A pivotal event in journalist Hua Hsu’s life was the senseless murder of his best friend, Ken, when they were students at Berkeley in the 1990s. Hsu wasn’t thinking of becoming a writer, but, he says, “the day after Ken’s death, when I went to buy clothes for the funeral, I bought a blue journal that I still treasure. I began to write memories, inside jokes. It was a method of coping—a way to connect with Ken on the page.” Two decades later, Hsu has written Stay True (Doubleday, Sept.), a moving and beautifully rendered memoir of friendship and loss, and a meditation on youth, tragedy, coming of age, and the Asian American immigrant experience.
As a staff writer at the New Yorker since 2017 and an associate professor at Vassar College, Hsu says, “I must have written 100 pieces of commentary and criticism since 2001, but it all felt like practice for this book. The story never showed up in my writing; there was never an essay in my journal the way I would observe musicians or artists.” But in 2018, he explains, “I finally sat down and started writing the story without a clue as to how I was going to shape it.”
The story of the friendship is an odyssey, a journey through which Hsu discovers himself. Ken and Hsu’s connection is heartfelt, intellectual, frivolous, charming, deep: “The first time I met Ken, I hated him,” Hsu writes. “I was 18, in love with my moral compass.... Ken was flagrantly handsome; his voice betrayed no insecurity.”
Ken was Japanese American, his family in the U.S. for generations. “We all look alike,” Hsu, a first-generation Taiwanese American writes, “until you realize we don’t, and then you begin feeling that nobody could possibly seem more different.”
The two young men were different, but they bonded over music, philosophy, girls, studying together. “I loved walking with Ken,” Hsu writes. “A mismatched pair moving through the world. We noticed the same things, taking in the small moments of everyday beauty and weirdness.”
On July 18, 1998, Ken was forcibly taken to an ATM, robbed, and then shot and killed for no reason. The three perpetrators were easily caught and seemed to show little remorse. “I always feel a sense of loss about Ken,” Hsu says. “I wanted to write the book as a tribute, but also to learn about myself. There were things I didn’t realize until I sat down to write.”
When Hsu received a 2019 Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, it was an opportunity for him to sit and think. It was also the first time he read the court documents surrounding Ken’s murder. “I had never engaged in these questions before,” he tells me.
Hsu met Chris Parris-Lamb, his agent at the Gernert Company, in 2009, when Parris-Lamb reached out about one of Hsu’s articles in the Atlantic—“The End of White America?”—to propose he write a book. Hsu wasn’t interested, but they stayed in touch. In 2016, after Hsu published an academic book, A Floating Chinaman, he and Parris-Lamb talked about various ideas for a trade book. “When Hua described the murder of his friend,” Parris-Lamb says, “I knew it was a book only he could write. I told him, ‘It sounds like you have a story, but we won’t know what it is until you write it.’ ”
With the Cullman, Hsu worked eight hours a day on the book. “I was writing mainly about myself, which I had never been comfortable with before,” he recalls. In spring 2019, the fellows were sent home because of the pandemic. “I didn’t work for a few months, but then I realized I should just do it, and in a month, I had 100,000 words. Chris liked it, but he told me to cut it by a third.” As a journalist, Hsu adds, “I love rigorous editing. I thought I would feel differently about this thing I had been working on in private for so long, but when Chris asked me to cut, I realized he had identified where the book should end.”
Parris-Lamb submitted Stay True widely in fall 2020. “Hua had fans who had been following his work for years,” Parris-Lamb says. “People were eager to see a book from him. I had a preempt in 48 hours, but we turned it down because it was so early in the process. We wanted to see what was out there. When Hua made the decision to turn away from popular nonfiction, he was taking a risk from a commercial standpoint. This was a personal story. He wanted to see how people responded to it and he enjoyed the editorial process. He was very thoughtful and took every meeting.”
There was an intense auction, and North American rights went to Doubleday executive editor Thomas Gebremedhin in a two-book deal. (The next book will be a collection of essays on impostor syndrome.) “The auction brought out the shark in me,” Gebremedhin says. “Thank God I got it!”
When he was a magazine editor, Gebremedhin tells me, he would send “fan notes” to Hsu. “I knew he was contracted at the New Yorker, but I wanted to introduce myself and gush.” On Gebremedhin’s first day at Doubleday, he went to lunch with Parris-Lamb, who mentioned that he had something he might be interested in. Two months later, in November 2020, Parris-Lamb sent over Hsu’s manuscript.
“I had been rejecting proposal after proposal,” Gebremedhin says. “But when I got Stay True, I read it in one night. And believe me, in 34 years I’ve never been able to stay up late reading. I even put down Harry Potter! Hua’s book is great. It’s this deep well of tragedy but so much more. It’s a romp through college years and what it means to find a place in American culture, but the heart of the book is Hua’s friendship with Ken.”
Hsu says Gebremedhin showed insight into what the book could be. “He was very opinionated and I liked that. He was also very direct about where the book should start, and I realized that he and Chris had essentially figured out the beginning and the ending for me. I was drawn to Thomas because he had such a sharp vision for the story—something I still struggle to recognize, since to me it’s just life.”
“What every good book comes down to is, how does it make the reader feel emotionally,” Parris-Lamb says. “There’s no doubt that Stay True is deeply affecting.”
“It’s surreal,” Hsu tells me. “One person said to me, ‘I was so sad when Ken died. I felt like he was my friend.’ ”
There’s no greater tribute than that.