Gloria Chao’s path to becoming a writer was not a straightforward one. Following her parents’ expectations for her to pursue a path in math/science, she attended MIT as an undergraduate and then went to dental school. In dental school, Chao found herself reading YA books as a stress reliever; she also wrote the first draft of a manuscript that would later become her critically acclaimed debut novel, American Panda. Eventually, she made the leap from full-time dentist to full-time writer. Her second novel, Our Wayward Fate, follows Taiwanese-American teenager Ali Chu as she navigates her cultural identity, family secrets, and first love in rural Indiana. Woven throughout the book is Chao’s imaginative retelling of the Chinese folktale The Butterfly Lovers, which adds another compelling layer of storytelling to the narrative. Her third novel, Rent a Boyfriend, is due out in fall 2020.
Leaving dentistry for writing
With math and science, there’s a clear right or wrong. Changing careers to a creative, subjective field was difficult, and it took me some time to learn to trust my gut and write what was authentic. It’s also wonderful not to have to shower immediately after work since no one else’s saliva is in my hair. And working in my pajamas is an added bonus.
I often draw from my experiences when I write. Because I spent my 20s figuring out how to meld my Chinese and American sides, my first three novels deal with identity. In Our Wayward Fate, Ali is trying to figure out who she is in a place where she doesn’t look like anyone else. And the miscommunication she experiences with her parents is drawn from the fact that it took my career change to make me start communicating with my parents – only for me to realize it had been what was missing all along.
My novels start with a single spark of an idea, often based on my life or an interesting fact. Then I try to mold that into an entertaining book. If I start with the character, I think about what setting will challenge her most. With Our Wayward Fate, the idea started with an article my mom sent me about a park in China with a unique tradition. From there, I worked backward to find what made Ali tick. Eventually, she grew into a badass martial artist who has lost her voice in her small farming town in Indiana but will soon relearn how to fight.
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Dialogue is one of my favorite parts of writing. When I draft, I imagine real people talking. I skip the in-between narration until I get the heart of the conversation down. Then I go back and add tags and actions. Finally, reading the words out loud helps to bring it even more to life.
What works best for me can change from book to book, and realizing that there isn’t one way to write helped me find my process. With Our Wayward Fate, I would write when I was inspired, then take breaks when I needed to refill the creative well. With my third book, I had a short deadline, so I set a daily word count.
Rent A Boyfriend will be out this fall. The romantic comedy follows a college student who hires a fake boyfriend to appease her traditional Taiwanese parents. When she falls for the guy behind the role who is not “’rent-worthy,” her carefully curated life begins to unravel. This story is loosely inspired by the real-life practice in some Asian countries of hiring fake boyfriends to bring home for Lunar New Year.
Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.