When J.D. Vance was a first year law student at Yale, his professor, Amy Chua, encouraged him to write a book about his life in rural Ohio. Six years later, in August of 2016, his book, Hillbilly Elegy, became a #1 New York Times bestseller. And since the election, Vance’s book has become one of the most talked-about books in America, as much of the country searches for a window into the lives of poor and rural white Americans who were especially vocal in their support for Donald Trump.
When Chua and Vance met, Chua was in the process of publishing Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about the strict parenting tactics she used to raise her daughters. Watching Chua share her family’s story with a national audience, Vance started to believe that he could do the same thing.
For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with the duo about their relationship, writing about their lives, and dealing with controversy. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: In the acknowledgments of Hillbilly Elegy, you write that Amy Chua convinced you that your life and the conclusions that you drew from it were worth putting down on paper. How did she convince you of that?
J.D. Vance: Amy just took an interest in me, and what personal experiences had made me who I was. The discussions about my background turned into “you should write a book” because Amy’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, came out at the end of my first year of law school. That created a natural conversation about whether I should be writing a book, too.
Kitchener: How did you feel about that?
Vance: I remember being pretty resistant to it. I thought the idea that I could write a meaningful book was kind of arrogant and presumptuous. But then I started writing little things here and there, and sending them to Amy. She would respond to them, usually positively—even though she probably thought it was all crap!
Amy Chua: The first couple of things that J.D. sent me, he sent with so many caveats. He’d say, “Please don’t show this to anybody,” or “I’m embarrassed to even be writing this.” He was completely resistant. When I read the first couple of passages he sent, I thought, “Oh my God—not only does this guy have a story, but he writes with such honesty. Everybody needs to read this.”
Vance: Eventually Amy introduced me to the person who became my literary agent—and it was off to the races from there. If somebody who has had success in the publishing world tells you enough times that you should write a book, you start to believe that it’s possible.
Kitchener: Did you identify with J.D.’s story at all?
Chua: Well, obviously there are clear differences. I’m not from Appalachia and I’m the daughter of two immigrants who have graduate degrees. So in one sense we have nothing in common. But my parents came over here with zero money. We would get to go out to a restaurant maybe once a year. J.D. and I both remember all-you-can-eat buffets. There were a lot of parallels in our lives that made it very easy for me to see where he was coming from.
Kitchener: How did you feel when Hillbilly Elegy took off?
Chua: Oh my god, I was so proud of him. But honestly, I always felt it deserved to be a bestseller. I’ve always been a huge cheerleader. In fact, I wrote a blurb for Hillbilly Elegy that was much more over the top than the one that made it on the back cover. J.D.’s editor made me tone it down! I wrote something like, “This is the best book I’ve ever read in my life.”
Kitchener: Both Battle Hymn and Hillbilly Elegy have received a ton of national attention, and both have been somewhat controversial. Did Amy give you any advice on how to deal with the press?
Vance: When I saw Amy responding to the firestorm created by her book, I just assumed that she just went about her day thinking, “Well, who cares what these people think.” It was really nice to hear that she was as bothered by criticism as I was.
Chua: That’s how it goes. Ninety-nine good things could happen, and all you can focus on is that one teeny-tiny piece of criticism.
Vance: The very first one-star Amazon review I got. I didn’t even know about it, but my aunt came up to me at the launch party that Amy threw for me, and said, “J.D., you have a one-star review. And it’s because you said nice things about Amy Chua.”
Chua: I was so upset! I was like, oh my god—I’m harming him. What we didn’t know then was that there would be 4,000 five-star reviews to come.
Kitchener: In Hillbilly Elegy, you talk about the advice that Amy gave you in law school as you were applying to clerkships. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Vance: There is this herd mentality when you’re a second-year law student that tells you to go for the biggest and most prestigious law clerkship you can get—the thing that’s going to give you the best chance of clerking for the Supreme Court. I was definitely caught up in that a little bit, even though I realized that clerking for the Supreme Court—as cool as it would be—wouldn’t really help my career goals. I already knew that I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. Amy gave me a really, really good piece of advice. She said, “You need to do something that is going to actually serve your career goals.” She also told me to focus on my relationship with this girl that I was really into. And now, five years later, that girl is 39-and-a-half weeks pregnant with our first child. Amy gave me the permission to chart my own path, both professionally and personally. It’s the best single piece of advice I’ve ever gotten.
Chua: I always thought J.D. was destined for great things, and that going the conventional route would actually slow him down.
Kitchener: Do either of you have any advice for students who are hoping to develop mentorship relationships with professors?
Vance: Don’t make it transactional. Don’t go into a relationship with a potential mentor thinking about what you can get out of it. Just get to know the person. I was initially drawn to Amy in the first place because we came from a similar place, and we had a similar way of looking at the world. Then a natural relationship grew out of that. I trusted her, so when she gave me advice, I actually took it.
Chua: There is this whole mentorship rage now. And I think a lot of professors are feeling like mentorship has gone off track. I’ll have students who will come in and say, “I don’t know what’s wrong, I’ve been here three months and I still don’t have a mentor.” I’ve said, “There is not a constitutional right to a mentor. You have to earn it like anything else in life.” I do love helping students. But those relationships need to be organic. As soon as it starts to feel transactional or entitled, it doesn’t work.
Kitchener: Often mentorship seems to go one way, and it’s clear how you’ve given J.D. guidance. Do you feel like J.D. has been a mentor to you?
Chua: Oh my gosh, absolutely. It’s exactly equal. I have learned so much from J.D. He offers me this window into a world I know nothing about. He has affected my own policy thoughts about what we should do in this country. It’s a two-way street.
Kitchener: Do you agree that it’s a two-way street, J.D.?
Vance: When it comes to my relationship with Amy, I am always afraid that I am taking too much. It means a lot to hear her say that I’m not. Amy has always been very helpful, always willing to make introductions. When the book first came out, she probably emailed every single television producer and personality in the United States of America. On the one hand, I really appreciated it. But on the other hand, I’m just not used to people of Amy’s stature being so nice.
Chua: I never knew you felt that way, J.D.
Vance: I did—especially when the book first came out, before things really took off. I felt like you were emailing me three or four times a day, telling me the things you were doing to help make the book a success. That meant a lot to me, but also I felt a little guilty—like, maybe I need to tell Amy that she can go back to her normal life!
Chua: It’s true, I emailed everybody. They were these creepy emails to people like Tom Brokaw, with lots of smiley faces and exclamation points.