Win Me Something

Author:  Kyle Lucia Wu

(Tin House)

Written by Columnist Diane Slocum

Willa Chen’s parents divorced when she was young, remarried, and had more children. She never felt as if she completely belonged in either home. Being a biracial Chinese American in New Jersey, she also felt like an outsider in almost every place else. With her friends, she seemed to fall into the role of sidekick. In her twenties, she finds a job as a live-in nanny for a precocious 9-year-old in a swanky apartment in Tribeca. As she and Bijou bounce through Mandarin lessons and birthday parties, Willa seeks answers to who she is and where she belongs.

AUTHORLINK: Where did you get the idea to write this book? What was your first thought about what would be in the story?

WU: I began writing the novel in short stories first, but it began from the same place; a twentysomething girl who felt unrooted, launched into a job where everyone else seemed the opposite. Working as a live-in nanny in New York City felt like a perfect microcosm to talk about the themes I was interested in, like class, labor, family, and identity.

AUTHORLINK: How did the story develop from that? Did you plan it out? Did it grow organically as you wrote? Or what?

“…it grew into shape so many years ago, but it was certainly not planned.”

WU: It’s almost blurry to me now to remember how it grew into shape so many years ago, but it was certainly not planned. Because I was in graduate school at the time, I felt free to develop the character in any direction I wanted, and I didn’t know very much about selling a book or what would be an appealing book to write. So, I just followed my own curiosities about the character and wrote about Willa in many different situations. As time went on, certain stories seemed less relevant, and certain themes felt more urgent. It was as if I was doing years of research on the character by writing her into all of these situations that I then discarded, and that’s what shaped the book.

AUTHORLINK: How is Willa’s sense of not belonging, like being an outsider, a central theme of the story?

WU: I’ve always been interested in stories where the characters feel slightly out of step with the rest of the world. Willa is someone who feels without a foundation in certain ways and always trying to catch up. But I think she also doesn’t realize that lots of people feel like outsiders and worry that they don’t belong, whereas she feels like the only one. Because family is so fundamental to our identity and is often the place where we first feel we belong, it made sense to me that while living with this other family, it would cause her to face some of this head-on.

AUTHORLINK: Bijou is an outstanding character. Can you tell me how her character developed?

WU: I’m so glad you think so! I took inspiration for Bijou from lots of places, not just my own nannying background. In certain situations, age is a hierarchy, and I was interested in the idea of what can upend that hierarchy. Willa is older and technically ‘in charge,’ but what does it mean if Bijou actually knows how to do more things than Willa does, and was raised with much more confidence? At the same time, this doesn’t make Bijou an adult. I thought there was just a lot of contradictory fun to be had in pairing them together and watching the two of them piece things together.

AUTHORLINK: How did you decide on your title, Win Me Something?

WU: I thought it was an appealing phrase, part active and part passive, with lots of interpretations in a way that felt ambiguous. I don’t see ambiguity as a bad thing; I’d like readers to make up their own interpretations for it.

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people will gain from this novel, besides just enjoying a good story?

WU: I think this question goes the other way; I think I learn from the readers what they gain from the novel if anything. It’s been wonderful to see how many people from different walks of life have identified with Willa or seen the story from different angles. I love hearing from readers about this!

AUTHORLINK: How did the process of finding an agent and selling your first novel go for you?

“It was a bumpy ride! It took me two rounds of submission to get an agent and then to sell the book…”

WU: It was a bumpy ride! It took me two rounds of submission to get an agent and then to sell the book, which means I rewrote the book many, many times. Looking back, it’s easy to see the usefulness of this, because with each rewrite I got to carve the book a little cleaner, a little closer to my ideal vision. I can romanticize it now that the book has been published, but of course, it was a lonely and dispiriting time, and I really understood how becoming a writer depends a lot on diligence and privilege, on having the stamina and resources to keep pushing forward. I could not be happier that my book landed with Tin House, and when I first got to talk with my editor and as I went through her notes, I knew that I had found someone who understood my story.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

“…I’m working pretty intentionally on making space for reading and refilling my creative well…”

WU: I have a couple of projects I’ve been working on that are too early to talk about, and I’m working pretty intentionally on making space for reading and refilling my creative well––which I think is just as important as writing.

Kyle Lucia WuAbout the Author: Kyle Lucia Wu was born in New Jersey and lives in Los Angeles. She has received the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Margins Fellowship. She has been in residencies with The Millay Colony, The Byrdcliffe Colony, Plympton’s Writing Downtown Residency, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. She has taught creative writing at Fordham University and The New School and is the Programs and Communications Director at Kundiman.