Jade Chang’s novel The Wangs Vs. The World traces the rollicking road trip of a brilliant family. The story kicks off when Charles Wang, a wealthy industrialist, loses all his money in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. Left without a place to stay, he gathers up his two youngest children: Andrew, a college student who dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, and Grace, a death-obsessed teenager. They pile into an ancient Mercedes station wagon to drive cross country to the home of the oldest sibling, Saina, a conceptual artist reeling from a devastating break-up. As the characters adjust to their diminished financial means, they also navigate new territories in their personal lives as well. The New York Times praised the book as “unendingly clever” while Newsday called it “a firecracker of a debut.” Jade Chang spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on October 27th, 2016. Photo credit: Teresa Flowers.
Public Libraries Online: You’ve talked about how you wanted The Wangs Vs the World to be “an immigrant novel that’s a rebellion against the traditional idea of the immigrant novel.” Can you talk about what you meant by that?
Jade Chang: When you are growing up in America reading different kinds of books, whenever there are stories that are by or about immigrants or people of color it’s usually one sort of story—a story of pain in some way. It’s either a “How can we fit in? We’re outsiders in this country. We must assimilate,” or it’s the far larger pain of slavery or being a refugee.
Obviously I’ve read and loved many of these books but I also think that there are so many different ways to be an immigrant and a person of color in America. We’re really only getting one of these ways when we read these stories. One of the main things is I wanted to write a story that centered this voice and this experience.
PLO: I want to talk about the kids, who are all are driven by their creative pursuits. Saina is an acclaimed conceptual artist, who, when we meet her, is recovering from a pretty savage reception to her last piece. Can you talk about how you came up with her different pieces?
JC: In a lot of ways this book was a sort of wish fulfillment for me in that I got to explore all of these different worlds that I’m really interested in. There’s definitely a part of me that would have enjoyed being a conceptual artist. In terms of how I came up with those different pieces, I really was just trying to think of work that would be actually compelling and also interesting to describe.
In putting this book together I was very interested in different systems of valuation and how we ascribe value to things, and that was partly why I was interested in writing about finance and art side by side. We think of finance as being this very objective system, but in fact it’s quite subjective. The value of commodities—the value of money—change based on perceptions all the time. A company’s stock prices rise and fall based on perception, the perception of how well a company is doing, which isn’t always weighted in truth.
In the art world the value of a piece also changes depending on the stories that the artists tell about themselves or the stories that the marketplace tell about the artist. On one level I was interested in art that dealt with that. In the case of the first artwork that we hear described, where Saina goes to Art Basel Miami and makes a pretty spectacular and controversial decision, I was trying to think of what the best worst thing for the artist to do.
PLO: I imagine it’s hard with any of their artistic pursuits to make them believable and still maintain the book’s comedic tone.
JC: There’s so much in the book that’s really over the top, and yet I also wanted it to be grounded to have that basis of believability.
PLO: Andrew wants to be a stand-up comedian, and we see his act develop over the novel. What went into creating his act?
JC: That was definitely the thing I had the most fun researching. I watched so much stand-up comedy. I watched about every stand-up special on Netflix, I watched tons of stand-up on YouTube, and I also went to a lot of shows. I went through a period where I was going to comedy shows by myself because I would make a last minute decision to go. It’s always fascinating being in an audience by yourself where someone’s trying to make you laugh because in a way laughter is so communal. Like when you go to a show you laugh because your friend laughs, you’re laughing together. So I got to think about what moves an audience by going to these shows on my own. I also took some improv classes which was really fun.
There’s a part of me that has always wanted to be a stand-up comic, who has always thought that It would be such a brilliant thing to do. But I don’t think I have enough of a desire to bare my soul, so it was easier to write a character baring his soul instead.
PLO: Grace is a fashion blogger and has an acutely developed aesthetic. What went into creating her sense of style?
JC: That’s just a lot of personal interest. I love clothes. I’m very interested in fashion in general. I didn’t really go that much into it in the book but the world of style bloggers is a really interesting one. There are people who have made really amazing careers out of it. I wanted Grace to be excited about something that she could reasonably do as a high school senior and also something that would feel like a new world to her father.
PLO: In the book, the Wangs make their way from Los Angeles to upstate New York. It seems that the route you have them take is very specific. Did you want to see these characters in certain parts of the country?
JC: I think there are cities that just feel distinctly themselves. New Orleans is a city that is an entity unto itself. It’s almost hard to tell what country it’s in, but because of that it’s such a distinctly American city. I knew that I wanted them to go there and that necessitates a Southern route. My sister went to grad school in Alabama and I wanted to see the Wang family in the South.
PLO: The town in Alabama that they visit doesn’t seem to be an aspect of the South that is portrayed in pop culture, where it’s almost this hipster enclave.
JC: That’s definitely happening all over the South. I remember when I went to that town, Opelika, I was like, “I did not know that this was happening here, I did not know there were towns like this.” As soon as I went there, I knew that I wanted to set something there.
PLO: At certain points in the novel we get the story narrated from the point of view of the car, which was such a fun aspect of the book. Why was it important for you to let the car tell her side of the story?
JC: I like when there’s something a little unexpected. When you’re on a road trip the car is your friend, and you become so intimately connected to the car. It’s such an integral part of any road trip that It only seemed fair to give the car a voice too.
PLO: I heard you speak on Pop Rocket about your writing process, and how you would have writing sessions with Margaret Wappler, who was working on her novel at the same time. How did that set-up work for you?
JC: It was so helpful. It just takes a long time to write a book—it doesn’t take everyone a long time but it takes me a long time—so it’s really helpful to have a compatriot who you’re in that battle with. Neither of us wanted to trade our writing back and forth—we talked a lot about the ideas in the book but we didn’t read each other’s manuscripts until they were fairly close to completion. We definitely worked in similar ways which I think is also really helpful.
I don’t know if this is true of Margaret but it is true of me, but I developed an almost Pavlovian response to her. When I was sitting across from her I would want to write things. Obviously not if we were just hanging out, but if we were somewhere with our laptops sitting across from one another, it just immediately took me to a place where I was like, “I’m going to work on this chapter now.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.