An Essay by Jade Chang
I write by reading. Every page of my novel is born of another book as much as it is of experience and observation.
There’s the research, of course. As I wrote The Wangs vs. the World, which takes place in many different worlds—finance, art, stand-up comedy, fashion, beauty—I read a teetering stack of non-fiction. Some of it came before the characters in this book were even the faintest glimmer of a person. Steve Martin’s thoroughly engaging memoir, Born Standing Up, stoked my fascination with stand-up comedy and, though I read it years ago, directly led to my desire to write a character who was an aspiring stand-up comedian. Other books I read as I wrote, like John Lanchester’s IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, a brilliant illumination of the recent financial crisis, which I picked up in an effort to understand all the ins and outs of the crash. And then there were books like sociologist Sara Thornton’s completely fantastic Seven Days in the Art World. Although I’d already written all of the art world parts of The Wangs before I read her take, it was both exciting and reassuring to find some of my own thoughts echoed in her pages.
Beyond research, reading also helped me understand what a book could do and, by extension, what my book could do. When I read Junot Diaz’s much-beloved masterwork, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I hadn’t yet heard any of the hype surrounding the book, and hadn’t read any of the enthusiastic reviews. My first thought upon finishing was, “I love this book, but who’s going to understand it?” I knew some Spanish, had some understanding of Japanese, and comic book culture, but I wondered how the majority of English-language readers would receive it. The love for that book made me realize that the specific can very much be the universal, which buoyed me in writing characters that are, I hope, both very specific and very relatable. One of those characters, the patriarch of the Wang family, has the spirit of a gleeful conman which I realized very recently was influenced by one of my favorite childhood books, No Coins, Please, by Gordon Korman. That book is about a kid on a summer group tour around America who enacts ingenious money-making schemes across the country. It’s the best. I read it as only a kid can read—repeatedly and enthusiastically.
Finally, when you are a writer, every page is also about being a reader, about being part of a shared yet singular experience. When I picture someone reading my book, I picture what it was like to read when I was younger, with a dueling sense of insularity and aliveness that forms a cozy tent that can fit as snugly around one person as it can a million.
JADE CHANG has covered arts and culture as a journalist and editor. She is the recipient of a Sundance Fellowship for Arts Journalism, the AIGA/Winterhouse Award for Design Criticism, and the James D. Houston Memorial scholarship from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. The Wangs vs. the World is her debut novel. She lives in Los Angeles. Meet Jade October 14 at Books Inc. in Opera Plaza.
Written for Books Inc.'s October 2016 Newsletter