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Lan Samantha Chang

All parents want their children to do well; not all parents want their children to become writers. Author Lan Samantha Chang chats with our man in Boston about her new novel that was 10 years in the writing, and her slide from upstanding daughter to rebel with a clause.

Author Lan Samantha Chang was born and raised in Appleton, Wis. She attended Yale, Harvard, the University of Iowa, and Stanford University. Her fiction has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, and was included in Best American Short Stories (1994). She has been the recipient of a number of fellowships and her well-regarded first book, Hunger: A Novella and Stories, received a number of prizes. Ten years in the writing, Inheritance, her first novel, was published in the summer of 2004. Chang teaches creative writing at Harvard and lives with her husband in Cambridge, Mass.

Inheritance reaches into recent Chinese history, focusing heavily on the years between 1925 and 1949. Daughter Hong narrates, from her contemporary American vantage point, the story of the fractured relationship—of her mother, Junan, and her mother’s sister, Yinan. The schism that divided them mirrors the fate of China in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Inheritance is a beautifully written story, rich in cultural detail and emotional resonance, and thus a poignant consideration of the links connecting generations. In the conversation that follows, Samantha Chang speaks of her own life, her circuitous path to writing fiction, and the 10 years she took to write her novel.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: I have to ask you this. When Jews meet, they do what they call “Jewish geography.” “Oh, Birnbaum. Do you know Such-and-Such Birnbaum?” What happens when Chinese people meet? What is the ritual?

Lan Samantha Chang: Hmm. There is a whole group of people who came to the U.S. in the ‘50s and my parents belong to that group. Seems to me that everybody knew each other—everybody knew everybody else. And they started to have children and they got their education in the U.S. and started to have children. It seems like all the children are around my age or younger. And sometimes I run into them. And our parents always know each other. So it’s kind of like that, “Oh yeah, so and so…”

RB: Pretty much a common immigrant experience.

LSC: I guess it is. Immigrants come in waves. The group in the ‘50s was coming to get an education, and so I suppose they came from similar families.

RB: On student visas thinking they were going to return to Taiwan.
Lan Samantha Chang, photographed by Robert Birnbaum
LSC: There was special program in the ‘50s [from Taiwan]. You could take a test and if you scored high enough on this test and if you got a sponsor, you could then come to the U.S. to go to college. So a whole group of people came and they all seem to know each other.

RB: [laughs] When you meet people, where do you say you are from?

LSC: Wisconsin.

RB: Wow! Do people then treat you differently?

LSC: Being from the Midwest?

RB: Yeah. And being Chinese from the Midwest.

LSC: When you said “Wow,” did you mean, “Wow, you say you are from Wisconsin and you should be saying you are from another country?”

RB: I don’t know what I meant.

LSC: I don’t know how people would treat me on the East Coast if I weren’t from Wisconsin because I don’t know what it would be like to be treated as if I were from the East Coast. See, I am, like, trapped in my experience. But—

RB: When people talk about the so-called fly-over zone, do you detect bad attitudes at play?

LSC: You mean what I call coastist attitudes?

RB: Sure.

LSC: People usually think it’s quaint or sweet or interesting to come from the Midwest, as far as I can tell. Maybe they are a bit condescending. But nothing terrible. Nothing terrible. Do you feel that way, coming from Chicago?

RB: Yes. Chicago is a great city, and that’s not acknowledged.

LSC: No, it’s not. I haven’t had quite as much experience that way. People are usually so conscious of my differentness because I look Asian that the differentness of being from the Midwest gets overshadowed a bit. I am pretty proud of my midwestern identity.

RB: You’re of Asian descent but that doesn’t seem to be how you identify yourself.

LSC: [pause] That’s how you feel looking at me? That’s your impression?

RB: You didn’t say you were from Taiwan.

LSC: But I was born in the United States. I am a midwesterner, a child of immigrants raised in the Midwest.

RB: Why didn’t your parents go to a big metropolitan area?

LSC: They were in New York City. My dad is a chemical engineer and he needed a green card to be able to stay in this country. And a town in the Midwest offered him a job from an institution that would sponsor his green card. As a result we all moved out there thinking it would just be for a little while. Like so many people feel when they move to a new place. And my parents ended up staying there. They still live in Appleton, Wis. I grew up there and went to high school there. And didn’t know anywhere else until I left.

RB: And the first place after that?

LSC: New Haven. I went to Yale.

RB: What was it like to come from Wisconsin to the East? Can we say “a sleepy midwestern town”?

LSC: I don’t know if it was sleepy. They are very energetic people. It was a quiet town. Any transition from a smallish city in the Midwest to a smallish city on the East Coast is going to be a big difference, especially in Connecticut. I remember when I was in college somebody came out with a report that there is more contrast between the rich and poor in Connecticut than in any other state in the U.S. Think about it. The cities in Connecticut, many of them were post-industrial when I went to college there. Meanwhile, the suburbs were flourishing. People were commuting into New York or commuting into Hartford. It was a real [pauses] eye-opener.

RB: Why did you choose to go to Yale?

LSC: My sister went there and I had a good impression of the school.

RB: Where else were you considering?

LSC: Growing up reading books, you get a sense of what people are like by who and where [they were schooled]. I suppose [long pause] I must have gained some sense of which schools were like by who went to them. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Princeton. Much as I admire his writing, I had the sense that Princeton wouldn’t be for me.

RB: Another Midwesterner.

LSC: True. So much emphasis on—an obsession with social life. Parties. I wanted to go somewhere serious, where I knew I could study hard and learn things. I know that sounds geeky but I was a geek. I just liked it. I liked the sound of the word [Yale].

RB: How did that become something to apologize for? Studying and wanting to learn things.

LSC: I think I should have wanted to party, growing up in Wisconsin that was kind of the norm, wanting to party. Actually, when I went to college I discovered that mostly people want to party. But I have never been a party person. I have also been kind of a one-on-one person, an introvert. I was just thinking, why Yale? I had heard that you had to take more classes at the same time there, than other schools. It just seemed more serious. And it is serious.

RB: Did you go to school with the intention of becoming a writer?

LSC: No, no. Of the Ivy League schools, if you are choosing your college education based on how much learning you are going to get in creative writing, in an undergraduate program, Princeton has a good program. And Brown has a good program.

RB: Princeton has Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. And Edmund White. Before that, Russell Banks.

LSC: Chang Rae Lee teaches there now. They have wonderful poets. They have Yusef Komunyakaa. Paul Muldoon. They have James Richardson. They have a great program, and when I did spend time there as a fellow I was keenly aware of how strong an education a creative writer could get at Princeton. On the other hand, I think this, this is true from my observation, I don’t think it particularly matters whether you study creative writing in college. It’s ironic because I now teach creative writing to undergraduates at Harvard.

RB: The same program that Jamaica Kincaid teaches in?

LSC: Yes.

RB: That Brad Watson taught in?

LSC: Yes, in fact, I am Brad Watson.

RB: [laughs]

LSC: I’m Brad’s replacement.

RB: Is it a fun place?

LSC: Yeah, it’s a good place. My title is Briggs-Copeland lecturer in creative writing.

RB: You were saying you didn’t think you needed to study creative writing.

LSC: No, that’s not what it was. Right now, coming from the other side of it, having published a couple of books, I don’t think you need to study creative writing as an undergrad. However, as an undergrad I thought that I was not studying creative writing because I thought that even though I always wanted to be a creative writer there was something [pause] inappropriate about pursuing that desire in college. So at the time I thought that I should study hard, try to learn to like the sciences, try to be a doctor. I wanted to be a dermatologist. I told them [Yale] that I wanted to be a dermatologist. I had had a rash.

RB: [laughs] If you had had a nosebleed, you would have opted for ENT?

LSC: Exactly. Probably. I don’t know.

RB: You’ve been at Yale. Spent time at Princeton. Did the School of Government at Harvard. And were a Stegner fellow at Stanford. You have done a bunch of schools.

LSC: I know. I’ve done the grand tour of great schools [laughs] on the coasts. Yeah, I have.

RB: So, could you return to the Midwest?

LSC: Oh yeah. I love the Midwest. I would love to have job teaching at a school in the Midwest. Hopefully in a town like Ann Arbor or Iowa City. A town that’s a little funky. The funky crown jewel of Iowa is Iowa City. I love the Midwest but pretty much since I started writing I have been going where the opportunities lead me. First, it led me back to Iowa City, which I love.

RB: Oh, I forgot that.

LSC: Yeah. I have lived in Iowa City three times. Two years to get my master’s. Then I applied for a whole bunch of things but I got the Stegner and stayed and taught for three years. That is a fabulous program for undergraduates. After that I taught at Iowa for a semester.

RB: So you settled down to write after Harvard?

LSC: At Harvard. OK, this is what happened. So I go to Yale thinking I am going to be a dermatologist. I knew in my heart of hearts that I hated studying science. But so many people I knew who didn’t seem to particularly enjoy things had managed to buckle down and do them—namely my family.

RB: [laughs]

LSC: All adults I know have things that they don’t like to do that they have to do. So what was my problem? So I went to college and took chemistry my freshman year and hated it—really hated it. It just made me miserable. I just don’t have the ability to concentrate for very long on things that I don’t find interesting at the time. I am not saying that’s a good trait. After that I realized that I didn’t want to be a doctor but I had what I thought was an out. Perhaps I should be a lawyer. Lawyers seemed to be good with words. Lawyers were interested in reading. Pre-law people didn’t have to study sciences. These are very short-term plans, obviously. It was like, “Can I get out of taking chemistry? Oh I know: I’ll tell my parents I am going to be pre-law.” There is no pre-law major at Yale. Instead I studied something which did interest me a great deal—East Asian studies. Mostly because I wanted to know more about my parents’ heritage and my heritage. And that was fine. I took intensive Chinese for four years.

RB: Can you write Chinese?

LSC: Some. I was better before. If you take it for four years and then you don’t work on it for a while, you lose your ability. I still have better written vocabulary than my sisters.

RB: As you learn the language, is your speaking vocabulary equivalent to your written vocabulary?
Lan Samantha Chang, photographed by Robert Birnbaum
LSC: It’s a different thing. I have a particular trouble speaking because I can’t stand the way I sound. I can hear my accent and I don’t like it. My western accent. So three of my sisters—they all speak Chinese more fluently than I do. However, I have a larger written vocabulary and a more formal vocabulary. So anyway there I was, I didn’t know what to do. Then, studying Chinese, I realized that I didn’t want to go to law school. See, this is where the short-term plans are a bad idea. I thought I would assuage everybody’s concern by saying, “I’ll go to law school.” But when it came down to it, I took the LSAT and realized when I was studying for the LSAT that it was particularly interested in the kind of thinking that I find most boring. Which is logical thinking. I did OK. I got into a law school. And then deferred. And then borrowed money from my parents and said, “Oh, parents, I just want to take a year off.” My parents were terrified. They had come to this country so that I could get an education and be well established and they had sacrificed an enormous amount. It’s the old story. They wanted me to be a professional. So they were worried about my taking a year off. I went to work in New York. I was an editorial assistant at Vintage Books for two years and at the end of the first year realized I had to think of something to do next, because my parents were so worried and because I knew I was rudderless. Even though I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t know exactly how a person went about doing this. When I was at Vintage, I discovered in the library a copy of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and I read it over and over and over. So I began to educate myself. It’s a very technical book. I think it’s a wonderful book. He’s kind of an opinionated coot. But I liked that. I like the authority.

RB: What I am hearing is that you were very deferential to your family’s concerns. Why weren’t you rebellious?

LSC: You mean rebellious, like smoking cigarettes?

RB: No, like telling your parents what you wanted.

LSC: Nobody did that.

RB: [laughs]

LSC: There was some of that, but really I did actually rebel. I am working up to the big rebellion.

RB: [laughs]

LSC: Some people never rebel.

RB: Yeah.

LSC: I think it was sort of like coming out of the closet as person who was not going to be a professional. Kind of like that. They knew I was interested in literature. My mother told me never to read any more Wizard of Oz books when I was a kid because she thought they were like marijuana. She thought that too much reading was bad.


I had this fantasy of being the normal kind of person who wore pantyhose to work and then if I had the kind of job where I wore hose than everyone would lay off my back. And I would be normal and not have these problems.


RB: So your house was not full of storybooks?

LSC: We had books. My parents didn’t encourage us to buy books. But we had a lot of books. We checked a lot out from the library. They didn’t like them because they moved around so much when they were young. And they [books] are dead weight. Now that I have them—

RB: I know.

LSC: I am horrified by them. I don’t disagree with my parents or anything. I don’t really blame them. My older sisters did do things that they [my parents] were hoping I would do. My oldest sister is an attorney and my second sister is a physician. My youngest sister is a physical therapist—so she has a profession in medicine—and I just never wanted to. And they had to come to terms with that. So I tried to figure out what to do after New York. [I] went to the Kennedy School of Government. Literally thought, “What can I do to get everybody off my back? I know, I’ll go to the Kennedy School. But I have these secret plans.” I went to the program at the Kennedy School where you can basically take anything you want for two years as long as half of the classes are at the Kennedy School and you can somehow justify what you are taking. I wasn’t gutsy enough to justify taking a creative writing course but I started taking a lot of courses at the school of education. And they were very helpful. I started to think a lot. I can’t explain it. They are very nurturing classes. At the Kennedy School I was surrounded by very, very wonderful, intelligent, well-meaning people who wanted to change the world and solve problems. An assignment would go like this: Read this description of the Detroit debt crisis of 1978, a case study, now write a two-page memo solving the crisis. And what I discovered in myself was not the desire to solve problems but the desire to describe problems. I didn’t realize this was what was happening at the time. What I did know was that I woke up one morning and thought, “I can’t do this anymore.” You know, I like hate this and I hate this and I’m never going to do this. I have no interest in this; if I do this I will never become—I had this fantasy of being the normal kind of person who wore pantyhose to work and then if I had the kind of job where I wore hose than everyone would lay off my back. And I would be normal and not have these problems. Not feel generally bored and despairing with what I was doing, which was basically my problem. But it didn’t work and I finally faced facts and started taking classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education while I was at the Kennedy School. And that summer I took—between my two years I took classes at the Boston Center for Adult Education, and basically decided I was going to put my writing first. It was what I really wanted to do. Forget all this trying to get a professional life. From now on I am going wake up and write every day instead of doing my assignments. I am going to schedule afternoon classes and I am just going see what happens. I had promised my parents I would get this degree. So it was great. It was the perfect screen, the perfect cover for me to work on my writing. I was surrounded by an environment that I found nurturing and I was able to work on my projects in relative peace and quiet. And I officially looked OK. Finally, I decided to apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and I got in and I told my parents. They were not thrilled. They decided they would give me this break. It was, “Well, she’s going to do this. Let her sow her wild oats.” My older sister actually told everyone I was going to journalism school.

RB: [laughs]

LSC: I said, “Why are you telling everyone that I am going to journalism school?” She said, “What am I supposed to tell them?”

RB: My God!

LSC: I know. It was pretty grim. Sometimes we’d go shopping. This is my second sister [I’m talking about]. And I’d see something I really liked and she’d say, “Better get to work on that novel, Sam.”

RB: Some people would argue that writing programs have burgeoned because of the celebrity and stature attached to the field of writing. Apparently, your sisters didn’t see it that way.

LSC: From my mind, that’s happening because of a number of factors. One being that schools have discovered that they are very lucrative. And there is an enormous demand for them, the demand being created by the fact that the industry has changed and that editors rarely have the time to read manuscripts. Their days are cluttered with marketing meetings and it’s not really their fault—it’s the way the industry has changed. So somebody has to read these manuscripts. Writing takes a long time. People don’t just spring from the bloom knowing how to write books, very rarely. So it takes years. So who do you find to look at your manuscripts? Your program, your peers. People you met in school. I also think part of the demand has been created because our society has gotten increasingly fast paced, so fast paced that people almost never have the time to think about what they are doing that they would like. As a result people discover in writing a different orientation toward their lives—like a different way of being in time. They can slow down and think. Some people need to do that more than others. They are just thoughtful by nature, contemplative, even melancholy. They just need to think.

RB: You’re suggesting that becoming a writer is not necessarily the end goal of going to a writing program? That it may be just for a hiatus from the “what” they don’t want?

LSC: I’m not saying that people think that consciously. One of the things they end up getting and need from those programs is time to think.

RB: The value of the time out is frequently confirmed in conversations I have with writing-program writers.

LSC: Yeah, absolutely. And in my case, I feel like I learned an enormous amount in the writing program about how to write. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Iowa for creating that program and admitting me. It was a big lucky shot.

RB: Twenty-five out of over 700. You did the grand tour, then published Hunger, a novella and stories. Did you do the standard two-book deal?

LSC: I did have a two-book deal. But it has always been my intention to write a novel. Basically my situation was I had always been a reader of novels and wanted to write a novel and was incapable of writing anything over 25 pages long. It was extremely hard for me to sustain a narrative. I couldn’t understand how to do it over length. It was very hard for me and from reading student manuscripts I think it’s a challenge for a lot of people. So I started with short stories and then became interested in length. And I’m still interested in length although I do have some short stories I would like to write.

RB: With the intention of always wanting to write a novel, was this the novel you wanted to write?

LSC: No, I wanted to write many novels.

RB: Well, that’s an abstraction.

LSC: I want that feeling of making something really large. It’s just that feeling of wanting to immerse yourself in something. But I didn’t know how to do it. So I had to slowly work up to it. I am a rather methodical creature. I am a Capricorn.

RB: When did you start Inheritance?

LSC: The first time the characters appeared on paper was in 1994. When I was at Stanford. I wrote a chapter of something but I didn’t know what it was.

RB: Was that complete unto itself, in some way?

LSC: It was a fragment of something but it felt like a complete chapter. Did I use any of it? [pauses] No, I don’t think I used any of the prose from that chapter; just a couple of details from the chapter found their way into the novel. Sesame-seed candy was the particular detail I can think of. There were points when I tried to put that chapter into the novel that I ended up writing. But I ended up taking it out. The novel itself took an enormous amount of time. I didn’t start working on it seriously until ‘97. I spent all of ‘98 writing the first draft and ever since then I have been endlessly revising it.

RB: You had a draft in one year.

LSC: But it was terrible. I knew that. My goal had been to just try to do a draft of something 400 pages long. And that was really hard. And then I ended up rewriting and rewriting and rewriting for years and years and years. I can’t describe how much effort went into it. I still can’t believe it myself. I know that sounds really strange.

RB: No it doesn’t. Sounds like what happens.

LSC: Years of my life. I threw out 400 pages in the process of writing.

RB: How much did you know about contemporary Chinese history?

LSC: Ah, that’s where the East Asian major study at Yale came in handy. I had actually taken a class on modern Chinese history with Jonathan Spence and anthropology courses and a couple of other classes, so I did actually know a fair amount about Chinese history. It’s the one thing I studied in college that I’ve used since.

RB: I wonder when people are critical of the totalitarian systems in Russia and China and Cuba if they feel that conditions would have improved without the communist interventions? What would China have turned out to be under Chiang [Kai-shek]?

LSC: I don’t know.

RB: We can speculate.

LSC: There was an enormous amount of corruption in that government. Corruption usually results in resources being given from the many to the few. And the gap between the rich and poor would have been tremendous because the population is so large. It has been the case through the history of China that there have been the rulers and the peasants, and the ruling regime is turned over when the peasants get frustrated and rise up against it. It’s happened a number of times in the history of the country and it happened in 1911 and again in 1949. The period I was writing about, between 1911 and 1949, is interesting because it was the time in China’s history when it tried to have a “democracy,” the largest country in the world experimenting with this idea.

RB: Is Taiwan a democracy?

LSC: You’re asking my opinion? I don’t want to give political opinions, sorry.

RB: I am asking about this because I don’t think that from the American side we know what countries whom we formulate activist policies toward have gone through.

LSC: I don’t think so. Possibly well meaning but based in a certain amount of ignorance.


She was concerned with turning over and over in her mind those years in the ‘30s and ‘40s when her mother and beloved aunt had been so close and then torn apart and then when her father had been in her life and then gone from her life. And the enormous divisions in her family and the divisions in the country that were taking place at the same time that exacerbated the family divisions. I realized that was what she was interested in. In recovering and rebuilding that story.


RB: You had a first draft done six years ago and you continuously rewrote and revised. So when you delivered it to the publisher was it done?

LSC: I should say that book was due at the end of the century.

RB: [laughs]

LSC: It was in December of ‘99. That was the first deadline. And then I just kept busting through deadlines for years. Finally, I turned it in in 2003. I think Jill [Bialosky] had read the book either three or four times.

RB: Three different versions?

LSC: Yeah. I was late with my book and I showed it to Jill and she helped me with it. I would always get to a point where I didn’t know what to do and would show it to Jill and she would look at it and show would tell me that this feels strange, or what about this. And also I had a friend named Liz Ruark and she read it so many times. I think she read it more than three times, and she would have really helpful comments. Like at one point she said, “It’s like a radio, sometimes it’s really faint and then suddenly it comes back in.”

RB: How did you know it was done?

LSC: There was a point at which I began to see why Hong was telling the story. The narrator, whom I had put into place because I realized that she was the only one who could tell the story. Her story sustained me throughout, but at some point I began to ask myself, “Why was she telling it?” It’s one of the big questions that you have to ask yourself when you are reading any story told by anybody. It was when I realized why she was telling the story that I began to see what parts I could cut out of the second half. And I cut an enormous amount out. I had rewritten the second half multiple times over the few years and couldn’t figure out how to make it make sense.

RB: The second half is when the family moves to Taiwan?
Lan Samantha Chang, photographed by Robert Birnbaum
LSC: At various points in writing the book, the second half was in different places. So at one point it was 1949. I cut an enormous amount out of Hong’s life story in the United States. Basically because she was not concerned with the telling the story of her life in the United States. She was concerned with turning over and over in her mind those years in the ‘30s and ‘40s when her mother and beloved aunt had been so close and then torn apart and then when her father had been in her life and then gone from her life. And the enormous divisions in her family and the divisions in the country that were taking place at the same time that exacerbated the family divisions. I realized that was what she was interested in. In recovering and rebuilding that story. It was not the kind of story where we want to know every little thing that happens in Hong’s life. Otherwise, I would have gone through every little thing. And I did have drafts, where she was single, drafts where she was divorced—

RB: I don’t remember her being divorced.

LSC: See what I mean—the narrator went through, in different drafts, different fates. She was married, divorced, had a child, she was living in the suburbs, she was in the city. It was just endless. I cannot tell you how many times her life changed. And then finally I realized—it just took a long time.


RB: So now you are looking at the book again when you are called upon to do readings—is the book done for you, finally?

LSC: I am constantly finding places where I should have changed something. Honestly, I read it over out loud before I turned it in.

RB: So what’s your dream? To have the kind of time to just write?

LSC: No, I don’t think that’s possible if you are going to have other people in your life. I don’t want to be like Proust writing in a cork-lined chamber with one maid who brings him perfect coffee every morning, not dealing with people. Umm, I would like [long pause] I would like to continue writing novels. I would like to write good novels. I would like to continue to improve and write better and better novels. I would also like to write short stories.

RB: Any sense in which writing will not be central to your life?

LSC: I have fears that if I have a child I won’t have as much time to devote to my writing.

RB: I can guarantee that.

LSC: Since I was kid our society has gotten tougher and tougher, and if you are bringing up a child you have work really hard to give them everything you possibly can. I don’t know I how I am going to do that. I know there are many ways of getting by; a lot of the people I know who write on a regular basis and publish on a regular basis—novels—seem to have either support from their spouse so that they don’t have to work full time or support from their parents. So it’s a rough life. There are people, though, who do it. They support themselves. They support a child. They have a family. I am married but we would both have to keep working in order to—

RB: What pressures are there for you to produce?

LSC: [makes a derisive sound]

RB: Are you still caught up in the afterglow of this book? Or are you racing ahead?

LSC: That’s hilarious—afterglow. For me it was more like post-natal depression. This thing that had given my life focus and shape for many, many years and then it was out of my life and I was sort of feeling unhinged. Also just a little bit sad, I think. I am thinking about these things but I am at the stage where I am not talking about them. But am thinking about short things and long things.

RB: How are the reviews for Inheritance?

LSC: It’s been getting reviews—I don’t think they all came out at the same time.

RB: Do you see a different point of view when Chinese-American reviewers critique or talk with about this book?

LSC: Often they want to know about my family’s background. And about my connection to China—that’s the biggest thing. The difference in reviews is between people who review the book who have read the book and [those who] haven’t read the book.

RB: [laughs] You don’t mean that ironically? That is, some who have read the book but have missed something essential?

LSC: No, no, no. You were thinking of categorizing them into people who are from Asian publications or are of Asian descent or non-Asian. And I was thinking the real difference in the reviewer and the kinds of questions they ask has to do with whether or not they have read the book. If they haven’t it read it, the questions are pretty canned.

RB: Have you been to China? I almost asked if you had been “back.”

LSC: See that’s the thing. Sometimes I even say it. It’s not “back.”

RB: I wonder if I unconsciously identify you with the character?

LSC: It’s entirely fiction. That’s the other thing about the book and why it took such a long time to write. It’s not autobiographical. In fact, it’s not our family story. I wanted to imagine this world and to write a real novel. And I didn’t want to write a semi-autobiographical novel. So it took longer. [chuckles] But I have been there twice. Both times with the novel in mind. It was lovely to go there and especially to meet my father’s family.

RB: Any sense in terms of the reviews that they understand the world you are writing about?

LSC: No, they don’t.

RB: [laughs]

LSC: I have been fascinated. I don’t really know what to say about that. That happened in some cases with Hunger, as well. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a longer thing, set in a different culture and the characters do things that some Western people can’t quite imagine because they weren’t brought up in the same society. I don’t know. At this point I am cultivating a philosophical attitude toward reviews. I have never had a really negative review. So I’m sure if I get slammed I’ll be miserable. Every review has that penultimate paragraph in which they say the things they don’t like about the book. Every one says something different in the penultimate paragraph. I don’t know what to think about it. I have not read a review of the book that I would direct people to—they are not bad reviews.

RB: Why would you direct anyone to a review at all as opposed to directing them directly to the book?

LSC: Exactly. I wouldn’t. It’s been fine.

RB: What about the description in the press materials?

LSC: Not bad.

RB: I try not to read them. My responsibility is to read the book and the rest is not important to me.

LSC: How do you know what to choose to read?

RB: I try more and more to pick books I have no idea about. To me, that’s a great deal of fun.

LSC: That’s very generous, because at this point everyone in America is reading the same 20 books because they heard about them on NPR.

RB: I think Alex Beam once observed that the culture only seems to be able to handle five or six books at a time.

LSC: That’s not really true. It’s just that everything has gotten so industrialized. There is a less of a local—

RB: I don’t think we are disagreeing. I think he meant that’s the focus of engines of publicity.

LSC: That’s what I mean. There are so few venues and they are all related.

RB: The fundamental error is that there is a short window in which a book has to prove itself, like movies and records. Which for a number of reasons is wrong. I like most of the book publicity people I work with, but our interests are not the same. They have to deliver something in a short period of time. I am not interested in the short term, nor do sales figures matter to me. My conversations are a record. And I am pleased to regularly get correspondence on talks I have had three and four years ago. I’d like everyone’s book to do well but I am not talking with you as part of an initiative to help sales. I do like to delve into the unknown, but now I have the odd circumstance that the writers who were new to me years ago keep putting out good books. I will still grab books that are not on my required reading list so that I don’t feel like a hamster on a wheel.

LSC: [laughs]

RB: So—let’s talk again for your next book.

LSC: Excellent. Probably it won’t be for a few years.

RB: You think?

LSC: Oh, who knows? The novella Hunger, that I really like, took me only six months.

RB: It would be hard to substantiate this claim, but did you learn about the mechanics of making a novel?

LSC: [Of making] large things? I don’t know.

RB: Reading anything you would like to note?

LSC: The Known World by Edward P. Jones. Love that book. And yesterday I read a Barbara Pym novel. It’s a very intelligent comedy of manners, sort of faded British gentlewomen set. I love it. I only read them once in a while. When I do, I really love them. That’s the fun reading.

RB: Good. Thank you.

LSC: It’s a pleasure.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum