I always wanted to be a writer. But I think coming from such a practical background — my parents were scientists and immigrants — I had it in my mind that writing was not a job. So I said, “OK, I’m going to be a paleontologist and write on the side.” Then I realized paleontology is not a very easy job. Then it was “I’ll work in publishing and I’ll write on the side.” Even though I think my parents always hoped I would go into the sciences, I was always more interested in writing and editing.
I started writing [what became Everything I Never Told You] the last semester of my time at the University of Michigan [where I was getting an MFA]. I had an idea I’d been kicking around, so I tried to sit down and write it, and it became longer and longer. Eventually I realized it was going to turn into a book.
It took me from 2006 to 2012 to finish writing, so six years in total.
The novel is not in any way autobiographical. But growing up outside of Pittsburgh and Cleveland where there’s not much of an Asian community, I did have the experience, as the children in the book do, of being one of the only non-white faces in the community. It’s an interesting experience to grow up and you see everyone as looking alike, and they see you as looking very different.
I’ve been teaching with Grub Street since 2008, and I’m always giving my students advice. [What I always tell them is] that you’re not in this for the publishing — it’s a great bonus — but you’re actually in this for the writing. You can’t control what people will say about your book; you can start the next book. You got into this to tell stories that are important to you. It’s advice I’m trying to take myself.
(Interview has been edited and condensed.)