By SGN | 27 May 2022
Tell us a bit about yourself – what brought you to the U.S.?
I’m a novelist and a professor of creative writing who is currently based in San Francisco. I moved to the U.S. at the age of 15 to attend boarding school, and then stayed for college, my first job, graduate school, etc. Perhaps needless to say, I’ve been here ever since.
What inspired you to become a writer?
I took my first creative writing class completely by chance. At the beginning of my sophomore year at Stanford, I walked into a class called something like “The Short Story,” thinking it would be a literature course focused on short stories. The classroom was so packed that all the chairs around the table were filled, and people had to stand with their backs against the walls. I’d never seen a humanities class that crowded before.
When the professor arrived, I realized my mistake: this wasn’t a class on how to read short stories, but how to write them. Since I was a literature major, and this class wouldn’t count toward it, I considered leaving, but the crowd of eager students made me stay a little longer. The professor proved to be utterly charming and by the end of the session, I’d decided I wanted to take the course. But there was another problem—all the spots were already filled and there was even a waitlist that I hadn’t known to join.
It was then that the professor asked for a volunteer to submit the first story to the class. No one made eye contact, much less raised their hand. Seizing my chance, I spoke up. I asked the professor if being the first would guarantee me a place in the class, and he agreed. And that was the beginning of my journey to becoming a writer.
What’s your advice for budding writers?
Read, read, read. I often tell my students that there’s no single trait that all successful writers share, except a love of reading. Beyond that, I think it’s useful to seek out first readers you really trust. It’s extremely difficult to evaluate your own writing, so an outside perspective is integral to the revision process. My first readers have saved me years of wasted effort by pointing out problems in my writing that would have taken me ages to figure out on my own.
What are your hobbies? / your biggest inspiration?
I’m an avid practitioner of Ashtanga yoga. I’ve practiced it near-daily for the last fifteen years. Unlike other styles of yoga, where a teacher calls out poses, Mysore-style Ashtanga is self-led. Students arrive at the studio anytime between say 6 and 9 am to practice a set series of poses. The teacher moves around the room, guiding each student individually, and when a student has mastered their sequence of poses, the teacher assigns the next one.
My yoga practice has made me a better writer by teaching me the value of routine. Just as I practice each morning for a set period of time, regardless of my mood or energy level, I sit down at my desk every day to meet a set word count. With both pursuits, the goal is simply to be there, trusting that if I put in the hours, the results will come.
How do you stay connected to Singapore?
Pre-pandemic, I went home every year to see my parents, extended family, and friends. I hope to make it home at some point this year to do a local book event for my new novel. In the meantime, I keep in touch with them through regular video calls, but nothing can replace in-person visits.
For latest updates, please check Kirstin’s website
Kirstin Chen is the award-winning, best-selling author of three novels. Her latest, Counterfeit, has been recommended by Entertainment Weekly, Oprah Daily, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, Parade, The Millions, Electric Lit, and more. Television rights have been optioned by Sony Pictures. Her second novel, Bury What We Cannot Take, was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. Her debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, was an Amazon bestseller and an Oprah Magazine editors’ pick.