Date December 21, 2023
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Award-winning novelist Katherine J. Chen sets out to reach new literary heights at Brown

A first-year student in Brown’s English Ph.D. program, Chen recently received the 2023 American Library in Paris Book Award for her novel about Joan of Arc.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As she accepted the American Library in Paris Book Award for her novel “Joan,” based on the story of French heroine Joan of Arc, author and Brown University doctoral student Katherine J. Chen was inspired to share something she studied in class this semester.

Katherine Chen holds her book "Joan"
Katherine Chen is pictured with her book, "Joan," at the American Library in Paris Book Awards. Photo courtesy of the American Library in Paris.

Standing at a podium in Paris’s Hôtel de Talleyrand, Chen cited a text by the philosopher and critic Georg Lukács, whose work she encountered through a Brown graduate course called Theory and Theory of the Novel: “The content of the novel is the story of the soul that goes to find itself, that seeks adventures in order to be proved and tested by them, and, by proving itself, to find its own essence,” she quoted. 

Joan of Arc’s story, she added, is the “wonderous crystallization” of “the story of the soul that goes to find itself.” 

Chen, 33, took a brief break from classes at Brown late this fall to travel to France and accept the award, becoming the youngest person and first Asian American to receive the honor. Each year, the American Library in Paris Book Award recognizes a title, published originally in English, “that best realizes new and intellectually significant ideas about France, the French people or encounters with French culture.”  

The award, Chen said, was an acknowledgement that she had accomplished what she had set out to do with her feminist retelling of one of France’s most famous patron saints, a peasant girl who in 1429 led the French army in a momentous win at Orléans during the Hundred Years’ War and was later captured and killed.

“I wanted to turn a monument, a historical icon, back into flesh and blood,” said Chen, who is from Wayne, New Jersey. “The award was symbolic of the conclusion of this quest I had embarked on.”

When Chen arrived at Brown in Fall 2023 as a first-year Ph.D. student in English, she was already an accomplished author of two works of literary historical fiction: “Joan,” along with her first novel, “Mary B,” about the overlooked middle sister in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

What Brown has done for me so far is introduce me to texts that have challenged and pushed the boundaries of my reading, that have also asked equally challenging questions of what I have read in the past and what I think I already know.

Katherine J. Chen First-year student in Brown’s English Ph.D. program
Katherine Chen in a Brown classroom

Starting a rigorous doctoral program at a moment when her career as a novelist is on the rise may be an unconventional choice. But Chen said it’s the best thing she can do to “elevate the tenor of my writing.” Studying Lukács’ text was one of many learning experiences that have shaped her writing and thinking.

“What Brown has done for me so far is introduce me to texts that have challenged and pushed the boundaries of my reading, that have also asked equally challenging questions of what I have read in the past and what I think I already know,” Chen said. “What is perhaps more important: Brown has given me the space to wrestle with these texts.”

Chen said her first semester in the program has inspired her to raise her expectations of what she might be able to accomplish through her next novel, which is based on the complex sibling relationship between King Arthur and Morgan le Fay.

“My idea for the scope of the next book has changed,” Chen said. “The goalposts have quite drastically moved.”  

The manuscript is due in September 2025, as part of a two-book deal with the publisher Random House, where she works with editor Caitlin McKenna, a Brown alumna. Random House granted Chen a one-year extension on the initial due date so she can focus on her studies, she said.

“My editor was happy for me to begin my program because she has fond memories of Brown and life in Providence,” said Chen, who met McKenna through an early-career job at a literary agency in New York.

Katherine Chen in class
Katherine Chen (right), pictured in class at Brown, is an award-winning novelist and a first-year Ph.D. student in English. Photo by Nick Dentamaro.

Before enrolling at Brown, Chen had a conversation with Professor of English and American Studies Daniel Kim, who directs the Ph.D. program, which helped her confirm that pursuing a Ph.D. at the University was the right choice.

“It was instrumental in my deciding to come here because there was this congeniality about him — this openness — that I wasn’t expecting,” said Chen, who this fall completed a course instructed by Kim and another taught by Assistant Professor of English Benjamin Parker.  

While the program has recently seen an increase in applicants with creative writing backgrounds, “usually, students don’t come in with a published novel,” Kim said.

He added that Chen, who studied English at Princeton University as an undergraduate and holds a master of fine arts in creative writing from Boston University, has been modest about her accomplishments. 

“She’s very funny and very self-deprecating,” Kim said. “And she’s really smart. She has an excellent sense of craft about her writing. My colleagues and I are all proud of her and thrilled that she received the American Library in Paris Book Award.” 

A dedication to the craft

Chen was inspired to write both of her novels during difficult periods in her life. She penned “Mary B” as her family was dealing with bankruptcy and worked on “Joan” after losing a job and while undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer. She describes writing “Joan” at home in New Jersey in a windowless, unventilated closet as “almost a monastic experience.” She would challenge herself to write a certain number of words each day.

“Poverty has been a driving force with my writing,” she said. “Desperation is hugely motivating.”

“Joan,” published by Random House in July 2022, was hailed as “a force to be reckoned with” by Publishers Weekly, and Booklist described it as “a revolutionary reimagining of Joan of Arc.” The two-time Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel provided a blurb for the front cover of the book about a year before she died; Chen said she believes Mantel’s support helped legitimize the novel and opened doors for it to be reviewed in prominent publications, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

The award notice from the American Library in Paris Book Award highlighted Chen’s ability to “subvert the old, dusty narratives about the ardent virgin warrior” and create “a flawed, complicated and compelling heroine for our age.”

When Chen wrote “Joan” in 2018 and 2019, she had never set foot on French soil and could not afford the trip. So, she was thrilled that receiving the award this fall enabled her first visit to Paris, which included a private guided tour of the city by the docent of the American Library in Paris.

“It was a full-circle moment that offered a beautiful conclusion to this chapter of my career,” she said.

In January, during the break between semesters at Brown, Chen plans to devote her time to researching her next novel by finishing a lengthy reading list of Arthurian texts. She also hopes to read several works by Henry James. 

“Brown has taught me that I can tackle multiple things simultaneously — and that turning my focus to a different subject which only appears, on the surface, to be unrelated to the matter of my next novel will not diminish the memory of it,” she said. “Maybe I would have achieved this in five years on my own. At Brown, that time has been condensed to a single semester.”