Kathy Wang's new novel Impostor Syndrome is about to be your summer must-read
A famous Silicon Valley tech company, a female COO under extra scrutiny, a Russian spy ring threatening to close in on the U.S. — Kathy Wang's sophomore novel has all the trappings for a summer page-turner. But Impost0r Syndrome goes deeper than your average espionage thriller. The author follows two protagonists: Julia is a plant sent over from Moscow to rise through the ranks of the tech industry, eventually landing in one of the top spots at Tangerine (a fictional riff on Google); Alice is a first-generation Chinese American whose low-level Tangerine salary barely covers her Silicon Valley rent. As Alice discovers a security blip that hints at Julia's nefarious connections, their differences in privilege (and the pressure not to let her struggling immigrant parents down) complicate Alice's instincts to investigate Julia.
Impostor Syndrome hits shelves on May 25, but over the next three weeks, EW will be sharing the first seven chapters exclusively on our website — starting Tuesday, April 27. (You can pre-order the e-book edition now for a special discounted price of $4.99.) To kick things off, Wang spoke to EW about creating the fictional world of Tangerine, how she learned about spycraft, and what she wants readers to know about being AAPI in Silicon Valley.
Your first book, Family Trust, also took place in Silicon Valley — what is it about the place that drew you back?
When I wrote my first book, I mostly chose it because I've lived here almost my entire life, and writing about it comes easily to me. Originally, I had said that I didn't want to do another Silicon Valley book, but the idea came to me, and I just couldn't let go of it. It's really easy to lampoon Silicon Valley — the personalities are outsized, and there's a lot of lack of self-awareness here. But I do view this place more sincerely, and I want to show a more mixed perspective on the place. When you're a kid of immigrants, you take the place at face value: You think, I'm going to go to college here and get a job, and hopefully, I can have health insurance. I didn't examine it for a long time.
Can you tell us more about the idea that you couldn't get out of your head?
I was writing another book that I had almost finished the manuscript for, and then one day, I was driving and thought: What if one of the world's most senior tech execs was a spy? And more scenarios kept coming to me. What would happen if she had a really nice life and was asked to give it up or to put that life in danger? From the beginning knew I wanted Julia to be white and Alice to be Asian. Sometimes in publishing, there's a tendency to want Asian writers to write all-Asian characters, but with Trump saying everything he was saying, I didn't want to introduce the idea of a Chinese intelligence agent. I didn't want to put out the idea that a Chinese character can't be trusted. I really wanted Alice to be the heroine.
What was it about the Russian spy infrastructure that felt compelling to you?
I had originally decided to make Julia just from a vague Eastern European country, but my editor pointed out that I should name the country so that the reader can picture it right away. There are only so many countries that have a major intelligence apparatus so I just quickly narrowed it down to Russia. And I've always been fascinated by the place — my husband lived there for a time while we were dating. I'm sure the book doesn't fully represent the experience; I didn't want to be too specific about what it's like to be a spy there because I knew I would never have all the answers.
You worked in Silicon Valley for many years — are the descriptions of the more lavish elements of the industry, or the outlandish personalities drawn from your direct experience?
I wanted all the characters to feel real, even if I'm writing someone who's kind of a jerk. I wanted readers to be able to understand why people act the way they do. I have been working here since 2006, and at the beginning, I think people were interested in tech because they liked it — nowadays, of course, there are a lot of people who are attracted to the financial rewards. That will bring outsized personalities. Plus, the industry is so strongly based on data: You can construct any story out of data, so you can tell yourself that everything you think is correct and manually manipulate data to back it up. It allows you to reinforce your own righteousness, and that can spiral.
The fact that Julia is a female CEO plays into the narrative a lot — how do you think the book would be different if she were male?
No one's ever asked me that before. I think Alice's reaction to her would differ. I wanted to show the side of Alice where, when you see a high-achieving woman, you admire them, but there is a tiny part of you that thinks maybe there's something wrong with her that she wants to be that powerful. This has been covered ad nauseam, but it's the phenomena that it's so easy to tear down women. When Alice discovers that Julia might be doing something wrong, she's a bit excited to tear her down. I don't think that would have existed with a male COO.
Julia is also a mother of a young baby...
I do have young children, so I wanted to think about what someone in her position might be like with children. I remember the discussion around Marissa Mayer's short maternity leave [at Yahoo], and that was in the back of my mind as I wrote. What's interesting is that I don't think women in her position are automatically pitying themselves, I think some of them want to go back to work quickly. It's such a complicated issue.
There are some elements that tie in to your life, personally. Were any of them hard to write?
Well, it's not a cheery part, but there's a storyline in which Alice's mom gets attacked in her store. As I originally wrote it, I got some feedback that it was too violent. And it was more violent, but those attacks on Asian women do happen — it might have been harder to picture previously, before what's happening now in the country. I wanted that scene in there, and I didn't necessarily want their family to get a resolution. There isn't a tidy, feel-good resolution from her attackers, but that's just what happens in real life. I think the general population can understand that now, given what's happened.
There are also so many small moments of racism that happened, and I wanted that part of the book to feel real. I think any Asian American who grew up in this area would know what I'm talking about. At the same time, I don't like when white characters in a book are cartoonishly villainous. I wanted it to reflect what I experienced, which is that white kids had learned a behavior, that things like property values increasing and pushing out long-timers while tech employees of Asian descent were moving in, they started to change communities and build animosity. It's really complicated, and I took a lot of care to convey that.
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