Helen Wan hopes her novel, "The Partner Track," will tell a modern story about race, class and gender in the workplace.

Story highlights

"The Partner Track" is attorney Helen Wan's debut novel

Wan's novel digs into race, gender and class politics in professional workplaces

She wanted to write about professionals of color trying to climb the corporate ladder

The book is based on real-life experiences, but takes creative license, she says

CNN  — 

When Helen Wan was still a law school student, she noticed a pattern in books marketed toward Asian-American women.

“It’s the same formula every time,” she wrote for the Washington Post in 1998. “Young Asian-American heroine confronts culture clash – unyielding Asian parents who won’t let her on the cheerleading squad, a flock of quaint-as-hell relatives, yadda, yadda. Throw in a budding interracial romance, stick a word like ‘moon,’ ‘jade’ or ‘dragon’ in the title, and voila! America’s new literary sensation. Give me a break. I could write an ‘ethnic’ novel in my sleep.”

It seems fitting that Wan’s first novel, published 15 years later, is a departure from that norm. While she loves a good introspective memoir, she wanted to write a different story.

“I was not interested in anything involving a trip to China – that was the opposite of what I was trying to do,” she said. “This was a new creature, an unknown quantity.”

Her novel, “The Partner Track,” is to be published September 17, and looks at the subtle ways race, gender and class play out in modern professional work spaces.

The protagonist, Ingrid Yung, is a Chinese-American attorney who has worked hard to navigate corporate culture, steer false perceptions and slights to finally be considered for partnership at one of the nation’s elite law firms. She is primed to break a glass ceiling, until an incendiary incident at a firm outing changes everything.

Wan says the idea grew out of the stories she heard from her professional friends of color. She noticed similarities, and initially wanted to write a book of nonfiction essays. But over 12 years, three rewrites and two book agents, the stories coalesced and evolved into a novel.

In this edited conversation, Wan shares what she learned about writing the book you want to read, holding true to artistic vision and learning the unwritten rules of corporate culture.

Fast facts: Helen Wan

Age: 40

Hometown: Grew up in Fairfax, Virginia; lives in New York.

Day job: Associate general counsel at Time Inc., which is owned by Time Warner, the parent company of CNN.

Five questions with Helen Wan

CNN: What did you want to be when you grew up?

Wan: I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be an author. (But) like many risk-averse people who like to work with words, I went to law school instead.

  • Don’t miss out on the conversation we’re having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what’s influencing your life.

    CNN: What would you describe as the pivotal moment in writing “The Partner Track”?

    Wan: Probably the moment where I really began to believe that ‘Hey, maybe I could actually see this thing through to publication’ was when I first got the offer of representation (from) a fairly well known literary agency. (It) was very exciting and encouraging to me.

    Ultimately, I ended up parting ways with that particular agency.

    I am actually glad to have gotten that experience because until I had gotten that first offer of representation, I don’t think I had allowed myself to believe that a) I really had a real book or b) that it would ever get published.

    So, it took the validation of an outside expert on the publishing industry to say “Hey, we’ll take this project on,” to make me begin to believe.

    CNN: What were some of the challenges you faced in writing this novel?

    Wan: In many ways that category was very, very difficult to pinpoint for this particular book. Was it commercial, was it more literary? Was it an Asian-American novel? Was it an ethnic novel at all? If nobody goes back to China, there are no arranged marriages etc., (then) what kind of story is this?

    Frankly, it’s kind of an unusual pitch, right? Taking an editor to lunch and saying, OK, it’s a page-turner about race in the workplace! It’s a little unusual, the sell.

    And actually (this) is part of the reason why I set out to write this kind of novel in this plot-driven way, was because in every single writing class that I’ve ever been enrolled in, they say, “You should write the book that you find missing from the store shelves,” and so that is exactly what I set out to do.

    I was not seeing any stories being written about believable, contemporary stories about – specifically Asian-American professionals, not Asian professionals – who were trying to climb the corporate ladder. I was not seeing any realistic portrayals of that.

    Nor was I seeing any treatment of the very, very subtle ways that race, gender, class and politics complicate that.

    CNN: The interwoven themes of identity come up often in the novel: the protagonist, Ingrid, is a child of Chinese immigrants, who hits a glass ceiling, and a racial incident at a company outing is a major plot point. Why was this an important theme for the plot?

    Wan: It had been a little bit frustrating to me that there had been a large number of novels being published – particularly with Asian-American women – that always seemed to feature some sort of soul searching trip to Asia, (or) something centered around family.

    Of course, the character back story is central to every novel, but I was not seeing any contemporary fiction being written about Asian-American characters – male or female – that seemed to take the story to another place.

    What I tried to do – not sure if I did it successfully – was inject some of that character back story, just to understand where Ingrid’s parents had immigrated from and what kind of class and societal standing context (to understand where) she came from.

    But just enough and then just leave it at that, and have the workplace experience speak for itself.

    CNN: What do you hope readers gain from reading the book?

    Wan: I would consider it to have been worthwhile writing this book if it helps some young people – and particularly Asian-Americans – navigate that process of learning a corporate culture while still remaining authentic to oneself.