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.