Five years after the publication of her critically acclaimed debut novel, None of the Above, I.W. Gregorio returns with another young adult novel, this time inspired by her personal experience with anxiety and depression. Told in two voices, the story follows Taiwanese-American Jocelyn Wu and biracial (half black, half white) William Domenici, both 16, as they come together to save the Wu family restaurant while navigating a growing attraction and the forces, internal and external, that threaten to keep them apart. Gregorio spoke with PW about her desire to write an #OwnVoices story, her insistence on the importance a dual narrative, and storytelling as a form of public health.
What inspired this story about family, culture, and mental health?
There was a large gap between this book and my first. Five years. Part of the reason [for the gap] is because I work full-time and I have two kids, so I needed to find a story that I felt a need to tell, [a story] that was worth neglecting my kids to write. I’ve always wanted to write an #OwnVoices story; the very first novel I ever wrote was a thinly veiled autobiography, the story of an Asian American girl living in central New York. Back then, about 10 years ago, when we sent it out to editors we got notes back saying, “We loved it! We loved the characters! But it’s too similar to another Asian American novel on our list.” This Is My Brain in Love was my opportunity to sort of re-envision and rewrite that book, but it turned into something very different, focusing on themes I felt were important that really needed to be written about, particularly because of what I’ve experienced in these past few years as a writer, mother, and person. I wanted to write a story that I knew my children would need in the future.
It was important to me to write about intersectional diversity because it didn’t feel like something I could write about before We Need Diverse Books. There was such a thing as having “too much diversity” in a book. To write a book about an Asian American girl who also has a mental illness, which is something I’ve struggled with my entire life, wasn’t as possible. I want my kids to have the language to talk about these things that will affect their lives; there’s a 50% chance, at least, that any kid is going to deal with anxiety and depression, particularly at this current moment, when everyone is anxious and stressed out. I set out to write this story and felt very strongly early on, when I knew I was going to write a romantic comedy, that the love interest had to be another person of color. I’m in a mixed-race marriage myself so I know about [how] cultural differences [can affect relationships]. Writing about the challenge of navigating stress and anxiety when the relationship is compounded by these other external factors was something that I felt I need to do for both myself and my children.
The actual story evolved from a simple encounter I had at one of my favorite local Chinese take-out places, a little hole in the wall eatery called Express Wok. It was a family-owned restaurant with a careworn Asian American woman behind the counter and taking orders, but there also happened to be this tall, lanky white boy awkwardly trying to roll sushi, and I was like, “There has to be a story behind this. He has to have a crush on the owner’s daughter or something like that.” At some point I came up with the idea of the hero’s challenge, that fairy-tale trope where the suitor has to complete three quests before gaining the hand of the princess, but with a really strict Asian parent being like, “Okay, this is going to happen anyway, but I might as well profit from it!” Sadly though, just like in my story, Express Wok went under a couple years ago. In the end, what I wanted to write was a story that would spark necessary conversations between kids and their parents.
Was it always clear to you that it would be told in two voices?
Writing two voices was a huge challenge, but it was something that I stuck with because I felt that it was important to show how fake news can overtake your brain, to show in the narrative the two different ways people can respond to the same situation. That’s the basis of understanding why cognitive behavioral therapy works, by showing that your brain creates cognitive distortion that you can somewhat control by reshaping and rethinking how you process events. Interestingly, None of the Above was originally written in dual narrative, too, because I really wanted to get in the head of not just Kristin, but this guy who was okay with having an intersex girlfriend. Early in the querying process, I got a response from an agent named Amy Tipton; she was literally the first agent I got a response from, within hours of sending my query. She read it overnight and then told me the next day, “I really love it, but I think it should be from Kristin’s point of view.” I realized she was right, so I pulled all my submissions and rewrote the whole thing.
With This Is My Brain in Love, I received some similar feedback from editors who felt Will’s voice wasn’t completely developed, who asked if I’d consider writing it from Jocelyn’s point of view only, but I felt that I really had to stick to my guns. It was hard because writing Will’s perspective is obviously outside of my experience; it’s the opposite of #OwnVoices and I felt strongly about writing responsibly, so it was a huge task. I had a lot of people help, including secondary readers, and I did a lot of research. I felt it was important for the story to have the differing point of views to show how both Jocelyn and Will are unreliable in their own ways because of their anxiety and depression.
How does your role as a health professional and practicing surgeon influence your writing process and subject matter?
Every once in a while, I’ll think, “I’m such a hack as a writer; if I wrote full-time, I’d be a better writer, etc. etc.” But I think that’s not true because I know that my medical profession has influenced my writing not just in terms of coming up with stories and knowing how to talk to people and how to tease out their personal histories, but more importantly, because I’m a procrastinator. I know it doesn’t seem that way because I’m productive in many ways, but if I weren’t so busy, I know I’d probably still take just as long. And having only two or three hours a day to spend writing laser focuses me. It helps me get rid of my internal editor. It gives me a deadline, which is so crucial, otherwise I’d sit around staring at the same sentence for five hours. Having a day job—and a pretty taxing one—is good because it helps me appreciate writing even when the writing life sucks. When I’m frustrated with the publishing process, it gives me something to turn to, something tangible.
For me, writing is also an act of public health. I’m raising awareness and advocacy for certain subjects. An example: I recently had a challenging Twitter spat. A few of my pediatric urologist colleagues had remarked on how they were going to cutting down on elective surgeries because of the limit of supplies. I agreed that this was definitely the right thing to do, but asked, “What are you telling your intersex patients, for a lot of whom, surgery is complex? How are you supporting them when there’s this delay?” They responded that a lot of parents are the ones pushing for the surgery because, theoretically, it will help their kids feel more validated. So, if that’s the case, how are they supporting these kids [when this validation is postponed]? Obviously, not everyone agrees with this [reason for surgery], but my goal was to point them to parent and patient support groups to be able to support their patients during this delay. Within minutes, someone yelled at me for trying to politicize the issue. Someone even told me I was jeopardizing their ability to conduct care. All of this made me think about this New York Times article about a very conservative woman in Louisiana who became the face of coronavirus in Louisiana. There was this amazing line, something about how it’s “only political until it becomes personal.” And, to me, being a writer who can tell the stories that makes these things personal is what I do for public health, spreading awareness so that people can explore these ideas that some may call political but are actually deeply personal.
As a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books organization and movement, you’re uniquely tapped into the subject of diversity and inclusion within the publishing industry. What progress is being made? What do you hope to see continue or grow?
I definitely see progress made over the past five years. Especially in the way that librarians and booksellers have embraced the mission. Things are changing. Will they ever be exactly where they need to be? Possibly not. There is so much more that needs to be done that our work will never fully be done. But I am really grateful that We Need Diverse Books has made it easier for some people to discuss these issues, and I feel like that’s going to be even more important when publishing is recovering from coronavirus and resources are even more scarce and the vulnerable voices are even harder to hear. Decolonizing and changing the systems that we have created is a task for everybody; the strength of this movement is that it doesn’t just focus on authors, it focuses on the industry, including internships, booksellers, teachers, and librarians, because they all have a role to play in making our shelves truly reflect ourselves.
The bottom line is that the book industry is a business and, of course, books have to be successful for editors to be able to acquire books. I can’t fault publishers for trying to make books successful, but I do think that the best way to achieve success in a way that can engage all types or readers is for publishers to fill their ranks with different types of readers. Of course, there’s a financial consideration because of how expensive it is to live in New York and how privileged you must be to comfortably choose a lower paying editorial job. The industry is doing amazing things to try to become more equitable and I just encourage them to keep doing it and to realize that the bar is ever rising and that’s okay. We can always expect more of ourselves.
This Is My Brain in Love by I.W. Gregorio. Little, Brown, $17.99 Apr. 14 ISBN 978-0-316-42382-3