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June 30, 2024 12:00
guest authors
Contemporary Fiction

Kirstin Chen on Writing Three Novels, Including Counterfeit

May 28, 2023
Kirstin Chen
May 28, 2023

Some writers have a fascinating career trajectory and Kirstin Chen is certainly one of them. The New York Times best-selling author of three books, Soy Sauce for Beginners, Bury What We Cannot Take and Counterfeit, Kirstin was born and raised in Singapore, lives in New York, and holds an MFA from Emerson College.

In Soy Sauce for Beginners, Kirstin Chen’s debut novel published in 2014, the character of Gretchen leaves San Francisco to return to her childhood home in Singapore, where she must help her family’s struggling soy sauce business.

Kirstin’s second novel Bury What We Cannot Take, published in 2018, is set against the backdrop of early Maoist China and follows a mother, father, brother and sister as they grapple with an agonizing decision and attempt to flee mainland China. Harper’s Bazaar called the novel ‘complex and rich; Chen’s fiction serves as a fascinating window into a unique period of history and the plight of one displaced family.’

Her third book Counterfeit follows two Asian American women, Ava and Winnie, who band together to grow a counterfeit handbag scheme into a global enterprise – and with it, Kirstin’s writing career blew up. Published last year by William Morrow, Counterfeit became a Reese’s Book Club Pick chosen by Reese Witherspoon, a Roxane Gay book club pick, a New York Times editors’ choice, as well as being recommended by Washington Post and Oprah Daily, among many accolades – including being described as ‘propulsive and captivating’ by Vogue! A shrewd deconstruction of the American dream, Counterfeit was an instant New York Times top five bestseller, translation rights have sold in seven languages, and television rights were optioned by Sony Pictures for a book-to-screen adaptation.

So how does Kirstin write? And has her writing process changed across three books?

In this article, we ask the best-selling author a few questions – with some truly fascinating answers about how Kirstin drafts her novels and how many words she writes per day!

Kirstin Chen on the writing process

The Novelry:

Hi Kirstin! We’re excited to be talking to you about your writing process. It’s interesting that Soy Sauce for Beginners started as a short story. When you were first writing it, did you know it could be expanded into a novel? Did you have a sense of the broader picture as you wrote the first version, or did it stay with you and grow after the fact?

Kirstin Chen:

When I wrote that short story in the first semester of my MFA program, I had no idea it would become a novel. What I did have was a vague sense that it might be the best thing I’d written thus far in my short writing career. Up until that point, I had never set a story in my homeland of Singapore, featuring Singaporean characters, so I knew that this was a setting and that these were themes that I’d want to revisit.  

The Novelry:

You’ve spoken about experimenting with and adapting the narrative structure of Counterfeit – how much planning and outlining do you typically do before you start writing? Has the process changed between novels?

Kirstin Chen:

I typically don’t plan or outline before I start writing. Often all I have is a premise and a hazy idea of who the main characters might be. It takes me 2­–3 drafts to get a handle on the story, and at that point, I put together an outline that consists of one sentence summing up the heart of each chapter. And then, as I continue revising and rewriting the manuscript, I revise the outline too. It’s a recursive process.

The Novelry:

We heard you have an intriguing method where you write 1,000 words a day – no more, no less, no matter how long it takes. Is that still your process? How did you discover that was the best way for you to work?

Kirstin Chen:

I drafted my first novel in graduate school where I benefited from strict deadlines and copious feedback from my classmates and teachers. Once I left school, I realized I needed to create a whole new writing process that was much more internally motivated. My close friend and classmate Matthew Salesses and I decided to exchange 1,000 words a day via email and to give each other a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, no other feedback. Thumbs-up means ‘keep going’ and thumbs-down means ‘go back and revise’. In the very early stages of a project, that’s really all you need to know. And yes, we still do this to this day. Matt and I have each drafted three novels this way.

The Novelry:

Wow!

My close friend and I decided to exchange 1,000 words a day via email and to give each other a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, no other feedback.
— Kirstin Chen

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Kirstin Chen on craft

The Novelry:

The unreliable narrator can be a difficult thing to pull off satisfactorily for many writers. Have you got any advice for using one while keeping readers invested in the plot? How much do we need to trust our narrator?  

Kirstin Chen:

This is a very personal thing, but for me, unreliable narrators work best when there’s a clear reason they can’t be trusted. In Counterfeit, the novel opens with Ava Wong confessing a crime to a detective. Confessions are inherently unreliable because the speaker has a clear agenda – to prove her innocence and hopefully go free – so readers understand from the get-go that she’s not entirely trustworthy, even if they don’t yet grasp to what extent.

The Novelry:

You’ve explored the complexities of family dynamics and tensions in your novels, and the context surrounding your child characters is hugely rich. How do you weave in generations of history while avoiding expository dumps?

Kirstin Chen:

This is one of the most challenging aspects of writing historical fiction – working in the necessary context and information in a way that does not detract from the storytelling. In Bury What We Cannot Take, I really leaned on the novel’s multiple narrators to fill out this history. The novel cycles through five different family members’ perspectives – mother, father, grandmother, son and daughter – and each person has a different understanding of the crisis they’re in. But when you put them all together, my hope is that the reader gains a full picture of the complexities of this moment in time.

Kirstin Chen joined the writers of The Novelry for a Live Q&A. Members of our writing community can watch back live events in Catch Up TV, which features a host of sessions with bestselling authors and leading literary agents on demand. We’re the home of happy writing! Join us on a writing course – you’ll receive a very warm welcome.

Someone writing in a notebook
Kirstin Chen

Kirstin Chen is the author of three books: her latest, Counterfeit, is a Reese Witherspoon book club pick, a Roxane Gay book club pick, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. It has also been recommended by The Washington PostPeople MagazineEntertainment WeeklyUSA Today, VogueTime, Oprah Daily, Harper’s BazaarCosmopolitanGood HousekeepingParade, and more. Her previous two novels are Bury What We Cannot Take and Soy Sauce for Beginners. Her writing has appeared in The CutReal SimpleLiterary HubWriter’s DigestZyzzyva, and the Best New Singaporean Short Stories

Members of The Novelry team