Rachel Khong on the Power and Potential of Not Knowing

I first met Rachel Khong in Fall 2018, when I spent a few days as Writer in Residence at the Ruby, the collective/workspace she had founded earlier that year in San Francisco’s Mission District. Khong’s debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, is a book I’ve given to friends and relatives with wildly different reading tastes, always confident that they will love it—and I will be doing the same with her new novel, Real Americans (Knopf, April 30).

Real Americans follows Lily, the daughter of parents who fled China during the Cultural Revolution, who finds unexpected love in New York at the turn of the millennium; her son Nick, who grows up in the Pacific Northwest wondering about the father he doesn’t know; and May, Lily’s mother, a scientist whose gambles and choices on behalf of her family threaten to tear it apart. Spanning five decades, the book is an exploration of what makes us who we are and a challenge to some of the most stubborn and corrosive myths our country tells about itself—“stories I was raised with, that I think I’m still trying to exorcize a bit,” Khong told me.

Khong’s clear, engaging writing can often seem effortless. But with Real Americans, she said, “I realized just how much devotion goes into writing a book.” While she worked on her first novel in “snatches,” finding time for it whenever she could, finishing this one required her to center her writing in a new way. Last month, we chatted about what drives her to write, the role research plays in her creative process, the essentiality of writing community, and the ways in which we imagine but cannot fully know each other’s stories—or even our own.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Nicole Chung: Thanks for making time to talk with me, Rachel. I know you moved not long ago, and I’ve been wondering what that transition has meant for your writing practice.

There’s always, I think, a fundamental mystery to other people.

Rachel Khong: I just moved to LA last July. There was the physical location change, and then there was the other move away from day-to-day operations at The Ruby at the end of 2021. I was so proud of what I made at The Ruby. And it’s still going; they’re still doing great things. It was so much work, you know; I was in charge and handling things day to day, and found that I could not finish the book.

You know what it’s like—writing a book is really hard; it just takes a lot of time. I needed time to go to residences and just fully immerse myself in it. I really value the community at the Ruby, and it was a hard thing to step away from that and the dailyness of it. But I also needed to finish the book. I grew up near Los Angeles and my family is still here, so that was the other part of the decision to come here.

NC: I get what you’re saying about the need to focus on writing in a different way.

RK: That’s what it was, exactly…I’ve always just squeezed writing into the smallest portion of my day. I thought oh, these other things are important because they’re helpful to other people, and writing felt more abstract—like, maybe this will be helpful to somebody down the line, but for now it almost feels indulgent. It was a really big step for me to say, “I’m just going to focus on my writing because that’s what I feel like I need to do.”

At first it was just kind of like, oh my God, nobody’s emailing me; that means what I’m doing doesn’t matter. There’s a way in which email sort of makes you feel important. And I think I’ve now fully moved away from that, where I would prefer if nobody emailed me.

It required this realignment of my perspective—remembering that this is actually what I want to do, and I want to commit to it. It shouldn’t just be this thing that I squeeze in whenever I can. It can be the focus of my life.

NC: I know you were part of an active writing group in the Bay Area, and then there was everyone who came to The Ruby, too. In terms of getting this book done, you mentioned residencies, having time to focus—did community also play a big role?

RK: It’s always a balance, right? You need to be alone and focus in order to write a book. But I also think writing is such a long process. And it’s really, really easy to feel discouraged during that process. It’s vital to have other writers in your life, people who are in the trenches with you and know what it’s like to be working every day on this thing that might still take many more years to be finished. I think with this book, way more than my first book, community was so important—with the first book, I was really secretive about it. It was almost like, I can’t tell anybody I’m writing this novel. It’s so embarrassing that I’m writing this novel. With this book, it was like, okay, I’m a writer. I know that I’m a writer. Finding community around that was important.

In our culture, I think we’re so oriented toward the finished product, the thing you can talk about and sell. But writing is really so much more about the day-to-day work. You know, one of the people that was crucial to this book was my friend Shruti Swamy, a novelist, who lived close to me in San Francisco—we would go on walks in the evenings, and sometimes we’d talk about writing and reading, but sometimes we’d just talk about whatever. We were both working on longer projects that we wouldn’t show each other for a while, but it was so valuable to know that we were in it together.

NC: When did you first start working on this book?

RK: December 2016 is when I started writing Lily’s section of the book. It was right after the election. Goodbye, Vitamin was coming out in July 2017. I wanted to write something new, but didn’t have any ideas for what the novel was going to be—I just started writing, and it turned out to be Lily’s voice and her perspective. I kind of thought it was a short story at first, but then it kept accumulating and getting more complicated.

And then I saw the themes that were in the air at the time after the election… I was thinking about things like identity and power and what it meant to be an American, what it meant to belong somewhere, and so I put those things into the book. It’s interesting to me that I worked on it for all these years and now there’s another election coming up. So many of the things that I was thinking about then I’m still thinking about now.

NC: So much of this novel is about the stories many Americans like to tell about ourselves, especially about hard work and exceptionalism and achievement. The title reflects that, and it’s also a bit provocative. How did you decide on it?

RK: The title first came up in one of the character sections—just that phrase: “real Americans.” I think it was also a phrase that Donald Trump had used. I thought, oh, that might be the title, and then immediately I was like, no, I don’t want that to be the title! Because it’s so big, it feels so weighty, and it does feel a little bit provocative to have “American” in the title. The word “real” is so fraught. I almost wondered if the book could live up to that. But it also felt perfect to me, because for so many of the characters, the concept of “realness” comes up all the time.

I think about that a lot myself. My family came to America from Malaysia when I was two years old. I feel fully American, because I don’t have a memory of Malaysia or know what it would have been like to grow up in Malaysia. Whenever I go back, I feel like I don’t quite belong. But at the same time, people still have this idea of “American” as a white person. So that question of “realness” is something I’ve thought about a lot. When writing the book, I also thought, do I feel “real Chinese” enough to write this? I had to research and learn about the Chinese history in the book; I didn’t have personal experience or relatives who had gone through these things. It was a creation, hewing to history, but something that I wasn’t even sure I was entitled to write. And so that word, “real,” was always a part of this book.

NC: You just mentioned research, which I wanted to ask you about; it’s obvious that you did a lot of research—into history, science, genetics—while writing this book. Did that process help you figure out who these characters were?

RK: Yes, for me research is always part of the imaginative process. I didn’t quite know what the book was going to be until pretty late in the process, but I knew it had to do with science. You know the time blips that characters have—like Lily experiences on the first page? I didn’t know what that was for a long time, so I was doing all this research to try to understand whether there could be a scientific explanation for it. Through research, I learned more about who the characters were…I was able to see them more clearly. Details from my research would spark my imagination and make me wonder about the characters—like, I thought this character was going in this direction, but maybe it’s more true to the time period and also to this person to have a different experience.

NC: I’m trying to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but much of the plot revolves around the work of scientists trying to cure inheritable diseases—and then they essentially go too far, driven by ambition and a desire to change the world and not a small amount of hubris. Which, again: America. And they’re also driven by this fierce love for their families, wanting to control the uncontrollable in the hope that their children will have quote-unquote “good” lives. So as you’re writing, you’re doing all this research, grappling with these big questions about what it means to be American, to seek success, to try to take care of your family. Was there anything that you found especially helpful in bringing all these themes together?

Whenever I start a book, I’m trying to do something that I don’t really know I can do.

RK: I love that you brought all of that up. This book is so much about what we don’t know about one another. You can see somebody and make assumptions based on what they look like, how they dress, how they appear to you, but you don’t really know anything about their life. I think that even within families, between parents and children, there’s so much that we don’t know or understand about one another. Telling stories is one way of bridging the gap a little bit, but it doesn’t do it entirely. There’s always, I think, a fundamental mystery to other people.

And we’re unknowable even to ourselves, right? We don’t completely understand our motivations, why we do what we do. The way we’re formed as people comes from so many inputs—the families we’re born to, the culture and period of time we’re raised in, the history that we’re living through. So I think this book is really about all the things that make us who we are, and the fact that we don’t understand everything.

A lot of scientific progress is motivated by these very good intentions, people hoping the best for other people. But as you’re making decisions for other people, it’s just impossible. You’re going to harm them in the process, because you just don’t understand them completely. And how could you, when we can’t even really understand ourselves? I think that’s where all of the themes overlap. Who gets to make decisions for other people? Powerful people and powerful systems have so much control over our lives. We can feel helpless, without agency, but there are still things we can control. I think a lot of that is how we treat other people, and acknowledging all the things we don’t know about one another.

NC: Right—and in a very real sense, while there’s more information than ever available to us now, it’s harder and harder to tell what’s true.

RK: Exactly.

NC: I’m glad you brought up the things we can’t know about each other, those gaps in context and understanding, because I was very interested in how Real Americans treats memory and storytelling. I’m thinking of Nick learning about May, or May observing things about Nick and Lily—sometimes they answer questions we have about other characters’ stories, and sometimes their narratives seem contradictory. How did you think about the relationship between the stories your characters tell about themselves, and the stories others tell about them?

RK: We all have our own narratives, our own perspectives, and they are different from other people’s. That’s something that has always fascinated me, even with my first book—the fact that two people can be in the same room, experience the same things, and have completely different recollections. And I think that’s always been a little bit troubling to me, the fact that memory can’t be perfect and there are always different accounts that don’t completely align: How do we exist in relationships when this material that we have to work with—memory—is so flimsy it’s not factual?

That carries over to this book. You see it playing out in how one person presents something versus how another character experienced the same thing. I never wanted it to be too far from mind that all of these experiences are subjective. And ultimately that’s okay—it’s the moments of connection that matter, and it’s kind of amazing that connection does happen despite all that.

NC: I am curious, in part because this book is so wildly different from your last, what shifts you’ve experienced in your writing over time. How do you think you’ve changed as a writer?

RK: With each book, it almost feels like different people wrote them. Between beginning Goodbye, Vitamin and finishing it, I felt those people were worlds apart. And then between beginning Real Americans and finishing it, so much happened—the pandemic happened—and I really did feel changed as a person.

The process of writing the two books was also different because my life was different. I started Goodbye, Vitamin in grad school. Then I was working restaurant jobs, and then at Lucky Peach. I wrote it in snatches, when I could, on weekends or after work. I would focus on little sections at a time. I think that’s reflected in the book itself, because it’s sort of fragmented and daily and within a very compressed period of time. With Real Americans, I wanted to give myself the challenge of writing a more traditional-appearing narrative—it’s not fragments, it’s chapters and longer scenes.

Whenever I start a book, I’m trying to do something that I don’t really know I can do. I’m not certain that I can pull it off. The hope is that I will: I will change along with the book, and become a person who’s capable of finishing it; who acquires the skill it takes in order to write the book. That’s how this book came to be. I know it’s not this way for everyone, but for me this book was so much about writing every day, coming to the text every day as a slightly different person, being patient with myself, and trusting in my own abilities. That feels like a thing you have to develop in yourself—it’s not supernatural, at least for me, and it’s not a given.

NC: I’m nodding along because I relate to writing your first book in fragments—almost like you’re getting away with something—and then having the second require so much more of you, including a daily practice. You mentioned that you kind of find out what a book is about and learn that you can do it by trying, which is a great short description of writing, actually. That leads me to another question—I’m wondering if there’s something you’d really like to try in your writing, whether it’s a different structure or subject or theme you haven’t had a chance to explore yet? This isn’t a “What are you working on next?” question; it’s more “What are you still really curious about?”

RK: I have sort of started working on my next project. I can’t even call it a book yet. I think the challenge with that project, and what’s really interesting to me, is the question of what makes us care about characters in a story. The next book centers a tragedy, and I’m trying to see how to make that tragedy feel more personal within these individual stories and individual lives. I’m always interested in what makes us begin to care.

As a writer, there are so many things I feel not great at. I think that’s always where I try to go next: I want to try to hone this skill, or see if I can prove my own doubts wrong.

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