Author Jade Chang On Writing New Kinds of Immigrant Stories

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In her debut novel The Wangs vs. the World, Jade Chang takes on the American Dream. Set during the financial crisis of 2008, the novel tells the story of the Wangs, a wealthy Chinese-American family, who lose their fortune and take an adventure-filled road trip across America. It’s a heartfelt and sharply funny exploration of the American immigrant experience, and the trail of broken dreams and empty bank accounts left behind by the financial crisis. In the video above, Chang explains why she wanted to tell a new kind of immigrant story, and advises first-time writers to embrace their ambition. Check out the interview highlights below for more insights from Chang.

mental_floss: Why set the book during the financial crisis?

Chang: I really wanted to set the book during the financial crash of 2008 because it was such an electric time in both a horrible and fascinating way. I was working at a luxury magazine in 2008, and I got a real front row seat to some very wealthy people freaking out. During that time, I went to this party for the Trump Tower Dubai, which never ended up being built. The party was held in a very lavish mansion in Bel Air, where Cirque du Soleil performers on stilts were mingling in the crowd, and Wolfgang Puck was throwing gold dust on hors d’oeuvres. After the party, as I was driving away, I just felt like it was the beginning of the end—like the country was about to collapse under the weight of its own excess.

mental_floss: Why write about a road trip?

Chang: I’ve always been interested in our American idea of the “Great American Novel.” It’s a thing we love to talk about, and puzzle about, and declare someone the winner of. I think that was one of the things that moved me to want to write a novel that literally tried to take in all of America. I was a journalist for a while before I wrote this, and I wrote a lot about cities, and how we live in them. I was interested in seeing this family interact with different cities across the country. I also just love a road trip book.

mental_floss: The novel packs in all of these really diverse topics, ranging from the financial crisis to stand-up comedy and contemporary art. It also travels clear across America, from Bel Air to Upstate New York. How did you research the different topics you address in the book?

Chang: I did do a lot of research for this book, in part because I just love research. I enjoy falling into a kind of Google whirlpool, where one piece of information leads to a revelation about something else. I did a ton of research for each of the “worlds” I was writing about. I think I’ve always wanted to be a comedian of some sort—it feels like such a fun, but also brave and vulnerable, thing to do—so I watched a lot of stand-up comedy, and took improv classes.

For the financial stuff, I’ve always been interested in different systems of valuation, and how we collectively decide on value, sometimes arbitrarily. I think that applies to both the finance and art worlds. I did a lot of non-fiction reading about both of those worlds, and tiny things would spin into character and story.

I also did a lot of research that wasn’t necessarily as high-minded. For example, I’ve been to every place I wrote about, but I haven’t driven that exact route, and I wanted to know all of the highways I was writing about. So I found this community of long haul truckers who make dashboard camera videos of their routes and put them on YouTube. They’ll post a video that’s like “Austin to New Orleans: My Route,” and then people comment and are like, “Awesome route, dude.” I watched a lot of those. I’ve seen many miles of American highway speed by me on YouTube.

Watch 10 Celebrities Read Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven"

by James Carling, Urbancanvas // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
by James Carling, Urbancanvas // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” published in 1845, has been inspiring fellow artists for nearly 175 years. From Christopher Walken to Neil Gaiman, here are 10 celebrities putting their own spin on Poe's iconic verses.

1. Neil Gaiman

Literary wunderkind Neil Gaiman is putting his love of all things creepy to good use this year by teaming up with Worldbuilders—a self-described "geek-centered nonprofit supporting humanitarian efforts worldwide"—to assist their group in their fundraising efforts by staging his own candelit reading of Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem.  

2. Christopher Walken

Everyone does a Christopher Walken impression, but rarely do they come close to matching the unique inflection of the real deal. For the Poe tribute album Closed on Account of Rabies (1997), Walken recited the classic narrative poem as various haunting sound effects moaned and whistled in the background.

3. James Earl Jones

There are very few actors whose voices are as iconic as James Earl Jones's. From Darth Vader in the Star Wars films to Mufasa in The Lion King, you always know when the veteran thespian—who had a stutter as a child—is behind a character because of the deep, theatrical boom of his voice.

4. Vincent Price

The legendary actor—and the creepy voice in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—needs no introduction to horror fans (or to those who remember the old Tilex mildew remover commercials). The clip above isn't the only time that Price was recorded reciting Poe’s poetry. If you want more, check out the hour-long Halloween special An Evening Of Edgar Allan Poe (1970), during which Price reads “The Tell-Tale Heart,” "The Sphinx," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Pit and the Pendulum."

5. Sir Christopher Lee

Known to younger generations as the actor who played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings franchise, the late Christopher Lee has more than 270 acting credits to his name, dating all the way back to the mid-1940s. Of those credits, Lee has lent his skills and voice to numerous legendary characters, including Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, and Dracula several times over.

6. Stan Lee

If Stan Lee hadn't gone into comics, he could very well have been a voice actor—at least based on his 2008 reading of "The Raven," a poem he said he at one point had memorized.

7. William Shatner

To the world, William Shatner will always be Captain Kirk. The character is so closely tied to the actor’s personality that it’s hard not to see them as the same person, which makes it harder to watch—or take seriously—a young Shatner reciting “The Raven” on stage during Dick Clark’s Magical, Musical Halloween (1983).

8. John Astin

Known primarily for the role of Gomez Addams in the television show The Addams Family, John Astin’s eyes and mustache add to the creepiness (and unintentional humor) of his dramatic reading of "The Raven," as he stands in full costume.

9. Basil Rathbone

Many recordings were made of this Shakespearean stage actor and star of many a Sherlock Holmes movie as he read the works of authors like Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and, of course, Poe. In the recording above, his voice fluctuates from calm and almost musical to loud and quite terrifying as things begin to escalate between man and bird.

10. Tay Zonday

If you're familiar with the Internet at all, then you probably know Tay Zonday. The deep-voiced YouTube celebrity rose to Internet fame with his song and music video "Chocolate Rain" back in 2007, and he has been using his natural voice to delight and unsettle audiences ever since.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

28 Amazing Facts About Theodore Roosevelt

Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy loves Teddy Roosevelt. Like: really, REALLY loves Teddy Roosevelt.
Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy loves Teddy Roosevelt. Like: really, REALLY loves Teddy Roosevelt.
Mental Floss

If there is one thing to know about Teddy Roosevelt, it is that you can never know too many things about Teddy Roosevelt. The nation's 26th president was also an author, rancher, big game hunter, martial arts expert, and savage insult machine.

Join Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy as she breaks down some of the most fascinating aspects of Roosevelt's life, then be sure to check out History Vs., our new podcast (also hosted by Erin, a noted TedHead), which explores the little-known stories behind some of history's greatest figures. (First up: Teddy Roosevelt. But you probably knew that.)

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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