Brooklyn, New York
Place of Birth:
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology; Amherst College; University of Virginia School of Law
Why did you choose to come to Amherst?
I fell in love with it as soon as I stepped onto campus. I remember thinking this was what I’d always thought “College” would look like. I loved the class I sat in on, was surprised that the professor seemed to know everyone’s actual names. Oh, and Memorial Hill. That view. That sky.
Favorite (most memorable or most influential) class at Amherst:
Reading Gender, Reading Race with Michele Barale; Composition with Helen von Schmidt
Favorite (most memorable or most influential) professor:
Michele Barale and Amrita Basu
While at Amherst, I wrote my senior honors thesis on the intersection of gender and race in the context of Title VII employment discrimination law. So I’ve always been interested in examining that "double-occupancy" outsider status -- that juxtaposition of being not only a woman, but also a person of color. And I’ve always loved a good, juicy workplace story! I’d never thought of it this way until asked this question just now, but I suppose it's fitting that my first novel is the story of a young minority woman trying to succeed in corporate America. So, eighteen years later, and I guess you could say I still haven't moved on from my senior thesis (ha!).
Awards and Prizes:
G. Armour Craig Prize in Prose Composition from the English Department. That was such a thrill for me. (And a few things from my legal career that have nothing to do with being a novelist.)
Oh, there are so many. If I had to narrow them down, I'd say THE REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro for its gorgeous, devastating portrait of quiet restraint; BLACK ICE by Lorene Cary for its moving and clear-eyed account of what it was like being a female minority student breaking barriers in a highly privileged world; and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee because it just takes my breath away: not a single word is wasted.
Favorite Author: Again, so many good books in the world and not enough time. If forced to choose: Harper Lee, Ian McEwan, Jane Austen, Lorrie Moore.
Tips for aspiring writers?
Write the book you wish you could read. You know, the one you can’t find on the shelves at your favorite bookstore. For a new writer, I think it's just as important (maybe even more important) to notice what's not being published as to observe what is. I was not seeing any honest, realistic, contemporary stories being told about how a person of color can remain an authentic self while succeeding in corporate America, or about how race, gender, and class complicate the journey up the corporate ladder. So I decided to write one.
Tell us a bit about your path to becoming an author.
Oh, gosh. How much time have you got? It only took me twelve years! Since I'm also a full-time lawyer, I wrote this novel in fits and starts, at night and on weekends, during precious weeks of hoarded-up vacation. I decided to tear it up and rewrite it nearly from scratch three times. Just jettisoned whole drafts. There were whole years when I just wasn’t working on it at all. Finally, I happened to go to an event where the writer Anna Quindlen was speaking (it was an event hosted by a law firm, ironically) and she sagely pointed out the distinction between people who really want to write, and those who just want to have written. I suddenly realized that she was describing my predicament. In order to be one of the people who had written, I needed to actually write! Enough excuses about having a full-time law job, being too tired by the time I got home from work, being too busy to write, etc. I signed myself up for a “Fiction Writing 101” class that met once a week after work, and the pages I wrote for that class became the seed for this novel. A decade later, I’m thrilled this book is now out in the world. Truly, it has been a labor of love.
Helen Wan '95 is Associate General Counsel at the Time Inc. division of Time Warner Inc., and the author of the just-released novel THE PARTNER TRACK (St. Martin's Press), about a young Asian American woman up for partner at a prestigious white-shoe corporate law firm, and how race, gender, and class politics -- and outsider status -- complicate the journeys of talented young men and women as they ascend the corporate ladder. Helen's writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and other publications. Prior to becoming in-house counsel at Time, Helen practiced corporate and media law at firms in New York. A graduate of Amherst College and The University of Virginia School of Law, Helen lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and their young son.