February 7, 2024

Princeton Author of Acclaimed Debut Novel Returns for Friends, Foundation Library Event

By Wendy Greenberg

Jinwoo Chong (Photo by Kristen Fedor)

The novel Flux, which explores grief, trauma, relationships, and corporate culture, has been praised in the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and New York Review of Books, and is on myriad “must read” lists.

The book that has captivated so many is the debut from 2013 Princeton High School graduate Jinwoo Chong, who will return to Princeton on Thursday, February 22, to speak at the Princeton Public Library. The 6:30 p.m. event is a fundraiser for the library’s Friends and Foundation. He will appear with Laura Spence-Ash, whose debut novel, Beyond the Sea, was published last year.

The plot of Flux (Melville House, 2023) balances three characters: 28-year-old Brandon, who loses his job after a hostile takeover of his big-media employer; 8-year-old Bo, who loses his mother in a tragic accident; and Blue, 48, a key witness in a criminal trial who struggles to reconnect with his family. When the lives of all three characters begin to intersect, secrets are uncovered. Woven throughout is a 1980s television detective show character, and the concept of time travel.

According to the publisher, “Flux is a haunting and sometimes shocking exploration of the cyclical nature of grief, of moving past trauma, and of the pervasive nature of whiteness within the development of Asian identity in America.”

Chong, 28, like his character, drew from some of his experience. “I’m always surprised by what little pieces of my life end up in my work,” he said in an email. “It’s not usually things that I expect, just small details or names of towns that I’m pulling from memory. However, the first chapter of Flux takes place during a corporate takeover of the media company the main character, Brandon, works at, which happened to me at my first job out of college. Looking back, that period of my life was a catalyst for a lot of things, including a decision to try and focus more on writing and even to apply to graduate school.”

“Otherwise,” he continued, “the book takes inspiration from the police procedural dramas on TV when I came of age: Law and Order: SVU, CSI, NCIS, and others. The science fiction element came out of some guidance I received in my MFA at Columbia, and wasn’t an aspect of the book until much later. As a result, the book is a mix of genres that probably wouldn’t have come about if I hadn’t taken so long to write it.”

In addition to earning a master’s degree at Columbia, Chong did his undergraduate work at Georgetown University, and currently works on the business side of the New York Times when he is not writing.

When he is writing, his process arose, he said, “from needing to balance writing — which I’d always thought of as a hobby,” with his work and school responsibilities. “As a result, I only ever write at night, and seem to work best when everybody else in my house is asleep. It’s the only remaining span of time in my life in which I’m actually alone. I tend to write in bursts, and can sustain momentum far easier than begin in the first place. I seem to outline and prepare large projects for years at a time, procrastinating until I finally find a reason to begin, after which the rest arrives much easier.”

The process works — Flux was named on last spring’s New York Times’ “23 works of fiction to read,” was recommended by Vanity Fair, listed in Vulture’s “best beach reads of 2023” and Chong was deemed an “author to watch” by Shondaland, among other accolades.

​Chong’s short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Salamander. He lives in New York City, but has not forgotten Princeton.

“I was born in Princeton, in the hospital that has now moved to the larger campus at Princeton-Plainsboro,” he said. “All my life, as soon as I could read, I was interested in writing on my own. It was always my favorite kind of assignment in school.”

He added that he attended kindergarten at Littlebrook, and grades 1 through 8 at Princeton Charter School. “Living in a single place for my entire childhood had enormous benefits. I had a sense of stability that I knew was a great privilege. It also allowed me to see very clearly how I was growing up while my surroundings stayed relatively the same. As a result, It was very hard to leave Princeton. I hope to live here again someday.”

Chong is not the only Princeton High. School graduate whose work is featured at the library this month. Karen Bao, Princeton High School Class of 2012, was slated to appear on February 6 to discuss her new book, Pangu’s Shadow, with local author Shveta Thakrar.

“It’s a happy coincidence for us to be hosting two PHS grads in February,” said Jennifer Podolsky, executive director of Princeton Public Library. “Janie Hermann, our adult programming manager, told me that we first hosted Karen nine years ago in February, when her first YA  book came out and she was an undergrad at Columbia. And we’re so pleased that Jinwoo agreed to do a Friends and Foundation fundraiser. His first novel has gotten so much buzz. It’s pretty remarkable to think that in a few years a young person studying or just hanging out in our Teen Center could be a published author.”

The event will be held in the Community Room. Tickets, available through the events calendar on the library’s website, are $75, including a copy of Flux, or $30 for the talk only. For more information and registration, visit princetonlibrary.libnet.info/event/9833990.