I first got to know writer Gloria Chao when she was querying agents last year. We live in the same area and have since become good friends, often meeting for lunch or dinner at one of Chicago’s many amazing restaurants. After lots of hard work, Gloria recently signed with agent Kathleen Rushall of the Andrea Brown Agency. I recently sat down with Gloria to ask her more about her querying journey, writing multicultural fiction, and how she made the transition from dentist to writer!
Susan Blumberg-Kason: Congratulations on recently signing with an agent! Can you tell us a little about your querying process and how long it took?
Gloria Chao: Thank you so much, Susan! You were so helpful in my writing journey, and I’m so grateful for your support! Thank you for featuring me as your May author of the month. I’m so honored.
I began querying in March of 2015. The manuscript began as new adult because my protagonist is an MIT student, but I quickly learned that new adult was not the right category. Following an agent’s suggestion, I rewrote for a women’s fiction audience, which I began querying in September 2015. This version garnered more interest, but it still didn’t quite fit the category. Once I decided to rewrite for young adult by aging the main character down to seventeen (but keeping the MIT setting), everything clicked. I started querying the young adult version mid-March of 2016, and I was fortunate and flattered that agents were interested quickly. I received 28 full requests, my first offer came within 2 weeks, and another 6 offers followed.
SBK: You are a dentist by training, but left healthcare to write. So you went from a pretty regulated work schedule to one that requires more self-discipline. Can you discuss an average work day and what motivates you to sit down and write?
GC: It was a very difficult decision to put aside a stable career to pursue an unpredictable, tough-to-break-into industry, but once I was all in, it was such a privilege and honor to write. I don’t view it as something that requires motivation or discipline. Every morning, I wake up, make my cup of tea, look outside at Lake Michigan, then sit down feeling like the luckiest person in the world.
I work longer hours now than I did as a dentist because I love it so much. I’m at my computer 10 hours a day, on average, and when I’m not directly working, I’m still thinking about my book. I have notepads all around the apartment to jot down ideas that come to me. Many of them come to me as I’m falling asleep and believe it or not, most of those half-conscious thoughts make it into the book.
Some days are better writing days than others, but the beauty of this process is that there’s flexibility. Editing, reading other novels, reading craft books, building your social media platform—these are all activities that help your career, and there is always one on the list I’m excited to tackle.
SBK: You’re writing about a Taiwanese-American teenager who experiences cultural and generational differences within her family. Do you think these culture clashes are pretty standard across most first and second generation families, or are there certain traits that are specific to Asian-American families?
GC: I like to think of my story as an Asian version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding in book form. I hope the struggle to find oneself and accept one’s roots is a struggle many can relate to regardless of race and family situations.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have child of immigrant readers from Asian and non-Asian families, and many of them have said they have had similar experiences to my protagonist. Many people straddle two cultures without quite fitting in either, have different expectations and values than their parents, and struggle with language barriers.
In my experience, some traits are more common among Asian-American families. The stereotype of being pressured to be a doctor or marry within the culture is there for a reason. But many non-Asians experience this pressure as well. My manuscript tells the story of one Taiwanese-American experience, not every Asian-American.
SBK: Which books have inspired you to write your novel? Was there a certain one that clicked and caused you to think that you had a similar story to tell?
GC: I felt very alone in high school dealing with the cultural gap between my parents and I, and I wrote this book with the hope that it would tell at least one reader that they’re not alone. It also took me more than twenty years to find the humor in my struggles, and I hope to pass that coping mechanism along.
Writing this story also helped me survive my parents’ initial disapproval of my decision to put aside my dental career to pursue writing. They have come around since, but it has been a long journey, starting from the day I was born.
Several books helped me fit my novel to the market. FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell showed me how to set a YA book in college, and I admire Amy Tan’s storytelling, courage, and innovation.
SBK: Getting back to the querying issue, what was the scariest thing about sending your work out to agents and how did you overcome that?
GC: In the beginning, the scariest thing about sending my work to agents (or anyone, really) was the vulnerability, the feeling that I was giving others a window into my private thoughts. Because the subject-matter was so close to my heart, it was difficult to let others in. But I wanted my book to see the light of day and knew I had to overcome this anxiety to reach that goal. With enough time and after many submissions, this fear dissipated.