1) Stories vs. novels vs. novels-in-stories vs. linked stories? Does it even matter? To whom?
I prefer to write short stories the way I prefer to eat small dishes of food (like tapas or banchan and rice) instead of, say, a tuna casserole. I get easily bored so I need variety. I also revise obsessively, and the story form forgives that obsession. As a reader, I of course enjoy both novels and stories, but the experiences are different. With a novel, I read what is given. With a short story, I read what’s given, as well as all things not written, not shown, not said, not done. I read for the negatives. I read the gaps between lines, between paragraphs, and in that empty space I participate. Suddenly the story is not a thing that happens in front of me, but a thing that happens to me.
This is why I like the novel-in-stories, a format that contains best of both worlds: the larger narrative as well as variety. I think of it as a large meal, divvied up into small dishes.
2) I read that you started Miles from Nowhere with Joon's voice. How did her voice come to you? How did you know that this character was the one you wanted to spend eight years with?
Imagine this: You’re trapped at a stuffy, black-tie party, where the women’s hair-dos are as stiff and dry as their martinis, as their personalities, and the men walk around pontificating instead of just talking, and even the waiters, with their white gloves and thin lips, are condescending and fake. Everyone drinks with pinkies raised, everyone knows which fork to use, and everyone, even the men, looks to be wearing make-up. You think, Wow, there’s a lot of BS in this world, and just then a stranger—a guy, a girl—leans in to you and whispers: “Can you believe this bullshit?”
That’s what it felt like when Joon’s voice came to me. For years I’d tried to write like a “dead white guy” but then she came, sounding very much alive, very much a girl, and not all that white. She sounded naïve, wise, hopeful and sassy (the way many teenagers do when you get to know them), and it felt as if we’d known each other for a long while. The counterfactual/subjunctive (or whatever the name) made me want it to be factual—meaning, I wanted to continue writing about her so that I could actually get to know her.
3) So you saw Joon as someone completely separate from you? How much of her character do you feel was "created"? For example, was her past with her parents clear to you right away, or was it built around the voice that you heard? I find that sometimes a character's history can read as a sort of explanation for her actions.
Joon and I have a few things in common. For
example, we’re both Korean-Americans (yay!) who grew up in the
As far as Joon’s family goes, I knew from the start that her family-life wouldn’t be a happy one, but the details and scenes concerning them are completely created, if not by me, then by Joon’s personality. What I mean is, because Joon behaves and feels a certain way (numb, passive, honest, lonely, naïve, wise, strong and weak), the parents are written with Joon’s attributes in mind. She is the sun, and every character is created in relation to her and to one another. And the flashbacks about her parents are definitely there to inform Joon’s present actions, though they don’t all necessarily explain her actions. Hopefully, they complicate rather than explain.
4) The first paragraph of “Shelter” (and of the book) is so amazing, from that first long sentence on what everyone else in the shelter is doing to the isolation of the second sentence to, after other gems, “I wandered down the long hallway...and looked for Knowledge” (who turns out to be a person). I want to ask about this paragraph as a way of asking in specifics about process. Tell us how this paragraph came to be. In one burst? Through revisions? I read that you love to revise. What did you look for and change in this paragraph to get it right?
I remember being afraid to start this story. Just a week prior I had decided that the stories about Joon should, in fact, be stories toward a larger narrative, and this big and scary realization made me want to pee and chain smoke and eat powdered doughnuts nonstop. I would sit at my desk, and then get up to pee, and then sit again, only to find my cigarette, my food, and so on. At some point I took a giant breath, as if I were about to dive underwater, and typed out the first sentence as I exhaled. (This sentence I believe is still the longest sentence in the book, which confirms the size of the breath I’d taken.)
For two more years I worked on “Shelter.” Witness accepted it in 2005, and as happy as I was about that, I still felt it needed more work, so I workshopped it in 2006, revised it some more, and then continued to revise for Miles from Nowhere, which went to the printers in 2008. After roughly 30 rounds of editing—an average amount for me—and I finally started feeling okay about it, and of course, okay about that paragraph, which now opens the book.
All this to say, yes, that first paragraph did come out in one burst— the core of it containing Joon’s sense of alienation and Knowledge’s warped sense of right and wrong—but it also went through extensive rewrites and a five-year gestation period.
This just now dawned on me: this is more than what most relationships go through.
5) When you revise, how much are you looking at the rhythm of breaths, or sound? Or are you looking more at pace, at rounding out a character, at plot, at symbolism?
Every story comes out differently but the simple answer is that I look at everything you mention, but at different phases. Usually, before I begin a story, I have a vague sense of the kind of note I would like for the ending to hit. (I hear endings but I don’t see them.) Then I write the first draft, which feels a lot like walking blindfolded inside an unknown cave, listening for sounds, and then collecting sounds that might help me hit that final note. How I end the first draft tells me a lot about how I should revise.
Then, during early rounds of revision, I try to understand what the characters really want from each other. I do this by making them talk as much as possible. Desires lead to a more fine-tuned plot, to a stronger conflict, to idiosyncratic details. Once I gain a clear sense of what the characters want and what the story wants, as well as now a specific note for the ending (an E-flat ending is quite different than, say, a C-sharp ending), then I dig into the scenes to make sure that every word, gesture, object, line of dialogue, etc. work toward reaching that particular note.
Then, about a year (or maybe eight years) later, comes the hard-core line editing—my all-time favorite activity. This is when I really focus on words—their sounds (consonance, assonance, etc.), their definitions, their associative meanings, their allusions—and of course the sentences, the gaps between, the syntax, the length, pacing, rhythm, meter, and even aesthetics, as in, how the words look on the page. I love this phase. I can line edit for twelve hours straight and not notice things like hunger or darkness. This phase is a reward for all the hard work I’ve put into the story. It’s the dessert. It’s the sex. And it’s the cigarette after sex.
6) At AWP I ran into you and another writer who mentioned that he teaches "Shelter" to his class. How does it feel knowing that other amazing writers are out there teaching your work? Do you ever get questions from students who've read your book for their classes? From the professors teaching it?
I still get a little startled when people come up and say nice things about the book. Random thoughts of insecurity come to mind when this happens, namely, that they have me confused with another Asian writer. So you can only imagine what my mind goes through when someone tells me that they teach the book. Especially if that someone is a writer whom I’ve admired for years. I usually nod and say thank you and try to walk away before I say anything too stupid, but what I want is to scream and cheer and chest-bump and do the electric slide.
7) What's the strangest or most interesting question you've been asked about your book?
I can’t think of any right now. Except that readers often tell me extremely personal things that often give me pause. I think because Miles feels personal, readers also feel they can be personal. I take this as a compliment. And as a privilege.
8) How about your own instruction: what is your one best piece of advice for aspiring writers?
Write with your pants down. Be embarrassed, be hurt, be anxious, be giggly, be naked, be open, be vulnerable.
More than one piece of advice for when you’re not writing: Read to study craft. Read with a pencil in your hand. Read often and open-mindedly. Read someone who writes in a style vastly different than yours. Read more foreign work. Be your best and toughest editor. Don’t waste your writing insecurities on evil—channel them toward good, such as revising your manuscript ten, twenty, thirty times more than you would normally. When you receive good (writing) news, big or small, go dance in the streets or drink whiskey at a piano bar or take that nap you’ve been wanting. However you celebrate, make it memorable so you can recall that moment on days when you receive not such good news.
9) Working on any stories now?
Yes, but only in that I am the one writing them.