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Promises from Shanghai

A short story written in a UW–Madison fiction workshop grew into a promising first novel for Lucy Tan MFA’16

Fatoumata Ceesay ’19
November 07, 2019

Lucy Tan MFA’16 will never forget writing the first draft of her novel, What We Were Promised, on the third floor of Helen C. White. “The frozen lake was awe inspiring, and the solitude I felt during those hours were very productive for me,” she recalls.

Tan came to UW–Madison for an MFA through the creative writing program in 2014. During her time in Madison, she came to realize and appreciate the city’s lively charm that made it a wonderful place for a writer to be: the abundance of readings, book events, and coffee shops were memorable. She missed it all when she left and was happy to come back when she was offered the 2018–19 James C. McCreight Fellowship in fiction through the UW’s creative writing department.

How did it feel to come back to Madison?

I missed [Madison] after I graduated, and when I got the fellowship, it felt like such a gift to be able to come back. The Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing fellowships have a long history of supporting writers who go on to have extraordinary careers, and that was part of the draw, too.

Your first novel, What We Were Promised, started as a short story for a graduate workshop on campus. What inspired you to turn it into a full-length novel?

I soon found that I was interested in the fictional world and the characters on a level deeper than what I could explore in the short story form. I spent two years after college living in Shanghai with my parents, who were working there as American expats. Having visited China since I was a child, I was surprised by how much the country had changed. In Shanghai, Pudong New District was crowded with skyscrapers, and the smog was sometimes thick enough to obscure everything beyond a 100-meter radius of where you were standing. I grew up middle-class, and it was a culture shock to find myself living in a luxury serviced apartment, an expense covered by my dad’s job. We had maid service every day and ate catered breakfast in the resident lounge. It was in this serviced apartment that I met many of the people who would inspire characters in my novel — housekeepers and waiters, drivers and tenants. The class and cultural divides were astonishing, and I wanted to capture this moment in time, which felt like another turning point in the span of China’s long history. I wrote What We Were Promised from multiple perspectives as an attempt to capture the breadth of experience in modern China today.

Your UW friends and teachers were some of the story’s first readers. How did they help shape it?

I’m so grateful for their support, and for the support of so many Wisconsin readers and writers who have invited me into their homes for book club gatherings, read and reviewed my novel, nominated it for reading lists, and recommended it to their friends.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a second novel, which is set in Wisconsin — but that’s all I can say at this point. [Since my first novel was released], it has felt just like that: a release. Because I’ve wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember, I feel that much of my pent-up creative energy has finally been spent. On the one hand, this is nice because it frees up my mind for other writing projects. On the other hand, my days have also been occupied with traveling and book events, which means I haven't had as much time to do what I love most, which is to write.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers of color?

Immerse yourself in a writing community that supports you. Take stock of the resources at your disposal — scholarships, fellowships, et cetera — and apply, apply, apply! While it may seem that there are formulas for success, remember that the world is most in need of stories that have yet to be told. Your differences are your strength, not your weakness.

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