By Meredith Sue Willis, SPS CALA Literature and Writing instructor.
Helen Wan, author of the novel The Partner Track, was in my Beginning Your Novel Class at NYU’s SCPS in the early 2000’s. She was, she says on her web site, “still lawyering full-time then….[writing] in bits and snatches of time, whenever I could. It only took me 12 years to get my novel finished and published.” The novel centers on a young Asian American lawyer and her struggles at her law firm and in her life. The main character, Ingrid, has learned how to blend into the old-boy corporate culture, but an offensive incident at the firm’s summer outing challenges her both ethically and in her position as an almost-partner. The book, published in 2013 by St. Martin’s Press, has received excellent reviews and led to many honors including the Summer 2015 Book Club Selection of the National Association of Women Lawyers; a Real Simple Magazine book club selection; and an Amherst College Book Club Selection. The book has been taught in law school and college classrooms, and Wan has become a much-sought-after speaker and diversity trainer at many large law firms and other institutions around the country.
The following conversation took place one rainy afternoon in January 2017 in a coffee shop under the train station near Helen Wan’s home in an inner ring railroad suburb of New York City.
MSW: I really liked The Partner Track! I’m so proud of knowing you were in one my novel writing classes as you were beginning it. When I read it this summer, I wrote in my journal: “The big strengths of Helen’s novel include sharp details of
life in a big law office, but also an uncontrived plot with tremendous momentum. The deep cynicism of the corporate diversity initiatives is especially well portrayed.” My first question is why did you choose to write about the work place as opposed to–say–telling a growing-up story or a story about young love or, for that matter, a sword-and-sorcery fantasy?
HW: The work place was where my mind was. I had begun writing a series of essays about being a young woman of color in corporate America, and I approached some literary agents with a forty page writing sample and an idea for a collection of these pieces. The responses were positive about my writing, but the agents all said a book of essays like this would be too hard to sell. Two agents suggested turning what I had done into a novel and coming back to them. One of those agents ultimately took on my book, but then left the business of agenting. Finally, I found the right agent for my book and he placed it.
It had never occurred to me until then that it could actually be a real job to be a novelist. As a little girl, I had always loved to read novels, and I had wanted to write since I was a kid, but growing up, saying I would “be a novelist when I grew up” felt exactly the same as saying I wanted to, say, play in the NBA. This was the first time I thought of writing a novel as a real thing. First I took a class in nonfiction writing at the 92nd Street Y, and then I came to NYU for my first class in fiction writing.
MSW: How did it happen that you have done so much public speaking and training based on a novel? Most novelists are lucky to get a couple of literary readings.
HW: Doing so many speaking engagements was not the plan and was a completely serendipitous career twist! It was a huge surprise to me that I got to do all this speaking. As you know, getting a big commercial publisher doesn’t mean your work is done. Authors today are expected to do the bulk of the publicizing for their own books. So I reached out to all of my connections: other lawyers, women’s leadership groups, bar associations, diversity and inclusion organizations, educational institutions, organizations advancing the careers of Asian Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans and other communities. And through my outreach and then through word-of-mouth, I started to get speaking opportunities and also engagements to do diversity training at law firms. I think this came about because the novel is partly subject driven.
MSW: One of the things I appreciate most about The Partner Track is that it’s about something. It’s also a pleasure to read and a very good story. What kinds of responses did you get from readers? I don’t mean so much the reviews, but when you started speaking, how did individual people respond?
HW: Very positively. Young women especially responded. I had many letters from young women who told me they saw me as a role model. Which is such a wonderful experience for an author. One young Asian American woman was in medical school and said that her family, like mine, had always assumed she would enter one of the “acceptable” professions: law, accounting/finance, or medicine. But after reading my book, she had decided to change career paths!
One especially gratifying piece of feedback came from an older white male lawyer, very powerful in his firm, who was told by his HR people to read my book. He said it had changed his whole attitude toward minorities. For the first time he had some understanding of what it must be like to be a woman or an Asian-American or other minority in a firm like his. That meant a great deal to me. That made all those years of toiling on this book worthwhile.
MSW: You and your novel have had a direct effect in the world, and very few novelists can say that. Do you consider the book political? When I was in college, everyone was into art-for-art’s sake, and if someone called a book political or didactic– or maybe even subject driven– it was considered an insult.
HW: I had expected it would be political, and it has been called a political novel. I didn’t want to write something preachy or overly didactic, though. I want it to be entertaining, and at the same time I hope people can learn about a new perspective.
MSW: I think it does all those things. It is full of striking scenes with lively dialogue and has a protagonist who is easy to identify with. It has a gripping love story and a believable and even sympathetic villain.
HW: Most people didn’t talk about it as literature. There is always an emphasis on the subject, which is fine with me.
MSW: I think people are moved by the book. That’s the best review you can get! There’s one more thing I wanted to talk about: I especially appreciated the parts about the main character’s relationship with her parents. You have a light but sure touch on matters of family expectation and immigrant culture (although I understand that your parents, while immigrants, came to the States very young and are college graduates). But I am curious about what your family thought of the novel.
HW: They have been very excited and supportive, although I don’t think they quite understood how I could spend fifteen years working on something with no guaranteed outcome. They live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and they really began to appreciate what I had done when there was a cover story about the book and me in the magazine of the Washington Post.
MSW: And now you’re writing full time?
HW: Yes. I’m a full time author right now. I’m not doing law, but I am still doing diversity training and giving presentations a couple of times a month. I also have a four year old son, so it’s always a struggle to find the right balance and a place for concentrated writing.
MSW: Are you finding that balance?
HW: I’m working on it! I’ve found– out here in the ‘burbs’– a number of serious writers with whom I share critique and support.
MSW: There’s nothing like having other writers to work with. I’ll end with a query about what you are writing now–and what is your long term writing plan?
HW: I’ve just finished a draft of my new novel and sent it to my agent. I think it’s going to need a good polishing. This one is another workplace novel about the complicated relationship people have with ambition. It’s set in a start-up firm, and I’d call it an ensemble novel– lots of characters. It concerns personal and professional choices we make, that are influenced by race, gender, class, and family history. I hope to finish this one in the next year, and then to keep putting out stories as long as I can!
Take a course with Meredith Sue Willis this Spring!
Other Writing courses at CALA:
The Fundamentals of Fiction Writing
Write What You Know
Advanced Writing Workshop
Writing Your Memoir
Creative Writing for Beginners
Short Story Writing
The Company You Keep: Tackling Writing Themes With the Masters
Art by Limitation: The Power of Constraints in Creative Writing