Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Helen Wan: “It came down to trusting myself that I could finish a novel.”

Helen Wan is an attorney turned author, born in California and raised in Virginia. She holds degrees from both Amherst College and the University of Virginia School of Law.

After years of practicing law in New York City, Helen decided to pursue her passion for writing. Her debut novel, The Partner Track, is a gripping portrayal of corporate life as experienced by a young woman of color. Although her novel is fiction, Helen’s personal experiences as an Asian American woman in the legal profession played a crucial role in shaping her writing.

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Hi Helen, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, we’re so glad to have you here with us today! You’ve mentioned that The Partner Track is not autobiographical, but it was important to you to write a realistic portrayal of corporate life. Can you speak to your creative process when bringing authenticity to your writing?

I think getting authentic details down is the easy part. Back when The Partner Track existed only in my imagination and as my subway scribblings, written as I commuted to and from my job at a big law firm, I was simply jotting down anything that struck me as interesting — at the office, at a party, at a meeting, at a restaurant, in an elevator, in all those grand city blocks that surrounded us.

That first raw, hopeful, stream-of-conscious phase of a novel is fun. You’re really just writing down what you see and hear all around you. It’s all the stuff that comes later — the editing, shaping, plotting — that is hard.

I heard that it took you twelve years to write, revise, and publish the book. Can you share with us how you were able to balance your full-time job, family responsibilities, and writing during that time?

Oh, if I only knew the secret to this— how to juggle a day job, family obligations, adulting in general, while trying to write books or do any kind of creative side hustle — I’d be bottling and selling it by now.

For me, it came down to trusting myself that I COULD finish a novel, and not as “a hobby” but as something real, a task that could actually be accomplished. In other words, I had to learn to think of my novel as A Real Thing. I started treating precious writing time like a dentist appointment or client meeting. You wouldn’t just cancel for no reason. It was all about self-discipline and accountability. Many fellow authors have also described this same evolution.

Your background as a media and intellectual property lawyer has influenced your writing. Can you share how your professional experiences inform the themes and characters in your book?

Writing while lawyering, like so much else, is both a blessing and a curse. As lawyers and law students, we’re trained to focus on detail, be critical thinkers, and analyze all facts, angles, circumstances, and outcomes. All of these skills are, obviously, valuable for a novelist. But it is also easy to become too married to rigid structure or formality in one’s writing, which isn’t a great thing, if you’re trying to birth a new story.

I know lots of people like me who went to law school because they secretly just love working with words. There are so many folks out there with a half-written novel, memoir, or screenplay squirreled away in a drawer. I hope these all get finished. You never know.

You talked about Anna Quindlen’s words that made you realize you needed to write, not just want to have written. Can you tell us more about that moment and how it has impacted your writing career?

Sure. This epiphany happened on a random work night in New York. A few friends and I went to a women’s networking event. (I almost didn’t go, as it had been a long day, and I was exhausted.) This event was hosted by the very law firm where I’d worked as a corporate M&A lawyer, like Ingrid, in my novel.

But unlike Ingrid, I hadn’t stayed long and instead joined a smaller media and IP law firm, before accepting an in-house job with a client. That night, the guest speaker was the journalist and novelist Anna Quindlen, whose work I admire.

Someone asked for her advice to aspiring writers, and she said something to the effect of: “Be sure you really want to be a WRITER, versus someone who merely wants to HAVE WRITTEN.” And this just really spoke to me. A-ha! You say you wanna write? Then do it!

It was the best thing anyone could have told me at that moment in my life. I’d been feeling so stuck. I got home to my apartment and immediately reread my manuscript. I was happy and relieved that I still liked it. I was still in love with these characters! And I wanted their stories to get out there.

So I signed myself up for a writing workshop that meets once a week, after work. The words I wrote in that class eventually became The Partner Track. If you’d told me, that night, that those pages would one day be a TV show on Netflix, and be translated into Turkish and French, I wouldn’t have believed it. I still feel a bit like Cinderella at the ball.

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Can you describe your writing routine and how you structure your day to make time for writing? Do you have any daily habits or routines that help you maintain a productive writing schedule?

Ha. Define “routine.” My family and close friends would belly-laugh at me describing my writing “routine” because I’m honestly still figuring it out. The closest I’ve come is writing first thing in the morning (after my kids at school, the recycling is out, and things are as quiet as they’re going to get).

I sit there and try to churn out new words or revise the ones from yesterday. About two hours or 1000 words later, whichever comes first, I’ll get up and find some lunch, before shifting over to the “business” part of my workday. This can mean team Zoom meetings, recording a podcast, responding to emails, and everything in between. At the end of the day, I switch back over to parent mode.

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

Oh. There are so many I can think of.

Stephen King, for one. His book On Writing is still one of the best I’ve read. It offers plenty of practical advice to writers, but is also a moving memoir and meditation on resilience.

Same goes for Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott. I’d listen to any advice she’d care to give me.

I reread each of these books cover to cover, at least once a year. I have very well-worn copies.

And if we’re talking “throughout history,” I’d say Toni Morrison. She’s a hero of mine. She was a single working mom who wrote fiction at night while her kids were asleep! When I first read The Bluest Eye (in high school, at the suggestion of a wise librarian), I was absolutely floored. Until I discovered writers like Toni Morrison, I didn’t even know people could write like that.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite reads?

At the moment, a mile-high stack of books teeters by my bed. It literally fell over one night and startled me awake.

I’m currently reading a wonderful story collection Five Tuesdays In Winter by Lily King. I’m rereading One L by Scott Turow, about his law school days, because people have recently told me that my books are passed around from student to student as a BigLaw Bible the way One L was the classic book about being a first-year, back when I was in school. 

I’m also reading Runaway by Alice Munro and a few of the classic Judy Blume and Roald Dahl books that made me fall in love with words as a kid.

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