Real life impacts Moraga author’s writing
By Lou Fancher
If Danielle Wong had her way, she’d be practicing her debut novelist presentation while making eye contact with Post-its placed around a room by her father. As a professional sales trainer, he’d remind her to think about the audience, engage visually with each Post-it “person,” and project her voice evenly.
But the 25-year-old Moraga-based writer knows loss: her father died in 2016 after a series of strokes left him in a coma. The mysterious autoimmune disease or diseases that caused the strokes have yet to be identified. Significantly, understandably, the experience disrupted Wong’s progress on her first book, “Swearing Off Stars” (She Writes Press).
“There was a point I didn’t think I would finish it,” she says. “Getting through that was huge for me. I wasn’t sure if writing was what I wanted to do. It turned out to be a way for me to heal.”
Wong moved with her family to Moraga in 2003. At Campolindo High School, she played varsity tennis, read books avidly for escape and accompanied her father on his business trips to more than 25 countries.
After graduating in 2013 with a degree in media studies from the University of San Francisco, she pursued her love of travel as a United Airlines flight attendant. She met and married her husband, Chris Sakauye.
Writing was a constant: on planes or late at night at her kitchen counter, Wong wrote longhand. “I’m more impulsive than ritualistic in my process, but one thing I keep is that I write in a notebook. I like the tangible aspect of brainstorming on paper.”
Her first novel is set in the 1920s, and is about an unconventional romance for its time.
“It ended up being a love story between two women. The characters developed early on so it came naturally after that,” Wong says. “They have similarities like their longing for each other, but I wanted them to be opposing forces in other ways. Lia is quiet and unsure. Scarlett is bold, outspoken, public. That’s almost what draws them together.”
The Lia character is an American studying abroad and one of the first women to attend Oxford University. Fellow student Scarlett aspires to be — and eventually becomes — a film star. The women bond in an activist group working to achieve women’s rights in education, careers and relationships. Over a span of decades, they break apart and rejoin as a romantic couple when they differ in response to societal pressure to conform.
“The hardest part of writing for me is to get out of my own head,” says Wong. “I get hung up on the way something sounds and can’t move on.”
Writing comes most easily when she experiences intense emotion. “Anger, spiritedness, despair are motivating. When I’m feeling neutral, I’ll have an idea but the words just won’t come to life.”
Researching mostly online, Wong learned facts she’d never encountered in school: Facts about women’s rights and specifically the efforts women made to matriculate in higher education institutions and withstand societal judgement about lesbian relationships.
After shopping the book to agents and traditional publishers, Wong says She Writes Press provided a supportive editor and a platform that allows her to play a major role in marketing her first novel. Strong early reviews from Kirkus and other industry review outlets make that job easier.
Wong says she discovered about herself that it’s impossible to block real life, raw emotions and even literary clichés out of the writing room.
“I reached a point — this will sound cheesy — where the characters came to life and had real emotions. In writing the ending, which has some sadness, I realized it was unnecessary to blackout my emotions about my father.”
Wong’s next project is a “thriller meets romance” novel. Attraction, affection, love, longing, personal risk and always the shadow of loss are the pivot points. Connecting and engaging with people — not just Post-its— is her purpose.