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"Kitchen Chinese": The Editor-Book Love Story

Posted: 02/15/10 10:26 AM ET

Once people find out what I do for a living, they often ask me why some books get published and others don't. Before I acquired my first book as an editor, I often wondered the same thing. Sometimes, it's simple: an author with a platform (Malcolm Gladwell), a first-time novelist that sparks a bidding war (Jonathan Safran Foer). Then there are personal choices.

When I read the manuscript for "Kitchen Chinese" by Ann Mah, I was transported back to the time I spent living in Beijing after college. The main character, a young Chinese-American woman, relocates to Beijing to get away from a career-ending catastrophe at work. Like me, she only knows the kind of conversational Mandarin Chinese spoken in the home. And, her name is Isabelle Lee! Even though I'd been painfully aware since grade school roll call that "Lee" is a very common Asian last name, to me it was a sign.

I had to buy this book.

At the time, I had edited a few manuscripts but never acquired anything on my own. Like any junior editor, I dreamed of finding just the right project I could champion. Little did I know that I'd discover one that spoke to me on so many levels.

After talking with the agent, I realized there were even more connections between the author and myself.

Ann and I had both grown up in Southern California. She worked in book publishing in New York before moving to Beijing in 2003, while I'd been there in 2001. Although our reasons for going to China were very different, our reactions--as Chinese-Americans who have a better understanding of U.S. culture than our parents'--were similar. Beijing was an overwhelming mélange of the old and new: traditional courtyards and modern skyscrapers; ma po tofu and McDonald's hamburgers.

There was another reason I could connect with Ann: we were both debut novelists. After my own book had gone out to a number of editors, my agent told me that among the declines was a "young editor" who absolutely loved it. The fact that I'm now able to be that "young editor" to someone else, to a book that I believe in, is among the most rewarding experiences I have found thus far in publishing.

Even if an editor loves something, there are many more hoops to jump through before the book is acquired. The editorial director has to sign off on it and sales must be on board. If all goes well, the book generates that ineffable thing called in-house buzz, which carries over to booksellers and reviewers.

As the publication date for "Kitchen Chinese" approaches, I'm gratified each time someone comes up to me in the hall at work to say that they liked the book--and got hungry for Chinese food while reading it--although I'm not surprised by their reaction. I feel the story appeals not only to Sinophiles and Asian-Americans, but to anyone who's ever felt like a fish out of water. Even though the publishing process started as a personal choice, the book is soon going to be revealed to whole new world of readers. Hopefully they will feel the same way I did when I first read it.