My friend Kat Asharya, writer, filmmaker, and all-around life guru, tagged me to do this Next Big Thing Q&A that’s been making the web rounds. I gotta admit, writing out these answers was hard! Even if I feel like I’m constantly writing artist statements and work plans for grants and residency applications, actually talking about writing my book, about the thing that’s pretty much consumed my free time for the past three years, makes me just a little uncomfortable. So in the interest of doing things that are hard for me because they are actually good for me, here goes:
What is the working title of your book?
What genre does your book fall under?
It is a novel. Literary fiction. An American/APA/immigrant/NYC/diaspora novel with a musical soul.
Where did the idea come from?
The initial idea was born out of real-life events, the stories of Xiu Ping Jiang and Cirila Baltazar Cruz. These articles infuriated me and haunted me for a long time. I was struck not only at the injustice involved, but also about what they said about how we live and how we as a country treat our own. Contradictory questions like: Why are some immigrants valued for labor, yet not valued as actual human beings? How could a woman be “allowed” into the U.S. to work, but not granted the right to keep her own child? Not to mention the very ugly and real history of white families adopting children of color when their parents are still alive and able to care for them. And the hundreds of thousands of parents who have been deported and separated from their children. And the lack of transparency in the privatized immigrant detention industry.
Mostly I was struck by how incredible these stories were – so preposterous as to seem almost unbelievable, but actually true to life. How richly they encompassed the messed-up world we lived in. While the first chapter I wrote, which is now somewhere in the middle of the book, loosely fictionalized Xiu Ping Jiang’s fateful bus ride to Florida, the novel is not actually based on or about Jiang or Cruz. Rather, their circumstances became a springboard for a fictional world that is also reflective of a real world.
As the great Toni Morrison said in this Paris Review interview: “If I write about somebody who’s a historical figure like Margaret Garner, I really don’t know anything about her…. [I]f I had known all there was to know about her I never would have written it. It would have been finished; there would have been no place in there for me. It would be like a recipe already cooked. There you are. You’re already this person. Why should I get to steal from you?”
What is your book about? Continue reading »
Continue reading »
Oops. I haven’t updated this website since October. How did that happen? How can an entire season just pass by like that?
This is my first real day off in months. I’m having the most incredible introvert’s Sunday of staying inside the apartment in my sweatpants (it’s snowing out!) all day, working on my novel here and there, drinking coffee, cooking soup, talking to nobody. I haven’t ever been alone in this apartment for so many hours, seeing daylight come in through the windows instead of night.
Finally, everything seems like it is getting back on track. In November, I packed up the studio apartment I’d been living in for four years. In December, my boyfriend and I moved into a new-to-us two-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg. January was a long cold slog of unpacking and painting and Home Depot runs and trying to make the space livable. I’ve also been working a full-time in-office job this whole time, so my solo writing stints have tragically fallen to the wayside, the novel feeling like it’s been extinguished in its final lap. So close! Too bad. (Recent realization: no time to work on writing makes me unbearable to be around.) But no longer! 7:30am wake-ups a few mornings a week to sneak in some paragraphs before work, a L.A. long weekend just around the corner with the promises of a beach house and some quiet time, and last week, the news that I’m off to a residency after my contract job ends in late March – finishing this thing seems like a real possibility again, a 2013 sure thing. All I can keep repeating is you got this, you got this, you got this.
1.) 1993: My first temp job was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I answered the phone at a construction company in an anonymous office park in New Jersey. The director’s name was “Colin.” He pronounced his name with a long O, Powell-style, and was always running off to the bathroom in a post-lunch emergency, stopping at my desk to clutch his belly and moan: “Lisa, please hold my calls, ooh-wee, that was a spicy lunch today.” Before I left I “liberated” stacks of Post-It notes and notepads from the supply closet, which fueled my compulsive to-do list habit for years.
2.) 1994: The summer before I started college, I filled in at a long-forgotten company for an administrative assistant who was leaving her job. It turned out she was the mother of one of my high school classmates, a girl I’d never spoken to or even been in a class with, though we’d been at the same school for four years. Our existences were completely peripheral to one another: she was blonde, popular, perky, a cheerleader for the football team. I was one of maybe five students of color in the entire grade, the editor of the high school newspaper, and my hobbies included scowling, agitprop art, and an attitude of cultural superiority that poorly masked my massive insecurities and self-hatred.
The mother of my classmate recognized my name, oddly enough. She looked like her daughter’s shorter-haired older sister, and was probably a good seven years younger than my own mother. She trained me for two days before leaving and assumed the task of trying to improve me, telling me that I was too serious. “It wouldn’t hurt to smile more. Lighten up… turn that frown upside down!” (My mother often expressed similar sentiments.) This made me hate her even more, and I was relieved when she finally left me alone to draft memos and write ten-page letters to my pen-pals, print them out on office stationery, and mail them via the office postage meter.
In retrospect, I wonder what it must have felt like for her to “train” her successor, a girl who was her own daughter’s age, still in high school, when she herself had been working at this job for years. And me, who was “only temping” before leaving for college at a four-year private school, who thought she was too good for the likes of cheerleaders (and blondes). My classmate’s mother was right; I could have taken myself far less seriously. I was a brat and a snob. The job was a lark for me, a way to make a few more bucks because it paid better than food service. It was ironic and amusing for me to play secretary for a few weeks over the summer and make a little cash for college. But it had been her career.
3.) 1997: My last year of college, I had a week-long job in a desolate highway office park in central Connecticut, at a company that manufactured magnetic parts. My job was to answer a phone that never rang. Sitting at the front desk, I read all of Infinite Jest that week, all 1,100 pages of it. I’d bought the book out of morbid curiosity months before, but could never bring myself to start reading it because I felt so deeply irritated by DFW’s long-hair-and-bandana author pic on the back cover, and what I thought was his arrogance in daring to write a book that fucking long. But what better time to read it – read all of it! – than while on the clock? The phrase “cold foamer” still floats sweetly into my head from time to time, like the memory of an old crush.
4.) 2003: I was in between jobs in San Francisco, forever trying to work on the same collection of short stories and never succeeding, when I was called in for a short-term gig at a tax attorney’s office downtown. “Just some light editing and typing, probably legal briefs and documents like that,” the agency told me. I was shown a desk with a computer and a large stack of paper. The lawyer instructed me to input the hard-copy changes into a Word version of the document. No problem! I began light editing and typing away.
The first pages detailed a scene at a dinner party. Straight narrative, with dialogue, setting, the works. I’d read amicus briefs before, and was vaguely familiar with legal writing, but this document was unusually descriptive. “I guess it makes sense for lawyers to be descriptive when writing these briefs, in order to really get into the case,” I thought. “That’s cool.”
But by page six things started to get weird. There was talk of interplanetary travel, even time travel. And I realized I had been hired on the company’s dime to input edits for the tax attorney’s science fiction novel. There were nearly 700 typed pages of novel, with long, detailed diversions into the legal and government systems of the different planets – Planet Axon’s was parliamentary – as well as some handwritten scenes he later had me type up, which rewrote parts in first person and played around with tenses.
Eventually I let it slip that I was also a writer and had worked as an editor. “Well, do you think it could get published?” he asked me.
The writing was clunky. There were a lot of lines like “Hurriedly, she flew towards the stairs. Glintingly, his gimlet eyes turned towards her cape.” But I said sure, he should try to get it published. Because even if I was going through a self-righteous phase of eliminating all adverbs at all times from all my writing (They must be purged! howled the rules-hungry students of creative writing workshops everywhere) there was one true difference between him and me: He had finished his book. I hadn’t finished mine.
P.S. If anyone knows how I could get paid a lawyer’s salary to finish my book at work, hit me up.
Part of being a writer and a freelancer is playing the waiting game. It’s having a love-hate relationship with the unknown.
Waiting to hear back from editors about story and essay submissions.
Waiting to hear back from potential clients, job placement agencies, and hiring managers I’ve sent resumes.
Waiting for certain emails to be returned.
Waiting on other big life changes: leaving my apartment of four years (the longest I’ve ever lived in one place as an adult!) and making a significant move in December (still in NYC – but still).
Waiting for my novel to be revised. This is 100% up to me, of course. But some days, it feels almost impossible. Hard to focus with all the waiting. Some days, I feel lucky if I’m able to hammer out a paragraph or rewrite a scene or two.
In between days.
I had such a breakthrough the other day when my writing group mentioned – and they certainly weren’t the first! – that my characters often felt distant, that while I was great at creating scenes and action and dialogue and place, it wasn’t clear what my characters were feeling. That the interior worlds of my characters were vague, blocked.
But what? I protested. I write my characters’ thoughts all the time.
But it’s not the same, they said, as what your characters are feeling.
Here’s the thing: it makes sense that I struggle with this. It’s hard for me to show what I’m feeling, so of course my characters can’t, either. And without that, the novel falls short. This is why it’s always almost-there-but-not-quite.
All I’ve been thinking about for the past 48 hours is how to put that feeling into my scenes. I’ve spent two days rewriting half of the first chapter, and already it feels different, more alive. I’m pretty sure I’m on to something big. I hope so.
Every time I think I’ve figured this thing out, something comes along and smacks me awake. It was mind-blowing to realize, a few years back, that I could learn to be an expert on plot and story and tension and prose, but unless I was getting honest (EEK) and vulnerable (SHUT THE HELL UP) with myself, my writing would never connect. My characters would be numb and distant and the reader would not connect.
It’s a mind game, I tell you.
So I had a good summer. Sublet my apartment for three months and took off. Visited my grandma in Toronto, spent a week at a silent meditation retreat, researched and rewrote for a month at the beautiful I-Park residency in Connecticut, then traveled around Central America with my boyfriend in August. When I got back to my apartment last week, I realized it had been months since I’d last been alone.
I’m feeling scattered. I need to find a job – a full-time steady would be ideal, but for now, temp or freelance will do. I need to finish my novel. I was on track all summer, lots of productive manuscript surgery during the residency, then put the thing on my Kindle and had plans to read it over for some big macro edits in a new format while traveling, imagining myself on a beach in El Salvador with the Kindle in one hand and a notebook and pen in the other, scribbling down the strings I’d need to tighten when I got back to New York. So productive! So smart! But a week and a half into our month-long trip, I turned the Kindle on and nothing happened. The damn thing died on me. No more novel manuscript, and none of the books I’d uploaded to read, feeling so congratulatory that I’d manage to pack a couple thousand pages of book in my backpack for the weight of less than one actual book.
I cut my losses and figured it would be good to take a break. Not too hard when you’re on an island looking at a volcano or in a rain forest on a river or watching surfers at the beach. But when I came back, fresh, it took me days to open up my novel. And when I started reading? My first thought: I hate this. Or, maybe I’ll just – delete it. Three years isn’t that long to have spent on something that might never see the light of day. It’s probably time to start a new project, anyway. I’m tired of these characters.
Writing is a mind game. There are the days when I’m convinced that I’ll get this thing out into the world if it’s the last thing I’ll do. Other days, I can’t even look at it, never mind read it over for what seems like the sixtieth time. I worry that I’m almost thirty-seven years old and I’ll have a 350-page draft sitting on my hard drive forever. (If a novel never gets published, does it make a sound?)
Someone told me this today. “Everything you are doing now is exactly right.” I’m trying to carry it around with me as I open the monster Word document and click through the paragraphs again. Not bad, I think. Again. Almost there. Everything I’m doing is exactly right. Again, this is where I need to be.
Clean out your office. Hand in your faculty keys. Input final grades. Pack up the apartment. Live out of two bags for three months. Hit the road. Revise that novel for the final time.
For today, though, it’s just some spring drizzle, slight whirlwind, piles of paper, and the promise, oh the promise.
Fuzhou mopeds everywhere
One year ago, I was in Fuzhou, China. I was researching my novel, Jackpot – Fuzhou and Fujian Province figure prominently in several parts – as well as making a well-timed getaway from a particularly snowy New York winter. Little did I know that it would be cold in Fuzhou. No indoor heat, only a damp chill everywhere, and me very unprepared with only the lightest of spring jackets (the next stop was 90-degree Malaysia, followed by a beach in Thailand). I wore four shirts layered over one another for a week straight, walked myself lost, shivered.
This January, I’m home, in Brooklyn. It’s only the second east coast January I’ve had in the past ten years, and I’m taking the month to write as much as I can. No classes to teach, minimal freelance work. And a 100,000-word monster that’s taunting me to be reshaped and rebuilt. Time is running out!
Can I survive January? I’m winter adverse. I’m scared of the cold. I’m scared of the darkness, too, because I’m too good at the darkness – too much more and I’m done for. But I’ve been holding up my end of the bargain, this year.
Here’s what I’ve figured out works for me, and my writing, and my winters (after many years of figuring out what doesn’t work):
Continue reading »
Continue reading »
On his last day at the job he’s worked for twenty-two years, Sam walks downtown from his office in midtown Manhattan. He wanders into a record store in Greenwich Village, a relic from another era. Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” is playing on the speakers. After rifling through the miscellaneous bins, he decides to buy the Laura Nyro album with her cover of “Up on the Roof,” which he remembers listening to in the late Sixties in his Brooklyn apartment, when “records were like lovers to him.”
I’m revising some short stories from my never-ending linked story collection in progress (new working title, “The Leavers”). It’s been a good break from the novel. Each of the stories is narrated from a different member of one family, in a different time, over a period of forty years.
Whenever I write, I like to make a playlist for the story or the chapter I’m working on. Right now, I’m working on a story narrated from the point of view of Sam, the father in the family. Here’s what I’m listening to with Sam:
Teresa Teng’s “Goodbye My Love.” If there’s any recording artist that embodies the treacly fatalism, lost dreams, and steely resolution masking the throbbing sentimentality that runs (hidden, of course) through the veins of any Chinese American immigrant family, it’s Teresa Teng. Beautiful, angel-voiced, and favoring sad love songs, her life story is more tragic than the songs themselves: she died suddenly at 42 from an asthma attack, with a funeral rivaling that of Princess Di’s. Did I mention that she was beautiful? And young? And died a tragic, sudden death? This song (and “The Moon Represents My Heart”) is so embedded in my subconscious that I nearly inadvertently tear up just hearing those first cloying synth strings. Sam would agree, and be able to sing along, but only after a few drinks. Zaijian! Zaijian!
Bee Gees, “How Deep is Your Love.” From Teng’s angel songstress to the leonine boys’ chorus of the Bee Gees: Sam once had this song on eight-track. He and his wife would play this at parties, shag carpet tickling their bare feet, along with the ABBA Spanish album. Back then, eight-track was the wave of the future, and proudly having reached something close to middle class, Sam and his family were all about the technological future. It’s why Sam still holds onto his dusty cassette tape collection (alphabetized, and in the back of a shoe closet in a series of sagging Florsheim shoeboxes), though he hasn’t owned a working tape player in years.
- February 2013
- October 2012
- September 2012
- May 2012
- January 2012
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- September 2010
- June 2010
- February 2010
- November 2009
- July 2009
- March 2009
- October 2008
- July 2008
- February 2008
- December 2007
- November 2007
- October 2007
- September 2007
- July 2007
- May 2007
- March 2007
- February 2007
- January 2007