The Sophomore Novel Club: On the Dreaded Second Book
Janie Chang and Shilpi Gowda on What Went Into Their 'Next' Novels
Janie Chang: Now that we’ve both launched our second novels into the world, I’d love to talk about what that experience was like for you. Did you find any unique challenges when writing The Golden Son compared to the first?
Shilpi Gowda: Yes, each book had its own challenges, but the second one was definitely tougher. Secret Daughter, my first novel, was also my first serious writing effort. I had a strong idea of the story I wanted to tell, but very little knowledge of the craft of writing, so I had to learn how to build and structure a novel as I wrote. I was uncertain whether I would even be able to write a full manuscript, but I was very driven to tell that story, and finished it within two years, which seemed like an eternity to me at the time.
The Golden Son was a very different writing experience. The whole idea for the story arc came to me at once, and since I already knew I could write a novel, I believed the rest would happen relatively quickly. I was very wrong: it took over five years to finish, and I rewrote it many times, throwing out several full drafts and starting over—from different points of view, over different time spans, with major changes to plot and characters. It turns out that first idea that came to me was just a suggestion, and as I began to write into it, I discovered the story was much more subtle and nuanced, and much harder to write well. It took many drafts to figure out how to best tell the story that had captured my imagination. Writing from a male perspective and about the medical field also presented its own set of challenges and both required research that took time. How was your second novel experience?
JC: Good grief. Throwing out several full drafts. You were hit with the dreaded Sophomore Novel Syndrome in the worst way. It was only after I finally turned in the manuscript for Dragon Springs Road that I dared ask around. Then I learned that many, many authors suffer agonies of insecurity over second novels and that it’s a well-known phenomenon called the Sophomore Novel. I wish I’d known beforehand—although who can say whether that would’ve helped? I suffered every single symptom associated with it. I was convinced the novel was dog vomit and that it was so bad I’d never be able to hold my head up again if it actually went to print. Did I only have that one novel in me, and was it a fluke? Then finally, I just had to throw my hands up and say ‘This is as good as I can make it, all by myself, now it’s up to my editors to tell me where I’ve gone wrong’. So when my editors’ feedback was that they loved Dragon Springs Road and they thought it was even better than my first novel, I spent a day vacillating between relief and disbelief. My husband finally said to stop being a twit because I was no longer capable of being objective and to just go with it.
These are the equivalent of war stories in the writing world. Shilpi, I’m curious—whenever I meet another author I want to ask about writing process. What’s yours? Who, if anyone, do you seek input from during the process?
SG: I write every day, for several hours a day. The process is a little different depending on whether I’m writing the first draft, or restructuring, or subsequent drafts. I use a lot of different tools: spreadsheets, post-it notes, index cards, hand-drawn graphs, concept boards. I usually jump around within the story, sometimes writing one character’s sections all together even if they’re not chronological. Every time I finish a draft (and there were 12 with this novel), it’s like I have a giant jigsaw puzzle that I lay out all over the floor and the walls and try to put it back together. When I’m in the process, I consult with my literary agent at key points. She’s a great editorial advisor and the first person to read a finished draft. I don’t usually show my work to anyone else until I’ve revised a full draft at least a couple of times. What’s yours?
JC: Like you, I’m very cagey about sharing my work with others until I’m feeling reasonably sure that the story and characters are stable. I suppose that’s the writing equivalent of not wanting to show up naked or under-dressed. For both my books, I worked with a freelance story development editor that my agent recommended. I like and trust that relationship. I like having an industry professional cast an objective eye over the manuscript, I like getting constructive feedback from someone who has edited more books than I’ve read and who has worked at major publishing houses—and I lucked out because she’s very empathetic to my story vision and she has very, very good instincts. In terms of process—it’s still evolving. Maybe every book’s process is different because we are on a continuous learning curve.
We should talk to someone who’s written 15 books and get some answers. Does it ever get easier? I’m with you—hurray for post-it notes! I went through a phase where I used my closet door as a board for post-its. One per chapter to document the critical points so that I can keep the story straight, or move around the post-it notes to try a different story flow. I’m going to try something totally different for my third novel and just write straight through to a first draft, start to finish, no second-guessing.
Let me ask about something very specific when it comes to writing. You had some brutal scenes in both novels, but especially in The Golden Son, which contained scenes I found very, very hard to read. Not just physical violence but mental and psychological abuse. And while I was reading, the little author voice in the corner of my mind was saying ‘If I am having a hard time just reading it, how did she feel writing it?’
SG: To be honest, it was very difficult for me. There’s a scene at the midpoint of the novel, I think that’s the one you’re referring to, in which one of the characters is subject to a violent attack. It was tough for me to write through that brutality, and every time I did a read-through or a re-write and I got to that scene, I had an emotional reaction to it. Even now, it still hits me. I’ve never read that scene out loud at an event, and I don’t think I ever will. How do I do it? Well, I spend a lot of time dancing around it, trying to avoid it, going around it. But at some point, I realize that the thing I’m trying to avoid writing is exactly the thing I need to write, to get to the truth and the heart of the story I’m trying to write. Then I just put myself into the character and try to live through it in my mind. It’s the hardest part of writing, for me—developing characters I truly care about, and then having to put them through terrible things.
And in Dragon Springs Road, I was really impressed by the amount of historical research I know you must have done to craft a story so full of details from that time period. How do you do it?
JC: For my first novel, Three Souls, I really lucked out because the story and era were based on family history. So from my parents’ stories about their childhoods, I had a fairly high degree of confidence that the way I described characters and how they treated each other was at least consistent with how relationships were in a certain type of family. Most of my research for that book was reading up on the major social and political incidents from those early years of the Chinese republic, to make sure my characters responded to the turmoil of those events at the right time!
For Dragon Springs Road, that was tougher. Specifically I needed to know how Eurasian orphans lived and how they were treated. I knew that they were rejected by both Chinese and Western society and that for some, mission orphanages and schools were their only hope for a better life. But it wasn’t until a friend suggested looking into the diaries and memoirs of women missionaries in China that I was able to get really useful information. You can find entire websites about battles and generals, but no one wrote about children who were an embarrassment. I also read biographies and memoirs of Chinese women from that era, because they wrote about their extended family and paid more attention to the other women in their lives, including servants. And again, I was able to make use of anecdotes from family history to add richness and detail.
I get sidetracked by research because I love history so I love research—but for the next novel I’m going to try and power through a first draft; part of the discipline for doing that is to defer the research on anything I’m not sure about and just make a footnote, and go back to it later. Then see whether I need to change the plot or timelines for the sake of historical accuracy, or maybe the research will turn up material that makes for a stronger story.
And you clearly did a lot of medical research for The Golden Son—to me that’s really intimidating. And your degree is not in medicine or science. How did you approach it?
SG: As someone who didn’t study science past high school, it was not a likely (or wise) choice for me to write about a young doctor in his residency. But that was the story that captivated me, and I thought Anil Patel belonged in the field of medicine, with its high stakes and prevalent moral questions. So, I dove into research to understand the medical profession and the trials of a young intern. I read several books, both fictionalized accounts and memoirs, about the residency experience. I interviewed many, many doctors, starting with my personal network and expanding outward to specific specialties I needed to understand. And I spent time inside the cardiology department and catheterization lab at UCSD Hospital. I’m very grateful to all the physicians who helped me learn how to tell this story. Fortunately, I never fainted on one of them. I was a little intimidated by my own squeamish mind crafting a story rooted in the medical, but I had to follow it there.
My ideas for novels always seem like sparks, but then I realize they’ve been simmering for years or decades beforehand. How does the idea for a new novel come to you?
JC: You’ve hit the nail on the head. Ideas simmer away in your subconscious, both the main premise of a novel and the anecdotes you end up using to create small moments and scenes. When that story idea and the inspiration behind it infiltrate from your subconscious to your conscious mind, it becomes impossible to resist. It becomes the story you have to tell. I’ll bet you get this a lot from a friend or a reader who asks “Why don’t you write about XYZ?” And XYZ may be extremely interesting, but if another story has taken control of your imagination, you just have to write that story.
For my third novel, I thought I had it all worked out. It was an interesting premise, an interesting era, I had access to insider information, and I had a pretty good synopsis all mapped out. Then another story elbowed its way to the front of my mind and I just had to write the synopsis for this more insistent story and tell my agent “Umm… so actually, this is the book that’s going to be my third novel.” And I am so excited about it, so happy every time I think about getting down to working on the manuscript for real (once we are done with promotional activities for Dragon Springs Road). When it comes to the creative process, we get pushed around by our subconscious, and I’ve come to appreciate that.
SG: Yes! I have definitely developed a strong sense of respect and awe for my sub-conscious mind as well. I’ve come to understand it’s part of the creative process for me. I start with a few ingredients and then, when I’m not sure what to do next, or I’m stuck on some kind of story problem, I just let it be for a while and I find that my sub-conscious mind travels to places my rational brain never would.
JC: But when it comes to conscious decisions, I think we both took our stories in directions that shine a light on the lack of women’s rights, either historically or in the present day. For example, when I read your novels, I must admit I was surprised to learn how common it is in India for ultrasounds to be used to determine the sex of a fetus so that families can decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, and how some women are forced to terminate pregnancies, not to mention suffer in silence over infanticide.
But I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised—India, like China, is a country where boys are valued far more than girls. And now that technology can predict gender more accurately than fortune tellers, families can act on their cultural preferences. This has created gender imbalance in both countries. In China, the one-child policy has exacerbated the imbalance even more but I suppose there is a measure of progress in that families now value the one child they have, regardless of gender. Girls are given the attention and education previously reserved for boys. But I understand it’s an urban thing. In rural areas, the worst case scenarios are bride trafficking, kidnapping and virtual enslavement of young women, and rape. It’s all still changing.
Since my novels are set in the past, I feel I’ve managed to sidestep some of the criticisms other Asian authors get hit with for portraying their country of origin in a negative light. What about you? What’s the situation in modern India? Are things changing for girls and women, or do they still face the same levels of maltreatment as in the past?
SG: Change is coming, but slowly. I get this question a lot from people who want to know if practices like infanticide of girls still happen in India, why or why not, and how things can change in the future. I usually answer by explaining some of the internal contradictions regarding gender not only in Indian culture, but in the West as well. For example, in addition to infanticide of girls and bride-burnings, India elected a female leader long before many Western countries (and many still haven’t). My aunt in India says “India lives in many centuries simultaneously,” and I think it’s true. Some things are undoubtedly better for a girl born today in India, but there is still a gender imbalance in the population and other challenges abound. I believe the key to lasting change is to continue to expand educational (and therefore economic) opportunities for every girl in India, no matter what city or village or state she’s born in. With the ability to make a living, girls can finally break the cycle of being considered an economic “burden” and make their own life choices.
Janie, we both have multiple aspects to our identities—in your case, both Chinese and Canadian. How do you answer when people ask you which culture you most identify with?
JC: I live in Vancouver, which has been called ‘the most Asian city outside Asia.’ It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1970s to be Chinese was to be a very visible minority. But even then, the pressure to maintain two separate identities came from my family—or to be more specific, from my father. Sometimes I felt as though what he wanted from me was a well-behaved form of schizophrenia, a condition where I was so perfectly assimilated that I would attract only minimal discrimination outside, but still be able to enter our home and turn into the obedient traditional daughter. But that was just my father.
I faced the question ‘Do you think of yourself as Canadian or Chinese?’ for the first time at a reading. It came from an Asian-Canadian man and there was definitely an undercurrent of probing for loyalty or at the very least, probing for preference. And I was taken aback because I had never really thought of identifying myself exclusively as one or the other. I think that in this global economy, where immigration and travel are so common, where mixed-race marriages are becoming more common, that we are looking at a new demographic of people who are a “third identity” that’s the blending of two or more cultures? Why are we being asked to choose? I’m Canadian and my cultural heritage is Chinese and I have the advantage of drawing from the best of both worlds when I think through issues. My niece was born in the US, went to school in the US and China, works in Tokyo now, and she’s fluent in English, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. Surely that’s a good thing if we want to bridge differences.
SG: That’s interesting. I hadn’t quite thought of it in that way before, but it resonates with me. I’ve always felt that all my cultures (Indian, Canadian, American) play a role in my identity, and for the most part, they all co-exist happily. Each one has added to my life experience and my personality and I think of them as being additive, like layers, rather than trade-offs. I think that navigating two cultures was more of a challenge when I was growing up, during a time when Indian culture was not well known in the West. It’s so different now, where there are Indian comedians, chai on the menu at Starbucks and yoga studios on every corner. While not all those things are authentic, it does make Western society a little more of an accepting mosaic than thirty years ago.
JC: Yes, that’s exactly what it is: a happy co-existence of cultures and values. But somehow it manages to confuse some people! You know the other thing I like to ask other authors is how they came to writing. We share non-linear paths to becoming novelists. You came from a business background and I worked in the high-tech world for 20-odd years before publishing my first novel. That was a lifelong dream, but so many other things get in the way. Like earning a living. And I think women tend to put their own dreams on the back burner. When my mother’s dementia got to the point where we had to move her into a care home, I would visit her and look at all the other residents, and wonder about their lives. And wonder how I would feel if I were 95 and filled with regret for not having tried harder to achieve that dream of being a published author.
SG: Yes, mortality has a way of putting everything in perspective, doesn’t it? For me, the transition to becoming an author was a little different. Though I was always an avid reader, and I occasionally wrote as a hobby, I never really considered writing as a career. Then, in 2006, my husband and I moved to a new city for his career, and I suddenly had space in my life to try something new. I decided to try writing more seriously, though still as a hobby, just one I was indulging in for a year before I went back to my business career. In that year, I took writing classes and began to write the novel that would become Secret Daughter, and after it was published, it grew into my new career. It still surprises me.
Let’s finish the the most popular question we get as authors: Janie, what is your advice to aspiring authors who want to make this kind of transition?
JC: Well, I kick started my transition by taking a very intensive one-year program in creative writing and it was incredibly useful because we also learned about the business of writing and the community of writing. But if I were to characterize the difference between the serious writers and the aspiring ones, it would be in two words: butt glue. You know how we were talking about process and also about the subconscious? You need to apply discipline to creative output. I think that the most important thing is to treat writing as a job, not something that waits for inspiration. It may not be 9 to 5, but you need to schedule some set number of hours each day or a word count; otherwise it will take forever to get to 100,000 words.
I’ve heard people say that they can only write when they’re inspired. I think that the more you write, the less you depend on inspiration as a motivator to write. Because even if you write 5,000 words of total dreck, there is always something in there from your subconscious that’s struggling to get out, and that’s where editing comes in. Or that’s where you cut and paste those words into your file of unused prose, to save for a different project.
SG: That echoes the best advice I’ve heard: “ABCD”: Apply Bottom to Chair Daily. Writing, especially a novel, is like running a marathon except you don’t know how many miles the race will be when you begin. It’s easy to get daunted by the scale of a project, or lost within the maze of it. The best remedy is simply to sit down every day and keep writing, keep rewriting, keep editing and revising. I also recommend reading, as much as you can, preferably writers who are better than you. Reading something truly wonderful is the best inspiration to keep going with your own work, and make it the best you possibly can.
JC: Yes, and that’s one of the ironies of this writing life. Like you, I love to read. But for the past few years I’ve read more non-fiction than fiction, all in the pursuit of research. So right now, while there’s a lull before I really dive into the next manuscript, I’m reading as many of the books on my TBR stack as possible.