The Verifiers is about Claudia Lin, a woman who inadvertently stumbles upon a murder mystery when one of her work clients becomes a victim. Claudia works for Veracity, an online-dating detective agency. The story also weaves and examines family dynamics, her love for wuxia detective stories, and navigating through life as a gay Asian woman who’s invisible to society. This is the first book from Jane Pek.
Jennifer Lee: Did you always want to be a writer? I know you have a law degree, an MFA in fiction, and that you currently work as a lawyer. How did fiction writing enter into the equation?
Jane Pek: I have always wanted to be a writer! Writing is the one activity that has been a constant throughout my life (aside from law school when I was too consumed by reading and writing about cases to think about any extracurricular writing). Fiction is how I try to explore and understand questions about the world that I find interesting and important. I fell into law when I was a rising college senior and panicking about how I could be a productive member of society post-graduation, and once I got on that track, it was hard to get off. Now, law provides financial security and a helpful counterbalance to the writing, although I also sometimes wish I could devote more time and mind space to my fictional universes instead of having to think about indemnification provisions in contracts.
JL: How long did it take you to write this book? How did you balance a life of writing along with your other career responsibilities?
JP: From having the initial idea for what would become The Verifiers to when I sold the book, six years. I will say that I was a highly inefficient writer, though, so someone else could probably have done it in half the time. I’m most productive in the mornings, and I aim to write every morning until lawyer responsibilities drag me away.
JL: Your book tackles online dating, big data and algorithms, and artificial intelligence — all of which are hot topics today. Why did you decide to put these topics into your story?
JP: The premise for my novel started with Veracity, the idea of a mysterious online-dating detective agency in New York. As someone who used online dating myself (my wife was the first person I met on OkCupid, and vice versa!), I find the questions it raises very interesting: the role of technology in interpersonal relationships, the ability of algorithms to predict what we want (and how to differentiate that from shaping what we want), what we look for in a romantic partner, the potential for deception and the different forms that deception can take (including self-deception). For years, it wasn’t a murder mystery but instead explored more “literary” mysteries around characters’ relationships and choices—however, I struggled a bit with finding a plot that had enough narrative momentum. Finally I decided to try killing off someone and see what happened, and luckily—from an authorial perspective—that worked!
JL: How much research did you need to do? Did your background in law help at all with creating the logistics of this story? How much of this world can be lent to the stretch of your imagination?
JP: I did some reading up on the different big online-dating platforms and how online-dating has evolved over the past couple of decades. At the same time, I knew I wanted to explore how our world is becoming increasingly data-driven, and the interplay of that with the messiness of human emotions and relationships—and so the match-making world I created is one that relies on the accumulation of data and predictive algorithms, and takes seriously the possibility that a combination of AI and big data can predict our desires and behavior, and what happens in that case? Some of my work as a lawyer looks at the legal and regulatory aspects of analyzing data sets in order to derive investment insights, and that helped me think about the framework within which such a scenario could occur.
JL: The family dynamics are quite interesting since you have different generations of family members interacting with each other. There is the mother who is from Taiwan and came as an adult as the first generation, Charles and Coraline who are the 1.5 generation who were raised by their grandparents in Taiwan as kids before moving to the U.S., and there is Claudia who is born in the U.S. What made you interested in creating this sort of family dynamic?
JP: I myself am a first-generation U.S. resident, and so was interested at looking at America through that lens. However, I didn’t want my protagonist to be first-generation, as then I felt like in order for the novel to do justice to such a protagonist it would have to delve into the person’s reasons for leaving and the country they left behind. Through Claudia’s mother and siblings, I was able to explore aspects of the first-generation immigrant experience without having it become too much a focal point of the novel.
JL: Claudia is a sharp and witty woman hiding behind the veneer of a “petite, soft-spoken Asian female.” Being able to relate to that, I found it hilarious that this feature ended up working in her favor as she investigated the murder mystery. What process did you go through in creating this character? Did you have to go through several iterations of Claudias before you settled on this one or did you always know this is the type of person you wanted as your protagonist?
JP: This comes as a surprise to some readers, but Claudia wasn’t in the novel until the very last iteration of it before I submitted to agents. I always knew I wanted to write a gay female protagonist, but for the longest time I hesitated about making her Asian as well, because I didn’t want the novel to necessarily be pigeonholed as Asian-American literature, or for the character to seem too close to who I am in real life. But my non-Claudia protagonist’s backstory always felt murky, and I couldn’t get a handle on her family dynamics, which made it hard for me to build her into a compelling character.
I went so far as to think I’d finished the novel, then had the epiphany that the protagonist wasn’t working and I needed someone new altogether. Once I had that epiphany, though, Claudia arrived fully-formed, and it was easy to rewrite (and in many respects write for the first time) the novel in her voice. That was also the iteration where the book became a murder mystery.
JL: There are some troubling things uncovered by Claudia during her investigation about the technology used by dating apps and services. What were your feelings about technology before writing this book, and did it change after you finished? Did you find yourself going on a journey and struggling with what stance to take in the book?
JP: I wouldn’t say my feelings about technology changed, but there was definitely some struggle. I think a lot of us benefit from the use of the products and services that tech companies provide in our daily lives: food and grocery delivery, ride-hailing, navigation, and yes, dating. At the same time, it’s true that these tech companies are acting for their own profit, and probably the consumer has very little idea what they actually do to make that profit.
At the end of the day, I wanted to raise the questions, without necessarily coming up with the answers, since I think we all have to decide for ourselves how comfortable we feel with what we cede to technology in return for efficiency and convenience and potentially better outcomes.
JL: Claudia is Asian but her Asianness is never the main focus. Even though the story features her family sometimes, the plot is not dependent on them, which I appreciate. Often times, I feel like a lot of stories about Asian Americans are tied to painful immigrant experience, so it was nice to read a story about a woman who happens to be Asian trying to solve a mystery. Was this something you had thought about as you were creating the story?
JP: Yes, and the same goes for the fact that she’s queer (specifically, lesbian). I wanted to put such a character out into the world and let her go on adventures—how she thinks and speaks and reacts is a function of who she is, which is a young queer Asian female, among other traits, but the novel is not about her being any of those things.