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Susie Yang's Debut Novel Is An Exploration Of Race And Class

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ivy Lin had a difficult childhood. Her parents are cold, even brutal. Her grandmother, an immigrant from China, teaches Ivy Lin how to steal from yard sales and secondhand shops. At school, Ivy develops a crush on the golden boy, if you please, Gideon Speyer, from a prominent family. As life tosses Ivy about, her crush intensifies into what I think we can fairly call a fixation. How do those usually end?

"White Ivy" is the first novel from Susie Yang, who was born in China, came to the United States as a child, received a doctorate of pharmacy from Rutgers, launched a tech startup in San Francisco and then somehow decided to enter the lucrative world of writing debut novels. She joins us now from Florence - Italy, not Alabama. Thanks so much for being with us.

SUSIE YANG: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Quite an opening first line - Ivy Lin was a thief, but you wouldn't know it to look at her. So tell us about Ivy, please.

YANG: Yeah. So that first line actually was the genesis of the entire novel. When I sat down to write the book, I knew that I wanted to create kind of an antihero character and somebody with an unusual background who would be underestimated based on her appearance and background. When I came up with that first sentence, I feel like the first chapter came really quickly, and then I sort of plotted the entire arc of the story. So that's all stayed the same.

SIMON: And - you know this question's coming - how much of her, Ivy Lin, is you looking inwards?

YANG: I wish I was as clever as she was. I was a really good kid - you know, kind of listened to my parents, followed the rules.

SIMON: Oh, my. No novel in that, is there?

YANG: No, but I enjoy reading stories about people who break the rules or who kind of live by their own criteria - just much more entertaining. So I knew that I wanted to write that kind of character.

SIMON: We touched on this. Her family life is not warm or kind, is it?

YANG: No. That was pretty deliberate because she does some pretty terrible things later on. So I definitely wanted to make her a sympathetic character, have the origins of kind of her ambitions start from childhood.

SIMON: What does she see in Gideon Speyer?

YANG: I think to Ivy, Gideon represents legitimacy. For her, it's not even about his wealth. It's really - I think he represents this world to her that she always felt like she belonged in but was denied her.

And plus, I think he was her idol from high school. And I feel like, you know, we never really let go of the images we have for idols from when we're a child. I think she would've seen him a little bit differently had they met as adults. But because they met at that really impressionable age of, you know, 13, 14, I think she never really got over that image of him as this unattainable object.

SIMON: As you note, they go their separate ways. They grow up and are brought back into the same orbit. At that point, Ivy is a teacher. What do they see in each other as young adults?

YANG: To Ivy, I think it's really just - she almost feels like it's fate. And when they run into each other, she feels, this is my second chance; I can't, you know, mess it up this time. And for Gideon - so no spoilers, but essentially, he - I think he does see Ivy's ambition, and he really admires her determination. And I think he sees someone who can be a partner for him, who would understand him and sort of accommodate him. And that's what he's looking for in a partner.

SIMON: Ivy's thievery is a thread throughout the book, isn't it?

YANG: For me, it was early on, I had to sort of decide, was Ivy a sociopath? So I decided early on to not go that route. But because I always knew kind of the end of the story, I wanted there to be a believable arc that would lead her from, you know, doing something slightly immoral to doing something, you know, very immoral and cross greater and greater lines.

So the thieving part really was, for me, the genesis of her character, which kind of teaches her that she can do bad things and get away with it and people won't suspect her of doing those things. And that lesson she learns young through thieving, and then that almost gives her the - kind of the gumption to do these, you know, worse and worse things as an adult. So for me, it was a natural progression to show how her morals are degrading, essentially, as she ages.

SIMON: How do you get from a doctor at a pharmacy to a tech startup to writing a novel? I guess novels are where the real money is, right?

YANG: Sure. I hope so. Fingers crossed.

For me, so I went to pharmacy school, and it was one of those combined undergrad and graduate programs. So I actually committed to doing this program straight out of high school. So essentially, I knew nothing about pharmacy or what pharmacists did. And it wasn't until my third year that I realized I hated pharmacy school and I did not want to be a pharmacist. But it was sort of too late, right? I'd already done three, four years of this program. So I thought, OK, let me just get this degree so I don't have to start over.

And then shortly after graduation, I had the opportunity to move to San Francisco to work on a startup. But for me, the dream was always to be a writer. I've always been writing as a hobby. I just thought that it was something I would do when I retired. But I don't know. Quarter-life crisis hit, and I thought, you know, let me give it a try - seriously this time.

SIMON: Well, it's worked out very well so far.

YANG: Thank you.

SIMON: I'm struck by something that Ivy observes towards the end. Without giving anything away, she says, people sabotage themselves all the time. Boy, that really got to me.

YANG: I feel like that's a theme in a lot of books that I love. I love it when the character is their own worst enemy. I feel like Ivy's - her ambitions and her kind of tenacity are also her greatest tragedy of her character. So you could say that the very things that she wants are the things that we, the readers, know are going to make her miserable. But that's probably true of most humans and most people. Yeah, I really like that theme as well.

SIMON: Susie Yang - her debut novel, "White Ivy" - thank you so much for being with us.

YANG: It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.