Interview with Author Helen Wan

Headshot of author Helen Wan

When I was introduced to author Helen Wan, I’d just moved to the same town and was on the look out for literary connections and community. We met up for a coffee and chatted all-things writing. Helen spoke about her publishing journey and how baffled she was (even though she shouldn’t be) by the success of her debut novel, and the fact that it was turned into a Netflix production. She’s extremely humble, warm, and kind, and I’m so pleased to publish her interview on Aspiring Author for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

How did you get into writing?

Serendipity, and by growing up as a book nerd. I adored reading and writing as a kid (I was the type of kid who hid from the world in the fiction stacks at the local library), idolized authors, and majored in English/Political Science in college, but if you’d tried to tell me back then that I would actually be a published novelist myself someday, with a TV show based on my book, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Describe your publishing journey

Ha. A long and winding road! As for many fellow writers I know, the road to publication is often paved with rejection and heartbreak, impostor syndrome, many stops and starts, a lot of close-but-no-cigar angst, awkward first drafts, better second drafts, even better third drafts, until, finally, a manuscript emerges that seems to click and flow and sound authentic. Being an author makes you grow a much thicker skin. But then, one day, if you’ve been persistent, patient, and perhaps a little bit lucky, there’s a thrilling, unforgettable phone call from your agent. And that’s a pretty damn good day.

What was the inspiration behind your debut novel, The Partner Track, and how closely was it based on your own experiences as a lawyer?

I get asked this question a lot. While The Partner Track is decidedly a novel, and not autobiography, it is of course reflective of my personal observations and experiences from when I was a freshly minted law grad with a lot of student debt to pay off, and moved to New York to start my first job in the M&A department of a “Biglaw” firm. There weren’t very many other Asian-American lawyers in “Biglaw” back then, much less Asian-American female lawyers. I started noticing certain curious patterns, like which new recruits were getting invited along on important client pitches and lunches, given the plum assignments, being invited to play squash at the private midtown clubs, being paired with powerful mentors in the office. The Partner Track is both an insider/outsider story and a fish-out-of-water tale, inspired by things experienced not just by me but by many of my friends and classmates from both college and law school. I try to write as authentically as possible about that uncomfortable feeling of navigating a completely alien culture, and wanting desperately to belong.

The Partner Track by author Helen Wan

You had some pushback from publishers on your main character, Ingrid. Why was it so pivotal for you to tell the story of an Asian American woman?

As you know, aspiring writers are often told to “write what you know!” But, personally, I think the better advice is to write the book you wish you could see on the shelves of your favorite library or bookstore. So I set out to do exactly that. I just wasn’t seeing any books like this out there in the world—a workplace tale, about staying true to one’s personal and cultural values while chasing success and pursuing The American Dream, as observed through this particular lens, and told in the voice of a strong, ambitious Asian American woman. So I decided to write one myself.

Who are your literary inspirations? Favorite books?

Oh, there are so many writers and artists who inspire me! To name a few: Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye is one of my favorite books, one I reread every year), Kazuo Ishiguro, Mary Oliver, Alice Munro, Zora Neale Hurston, Philip Roth, Elizabeth Strout, Ian McEwan… and anything at all by Claire Keegan.

You experienced every debut author’s dream: Netflix adapted The Partner Track for television! How did you react to the news?

Oh, I was a blubbering mess, standing there in my kitchen, as my agent delivered this astonishing news. I didn’t even believe it at first, as I had started writing this novel so many years before, scribbling on the subway, on my way to and from work. And now Netflix wanted to adapt it for television? Impossible! As the news sank in, I laughed, I cried. My kid said, “Yay, Mom!” And then my family and I went to a diner, where I had an omelet.

What is your daily writing routine?

Haha! I don’t understand this question. What is a “daily writing routine”? My close writer friends would belly-laugh at me answering this, because so many of us are honestly still figuring it out. The closest I’ve come to a “routine” is to get up early and write first thing in the morning (while the house is still quiet and my time feels like my own and I can think in peace). I sit there in the semi-darkness and try to churn out new raw pages or revise those from the previous day. About two hours or 1,000 words later, if things are going pretty well, I’ll get up for a short break, before shifting over to the “business” part of my workday. This can mean many Zoom meetings, recording a podcast interview, grading a set of student papers, responding to email correspondence, calendaring an author talk, or anything in between. At the end of the workday, I switch back over to family mode.

Do you think that women still have to choose between a career or a happy ending?

Interestingly put. While I don’t think the choice is quite that stark, I do think that women have to make many sacrifices, yes, if we are to persevere and attain success at something we love and are passionate about, especially if that professional goal is something that’s at all off the beaten path. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the term “having it all” because I think that’s impossible, and imposes an unrealistic and stress-inducing bar on everyone, not just women.

What books on writing do you recommend?

One of my favorites is On Writing by Stephen King. It offers plenty of practical strategies and advice for aspiring fiction writers, but is also a moving memoir and meditation on resilience in general. Another is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I’d listen to any advice she’d care to give me. I also love Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. I reread these books at least once a year. I have well-worn, dog-eared copies of all three.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Talk to me about how important it is to encourage and celebrate, rather than compete with, fellow writers

It is of course incredibly important to encourage, celebrate, and support fellow writers! I think that writers and artists of all types often get a bad rap as being obsessively jealous or competitive. But in general, I’ve found the opposite to be true. Maybe it’s been luck, or simply self-selection in terms of the other human beings I like to surround myself with, but I have genuinely found writers and other fellow book nerds to be some of the kindest and most generous people I know (generous with things like advice and encouragement and inspiration and ideas and careful reads and helpful, candid, constructive criticism gently delivered).

What are you working on next?

I’m at work on a new novel now, one I’m very excited about. It isn’t a direct sequel to The Partner Track, but it is a deeper dive into the themes of our complicated relationship with ambition, and our personal definition of “success,” and how all of this is influenced by things like our family histories, race, gender, age, educational background, privilege and socioeconomic class, and the personal and professional relationships that cross our paths. It is also an American Dream story. I’m in love with these characters, and the writing feels grand, and lately I’ll look up from the screen and hours have passed without my noticing, and this is the best stage of writing a novel there is.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors looking to get published?

The sooner you start treating your writing like a real thing (meaning, a real commitment to yourself that you keep, like you would a doctor or dentist appointment or a client meeting for your day job), instead of something that always takes the back burner, after all of the other Life Stuff gets done, the sooner you will start to see the pages come, and the sooner you will start to think of yourself as a writer. And that, I think, makes all the difference.

About Author Helen Wan

Helen’s novel began as subway scribblings on her way to and from work. The book is now taught in law schools and colleges, used in DEIB trainings by companies and law firms, and has been translated into several languages. The Partner Track was also recently adapted for television, and is now an original TV series on Netflix.

A graduate of Amherst College and The University of Virginia School of Law, Helen has also written for The Washington Post,, The Huffington Post, and The Daily Beast. She currently teaches a Media + IP Law course at NYU and has taught creative writing classes in and around NYC. Before becoming a writer, Helen practiced law at both law firms and as in-house counsel at large media companies in New York.

When she isn’t writing, reading, or lawyering, Helen enjoys Hitchcock films, SNL, and making her kid laugh. A native of California, she now lives outside of NYC, where she is currently at work on a new book.

She can be reached at her author website,, or on Instagram or X as @helenwan1.

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