John C. Zacharis Award
Ploughshares is pleased to present Weike Wang with the twenty-seventh annual John C. Zacharis Award for her novel Chemistry (Knopf, 2017). The $1,500 award, which is named after a former president of Emerson College, honors the best debut book by a Ploughshares writer, and alternates annually between poetry and fiction.
This year’s judge was Ladette Randolph, Ploughshares’ Editor-in-chief. About the book, Randolph says: “In her brilliant debut novel, Chemistry, Weike Wang tells the quintessential American coming-of-age-in-an-immigrant-family story like it’s a problem to be solved—a math problem, that is. The result is something new to literature, a sometimes hilarious, often painful, deeply poignant story about how the shared memory of family sacrifice is always greater than the needs of the individual.”
Chemistry began as the short story “Conversations with My Father,” which was published in the Summer 2016 issue of Ploughshares, guest-edited by Claire Messud and James Wood. Wang began thinking about what that protagonist might be like when she grew up and whether she might have an existential crisis in adulthood. Chemistry grew out of those questions and was further inspired by Wang’s own scientific background—an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a doctorate in public health from Harvard University.
Wang credits the objectivity and thorough thinking that is endemic to the sciences with informing the way she thinks and writes. “I believe that much of good writing is clarity and the author’s ability to look at the characters from many facets, to look at a situation from many facets. I think my research background has helped me with that,” she says.
Research also instilled in her the principles of a strong work ethic—a quality that has been central, for her, to the writing process. “Maybe 1 percent of writing is talent and 99 percent of it is just really, really, really hard work,” she says. “You have to sit still for a long time and think, you have to do it alone—you also have to be OK spending months on a project and throwing it away. That’s pretty much scientific research in a nutshell.”
Like science for Chemistry’s protagonist, engaging with this writing process is a compulsion for Wang. “I feel as if I have to get certain stories out of me, and also certain feelings, thoughts, characters. Otherwise, they would just sit with me and plague me,” she says.
This compulsion led to the decision to pursue an MFA in fiction, which she began at Boston University during the third year of her doctorate—right before her doctoral qualifying exams. This challenge was intentional: “Pursuing arts is never going to be easy. So I had to love it and I needed to convince myself that I loved it in the face of other things. I wrote any time I could.”
While at BU, Wang studied with Amy Hempel, who became her mentor and a particularly strong influence. “I don’t think I would be here without her. She was an extraordinarily generous and kind teacher. I still find myself remembering exactly what she said in class and understanding it better now. I also knew her first as my teacher and second as the literary giant that I came to realize she was.”
Now that Chemistry is on shelves, Wang is currently working on her second novel. She has yet to share any details on the project. “I am somewhat superstitious, so I feel if I talk about it too much it will never happen. I generally work best in a cave until I have to come out and show someone the work.”