It’s not easy having a career in publishing, especially if you’re a woman of color. In an industry that consists of mainly white cis-gendered individuals, there aren’t many stories of people of color working in this field. Even television shows like Younger and The Bold Type center around white women working in writing and publishing, often through a glamorized lens. That’s why author and illustrator Kate Gavino wanted to share a perspective of her—and many others—experiences working as an assistant in the editorial department of various publishing houses for several years. In her upcoming (and refreshingly realistic) graphic novel A Career in Books: A Novel about Friends, Money, and the Occasional Duck Bun, three Asian American women—Shirin, Nina, and Silvia—try to break out in the world of publishing in 2011 while dealing with money issues, daily microaggressions, and relationships. They befriend their elderly neighbor Veronica Vo, a Booker Prize-winning author, and find inspiration in her journey.
To celebrate A Career in Books‘ release on August 2, Gavino chatted with Nerdist about showing love to New York, friendship between Asian women, and the challenges of navigating an industry dominated by white voices.
Nerdist: Your main characters in A Career in Books are three independent, but very different Asian American women who are starting their career in publishing. Give me a breakdown of these characters and how did you establish their personalities?
Kate Gavino: I saw each one [of them] like a different extension of myself. Specifically, I was starting out in the publishing world. Starting with Nina, the most determined and very proactive one who is hell bent on becoming an editor at any cost. She’s very professional and has her career goals all set out. I was like that when I started working in the publishing world. I knew I wanted to be an editor. I was prepared to do the grunt work, climb the ladder, and play by the rules in some sense.
Throughout the book, each of the girls slowly become disillusioned with the publishing world. I think it’s hardest for Nina because she does everything right. She’s assertive and finds books to acquire, but she eventually learns you can do the right thing, but that doesn’t always necessarily mean you’ll come out on top or that it’ll always work out. That’s definitely the kind of journey I wanted her to take on, but still maintain her fierce independence and determination. She’s definitely the character that I aspire to be.
Then there is Silvia whose ultimate goal is to be a writer. A lot of people I knew in publishing, including myself, were always interested in how books are made and wanted to have a close up view of that process, even though we weren’t sure we wanted to be an editor for the rest of our lives. Her character is probably the one I relate to the most. She’s from Houston and comes from a Filipino family. She doubts herself as a writer but she knows that’s what she wants to do.
And, like me, I’m always fascinated by the publishing world and the authors and editors within it. She does get bogged down by the day-to-day interactions with coworkers. Her big conflict in the book is her butting heads with her coworker who takes her for granted as an assistant. So for her journey, I wanted her to assert herself and be okay with taking up space and telling her own story.
Then there is Shirin, who—like a lot of people in publishing—loves books. She takes the job as something to do after she graduated from college. Her relationship to office life is basically my relationship with office life. There is something soul-sucking about sitting at a desk all day in front of a computer, but, at the same time, coming from a family of immigrants, we feel incredibly lucky for a cushy office job and feel so guilty for not 100% loving it.
There’s a lot of guilt towards her feelings about work and begins therapy in the book as well. She’s a very confused 22 year old, which was very me at the time. She’s also one of the funniest characters to write because she’s a bit chaotic and impulsive. Those are the three characters. They’re all different extensions of myself, so it came very natural writing them.
Veronica Vo is an elderly first-generation Vietnamese refugee-immigrant who came to America, became an established author, and suddenly disappeared from that scene. What was the significance of Veronica in A Career in Books? What does she represent to you and the three main characters?
Gavino: Veronica is a writer that they wish they had known existed back when they were in school studying literature. I come from Houston, Texas where there’s a large Vietnamese community [that I grew up around]. I wanted to portray a character who was very multi-faceted. I made up the writer that I wished I had known existed when I was younger. I also wanted to show how the publishing world hasn’t changed since she was around in the late ’70s/early ’80s.
I also just wanted her to capture my frustrations as an Asian American writer because she is so often pigeonholed in certain genres and she just wants to tell stories that she wants to tell, but book publishing is about making money. Not every writer is given that freedom. I wanted to show how she was frustrated by that time in her life but was still able to find her voice as a writer and find her own way of being free of that – even if that meant her books were no longer in print. Despite all of that, she manages to find her audience.
You live in Paris now, but lived in New York during your publishing days. And A Career in Books has so many New York scenes. Was this book also a love letter to New York?
Gavino: This is definitely a love letter to my time in New York, which was around 2009 to around 2018. It’s definitely a love letter specifically to that era because I miss New York so much, but I also specifically miss that nostalgia period in my mind—when you’re in your early 20s living with your friends. You romanticize things, but as you get older, you don’t want to return to those things like making a small salary or living in a very cramped, small apartment. But, at that time, it seemed like the best or funnest adventure. So it’s definitely a love letter to that specific time in my life.
I love all the details you have of the situations that many Asians go through with microaggressions, mental health, dealing with significant others’ parents, and how closely connected we are to being Asian American. What do you want readers to take away from this?
Gavino: I specifically wanted to take a closer look at [being Asian American] through the lens of their friendship. I have a big group of Asian friends and one aspect that was really interesting to me is the subtle similarities and differences between East Asians and Southeast Asians. Shirin and Silvia are Filipino and Nina is Japanese. They go to Shirin’s family home for Thanksgiving and Shirin’s grandpa is not 100% a big fan of Japanese people.
I feel like when you’re Asian American, you have to put up with dynamics like that all the time. Sometimes you embrace them and sometimes you cast a blind eye towards them. I really wanted to emphasize their lives as Asian Americans which means if you live in a big city like NYC, you have access to all these amazing Asian cuisine and seeing another Asian is not a rare thing.
So when they first start school together, they’re very self conscious about not being immediately friends because they didn’t want to be the Asian clique in their writing group. [Those are] just some things that I have experienced too. I’m sure other groups deal with that in their own ways, but I always thought it was interesting to explore that through the lens of their friendship. Mental health is a taboo topic, but I wanted to show how, at least in my generation, it’s becoming a lot more open in terms of something that we talked about. I’m just always a big proponent of talking about something as much as possible and being open about it with the people that are closest to you.
I appreciated seeing what Asian women and WOC have to deal with in the industry, especially working for white women who see themselves as allies but their actions are actually performative and harmful. Were you ever given feedback on the book to hold off on this conversation or to be careful on what you write because it’s ultimately a white industry?
Gavino: This was something that was weighing on me when I was writing the book. The publishing industry is very women-led up to a certain point because the top is usually men. But it’s mostly women and mostly white women. I think it’s slowly changing more, but still emphasis on slowly. That was a big thing for me because when you’re an assistant, I had a lot of experiences like Silvia did dealing with very pushy women who assumed you’re quiet and that you’re willing to stay at work late and walk all over you.
A lot of my time in the publishing industry sped up my learning that I should assert my own space and that just because I’m an assistant doesn’t mean I don’t have my own ideas or a sense of self. It’s a lesson that people have to learn across all industries. One thing I definitely didn’t want in the book were any clear cut happy endings because these girls are 22-23 [years old]. They still have their whole lives ahead of them.
I just wanted to leave them at a place I thought was realistic for a 22-23 year old where they’re still figuring things out. Some of them decide to stay in the industry and some decide to leave. It’s an interesting industry because most of your bosses are going to be women. There’s definitely not always a solidarity between all women. That’s why I wanted the friendship between the three girls to be so strong because they needed each other as a way to support each other through that.
It’s been over 10 years since 2011 and you’ve been out of the publishing game as an editor for years. But, do you feel like the industry has changed since then?
Gavino: I still have a lot of friends who work in the publishing world and I am a very nosy person. I like to stay on top of what’s happening in that industry. I do think things are changing. I know Harper-Collins is going on strike. Social media is having more vigor on creating lasting change or calling out what needs to be changed. People have a bigger platform to demand change. I’m not 100% sure how much lasting change is being done, but I think it is getting better in terms of people having more of a voice and being able to express what needs to be changed.
So, the book leaves open some more stories to be told with the three women. Would you ever want to do a follow up especially if you’d want to do a story that relates with today in 2022?
Gavino: That would be fun because I’m in my 30s now and I definitely like the place I’m in now. When I finished the book, I really missed these characters – drawing them and creating their entire universes. I’d love to see where they are in their 30s, especially with how the publishing world has changed and just, personally, how much your life changes between your 20s and 30s as well. That’s definitely something I’d be interested in doing.