Most kids get bed time stories read to them, but Emily Pan’s dad would invent bedtime stories for her on the spot. And then once she got old enough, she joined in on the storytelling.
“I’ve always been a story teller. I started saying at seven years old that I wanted to be an author,” said New York Times best-selling author and Hopewell native Emily XR Pan in a recent phone interview. “I copied Harriet in Harriet the Spy even though things don’t turn out great for her.” She carried her notebook around, and Pan carried floppy disks with her writing on it.
“In second grade, Pan I tried to write my first book — a riff of Harriet the Spy and Babysitter’s Club. It was a lot of derivative stuff and I would spend way more time picking out font colors than actually writing, but that was my first attempt,” she said.
Now she’s the New York Times best-selling author of The Astonishing Color of After, published by Little Brown and Company, and last month she visited Timberlane Middle School to speak to current students.
Pan took her 6th grade assignment to make books very literally—her classmates wrote short stories, but Pan set out to write a full book. “We were printing them out, cutting them out and making covers, so it really liked like a book. It took me forever to do mine because there were so many pages. First finished novel she wrote.”
In fifth grade at the Hopewell Elementary School, Pan found a role model in Susan Hartmann, now Sue Nabors, and her class cemented her love for the written word. “She was this huge inspiration. I devoured every single book she assigned. I think of all my years of schooling, her year was the year where every single book I read, I absorbed into my soul.”
At the age of 15, Pan was not only writing full-length novels, but also trying to get an agent. “I sent out my book and I got many rejections and I felt discouraged, but I also knew I had time to figure that out.”
Pan was born in Illinois to Taiwanese immigrant parents. She moved to Pennington, attending Hopewell Elementary School for the fifth grade before going to Timberlane Middle School and Hopewell Valley Central High School. She is the only child of Alex Pan, a professor at The College of New Jersey, and Beatrice Pan, a piano and gu zhen teacher.
Pan was a self-described practical young adult, graduating a semester early from NYU Stern with international business and marketing degrees, “the most creative side of business” that she could find. The pressure to find a sustainable career led her to a tech start up after graduation. On the side, she used her experience as editor-in-chief of the Washington Square Review, the school’s literary magazine, to co-found Bodega magazine.
All that changed when she found out she had gotten into NYU’s MFA program for creative writing, which felt like an unreal dream she had been pursuing. “It was like gambling. It’s a totally impractical thing, and I had been trying to do practical things all of my life. It was the perfect excuse to leave this job that was sucking all of this joy out of me.”
It was in a novel writing workshop in grad school that Pan first conceived for The Astonishing Color of After. That first iteration had a different title, and was written as a completely different genre, an epic historical fiction that captures the life stories of Pan’s grandmother.
She worked on that manuscript off and on for a handful of years. When it wasn’t working, she put it aside and wrote a different book. She always went back to it.
“I tried rewriting it so many different times I lost track. Originally, it was middle grade, and then I tried writing it as young adult. And then I tried writing it as a magical adult novel. I basically wrote several different novels with the same seed of inspiration.
Leigh, the main character who makes it into published version, is biracial; her mother’s family is Chinese and Taiwanese, and her dad’s family is Irish. Pan is not biracial, but she perpetually felt like she wasn’t American enough for her white friends, and she wasn’t Asian enough for her Asian friends.
“I wanted to capture that feeling of straddling two cultures. I wanted to make it even stronger and more apparent, so Leigh became biracial.”
As Leigh navigates her biracial identity, she also watches her mother grapple with debilitating mental illness, eventually losing her to suicide. “I wanted to put a book out there that didn’t use suicide as some sort of thrilling plot point. And I wanted a book that represented the effect of depression in a household.”
Pan co-founded an online venue for young adult short stories, Foreshadow: A Serial YA Anthology. The monthly anthology, which will come out in 2019, aims to make landscape of young adult publishing more inclusive and diverse.
Each issue includes three stories, one by an attention-grabbing big-name author, a second by another big name author or an emerging author, and the third by an unknown entity, someone doesn’t have publishing credentials.
“We’re trying to show that publishing can be different. Publishing is very white—most people who work in publish are white. Most people who get published are white,” Pan says. “There’s this call, especially in the last view years, a louder call than ever for diverse books. All these people are finally paying attention to the need for books to reflect the world that we actually live in.”
Grace Lee, an eighth grader and aspiring writer at Timberline Middle School, found Pan’s visit to be inspiring.
“Nowadays there’s really not a lot of Asian representation in books or acting or magazines,” she said. “And to see her — not only did she go to Timberlane, she’s also a successful writer and she’s Asian, and she looks like me, it made me realize that I can do that too. And so can everyone else!”