An Exclusive AUTHORLINK INTERVIEW with Elysha Chang
A Quitter’s Paradise: A Novel (SJP Lit, 6 June 2023)
A Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Summer Reading List Pick
An NPR Critics Summer Pick
A Good Morning America Pick of the Month
“Beautifully subtle…studded with sublime wit.” – New York Times Book Review
“Strange and wonderful.” – The Post and Courier
In A QUITTER’S PARADISE, the darkly humorous debut by bold, new voice Elysha Chang, a young woman does everything she can to ignore her mother’s death, even as unearthed family secrets become increasingly inextricable from her own.
At once disarmingly provocative and compulsively readable, is an unexpectedly funny study of the beauty and contradictions of grief, family bonds, and self-knowledge, exploring the ways we unwittingly guard the secrets of our loved ones, even from ourselves.
The novel is the first from Sarah Jessica Parker’s SJP Lit, a new imprint from the independent publisher Zando, launched in 2020 by Molly Stern.
“What struck me about this book was that it was exactly what I was looking for, which was a brand-new voice who was telling a story unfamiliar to me,” Parker says, “but also a story that would connect with readers who were looking for stories of their lives, who had yet to experience them in a book.” Vanity Fair, 6 June 2023
AUTHORLINK: Elysha, thank you for your time today and for sharing your writing journey with your fans and our readers! Welcome. Classically, debut novels are based on the author’s personal experience. Was this the same for you?
“I’ve tried to write about myself, but it’s such a bore…I’d much rather research and invent…”
CHANG: I’m so delighted to chat with you! Thanks for making the time. In some sense, yes. It felt like my whole life–everything I did, read, and thought about–was fodder for this first book. But the book isn’t actually based on my life or any real experiences.
I feel close to Eleanor (the main character) in a lot of ways. But she’s a scientist, she’s estranged from her family, she’s…deeply repressed. I’m none of those things. I think. Putting some distance between us helped me write with more honesty and objectivity. It also just sustained my interest in the work. I’ve tried to write about myself, but it’s such a bore. I’d much rather research and invent than record and elaborate. I feel I can be bolder and truer that way.
AUTHORLINK: Understandable. How would you describe the main themes of A QUITTER’S PARADISE?
“…the book speaks to family memory and story–the narratives we have or don’t have about who we are.”
CHANG: I try to speak very generally about the book’s themes. I feel that, as the author, I’m the wrong person to talk about them. But I will try! To me, A QUITTER’S PARADISE is about family, womanhood, ambition, and desire as understood through the lens of immigrant life and immigrant inheritance. The structure of the book speaks to family memory and story–the narratives we have or don’t have about who we are. A lot of the book’s questions surround the sort of insurmountable rift between immigrant parents and their American children.
AUTHORLINK: We particularly liked the immigrant story. You started writing this novel in your 20s, living and working in New York. Your main character’s voice in A QUITTER’S PARADISE, Eleanor, came to you first and, after that, her journey. Was there something in your life at the time that mirrored your development of the story? Was the first version of this book very different from the final version?
“A QUITTER’S PARADISE is about what you necessarily give up in order to pursue something, anything.”
CHANG: After grad school, I worked in corporate marketing for a bit, but I couldn’t keep it up and burned out pretty quickly. I quit and checked coats at a club for a few months. That really bothered my mom. She asked when I would give it up, and I said I would when there were no more coats to hang. I actually meant when winter was over, but the way she understood it was funnier.
My main goal was to write the book during the day, so I worked a lot of evening and weekend jobs. Tutoring, waiting tables. But the writing never felt like it was going well, and I worried that the space I was giving the book wasn’t worth what I was taking from other areas of my life. I asked myself all the time: am I ruining my life? And I think it eventually occurred to me that I was. You’re always ruining one type of life to pursue another.
In retrospect, I see a lot of that lostness and uncertainty in Eleanor. It’s a main driver of her thought process and her actions. I see it, too, in the way Jing and Rita understand or fret about their immigration to the U.S. A QUITTER’S PARADISE is about what you necessarily give up in order to pursue something, anything. And the book did take on a clearer shape once I saw this thread that held all the characters together.
AUTHORLINK: It was such a pleasure to read! You’ve been described as ‘deeply funny’ or, at least, your main character, Eleanor, has. What was it like writing this unreliable narrator? Did you like her? Were you ever annoyed with her? Bummed out by her? Did you laugh to yourself as you were writing or editing her words?
“You spend so long with these characters in your head that they become people to you.”
CHANG: I like Eleanor! I like all my characters, even when they’re being cruel or cowardly. They all make me laugh. They all worry and frustrate me. I don’t keep people around if they don’t make me laugh. Or if I’m not invested enough in them to worry or care about them. You spend so long with these characters in your head that they become people to you. Is that sad? In my mind, they’re still out there living their lives–I’ve just stopped writing it down.
AUTHORLINK: Not at all sad and completely understandable. What are we all but a sum of our consciousness? In connection to the above question, some people feel like Eleanor is ‘actively a mess’…but we think she’s not. She’s just being pure and following her journey in calm cohesion – an explosion under the turf. What do you think?
CHANG: LOL I think being called a mess might be Eleanor’s greatest fear. To me, what’s funny about Eleanor is how orderly she tries to be and how that need for order contributes directly to the chaos in her life. She’s always trying to ‘think clearly.’ She’s terrified of hypocrisy, of contradicting herself, of being illogical. But hypocrisy is part of life. We certainly can’t think our way out of it, as Eleanor seems to want to do. As you’ve said, a lot of Eleanor’s true feelings remain ‘under the turf.’ But they can’t stay there.
AUTHORLINK: No, and they don’t! When you finally finished the book, how did you feel? Did you feel it was good? Or did you have doubts? Did you expect anyone else to see it as exceptional as so many people do?
“The ending came later, over the course of revisions with my editor.”
CHANG: There was not really a momentous finishing of the book like I thought there would be. I was imagining some emotional fanfare or at least a bit of closure. Instead, as I was nearing the end of the book, I had an issue with my computer and accidentally deleted the last 4,000 words I had written. I was totally distraught. But when I reread to assess the damage, I saw no substantive changes. As in, the words were gone, but the story was exactly the same. I was writing in circles.
I moaned about that for a while and then I just cleaned it up as best I could and sent it out. I knew I needed someone else’s eyes on it. The ending came later, over the course of revisions with my editor.
As for whether I thought it was good or bad? Honestly, I don’t trust my opinions of my own work, so I try not to form them. They’re very volatile and pegged to my mood. Some days it’s the great American novel of our era. Other days, I should dig a hole and throw myself and all copies of the book in it. My feelings about my writing can’t be trusted. Best just to move on and work on something else.
AUTHORLINK: Ha ha ha. Yes, we get that. How does it feel to be a debut author and be graced with the favor of SJP Lit, the new publishing imprint of your favorite actor and ours, Sarah Jessica Parker? Sarah Jessica Parker has received numerous accolades, including six Golden Globe Awards and two Primetime Emmy Awards. Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2022. What a compliment from a truly remarkable person – actor, ballerina, shoe designer, perfumer, shoe salesperson, and publisher!
She has been in your corner from the beginning, believing in your novel and the voices of your characters – almost tapping your shoulder like an empathetic fairy Godmother – to promote and love, A QUITTER’S PARADISE. She’s a discerning reader and a successful publisher (The critically successful New York Times bestseller, ‘A Place for Us’ by Fatima Farheen Mirza, was published under her careful eye.) How wonderful to have ‘Carrie Bradshaw’ as a lover and champion of your book!
Were you ever a fan of Sex and the City and the delightful, And Just Like That? What did that feel like being selected? Can you describe the trajectory of the day you found out?
CHANG: I was a little young for SATC when it came out. My friend’s mom had the DVD set, and a bunch of us would gather in her bedroom and watch it. We would admire the clothes, and gape at the sex talk. It was very formative for me, even if I didn’t fully understand what I was watching. I certainly didn’t get how clever the show was, or how groundbreaking, until much later.
I try to keep SJP the distinguished actor and entrepreneur separate from SJP the publisher. On some level, I guess that’s impossible. But I feel like that’s what she’d want? Anyway, I think that’s what I would want if I had that level of celebrity.
We met on Zoom, [with Sarah Jessica Parker] along with my agent Claudia, and Erin who would become my editor. What I remember most is the surreal feeling of strangers talking to me about my book. They were all speaking with so much depth and enthusiasm and intimacy about something that had been pretty exclusively in my head for seven or eight years. And not just strangers, but also a very familiar face and voice from as far back as my childhood. That was crazy.
AUTHORLINK: How fascinating – yes, we can see how surreal it must have been to hear people talking with intimacy about characters that existed in your head for so many years. Have you ever imagined which actor might play Eleanor if approached by a film production company to create a movie? We understand Sarah Jessica Parker said, ”I didn’t want to co-opt an author and make them feel that that was my end point, that I just wanted to get my hands on the rights, you know?” and “…my priority is to get this book out to readers. The life after that is a conversation I would be, of course, thrilled to have, but it’s not what’s paramount right now.” We think that’s pretty special.
CHANG: That is special! I’m pretty intrigued by what a screenplay of this book would look like. I mean, it’s bilingual, it’s non-chronological, it’s voice-driven. I can see that being pretty challenging, but maybe also kind of fun to adapt. I love when an adaptation strays or has to stray from its source material. It gets to be its own work.
As for actors, there are so many insanely talented Asian American actors out there–many of whom we haven’t seen or are just coming into their careers. Any opportunity to discover new Asian American talent onscreen is always exciting to me.
AUTHORLINK: And to us. You have written articles, interviewed best-selling authors, and taught creative writing before you published your debut novel. Which writer inspired you the most, or that you learned the most from? And in conjunction with this, what are your top five ‘amazing books’?
CHANG: Oh, man. This is too daunting to answer. How about a few of my favorites from the past year or so?
Activities for Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen
Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera
Terrace Story by Hilary Leichter
The Tree and The Vine by Dola de Jong
An Honest Living by Dwyer Murphy
In general, I like books and narrators that leave quite a bit unsaid. Narrators whose true workings are tangled, shifting, or underground. Or maybe books that understand it’s a fool’s errand to try to pin any ‘true workings’ down. Authors I admire who do this? Chang-Rae Lee, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Kazuo Ishiguro, Iris Murdoch, Tove Janssen. The list goes on and on.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you for that! What are you working on now? Can you tell us a bit about that?
CHANG: Nothing! Just tilling the soil–reading, taking notes, zoning out. It’s simultaneously easy and hard to do that with a baby. (I have a baby.) I worked toward a singular creative goal for so long. And the end of that process gets less and less creative. It’s all about whittling away, narrowing down, being precise. So I’m just trying to get back to a place of openness and observation. I just want to pay attention and invite the unknown back in. For a while, I thought I’d forgotten how.
AUTHORLINK: Congratulations on your baby, Elysha! And thank you so much for your time today and for sharing your experience and wisdom in publishing your remarkable debut novel, A QUITTER’S PARADISE. We wish you all the best, continued success and look forward to reading your next book.
CHANG: Thank you Anna!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elysha Chang is the author of A Quitter’s Paradise, published in June 2023. Her writing has appeared in Bodega Mag, Fence, GQ, The Rumpus, and other publications.
An instructor of creative writing, Elysha has taught fiction workshops and other courses at Blue Stoop, Kelly Writer’s House, Villanova University, and University of Pennsylvania.
She has received fellowships and support from The Center for Fiction, Jerome Foundation, Kundiman, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, Swatch Art Residency in Shanghai, Monson Arts, and Willapa Bay AIR.
She holds an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts and lives in New York.