Fate is at the center of Cecily Wong’s debut novel Diamond Head, an epic story spanning generations of a Sino-Hawaiian family. Wong celebrated the release of the novel at BookCourt with novelist and Sackett Street Writers Workshop founder Julia Fierro.
The Leong family at the center of Wong’s novel is a wealthy and influential clan living on Oahu, a Hawaiian island. Told from the perspective of four women of the family, they are forced to confront a curse that afflicts the family over the course of the novel.
Wong says she didn’t know she was interested in curses and fate until she began writing. “I just knew the family I was writing about was cursed,” she says. She adds that she finds in her own life when good or bad things happen, she wonders if fate played a role.
The novel would not be complete without wrestling with the question of whether or not fate can be overcome. “I wrote the ending so many times,” she says, in an attempt to grapple with the issue. Through those various iterations of the ending, she finally found a conclusion she liked. She says she largely believes in fate, but that also thinks its possible to overcome it.
The complexities of the characters in Wong’s novel are written with a maturity belonging to an older author. Fierro compliments Wong’s ability to capture motherhood, something Fierro says she struggled to write about until becoming a mother herself.
The novel began as a short story Wong wrote for an application to a writing class. The generation she wrote about in that story never made it to the novel. At one point the main characters blossomed to seven people and through editing she winnowed it down to four.
Wong had been drawing inspiration from her own family who four or five generations ago arrived in Hawaii, but then something funny happened. “I got really into the characters I made up,” she explains. She did plenty of research into her own lineage. She interviewed her grandparents. But all of this served only as a starting point.
Wong did a great deal more reading up on history. She began interested in immigrants that arrived to the islands in 1900 even though it stopped being her family’s story. When she read about the Boxer Rebellion, she knew she had found the perfect device. Along the way she says she found plenty of pieces of information like that.
The one thing that early readers told her to do was to make it more atmospheric. She took a trip to Hawaii to visit with her grandparents. She spent two weeks talking with them and taking notes. Even though she was born in Hawaii, she spent most of her childhood in Oregon, so this trip offered her an important perspective on the place she was writing about.
Ultimately though much of her researched ended up cut from the manuscript. “I had to lose a lot of the history,” she says. She does most of her research online. “I barely know how to use the library,” she jokes.
The characters are a driving force of the novel, and their impact is one Wong felt in writing their stories. “I had very sad days when they a sad day on the page,” she says.
Storytelling was part of Wong’s childhood, though she says as a child she was awful at it. She explains a Hawaiian concept of “talk story,” a term used to describe a tradition of sitting around telling people stories, usually over meals. There were times she would begin to tell a story and her mother ask her to stop and let her brother finish it. She says she first needed to learn to tell a story before she learned to write.