“I decided very early on that I wanted to write an antihero character. There was such a tradition of strong personalitied men going to great lengths to achieve something, even doing really horrible things. So I really wanted to show a female character and how she would bring about her own downfall.” Author Susie Yang talks to host J.T. Ellison about White Ivy on NPT’s A Word on Words.
With White Ivy, her debut novel, Susie Yang has given us a female anti-hero we didn’t know we needed. Susie is a gifted writer who will hold your attention through to the very final page. In this episode of A Word on Words, she talks with host J.T. Ellison about her inspirations, her writing journey, and what comes next for her.
Susie Yang: Hi, this is Susie Yang, the author of a White Ivy, a book that follows Ivy Lynn, a Chinese American immigrant from when she’s 14 to 27, as she lies schemes and manipulates her way into Gideon’s heart and marrying into his very privileged patrician family.
J.T. Ellison: What’s going on? How are you? It’s good to see you, Susie.
Yang: Yeah. It’s good to see you. Thanks for having me on.
Ellison: Where are you right now?
Yang: I’m in Istanbul right now. Usually I’m based in the UK. So I’ve been living in Cambridge for the last two years, but because everything is remote recently, my husband and I decided to come to Istanbul for two months now. We’ve been here for two months and we’ll probably go back to London in January.
Ellison: Oh, that’s fabulous. Cambridge is one of my favorite places. My husband and I have been, we want to go over and stay for summer and it’s like, all right, Oxford, Cambridge, Oxford, Cambridge. So we went to both just kind of get the lay of the land and everything, and he’s really fighting for Cambridge.
Yang: Yeah. I want to try living in Oxford. I’ve heard, it’s sort of like a more urban Cambridge, I mean, but the debate just roars on, you know, everybody has their preferences.
Ellison: It is, it is. It’s definitely more urban, you know, the campus is bigger. It’s more right in the middle of downtown. I absolutely love it. So super cool.
So first off, I loved this book. Our co-host Mary Laura Philpott gave it to me and said, this is totally up your alley. And she was absolutely right. Really great book. Congratulations. It’s wonderful to have a debut that everybody loves.
Yang: Thank you.
Ellison: Tell us a little bit about White Ivy.
Yang: So White Ivy follows the story of Ivy Lynn, who is a Chinese-American girl. And we see when she’s 14 to 27 and she falls in love with a boy named Gideon Speyer, who is the son of a Massachusetts State Senator and as adults, Ivy and Gideon reconnect. The story is really following Ivy along her journey to see how far she’s willing to go to get this life of privilege that she wants by marrying into Gideon’s family, and also what she has to sacrifice in order to get it.
Ellison: Where did the kernel of the story come from? Who is Ivy? Where did you develop her?
Yang: I think Ivy came when I decided very early on that I wanted to write an anti hero character. I was thinking about all the male anti-heroes that I really love, you know, I was watching Breaking Bad at the time, I was watching…I love the Dark Knight. So there was such a tradition of strong personalities, men going to great lengths to achieve something, even doing really horrible things.
I really wanted to show a female character and how she would bring about her own downfall and destruction by pursuing something to its very end. After I had that idea, the first sentence––Ivy Lin is a thief, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. That came to me and I wrote the first chapter within a day, you know, her family background, the shoplifting scene of the Asian-American girl. That was really interesting to me. So the kernel for character really was formed in one day very quickly. And then I plotted out the rest of the story, which has stayed relatively the same since that first sentence.
Ellison: You share biographical details with Ivy. How fun was it to take some things from your life, make it into hers? Tell me about that process. That had to be a lot of fun.
Yang: Yeah, I was really resolved because I’m a really lazy researcher. So it was just easier for me to plug in details that I already know or, people who share those traits. So I was also born in China like Ivy. I came to the States when I was five, and the first time I went back to China was also when I was 14. And that’s the section of the book where Ivy is exiled into China. So all those things were really inspired because I thought, let me just draw from these experiences. And they’re very vivid memories for me.
In terms of her family and her upbringing, those things are all fictional, but certain details and characteristics of the Chinese culture, for example, certain things that her grandmother says or the foods they eat or just the Chinese culture of wanting you to get good grades and be a doctor. So things like that, I’ll definitely sprinkle onto Ivy’s background and personality. But again, it’s really just because I don’t like research. So it felt just a lot more natural to stick with what I knew.
Ellison: Ivy’s trip back to China, I felt like that was really a crucible moment for her. It really crystallizes her goals, seeing both sides of her family. Talk to me a little bit about how that evolves her as your character.
Yang: Yeah. That was the first instance of Ivy coming into contact with wealth, and actually, I had wanted to write the summer in China because I’ve spent so many summers in China, visiting family there. And it was that discrepancy between the super wealthy and you have these luxury malls and all these brand name clothes, but then you have such poverty and there’s so many people. So that culture shock, I wanted Ivy to experience that, but more importantly, in the flow of the story, meeting, being taken in by this wealthy aunt, who’s her fairy godmother and her seeing what it’s like to have money, but also she learns the difference between wealth and money. You know, there’s different kinds. It’s not just materialistic things, you know, there’s status and there’s a way people view you.
And so all those experiences, she has at a really impressionable age. And I just thought it was really fun to have that take place in China because it does sort of feel like the Wild West, you know, anything is possible. And I also feel like in literature, people usually think if you return back to your home country, it’s usually, you know, there’s a lot of poverty. So I really wanted to show that no, actually China, in Ivy’s experience at least, can be a place where there’s so much money and splendor and you know, all the, all the good things in life as well.
Ellison: All the luster of it.
Ellison: There’s so much about this book that we can’t talk about. It’s always fun with books like this, I have to dance around everything when I’m asking my questions because I don’t want to ruin it for the reader. I want them to read this and enjoy it the way we did. But I want to know, do you think she is guilt driven or shame driven? Or is she just a really talented sociopath who will stop at nothing to get what she wants?
Yang: I like to think of it as a descension into maybe becoming a sociopath, but actually it’s a really great question because very early on, you know, I was really inspired by Ripley, which I know this book has been compared to. And I thought, is this a story about a sociopath? Am I writing somebody who’s essentially unhinged?
Early on, I decided not to go down that path, which is why I take a long time to explore Ivy’s childhood and have the readers understand the circumstances that make her…so that we know why she wants the things she wants. And of course, I think at some point she does descend into completely illogical choices that a normal human being wouldn’t make. But at that point, hopefully, we’ve been with her long enough that we understand her thought process.
So I think it’s a mix of both. She definitely has a lot of issues and insecurities, from when she’s a child and a young woman that make her really vulnerable. And then I think as she progresses down the path of seeking, these things that she wants in life, I think it becomes harder and harder for the readers to justify her actions.
Ellison: No, that’s very true. That’s very true. Ambition can make a lot of mistakes along the way. It really can. So she’s clearly flawed. But I’m really curious here, one of the reviews I read, they called her broken. Do you feel like she’s broken?
Yang: Hm. I think it’s fair to say, but I don’t think she’s broken in some kind of very special way. I think all of us are broken to some extent. I think for Ivy, the word broken is probably her fatal flaw, which is that she can’t let go of her ambition. You know, she wants that so bad and that becomes the source of all of her problems and all of her issues. If she could let go of certain ideas about wealth or money or class, then I think she would be much happier and live a much more normal life, but you know, it’s not the kind of story. So, I think her brokenness is self-inflicted, you know what I mean? I don’t think it’s caused by a terrible tragedy or any of that sense. It’s really her own tragic flaw that causes her brokenness and the outcomes that follow.
Ellison: She just can’t get out of her own way. You want A, you’ve got A, why now are you going to throw A away? We’ve all had that friend that does that. And you just look at them, you’re like, what are you doing? This is exactly what you wanted.
Yang: And then when it comes from somebody else, it’s more sympathetic, you know? Cause they feel like more of a victim, right? Oh, you couldn’t help it, these things were done to you. But I think it’s fair to say that Ivy, she is in her own way and she does these things to herself. So her brokenness is less sympathetic because of that reason. Because it’s self-inflicted.
Ellison: Yeah, it totally is. So, Gideon and Roux, her fiancé and her lover, they’re both very tied to her youth. Is she actually in love with either of them? Does she know what love is? She doesn’t have a lot of examples of love growing up. So I feel like she was very, it was very twisted in her manifestation of love. Do you think that she actually loves them?
Yang: I think she loves them in the way that she knows how, but I don’t think she knows them. You know, I think there’s a kind of deeper love that comes from intimacy when you understand somebody, right? And you actually can be altruistic and work together. And that is not available for Ivy, whether it’s because of her personality or her ambition, whatever. So I think she loves them in a way that she knows how to, and she’s able to, but because she has never really understood either Roux or Gideon, they appear to her more just reflections of herself.
So she looks at Roux, she looks at Gideon and she thinks, what do they say about me? What do they say about what I want? What do they represent? What kind of life do I have with them? So she’s constantly projecting her hopes and her ambitions onto the men. She can’t see them for who they are, again to her own detriment, until it’s much too late in the book.
Ellison: And I love that. They’re her mirror. I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re absolutely right. That she is doing that.
Is the title literal or metaphorical? Is she trying to erase her Chinese heritage? Is she trying to be pure and virginal and bride-like? Tell us about the title.
Yang: It comes from the proverb at the beginning of the book, the snow goose did not bathe to make itself white. And I really loved that proverb because it really speaks to this idea of intrinsic values versus extrinsic things. So Ivy is somebody who wants to be naturally good. She wants to be naturally beautiful. And she admires people who appear to do these things and be these things effortlessly.
But yet all of the qualities that she has that are good, she rejects them and she wants to emulate other people. So to me, White Ivy speaks to almost wanting something you can’t ever have by the very nature of what it is that you want, which is imitation. And so that speaks to race, it can speak to like what you said, to be pure and to be beautiful. It’s just this idea of wanting to… it’s aspirational, you know, I think that’s what it is for me, at least.
And then also the feel of the title White Ivy, it feels sinister and somebody, a reader actually told me recently that white ivy is a real plant that’s apparently harder to kill than other ivy. And I didn’t know that, but it was really cool to learn that after the fact. All connected.
Ellison: It’s a great title. It’s a great cover, the art’s wonderful. It’s very sinister in a very clean and preppy way. It was fascinating.
That’s a good segue because you’ve talked about playing with the idea of the model minority. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yang: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think I sat down and said, okay, let me upend the model minority. But when I knew that I wanted to write an anti-hero who would do bad things and essentially bring about her own destruction, and I thought of the character of Ivy Lin, who’s this very docile, meek looking Chinese-American immigrant, just by combining those two things I think it upends the stereotype and I leaned into that.
I purposely made her thoughts very incongruous of her appearance. People underestimate her, she feels invisible for much of her adolescent life. So, it felt more like a coincidence, but then after I kind of had that alchemy, I really did feel like: Oh, this is a really unique character who, if you met in real life, they would be very shocking. And probably we don’t know very many people like that. So it felt really interesting for me to write as well.
Ellison: The three Lin women, Ivy and her mother and her grandmother, how are they alike and how are they different and how do they shape who this girl is?
Yang: Wow. I think they’re alike in their determination, in their capacity to imagine what they want from themselves and to try to go for it. I think they’re different probably more in terms of…the way I thought about it was, are they more fear-driven or desire driven?
There’s a line very late in the book where Ivy learns her mother’s story and, and, and it flips the narrative of her mother’s story upside down for her. But, Ivy had always thought that her grandmother was a very strong woman, right? And that her mother was, you know, somebody who’s not that capable, but when she learns that it’s the opposite, she says, Ne Phung was driven by fear whereas Nan, her mom, was driven by desire. So I think a lot of that is shaped by their circumstances.
They grew up during different times, both in America and China, so the way I imagine it, they have the core character traits of being strong Lin women, but based on what they’ve observed in life, as it is with all of us, they’re influenced by different worldviews. So Ivy is somebody who is driven by both fear and desire. And I think she can see aspects of that in her mom and, and her grandmother and also the way we try to influence her, you know, either into kind of being resourceful and self-reliant because her grandmother sees the world as sort of a dog eat dog place, but then also her mom is constantly, you know, telling her to, you know, aim higher, go, go, go for more. So she absorbs both of those lessons growing up.
Ellison: You also touch on mental illness directly with her little brother. Is there a stigma? I mean, obviously there is a stigma about it in the world, but especially in Chinese culture, is there a huge stigma? It felt like they were going to do everything they could just to brush that way, but he was getting worse and worse.
Yang: Yeah. And that’s something I actually feel really strongly about because it’s something that I think is quite common in the Chinese American community, but it’s something that we don’t talk about with our parents. That generation of Chinese immigrants, they’ve had to survive in America, you know? So for them it was money, food, making sure that you can pay the bills. So for them, the idea of depression or things like that feel very indulgent and a very American way. But I feel like that’s really false. You know, that’s such a false narrative. I feel like it’s taboo, people don’t want to talk about it. They want to say just be stronger or get over it, or your life isn’t that bad compared to my life.
I mean, I’ve seen that so many times and that’s an aspect of Chinese American culture that I wanted to show with a book just to say we can see how Ivy’s brother is struggling and things aren’t going right. But the parents don’t want to acknowledge that. I didn’t want the book to so heavily get into it because I think it’s a whole book in itself, but I did want to have a character who represented that.
Ellison: Yeah, you did a great job with it. I really felt for him. There are other women who influence Ivy–– her roommate, Andrea, her, her soon to be mother-in-law, Poppy, Gideon’s mom, and her soon to be sister-in-law Sylvia. You know, women are such astute judges of each other. I was curious that they didn’t see her for who she was, that she was really able to keep a mask up with everybody. Even the ones who’ve lived with her.
Yang: Yeah. I was thinking about this because I was thinking how everybody in the book feels like in some way they have their own agenda, you know, or they have their own…the way that they want to be perceived versus the way they really are. And Ivy is one of those people. When she observes the other women in her life, she’s always trying to discern, who are they really? And is what they’re telling me an accurate portrayal? And I think so much of that comes through because it’s from Ivy’s point of view, she is somebody who, and I can say this because I’m working on something new and the worldview of women and the people are not like that. And I thought, why are all the women in White Ivy like this? I’ve realized because Ivy’s constantly judging other people in those metrics. Who are they really? What are they hiding? She’s very suspicious and very guarded. And because of that, she attributes all kinds of hypocrisy to her parents and her family and to Sylvia and to her roommate, which I don’t think necessarily have to be true.
I think that probably Sylvia does see Ivy for who she is. I mean, I actually think it’s clear later on in the book that Sylvia has seen Ivy for who she was probably the entire time, she had a really clear idea. You’re like this, and Gideon’s like this, and that’s why you guys are good together. It’s just that Ivy overthinks everything, she’s constantly second guessing everybody’s motives toward her and our motives toward each other. So I think that’s what gives the book such an unsettling feeling. But when I reflect as an author on these people, I don’t know that Ivy’s interpretation of all this second guessing is, is true, actually.
Ellison: I don’t disagree. It’s a searing social commentary. Really. A lot of it is very darkly funny. What was your favorite moment in the book?
Yang: Wow, my favorite moment. Um, let me think. I would say the most pleasurable part to write was probably the scenes in China, because it felt like Ivy is getting an education of sorts, and I’m always interested in that type of arc, you know, where it’s a coming of age. You go from thinking the world is one way to realizing that it could be some other way and those feelings, I really enjoy, but I think probably the scene that was the most that, that came the quickest and I wrote the most,like I was most immersed in is probably the scene in the mountain. Like the climax scene. It’s very atmospheric and it felt very… I like that mood, you know, where it’s cold and you’re outside. So that was really fun to write.
I’m just laying out all the scenes now… I quite enjoy the cottage scenes. That was really fun to again use that satirical voice, just sort of poke fun at the Speyers and their house and to show the mannerisms between a different type of family. You know, I feel like I poked fun at Ivy’s family quite a bit. So to kind of have her switch, to observing a different, very, very different type of family from her own. That was really fun. There were a whole bunch of scenes from the cottage that we ended up cutting. So you can tell that I had a lot of fun writing that section.
Ellison: The mountain scene, it’s surprising yet inevitable, which I think is exactly what every climax of a book needs to be. You set that up absolutely perfectly. It was wonderful. We can’t talk about it. So sad.
Love and food are intrinsically entwined in this book. I felt like the better things were going, the more elegant and elaborate the food, and the less Ivy could appreciate it, which leads to major problems down the road. Tell me about the food choices and how you brought them in and what you used when.
Yang: So I don’t think it was deliberate on my part to say, you know, food is going to symbolize something. It felt really intuitive. And I think I just like food in books. I remember when I was a kid reading the Little House series, they would just be eating around the table and I would get so hungry, you know, and you want to eat with them. So I think I just enjoy… it’s a very sensory pleasure of reading. I try to include those details as much as possible. And then there is a part where Ivy kind of has a weird relationship with food and she gets ill because of her eating habits. It was so funny because I had made her, you know, have these weird eating habits to save money even though she’s not really, and she just stops caring about food, right? And then she develops all these problems from it. I knew that she would be ill later on. So it’s combining this idea of having a really poor diet with what illnesses she could possibly develop. And so I was Googling it and then I thought, ah, this, the [illness]] that she gets, it’s the perfect symbol for the ways in which she’s inflicting more issues upon herself. Um, so yeah, it’s just a pleasure that I like in books. The decisions about the feast and the famine were very intuitive.
Ellison: It fits perfectly because she’s lost, you know, she’s losing all of it. She’s just losing her mind. She really is. Lack of food and lack of nutrients will definitely exacerbate something like that. It was wonderful. See, I’m lazy, when I have food in a book, it’s probably because that’s what I had for dinner that night. There’s not a lot of thought process that goes into it.
You’ve said you like to write about otherness and you mentioned you were inspired by male protagonists and you mentioned Ripley. How does otherness in the concept of the antihero play into your work?
Yang: They’re two separate things, but combining them is interesting because it brings sympathy to the antihero. You know, you can almost say they do all these bad things because they’re so lonely or really misunderstood. But the outsider characters I’ve been drawn to, they don’t, they aren’t all anti heroes, you know? I’m just thinking of my favorite books growing up. One of my favorite ones was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. So it’s always the idea of an outside perspective looking into something that I’m really familiar with both as a Chinese-American immigrant, but also because I moved around so much as a child. So it was always just adapting to a new school or making new friends and I enjoyed it, you know, I quite like exploring new places and new cities, but that’s just the perspective that I’m really familiar with.
A classic, what I’m thinking of is the Secret History. [As] a student, you’re just the outsider, you’re lonely for friendship or acceptance, whatever it is. And you make all these observations about a group that you don’t understand yet, because you’re so far outside. I really enjoy reading that kind of social commentary. That was the perspective I took for this book, combining it with the antihero character, so that we gained sympathy for Ivy because of her outsider status.
Ellison: That’s a perfect segue. You have a really interesting path to the page. Can you tell us about your background, how you became a writer, all the things that you did? And I want to hear about your quarter life crisis because that’s awesome.
Yang: I was actually on this panel for the Toronto public library with two other Asian American authors. And I was so struck by how much our stories were similar. All of us had very non-traditional backgrounds.
I went to pharmacy school straight out of high school, one of those six year programs. I really hated it halfway through. I didn’t want to quit because I had already invested so many years into getting this degree. I thought, let me just get the degree and then figure out what I want to do. I graduated with a pharmacy degree and I moved out to San Francisco to work in tech because that was still a very normal career path, but like so many other Asian American writers I’ve been writing my whole life. You know, I’ve been a bookworm, I’ve been writing for fun. I didn’t even know what an MFA was until a friend of mine applied for one.
And I thought Oh, there’s a career path to become a professional writer. That all kind of congealed and yeah, what you said is my quarter life crisis, where I thought, you know, other people can do it, let me give myself a fair shot. Up until that point, I hadn’t finished a novel. I was always writing chapter ones and working on stories. So I thought, let me give myself a year to see if I can do it. And if I can’t do it, that means I’m not cut out for being a writer. You know, I can’t finish a book so I can kill that dream. I did end up making the deadline and then that draft became the first draft of White Ivy.
Ellison: It’s fantastic. Just the idea that you sat down and you’re like, okay, I’m going to give myself a year to accomplish this. Not a lot of people do that. Right? They’re just going to keep circling and doing that first chapter and never getting to the end. So kudos for doing it, and kudos for doing it with a book that’s quite an accomplished debut novel. It’s amazing.
So now that you’ve landed on the literary shores, is this it, is this where you’re going to stay? Is this your future?
Yang: I don’t know. I think I’m someone that struggled so much to say I’ll be one thing forever. I like stories, you know, whatever that manifests as for now. Yes. I love writing novels. For now I think I definitely want to tell stories and I think that the need to express myself has always been true my entire life, regardless of what manifestation it takes. As a kid, I loved art as well. Not saying I’m going to go become an artist, but yeah, it really just is the desire to kind of tell stories and have something to say.
Ellison: That’s awesome. You’ve got an adaptation going on right now. Shonda Rhimes picked it up from Netflix. Can you tell us anything about the adaptation?
Yang: The last I’ve heard is that they’re looking for a writer to do the adaptation. I don’t have any information on that. I’m still also eagerly waiting. Fingers crossed.
Ellison: Well, fingers crossed because it would make a brilliant, brilliant show.
I was telling one of my friends yesterday, how much I liked the book and, and how, again, as a debut, it’s very accomplished and I’m really curious to see where you’re going with your career. I know I just asked it, but let me ask it in a slightly different way. Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Yang: In ten years, hopefully I’ll have written a few more books. I’m so drawn to projects, that’s just how I’ve always seen life. It’s sort of, what is this project I want to work on? And that doesn’t have to be career based. It can be just traveling to a place or experiencing something. I feel like there’s only so much time we have to do things that we want. It’s really just devoting certain chunks of my life to certain projects. So in 10 years, hopefully I’ll have written two or three more books. I think that’s around how long it would take me.
Hopefully I’ve experienced more life and have gained more wisdom to have new things to say. I’m living abroad now, but I don’t know where I’ll be living then. That’s always a big question on my mind, you know, where should I settle? I always think about the next step, but it’s hard to see beyond that. It really is just once I finish a project it’s closed. And then I think about what the next project I want to do is I can detach myself from the past.
Ellison: I admire that. You’re going to have to teach me how to do that. I can’t do that.
Yang: There’s pros and cons.
Ellison: There’s pros and cons to everything, but do you have any good advice for up and coming writers?
Yang: I’ll tell a really good story. And it’s on the top of my mind, because I just said this to a writer friend of mine. I read this book called Art and Fear when I was first starting out. It was recommended to me by a writing teacher and it tells a story of the ceramics teacher. He has the students split into two groups and he tells the first group, your grade will be dependent on the quality of one pot that you make. So you can spend the whole time just making one perfect pot and the more perfect it is, the higher grade will be.
We have the second group of students. It doesn’t matter how good your pots are. Your grade is based on how many pots you make. So if you make 50 pots, that’s a better grade than 49 pots.
And what he found was at the end, all the students who had made like 50 pots, all their pots are better than all the students would spend all the time trying to make one perfect pot. And that was the advice that I needed for myself at that time, because I think so much of why I couldn’t finish a book was because I was trying to write the perfect book. It was like, this is not good enough, I have to keep on editing this one chapter over and over again, because it’s gotta be this amazing ideal version of this novel that I have.
And then once I read that advice, I thought, yeah, I need more practice. I just need to write. I need to produce. I need to not control myself so carefully and be so precious. And so I started writing everything, all these scenes, so many chapters, and it got to the point where it felt like I was so comfortable writing.
I’m not saying obviously this pot is so perfect or whatever, but I think that was the best advice for a writer like me. So hopefully that story can help other people just make a lot of pots.
Ellison: That’s brilliant. That’s brilliant advice that I’ve never heard. And I make a lot of pots and I like that a lot, and I’m going to steal it.
Susie, this has been a delight. Thank you for coming on the show. It’s been great to have you here.
Yang: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.
Ellison: Thank you for watching A Word on Words. I’m J.T. Ellison. Keep reading.
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