NUMBER ONE CHINESE RESTAURANT

PROJECT TYPE:

NOVEL PUBLISHED BY HENRY HOLT 

SUMMARY:

A FICTIONAL BEHIND-THE-SCENES OF AN UPSCALE CHINESE RESTAURANT

PUBLISHED:

JUNE 19, 2018

ROLE:

DEBUT AUTHOR

 

HOW IT ALL STARTED

My background in creative writing has been a huge influence in why I'm in User Experience now. Let me tell you the story of how I wrote my first novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant, in order to showcase the skills that make me uniquely advantaged to meet and advocate for user needs.


It all starts with the summer of 2013, when I got a job waiting tables at an upscale Peking duck restaurant outside DC. 


 

CONTEXTUAL INQUIRY (SORT OF)

While I scrambled to adjust to the punishing work cycle of 12-hour services, six days a week, I also found my co-workers deeply compelling. I had very little in common with them, as I was 1) thirty years younger than every employee, 2) the only American-born Chinese person, and 3) spoke English as a first language. In order to connect with them, I watched how they worked, how they interacted with each other, how they humored the ill-tempered boss. My empathy drove my curiosity.


I wanted to know: How does a person shape an inhospitable environment into a second home? And what do they have to give up in return?

 

I ONLY LASTED FOUR WEEKS...

In that time, I observed my co-workers and absorbed their experiences into my head and body. I knew not only the physical pains they complained about, but also the emotional pain—the loneliness, the alienation from customers, the isolation from family—that they quietly endured.


When I moved to Ann Arbor for the MFA program, I knew this was the novel I wanted to write. 

 

INTERVIEWING AN EXPERT

As I began working on the novel, I quickly understood that the underlying tragedy would be a fire that would destroy the restaurant. I had no idea; however, what a restaurant fire even looked like, let alone how to set one intentionally. Around this time, I remembered that months ago, a mysterious fire had engulfed a local pizzeria on a freezing January night...

 

THE FIRE INSPECTOR

Through an online article​, I found Kathleen Summersgill, the fire inspector who worked the Happy's Pizza case, and reached out to see if she'd let me interview her about how to set a fire. Though I'd brought a draft of my novel, we spent the bulk of the interview talking generally about her experience investigating fires. I completely rewrote the fire chapter as a result of her expert testimony.

 

SPEAKING OF REWRITING

I wrote over 30 drafts of the novel and a part of me feels that I could have written even more! I believe iteration is an incredibly important part of any creative process, from writing, to UX design, to making the next hit cereal jingle. Influencing my iterations were the invaluable feedback I received from first readers, teachers, my agent, and my editor. Without their constructive criticism, my novel would not have been as successful with readers as it ended up being.

 

STORYTELLING SPREADS UNDERSTANDING

Most meaningful of all have been the service workers who have come up to me at readings, thanking me for capturing their experience and advocating for the unique issues they face. I'd set out to connect with my co-workers, and ended up connecting with an entire community of people.

Number One Bestseller at Literati
Women's Prize Finalist
NPR Best Book of 2018
Center for Fiction Finalist
Cover of the New York Times Books Review
Bookseller at Politics and Prose
 

FINAL TAKEAWAYS

  • Empathy and storytelling connects people in any field

  • Iteration is necessary to any kind of creative design

  • Critical feedback is necessary to growth

 

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