March 2020

Interview by Elizabeth O’Meara

Jamie Chan has become a familiar face on the second floor as she settles in to work on her novel. Chan has an MFA in fiction writing from Boston University. Previously she lived in New York and worked as an architectural designer on projects in China and New York. She contributed to Vertical Urban Factory, a traveling exhibition and book about factory architecture. She has an undergraduate degree from Princeton, and her Master’s in Architecture from Yale.

Q: Where and when you were born, and how you were raised? 

JAMIE CHAN: I was born in Virginia but raised in Fresno, California. Other Californians have told me this is the armpit of California, but I’m quite proud of it. We are the raisin capital of the world, and also I remember reading somewhere that we are part of a secondary Bible Belt, where people from Oklahoma and Arkansas settled when they came West during the Great Depression. A lot of people I knew went to church. Kids in my high school were big into sports and cheerleading and we also had the other kids, the gang members who wore Raiders jackets. I think the experience of being an outsider is what inclined me towards writing.

Q: What is your educational background?

JC: I majored in architecture in undergrad and have a Master’s in Architecture. A few years ago, I got an MFA from BU in Fiction. Architecture and writing may seem very different but I can see the crossover. For example, I have a way of working that is organization/structure-obsessed and it reminds me of the way we make floor plans in architecture, by massing out the program and gradually adding more and more detail.

Q: Have you always been a writer?   

JC: After college I read Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, which says that encountering something beautiful makes you want to recreate it. For some people that’s taking a picture of it or trying to draw it. It made perfect sense to me because I’ve always loved to read and whenever I’ve read something I really admire, it makes me want to write.

Q: What writers have had the most influence on you?

JC: Alice Munro, Edna O’Brien, Steinbeck because of my Fresno background. I remember reading Grapes of Wrath in high school and it was the first time I could identify with that sense of place in a novel. Also, in my very first workshop at BU, I said that I loved Gone with the Wind and I think the professor, who is infamous for coming down hard on his students, was not at all impressed. 🙂

Q: Any projects on the horizon you’re able to talk about here?

JC: I’ve been working on a novel. There are a lot of ways to describe it, but it’s essentially a love story set in present-day California.

Q: How did you find the Athenæum?

JC: A friend of mine from my MFA program brought me here. When I quit my job, I knew I needed a place where I could get my work done outside of my home, so I decided to become a member.

Q: What appeals to you about the Athenæum?

JC: Having worked in an office setting, I miss going to work and having co-workers. Coming to the Athenæum on a regular basis gives me a sense of belonging and helps me stay on task, otherwise I’d be at home and trying not to surf the internet.