April 2010

Terry Hong


An Interview with Sonya Chung

By the time I actually met Sonya Chung, debut novelist of Long for This World, which hit shelves in March, I was already a groupie. Long was one of those suddenly-surprising-out-of-nowhere books that make you gasp. A publicist sent it to me initially and it landed high up on my to-read pile -- truth be told, most likely because I recognized her name as Korean. A few weeks later, another copy arrived, sent by my Library Journal editor for review.

Being such a breathtaking read, Long proved to be my first-ever ďstarred reviewĒ for LJ.This multilayered story of two brothers -- one Korean, the other who chooses to become Korean American -- and their scattered families whose lives converge in the perfectly blended east/west house on a faraway Korean island is, in a word, unforgettable. And how flattered am I that I made my YouTube debut with a quote from that review which ends Chungís book trailer for Long?

Weeks after filing the review, another copy of Long arrived at my Smithsonian office. This time, it was sent by Chung herself, with a lovely note about ďfriendsĒ who had recommended that I might be interested in the titleÖ and in another moment of how-tiny-the-world-is, Chung and I learned we have quite a few people in common. So finally meeting in livetime in New York City was not without a sense of instant recognition. We wandered along the Hudson, talking about growing up less than 10 miles from each other, albeit I was long gone while she was still playing hopscotch during recess. We shared too many of the at-least-we-can-laugh-now stories of our immigrant Korean parents.

She confessed she was a misanthrope at heart, taking long breaks from humanity in her secluded farmhouse far from the city. But sheís also a people-watcher, drawn to ďthose interesting, strange, and complex characters,Ē some she knows, some she observes from afar. She does not, however, put her friends into her storiesÖ although she does sometimes create composites of them. And about becoming that weird lady with the dogÖ read onÖ

Even though it seems you burst forth a fully formed writer, were you always?

I came out of college not knowing really what to do with myself, but somewhat oriented toward "doing good" on the planet. I'd done some internships with nonprofits but realized that I didn't much have the personality for activism or social work; so I took that writing skill of mine and fell into grant writing, which evolved into all kinds of marketing/fundraising/organizational management for nonprofits. I worked with/for some remarkable, heroic people (all still good friends); but truth be told, I really disliked the work I was doing, although I did it for almost 15 years. I feel like I'm "on the wagon" right now -- haven't done grant writing or fundraising work in almost two years.†

Your devoted readers will work hard to keep you on the straight and narrow! So why fiction writing?

Itís actually a hard question for me to answer. I am a late bloomer, I didnít start writing fiction seriously until I was already in an MFA program; and if Iím brutally honest, Iím not sure how ďseriouslyĒ I wrote even while in that program. In hindsight, I would say that writing -- that is, putting words together to express ideas -- always came easily to me; I felt at home in words. In my twenties, I had a vague though nagging sense (as many do) that I might be an artist. So I put those two things together, I started to walk down that road, without much idea of how to do it or how it worked. It wasnít until I was well into writing Long for This World that I started to think I was in fact a writer; that writing was my work, that I was most alive and using all my strongest intellectual and emotional faculties -- all cylinders firing, so to speak -- when I was writing fiction.†

Even if you recognized all your firing cylinders as a writer, sometimes our Korean parents have -- shall we say -- different ideas of what constitutes success, so Iíll just have to ask flat out: Were yours terribly disappointed that you didnít become a lawyer or doctor?

My parents, I think, were mostly worried. The life of a writer struck them as unfamiliar, and unstable. I think perhaps it created some distance between us, because they didnít know what to ask or how to connect with it -- which further intensified the fixation on instability. Once I had a book contract, that helped to concretize it, and now that the book is out, we all at least have something material to point to. Materiality is important in immigrant families (maybe all families?), as Iím sure you know. †

And were you a reader growing up?

In fact, I was not a reader growing up. I read what was required in school, and not much more. Iím not sure why it took me so long to fall in love with reading (late bloomer, again). Part of it was, I think, growing up in a family in which English was not the first language; reading was not a central part of our family life. Also -- again, in hindsight -- I think I grew up with a sense of split/unintegrated identities -- Korean, American, Christian, secular, working class, upper-middle class, left-brained, right-brained -- and so I would have needed to see or experience a way of being whole through what I was reading to be captivated. That didnít happen until much later, when I was in college; and, perhaps inexplicably, the book that did that for me was Annie Dillardís Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It was a kind of conversion moment for me, when I understood what a book could do, how a book could become a way of seeing and thinking and living, could hit you at the level of your essential self. Dillard seemed to be writing about existence in a way Iíd never quite encountered before ... †

Now that youíre a writer, would you also call yourself a reader, too?

Because I came to reading -- deep, whole-self reading -- so late in life, I found that every book, every author, became precious to me. I did not take anything I read for granted. Then and now, I read voraciously, and I mean that literally, itís a kind of appetite, a persistent hunger. Along with that, you could say Iím a very impressionable readerÖ which some might consider problematic, but I donít. I am very much an ďopenĒ reader, perhaps naÔve, and very forgiving; I read to be impressed, that is, to be changed, and moved. To learn something, to learn everything -- about life, and also about the craft of writing.†Iím sort of like a kid in a candy store with books, greedy and giddy and wide-eyed; that hasnít really subsided with age.†

What are you reading now?

I am re-reading Chekhovís The Duel, listening to The Book Thief on audio, and starting Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower.

Whatís your writing process like? How hard is it to really stay off e-mail until noon?

Itís definitely evolving. At this (early) stage in my writing life, itís pretty fluid, which maybe is another way of saying itís somewhat loosey-goosey. Iím not really an outliner, ďI write to figure out what I think,Ē as Joan Didion said. Itís that experience of discovery, of following characters and seeing where they take me, that drives me. Of course I do have these intuitive backdrops that guide me along the way -- ideas, emotions, sometimes settings, a broad sense of shape/structure; often the ďwhat if?Ē scenario, i.e. what if I put this character in that situationÖ and then letting it roll.

So far, knock on wood, I am pretty happy at the writing desk, I donít have to chain myself to it or anything. An ideal writing day: breakfast and coffee, then writing 9:30-1:30, break for dog walk or run, then lunch and a little bit of reading. Back to work at 2:30 until about 4. Do the emails/administrative/internet stuff until dinner time. Staying off email/internet in the first half of the day, whenever possible, is key; Iím always glad for it when I can accomplish this.†

Where do you find your characters? What inspires you to write?

People are so darn interesting and complex and strange; everyone has a story that is layered and mysterious and to some degree incomprehensible. Everyone is damaged and gifted. Everyone is ambivalent about everything. Everyone. So the work for me is not coming up with characters, but paring down and choosing from the crowd in my head. Itís the mystery and complexity that inspire me most -- what does this personís life or situation mean? How do we make sense of all this weirdness in life? Chekhov is a touchstone for me, in that he didnít worry too much about plot points; his primary goal was to show/render/reveal a life, a character, a moment -- as honestly as possible. Story, I think, is born from there.†

So youíre a self-described misanthrope?

Well, I should try to explain this to dispel any caricature of me as a true people-hater. As in a romantic breakup, I want to say, ďItís not you; itís me.Ē I find that my brain and writing ear are very permeable and impressionable. Thin skin, so to speak. Iíve tried to write while juggling social interaction and media noise, and Iíve found itís a recipe for bad (underdeveloped) work. Itís something I struggle with continually -- finding my way to self-acceptance that this is my work, and a kind of deep and vast solitude is what I need to do it well. It means saying "no" to a lot of things. Lorrie Moore said something in an interview recently that resonated with me:

The detachment of the artist is kind of creepy. Itís kind of rude, and yet really itís where art comes from. Itís not the same as courage. Itís closer to bad manners than to courage. [...] if youíre going to be a writer, you basically have to say, "This is just who I amÖ" Thereís a certain indefensibility about it [Ö] You have to be willing to have only four friends, not 11.

I am also aware that ďbeing a writerĒ -- participating in literary community and activity -- and the work of actually writing (sentences, pages, books), are easily conflated. They are not the same thing, and in fact they can sometimes work at cross-purposes.†

And that farmhouse in Pennsylvania where you go when you say "no"Ö how did you end up there?

My affinity for a quiet, rural life is something I canít quite explain. But I remember reading Donald Hallís Life Work and feeling such a strong connection to the kind of life he and Jane Kenyon lived in rural New Hampshire. In 2004, my personal life underwent some major changes, so I was already in a place where everything had turned on its head; it was a ripe time to ďjust do it.Ē I was living in Brooklyn at the time, a friend of mine was selling her old beat-up station wagon, so I bought it and started taking weekend drives up to the Catskills. I still had a full-time job then, and the mortgage industry had not yet collapsed, so I could feasibly consider owning something. Much sooner than I expected, I found my little 1840 farm house -- quiet dirt road, at the crest of a hill, in pretty good shape, less than two hours from the city -- and I went for it. †

And could you see yourself hiding out there permanently?

ďPermanentlyĒ? Hard to think in those terms right now. But Iíve spent as long as four weeks straight there and havenít missed much about the city. I suppose I keep connected to city life (my partner and I now have a small place in Manhattan) because of my tendency to revel in solitude; one worries about becoming that weird lady with a houseful of dogs and cats (Iím already one dog down that path, after all).†

So the Korean island where the family converges in Long is almost a character unto itself. Whatís your own relationship with Korea, being U.S.-born? Could you ever see yourself returning there to live as your characters tried to do?

I was born in the States and didnít visit Korea until I was 29 years old. So my relationship is essentially that of a foreigner -- familiar, yes, but still an outsider. After that first visit, I returned the following two years for two-week visits. By the end of that third visit, I had a feeling of being ďdoneĒ -- at least for a while.†I sensed everywhere, implicitly and explicitly, the essential conservatism and patriarchy -- that there was no place for a woman my age who was not married and did not have children. If I was not ethnically Korean, I think it might be easier to carve out a social place for myself, but as a Korean, I felt very conspicuous and out of place. Iíd love to visit again, though; itís a stunningly beautiful country, especially if you get beyond the big cities, and the food is possibly the best food in the worldÖ†

Can you imagine being an ethnicity-less writer? That is, could you separate your ethnicity from your writing?

No, I think itís all of a piece. Even if, say, I wrote a novel in which no Korean or Korean American characters appear -- which I can very much see doing -- something in my experience of outsiderness, or cultural multiplicity, will likely emerge somewhere, somehow, in the story. I write novels because itís a place where I can bring all of who I am, and what I know, and what I donít know but want to know, into a coherent, created world. In every other context in real life, we are required to atomize pieces of our selves, to amputate this part or that part in order to function or fit in to a particular context. Writing novels is home for me, because I donít have to do that; all the layers and multiplicity can live together, itís where I make sense of and render the wholeness of all those disparate elements and experiences. In other words, the novel is very much for me a wondrous place of both/and, as opposed to either/or. †

Now that the book is out on shelves, whatís your first book tour been like?

Maybe Iíll start my answer to this question by saying what itís not: itís not been ďexcitingĒ or ďfun.Ē Those seem to be the two expectations from the outside -- ďAre you excited? Are you having fun?Ē Primarily, itís work, which is not a bad thing at all -- itís just distinct from the romanticized notion that itís glamorous or somehow the pinnacle of dream-fulfillment. I donít mean to be down on it -- itís absolutely gratifying to meet readers and to hear that theyíve been moved in some way by your book; itís amazing how your friends roll out endless generosity in hosting you, and how other friends youíve not seen in years show up unexpectedly to your events. Itís even sometimes startling to see people buying your book! But itís also a lot of scheduling and transporting and talking talking talking, and also to some degree performing. All that externalizing is a bit contrary to this particular writerís native m.o., so itís challenging. Plus, well, I am something of a homebody, so by that third day on the road, I really miss home.†

Best and worst stories from the long road of publicity?

I feel like maybe I need a comparative standard to answer this, which I donít really have because Iím still inexperienced and am also just now getting to know other writers for the first time. But I will share this link to an essay I wrote last year about the process of book jacket design, which also speaks to some of the ethnicity issues above.

The social networking aspect of publicity -- what most authors are now expected to do -- has its pros and cons. Itís wonderful and energizing to connect with other writers and enthusiastic readers in this direct, boundary-less way; but itís also time-consuming and creates a weird sort of self-consciousness that Iím not sure is conducive to the writing process. These days, the writer perhaps feels both more control, and more burdened, with regard to how much attention her book gets; the viral effect of social networking is powerful, but the amount of work you can put into that is endless. There are some days when I realize I could spend 12 hours just exchanging emails and Facebook messages with people who might ďopen doorsĒ for publicity and events; but itís definitely a choice to make at that point, and you want to make sure that youíre continuing to choose to write in the midst of all that networking.

Iíll share this one ďworst,Ē which really isnít all that bad: we were expecting to have a review in Parade Magazine -- which has a very large national circulation. At the last minute, we were bumped by a review of Chang-rae Leeís new book, The Surrendered. We have no way of really knowing how that decision was made, but it did make me wonder for the first time if the timing of Leeís release -- two weeks after Long for This World -- would become a kind of block weíd hit every time we tried to pitch the press: how many novels by Korean American authors will a publication that has significantly downsized its book review space consider running? HmmmÖ maybe thatís racialist paranoia? Possibly. At any rate, I consoled myself by recognizing that Lee is a writer whose work Iíve admired for years, so if I was going to be bumped by someone, Iím glad it was him.

Overall Iíve been incredibly lucky; my publisher [Scribner/Simon & Schuster] has been palpably behind me, my editor and publicist are both working very hard to get Long for This World recognition and readership out there in the commercial jungle. Next week, Iíll be interviewed by Bethanne Patrick of The WETA Book Studio in DC; Iím really looking forward to that. Hopefully, I wonít get bumped!†

So, Professor, you start your Columbia teaching career in a few months. Any expectations?

Given the current job market, I feel very lucky, and, yes, Iíll use the word now, excited! The faculty seem to genuinely enjoy the students, their colleagues, and an environment that is supportive of their writing. Iím a Columbia alum (undergrad), so this is a nice full-circle moment for me. I was a pretty lost and wandering 17-21 year old; I did fine academically but never really ďdug inĒ intellectually, nor creatively. So it will be fun, strange, gratifying, and challenging to return to campus after all these years, and with a new vantage point.

One of the things I love about teaching -- related to the reading question above -- is that I get to create syllabi with these rich and meaty reading lists. I combine works Iíve read with works Iíve always wanted to read, so it becomes an active learning process for me as well. Iíve already got a whole stack of books on hold at the library to go through over the next few weeks so I can decide which ones to include on the final syllabus. Boy, this sounds really nerdy -- giddy about my syllabus? Ah, wellÖ†

Youíve probably guessed the final question: What are you working on now?

A novel, which Iíve been working on for about two years now. Itís big and far-reaching and polyphonous like Long for This World, but also very different. Hoping to have a good draft by this summer.†

And weíll all be hoping to read it by at least next summer! Howís that?

Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. She writes a Smithsonian book blog at†bookdragon.si.edu.