Hua’s debut novel, A River of Stars (Ballantine, Aug.), follows a tenacious Chinese factory clerk named Scarlett Chen who escapes an illegal maternity home in L.A. and flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown.

How did your work as a journalist inform this book?

I’ve long been writing about Asia and the Asian-American community—getting to know American Chinatowns and also going into the countryside in China, visiting factories, getting an understanding of what drives people to leave the countryside and the impact that has on villages where everyone of working age leaves for cities. That was the backdrop of all of my reporting.

What gave you the idea for a story about maternity centers used to claim U.S. citizenship?

When I was pregnant with my twins in Southern California, I began hearing about these maternity centers. Neighbors would complain about pregnant women coming and going. It sounded like a brothel in reverse. I began to find out about the phenomena of wealthy Chinese coming here to give birth in these centers. I became interested in what could drive someone to give birth so far away from your family. It’s the most vulnerable time of your life. I was also fascinated by the notion of having all these pregnant women together in one place. When you’re in a house of pregnant women, who gets to be queen? Although the book’s plot sprang from my imagination, I’ve since learned that there is often conflict between the expecting mothers within the centers. No one gets to be special.

Is Mama Fang, who runs a maternity center, based on a real person?

No. But there is an archetype in Chinese literature of the smooth talking dealer who brokers deals. To me, she is the modern version of the striving wheeler-dealer that could make a center like this work.

These centers often skirt the law, so how are they still able to operate?

Even though the Feds issued search warrants and tried to shut many centers down, there are still websites that advertise the services. Just yesterday I saw an ad of a pregnant belly Photoshopped with an American flag and the words “why would you DIY your American birth?” I’ve seen reports that Russian mothers are now getting in on it. There have been reports about South Korean and Turkish mothers. For all that’s happening in this country, American citizenship is still highly prized.

Parts of the book are simultaneously distressing and funny. How do you incorporate humor into a narrative like this?

One pregnant woman running is a tragedy, but two pregnant women running becomes comedy. So much of being pregnant is being humiliated—your body isn’t the same, you’re swollen, you’re giant. You survive it by being able to laugh at yourself.