Two weeks ago, The Daily spoke with award-winning author Weike Wang, whose debut novel “Chemistry” is a sparse, sharply written and deeply reflective character study of a young woman struggling with pursuing a doctorate in the eponymous field. As the nameless protagonist descends deeper into a downward spiral of anxieties and pressures, “Chemistry” only becomes more measured and precise, a testament to the unique voice of its author. Wang graduated with a degree in Chemistry from Harvard University in 2011 where she later earned a doctorate in public health. She also received her MFA from Boston University in 2011. In a phone interview with the Daily, Wang talked about the bridge between science and the arts, the future of women in STEM, her inspirations and much more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Michigan Daily: Where did you get the inspiration for “Chemistry?”
Weike Wang: I worked in a chem lab as an undergrad. I was a chem major so I had known a lot of, you know, grad students who were unhappy. And I feel like no one really writes about that or talks about that since, obviously, writers mostly write about writers.
TMD: (In your life) you’ve studied chemistry and creative writing and public health — how do you see those as connecting? Or do you even think they’re as fundamentally different as we’re led to believe?
WW: I actually think they are fundamentally different in terms of how they’re being executed, but I do find that you’re always seeking something in both fields. In science they’re seeking something you haven’t discovered yet in nature, but in writing, in art, what I’ve found is you’re trying to capture something or distill something else for the reader. So there’s always that pursuit of finding something or creating something. The creation is a little more there in art — but you still have that in science. Creating new compounds or creating new ideas of doing something. There’s always that idea of creation and clarity of mind which, I think, is important for both fields.
TMD: There are a lot of basic similarities between you and your protagonist, even though of course your paths diverged at a key point. Did you see this character as somewhat external from your experience or was she more rooted in things that actually happened in your life?
WW: Every character that I create is a little bit of me … This character in particular — I mean, the framework especially I just know that world … because I’ve been in it. But nothing that happened to the character actually happened to me … Your life is sort of this framework that you build around. You start off writing what you know, but then you have to imagine everything else.
TMD: I was wondering about the choice to leave the protagonist nameless … What were your intentions there?
WW: One, it was just technically first person and it never really came up. I also didn’t really know what to call her and get into the layer of “why did she have this name?” And for me, with a foreign name, I just didn’t want to deal with the layer of “What does this name mean? Is it an American name? Is it a Chinese name?” That push back and forth. It seemed like an unnecessary conflict in an already complicated situation.
TMD: With your protagonist, the first thing I noticed as a reader is how she feels so inferior surrounded by all these successful people. And I was wondering, do you think that’s reflective of the experience of a lot of women in male-dominated fields like STEM and academia?
WW: Well, one of the things about STEM, having done it for so long, is that I don’t think they’re actually very concerned about gender to be honest. If you do your work, you just do your work. The problem I found in STEM is that the people making the decisions are mostly men because of the history. We sort of have to wait until those people die, it’s the only solution. And then we’re gonna have these young girls who are gonna become the leaders and that will probably help. And I think women in STEM tend to not help each other, so that’s another aspect of it, right? And when I was writing this I wanted to show a different layer to women in STEM. The idea of always encouraging women to go into STEM is good, it’s a good method, yes. But that’s also a really binary method, very black and white. And everything in life is not black and white, so I wanted to give that a little bit more context and texture.
TMD: So wanting to show not just encouraging girls to go into STEM but also showing what happens once they’re in the field?
WW: Yeah, it’s like, go in, but understand that you’re not there like a god to discover the cure to cancer. You’re there to work, and there’s gonna be pitfalls. And this novel is just sort of a spiral out of a pitfall, but not everybody has pitfalls. There are so many girls who are crushing it, but they obviously have bad days so it’s definitely a mix of both, right? To see the good and also the bad for this kind of trajectory.
TMD: What were your main literary influences in writing this book? Or anything that may have inspired the tone? Because you had a really distinct writing style that was really sparse, and kind of almost tense.
WW: I read a lot of Amy Henkle because she was my teacher and … Sigrid Nunez who I worked with at BU (Boston University). I was also reading Amy Bender, Joy Williams, Lydia Davis, Hemingway. The style that speaks to me is generally a little bit sparser. Lean. I don’t like a lot of fat — as you can probably tell from this novel — in my prose, so I really cut away at everything until I get the organization that I want. Which means that sometimes the writing happens, the actual product happens with edits.
TMD: What’s the main thing you want people to take away from your work?
WW: I guess I like when readers learn something about somebody else. I think in this book it’s a lot of science, but in future works maybe about the character, or just something they didn’t know about. An occupation or a trajectory that’s unfamiliar. I tend to like writing about STEM just because it’s a field I’m interested in. And I guess another thing is voice. I really care a lot about finding a voice that fits the story. I don’t really like writing stories that are just telling the plot, so if a reader can appreciate a more language driven, voice driven story that is still readable but isn’t necessarily like Dan Brown where they’re going on crazy adventures. That would be great for me, and for the reader to appreciate a different kind of storytelling.