On Fiction Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
is a writer, editor, musician and filmmaker, and not necessarily in that order (it depends on time of day). He is co-editor of the long-running literary journal Caveat Lector, a lover of fiction and film criticism, and is striking out with his first short story collection, China Girl. He currently resides in San Francisco, although his wanderlust has led him to many different countries, including a stint in Asia.
1. When and why did you start writing fiction?
My mother (who was a translator and author in her own right) loved reading, and was poring through Rex Stout mysteries when she was pregnant with me, so it’s fair to say that I’ve had an appreciation of literature from the womb. My first direct contact with fiction probably came with the children’s book “Goodnight Moon” — my brain registered the unreality of the narrative, as we move from day to night in just a few pages, but I was inspired by its creativity, as time collapsed. I wanted to be on the other end of that exchange, constructing something that would give a reader a similar sense of “wow.”
My first attempts at fiction came when I was four, drawing picture stories without dialogue, usually trying to reproduce events from the 1960s “Batman” TV show from my mind. Soon “Batman” gave way to “Star Wars,” and all might have been lost, but fortunately I also started reading E.W. Hildick’s McGurk mysteries (always back to mysteries for me), which impelled me to write stories with full-fledged, honest-to-goodness text. Of course these stories were pale rip-offs of Hildick’s work, with dynamic titles such as “The Case of the Dead Dog,” but my path had been set. Years later, at a fiction workshop at Brown University, one of our exercises was to create a vignette around the discovery of a dead dog in the woods! Life is indeed circular.
2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older writers traditional and contemporary?
The influence and shadow of other writers is unavoidable, and it’s been the case for me for a long time. From the start, really, with my E.W. Hildick pastiches. I think all writers are impressionable to some extent, and it ‘s sometimes challenging to avoid parroting my influences. Anyone who’s been through a standard English major curriculum in university can’t help but be keenly aware of who else is out there.
On the other hand, I’ve been lucky enough to study under authors such as Robert Coover, Robert Stone and John Barth, and draw encouragement from them to go my own way. I like to think that I’m old enough now that I’ve established a middle ground in my writing which acknowledges what’s come before, but also makes room for my own quirks and identity. It’s a sports cliche for a superstar to say, “I can’t worry about being the next [insert legendary superstar name here], I just gotta be me,” but I’ve tried to follow that advice in my own writing. It helps that I’m also a long-time musician, and long ago came to grips with the fact that I’ll never be Paul McCartney. When you learn early in life that you can’t be your idols, you can then move on.
2.1. What did you learn from Robert Coover, Robert Stone and John Barth?
I studied hypertext with Bob Coover (back when linking from one webpage to another was a miraculous thing), and in the process learned that I could play around with the form as well as the content of my work. From a workshop with Robert Stone, I learned how to be tougher on my writing (as one would expect from a two-fisted writer like Robert Stone). And from John Barth, I learned how to let my imagination wander off down cul-de-sacs, blind alleys, and scenic byways, leading to unexpected (but sometimes welcome) destinations.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
I have no routine at all, which is probably the antithesis of what every good writer should do. Most of the time I ruminate and take notes, and when the dam is fit to burst, I’ll write out huge chunks in single settings. Sometimes it takes a week, sometimes a month. I find that this “process” works for short stories, in which I can maintain a consistent rhythm and feel for a short burst. Longer works are a bigger challenge, but my writing tends to coalesce around vignettes and compartmentalized narrative bits, so I’ve gotten by so far. Maybe one day I’ll grow up and commit to writing like committing to a 9-to-5 gig.
4. What motivates you to write?
I’m inspired most by situations — whether it’s something I happen upon as life happens, or something I read about. Even a scrap of conversation or story is usually enough to get ideas ping-ponging around my head, and from there it’s only a matter of time before I’m compelled to apply the written word. I’m also strongly impacted by locales. Lost in an unfamiliar city, or alone in an expanse of landscape — the experience of getting out in the world somehow draws me into my own mind, and allows me to imagine happenings in these places. Wordsworth says plenty on the subject. Finally, I’m motivated by the art around me, whether it’s a book, a film, or a song. In “China Girl,” I count six stories that owe at least a partial genesis from a movie or song snippet, or a particular writer. Usually these moments lead me down a path where I move away from pastiche and towards something of my own. At least, that’s the theory.
5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Paul Bowles looms large for me, both in the quality of his writing and his subjects (interlopers and visitors out of their depth in foreign lands). He ranges from the naturalistic to the phantasmagoric, and I’ve tried to stretch in those directions in my own stories. I hesitate to call Haruki Murakami a “young” influence since he’s always been present, but he had a huge impact back in my college days, particularly “A Wild Sheep’s Chase.” In that novel, his narrator describes himself as five-foot-seven, 130 pounds, twentysomething and rootless, which described me to a T at the time I first read it. He has a melancholic sense of whimsy, and I think many of “China Girl”‘s stories appropriate that tone.
Lawrence Durrell is another young influence who is making his way back into my writing. I’m working on a novel that features intersecting plot threads and character perspectives, and in my view, Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet is a masterpiece of that kind of intricate construction.
5.1 Which young influences are calling to you again, and how do they manifest themselves in “China Girl”?
It all goes in circles: I was heavily into genre fiction when I was young (Agatha Christie and Isaac Asimov), and as I grew older I became more aware of their particular limitations as writers, and moved on to postmodernism (and probably a few other -isms). Now I can revisit them and appreciate what they brought to their work in terms of plot and shape. With my own writing, I’ve been through more experimental (chaotic?) phases, and now I find myself looking to simplify, compress and streamline, so my young influences are calling to me again. Call it a second childhood, but everything old does eventually become new.
6. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
She’s been around a while, but I enjoy Jane Gardam’s work — most of her books are “quiet,” but they marry plot, tone and style effortlessly. I think they’re quite magical. Lydia Davis is another current favorite — she’s such a master of wit and compression, two qualities often lacking in my own writing. And even though he’s no longer with us, I’ve been getting into Roberto Bolaño. He tackles weighty subjects and moral themes, but he has a certain lightness, a surety of voice, that I find appealing.
7. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Writing is about craft and inspiration — you learn your craft from all the literature that has come before, but you have to live a life to find inspiration. I’m sure examples exist of fantastic writers who thrived based purely on their own imaginations, but most of us need to engage with the world to find the raw materials that fuel what we write. Don’t lock yourself in your head, and if you’re always out in the world, make time to ruminate and compose.
I would also advise a healthy mix of confidence and skepticism. Have faith that what you want to say matters — because heaven knows no one else will do it for us — but be open to the idea that it might not, or that what you say can always be improved upon. Find a community of writers who can nourish and challenge you. I’ve been in workshops and groups that didn’t necessarily “get” my writing, and I’ve come across writers who are so convinced of the rightness of their path that no amount of criticism is allowed to penetrate their hermetically sealed defenses. Finding that sweet spot in-between is challenging but worth it. Assume nothing, have the courage to forge ahead in everything.
Finally, once you’re in a position to get your work out, champion it as much as you can. I’m no marketing genius, in fact it’s my last favorite aspect of the writer life, but one must find ways to gain attention. Use your social networks, contact influencers, or just go out and meet people. Even hiring some publicity help for a few hours can make an impact. You might be surprised by how little things can build momentum, and then suddenly it’s not such a chore.
8. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
“China Girl” is a short story collection in which all the stories have something to do with Asia, even if only tangentially. The earliest story in the collection dates to 2002 and the latest to 2017. Some of the tales are naturalistic in approach, while others are more fantastical and fable-like. Nonetheless, some of the happenings that might seem imaginary are based on true events, and vice-versa. Ultimately, the collection is a dialogue between East and West — sometimes political and sometimes personal — seen through the prism of my Asian-American upbringing.
I’m currently dividing my time between two projects: a contemporary novel set in Shanghai, which hinges on a mysterious disappearance (as I said, shades of Lawrence Durrell), and editing travelogues of my late mother’s numerous visits to China during her lifetime. The latter combines the personal and the cultural, as we witness China’s changes over the years, and also learn about my mother’s family story, including reunions with relatives and friends she hasn’t seen in decades.
Thanks for taking the time to interview!