won early admission to Harvard, where she worked as many as four jobs at a time, and graduated with honors in English and American literature, before going on to earn an MFA in fiction at Columbia.
Her debut novel, Girl in Translation, became a New York Times bestseller. It has been published in 17 countries and chosen as the winner of an American Library Association Alex Award, a Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award, an Orange New Writers Book, a National Blue Ribbon Book, a John Gardner Fiction Book Award finalist, and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick and an Indie Next Pick.
Jean Kwok lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two sons.
Why I write
I’ve seen so many different worlds, from the slums of Brooklyn to the mansions of Boston, and I feel a compulsion to write about them. I like introducing readers to a new arena, or an unusual way of looking at something they thought they understood. I try to create a compelling fictional story that will entice readers into a world I’d like to show them.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I set a goal of 1,200 words a day instead of a time limit when I’m working on a long project. The word count goal gives me the incentive to get it done. When I’m facing a deadline, however, I can write many times this amount. I’ve written up to 30 pages a day, although I don’t recommend it. Being able to type fast helps.
Worst source of distraction?
Best source of inspiration?
Great writers and their books.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
I doubt myself all the time, even while I have grandiose dreams. However, I try not to allow my doubts to stop me. I used to get writers’ block more, before I started planning as thoroughly as I do now. I really know how the whole book is going to flow before I start writing. There are still many surprises along the way but I’ve learned that I generally need to be able to see the entire novel in my head. Otherwise, the structure can fall apart in the middle, or you can lead up to a climax that just fizzles out. I’d hate to disappoint my readers like that. People often say that my current novel, Girl in Translation, is such a fast read, that they can’t put it down. I’m glad to hear that because I hoped it would be like that when I created the structure.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
There are so many fantastic writers working today. I always try to get the latest books by Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior. It’s a lyrical, beautifully written, and honest memoir of a Chinese American woman growing up in California. I also can’t forget Amy Tan, who was a great pioneer for so many of the multicultural writers who followed.
Best book about China?
I grew up listening to stories from Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, often known in western countries as Monkey, one of the four great classic novels of the Ming dynasty. I loved hearing about the Monkey King and his adventures. It’s a magical story of a powerful monkey who was born from a stone and goes on to protect a most delicious (to flesh-eating demons) monk in his search for Buddhist scriptures. It can be read as a quest, a fantasy, or a political satire.
Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. I love the way she plays with structure in it, intertwining the different narratives. The amount of control, wisdom, and feeling in her work is astounding.
I’d have to list some poets: W.B. Yeats, Adrienne Rich, Wallace Stevens, and Pablo Neruda.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
A Thousand Splendid Suns because it is supposed to be an incredible book, and because Khaled Hosseini, the author, and I share the same editor! I have it on my desk and I’m itching to start it, but I’m just so busy.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
This taught me to choose my heart over my head. I’d submitted two stories to a prestigious literary magazine. One was a well-written, intellectual story and the other was a few pages derived from an event from my childhood, when my mother had gotten lost on the New York subways on the way home from working at the sweatshop, and she’d barely been able to find her way back because she didn’t speak any English. The second piece was so simple that I hadn’t even dared to call it a story; I’d originally entitled it “Disguises: a Sketch.” But of course, that was the one that was accepted by the magazine and later reprinted several times, now to be found in the Holt ninth-grade textbook, Elements of Literature.
Does writing change anything?
It changes everything. The very act of writing something down, of giving it attention and thought, transforms even the most difficult moment into something that is, in a way, beautiful.