In Kyle Lucia Wu’s debut novel Win Me Something, Willa Chen waits around NYC hoping to find her future there, the slow indeterminate creep of the present and her unexpected employment as a live-in nanny (and, perhaps, professional interloper) for a wealthy Tribeca family prompting introspection regarding the past waxings and wanings of her family’s attentiveness toward her (and vice versa). Over the novel’s course, Willa grows up around these familial frictions like a trellised vine. I had the pleasure of working with Kyle at Kundiman when she was configuring the intricate lattice of flashbacks that forms the backbone of this exceptional debut.
Joe Gross: I love playful dedications that go beyond naming people, like Win Me Something’s “for my dad, and his love of books / for my mom, and her love of flowers” (bold emphasis mine), especially since it’s as if the novel’s narrative begins from this dedication once readers are introduced to Willa’s dad’s jazzy bibliophilia and her mother’s green thumb. Did you always plan to link the dedication and narrative or, if not, how did that idea emerge?
Kyle Lucia Wu:
I think the answer is yes and no. Explicitly, I probably didn’t want to link them because I was aware too many people would already mistakenly read Win Me Something as autofiction, rather than a novel. But the truth is that I know about flowers because I grew up with a mother who loved them, and I feel that it’s so important to honor the many people who made the path of writing this book possible. No one truly creates on their own. My own dad isn’t into jazz (I don’t think!) and Willa’s dad isn’t into reading, but growing up around parents who love art turns art into something accessible, reverent, and constant. I wanted to pay respect to some of the specific and beautiful things that my parents gave me, which threaded their own ways into the book.
JG: Throughout the novel, Willa reflects on the experience of being dispossessed of affection as people grow apart from her and each other or find someone seemingly more needful, to them, of that affection; as the novel jumps back in time, those experiences simmer up and suffuse her present. How did you approach writing that tension and maintaining it over the novel’s course?
I spent a lot of time–– years!–– reordering the novel and the placement of flashbacks. The chapters that occur in the past were always a bit more vignetted than the present-day, but when I worked with my editor at Tin House, Masie Cochran, she suggested leaning into that nature of them. I tried to make them short but powerful in Willa’s mind, and to have a pattern of texture that arose. Most importantly, I resisted having a completely logical pattern to the flashbacks, and tried to align them through intuition. I wanted them to feel real in the way that memories can stubbornly pop up when you might not expect them, and they can linger.
JG: Let’s talk about the ending: Willa finally has some time to herself, real time to herself that doesn’t tangentially involve Bijou––the girl she’s nannying––or any of Bijou’s family, and the novel’s scope expands just as the literal book clasps shut; it’s very cinematic (maybe I’ve just been watching a lot of movies lately, but it reminded me of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love––whereas Tony Leung’s character seeks solitude at Angkor Wat to dwell on his past, Willa seeks solitude at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to dwell on her future). All in all, it’s one of many points in the novel that resists the resolutions canonical narrative traditions have taught us to expect, and the book is better for it. In what other ways was it important to be irresolute and resist the obvious in telling Willa’s story?
I’m starry-eyed over you mentioning In the Mood for Love in connection with this book! Wong Kar-Wai forever.
Now that the journey of writing this book is over, I can reflect on my stubbornness with a little bit of levity. I almost don’t know why I was so opposed to these traditions of narrative in the beginning, but I always was! I already felt that my writing was in uncharted territory because as a young writer I had read so few voices that truly felt close to mine, and I was used to people reading my stories and not understanding why they were supposed to care about a biracial Chinese American girl from a fragmented family. The literary landscape has changed in many ways, though in other ways not at all. I think the simplest answer is that I had no audience for this book early on, so I was able to create it exactly how I wanted. People often wanted Willa to be more relatable, have more friends, or get into a more obvious conflict with the Adriens. I felt that she was worthy of telling a story about, without any of the markers for value others wanted to place on her.
JG: In this Bomb Magazine interview with Jen Lue, you mentioned reading the food writing of The New York Times and T Magazine author Ligaya Mishan when writing your own descriptions of food. What do you look for in good food writing?
I didn’t set out to suffuse the narrative with food, but it organically became a part of the story. Willa often finds herself at meals where she doesn’t belong, and she doesn’t really know how to take care of herself in the essential way that cooking provides, which felt true to the experience of a certain kind of young person in New York. I think food is often weighted with memory and history, and my favorite food writing explores personal, political, and historical connections to food. In a language sense, I love when food writing surprises me in its description; it can be difficult to describe taste without resorting to the same few words, so I look for elasticity and invention.
JG: Lastly, what are some books you’ve read recently that you want to highlight? Any new favorites?
I recently read the forthcoming historical fiction novel Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang, a propulsive Western set against the backdrop of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which is readable, honest, and harrowing. Right now I’m reading the forthcoming story collection Gods of Want by K-Ming Chang, a writer who never ceases to amaze me with her powerful, imaginative eye for language and storytelling.
Win Me Something is available for purchase here.
Also look out for Kyle’s forthcoming A Is for Asian American: A Children’s Guide to Asian American History, co-written with Cathy Linh Che, author of Split, and illustrated by Kavita Ramchandran––releasing May ‘23!
Joe Gross is a Flushing-based poet, translator, and warehouse runner. He is an MFA candidate at Queens College, CUNY and co-editor at Armstrong Literary. His work has appeared in Killing the Buddha, and you can find him on Twitter @komradekapybara.