Iris Chang (search), a best-selling author who chronicled the Japanese occupation of China and the history of Chinese immigrants in the United States, was found dead in her car of a self-inflicted gunshot, authorities said Wednesday. She was 36.

Chang, who won critical acclaim for her books "The Rape of Nanking (search)" and "The Chinese in America," was found along Highway 17 just south of Los Gatos, Santa Clara County authorities said. On Tuesday morning, a motorist noticed her car parked on a side road, checked the vehicle and called police.

The official cause of death has not been released, but investigators concluded that Chang, who was hospitalized recently for a breakdown, shot herself in the head. She lived in San Jose with her husband and 2-year-old son.

Born in Princeton, N.J., in 1968 and raised in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Chang earned a bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of Illinois and a master's in science writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Chang worked briefly as a reporter for The Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune before leaving daily journalism to pursue her own writing. At age 25, she published her first book, "Threat of the Silkworm," which tells the story of Tien Hsue-shen, the Chinese-born physicist who pioneered China's missile program after being driven from the United States during the Cold War.

In 1997, Chang published the international bestseller "The Rape of Nanking," which described the rape, torture and killing of hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers in the former Chinese capital during the 1930s. "The Chinese in America," published last year, is a history of Chinese immigrants and their descendants in the United States.

The late historian Stephen Ambrose (search) described Chang as "maybe the best young historian we've got, because she understands that to communicate history, you've got to tell the story in an interesting way."

Chang suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized during a recent trip researching her fourth book about U.S. soldiers who fought the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II, according to her former editor and agent Susan Rabiner.

Chang continued to suffer from depression after she was released from the hospital. In a note to her family, she asked to be remembered as the person she was before she became ill — "engaged with life, committed to her causes, her writing and her family," Rabiner said.