What's in a Page: Searching for Sylvie Lee author Jean Kwok's writing career started with a doodle
Jean Kwok's haunting family mystery Searching for Sylvie Lee, about the disappearance of the eldest daughter to Chinese immigrants, was an instant sensation. It hit The New York Times best-seller list immediately, and was selected for both Reese Witherspoon and Emma Roberts' book clubs. But her writing career was never a given. Kwok was raised in a Chinese immigrant family herself, and her childhood didn't leave much room for creativity. She attended Harvard in the hope of pursuing a physics degree, but everything changed during a fated late-night doodling session. We'll let Kwok explain it in her own words. To celebrate the release of Sylvie Lee's paperback version, she answered EW's burning book questions.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
JEAN KWOK: I’m not one of those authors who started writing poems and stories when they were little. In fact, I was the exact opposite. The first words I ever wrote were in Chinese because I was born in Hong Kong. After we moved to New York, my family started working in a clothing factory in Chinatown, and even though I was only 5 years old, I worked as well. I didn’t speak a word of English. We lived in an apartment that was so run down and dilapidated, it didn’t even have heat. The windowpanes were covered with ice on the inside throughout the bitter winters. I could hear the mice skittering past the mattress I slept on in the night. So there was no room in my childhood for creative endeavors like writing. It truly never even occurred to me.
However, there was still space for dreams and I had plenty of them. I loved books and after I learned to read English, I read every chance I got. I dreamed of growing up, going to Harvard, and creating a life for myself away from the clothing factory. And that’s exactly what I did, but not quite in the way I had envisioned.
I was a student at Harvard, majoring in physics, and I had a problem set due the next day. I was up until late in the night working on it. I felt dazed and exhausted. I was having trouble solving one of the equations, so I started doodling on a notepad. Suddenly, I wrote a poem! I stared at the page. I was so astonished. It was as if I’d laid an egg.
That was the beginning. It wasn’t long until I realized that writing was the only thing I wanted to do with my life.
What is the last book that made you cry?
I was so moved by Caroline Leavitt’s With or Without You. It’s about a nurse named Stella who falls into a coma and wakes up changed in a changed world. Her partner, Simon, a once-famous rocker, is shocked when Stella emerges with a startling new talent that gives her the fame he’s always yearned for, even as Stella’s doctor and best friend Libby begins to find herself falling for Simon.
When I was reading it, I felt as if I were falling in love myself: flushed and captivated. The wonderful thing is that Leavitt writes with so much compassion and wisdom that she’s able to move us to tears while filling us with hope. It’s truly such an uplifting read.
Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?
I’m excited about reading Nancy Jooyoun Kim’s The Last Story of Mina Lee, the Reese’s Book Club Pick. I always enjoy Reese’s picks and my interest was especially piqued by this story of an immigrant mother and daughter who have struggled their whole lives to understand each other and the secrets that emerge when the mother dies under suspicious circumstances.
Where do you write?
I used to write at a desk like a normal person, but I seem to be degenerating. I wrote my second and third novels with my MacBook at desk-like places like the kitchen table, but now I find myself on the couch.
I keep my iMac on an over-bed table set up over my mint green chaise lounge sofa. I like to be tucked under a forest green comforter with the cats snuggled up next to me as I type away. The cats sometimes decide they’re not getting enough attention and then start to fight with the keyboard by attacking or attempting to smother it.
I dash down some thoughts by hand, but the vast majority of my writing is typed, mainly because my handwriting is so illegible that I often can’t read it myself. There’s something very sad about staring at a scribble and wondering what on earth I was thinking when I wrote it.
Which book made you a forever reader?
I loved so many books when I was little, but the one that stands out in my memory is Anne of Green Gables. That’s the magic of books, isn’t it? That a little Chinese immigrant girl living in Brooklyn could identify so strongly with dreamy, red-haired orphan Anne.
What is a snack you couldn’t write without?
I have to admit that stashed next to my writing sofa is a box of Lindt Lindor Cornet Dark Chocolate. I love these chocolates so much that I only allow myself to eat them when I’m writing, as a reward.
If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?
There’s nothing about any of my books that I would change. By the time I submit the manuscript to my editor, I will already have done about five drafts at minimum. Sometimes it’s the twelfth draft. Then with the help of my editor’s notes, I’ll go through the novel at least three more times before working with the copy editors, which will usually take a few more drafts as well. So by the time I’m done, I’m done.
Although, now that I think about it, there might be one thing I could change. I always write my real cats into my novels as characters. I might add a couple more cats to each book.
What is your favorite part of Searching for Sylvie Lee?
I love the relationships between Sylvie, Amy, and Ma. Sylvie is the dazzling, successful older sister who disappears while on a trip to the Netherlands to visit her dying grandmother. Amy is the shy, stuttering younger sister who needs to pull herself together to find her beloved older sister, and Ma is the woman who loves them both so much and yet is bewildered by her own daughters.
I think we’ve all been surprised when someone we thought we knew inside out did something unfathomable. I love the way the novel explores that question: How well do we truly know the ones we love most?
That’s a question that is so fascinating to me, especially when understanding each other is complicated by cultural differences and the immigration experience. Sylvie, Amy, and Ma are isolated by the secrets they keep from each other and yet their love for each other is deep and true.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write in this book?
Searching for Sylvie Lee is inspired by the real-life disappearance of my beloved brother Kwan and so the very subject matter was very difficult for me. Kwan had always been the golden child in our family and I was content to be his admiring, bratty younger sister. Years ago, when he disappeared just before Thanksgiving, we were devastated and, like Amy, I had to pull myself together to try to figure out what had happened to him.
In fact, I found it so difficult that I wasn’t able to write the novel until I changed the protagonist to a woman. After I created Sylvie, everything else fell into place. She and the other characters came alive and formed their own narrative.
However, there is still so much of my brother and mother in this novel. I feel very grateful that in a way, they live on in this book.
Write a movie poster tag line for the book:
One disappearance. Three women. Endless family secrets.