Poison Ivy: Susie Yang delves into class warfare and deceit in the season's biggest debut
Former tech exec Susie Yang, 32, enters the literary fray with White Ivy, a delightfully dark debut with a protagonist who refuses to let the privileged class off the hook.
Susie Yang's protagonist, the titular Ivy, is a master of deceit. She steals, she lies, she dabbles in mistaken identity and a few other more nefarious extracurricular activities. But, White Ivy, the author's hotly-anticipated debut (Nov. 3), isn't exactly the salacious thriller that those descriptors would imply. Instead, it's more of a character study, about a girl raised by strict Chinese-American parents who confronts the egregious class disparities in Boston (and beyond). Ivy develops a childhood penchant for shoplifting, and simultaneously a major crush on Graham Speyer, a wealthy (and attractive, and highly WASP-y) classmate. Years later, Ivy is a teacher in Boston when she finds herself back in the web of the Speyer family and confronted with her dark side.
Yang, the author, is unlike Ivy in nearly every way. A former startup founder who left her company to pursue a dream of novel writing, she's equal parts introspective and, if it can be said, jolly. (Her protagonist, Ivy, is many things, but jolly is absolutely not one of them). She's also quite accommodating, agreeing to a Friday evening Zoom session — Yang is currently living in London, making for quite the time change from EW's Los Angeles HQ — to discuss her unique path to publishing and what inspired her to create this character like no other.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Writing wasn’t your first profession. Could you tell us how you made the switch?
SUSIE YANG: I’ve been writing my whole life but never finished a novel — I always thought I would retire and then write books. But I read this article about how many people delude themselves with the idea that once I do X, then I’ll do what I really want to do in life. I was running my own start-up at the time, but it had reached maintenance mode, so I set a goal for myself: write a draft and type “The end” within the year.
How did White Ivy come about?
I knew I wanted to write about identity and reinventing yourself, with a side of class commentary. My idea for White Ivy started with the first line: “Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her.” I was inspired by an article I read about a guy I used to know who had been breaking into people’s garages and stealing random things. And, I was lucky; I went to a writers’ conference and met my would-be agent when we sat together at lunch and she asked me what I was working on. I pitched my book as an “Asian-American House of Mirth” and she said, “That sounds great.”
I’d been working on the novel for about 9 months at that point, so after the conference, I finished the draft and sent it to her. She emailed me back the next day. I signed with her and had the expectation that we’d be revising it, but she read it again and said I think this is sellable. So she put it on submission in November and a week later it sold to Simon & Schuster. That process was so fast — the editing process was not so fast.
Ivy does a lot of duplicitous things yet isn’t entirely unsympathetic. Is the character based on anyone?
I was really inspired by male protagonists, so I was watching Breaking Bad, and I had just finished watching House of Cards. You see their ambition and their downfall, and they’re fascinating and evil. I wanted to write an unconventional female character in literature that I hadn’t seen before, which is how I came up with that first line. I wanted her to be underestimated because of her appearance. And I loved An Education; just the idea of a girl who wanted to be exposed to something and have a different world view. I wanted to capture that.
This story is not autobiographical, but do you recognize yourself in it at all?
I did pull from my own life for the sequence when Ivy goes back to China to visit. I used the dichotomy I know, of living in the States but spending summers with my relatives in China, and having that surreal experience of being viewed as an outsider there.
The novel is drawing a lot of comparisons to The Secret History, which could be daunting, especially in a debut.
I love that book, and it’s such a flattering comparison. [Secret’s] Richard is so sympathetic and the atmosphere feels very surreal. If I were in that very particular bubble, I could see myself doing what he did. That was interesting to me in writing, too: to hopefully get the reader on board with a decision by the character that, when they look back on the book, feels inevitable. That they’ll think, “Of course this isn’t a redemption story.”
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