The Sweetest Debut: Lisa Ko on Adoption, ‘The Wire,’ and “Believing You Deserve to Have the Time to Write”

"There's not one right way to be a writer."

Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and how they explain their books to different people in their lives. 

This week, we heard from Lisa Ko about her debut novel, The Leavers, winner of the Pen/Bellweather Award for Socially Engaged Fiction. The Leavers examines cultural identity and adoption, deportation and globalization and through the lives of a mother and son who’ve been torn asunder by one of many of America’s xenophobic policies. “What Ko seeks to do with The Leavers is illuminate the consequence of [deportation] facilities, and of the deportation machine as a whole, on individual lives,” writes Louise McCune in the L.A. Review of Books. “She has created two memorable characters with the capacity to spark empathy in audiences inured to a dismaying status quo.” Below, Ko discusses everything from her reasons for writing the book, to the long process of completing it (giving up on endowing Word Docs with finalizing labels), to the other authors whose work guided her. 

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

It’s about a boy named Deming Guo, whose mother Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, mysteriously disappears when he’s 11 years old—after which he gets adopted by a white couple who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate and rename him Daniel Wilkinson. The novel takes place in New York and China and follows both Deming’s and Polly’s stories, before and after their separation, and what happens when he starts searching for her ten years later. It’s based on real-life stories and draws links between immigration, globalization, and the adoption industry — and it’s full of music, heart, and hustle.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

Mom, I swear the mom character isn’t based on you.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I started writing The Leavers in 2009, when I was seeing all these news articles about undocumented immigrant women who’d had their U.S.-born children taken away from them and adopted by American families. Early, optimistic, and wildly delusional plans were to finish it in two years, then three. Around the four-year mark I finally stopped labeling Word documents with names like “novel-final.doc” and “novel-finalFINAL.doc” and “novel-FORFUCKSSAKEFINAL.doc.”

It ended up taking seven years. Most of that time was learning how to write a novel, or how not to write a novel. That involved failing over and over, just writing and deleting hundreds of pages. Though the characters and general storyline are the same, there’s very little that remains from those first drafts in the published version.

In February 2016, I was working on yet another draft that I felt was coming along (this was after realizing a previous draft was doomed and deleting over a year’s worth of work in one terrible afternoon) when I lost my cell phone while on vacation, flew back to New York, then checked my email for the first time in a week to find a message from Barbara Kingsolver’s assistant saying they’d been trying to call me for days, and to please call her office immediately. It was about the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, which I’d submitted The Leavers for on a whim a few months back, and figured I had no chance of winning. When I reached Barbara, she told me that I’d won the award, and with it, a book deal. Overnight—or seven years later, depending on how you want to look at it—everything changed.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

A book you’ve read more than two times.

Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind

A book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project.

A big part of writing The Leavers was figuring out how to best tell the story, so I sought out books that could offer lessons on storytelling, pacing, and structure. I re-read Beloved and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao several times for those reasons, as well as Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, and returned to the lyricism of Sesshu Foster’s City Terrace Field Manual. Also, I watched every episode of The Wire. Twice.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Get Out. On opening night in a sold-out theater in Brooklyn. I also saw I Am Not Your Negro and a restoration of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust this month. Oh, and Moonlight—three times. So, just celebrating Black cinematic genius.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind? 

When drafting, I’ll listen to music from certain times in my life when I want to access a certain emotion, or bass-and surge-heavy songs when I need to drown out the self-doubt in my head. I also make playlists for my characters, and there’s one for The Leavers.

When editing, music with words make it hard to concentrate, so I usually do silence, or something instrumental, anything from Chopin nocturnes to Coltrane.

Who is your fashion icon?

Debbie Harry circa 1977, Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, and Zadie Smith.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

Big Sur or Maui.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

A writer. Ever since I was five years old (though I misspelled it as “whirter” back then). Or a rock star.

What freaks you out the most about four years of Trump as US President?

That a coup is underway and America is becoming an authoritarian state run by rich white supremacists, and that this dictatorship, with all of its violent policies, will not be easily reversed, especially not through electoral politics.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Coffee shop, but only if I have headphones or if no one bothers me or can see my screen.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

Mostly at my desk, which is the same desk I’ve had since I was a kid. It’s ergonomically horrible since it’s too small to fit my chair under. And the desk is in a room that my boyfriend also uses as his closet, since we live in a tiny New York apartment without actual closets. Where’s that house in Maui, now?

Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?

I used to be a diehard night owl but then I quit drinking a lot of coffee and alcohol and now my ideal is to get up early in the morning and get straight to writing before the anxiety sets in.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

Messy. I’m an over-writer and a binge writer; I write pages and pages of crap and then delete 90 percent of it. It took me years to be okay with this process: vomit out crappy draft in a minute, then obsessively edit for years on end.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I’ve had so many random writing, editing, and teaching jobs to pay the bills. I worked full-time as a web content specialist in a university marketing department while finishing The Leavers, but now I’m back to freelance writing and editing.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

Saying no to things. Putting apps on my computer to shut off the internet. Residencies helped a lot, and when I couldn’t get away to do one for a month, I’d make my own mini-residencies, like cat-sitting for friends when they were out of town so I could be in a different apartment for a weekend.

But honestly, finding time to write was more about getting to the point where I believed I deserved to have time to write. I had to see my writing as important, to see myself and my work as important, so I could prioritize it and be unapologetic when I wanted to be alone and write. It’s still tough.

I also read interviews with writers who took a long time to write their first books, who were in their 40s, who weren’t wealthy or being financially supported by anyone else. It helped to know that I wasn’t alone, and that there’s not one right way to be a writer.