There is a brilliant alchemy that bubbles beneath the surface of Weike Wang’s novels about the sciences. Her debut in 2018, Chemistry, came infused with a biting humor that told her story of a Ph.D. the student’s collapse and recovery is “moving and funny at the same time, never predictable,” according to our review. The novel was widely acclaimed and won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Whiting Award.

Wang now applies those properties to: Joan is ok (Random House, Jan. 18), turning her gaze to the intensive care unit of a Manhattan hospital. Joan, her Chinese-American protagonist, is an excellent doctor whose workaholic tendencies are praised by her boss and concern from her hospital’s HR department, forcing her to take a break. Exiled at her brother’s home in Connecticut, where her mother is visiting from China, Joan finally has time to reflect on what drives her so relentlessly in her career and to face the reality of her broken family, who now live too close to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Joan is ok isn’t being sold as a “pandemic novel” — Covid-19 doesn’t appear anywhere in the cover — but the global health crisis is really screwing up Joan, a refreshingly “idiosyncratic character” who brings Wang to life in a style “so wry and piercing ”, notes our review.

Kirkus spoke to Wang via Zoom from her home in New York City. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your starting point for this novel?

After Chemistry, where I wrote about a main character who is having a hard time with her science graduate program, I was interested in writing a main character of a doctor who is an Asian woman. I know so many people like this, and I wanted to create a character that works in STEM and explore the stereotypical minority model through her. I wanted to have a little fun with that stereotype, not ignore what someone like her would become through this indoctrination and de-individualization that is so much of medical training. It has nothing to do with this person being Asian, it’s just that all doctors are trained to become a tool [within a larger system]†

Would the pandemic always be part of the story?

New. I was done with the draft and handed it in in February 2020 thinking: I’m ready† Covid was not in the book at all. I had been aware of the pandemic since December 2019 because I have family in China, but it just didn’t occur to me to include it in the book. When my editor was reading the book in March and things started to get bad here, we realized we had to recreate the second part of the novel. The more we thought about it, it made no sense that an IC doctor didn’t know about it [the Covid-19 crisis]† Otherwise, I’d be writing in a vacuum and pretending this didn’t exist. I knew I had to weave it in. I read so much about ICs in March anyway, so of course I factored that into the revision process. I was resistant at first, but I’m really glad I did.

How did that affect the pace? Halfway through the book, it becomes eerily clear to the reader that 2020 is coming.

I didn’t want the pandemic to be the story. Joan works, works, works. I wouldn’t say she’s necessarily afraid of the pandemic because she’s been trained very well for it. She’s starting to realize it’s going to be bad [in China], and the headlines are getting scarier and scarier. It occurs to her that a huge wave is coming, and I wanted it to parallel her eviction from the city because of her hospital’s rules to keep her from working overtime. This is the first book I’ve tried to plot extensively, thinking about contours. Chemistry is much more internal, and it happens in this vague year-long period in one’s life. I wrote an overview of mainly dates because I needed to know the timeline [of the pandemic] very well. In class, I tell my students that a good writer usually manages time well. They know when something is going to happen. So I said to myself, in November, in January, what’s going to happen here? The other trick was just trial and error. This story went through so many concepts that I stopped saving it.

So much of what raises Joan’s voice is her deadpan humor. How did you hone your comic sense?

Humor is a coping mechanism. Humor keeps the door open for readers to enter. I spent most of my twenties in science, and the stereotype of people like us was that we’re robotic or we don’t have feelings, which isn’t true at all. I thought, what if I took that idea and made something a little comical to point out the absurdity of that idea?† Of course Joan has feelings. She’s not this machine that just goes to work. There’s just a funny way she thinks about the world. She is endearing. She has an emotional landscape. But to her colleagues, she’s a complete mystery who does everything right. I wanted to play with that a bit. She is so laser-focused in her work that she is oblivious to what is around her. In that flatness [of how outsiders perceive Joan]I inhabit this character and give her roundness in considering what kind of powers would have made her think, act and talk like this. Since the book deals with identity and prejudice, which are important to Joan as she moves through the novel, it made sense to use the humor and absurdity of the plot to convey the idea of how model minority can get them?

It is so common in immigrant stories to express this idea that being in America automatically leads to a better life. Instead, you have Joan’s parents move back to China after she and her brother are adults. That’s where they can have a better life when they retire. It seems to match what I see with my friends and their families.

I was trying to challenge this American story that… life is terrible but as long as we have each other we will be fine† I don’t know if that story is true. Sometimes being apart can help the overall stability of a family.

Why was it important to show Joan where she belongs?

Joan is a small person. She is small in stature – ‘just under five feet tall’. She’s not very vocal. As a doctor, she always listens to others in order to properly assess a situation. When other people intrude on her, like her overzealous neighbor trying to welcome herself into her life, she is so surprised. When Joan is called back to work [from her brother’s home in Connecticut], the pandemic is coming for her. She gets sick, and she has to go into full quarantine, and she’s overjoyed about it. This is her domain – her apartment, her ICU, expanding to take over the entire hospital [because of Covid-19]† Joan is up to the challenge and her idea of ​​’home’ is expanded. Joan’s story is about reclaiming her space.

Hannah Bae is a Korean-American author, journalist, and illustrator and winner of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award.