Read This! Writers' Edition

On the Same Page Author Interview

Alexander Chee

What’s a good memory you have about libraries?

alexander cheeI remember a long day in the stacks of the Smith College special collections, working on a project with my husband, the filmmaker Dustin Schell. The librarian brought out a typescript of Sylvia Plath’s final book of poems, written on the back of a manuscript for The Bell Jar—Plath had used it as scrap paper. And all of it was pink linen Smith College paper, taken from when she was a student there. It was such an incredible artifact with so many layers, it took my breath away. And this was just one of their jewels.

Are there stories you'd like to see written that aren't out there right now?

This is a very hard question to answer, because it is so hard to know what you can’t see in some ways. But this is in fact what I teach to my students. What have you never seen described? I wrote my first novel, Edinburgh, for example, in part because I had never seen a Korean American gay man as the narrator of a novel. I made the character like me in part to insist that after a lifetime of being asked to believe my existence was too complicated for literature, that I existed. I exist. I have stories to tell.

So for example, Ricco Villanueva Siasoco’s forthcoming debut collection of stories, The Foley Artist: Stories, is one of those—it has Asian and Asian American queer characters unlike any I’ve seen anywhere in books, just in life. Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, Real Life, is another—it is in part about what it is like to be a Black gay man surrounded by white friends, straight and gay, to whom you are not quite real. I know many people living that life, but I have never seen anyone write about it. There’s so much still to describe that when people say, “It’s all been written,” I have to contain myself. It hasn’t all been written. It’s barely been started, the literature we could have. The literature we deserve.

What book/s made you cry? What book/s made you laugh?

Tears? Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Or my friend Katherine Vaz’s short story, Our Lady of the Artichokes. Or The Friend, by Sigrid Nuñez.

As for laughter, Stuart Nadler’s The Inseparables. And Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. Also Happiness, As Such, by Natalia Ginzburg, which like all of her novels is not meant as a comedy but has many belly laughs.

What book was a challenge (for whatever reason) to get through, and you’re glad you did?

Moby Dick. There’s an ocean of essayistic chapters that are tricky to pay attention to, and you need them for the ending to make sense—arias about the whales, the specifics of whaling, so many things. It wasn’t like anything I’d read at the time but that eventually became the point. It was a lesson in obsession and structure and pursuing the long long arc of your vision all the way to the end. A lesson in daring, if you wanted it. And I did.

What do you need for a good day of writing?

Good coffee, a breakfast sandwich and a place where nobody knows me.

You’re an X-Men comics fan- what character(s) would be fun to write a story for?

It’s true. I really would love to write a story about Armor, or Kid Omega, or Rachel Summers. A Dark Phoenix story. Or the further adventures of Emma Frost, at any age, but maybe as a young woman.

Any advice for people taking on the challenge of National Novel Writing Month in November?

Write and don’t look back until the next day. And email it to yourself each day so it looks strange. Maybe in the body of the email. You can collect it all at the end of the month into a document. I use this method when I’m trying to bang out a draft and not look back too much, not further back than the day before.

Tell us something special you love about San Francisco.

That it is an older city than it admits to, like many of the residents. That it is one of our old gay metropolises, even now. That each time I come back I learn something more about what I thought I knew. That it is still full of many of the people who have survived with me thus far—and that is how I think of it—and I love it for that. And I love it for the ghosts there too. And the views from Potrero Hill will always thrill, and I’m leaving that rhyme in.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree author interview
 Ingrid Rojas Contreras
“Multiply me when necessary, make me disappear when peremptory. Transform me into light when there is shadow, into a star when in the desert.” — Ingrid Rojas Contreras

When do you read, where do you read, how do you read?

I just came back from Colombia with a hammock! I can often be found there in the middle of the afternoon, reading, well, also at night, and who am I kidding, some mornings too.

How do you find new things to read? 

When I visit bookstores I often ask booksellers about the last great thing they read. I always end up walking away with a healthy stack.

What helps you get into the writing mood?

A cup of matcha, and putting on one of a rotating set of outfits that are all the same tone of blue. 

Do you buy books or borrow books?

I buy books. I hate to borrow books because I am not careful—I drag them to the bathtub, write in the margins, and leave them open face down when I have to pause my reading. Of course, now that I have a hammock, the state of my books has improved.

What are you reading right now/or as the NYT says, What’s on your nightstand?

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys, and a lot of student work.

Do you have a connection or favorite memory of the public library?

I have loved so many afternoons where I’ve gotten lucky and happened upon an open desk by the big windows overlooking City Hall. It’s the most perfect writing nook.

What was your hardest scene to write?

All of the Petrona chapters near the end of the book were hard to write. I could only write them at night, and they required all I had to offer to put the words down.

Why did you decide to write the book in English?

I just recently wrote about this for the Paris Review. I was thinking about how every day as an immigrant I experienced some kind of language loss. It occurred to me that one of the sacrifices of migration was language. I was working as an interpreter at the time, so I followed a similar process: imagining the story in Spanish, doing an internal translation, and writing it in English. I wanted to make the sacrifice of migration palpable and visible by at the language level.

What was required reading when you were in school in Colombia vs. the required reading in California or the greater United States?

I didn’t experience high school here, so I am not sure! I know we were thrown into the deep waters of literature in Colombia. We read Don Quixote in the seventh grade. We read from the South American canon mostly, and only later in the upper grades did we read European and North American fiction.

Pachinko author interview
 Min Jin Lee
"Beautiful…Lee’s sweeping four-generation saga of a Korean family is an extraordinary epic." – San Francisco Chronicle

When do you read, where do you read, how do you read?

I read everywhere—at home, at the office, on the train, and on planes. I read in short and long intervals. I read full chapters. It is difficult for me to stop in the middle of anything.

Are there types of stories you'd like to see written, that aren't out there right now?

I would like to see more community-based novels, where I can be immersed in whole, well-developed worlds. I enjoy long books.

How do you find new things to read? / Where do you look for good reading recommendations?

I read reviews, and publishers send me galleys nows, which is quite a nice perquisite in my life. I ask librarians, editors, event organizers, and booksellers for recommendations.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

I read the works of favorite authors, so I would do my best to read nearly everything s/he had written. I grew up without much money, the internet, smartphones, and with only a few channels on television, and this ended up being quite useful to becoming a very well-read young person.

Was there a book that inspired you to write?

Some authors inspired me to write clean prose and others, very strong plot or powerful visions—Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, John Updike, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Sherwood Anderson, Honore de Balzac, Tolstoy, and of course, my favorite, George Eliot.

When was the first time you felt a book connected to your experience as a Korean American? Do you remember the title of the book?

The first book I ever read by a Korean American was Clay Walls by Ronyoung Kim. She published only one novel and died very soon afterward, and her novel moved me deeply.

What book/s have made you cry? What book/s have made you laugh?

I cried after reading A House for Mr. Biswas, Grapes of Wrath, House of Mirth, and Sister Carrie. The works of P.G. Wodehouse make me laugh. David Sedaris is very funny and smart.

Are there books you could recommend on the Korean American immigrant experience?

I think Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee is a terrific novel, and for Asian-American immigrant history, it is hard to beat anything by the late historian Ronald Takaki. Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore is a beautifully written and highly readable primer.

What helps you get into the writing mood?

Before I start work, I do what Willa Cather used to do—I read a chapter of the Bible. I have done this for twenty-five years.

Is there a book that changed your life? If so, how?

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde changed my life, because Lorde taught me to re-think my tendency to be silent, both literally and figuratively. Lorde’s essays, much like Virginia Woolf’s, taught me to think and write independently and courageously, even in the face of censure and rebuke.

Do you buy books or borrow books? How do you store your books?

I buy books when I can afford them. I borrow academic books for research because sometimes they are very costly; however, if I have to borrow them repeatedly, I will purchase them. I organize my books by subject and alphabetically on shelves, and I treasure my library.

What are you reading right now/or as the NYT says, What’s on your nightstand?

Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers, Suketu Mehta’s This Land is Our Land, and Semiautomatic and The New Black by Evie Shockley.

Do you have a connection or favorite memory of the public library?

I immigrated to the United States when I was seven years old, and my first real home was the Elmhurst Public Library, a branch of the Queens Public Library system. I did not know the English language when I arrived in New York from Seoul, and I learned how to read and write at the Elmhurst Public Library. Moreover, I discovered my abiding love of stories in my local library.

Tell us a special memory or something special you love about San Francisco.

I got married when I was 24 years old, and my husband was 27. San Francisco was one of the first cities we visited as a young married couple, and in my heart, it rivals my much beloved hometown of New York, because it is a city where you can meet people from diverse backgrounds and points of view. It is also a city for pedestrians, and this is important to me, because I love to walk as much as I love to read. Our only child goes to college in Northern California, and though we miss him, we get to visit San Francisco several times a year, which is a great consolation for empty nesters. Right now, our heart is literally in San Francisco.

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