Data-Driven: A Conversation with Jane Pek

April 18, 2022   •   By Naomi Elias

IN HER DEBUT NOVEL, The Verifiers, Jane Pek introduces us to Claudia Lin, a millennial New Yorker who is eager to please at her new job at a dating detective agency. The book follows the events of Claudia’s first case, an assignment that quickly goes awry when her client winds up dead and places her at the heart of a mystery that grows bigger the more she investigates it. Pek’s writing takes us on an intimate behind-the-scenes tour of the tech world to uncover secrets about the kinds of companies millions of Americans comfortably give their data to in order to find love, or something like it. The setting a workplace dedicated to figuring out how and why we lie to each other is smartly chosen, as it comes with built-in intrigue and drama. In The Verifiers, Pek balances energetic writing with measured pacing. A mystery lover herself, Pek also infused the book with cheeky self-aware nods to classic detective tropes that help thwart expectations, resulting in a debut that leaves a strong impression.

Pek lives and works in New York, but for our Zoom call in late January I caught the author while she was traveling abroad in Thailand. During our chat, she tells me about how she wanted to play with people’s perceptions of Asian women, getting inspired by wuxia (Chinese sword-fighting) shows, and why predictive technology is a double-edged sword.

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NAOMI ELIAS: Claudia Lin is a 25-year-old Chinese American who self-describes as a “petite, soft-spoken Asian female.” She says she’s invisible to the police and most of society. How did you land on her as the right protagonist for your book? Are there traits you wanted her to have and some you purposefully avoided giving her?

JANE PEK: This surprises people who have read the novel, but Claudia was actually the last piece of the novel to fall into place. For much of the time that I was writing, I actually had a different protagonist altogether who was also a gay female, but who was white and grew up in the Midwest. I think part of that was just that I didn’t want it to be that close to who I was, because then there’s always that fear that people will conflate the author with the protagonist. But that was also, ultimately, why the previous version of the novel wasn’t working. I didn’t really understand the character or the character’s family or their background and personal history that would then inform the choices that they made. Once I switched over and I made the protagonist Claudia, she just came to life very vividly and her whole family fell into place as well. That really made the novel work in that it gave it that voice.

With respect to that specific term that you brought up, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek in the sense that I do feel like that is the perception of the Asian female a lot of the time — someone who is small and quiet and doesn’t make trouble. I wanted to play on that a bit. I wanted her to present as a petite, soft-spoken Asian female who actually has a ton of opinions in her inner voice and who takes actions that you would not expect someone of that external appearance to take and to use that as a tool in a way for her to get what she wants, ultimately, in investigating this mystery.

And you do have some similarities. I noticed she likes cycling and you’re a cyclist.

Yeah, I did definitely impart the way she loves food, the way she loves cycling, the way she loves books, the way she thinks about a lot of things. But we are also distinct characters.

Of course. So, your book can be described as a technothriller. Not only because it’s set in a tech company, but also because of the centrality of surveillance in the characters’ everyday lives. Characters are monitoring and being monitored by each other left and right. What interested you about surveillance thematically?

It’s something that we know is happening and, especially over the last few years, has been gaining traction. We know that companies like Facebook and Google and Amazon, etc., are providing a lot of free services to us. And the quid pro quo for these companies is, given that these services are nominally free, the tradeoff is that they get to collect the data that you provide on their platforms in order for them to provide those services to you. Like how my Google search is getting more and more calibrated to my personal preferences and similarly with Facebook ads. 

I thought it was interesting to explore how much data we actually provide to these companies and that question of, “What could they be doing with it?” It’s more climactic than what may be happening in real life, but I just thought it’s an interesting and important question to explore and one that will only continue to be more important as we get more advanced in terms of artificial intelligence and algorithms and the ability of these technologies to precisely target what it is that they think we want or what it is that they think we are. 

And because Claudia specifically works in the matchmaking industry, is there any research you did specifically about large matchmaking services we would know about or any cases that you looked into? Because it’s very detailed, even the way their company operates, or the way data is collected. It seems like it came from a place of deep knowledge about that world.

Oh, that’s great that you think so. In my other life as a corporate lawyer, I am familiar with these types of contracts that one would have with a data vendor in terms of data sets that the vendor would sell to a client and the purposes for which these data sets are then used and the conditions around which the data can be reviewed or used or shared with other people.

Obviously, the data sets that I look at as a lawyer are very different. They’re not about people’s personal lives and dating habits. It’s more like financial data. But I used that as a framework to think, “What if we thought about people’s personal data in that same way?”

Separately, I looked into dating algorithms — and not just dating algorithms — but predictive algorithms too. Like, with Netflix, the ability to predict what movie you want to watch and similar preference algorithms like that. I looked into how those evolved over time. I specifically wanted an online dating setup which was very heavy on the data and which wanted to try and explore the possibility of using data to predict romantic compatibility. The matchmakers in my novel collect a lot of data and then use it with a view toward romantic compatibility.

There’s an interesting meta-framework in the story because Claudia’s obviously not a detective but she constantly looks to her favorite fictional detective, Inspector Yuan, for guidance and has these WWIYD moments. What’s behind that relationship?

I did that because I grew up reading a lot of genre fiction, fantasy and mystery especially. And the thing about the mystery novel is that, on one hand, it is very easy to make fun of because they have all these tropes that can be really over the top. Like the Sherlock Holmes thing where he’s able to tell that someone is, I don’t know, recently divorced and drunk and had an accident 25 years ago because of the way they wear their hat and the way they hold their stick. I felt like it would be fun to play with those tropes. And that’s how the Inspector Yuan series came in, where each one of the mysteries that she references is this obviously exaggerated version of a murder mystery.

I also grew up in Singapore and I watched a lot of the wuxia TV shows and Chinese martial arts movies and so I was like, “Wouldn’t it be fun if I just made this fictional murder mystery a wuxia series?” So that’s in there. I liked the idea that Claudia would actually draw her detective rules from this obviously silly murder mystery series, but that every now and then that would actually work out for her.

Do you have any favorite mystery authors yourself? 

From the classics, Poirot would be my favorite. I read a lot of Agatha Christie. I also read Josephine Tey, which I came to a bit later. She’s also a Golden Age murder mystery author. And then, more contemporary picks like — this is more police procedural — but I love Tana French. I think she writes characters so well. A couple of authors that I started reading more recently are Steph Cha, who writes a Korean American detective series, and Rachel Howzell Hall. Both their novels are set in Los Angeles; for the latter, it’s a Black female LAPD homicide detective. What I love about those books, the more contemporary ones, is that they are as much about the detective as they are about the mystery. That was also what I wanted to write when writing my novel.

Claudia mentions in Yuan’s line of work there are “tuning fork” questions that help him ferret out criminals. Were there any tuning fork questions you asked yourself that helped you break this story? 

I will say that the mystery was just really hard for me to figure out. I knew that I didn’t want to get the police involved because I didn’t want it to go down that route of evidence and forensics and CSI and all that so that was how I ended up with a murder that looked like a suicide. The idea of the locked-room mystery came along a little bit later, but I like that because that is very classic detective. I think ultimately in terms of the questions that I asked, in terms of figuring out who was responsible and how the pieces come together, I think it would be: What were their motivations for doing this? What would be large enough to cause someone to make such a big decision as to actually kill someone?

I think the distant nature of the crime itself felt similar to the way that we live our lives mediated through tech right now … just a bunch of clicks on an internet browser however many miles away so you can disassociate yourself from the consequences of that action. Everything is layers removed and as a result the consequences of our actions maybe don’t feel as full and as deep as they would if you were actually there doing whatever it is that you are doing behind a screen.

That kind of leads into a quote from Korean director Bong Joon-ho that kept popping up in my head as I read: “We all live in the same country, it’s called capitalism.” He was, of course, suggesting a reason for why Parasite’s portrayal of class and social inequality resonated globally, but in this book the capitalist agenda is almost its own character. It’s like a shadow player governing the killer’s actions as well as the other characters. Can you talk about that a little? Am I reading too much into it?

I will say that with one character, I wanted someone who did something wrong, but was not a villain, if that makes sense. I wanted to try and make them a fully formed complex character who came to feel like this one thing was so important that they would make increasingly dubious choices in order to obtain what they wanted. And then, like you said, at the end of the book, it’s revealed that this thing that they have built has now been co-opted by the private equity owners of the company to try and further their aims, which in some sense is the logical next step of what they created.

I feel that there is a certain inexorable logic to capitalism where you just keep taking that next step and that next step. And then, we look around and then we are now in this world where things are just moving and you just have to keep running to keep up with it. I was almost thinking more of Hannah Arendt when she was talking about with the whole Nazi setup where individuals became cogs in that machine. You just pull a lever or you press a button and you don’t see the ramifications of your actions 10 steps down.

I am in no way comparing capitalism to fascism, but I do think that they’re both very complex systems and I think individuals go into that system and they become part of that system and then it’s just something that you have to keep up with. Right now, we are also seeing some of that in terms of the way that people are reacting to their jobs and the Great Resignation and all that. I think they’re realizing, wait, Why is the world moving so fast? Why must everything happen right now? Why can’t we just disconnect a bit from what we are doing? I think that is, in some ways, the logical outcome of what our capitalist system has created.

Final question. We didn’t really talk about it, but Claudia is a queer character. It’s so rare to have a queer Asian woman in a novel period, but especially as the lead and as a detective character. I was so nervous about her coming out to her mom. I was like, “Oh my God, this is more stressful than the murder investigation,” because I’m not familiar with how a Chinese family would deal with a coming-out story. Why was it important to you and the story that she’s queer? Can you talk about that a little bit? 

Oh yeah, definitely. I think it was always important for me to have Claudia be gay and just interested in girls and clear in her mind that she was interested in girls. Part of it was just, I mean, growing up I did not have any of those books so whenever I read books I had to project myself into the mind of the straight protagonist. I would love for there to be more books with gay female characters who are just exploring and having relationships and having that be just a part of the book. I have actually been seeing more, especially in science fiction, a lot of books with gay female protagonists, and that’s just part of who they are.

At the same time, I did want that fact that she wasn’t out to her mother to be a line of tension throughout. Originally, I had thought of not even having that semi-coming-out scene and just having her live her life and save that particular fight for another day. I wrote the coming-out scene the way I did because it feels to me like Claudia and her mother are people who don’t talk about such things, instead they talk around such things. I wanted to write a scene where the two of them would basically be communicating what they were really trying to say in their own way and they would both understand what the other person’s response was even though none of that was explicitly said. I feel like that can sometimes be more true to life in certain more traditional Asian families. At the end of the day, I think it’s very important for there to be more books with LGBTQ protagonists and to have those characters falling in love and having relationships and making their way through the world, so it was important to me to have my own protagonist be that as well.

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Naomi Elias is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared online and in print at a variety of publications including Longreads, New York Magazine, Nylon, and Electric Literature.