Susie Yang Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Susie Yang
Photograph © Onur Pinar Photography

Susie Yang

An interview with Susie Yang

Susie Yang discuses her debut novel, White Ivy

White Ivy has one of the most memorable lines in contemporary fiction: "Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her." How did this line come to you?

I knew I wanted to create a protagonist whose outer appearance was incongruous with her personality so she would be underestimated and misjudged upon initial impression. When I had the idea of Ivy shoplifting as a teenager to acquire the things her parents wouldn't buy her, the first line came to me.

Ivy Lin subverts the "model minority" stereotype in countless ways, especially as an anti-heroine who dismantles its tropes. What is your relationship to her character? What emotions did you hope she would evoke in readers?

I both pity and admire Ivy. I think her admirable qualities include determination, adaptability, and resilience. She is a person who has a hunger for life in a way that I envy! But I also pity her because the very things she wants so badly in life—to be a part of a very white, very exclusive patrician world—are in fact self-delusions and ultimately things that will make her miserable. This is the tragedy of Ivy's character, and I hope readers will both understand her motivations and also see how her assumptions are misplaced and lead her to make sacrifices on a scale that is quite frightening. By the end of the book, I think Ivy also realizes her dreams are, in fact, illusions, but she is determined to uphold the illusion to the very end, no matter the cost. I hope readers will feel scared by this!

Roux and Gideon are both intriguing characters who embody different desires for Ivy. What was the inspiration for their stories and how did the characters change during the course of writing of this novel?

The inspiration for Roux came from my best friend in the third grade, who lived next door to me in our development in Baltimore. Their family was Romanian and she had an older brother who was very mysterious and rode a motorcycle around town. I've never spoken to her brother, yet for some reason, when I wrote about Ivy's childhood friend, I pictured this brother. Gideon is really more of a type than based on a real person. He is a reserved man who is more interested in work than romance, and has difficulty in communicating his vulnerabilities. I think a lot of repressed kids end up like this. I actually had a hard time writing Gideon because I had to make him feel alluring and indiscernible to Ivy but not to the reader, who would easily see through his courteous manners into his more selfish intentions. Neither Roux nor Gideon changed much throughout the course of writing the novel because they were always foils for each other, and choices Ivy has to grapple with as she comes to terms with what's important to her.

At the end of the novel, Ivy finally realizes that "the thing that no one could take away from you—it was family" (p. 351). Can you tell us about your relationship with your family?

My family definitely formed me into the person I am today. Looking back, I don't think my parents ever treated me like a child. They took all my opinions seriously and they would frequently share with me their own burdens and struggles, which was their way of teaching me about the world and how to navigate it. My dad and I would take long drives and talk about everything—What is happiness? What is success? What lies do we tell ourselves and why?—and it was through these talks that I began to formulate and express my own worldviews very early on in life. My mom was a more traditional stay-at-home mom, but she would always tell me how smart and capable I was. It was my parents' absolute belief in me that formed the bedrock of my self-confidence. I also have a younger brother who is my very best friend now, but when we were children, I think I operated more as a third parent. I was very bossy! So many of my current values come from my family.

Which authors do you admire?

I admire so many authors! The ones I keep coming back to are Simone de Beauvoir, John Steinbeck, Betty Smith, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Yukio Mishima, Virginia Woolf, and Marguerite Duras. In terms of contemporary authors, I love Haruki Murakami, Rachel Kushner, Min Jin Lee, Sally Rooney, Kazuo Ishiguro, Elena Ferrante, Edward St Aubyn, and Rohinton Mistry.

This novel deals with pressures Ivy experiences assimilating to America as an immigrant. How much of Ivy's experiences were informed by your own?

I don't think Ivy's experiences overlap that much with my own. I tend to draw inspiration from everything I observe, which can be as random as an encounter with a stranger, or a story my friend tells me, or even a snippet I read in the news. All these little details fuse in my imagination and become my characters' backgrounds. The main part of Ivy's life that is inspired by my own is her feeling of otherness. I've moved around a lot my entire life and before college I went to eight different schools, so I was used to my identity as the perpetual "new girl." The other section that is loosely based on my experiences is when Ivy first returns to China as a teenager. I've visited China many times growing up and I loved every trip. Part of my motivation in writing that section of the book was out of nostalgia and a tribute to the summer vacations of my youth.

Ivy is fascinated by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and frequently contrasts them with her own Chinese background. Why did you choose to focus on both cultures?

I wanted to write about Ivy's Chinese heritage because it's my heritage, but I didn't want the book to be solely focused on her immigrant experience. It was important to me that this story was foremost going to be a fun, twisty tale about a social climber who orchestrates her own demise. Also, I really dislike all forms of research, so Ivy's Chinese culture was the one I could most easily invoke. In terms of the WASP world, I chose it mainly because it was unfamiliar to Ivy and a natural emblem of her unrealistic ambitions. Actually, Ivy doesn't really belong in either culture. She wants to discard her Chinese heritage but she also doesn't understand the world that she's discarding it for. So it's interesting to see how she picks and chooses the customs and values from each culture that suit her current needs, the mark of a true chameleon.

Throughout the novel, Ivy strives to attain privilege. What do you think privilege means to Ivy?

Privilege and identity go hand-in-hand for Ivy. She doesn't see privilege as a relative scale but as an objective trait—you are privileged or you're not. So much of Ivy's yearning is to be what she considers a privileged person, which on the surface can mean money, nice clothes, elite clubs; but actually, what Ivy really wants is self-assurance, which she believes privileged people naturally have.

Why did you choose to title your novel White Ivy?

I was looking through hundreds of Chinese proverbs for the inscription page of the book and came upon the one that said: the snow goose needs not bathe to make itself white. It speaks to the idea of intrinsic versus obtained value. Why is the former considered more noble than the latter? Ivy idolizes intrinsic traits—like beauty or family background—yet she works hard to shed her own intrinsic merits in favor of exterior ones. So White Ivy speaks to her journey in masquerading herself as the "real thing." And of course, there is the double meaning with race.

Can you tell us what you're working on now?

I am working on a story about the dichotomy between our public personas and our private selves, and how the two can both clash and complement each other, as told through a relationship between two high school sweethearts that spans ten years.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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