"I Knew From the Start This Was a Book About the Model Minority"
Author Kirstin Chen discusses her bestselling new book 'Counterfeit.'
Last Thursday, I had the immense pleasure of doing a live virtual event with Kirstin Chen, the author of the new novel Counterfeit, as part of the Now We’re Talking Book Club. We talked about designer handbags, her new book, her writing process, the model minority myth, and so much more. This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed — if you want to see the entire conversation, it is here (full disclosure, the full version has some very light/vague spoilers, but the below does not).
Doree: You're probably familiar with Kirstin, but I'm going read her bio. She is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels. Her latest, Counterfeit, is a Reese's Book Club pick as well as a Roxane Gay Book Club pick as well as a Now We're Talking Newsletter Book Club pick and translation rights have sold in six languages, television rights have been optioned by Sony Pictures which I'm very excited about, and her previous two novels are Bury What We Cannot Take and Soy Sauce for Beginners. She has an MFA from Emerson College and a BA from Stanford. She was born and raised in Singapore and she now lives in San Francisco and she teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco and in Ashland University's low residency MFA program. Kirstin, welcome.
Kirstin: Thank you so much for having me, really thrilled.
Doree: So excited to have you and so excited to talk about your wonderful book. We were saying before we got started that I read it and just loved it so much and immediately emailed your publicist to ask if we could do something with it. So, I'm so excited to have you. I would like to start with an existential question.
Doree: What is so compelling about designer handbags?
Kirstin: That is an existential question. Well, what I find amusing is that prior to writing this book, I had a really pure love of handbags because I never had to think about it and also because I'm a writer and fashion isn't something that a lot of writers care about, even moreso, it was this private thing that I had and it was very pure, it was very unequivocal, I never really had to think about it and now that I've written this book and have been on tour with it, several people have asked this question and I have never... I remember the first time I got asked was a podcast interview I did a couple weeks ago, right before the book came out and the podcast host said, what is the difference?
And I said, "There's absolutely no difference." She's like, what is so special about a bag? And I said, "To be honest, there's nothing." I could say you love the design, there's the quality all that stuff, but to be very honest, it's a status symbol. I think that in addition to all the... I have an appreciation for the design and quality, but a big part of it is that it's a status symbol and so now that I've had to answer that question, I will say that my relationship to handbags I think it's evolving.
Doree: In what sense?
Kirstin: I think I've kind of lost the itch to... Part of it is that I have a lot of stuff and during the pandemic we didn't go out and I didn't realize that your wardrobe is large enough to serve you for the rest of your life probably, practically speaking. And so it's early, I don't know if it'll last, but I am rethinking a little bit my previously unequivocal love of handbags.
Doree: That's really interesting. Your book really does make this point that the factories are sometimes the same and so the lines between what is quote-unquote “real” and what is fake really do get blurred and it is this interesting intellectual exercise to think about, like, how much of the value that we place on things is just socially determined. Your book did such a good job at exploring these questions in a way that was very fun.
What makes a handbag thousands of dollars versus hundreds of dollars versus tens of dollars?
Kirstin: So there's that — like what makes a handbag thousands of dollars versus hundreds of dollars versus tens of dollars? And then there's also, like, handbags in and of itself are very easy to disregard as a frivolous item, but there are so many things that we spend money on that we accept as worthy of money, but we don't really question it. I think it's easy to wag our fingers at the way that other people spend money.
Doree: Yes, for sure. Let’s talk a little bit about your process of writing this book. I read an interview with you where you said that when you had finished working on your last book, you jokingly said to your spouse that your next book was going to be something you were already an expert in, which turned out to be handbags. And then you read a Washington Post article about a real life scammer who had a counterfeit handbag scheme. So, I'd love to just hear a little bit more about that. Did it just immediately ping for you, like, “this is a book,” or was it just something you filed away and came back to? I'd love to just hear how that little germ of an idea sort of blossomed.
Kirstin: Oftentimes, it is an idea that I just find myself coming back to over and over again, over a period of time and that's how I know I have a novel, that this is potentially an idea that can sustain a novel. So initially, it was a complete joke. I said to my husband I'm going to write a book about handbags because like I said, I'm an armchair expert on handbags and then I just really forgot about it. And then I was trying to write an essay about handbags for something else. Essays are not my forte, I really am a fiction writer and so for me to write essays, it takes a lot of time.
It's not something I consider myself an expert in and I remember my friend said to me, "Think about your essay as if it's fiction, you're a character in the essay." And so that I just stored away while I was working at the essay and that was like another little seed and then I came across this Washington Post article and I read this real life counterfeit handbag scheme and I thought, that is so ingenious, it belongs in a novel and so that was the third little seed. And that's how my novels grow. If I find myself telling friends like, I read this article about this scheme and you'll never believe what it's about. I've just gotten pretty good at recognizing when there's an idea that has potential.
Doree: What were the details of that scheme that you read about?
Kirstin: Well, so the scheme in the book is pretty much exactly that scheme and so oftentimes, people will say, how did you come up with such an ingenious scheme? And I will say, I didn't. And they'll say, did you ever consider changing it? And I didn't because it was so perfect, it was just so seemingly foolproof. So, that scheme I could not have invented one better. It was so simple and so understandable and yet so bold and just ticked all the boxes that I was like, there was no way I can mess with this. So, that was the first the thing that grabbed me the most. But then the other thing that I thought was fascinating was that the real life con artist was an Asian preschool teacher. You cannot make that up.
We hold up a group of people as a paradigm when it's useful to us and then the instant they fail to meet those unrealistic expectations, we discard them as quickly as possible.
Kirstin: And I immediately when I read that I thought, no wonder she didn't get caught because she's the antithesis of what we picture when we picture a criminal and then the third detail was that when she finally got caught and served her sentence, the day she came out, she immediately got deported back to Thailand because that was where she had immigrated to the US from. And so then that got me thinking about the model minority myth and this idea of, we hold up a group of people as a paradigm when it's useful to us and then the instant they fail to meet those unrealistic expectations, we discard them as quickly as possible.
Obviously, it took a while to work through those ideas, but in hindsight, I can see that was the reason I saw a novel in this. It wasn't just the scheme, it was the Asian immigrant con artists who was immediately deported and all of those things, the mix of that, coupled with the fact that I started writing this book in 2017 right after the election when all of these issues were already on my mind and so that's really what it came from.
Doree: I was going to ask you about the model minority myth because I think both Ava and Winnie are in their own ways challenging the model minority myth, but they also use it to their advantage when it will be advantageous to them. I’d love to just have you expand a little bit on what you were just talking about. Why was it important to you to portray that complexity in this book?
Kirstin: To me, that was the ultimate subversion. To take the stereotype that is weaponized against them and to turn it around and weaponize it back on the person who's imposing it on them. With this book in particular, it doesn't always go this way. I always knew how it was going to end, because of that. I knew from the start that this is a book about the model minority. I was very clear-eyed about what this book was about in a way that isn't always the case with my novels. Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out what it is I'm trying to say, and with this book I knew almost immediately. So even though it took a very long time to get it right, and to do it justice, I always knew what I was shooting for and that it had to be...It always felt like it could be no other way.
Doree: Right. Right. So can we also talk a little bit about your own career path? Because I also read that you worked as a merchandiser for Banana Republic. So you had this fashion background, which you alluded to a little bit earlier, but I'd love to hear about how that has now become a writing career. Do you now write full time? I'd love to just hear about your career path and how this transition to writing happened.
Kirstin: I took some creative writing classes in undergrad. I was a creative writing minor and a comp lit major. Two very impractical courses of study. But I also think that I maybe was the last generation of college students that was told that you could really use college to explore. I think you're a little bit younger than me. I was in college, I started in 1999 and graduate in 2003.
Doree: Actually, I'm older than you. But yes, I agree. I was a history and English major, so yes.
Kirstin: I was told that, which I know was an incredible privilege. So I majored in comparative literature because I love to read, but fully intended to get a practical job after that. There were no delusions of “I'm now going to be a scholar of early 20th century literature” or anything like that. After college I did the retail management program at Gap Inc., which is in San Francisco. I had always loved fashion. So this seemed like a dream career choice. Then I ended up hating it very quickly. It ended up being a corporate job like any other. Even though it was fashion, I quickly felt like I could be selling tires and it would be the same thing. It just wasn't for me. Actually I think it's because I hated that job so much that I went back to graduate school to get an MFA in creative writing. When I think back on it now, it still seems like the most foolish decision someone could make, even now that it worked out.
Kirstin: I still can't justify leaving a job. I'm obviously glad I did it, but I would never... I don't think I would even tell myself to do the same thing over again, because it's still a foolish decision. I'm just lucky that it worked out. So that's kind of what happened. I went and got an MFA mainly because I was trying to escape my job and had always loved school. I was good at school. But a lot of people get an MFA with a novel in hand. Students would come in with manuscripts. A lot of people were a lot further ahead than I was. I just kind of had this idea of: I know I love to read and write, and I know this is going to be a worthwhile use of my time. I do think that maybe because I didn't have any expectations, paradoxically, I didn't have that pressure on myself. I knew actually very little about the publishing world, much less than a lot of my peers. I wonder if that kind of naïveté actually helped.
Doree: Oh, interesting. Like you didn't know what you didn't know.
Kirstin: Exactly. I had to go step by step. I got there and I was like, "Oh, people publish stories. I'm going to try to submit a story." And I published a story. Then my advisor said, "You know, your stories seem to be circling the same theme. Maybe there's a novel there." I thought, "Oh, okay. Maybe I'll try to write a novel." I took it on. Then my master's thesis was a novel and that novel became my first novel. But I wonder if I'd come in thinking, "I am here to publish a novel..."
Kirstin: If it would've...Because it's so difficult, and because I graduated in 2009 and didn't publish my first novel util 2014. Because it's a path that takes so long. I wonder if knowing nothing actually forced me to be present and go step by step. Who knows? We love to put a narrative onto the past.
Doree: I think there is something to that and you didn't have real expectations going into it. Which I think for something like that does help.
Kirstin: At for least mental health. Yeah.
Doree: Yes. Totally. I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about something that you and I were discussing briefly before we started this conversation, which is... Ava is a mom, as I think most, if not all of the people on this Zoom are, and her two year old son Henri has a speech delay and possibly some sensory issues. My son, Henry, who is now three...
Kirstin: Oh my gosh! I've talked to multiple people whose sons are named Henry and I don't even think of it as a common name.
Doree: That's so funny.
Kirstin: It is. That's so interesting, but yes.
Doree: My son, Henry, who's now three, also had a speech delay and I thought your portrayal of him was really nicely done. It was sympathetic, while also making it clear that he was very challenging for Ava in a lot of ways. I really appreciated that portrayal. One thing that surprised me that you said before we started this chat is that you're not a mom. I am curious what you drew on in your portrayal of both Ava and Henry.
Kirstin: Yeah. What did I draw on? I drew on the fact that I'm a daughter. I drew on being an aunt. I have one lovely nephew. I was really lucky all of my first readers, my most trusted early readers, they're all parents. They gave me invaluable advice. I could step back a little bit and say the reason why Henri was such an important part of the story was because I was thinking about Ava and the kind of woman that she is. She's this character who is always in control, right? She's played by the rules. She's done everything right. She's in control of the way she looks, of the person she marries, even of her emotions because she's controlled them for so long.
I thought, "What is the thing that is going to break her out of that?" It's a child. Because every parent has told me that no matter how young your child... You can sense your child's personality at several months old.
Doree: Oh yes, yes.
Even the most difficult children have moments of sweetness.
Kirstin: I'm glad you're nodding your head. They are a whole human being almost instantly. Even if they can't talk yet, for instance. That to me was kind of like "Well, that is going to be Ava's big jolt." Right? Because she cannot... He's the one thing she can't control. Right? You see her trying to downplay his issues and justify his behavior. But it's so obvious that he is who he is. That was why he was important to the story. I will say that in early drafts he was not the whole character that he is now. That was something I really had to work on.
I remember one of my early readers, the writer Vanessa Hua who is a parent of twins, gave me this note. She said, "Kirstin, even the most difficult children have moments of sweetness." I really took that in. I thought, "Of course, of course. He can't be a foil. He can't be just there to jolt Ava, because that wouldn't be good writing. He needs to be as complicated a character as anybody else in the book. So I took that note to heart. There was, in particular, a novel by a writer named Lydia Kiesling called The Golden State. The Golden State, for those of you who haven't read it, is a novel that is basically a mother and her very young child. The child might be one. She doesn't talk at all in the book. She's too young to talk. It's basically a mother and a child in a trailer for the entire book. And that child is amazing. She is a fully formed, complicated human being, even though you barely hear her talk. When I read that book, I thought, "Oh, I get it. This is how you write children." It's something that I had to very concretely study and research and learn to do.
Doree: I thought you did a great job with it.
Kirstin: Thank you.
Doree: Before we get to people's questions, I do just want to talk about Winnie briefly because she is such a fascinating character. I think almost everyone has read the book, but I don't want to give too much away. But we learn she isn't who we think she is in like, so many ways. And our impression of her changes so many times. How do you navigate a character like that? As a writer, it seems something really hard to keep track of, just on a basic level. But then also, I'm wondering how you explored all these different layers of Winnie and got at the complexity. Because she's such a complicated character.
It's not that she becomes someone completely different. It's that she sees her past differently now.
Kirstin: Yeah. I think you're right, like the ground shifts a couple times through the book, with Ava and with Winnie. You see them one way, and then it shifts. And they're another way, and it shifts. And the reason it wasn't hard for me to keep track of was because I think of all of those selves as being a part of them.
A question that I got a couple weeks ago was, a reader said, "I felt completely duped when the ground shifts and Ava reveals another side of herself." But to me, all of those sides are her. You know? And even though we see her in a confession... For anyone who hasn't read the book, a lot of it is Ava confessing her story to a detective. And confessions are inherently unreliable because the person confessing has only one goal in line, which is to go free. So, we understand that there is always unreliability at a confession. But the best liars use their truth to lie. Right? Because that's how you're convincing, is to use actual details from your life. And that's how I see Ava. It's not that she becomes someone completely different. It's that she sees her past differently now. But that's still her past. That's still who she was. And so, from a writing perspective, I think because I had such a clear view of who these women are from the outset, I could see them pretty clearly, it was easy to play with their different selves. Because all of us show different sides of ourself depending on who we're talking to. We think of our personalities as static, but really, at work versus who we are with close friends versus who we are with family, your personality changes. There's nothing inherently stable about it. And so, I thought of it in that way. That I knew who they were at their core, and so then I could play with the shifting perceptions.
Doree: We're going to get to some reader questions. I like this question. It's building off of what we were just talking about. This person wrote, "I love the book and was aware that I had mixed feelings about each of the main characters. I admired and felt empathy towards them, but also wish they managed things differently and were more honest with themselves and others. Did you set out to write characters that your readers would feel ambivalent about? Or was their complexity a less intentional consequence of writing full and interesting characters?"
Kirstin: Yes. I think the latter. I don't think I ever think about likability, in any of my books. I don't think that's ever a goal, which seems strange to say, because why wouldn't you want your characters to be liked? But I guess I just mean that isn't the number one priority. Because... oh, because it's so much more interesting to just try to write real, whole people, from a writer perspective.
And I've also found, interestingly, that sometimes the most villainous characters that I write are the ones that I end up having the most empathy and insight into. You know? And I think, if we all looked at our lives, your closest friends aren't the most... It's not like we rank our friends by likability. The people that you love the most are just the people you love the most. And sometimes they're awful, but you love them anyway.
To me, it's more complicated. And to focus on likability would almost dilute the problem too much. You know? And you would not end up with a character who was memorable, perhaps. Or at least for me, I couldn't write that way.
Doree: Someone else is wondering what you do when you get stuck in writing.
I try, as much as possible, to think of writing as an extremely mundane... I think of it as like lifting weights at a gym or practicing scales, if you're a musician.
Kirstin: Oh, that's a big question, isn't it? I try, as much as possible, to think of writing as an extremely mundane... This is going to sound really unromantic. I think of it as like lifting weights at a gym or practicing scales, if you're a musician. Or... I don't know, mise en place, if you're a chef. I try to simplify it or streamline it down to its most basic form and to make it a routine. I even think of it like muscle memory. Like a thousand words a day; if you do it one day, the second day is easier. The third day is easier. And so, that is my approach is I write at the same time in the same room for either a thousand words a day, if I'm drafting, or two hour chunks, if I'm revising. I just try to make it routine and to drain the angst and emotion from the process.
"It's my job. This is what I do." Sometimes it takes four hours to write a thousand words. Sometimes it takes one hour to write a thousand words. And then I trust, if I sit down and write a thousand words a day for enough days in a row, I will have a book. It works for me; it doesn't work for everyone.
Doree: Yeah. I think that aspect of not overly romanticizing the job of writing, because it is a job, is important.
Kirstin: And also, not waiting for inspiration. Because if I were waiting for inspiration, I would write once a month. That's about the amount of time when I'm really truly inspired and in the flow. But the other thing I've seen is that, if you show up every day, you find the flow more frequently because you're giving yourself more options. So, it's this paradoxical thing that extremely rigid routines can lead to actual creativity and actual flow. You know?
Doree: Yeah. Yeah, I think that's so true. Okay. We got another question that was messaged to me privately. What are some books that you have read lately that you have loved?
Kirstin: Oh, love that question, because I'm always reading. I just finished Either/Or by Elif Batuman. Have you read her?
Doree: I haven't read that. I've read some of her other stuff, but I have not read her new book.
Kirstin: I was a huge fan of The Idiot. So Either/Or is a direct sequel to The Idiot, which I feel like is very rare in literary novels. You don't actually see that kind of continuity. I personally have a sweet spot for campus tales and this one is set at Harvard and it follows this bumbling, very intellectual and very awkward protagonist. So it appealed to me. I enjoyed that a lot. What else have I read? I read a new novel by a good friend of mine, Vanessa Hua, who is the writer that told me that difficult children have moments of sweetness, and I'm grateful to her. And her new novel, which came out in May, is called Forbidden City. It is historical fiction about Chairman Mao, but told from the perspective of his teenage mistress. So it is historical fiction, but in imaginary character, seeing a real life historical figure through the eyes of an event.
Doree: I love stuff like that.
Kirstin: Me too.
Doree: Do we have any other questions? I have the annoying writer question, which is "what are you working on?"
Kirstin: Oh, I'm happy to answer that. It's not terribly fraught because I feel like I'm always working on something. I'm working on another novel, very different from this one. It is set in the dirty cutthroat world of pediatric cancer research. It's set at an elite lab in a Harvard-like institute. And I describe it as Succession but with nerds.
Doree: Ooh, I love that. I feel like you're so good at really getting into these worlds that are so unfamiliar.
Kirstin: Thank you so much! I mean, I'm not that broadly curious, like I actually don't have much FOMO in terms of when everyone's like, "you’ve got to listen to that thing," or like "read that thing." I'm like, "I don't need to, I'm fine." It took me five years to listen to Serial. I was so behind. And I only did it because I was researching this book actually. And somebody said, "I think it'll help you write your book." And then, I listened to it, but I have no FOMO about that stuff. But then, when I get interested in a subject, I kind of-
Doree: Burrow in?
Kirstin: Yeah, so I know like a lot about very few things.
Doree: Okay. Well that does sound amazing. Do we have any other questions? I don't think we do. So I'm going to say thank you so much for this conversation. It was really great to get to talk to you. I loved your book. I think everyone here loved your book and we can't wait for the TV show, and what's next. So, thank you.
Kirstin: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this. This was lovely.
Doree: Yeah. This was really fun. All right. Thank you everyone. Bye.
Kirstin: Bye everyone. Thank you.
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