BY THE END OF THE MONTH, THE DUST HAS SETTLED AND ALL RELEVANT parties
have made up their minds. I am hated by the internet, an embarrassment to the industry, and hanging on to my relationship with my publisher by a thread.
At least I’m not broke. Indeed, by most external measures, I am still quite a success. I occupy that curious space where the fraction of the reading population that’s constantly online hates me, but the rest of America’s book buyers don’t. People are still picking my books off the sale racks at Target and Books-A-Million. Despite a petition circled by Adele Sparks-Sato and Diana Qiu to have Eden pull all my titles from shelves until they’ve conducted a third-party investigation (delusional), my sales haven’t dropped.
In fact, they’re doing better. Brett was right about scandals generating free marketing. Unofficial until your royalty statement, reads his latest email, but your sales are nearly double this month what they were this time a year ago.
It only takes a little exploring around the seedier corners of the internet to learn what’s going on. Alt-right free-speech proponents have made me their cause célèbre. I and my pretty, Anglo-Saxon face have become the perfect victim of the left-wing fascist cancel-culture mob. (It appears the alt-right cares a lot about due process, but only when the accused has done something like sexual assault or racially motivated plagiarism.) A popular Fox News cohost encourages all of his millions of viewers to support me so that Eden doesn’t drop me from their list, which has created a strange situation in which thousands of Trump voters are buying a book about mistreated Chinese laborers. My publicist passes on an interview request from a popular young YouTuber, but I decline when I discover that most of
her viral videos are titled things like “WATCH ME SNEAK A GUN INTO MY ECON LECTURE LOL” and “LIB SNOWFLAKE GETS OWNED BY THE FACTS ON ABORTION.”
Okay, yes, I know how bad this looks. Like Taylor Swift, I had no intention of becoming a white supremacist Barbie. Obviously I’m not a Trumper—I voted for Biden! But if these people are hurling money at me, is it so wrong of me to accept? Should we not celebrate scamming cash from racist rednecks whenever we get the chance?
So here’s how things have shaken out. I’ve lost my reputation, but I’m far from canceled, and I have a steady income for the foreseeable future. Things could be worse. Maybe I’ve burned all my bridges in publishing, but that doesn’t mean my life is over. I still have more savings than most people my age. Maybe it’s time to stop while I’m ahead.
In those following weeks, I do think often about quitting writing altogether. Maybe my mother was right all along; maybe a lengthy career just isn’t in the cards for me. Maybe I should treat The Last Front as the launchpad to get myself set up somewhere else. I have enough money to pay for any preprofessional graduate degree, and a suitably high GPA from an Ivy League school to get into most top-ten law or business programs. Maybe I’ll study for the LSAT. Maybe I’ll enroll in some online quant boot camps and then go into consulting.
It’s attractive, the prospect of a stable job with clearly defined hours and benefits, where being white does not make you boring and redundant but rather a perfectly average and desirable hire. No more panic-scrolling; no more dick-measuring competitions; no more reading emails a thousand times over to figure out if my marketing person hates me or not.
But I can’t quit the one thing that gives meaning to my life.
Writing is the closest thing we have to real magic. Writing is creating something out of nothing, is opening doors to other lands. Writing gives you power to shape your own world when the real one hurts too much. To stop writing would kill me. I’d never be able to walk through a bookstore without fingering the spines with longing, wondering at the lengthy editorial process that got these titles on shelves and reminiscing about my own. And I’d spend the rest of life curdling with jealousy every time someone like Emmy Cho gets a book deal, every time I learn that some young up-and-comer is living the life I should be living.
Writing has formed the core of my identity since I was a child. After Dad died, after Mom withdrew into herself, and after Rory decided to forge a life without me, writing gave me a reason to stay alive. And as miserable as it makes me, I’ll cling to that magic for as long as I live.
THE PROBLEM IS THAT I HAVE NOTHING TO WRITE FOR DANIELLA. None of my old
pitches will do. I’ve pulled a few of my former project drafts from the metaphorical trunk, but their premises all now strike me as dull, derivative, or plain stupid:
A YA rom-com about a girl in love with a boy who’s been dead for a hundred years. (This one is all vibes and no plot, and based largely on my undergraduate crush on Nathan Hale’s statue on campus.)
A pair of lovers who are reincarnated century after century into the same iteration of their tragic story until they can find a way to break the cycle. (The premise is cool, but it’s too daunting to research so many different historical periods. I mean, what’s cute about the 1700s?)
A girl murdered by an ex-boyfriend who comes back as a ghost and who tries to save his next victim, but she keeps failing, and eventually the murdered girls form this ghost posse that at last succeeds in putting the guy in jail. (Okay, that one has promise, but Netflix just aired a modern Bluebeard retelling, and I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism again.)
I browse through Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, looking for promising nuggets of history to expand on. Maybe I could write about the missing Chinese survivors of the Titanic. Or the panhandlers of Gold Mountain. Or the NYPD Oriental Gang Unit—they were called the Jade Squad, and that’d be a fucking cool name for a title, wouldn’t it? Or the Chinese mafia—Patrick Radden Keefe wrote a great nonfiction book about a Chinese snakehead who operated out of New York City for years. What if I did a fictionalized version of her life?
Why the obsession with China, though? Why am I limiting myself? Shouldn’t it be equally viable to write about Russian immigrants, or African refugees? I never wanted to pigeonhole my writing brand to China; it only happened that way by accident. I think one of my grandparents or great-grandparents might have been Jewish; I could call up one of my aunts to ask, use that as a bridge to Jewish history and mythology. And I know for a fact that my mother’s spoken about having some Cherokee heritage before.
Maybe that’s worth interrogating—maybe there’s a story here about discovering connections I didn’t even know I had.
Truth be told, I’m intimidated by the work involved. Since I’ve already done all that research for The Last Front, Chinese-inspired stories seem a bit easier. I already know so much about the history, about the current political touchpoints involved. I already speak the critical vocabulary; all I need is a hook.
I once met a poet who carried a tiny notebook everywhere she went and wrote down at least one quippy observation about every encounter she had throughout the day. The barista’s hair was a desperate shade of purple. The woman at the table beside her drew out the word “yes” like a stalling tactic. The boss’s name slid off the doorman’s tongue like rusty pennies.
“I don’t create so much as I collect,” explained the poet. “The world is already so rich. All I do is distill the messiness of human life into a concentrated reading experience.”
I try the same thing on a day running errands around DC. I record some thoughts on the dry cleaner—crowded, efficient, owner is either Greek or Russian and is it racist that I can’t tell which?—and in the K Street Trader Joe’s—every time she came here, the shelves seemed full of organic promise, but she always inevitably left with the same bag of ginger snaps and microwave fettuccini. I feel very Scholarly and Observant while I’m scribbling at the checkout counter, but when I get home, I can’t find the spark in anything I’ve produced. It’s all so bland. No one wants to read about the culinary politics of Trader Ming’s.
I need to go further. I need to write about things that white people don’t see on a daily basis.
The next afternoon, I take the green line out to Chinatown, which— despite having lived in DC for nearly five years—I’ve actually never been to. I’m a bit apprehensive because I saw on Reddit that DC’s Chinatown has the highest crime rates in the city, and when I get out of the metro station, the whole place does carry a menacing air of neglect. I walk with my hands shoved into my pockets, fingers tightly wrapped around my phone and wallet. I wish I’d brought pepper spray.
Stop being such a nervous white girl, I scold myself. Real people live here; it’s not a war zone. I can’t learn their stories if I’m acting like a jumpy tourist.
I stroll past the Calvary Baptist Church and snap a photo of the Friendship Archway, which welcomes me to Chinatown in resplendent shades of turquoise and gold. I don’t know what the characters on the middle placard say; I’ll have to look that up later.
Otherwise, Chinatown doesn’t have much to offer in the cultural sphere. I stroll past a Starbucks, a Ruby Tuesday, a Rita’s, and a Bed Bath & Beyond. These stores all have Chinese names hanging over their doorways in proud gold or red calligraphy, but on the inside, they carry the same stuff you’d find anywhere else. Weirdly, I don’t see a lot of Chinese people around. I’d read an article a while back arguing that DC Chinatown had been viciously gentrified, but I hadn’t expected it to look so much like any DC block.
I’m starving, so I duck into the first casual eatery I see—a shop called Mr. Shen’s Dumplings, its English name barely visible among the Chinese signs and TripAdvisor clippings that crowd the display window. The place feels a little run-down. The tables are chipped, the windows greasy. But isn’t that the mark of an authentic Chinese restaurant? I remember reading this on Twitter once. If a Chinese food joint expends no effort on its aesthetic, that’s a sign the food is amazing. Or that the owners don’t give a shit.
I’m the only person inside. That’s not necessarily a bad sign. It’s four in the afternoon; too late for lunch, too early for dinner. A waitress wordlessly places a dirty-looking cup of water and a plastic menu before me, then walks off.
I glance around, feeling stupid. I’m clearly intruding on the employees’ off hours between meals, and I feel awkward taking up so much space. There’s nothing I want to eat here. The menu consists entirely of different kinds of soup dumplings. I don’t know what a soup dumpling is, but it sounds gross. The strong, musty, dumpster-like smell wafting from the kitchen doors is killing my appetite.
“Are you ready?” The waitress pops up at my side, pen and pad in hand.
“Oh—sorry, yeah.” I pause, then point to the first thing I see on the menu. I guess it’d be rude to walk out at this point. “Can I get, um, the pork-and-leek dumplings?”
“Six or twelve?” “Six.”
“Boiled or pan-fried?” “Uh—boiled?”
“Got it.” She grabs my menu and heads back off behind the kitchen without another word.
What a bitch, I think, but then I remember that bad service is one of the hallmarks of good Chinese food, according to that one tweet. These soup dumplings had better be out of this world.
I try to focus on the positives. I can find some good narrative potential here, if I pay attention. Maybe this is the heartwarming story of a Chinatown restaurant going out of business, until the owner’s daughter quits her soulless corporate job to turn the family business around with the help of the community, social media, and a magic, talking dragon. Maybe I can give my bitchy waitress a sympathetic backstory and a personality makeover. Or maybe not. The more I think about it, the more this sounds like the plots of Ratatouille and Mulan combined.
Stop looking through the white gaze, I caution myself. I can’t make up stories about these people without knowing a thing about them. I have to talk to the locals. Make friends, understand where they’re coming from, learn the quirky details that only Chinese Americans could know.
The only other person in sight is a middle-aged man wiping down the tables behind me. I figure he’s as good a place to start as any.
I clear my throat and wave him over.
“What’s your name?” My voice sounds artificially bright and cheery, and I try to rearrange my features into something neutral, or at least less creepy. I took an investigative journalism class back in high school, and I remember some of the tips: establish a friendly relationship, listen and watch attentively, maintain direct eye contact, and ask clear and open-ended questions. I wish I’d remembered to start an iPhone recording. I’m supposed to take down quotes as we’re talking, but I don’t want to have my pen and notebook out in case that intimidates him.
“Sorry, ma’am.” He puts down the rag and walks toward me. “Is there a problem?”
“Oh no, no, I just, um, wanted to chat for a little, if you have the time.”
I wince as the words leave my mouth. Why is this so uncomfortable? I feel like I’m doing something naughty, like speaking without permission to someone else’s child. But that’s ridiculous. What’s wrong with a friendly conversation?
The waiter just stands there, watching me expectantly, so I blurt, “So, do you like living in Chinatown?”
“DC Chinatown?” He shrugs. “It’s not really a Chinatown. Perhaps a simulacrum of Chinatown. I live out in Maryland, actually.”
His English is a lot better than I expected. His accent is heavy, but what kind of new English speaker uses the word “simulacrum”? I wonder briefly if these accents are put on to convey authenticity to white customers. I wonder also if he’s one of those professors or doctors who immigrated to the United States because he offended his home government. Either could be a fun plot twist. “So how long have you worked here?”
He pauses a moment to think. “Oh, maybe nine years now. Ten. My wife wanted to go to California, but I wanted to be near our daughter. Maybe we will move when she graduates.”
“Oh, cool,” I say. “Does your daughter go to Georgetown?”
“George Washington. Studying economics.” He picks up his rag and turns halfway back to the other tables. I don’t want to lose him, so I blurt, “So, how do you like working in this restaurant? Do you have any interesting stories—about, um, working in this restaurant?”
“Excuse me, can I help you?”
The waitress strides out from the kitchen. She glances between us, eyes narrowed, and then tells the older man something quick and terse in Chinese. His response sounds lackadaisical—I think maybe he’s saying something like take it easy, but her tone grows higher, more urgent. Finally, shrugging, he tosses the rag on the table and retreats behind the kitchen doors.
The waitress turns to me. “If there’s a problem, I’m happy to help.” “Oh, no, it’s okay, I’m just trying to make conversation.” I wave my
hands in apology. “Sorry, I realize he’s probably busy.”
“Yes, we’re all quite busy. I am sorry it’s a bit quiet in here, but you’re going to have to let the waitstaff do their jobs.”
I roll my eyes. I’m the only customer here; how overworked could they be? “Okay,” I say, as dismissively as possible.
She doesn’t leave. “Any other questions?”
Her voice wobbles. She’s scared. I realize suddenly what this looks like—she must think that I’m police or ICE, that I’m trying to bust the old guy. “Oh my God.” I flap my hands in front of me to—to what, to prove I don’t have a gun, or a badge? “No, it’s not like that—”
“Then what’s it like?” She looks me up and down, then cocks her head. “Wait, aren’t you that writer?”
My heart skips a beat. I’ve never been recognized before in a place that wasn’t a bookstore or a speaking event. I’m momentarily flattered, and some part of me thinks she’s about to ask for my autograph. “I—um, yeah, I’m Juniper—”
“You’re that girl who stole Athena Liu’s work.” Her face hardens. “I knew it—I’ve seen your photo online. Juniper Song, right? Or Hayward, or whatever. What do you want?”
“I’m just trying to make conversation,” I say weakly. “I promise, I’m not out to—”
“I don’t care,” she says curtly. “I don’t know what you’re trying to do here, but we want no part of it. Actually, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
She probably doesn’t have the right to kick me out. I’m not causing a public disturbance; I haven’t done anything illegal. All I did was make casual conversation with a waiter. I consider standing my ground, enforcing my rights as a customer, insisting that they call the police if they want to remove me. But I’d rather not go viral for yet another reason. I can imagine the YouTube title: “Chinatown Karen Insists She’s Not ICE.”
“Fine.” I stand up. “Don’t bother with my dumplings, then.”
“You sure?” asks the waitress. “We don’t do refunds. That’s eight ninety-five, plus tax.”
My face burns. My mind races to come up with some quippy response, but I can’t think of anything that isn’t pathetic or plain racist. Instead I dig a twenty out of my wallet, sling my bag over my shoulder, and push past her to the door, pretending not to hear the amused snorts behind me as I storm out.
BRETT STARTS BUGGING ME ABOUT A MONTH INTO MY CREATIVE DESERT. I can
tell he’s been trying to give me space—all his emails so far have been gentle, tactfully worded nudges—but clearly, he’s running out of patience.
Want to run a new opportunity by you, reads his latest missive. Call when convenient.
I groan, then reach for my phone.
He picks up on the first ring. “June! Good to hear from you. How’ve you been?”
“All right. The hate mail has stopped, mostly. Not getting death threats anymore.”
“Well, that’s good. I told you it would blow over.” He pauses. “And, uh, regarding what we last discussed—”
“There’s nothing.” I figure it’s best to just spit it out. “I’ve got nothing, not a single idea. I don’t even know where to start. Sorry, I know that’s not what you want to hear.”
I feel a twinge of guilt. It’s not about the money for Brett. His reputation is on the line, too; he doesn’t want to burn bridges with the Eden editorial team by bringing them their most embarrassing client by far. But I can’t give false hope where there is none.
I brace myself for Brett’s disappointment. Instead he asks promptly, “Then what about IP work?”
I suppress a scoff. IP—intellectual property—work is for mediocre writers, or so I’ve always been told. It’s cheap, work-for-hire labor for people who couldn’t manage to sell their original projects. “What about it?” “All I mean is, if you’re having trouble coming up with your own
concept, what about writing to an outline?”
“What, like a superhero novel? No thanks, Brett, I still have standards
“It’s just—it’s been a while, June. People are getting impatient.” “Donna Tartt spends a decade in between novels,” I sniff.
“Well.” Brett doesn’t state the obvious: that I’m not Donna Tartt.
“Circumstances are different.”
I sigh. “What’s the IP? Marvel? Disney?” I could go for a Star Wars novel, maybe. I mean, it sounds very difficult, and I’d have to really dig deep into my nerd past to make myself care about whatever bit character they fling my way, but I could make something work. At least well enough to fool the average, undiscerning fanboy who buys those books.
“Actually, it wouldn’t be for an existing franchise. Have you ever heard of Snowglobe?”
The name rings a bell. I’ve seen that word floating around Twitter— perhaps their account followed me recently—but otherwise I can’t connect it with anything important. “Are they some kind of book packaging company? Like, a vanity press?”
“Well, they do all sorts of things. The founders have connections with both publishing houses and film studios. They work with editors to develop
ideas that suit the market’s current needs, and then they work with writers to create them. It takes the guesswork out of what editors at big publishers are looking for. And you’d have plenty of creative flexibility to really take on the idea, you know, and make it your own.”
“I wouldn’t own the copyright, though?” I don’t know much about IP, but from what I’ve read online, it’s usually a rough deal for the creator. Unlike original properties, for which you own the copyright and receive royalties, IP writers are typically only paid a flat fee up front. A novel for a popular video game franchise, for example, might sell tens of thousands of copies. But even if it was a runaway bestseller, the hired writer might never see more than ten thousand dollars. That’s not incredible pay for six to eight months of work. “And people don’t take IP seriously, do they? Like, it’s not serious literary work.”
“Many beloved titles are IP,” says Brett. “It’s just not common knowledge that they are. And anyways, it wouldn’t be a permanent career move, just something to help you get over this slump. It seems like you might do better if you have . . . some preexisting scaffold.”
I hate the way he puts that. Like it’s a joke between us, like he knows the truth about The Last Front. Wink wink, hint hint, Junie. We know you can paint by the numbers. Let’s find you a new coloring book.
To be fair, it’s not the worst idea in the world. But my pride rankles at the thought. I’ve been in the running for some of the top literary prizes in the country; I can’t imagine going from that to doing work for hire. “I’m assuming the pay would be awful.”
“Well, they’re willing to negotiate, especially for such a high-profile author. But yes, the royalties wouldn’t be as high as you’re used to.”
“Then what’s the point?”
“Well, you’d have a new book out. So you’d have something new to talk about. Something to move the conversation along.”
Well played, Brett. Fair point. I can’t help but ask: “And what’s the pitch?”
He can’t tell me right away. I have to sign an NDA first, but fortunately he has one ready, and he just needs to send me a DocuSign link. While he’s getting that sorted, I look up Snowglobe and browse through their company website. The founders are all young, sleek-looking white women; the kind I see prowling around industry functions all the time, chardonnay in hand. On their “Current Projects” page, I see production
deals listed with Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix. I’ve actually heard of a few of their titles—Brett was right, I really had no idea how many popular projects were actually IP. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe it would be easier to let someone come up with what the market wants, so that I can focus on what I’m good at, which is writing beautifully.
“Okay.” The NDA is signed; Brett is back on the line. “So they’re really interested in tapping into your expertise on Chinese social issues, right?”
I feel an inkling of dread. “Okay . . .”
“And you know about the one-child policy, right?”
“Uh, the one where they forced women to have abortions?”
“No, I mean the population control policy in China introduced in 1978.” He’s reading this off of Wikipedia. I know, because I’ve just pulled up the same Wikipedia page.
“That’s what I said, though. They were forcing women to have abortions.” I do a quick search for the word “abortion” to check that I’m right, and I am, sort of. “They want a novel about that?”
“Well, they want a sort of modern twist on it. So the problem with the one-child policy is that there are way too many men in China, right? Because of selective abortions. Parents preferred to have boys, because it’s a patriarchal culture, and all that, so there are lots of missing girls and women. Therefore it’s hard for Chinese men to find wives, or to have children of their own. See the stakes so far?”
“That’s where the dystopian twist comes in. Imagine a world similar to The Handmaid’s Tale. Women are raised in institutions, born and bred to be baby-makers, and they’re sold to their husbands as house slaves.” Brett gives a nervous chuckle. “Pretty sharp commentary, right? You could even broaden out the themes to make it a subtle critique of Western patriarchy, if you wanted to. Up to you. Like I said, you’d have lots of flexibility to play with the concept. What do you think?”
I’m silent for a long time. Then, because one of us has to say it out loud, “Brett, that’s idiotic. No one in their right mind is going to want to work on that.”
(I’m wrong, in fact. Two weeks after this conversation, I will open Twitter in my browser to read the following announcement: “Simon & Schuster in partnership with Snowglobe, Inc., is so excited to have signed
with renowned author Heidi Steel for the publication of The Last Woman in China, a thrilling romance set in a dystopian world inspired by the one-child policy!”)
“I mean, I really think this could work,” says Brett. “It’s a cool concept. It gets you the feminist crowd. That’s your book club market. And there’s a lot of film potential here—I’m sure networks will be hunting for the next big thing once The Handmaid’s Tale wraps up.”
“But the story idea—I mean, that’s conflating so many different . . . like, are they serious? The one-child policy meets The Handmaid’s Tale? They’re not worried we’re going to offend, like, all of China?”
“Well, the book’s going to be published in the West, Junie. So who really cares?”
I can see Adele Sparks-Sato and Xiao Chen sharpening their claws. I’m not that up to date with Chinese politics, but even I can spot the land mines just glowing around this thing. If I write this, I’ll be eviscerated for hating the PRC, or Chinese people, or men, or all three.
“Absolutely not,” I say. “This is a nonstarter. Don’t they have any other ideas? Like, I’m not opposed to working with Snowglobe per se, I just really hate this one pitch.”
“Well, they do, but they’re tailoring their pitches to authors of the right . . . backgrounds. They’re making a big pivot toward diversity this year.”
I snort. “Baffling that they want me, then.”
“Come on,” says Brett. “At least take a look at the treatment. I’ve just sent it over. And you did get your start in speculative fiction, so you already have a built-in fan base . . .”
I’m not sure that Brett understands that the people who are into magical realism are so not into near-future science fiction of this sort. “Okay, but you’ve got to admit a dystopia set in Beijing is pretty far out of my wheelhouse.”
“A few years ago, I would have said a project like The Last Front was pretty far out of your wheelhouse. It’s never too late to broaden your horizons. Just think about it, Junie. This could rescue your career.”
“No, it won’t.” I’m not sure whether I want to laugh or cry. “No, Brett, I’m pretty sure this is the sort of thing that ends careers.”
“June. Come on. We might not get an opportunity like this again.”
“Call me if, like, Lucasfilm gets on the line,” I say. “But I’m sorry, Brett. Even I’m not stooping that low.”