Big Egos, Big Demands, and Big Results are par for the course in high-flying techland. And they’re on display in the humorous and poignant Sophia of Silicon Valley, the debut novel by Anna Yen ’91, an experienced tech executive. Sophia is a twentysomething trying to please her Taiwanese immigrant parents, who want her to go to college and marry well. She also tends to be blunt and unfiltered.
Writer Michelle McGurk spoke with Anna Yen about writing the novel. Excerpts.
What inspired you to write Sophia of Silicon Valley?
I really got the idea together when Steve Jobs passed away. And I started remembering all the things that I learned from him when working for him. And he used to talk a lot about his legacy, and it was a big focus of his. So I started thinking about the same. What is my mark on the world going to be? That was part of what inspired it. And then the second part was my nieces and nephews were quite young. They still are. And I’d been diagnosed with cancer before, and I started thinking about, what would they remember of me if I died before they got older? And I thought, well, I don’t want to be known as their aunt who just did investor relations. So I wrote the book so that I could collect and share a lot of what I learned over the past 20 years of my work experience, and make sure I shared it with the people who mattered the most to me, which was this next generation.
Why a novel instead of a memoir?
My agent said, “This is a roman à clef,” and I’m sitting on the phone going, Oh … ’cause I didn’t know what that was! It’s loosely fictionalized autobiography. It’s easier to do that because, No. 1, the lessons took place over 20 years that I have collected—20 years of wisdom, if you will. That’s a long period to write into one book. No. 2, I wanted to be sensitive to the privacy of people. Even though some of the characters are really obvious, I didn’t want to disclose everything. The third things was, I just wanted to have the creative license to make it a story that I wanted to tell.
At one point in the novel, Scott Kraft—who is a Steve Jobs–like character, tells Sophia she’s a terrible writer …
Well, English literature classes were some of my favorites at Santa Clara. But I did not have any confidence in myself as a writer at all. And yes, Steve Jobs did tell me I was a terrible writer. But one thing I learned at Santa Clara was persistence. They were very good at working with you to make sure you were happy and challenged at the school. And if you weren’t, you wouldn’t just sit back and say I’m not happy. You kept pushing because you knew it was a possibility. So when Steve Jobs told me I was a terrible writer I really felt like, Well, I’m going to prove you wrong.