Helen Wan Talks About The Partner Track
The author answers book club questions about her debut novel.
We’re kicking off the New Year with a Q&A with Helen Wan, the author of our December pick, The Partner Track. You may remember that debut novelist is just Helen’s night job: By day, she’s a lawyer at Time Inc., the company that publishes Real Simple. So she must have been working triple-time to get her answers back to us so quickly! As happy as I am that our club could help launch Helen’s book, Helen is even more grateful to all the Bookies for choosing it. But I’ll let her tell you so...
First of all, I just want to tell you how much I enjoyed following the thoughtful conversation among your Book Club readers. It was an honor to be able to get such candid and meaningful feedback on my book. So thank you to everyone who read! It really meant a lot to this first-time novelist. Happy New Year!
From reader CatKib: If Ingrid had a daughter, what would her profession or job or “place in life” be? Thank you for a great read!
I love this question! Thank you for asking it. While I was on book tour this fall, I was struck and inspired by the number of readers who came up to get their book inscribed not to themselves but to their daughters. When I started writing this novel over a decade ago, I thought it would be a book about sexism, race, and class in the workplace, but I realized it’s also about women’s complicated relationship with ambition itself. I found myself trying to answer this question, for overachieving “striver” Type-A’s everywhere: If we find ourselves among the very few who can, does that necessarily mean we must? How responsible are we for our own happiness? Can we stay true to ourselves while achieving career success, especially in a corporate environment? And, hey, what’s the definition of “success,” anyway? All of this is a long way of saying that if Ingrid had a daughter, she’d want her place in life to be one where she was waking up in the morning feeling happy about where she’d be spending the day, living an authentic life that agreed with her personal values, and finding that elusive balance between practicality and passion. After all, I think that’s the luckiest career situation anyone can ever find herself in: to be able to support yourself doing something you absolutely love.
From reader karingam: How much of this book is autobiographical? It is so realistic! Thank you for a great story!
Thank you for the compliment! Well, since I’m a Chinese-American woman with a full-time law career, I clearly do share some traits with Ingrid. Every novelist draws from his or her own life experiences, and they say a first novel is often a writer’s “most autobiographical.” That said, this book is decidedly fiction—thank goodness! Since it’s a novel, I got to make up an entire story arc—inventing all kinds of plot twists and turns, which was great fun—but I certainly tried to draw the emotion from real life. For numerous scenes, I definitely drew upon my own personal experiences from back when I was a young attorney at a huge corporate law firm, as well as anecdotes and experiences that so many friends and colleagues generously shared with me about their own work lives. (Writing this book, I learned that people are incredibly willing to share their stories about life in corporate America. I definitely had no shortage of material!) It was extremely important to me that this portrayal of a young workingwoman’s life in the contemporary corporate arena be as accurate, realistic, unvarnished, and true to life as possible. So it really means a lot to hear readers say that the story rings true to them.
From reader dconnolly: What was your major challenge in writing this debut novel?
Oh, gosh, how much time have you got? It only took me 12 years! I wrote this book in fits and starts, at nights, on weekends, during my precious weeks of hoarded-up vacation every year. I tore the manuscript up and rewrote nearly from scratch three times. Jettisoned whole drafts in the process. With my full-time law job and all the life stuff that gets in the way, whole years went by when I just wasn’t working on the book at all. Finally, one evening, I happened to go to an event where the wonderful journalist and novelist Anna Quindlen was speaking (ironically, it was an event hosted by the women’s committee at my old law firm) and she sagely pointed out the distinction between people who want to write, and those who just want to have written. I suddenly realized that she was describing my predicament. In order to be one of the people who had written, I needed to actually write! Enough excuses about having a full-time law job, being too tired by the time I got home from work, being too busy to embark on a novel, etc. I promptly signed myself up for an “Intro to Fiction Writing” class that met once a week after work. (Like many busy women juggling many balls in the air, I work best under deadline. So if I owed 12 random strangers 20 pages for class Tuesday night, you can bet I’d get those pages out on time.) The pages I wrote for class became the seed for this novel. Over a decade later, I’m thrilled that this story is finally out in the world. Truly, it has been a labor of love.
From Deputy Editor Maura Fritz: In your experience, is the legal profession as a whole as blatantly racist and sexist as depicted in the book? Has the situation improved at all over the years? And is there something about corporate law that may intensify those conditions?
People who have read my book but don’t know me may be surprised to learn I’m essentially an optimist. I actually do think the situation has improved over the years, is continuing to improve all the time. I’d love for things to progress even more quickly, but we’re moving in the right direction. New entering classes in both law schools and law firms are noticeably more diverse—in terms of both race and gender—than back when I was a new lawyer. And recently I’ve witnessed firsthand that law students today know to ask much savvier questions of potential employers—hard questions about diversity and inclusion, about statistics in hiring, retention, partnership, and promotion, about flex time and work-life balance—than we did a decade ago. I find this very encouraging.
A note of clarification, too: I didn’t write the book because of any “blatant” racist or sexist discrimination I experienced at a law firm. That’s just it—much of the exclusion, the reasons people feel isolated and eventually leave instead of sticking it out, is so incredibly subtle, so nuanced, often even completely unintentional, that it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint and therefore even more difficult to resolve.
I don’t think it’s unique to corporate law, either. As a 25-year-old fresh out of law school, having landed in the corporate world, I started seeing some pretty predictable patterns of who among us was succeeding and who was not, who quickly found powerful mentors to take them under their wing, who did not, and it all had to do with how well and how quickly one mastered the art of fitting in to that corporate culture, perfecting all those “soft skills” that are simply not teachable in school. If you didn’t happen to grow up with a background where you’d been exposed to this culture and its unwritten code (and I did not), you had to teach yourself ASAP. I looked around and decided there ought to be some sort of “decoder ring”—a primer or handbook—for those of us who sometimes felt like fish out of water in that very rarefied, alien environment. (And truly, who doesn’t sometimes feel like a fish out of water!) I remember walking into bookstores (bookstores were still plentiful back then), trying to find a book about how to succeed as a young minority woman in corporate America while remaining authentic and true to yourself. Finding none, I decided to try writing that book myself. One of my favorite moments of this whole journey so far was hearing from a young woman at Columbia Law who told me, “Thank you for telling our story.” She’d just finished her summer at a large, Parsons Valentine–like firm, and said, “I wish I’d read your book at the beginning of my summer, rather than toward the end. It would have made me feel so much less alone.” Well, to a first-time novelist, there could be no better compliment than that. It meant so much that she told me that. It made me feel like the 12 years it took me to see this book through were worth it.