September 25, 2021

Susie Yang, Author of NY Times Bestseller "White Ivy," at NWS Aug. 5

Author and NPR favorite Aarti Shahani hosts
By Lynda Wheatley | July 31, 2021

Bestselling author Susie Yang is all for a little literary dilemma: “My favorite endings are [when] the moral — if there is any moral to a story — is very bleak,” she says. “It really feels unsettling, and that has always appealed to me.”

So perhaps it comes as no surprise that her debut novel, “White Ivy,” leaves more than a few loose ends untied. Inspired by classic social-climbing titles like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Patricia Highsmith’s infamous “Tom Ripley” series, for example — “White Ivy” follows Ivy Lin, a Chinese-American immigrant, on her quest to be accepted by New England’s high society. “Those power-hungry, Machiavellian-type characters are so interesting,” Yang says. “Vile, but interesting. So I thought, let me create that type of character who is willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants.”

What Ivy wants is golden-boy Gideon Spire. A stereotypical unattainable dreamboat, Gideon first intersects with Ivy when the two are teenagers at the same private school. But Gideon’s family belongs to Boston’s elite, a rank that lower-class-raised Ivy simply can’t hope to penetrate. “So, when they reconnect as adults,” says Yang, “she feels like it’s destiny, or like it’s her second chance.”

Unbeknownst to those around her, Ivy is actually the mistress of multiple chances — and multiple disguises to boot. “To me, [her journey] was a very deliberate choice,” says Yang, “because at the very beginning I thought, is Ivy going to be a sociopath?”

It’s a question that readers still contest. A classically unreliable character, Ivy’s plain and unassuming appearance actually masks a nasty shoplifting habit. “I feel like teenage girls shoplifting is such a cliché, in a way,” says Yang. “So, I wanted the reader’s first introduction to Ivy to be, ‘Oh, maybe this is a normal teenage girl.’ And based on her family background and her desires, you could understand the genesis of her greed in that way.”

In fact, it’s this juxtaposition of Ivy’s character upon which Yang based the rest of the book. “The first line of the novel, ‘Ivy Lin is a thief, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her,’ became my bedrock,” she says. From there, the first chapter arose in a single sitting. “It was instantaneous,” says Yang. “I was really just putting it down and racing to the finish line.”

As the story progresses, however, Ivy’s black-and-white dichotomy inevitably blurs to an unnerving gray. “At every step along the way [you wonder], ‘Oh, is what she’s doing normal, or is it crossing some line?’” says Yang. “She’s a liar, and she’s a thief, but [if] people understand where she’s coming from, that means I’ve done my job.”

Yang’s “job,” by the way, was nearly in another field. In fact, Yang earned her doctorate in pharmacy and even spent a few years working in tech before a friend introduced her to some MFA courses. “Fiction came to me because I like to read,” says Yang, “but I always had it in the back of my mind that it was a hobby. [It was one thing] to love books, but to consider a career path was never something I thought about.”

So, Yang did most of her writing in secret — at least initially. “I had been writing my whole life,” she says, “but I had never finished a book. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was such a perfectionist. I would attempt these novels, never let anyone read [them], get bored with them, and throw them away.”

 “White Ivy” was different. “At the time, I thought, ‘Let me see if I can just finish a manuscript so I can prove to myself that I can do it,’” says Yang. The ultimate exercise in authorial discipline, she gave herself one year to finish her book. “I said, ‘Forget about [whether or not] it’s good,” she says. “Just get the story down.” Two years, six drafts, and one bestselling novel later, it’s safe to say her experiment was successful. “I think that’s where I became a real writer,” says Yang. “As opposed to [that sense of] ‘let me write it all down,’ it was the process of refining and making deliberate choices.”

Don’t let the formally published glow fool you; Yang’s a traditional story weaver at heart. “I say that because as a child, all of my grandparents would read to me,” she says, “so, the oral storytelling tradition was my first introduction to that.”

Since then, Yang’s own narrative has come full circle. “Like Ivy, I came to the U.S when I was six,” she says. “[Her] social-climbing story is interesting for me because you have to be an outsider — you’re trying to go into a class that you are not a part of — and I think that really mirrors my experience.”

Unlike her protagonist, who is excluded based because of both class and race, Yang’s own lens was colored more by ‘new kid’ syndrome than experiences of xenophobia. “I moved around so much as a child,” she says, “I think I was in 11 schools before college.” Still, being stuck on the outside often looks the same. “I was just so used to that sense of ‘I don’t belong,’ or ‘I’m here temporarily,’” says Yang. “You [have to] develop an understanding of life’s social dynamics, so I really enjoy books that do that.”

“White Ivy,” of course, is one of them. “I think this theme will probably influence my work forever,” says Yang. “Even now when I’m working on new things, it’s always through the lens of someone trying to navigate their way in a group setting that is unfamiliar to them. It’s emotional truth that I want to convey, and for me, this is exactly that.”

Attend a Conversation with Susie Yang
New York Times bestselling author Susie Yang will join the National Writers Series for a free, virtual event at 7pm Thursday, Aug. 5 to discuss her celebrated debut novel, “White Ivy.” The book, published Nov. 3, is available now at a 20% NWS discount at Horizon Books for event attendees. Guest host for the event is award-winning NPR journalist and best-selling author Aarti Shahani. Register under the Upcoming Events category at nationalwritersseries.org.

The Interviewer: Aarti Shahani
Celebrated journalist and best-selling author Aarti Shahani is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Shahani spent most of her 20s working as a prison reform activist before transitioning to business reporting. Shahani quickly rose through the ranks at National Public Radio, where she served as Silicon Valley correspondent and guest-hosted flagship shows All Things Considered and KQED’s Forum. Her debut memoir, “Here We Are,” 2019), was released in October 2019 and has since become an Amazon bestseller. Shahani was in Traverse City as a guest author of the National Writers Series just two weeks after “Here We Are” was published. The author is also the host and co-creator of Art of Power, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with some of the world’s most interesting people. She lives in California with her nephew. 

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