Denise Mealy | The Children’s Book Review | October 16, 2019
Welcome back to The Children’s Book Review, Gloria! Just last year we talked about your debut book, AMERICAN PANDA. Now you’re already back with your sophomore book and your feistiest heroine yet! We can’t wait to hear what’s been going on with you, your writing, and what’s to come.
Denise Mealy: Let’s start first with your new book, OUR WAYWARD FATE. Can you tell us about it?
Gloria Chao: OUR WAYWARD FATE follows seventeen-year-old Ali Chu, who is the only Asian high school student in her small, predominantly white, Midwestern town. When another Taiwanese family moves to Plainhart, Indiana, Ali falls for the boy who shows up in all her classes . . . only to learn that her mother doesn’t want them to be together.
As she digs into the why behind her mother’s disapproval, Ali uncovers secrets about her family and her new boyfriend that force her to question everything she thought she knew about life, love, and her unknowable future.
Ali (readers, say “Ah-Lee”) is a feisty, fierce protagonist who is forced to deal with difficult situations. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to create this character and the situations that confront her?
With Ali, I wanted to write a badass, strong teen who, because of her upbringing and relationship with her parents, has a difficult time communicating. I was inspired to tackle this because my debut novel, AMERICAN PANDA, helped me realize that miscommunication had been at the heart of my conflict with family. I wanted to explore the idea of both sides trying their best but being unable to fully express themselves, leading to issues neither knows how to solve. And because of my background in martial arts, I wanted the kung fu studio to be Ali’s safe place where she feels most herself.
The discrimination and subversive racism Ali experiences are heartbreaking and very serious. What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope readers will be able to experience the racism from both sides through the characters in this book. I wanted to show that there are different types of discrimination with varying motives—some purposeful, some unintentional, some completely oblivious—all of which are hurtful. I’ve been in similar situations to Ali and wanted readers to know they aren’t alone.
The whip-smart dialog in the book is often laugh-out-loud funny and feels very on-point for teens. How were you able to delve so deeply (and thoroughly!) into the mind of a teen? What’s your secret?
Thank you so much! I still struggle with many of the issues I faced as a teen—identity, conflict with loved ones, finding my place in the world—and I try to honestly write them into my books. I also attempt to put myself in my characters’ shoes, which is becoming easier with every book I write, even when those experiences differ from mine. I spend a lot of my revision time tightening up dialogue, reading it out loud, and tweaking jokes so they land the way they were intended.
What made you choose to include the 19th-century Chinese folk tale, The Butterfly Lovers, in this book? Can you give us a glimpse into the story?
I grew up with The Butterfly Lovers story, as did many of my Chinese American friends. I was fascinated that there was a famous Chinese folk tale as well-known to the East as Romeo & Juliet to the West, yet it has seldom been explored in fiction here. I wanted to bring this story to life for a new set of readers who had never experienced it. When I learned that the Butterfly Lovers park from the book exists in real life with the same mysterious tradition, I wanted to center a book around it.
I have taken many liberties in my retelling so that it would serve the narrative, but I kept the basic storyline: in ancient China, when girls were not allowed to be educated, a woman pretends to be a man in order to receive schooling. She and her roommate fall for one another but cannot be together because they have been matched to other people.
Rural Indiana is painted with a loving hand. Although Ali feels trapped there, it still has moments of beauty and fun that Ali loves. How did you pick this location for your setting?
For the twist at the end of this book to work (when the two stories come together), I needed the main character to be isolated. It felt natural to set it in a small farming town where Ali is alone. I drew from my experiences living in the Midwest—both the struggles and the beauty. For the latter, like Ali, I’ve spent time exploring maize mazes, watching the fireflies in open fields, and driving past windmills and cows.
If Ali was being interviewed for this article, what would she want us to know about her story?
Many things aren’t as they seem! Finding yourself is harder than it sounds, but it’s worth the bumps and bruises along the way, especially when a dreamy martial artist with a big heart is alongside for the ride! Nothing beats flirt-sparring.
Both AMERICAN PANDA and OUR WAYWARD FATES are about children of immigrant Taiwanese-American parents. How are Ali and Mei’s stories connected, and how are they different? Are there any common threads in the two stories?
Ali and Mei are both Taiwanese-American teens who love their families but also want to be happy. They use humor to endure otherwise bleak situations. They have lost their voice at the beginning of the book and slowly find themselves page after page. In both stories, the generational and cultural divide between child and immigrant parent leads to miscommunications that are difficult to overcome. The two stories tackle this in different ways, both inspired by different points in my life. Ali’s life has more secrets and thus even more hurdles to overcome than Mei, who at least tries to communicate with her parents from the start.
How has your writing process changed since your first book? What are some of your favorite writing traditions or quirks?
With American Panda, writing the first draft to finishing developmental edits took three years. With Our Wayward Fate, two years. With my third upcoming book (Rent a Boyfriend, out fall 2020, see below), seven months! To accommodate shorter deadlines, my writing process has changed, but it’s also gotten easier the more experience I have. I now have a better handle on the story before I write, so the actual drafting is smoother. My favorite writing advice is that there isn’t one way to write, which is true across writers and even across books for the same person.
I don’t have many interesting writing quirks, but I do like to have fun things on my desk that make me smile, e.g. a plastic panda from my brother, a wooden turtle with a bobbing head from one of my first signings with Once Upon a Time bookstore, and a panda and soup dumpling enamel pin from my 2018 Pitch Wars mentee, Susan Lee.
Favorite book you read last year?
I loved so many of the books I read last year: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Our Year of Maybe by Rachel Lynn Solomon, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn. But if I can only pick one, I have to go with Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert. It captured pieces of my life I didn’t realize others understood and stirred up so many emotions.
What are you working on next?
Rent a Boyfriend will be released fall 2020! This book follows a college student who hires a fake boyfriend from Rent For Your ’Rents to appease her traditional Taiwanese parents. Only, when she falls for the guy behind the role who is not ’rent-worthy, her carefully curated life begins to unravel.
I’ve absolutely loved working on this romantic comedy, and I can’t wait to share it with readers!
Thank you so much for joining us today, Gloria!
Written by Gloria Chao
Publisher’s Synopsis: A teen outcast is simultaneously swept up in a whirlwind romance and down a rabbit hole of dark family secrets when another Taiwanese family moves to her small, predominantly white midwestern town in this remarkable new novel from the critically acclaimed author of American Panda, which The Wall Street Journal called “weepingly funny.”
Seventeen-year-old Ali Chu knows that as the only Asian person at her school in middle-of-nowhere Indiana, she must be bland as white toast to survive. This means swapping her congee lunch for PB&Js, ignoring the clueless racism from her classmates and teachers, and keeping her mouth shut when people wrongly call her Allie instead of her actual name, pronounced Āh-lěe, after the mountain in Taiwan.
Her autopilot existence is disrupted when she finds out that Chase Yu, the new kid in school, is also Taiwanese. Despite some initial resistance due to the “they belong together” whispers, Ali and Chase soon spark a chemistry rooted in competitive martial arts, joking in two languages, and, most importantly, pushing back against the discrimination they face.
But when Ali’s mom finds out about the relationship, she forces Ali to end it. As Ali covertly digs into the why behind her mother’s disapproval, she uncovers secrets about her family and Chase that force her to question everything she thought she knew about life, love, and her unknowable future.
Snippets of a love story from nineteenth-century China (a retelling of the Chinese folktale The Butterfly Lovers) are interspersed with Ali’s narrative and intertwined with her fate.
“This honest and hilarious love story will have teens entranced. With whip-smart dialog and a fast-paced mystery, OUR WAYWARD FATE is the perfect book for any teen.” — The Children’s Book Review
Ages 12+ | Publisher: Simon Pulse | October 15, 2019 | ISBN: 978-1534427617
Buy the Book
About the Author
Gloria Chao is the critically acclaimed author of American Panda and Our Wayward Fate. Her wayward journey to fiction included studying business at MIT, then becoming a dentist. Gloria was once a black belt in kung-fu and an avid dancer, but nowadays you can find her teaming up with her husband on the curling ice. Visit her tea-and-book-filled world at GloriaChao.Wordpress.com and find her on Twitter and Instagram @GloriacChao.
This interview—Gloria Chao Discusses Our Wayward Fate—was conducted between Gloria Chao and Denise Mealy. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Beauty And The Beast Books, Brigid Kemmerer, Disabilities, and Fairy Tales.