"This funny, buoyant voice popped out of nowhere."

If your idea of a serious writer is a man sequestered in his study, thinking deep thoughts in seclusion from society's trivial pursuits, then Gish Jen definitely doesn't fill the bill. Like most women with young children (her son, Luke, is seven years old; her daughter, Paloma, seven months), Jen inhabits a world in which the competing demands of work and family are everywhere -- literally underfoot, like the baby toys strewn on the floor of the sunny kitchen in her Cambridge, Mass., home. Motherhood has extinguished neither her intelligence nor her artistic ambition, but it's changed both in ways she could not have anticipated. Life is complicated and hectic, but it's also rich and interesting in ways not available to that hypothetical sage in his study. After all, he will never refer to a new collection of his stories as "the book that hormones wrote."

The volume in question is Who's Irish?, just out from Knopf. Jen finished the collection's two previously unpublished tales, "House House Home" and "Duncan in China" when she was pregnant, she says. "There's all that estrogen: it's phenomenal how productive you can be when you're not throwing up!" She gives the first of many big laughs, incongruously loud and deep for such a physically small woman. The robust, irreverent sense of humor that enlivened her previous novel, Mona in the Promised Land (Knopf, 1996), is an integral aspect of Jen's character as well as her writing.

The author found that her pregnancy, combined with the experience of raising Luke, freed her to explore new techniques and material. "`House House Home' is really a departure for me," she says; indeed, this long story has a more circular time frame, with a woman looking back on her first marriage as she begins a new relationship, and a more contemplative mood than earlier works. "I was trying to write something that seemed more like a life, that wasn't so much about conflict and resolution. The fact that I'm even interested in that kind of narrative has a lot to do with being a mother. I'm more interested in growth now. The experience of having a little person and watching them evolve has made me more interested in the form of narrative as well as the details."

It might come as a surprise to admirers of Typical American (Houghton Mifflin, 1991) and Mona, loosely connected novels that explored the lives of the Chinese-American Chang family with sharp social awareness, to find the author so openly concerned with personal matters. But her characters' private preoccupations have always engaged Jen as much as their adventures out in the world, although they haven't received equal attention in reviews. She finds critical assessment of her work a little narrow. "Even when I'm praised, so much of the time what they say over and over is, 'Oh, it's so American!' as though that needs to be said. I still have to contend with, do I speak English? I could never have written the title story in Who's Irish? [narrated in a near-pidgin dialect by a Chinese immigrant woman] until I was firmly established as a writer of English. It's an ongoing problem for Asian-Americans, but I also have to say that it's interesting to me, because that's where the inner self bumps up against society. We're all constructs, we're all compromises between what we've experienced and how we're perceived."

Career Hopping

The 43-year-old author comes from a generation hyper-conscious of the links between individual fulfillment and what society permits. She grew up in Scarsdale, an affluent New York suburb with few other Chinese-American residents, and she attended Harvard during the 1970s, the first decade in which large numbers of women prepared to enter the previously all-male bastions of medical, law and business schools. Jen tried out both premed and prelaw before wandering into English 283, the legendary prosody class taught by Robert Fitzgerald. He was impressed by her writing and got her a spot in the publishing training program at Doubleday, where she worked for editor Bill Strachan. Jen soon realized that publishing was not for her.

"I wasn't writing, nor was I exactly making a living. Almost as a lark, I applied to business school. I went to Stanford because I knew they had a good writing program; that's how confused I was." During her conflicted first year, Jen took writing courses on the side and read a lot of novels. The second year, when she overslept every day the first week and missed all her classes, it became clear that business school wasn't right for her, either. "I took a leave of absence, went to China and never came back." Like the protagonist of her story 'Duncan in China,' she did a short stint as a "foreign expert" at a provincial coal mining institute.

Her parents, immigrants from Shanghai who had worked hard to give their children the opportunities they were denied, were appalled. "My mother didn't talk to me for a year and a half after I dropped out of business school, and for years my parents and siblings [three business people, one doctor] would lean on me to do something else. Even today, I think my family would be more relieved than dismayed if I were to stop writing. I still struggle with the question, Is it selfish? It's hard on the people around me, it's hard on my children. Is it worth it? I was programmed to be selfless, and I go through periods where I wonder."

Jen found support and encouragement at the University of Iowa, from which she received an MFA in 1983. She credits Bharati Mukherjee and James Alan McPherson as the teachers who made the greatest impact. "Writing school often focuses on technique, which is very important, but I feel lucky that I met a couple of people who also cared about content." She ruefully remembers being surprised by the warning of another Iowa teacher, Edward Hoagland, "You have to serve a 10-year apprenticeship" -- a statement whose truth didn't hit home until she married David O'Connor, who worked in computer software at Apple, and moved to California in 1983.

"Apple was an exciting place to be for David, and of course it was an advantage that he was making a living, but novel writing just didn't seem like a legitimate activity in Silicon Valley. Everyone else was making lots of money, driving a sports car and had an identity; I sort of wanted to be a writer."

The couple's 1985 move to Cambridge, where O'Connor now works for an offshoot of MIT's media lab, proved salutary. Jen got a fellowship at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute and began writing Typical American. "I came to the Bunting wanting to do a collection of stories. But that first week, when we went around the table and identified ourselves and I said I was 'a would-be writer,' everybody jumped on me. By the end of the week, not only was I identifying myself as a writer, but I was also saying, 'I'm writing a novel.' "

As the title -- the inspiration of Jen's agent, Maxine Groffsky -- suggests, Typical American examines the disorienting freedom and often illusory promises of the New World through the paradigmatic story of one immigrant family. Ralph and Helen Chang struggle against poverty, make good, then suffer a series of disasters engendered by their infatuation with a slick, American-born entrepreneur. The Changs bear no relation to her parents, says Jen ("My mother got to the end of Typical American and said, 'Ah, it's wonderful-and it's not about anybody!'"), and the book's increasingly somber tone sprang from events in her life, not theirs. "I had been trying to get pregnant for years, and then right before I got to the last section of Typical American I had a terrible miscarriage at four-and-a-half months. It was pretty devastating; I was worried that as a result of this experience I was a different person and wouldn't be able to finish the book. The novel was going on its way and had its own logic, but I think the miscarriage had a lot to do with the book taking such a dark turn."

Paradoxically, the ebulliently comic voice of Mona in the Promised Land was also born during this period. "Just at the most serious part of Typical American, when things were getting worse and worse, out of the blue I started writing a story that eventually became Mona. This funny, buoyant voice popped out of nowhere. There is a way in which, trying to make a coherent narrative, something of its opposite will grow. The novel is a distance event; you're married to your project, you're ever-faithful and you're willing to do it for a long time. But you have other voices, other moods, and things will come calling that are unbidden and in the way [of the novel's development], so I siphon them off into stories."

Writing on Adrenaline

By the time Typical American was edited (by Houghton Mifflin's Seymour Lawrence) and published, Jen had a brand-new baby and was embarked on the full-length version of Mona -- a joint venture only a first -- time mother would be insane enough to try. "If Who's Irish? is the book that hormones wrote, Mona is the book that caffeine wrote," she jokes. "It was murder: I had to schedule time to take a shower. During Luke's first five years, when I wrote the novel, I did not go shopping, I did not do lunch, I didn't get any exercise. I had to continue writing and I had to raise my family and I just couldn't do anything else. It was hard on me, but it was not bad for the work; I took a lot of risks in Mona that I wouldn't have taken if I'd had more time to think."

Principal among those risks was Chinese-American Mona's embrace of Judaism, closely seconded by a frank portrait of well-meaning suburban teenagers' politically charged interactions with an African-American fired from the Changs' restaurant. Reading the novel now, it seems evident that Jen's candor, sensitivity and eye for nuance outweigh any potential offensiveness, but it was not so clear to the author when she nervously delivered the manuscript to Knopf's Ann Close (also her editor on Who's Irish?). She was relieved when Cynthia Ozick loved the book and amused when a student at Spelman College, where she read a portion of it, asked, "Why do you care what we think?" Her African-American auditor clearly considered Mona's depiction of race relations a nonissue, but Jen d s not believe that she was wrong to be concerned about that reaction.

"Obviously, no one thinks it's good to be politically correct, but I think it's important to be politically sensitive. One of the good things that's emerged from multiculturalism is that people don't feel they can write whatever they want and then hide behind artistic license. You're forced to consider what you do unconsciously, and I think that's good for writers. I'm not against artistic freedom, but there's a moment for every writer when you bring things out in public and look at them. I think now we look with new eyes, and that makes for better fiction."

What comes next in her own fiction is not yet clear. "I'd like to write another novel, but I'm just not sure that life circumstances will allow it right now. Paloma seems like a spectacularly easygoing, mellow baby, but that can change on a dime. A lot of whether I write something long or short depends on her. Your children have got to come first."

It's not the pure commitment guided solely by art's grand design that beginning writers fantasize about-but then again, Jen was never much on making plans. "The way I work, I never know where I'm going. When I was writing Typical American I found it sort of scary that 300 pages in I still didn't see what came next. I swore I'd never do another book like that, it's just too nerve-racking, but in the end I wrote Mona the same way. It's how I know to write: the first time through, you don't really know what you're saying, then you look at what you've written and find out. Just as you might look back on your life and understand things about yourself that were always there, but you didn't recognize immediately."

Smith is the author of Real Life Drama: A History of the Group Theater.