Words by Samantha Pak
Like many 20-somethings, Delia Cai went home for Thanksgiving in 2019 and bumped into a few people from high school who she hadn’t spoken to in a very long time. But rather than turn this into strictly social media fodder, Cai used this, along with the complicated relationship dynamics with her parents, to form the idea that became her debut novel, Central Places.
The book was released Jan. 31 and follows Audrey Zhou, a similarly aged Chinese American living in New York who comes home for the holidays for the first time in eight years. White fiance in tow, Audrey is confronted with her past as she runs into old classmates, including her former best friend as well as her high school crush (which you know is going to cause drama), and is forced to spend more time with her parents than she has in almost a decade.
While Cai and her protagonist have many things in common—they’re both from small towns in Illinois and are living in New York, have fraught relationships with their parents (particularly their mothers), and have folks back home they left behind—Central Places is not an autobiography disguised as a novel.
Instead, Cai treats the narrative as a hypothetical: What would her life be like if she’d gone down a different path?
“If I think of my life as branching out from all these different decisions,” says Cai, who works as a writer at Vanity Fair. “Let’s go back and trace a different route and see what could’ve been.”
I recently spoke with the 30-year-old about the book, getting her start through writing fanfiction, and representing Asians from the Midwest.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Samantha Pak: How did you first get into writing?
Delia Cai: I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember. But I really started writing in earnest in middle school when I found this website called quizilla.com. It was a precursor to BuzzFeed, where you could make quizzes and publish them, and read other people’s and rank them. It basically turned into this fanfiction community, and so I was like, “Oh, I could do this. I want to write my own.” That started in seventh grade, and I was very intense about it. I would just come home and do my homework, and then work on my fanfiction for a couple of hours every night.
SP: Which works were you fanfictioning?
DC: A lot of Harry Potter fanfiction.
SP: Like a lot of people (laughs).
DC: The main one was this Draco Malfoy fanfiction. And then, you could also start writing your own stories. So I wrote a story about a girl who had a twin brother who was kidnapped and she had to solve the mystery.
SP: How old were you when you started with that one?
DC: Freshman, sophomore year. There were, like, 70 chapters. I tried to do a chapter a week. This website was basically just all other teenage girls. And so you would just read each other’s stuff and message each other. But it was an amazing way to train yourself as a writer. If you got into this habit of posting a chapter a week, if you missed a week, your friends-slash-readers would message you. So you have this idea in your head that was like, “Oh, my readers are waiting for the next chapter.” It was the best motivation.
SP: So, as you were working in media, were you also writing fiction and doing creative writing on the side?
DC: Not for a while. When I went to school and studied journalism, I tried to keep that high school habit, but I thought I lost it. I didn’t write any fiction for years and years. And then in 2019, I tried writing a short story, because a bunch of stuff happened in my life that I was like, “I’m gonna try to make sense of this through fiction.” It was this short story for Catapult, called Big Fan. I wrote it spring 2019 and then it was published September 2019. And I was like, “Oh, I want to return. This feels good, you know? This feels familiar. This feels like home.” After that experience, I was like, “Alright, you always wanted to write a novel. Let’s go back and do it.”
SP: Okay, so switching gears to that novel, Central Places, where did the idea for this story come from? I know that’s a very cliche question to ask, but—
I remember thinking, “Well, if we really want to unpack a relationship, like the relationship that you have with your mother, that’s got to be a book. That’s not a short story.”
DC: Yeah, but you always gotta start at the beginning, right? In my early 20s, at my first job, someone was like, “You should write about growing up in the Midwest, because I think that must have been a really strange experience.” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know if it’s that interesting, because I just remember I didn’t like growing up in the Midwest.” But then, my relationship with my mother has loomed so large in my life that I’ve always thought about that. The short story was basically unpacking a relationship that I had. And I remember thinking, “Well, if we really want to unpack a relationship, like the relationship that you have with your mother, that’s got to be a book. That’s not a short story.”
SP: When did you start actually writing the story?
DC: I started the week I got home, after that Thanksgiving. And then of course the pandemic happened, right? I had my writing time on Saturdays. The deal I made with myself was, “Just spend two hours in front of the computer. You don’t even have to do anything, but that’s your time.” And so I was working on it on most Saturdays. I kind of just bullshitted a few chapters, then I was like, “Alright, well, we have a few chapters. Let’s sit down and think of a plot and basically draw a map of where this could go.” I mean, I was not going anywhere in the spring, right? And so I finished, I think, by June.
SP: During that time, were you working? Did you have another full time job?
DC: My job at BuzzFeed was a good job in that there were very clear boundaries, and I really enjoyed it. But I didn’t have to take it home with me. People are always asking me, “How did you write a novel when you were a writer full-time?” I wasn’t. I couldn’t have done both. I had this analytics job at BuzzFeed. I really liked it, but there’s no creative writing to it. And so it worked out really well because I don’t think I could have (written Central Places) otherwise.
SP: A lot of the things Audrey (the main character in Central Places) goes through—the relationship with her mom and coming home for the holidays and that kind of thing—you have similar experiences. So, how close to real life are Audrey and her story to your life?
DC: This novel is emotionally true. Audrey grew up in much of the same way that I did: A small town, outside of Peoria, Illinois, as the daughter of two Chinese immigrants. The setup is pretty much true. But it’s not actually my life. I’ve never had a relationship like what Audrey has with Ben. They get engaged, and she brings him home. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to think about it: “One way this could go is that it works out. And then I would have to bring this person home and explain so much of my life.” I wrote the novel as a hypothetical question of what would have happened if one of those relationships would have worked out in this way. Every thought Audrey has had, I’ve had though.
I wrote the novel as a hypothetical question of what would have happened if one of those relationships would have worked out in this way. Every thought Audrey has had, I’ve had though.
SP: Yeah, the relationship with Ben (the fiance) was very…interesting. He often dismisses her opinions. Have you ever been in a relationship—romantic, platonic, familial—with that situation?
DC: Probably. I’ve always kind of struggled with speaking up for myself—especially in relationships. When you’re raised in a household where a premium is put on being obedient, being agreeable, trying to hold things together yourself, you’re not out here, stirring the pot, asking for what you want. I see Audrey, her whole mindset is a very extreme version of that.
SP: You talked about writing fiction as being hypothetical. So, was it a way to live out some of the things you would want to say to certain people?
DC: The characters of Kyle and Kristen, they’re based on real people. But also, they’re sort of composites of people in my life who I have not had this kind of moment of understanding, or this moment of repair. I really see this as almost playacting out, “Here’s what I wish would have happened,” or “Here’s a path in the future for coming to terms with friendships that were really meaningful when you were young, but that maybe, you’ve abandoned since.”
SP: Are there relationships or friendships that you hope to repair, or revisit back home?
DC: Obviously, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, but we don’t know that the existence of this book will magically repair relationships from a decade ago. But I do think writing it was my way of making peace, and honoring the fact that I had relationships with people who were so meaningful at such a formative time in my life. Did those relationships last forever like we said they would after graduation? No. But does that mean they were any less important? No. Writing this was a way of honoring that.
Did those relationships last forever like we said they would after graduation? No. But does that mean they were any less important? No. Writing this was a way of honoring that.
SP: In this process of writing, what were some of the more challenging pieces or challenging characters or relationships for you?
DC: The parents stuff was very hard. A lot of that required revisiting, in excruciating detail, experiences from childhood and feelings from childhood—but then having to also be an adult now. I couldn’t just be like, “Here is all my teen angst.” I also have to be a little bit objective about it. This kind of misunderstanding between Audrey and her parents is much like ones I’ve had with my parents, and they were so painful. But to really let myself try to understand why those misunderstandings happened from all points of view, it’s been a productive few years in therapy, and I don’t think that’s unrelated to writing this book.
SP: Now that the book is out, how does it feel?
DC: Oh man, I mean, that’s a really loaded question (laughs). I feel very happy and proud of it. And I feel like in some ways, I’m closing the chapter on a stage in my life when I was just really wrestling with a lot of questions and doubts, and trying to come to terms with the first two-thirds of my life—in the same way that Audrey does in the book. So it feels like, with her story out in the world, I can move on with my life in a way. But I think the most amazing part of having the book out is just hearing from my friends, but also hearing from random people, like on the Internet—especially Asian women who grew up like me. Who were like, “I thought it was just me, too. I’ve never really seen this kind of story and setting, and family dynamics. I hadn’t read that many books like this and you captured it so well.” That was the point, right? Everyone’s always like, “Write the book that you wish your younger self would’ve read.” And I do feel really proud of it, as it exists, and hearing from people because it feels like, “Okay, I think I did that.”
The most amazing part of having the book out is just hearing from...Asian women who grew up like me. Who were like, “I thought it was just me, too. I’ve never really seen this kind of story and setting, and family dynamics. I hadn’t read that many books like this and you captured it so well.”
SP: What about your family? Have your parents read it? Or do they know what it’s about?
DC: Yeah, I sent my parents an early copy, before everything was finalized, at the end of 2021. And they read it. They don’t read my work. So I think it was a very new experience for all of us. But they’ve been really supportive.
SP: Did they recognize aspects of your relationship with them or anything? Were they like, “Oh, these are some of the issues we deal with?” Did they mention it?
DC: We haven’t talked about it in that much depth. And I think there’s a reason for that (laughs). Yeah, it’s tricky.
SP: Can I ask, how has your relationship with your parents changed since they read the book?
DC: I think my relationship with my parents has definitely changed. But for reasons that don’t really have to do with the book.
SP: Do you have any other projects lined up? Or any ideas for other books right now?
DC: No. I definitely want to write more books, for sure. I think I’m still really interested in this theme of finding your place in the world. But, I feel like I’ve been working and existing on this fictional plane for a few years. And I really just want to be out and live my life a little bit more. I’ve just been working for a few years, nonstop. I just want to get my personal life together (laughs). I’ve cloistered myself inside, literally and figuratively, for so long. So, I think maybe, let’s rejoin the world for a bit, before you worry about what you want to do next.
Published on March 15, 2023
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.