LIVINGSTON, NJ — Lucy Tan, a Livingston High School Class of 2006 alumna who discovered a passion for creative writing as a first grader at Hillside Elementary School, recently released her debut novel “What We Were Promised.” A month after its release, Tan’s novel is now prominently displayed in Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers section.
Tan knew from a very young age that she would write a book someday—she just didn’t know when or how. She specifically recalls being in first grade, when storytelling was her favorite part of the day, as well as reading “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison in high school and thinking, “This is magical and somebody did this—this is somebody’s job.”
“It was close to magic for me because it was creating sensations in my brain that weren’t there before,” she said. “So I thought, ‘how do I do that?’ And I think that planted the seed in my head.”
Following her graduation from New York University (NYU), Tan decided to join her parents in China, where she became acquainted with the city of Shanghai through her work in various industries. While in Shanghai, Tan’s job titles ranged from English teacher to copy editor, to co-host on a bilingual talk show.
“I think the writer in me was really interested in exploring all these different workplaces and subcultures,” said Tan. “I didn’t know that I was gathering all this information, because I was also just exploring the city. Eventually I decided that it wasn’t a place that I could call home permanently and I returned to New York, but I came back a richer person.”
While earning a Master of Fine Arts from University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), Tan took the leap and began writing her novel. Shanghai ultimately became the inspiration for “What We Were Promised,” which focuses on a Chinese-American family that moves back to China after being abroad for many years and finds that the country has changed immensely.
“Two things happen that instigate a flurry of events,” said Tan. “One is that the wife’s bracelet goes missing from her room and two maids are accused of having taken it. The other thing that happens is a long-lost brother comes home after being missing for many years and he brings with him an unraveling of secrets.”
In addition to its focus on class divisions in China and how much the country has changed over the last few decades, “What We Were Promised” is also a story about “the ways in which our pasts continue to affect our futures.”
“I think that the underlying message is one of love and the novel examines different types of love: family love, romantic love, old love, new love and love that has its seasoned friendship that becomes something else,” said Tan. “So the overall message that I would want readers to take away from it is that we should treasure the types of love that we have in whatever form it shows itself to us and to not continually think about the types of love that we are missing.”
Tan’s experience in Shanghai also inspired the character that she feels the most connected to: the underdog. While living in the city, Tan became acquainted with a waitress who “didn’t come from a lot” and moved to Shanghai in order to make money to send back to her parents.
“She was one of the smartest, most hardworking, attentive people that I have ever met,” said Tan. “Her life stories were astonishing, and I think that resilience and intelligence and the hardworking attitude that she embodied really made me want to tell a story that was like hers.”
The story is told from the perspectives of multiple characters who are experiencing what Tan calls “the reverse-immigrant experience.” She said that weaving the inner lives of the individuals she had created all together was the most difficult technical aspect of writing her first novel.
“[The characters] all have to have their individual story arcs within the overall narrative of the novel,” said Tan. “Creating those individuals and then braiding them together into a joint-narrative was pretty technically challenging for me.”
But as hard as it was for Tan to put together the first draft, she also said that first draft was the most fun.
“For so long, this is a world that you’re creating and it’s so new to you, and you’re the only person who knows about it,” she said. “That feeling of budding magic is one that I love. I remember returning to it every day and feeling the story grow a little bit fuller, and the world becoming more real, and the people becoming more real and that was really fun for me.”
She added that a major highlight since publishing her book was returning to Livingston last month to speak at the public library, where her mother was a librarian for 10 years.
“The Livingston event was a standout moment because I haven’t been back [to Livingston] in a really long time,” she said. “Most of my friends are now in the city or have moved away—so I was expecting maybe 20 people to show up and instead there were like 100. I walked into that room and I saw all these faces that I knew from so long ago and recognized some of my former classmates in their mothers’ faces, and I just had such a flood of emotion. It was such a surreal experience as I was walking up to the podium and trying not to cry.”
Tan added that she was not only surprised by the turnout at the event, but also extremely moved by the amount of support she has received from her hometown.
“Hands-down, the hardest part of writing a novel for the first time is convincing yourself that you can do it,” said Tan. “There’s pretty much a craft solution for every technical issue, but the thing that nobody can do for you and that there really is no solution for is the belief that after pages and pages of under-developed writing that you’re producing, that something good is going to be at the end of it. It’s such an exercise of faith, and I think that that emotional aspect of writing is probably the most difficult for me.”
Since the release of “What We Were Promised,” Tan has moved out of her NYC apartment to join the UW faculty as the 2018-2019 James C. McCreight Fellow in Fiction. While living in Madison, Wis., Tan will be teaching fiction writing to college students while also working on her next novel.
“I’m excited to get back into it in Madison because [my second novel] is actually set in Wisconsin,” she said. “It’s the perfect place to write and research while I work on the second novel.”
Her first novel was recently named a "Best Book of Summer" by Publishers Weekly as well as one of Huffington Post's 60 Most Anticipated Reads of 2018. In Livingston, English teacher Susan Rothbard selected “What We Were Promised” as her LHS Summer Reading Lollapalooza title for this year.
Tan has also previously been published in journals such as Asia Literary Review, Sixfold and Ploughshares, where she was the fiction winner of the 2015 Emerging Writer's Contest.
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