TCR Talks with Jean Kwok, author of The Leftover Woman

By Jeni Eskridge

In The Leftover Woman, the thrilling new novel by New York Times bestselling author Jean Kwok, two women, worlds apart, come face-to-face with what it means to be a mother and to make impossible decisions. From a small Chinese fishing village, Jasmine escapes her controlling husband and embarks on a quest to find the child she had believed to be dead. In a parallel story, Rebecca struggles to repair a devastating career faux pas while battling her own guilt and the jealousy she feels toward the nanny of her adopted Chinese daughter. What they don’t know is that their lives are about to become intertwined forever.

Fast-paced and impossible to put down, the story is full of twists and turns, and delivers a haunting commentary on the one-child policy in China, as well as the complications implicit in cross-cultural adoptions.

The Coachella Review spoke with Kwok about her newest novel and the writing craft decisions she made.

The Coachella Review:
What was the inspiration for The Leftover Woman?

Jean Kwok: The Leftover Woman is about two mothers, two worlds and one impossible choice. It’s the story of Jasmine Yang, who gave birth in a village in rural China only to be told that her baby died shortly afterwards. However, she found out years later that her daughter had not died but rather been placed for adoption by her own husband to a wealthy American couple, another casualty of China’s controversial one-child policy. When the novel opens, Jasmine has followed her child to New York City, to try to get her back.

This story was inspired by my own experience as the youngest of seven children in a traditional Chinese immigrant family. In a hierarchy determined by age and gender, I was at rock bottom. Like Jasmine, I felt unheard and unseen. It was made clear to me that my opinions had less weight than those of my older brothers.

I wanted to explore what it was like to grow up as a woman in a male-dominated society and I realized that although China’s one-child policy has impacted families for decades, very little has been written about it in fiction.

TCR: By the third sentence in the prologue, which reads, “I took someone essential from you that last tragic evening—the blood, so much blood,” the reader is drawn into the mystery about to unfold. Did the first draft of The Leftover Woman have a prologue and epilogue, or were those added during editing? What prompts a decision to include a prologue and/or epilogue?

JK: I tend to start with the prologue and epilogue of my books. Those sections are often the ones I see first in my mind’s eye. Some people advise against including a prologue, arguing that it’s better to place the reader in the world of the book immediately. I think there’s some truth in that.

However, I wanted to raise the stakes and make sure that the reader understood what type of novel The Leftover Woman is: a propulsive and suspenseful family drama involving a murder. I find that’s one of the most effective ways to use a prologue: to show a glimpse of something important yet to come in the story.

TCR: Jasmine and Rebecca have starkly different lives and their narratives reflect their differences with a distinct tone for each story. Did you write their stories in the order they appear? Or did you write primarily for one character and break the stories apart in editing in order to create the most dramatic tension?

JK: I was fascinated by both Jasmine, the biological mother, and Rebecca, the adoptive mother. While I clearly found a great deal of myself in Jasmine, I identified with Rebecca, as well. Rebecca is an affluent, highly educated publishing executive with a handsome husband, a beautiful home, and an adopted Chinese daughter she adores. I understood Rebecca’s struggle to be a good mother, daughter, partner, and career woman.

I went back and forth between writing these two complex women. Sometimes, I would write a whole chunk of one narrator before switching to the other one.

However, I moved many scenes around in the book. I was constantly looking at the structure and pacing of the novel, trying to make sure that The Leftover Woman was an exciting, page-turning read for the reader even as the book deals with deeper themes and issues.

TCR: How did editing change or enhance the story or did it?

JK: I have a wonderful editor, Jessica Williams at William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. I’m very grateful to have such an insightful editor. I always feel like Jessica and I are on the same wavelength so she’s trying to help me bring the book to full fruition.

There were some major changes along the way because The Leftover Woman sets up an impossible dilemma. I wanted the reader to feel sympathetic to both Jasmine and Rebecca, so ultimately, who gets their daughter? As the author, I needed to somehow resolve this in a nuanced and surprising way. My editor was a huge help in giving me fresh feedback as to what was working or not.

TCR: The narrative has a musical flow—starting off with a slow reveal, then repeatedly ramping up the tempo by shortening the switching between Jasmine’s and Rebecca’s storylines. How did you achieve this rhythmic flow? Did you intend for it to feel so rhythmic?

JK: I didn’t think about the rhythm of the novel consciously, but I was very aware of the structure throughout. I would write to explore the characters and storylines, and then I’d go back to outline what I’d done, so I could make sure that the book’s pacing built up gradually. I was indeed hoping that the tempo would ramp up for the reader as the narrative progressed.

TCR: One of the biggest story revelations comes at the end of Part Two, but there are multiple clues leading up to the reveal. How do you decide what to expose and when?

JK: I’m always thinking about the reader’s experience as they are reading. One of the most important ways to keep a reader hooked is by not giving them all of the information at once. In fact, I try to keep back as much as possible without leaving the reader confused so that, by the time there is a flashback or another scene that explains something, the reader is excited to learn that piece of information.

I always want something intriguing to be happening so that, even as the reader gains the answer to one question, they start to wonder about something else.

TCR: The Leftover Woman explores the one-child policy, as well as issues that arise from interracial and intercultural adoptions, in a fearless yet poignant way. How did you tackle such huge socio-political issues with so much finesse?

JK: I did a great deal of research and tried to see the topic from every point of view. Of course, I have my own opinions, but I always attempt to be respectful of other viewpoints and to represent them as fairly as I can while creating a coherent narrative. That was part of the reason why it was so difficult to find the right ending for The Leftover Woman. I didn’t want the ending to essentially be saying, “The child should always go to the birth mother or to the adoptive mother.” Each situation is complex and needs to be judged individually.

TCR: How did your own experience emigrating from Hong Kong influence the storyline? Or did it?

JK: As a first-generation immigrant myself, I can imagine how Jasmine must have felt when she was applying for a job in New York’s Chinatown. She was poorly dressed, without the right paperwork or adequate language skills. Even though we were legal immigrants, I remember feeling so out of place and incapable of navigating the complex new world of America, [which is] called the Beautiful Country in Chinese.

Since I basically grew up bilingual after learning to speak English, I could see how different people are in their own native language. My parents never mastered English. I understood that my mother was so much smarter and wiser in Chinese than the very simple person she appeared to be in English. This is a theme that runs through many of my books, including The Leftover Woman, where Jasmine is profound and thoughtful in her internal narrative, when she’s thinking in her native language, yet comes across very differently when seen from the outside as she speaks English.

TCR: In your acknowledgements, you mention interviewing multiple people who inspired and taught you about several things including rural China, animal shelters, strip clubs, and language prodigies. How much time was spent in research?

JK: I think it always takes me as long to research a novel as it does to write it. I did speak to people involved in just about every aspect of the novel to make sure that I was representing their stories as accurately as possible. I find that to be very rewarding because I’m always surprised by the stories I hear, and that makes the novel exciting to read, as well.

Surprisingly, the most difficult part of the book to research was the rural village in China. It was very hard to find accurate details, but fortunately I found articles written by a Cambridge professor who had done field research in one, and she was kind enough to speak to me at length, as well. There are only a few scenes set there, but I needed to ensure that every part of the book was as accurate as possible.

Do you have any writing rituals? A specific time of day or place you like to write?

JK: I naturally work best at night, but that’s not practical since I have children. I find it important to block off time to write first thing in my day because if I don’t, it’s easy to be left with no time to do it at all. Ideally, I like to write about three hours a day, but often that number stretches as the deadline approaches.

I work on a dual monitor system on my chaise lounge. I have two small bedside tables that stretch over the couch. I [use an] iMac with an extra 27-inch monitor attached. I like having an extra screen for things like research, timelines, et cetera.

TCR: When you have a new story idea, how do you start? Research? Outline? Brainstorm? Or do you just start writing and see where the characters take you?

JK: I tend to go back and forth between the themes I want to explore and the character. Each novel should be the perfect storm for my protagonist. By that, I mean that my protagonist should run into their greatest fear or flaw over the course of my novel and need to try to overcome it.

In The Leftover Woman, for example, Jasmine and Rebecca are both women deeply concerned with appearances in different ways. Jasmine is beautiful but beauty without power is a curse and she has been used for the way she looks, sold almost like a commodity to an older man in marriage. In the novel, she gets a job interview at an Asian strip club for a cocktail waitress position and she is forced to decide if she will weaponize her looks for herself.

Rebecca, on the other hand, cares greatly about what others will think of her. At the beginning of the novel, she is afraid to act because of societal pressures but by the end, she understands that nothing is more important than her love for her daughter.

Once I understand my themes and main characters, I’ll create a rough outline with a few of the main twists and plot points in the novel. Then I start writing the beginning so I can explore the characters and get to know them. It’s only after I have a fairly solid beginning that I am able to plan out more of the book. My outlines invariably change as I write.

TCR: How do you celebrate the completion of a new novel?

JK: Usually by sleeping! I’m always working hard right up to the deadline so I am exhausted once I type, “The End.”

It is a wonderful feeling to actually finish a book and I remind myself to celebrate that by truly experiencing that happiness and allowing that feeling to fill me up inside.

Jeni Eskridge is a playwright, an educator, a classically trained vocalist, and an MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside’s Low Residency Creative Writing program in Nonfiction. Jeni lives and writes in Rancho Mirage, CA.