Kathryn Ma was well into a successful career as a partner in a busy San Francisco litigation practice when she started writing fiction in her late 30s. With a master of arts in history from Stanford and a law degree from UC Berkeley, she never took more than the requisite English classes.
“I was just always one of those people who was an avid reader growing up,” she said recently at an Inner Richmond cafe. “I always had my nose in a novel, to tell you the truth.
“It just didn’t feel serious enough to me, I guess, any kind of imagination about becoming a writer myself,” she said. “That shifted after I’d been practicing law for a number of years. I was still finding myself reading all the time – and a little more curious about trying to do some writing.”
She quotes Saul Bellow: ” ‘A writer is a reader moved to emulation.’ I think it begins with reading; it did for me. I just decided, ‘What are you waiting for, you know?’ I thought, ‘Am I waiting for someone to give me permission to try to be a writer? Because nobody’s going to.’ The world is not actually sitting around and waiting for another novel, for me to ask permission.”
So Ma began to write while practicing law, which was difficult with three young daughters. “So finally I left my law practice – a really difficult decision,” she said. That was in 1995. She worked from an office until her daughters moved out of the house, also attending and finding inspiration in summer writing conferences.
In 2009, Ma’s debut collection of stories, “All That Work and Still No Boys,” won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Her first novel, “The Year She Left Us,” was published by Harper earlier this week.
Using international adoption as a way to explore race, identity and family, the book is told in four strong female voices and begins when the main character, Ari, sets out on a quest for a father figure. She is Chinese and has been adopted and raised by Chinese Americans – a distinct advantage, everyone assures her.
“That’s one of the complications for Ari. It’s one of the things that confuses her and makes her even angrier, that people say, ‘Well, you’re Chinese, and your mother is Chinese American, so you look alike, so it should be easier for you to accept adoption. It should be easier for you to blend in.’ “
Ari’s mother is a social worker who helps parents try to regain custody of their children; her bighearted efforts to make things right for these families cause her to falter in raising her daughter.
“Each of the characters are coming to terms with the loss and sadness in their own lives, and what we see one character doing reflects the light off of what another character is doing,” Ma said. “In that way the story to me feels like a great play. … I love the way a really good play tells several stories at the same time, which deepens the themes of the play, and then at the end comes full circle into a resolution that reveals the commonalities between characters.”
IF YOU GO
Kathryn Ma: 7 p.m. Monday. Books Inc., 3515 California St., S.F. (415) 221-3666.
Also 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley. (510) 704-8222. www.mrsdalloways.com.
Photo by Andria Lo