NATE KAN: How did you get started as a writer?
ABIGAIL HING WEN: In retrospect, I realize I’ve been writing my whole life. I used to tell stories to my brother and sister and have kept a journal since I was nine. Every time I could turn in a fictional assignment instead of an essay, I always took that opportunity.
I never thought I could be a professional writer – none of the authors I read were anything like me. When I was in law school, I was trying to decide between writing this article I needed to go on the market to be a law professor or write this fantasy novel I had swimming around in my head.
And my husband was like, “You know, you’re really excited about this novel. Why don’t you just try it and see what happens?” I did it and it just came pouring out of me and I was like, “Wow, I had no idea that I could do this.” So that was the beginning.
What’s your writing process like?
Since I left my corporate job about two years ago, I haven’t looked back. It’s been fun, and while I find that I don’t write as much every day, I am doing more producing work. I try to do my writing in the morning when my brain is fresh and I have a lot of creative ideas.
I’m in Vienna with my family right now, with my son who’s studying music and composition, so it’s been like my writing retreat. You’re actually the first person I’ve talked to about what this time here has been like. Here, I get most of my writing done around eight to one o’clock, Then, I take a break for lunch. Some days, I’ll go for a walk with my husband or see a museum. Then, once the United States wakes up in the afternoon, I take meetings for producing type things like book launches and other projects I’m working on. In the evening, we go to the opera and watch a show. There are standing room tickets here, so you can watch a show for five bucks every night. It’s probably not going to be my schedule in the States, though, where there are more distractions and in-person meetings. So for now, it’s been a month- long protected retreat and I’m really enjoying it.
How do you like to write? Are you more of an architect following a carefully laid out plan or a gardener going with the flow?
I am definitely the organic type and I often write backwards. I use a program called Scrivener and write different scenes, moving them around as needed. When I start a new project, I dive right in and figure out the key emotional points and the character’s emotional arc. For example, I have a script I’ve been working on where I came up with the climax first and then thought about which character was going to reach that moment. Then, I work with beta readers to uncover any parts they don’t get. I think resolving those disconnects is what makes the fun parts of the story come out.
“ I never thought I could be a professional writer — none of the authors I read were anything like me. ”
How do you approach writing characters that are authentic and serve your story well?
Initially, I drew inspiration from stories I had read when I was younger because that’s what I knew. However, as I got closer and closer to my own experiences, I was able to tap into more unique characters that are fictional. For instance, Ever from my Loveboat series has a similar internal journey to me where she’s trying to navigate being a girl between cultures, trying to honor her parents while pursuing her passions, but her external journey is really all her own. I never did all of the crazy things she does. But I think all of my characters have a piece of myself in them, which helps me to write them authentically.
When I first started writing, my characters were perfect. And this might be because of my cultural background as an Asian American writer. I would get feedback from editors saying they wanted to see more flaws. I was like, “What do you mean? If I make them imperfect, then you might not like them.” And I think that had to do with me feeling like I needed to be loved and liked. The more I worked on that and studied character arcs and development, I realized they needed imperfections to grow and have an emotional journey. Even at the end, they might still have imperfections, and that’s okay. That’s part of what makes them human.
I’ve been watching all these operas while I’m in Vienna that have deeply flawed characters that are still loved by audiences. It’s been helpful to let me write deeper, more authentic characters that are free to be themselves.
You mentioned that when you go back to the States, things will be more distracting. When that happens, how do you carve out time for writing, rest, and family?
I found that I had to prioritize time for writing, because it was the easiest thing to slip. When I was working full-time as a lawyer in tech moving over to the business side, I found that as my writing life got bigger, I began to take steps to shrink that part of my life. I remember telling my manager that I probably needed to leave, and he found more time-bound projects for me instead. So the last thing I did before I left my company was develop and host their artificial intelligence podcast Intel on AI, which has since been passed onto my amazing manager. It’s been a constant reevaluation, deciding what can stay and what I should strip out of my life so I can focus on the things that really matter to me.
Talking about your time in tech, what are some ways AI and machine learning have intersected with the Asian American experience?
I have not specifically researched it myself, but I know people have been testing things and posting about it. I know for a fact AI draws from historical data written by humans, which will inherently reflect biases. For instance, searching “Asian baby girl” versus “Asian baby boy” can yield wildly different outcomes and problematic results, with the former being more sexualized.
I remember one of my colleagues in the book industry posting about what GPT was saying about Asian girls. It was often sexualized because that was a thing that was written about Asian women in the past. This is why it’s so important for diverse individuals to work on AI. It can be difficult, as the community can feel small and difficult to penetrate. But I encourage more people to go into the field, especially people from different backgrounds because without diverse individuals at the table, issues like facial recognition software not working on certain faces will go unnoticed. Even if you’re not directly working in the field, at least you can say, “Hey, why is ChatGPT saying x, y, and z about my community when that’s totally not accurate.”
Does it ever feel challenging to balance being an artist who wants to work on their craft while continuing to “fight the good fight?”
I feel like you were like reading my emails or something because this is a challenge I face all the time!
I would love to just bury my head in the sand and just do my work and my art. Implicit bias is a huge issue in our community and there are damaging misperceptions about Asian Americans not being leaders or being passive. I still get called a “sweet girl,” even though I’m producing movies and fighting to make things happen. When they think you’re a “sweet girl” and you don’t act like one, you run into problems. I think Asian American women face more backlash when they speak out or fight back, so I have to continue to build allies and educate people about implicit biases.
Having dealt with those issues in different fields, what are your methods for speaking out?
I don’t think I have the perfect answer, but I have a couple thoughts on it. For instance, while I’ve been here, I’ve been explaining the reason I don’t speak German is I’m not from here and the reason I speak English so well is that I was born in the States. And it’s just part of familiarizing people with the idea of, “Okay, there are different types of people in the world.” And while being constantly asked why I speak English so well is a microaggression, I think the most important thing is not to internalize it, which is what I think a lot of people have done.
Growing up, I used to think, “Oh, the problem is me somehow,” or, “Was I coming across too strongly because I wasn’t being a sweet girl?” I think the first step is not to internalize and then, if there is an opportunity to educate, do that — which is harder for sure.
I work with people who think they’re always right. You can pray for a moment when they’ll actually humbly ask, “How can I get better?,” but unfortunately that’s not how the world always works. So then I think the last part is really having allies to speak up for you to say, “Hey, do you realize that you cut that person off? Do you realize that you just trampled all over their idea?,” or even just to take them aside quietly and explain in a way so that they’ll feel less defensive because it’s coming from a third party. Having someone speak on your behalf goes a really, really long way.
How do you stay true to telling the stories you want to tell while balancing the demands of the publishing and film industries?
I’m actually struggling with this now because there are certain stories that I would like to tell that may be harder to find a market for. I’m asking myself, “Is now the right time to tell them or do I need to wait till I have a bigger profile?” I do find that most of my ideas tend to be high concept and commercial. I worked in venture capital for many years, so I think I have a kind of natural sensibility for that. But I do have some stories that I don’t know if they’re going to have big markets. I feel very strongly that they need to be told, so I’m thinking about creative nontraditional routes.
I was worried when I wrote Loveboat, Taipei about how Asian American it was. It was more Asian American than anything I’d ever written before. I really didn’t know if it would be widely read or just read by our community or not even get published. I think that was my fifth attempt at getting published and I had come close twice before and couldn’t get through marketing. And then I had no idea if this one was gonna do well either.
With Loveboat, Taipei I was able to appeal to audiences of different backgrounds by creating Asian American characters with unique personalities where their Asianness was not the most interesting thing about them and, at the same time, bring audiences into this very deeply Asian American experience through the centrality of food, the pressures of family, and what it means to be disconnected from your heritage because you’ve immigrated across the seas and may not know the language of your ancestors anymore.
Having now achieved quite a list of significant things, what would you tell a younger version of yourself?
Worry less. There’s so much uncertainty when you’re young and you don’t know if you’re going to be successful at the things you want to be successful at and maybe you don’t even know what you want to be successful at! I would tell myself, “You’re going to get there and you’ll be happy.” I had a lonely childhood in Ohio that was not always easy. If I could, I’d go back and hand that little girl Loveboat, Taipei and say, “Things are going to turn out okay.”
For young creators: do what you love and don’t be afraid to be yourself. When you are yourself, you’ll find the people who connect with you. It’s not a judgment if you don’t connect with someone, it means you’re not a creative fit. When you are your most authentic self, then you find people who resonate with you and then you can go do really cool things together. I have to tell myself that too because it gives me the go ahead to find the right people for the right projects.▲