How I Write: Caroline Hwang
Published: June 3, 2003
|How can you follow your heart when you don't know what you want out of life? Caroline Hwang poses this question in her entertaining debut novel, In Full Bloom. The engaging star of this smart narrative is Ginger Lee, a fashion magazine editor who works in a world where the best cure for self-doubt is a pair of Manolo Blahniks. She's searching for her passion--whether it be a career or a lover. But it's hard to find yourself when your mother keeps running interference.|
Hwang's humorous take on the struggles between Ginger and her immigrant mother, who have vastly different ideas about how Ginger should lead her life, grew out of an essay the author wrote for Newsweek. In it, she mentioned that her parents expected her to marry a Korean man. She struck a chord and received hundreds of letters from people with similar stories. "How do you please yourself without displeasing your parents?" she wondered, and started writing.
Hwang, who is senior editor at Good Housekeeping and has an MFA in creative writing from New York University, has had articles published in Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Self.
Why: For me, the drive to write stems from my love of reading. I read so much that by the time I went to college and majored in English, I didn't have to read most of the assigned books. What I loved about novels was that they took me to other places and times and introduced me to people and situations that, as the daughter of Korean immigrants living in the suburbs of Milwaukee, I otherwise never would have known. Novels were my escape and my education. I hope to chart the territory of second-generation Koreans living in this time and place--put their experience on the map of fiction.
When and where: I circled above writing for years, first going to grad school, then dropping out, then working in book publishing, then switching to magazines. I had Ginger Lee, my protagonist, in my head. But I let years go by without putting her story on paper. As a magazine editor who spent the entire day in front of a computer, the last thing I wanted to do when I went home was turn on the computer again. Several months before I turned 30, I realized that if I didn't try it then, I might never. I wasn't married, didn't have a mortgage. I took the leap of faith and quit my job as senior editor of a health magazine, thinking I could freelance on the side while I worked on my book full time.
I wrote at home. I would get up at 9 or 10 a.m. and sit at my computer with a donut and cup of coffee. My brain doesn't fire up until lunchtime. I was really getting the writing done in the afternoon from about 1 to 5.
How: I found myself with the time to write, but I was without a clue as to how to start. After six months, I had maybe a hundred pages, but none of them felt right. At NYU, I was taking a class taught by E.L. Doctorow. I told him how it all just felt futile. He asked me how many pages I had. I told him I had six that I liked. He suggested I skip to a part of the story that excited me, but after all of my years as a journalist, I could write only in a logical, linear way. He asked if I was writing something I would read. It cut me to the quick, because I wasn't. I was writing something I would have read as a grad student, but my tastes had changed dramatically. As a reader, I skim over long descriptions of dust motes swirling in the sunlight, so what was I doing writing them? I realized right then and there that I needed to change my tone and voice to one that was more lighthearted and amusing.
Advice: If you're a first-time novelist, finish your book before shopping it around. Fiction writing may be an art, but book publishing is a business. Once agents and editors get involved, your baby becomes a product--and the forces of the market come into play. The ideal agent and editor will completely understand what you're trying to do and say. They won't ask you to do anything that is antithetical to your intention or vision.
Photograph by John Smock
--Posted June 3, 2003