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Q&A with Helen Wan

Tuesday, September 16, 2014



Synopsis: Ingrid Yung’s life is full of firsts. A first-generation Chinese American, the first lawyer in her family, she’s about to collect the holy grail of "firsts" and become the first minority woman to make partner at the venerable old Wall Street law firm Parsons Valentine & Hunt.
Ingrid has perfected the art of "passing" and seamlessly blends into the old-boy corporate culture. She gamely banters in the corporate cafeteria, plays in the firm softball league, and earnestly racks up her billable hours. But when an offensive incident at the summer outing threatens the firm’s reputation, Ingrid’s outsider status is suddenly thrown into sharp relief. Scrambling to do damage control, Parsons Valentine announces a new Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, commanding Ingrid to spearhead the effort. Only she’s about to close an enormous transaction that was to be her final step in securing partnership.

For the first time, Ingrid must question her place in the firm. Pitted against her colleagues, including her golden-boy boyfriend, Ingrid begins to wonder whether the prestige of partnership is worth breaching her ethics. But in The Partner Track by Helen Wan, can Ingrid risk throwing away the American dream that is finally within her reach?


A Q&A with Helen Wan

What’s your novel about?

THE PARTNER TRACK is the story of Ingrid Yung, an ambitious young Chinese-American woman who’s being groomed to become the first minority female partner at one of the country’s most prestigious law firms. Though she often feels like an outsider, Ingrid has perfected the art of blending in.  Then an incident at the firm’s summer outing changes everything, forcing her to square off against her colleagues in a workplace war of race, gender, and sexual politics. 

Like Ingrid Yung, you’re a Chinese-American woman. You’ve also been a full-time lawyer who started out as an associate at one of the biggest law firms in New York. How much of your story and personal experiences can be found in Ingrid Yung and THE PARTNER TRACK?

That’s the first question I get asked: how much of this novel is autobiographical? Well, my first job after law school was in fact being a corporate associate at a big law firm in Manhattan.  But this book is decidedly fiction—thank goodness!  I left my big firm after about a year to work in media and entertainment law, and then became in-house counsel at a large media company.  Parsons Valentine isn’t modeled after any particular law firm, but is an amalgam of many big white-shoe firms, banks or corporations where I and my minority and female friends and colleagues have worked.  Whenever we got together to share war stories, we found that all our work experiences at these places were remarkably similar. Invariably, we’d say, “There should be a book!”  So I finally decided to write one.


The heroine of The Partner Track, Ingrid, is torn between the prestige of partnership and her budding relationship with her “golden-boy” colleague. How do you think women can best balance the dichotomy between work and play? When is it okay to mix business and pleasure?

Ah, the “mixing business with pleasure” question. One of the most fascinating things as a new novelist has been seeing the intensely emotional reader reactions stirred up by this particular Golden Boy character. By a mile, it is Ingrid’s relationship with him that dominates the questions I get asked by women readers. Was he just pretending to be into her? Was she in love with him? Did you consider an alternate outcome to their relationship? I do see a lot of successful professional women dating people in the workplace, and I think that’s as much out of necessity and convenience as anything else. We spend so many of our waking hours in the office. Where and when else are we ever going to meet anyone?
On some level, Ingrid already knew it was in the Bad Idea Handbook to date a male colleague, but took the plunge anyway. I think lots of women in her position would take the same calculated risk. (And this particular Golden Boy, by the way, is really HAWT.)

Still on the question of mixing business with pleasure—is there a double standard here?

There’s a whole other dimension to this dating issue that I don’t think men have to deal with, and that’s the success gradient. My protagonist Ingrid explains her theory on why it’s so much harder for successful women to find people to date than men. And it has to do with society expecting women to “date up,” while men are free to date up, down, across, over and under the career, success, age, education, and income gradients with reckless abandon. For the single professional woman, and as a sheer numbers game, this is a pretty self-defeating strategy.

Where do you think the glass ceiling for women in high powered jobs stems from? How can women break through the many stereotypes laid out for them?

For better or worse, it’s simply human nature that people feel more comfortable with other people who look, talk, sound, and act in ways that seem familiar to them – at least at first. Let’s face it, it’s just easier for Bob to casually ask Steve to go grab a beer after work than to ask someone like Zhang Liu the same thing. That’s why employers need to take a hard look around at their workplace, and figure out what unconscious biases might be informing their hiring, staffing, and promotion decisions.  I actually believe the majority of stereotyping by employers that hinders women and minorities is unintentional and unconscious. In fact, it’s the very benignness of many stereotypes of women and minorities that render them so hard to pinpoint and eliminate.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?
That’s easy: write the book you’d most like to read.  For years and years, I searched for, but could not find, contemporary fiction about Asian American women that did not involve: (a) a soul-searching trip to an ancestral village; (b) a flock of quaint-as-hell relatives; or (c) an arranged marriage.  I’m not denigrating novels that happen to include these plot points; in fact I myself have enjoyed many of them. I’m just saying I wanted to be able to read a realistic, fast-paced, contemporary novel about a minority woman whose perspective and experience were closer to my own.  Finding none, I decided to write one.

Why did you write THE PARTNER TRACK?

Like many other women who are good rule-followers and good at school, I went out in search of a book that could tell me how a young woman could succeed on the corporate ladder while still being an “authentic” self.  But I couldn’t find any books that spoke to me. I was not seeing any credible or instructive contemporary stories out there about young women (let alone a young woman of color!) navigating the dynamics of corporate America and succeeding. I wrote THE PARTNER TRACK for anyone who’s ever felt like an “outsider” – anyone who ever looked around and secretly thought, Wow, I must have been out sick the day they passed out the decoder rings around here Soon after my novel was first published, I heard from a young African American woman who had just completed her summer internship at a large Parsons Valentine-like firm. She thanked me for writing the book and told me she only wished she’d found it at the beginning of her summer, rather than toward the end, because, she said, it would have made her feel so much less alone. Well, to a first-time novelist, who wrote this book for the reasons I did, there could be no better compliment than that!

What are you working on now?

I’m at work on my second novel.  It’s a lot of fun to get to know a whole new set of characters. It feels kind of like starting a new school year.  (I’m nerdy like that; I’ve always loved fall for that reason – fresh starts, a new school year, new notebooks and sweaters and a crispness to the air.)  My new novel isn’t a direct sequel to THE PARTNER TRACK, but you could say it’s a deeper dive into some key themes: women’s complicated relationship with ambition itself, and the ways that race, sex, class, cultural heritage, and family upbringing influence the way we pursue happiness. I’m still at the “themes” stage – I know what I want to write about, but am still figuring out the story.  And I’m also still learning the ropes of being a first-time mom to our wonderful little son.  In my wildest dreams I never would have thought that a first book and a first baby would arrive the same year.  But if you want to make God laugh, just tell her your plans.
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