December 2010

Richard Wirick


An Interview with Lan Samantha Chang

Born in Wisconsin to parents who immigrated to the United States from China, Lan Samantha Chang went on to become an East Asian studies major at Yale, and then studied government at Harvard and creative writing at the University of Iowa, where she received an MFA in fiction.

Chang’s first book, Hunger: A Novella and Stories, was called “gorgeous” by the Washington Post, and received a number of prominent prizes. In 2004, her first novel, Inheritance, was published. She taught creative writing at Harvard for a period of time. Her new novel, All is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, was released in September 2010, and has met with significant acclaim. Bookslut had this talk with her at Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica, California, last month before her first Los Angeles reading. Chang, besides being a working fiction writer, is also the director of the fabled Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost reminds me of William Maxwell’s work, both in the clarity of its prose and the sympathy you have for your characters. But you don’t have the negative aspects of Maxwell, the endlessly discursive and self-questioning narrator.

Thank you. Comparison to Maxwell is indeed high praise.

I think nine-tenths of avoiding the “Maxwell trap” is avoiding the first person. My first two novels were first person works, and I find myself drifting toward third more, or omniscient “roving” first.

Remember when William Gass -- and you’ll have an opinion on it, since you run Iowa [Writer’s Workshop] now -- thought that “workshop writing” was too first person and current tense, and he wanted to abolish the first person? That was the title of the essay in Harper’s: “Abolish The First Person.”

(Laughter) Well, he had a point, in that when one is developing a voice and is rather new at writing, the voices may get homogenous, especially when in present tense.

I have a theory that some novelists are just third-person people. That they sometimes can do one but not the other. For example I think Faulkner, maybe the greatest American writer of last century, was more often bad than good in third person. While The Sound and the Fury is, I think, the greatest pre-war American novel, books like Absalom, Absalom! are just dreadful.

Oh, I like Absalom, Absalom!

I mean, do you think it’s constructive to give the reader all that “outrageous, terrified, ossified, blood-drenched wagon wheels wobbling tragically through the unforgiving dust”?

(Laughter) Like a painter whose layers are an inch thick, but it works.

Well, go with God. The two male characters in All Is Forgotten are poets, and you are a prose writer, even though you head the world’s most famous writer’s workshop, which must be filthy with poets. As a prose writer, don’t you find it is hard getting inside a poet-character’s sensibility?

Oh, God, that is putting it mildly. You know, they work with such a rarefied form of language, “charged,” like Pound said, “with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” So yes, it was hard to get what was going on in a poet’s -- two poets’! -- heads. I’m envious of poets. I feel they are beyond me in the valences they give to language, and I only try to capture their ability to write so beautifully. I think there was a special pressure here to write somewhat poetic prose, give the compression and brevity.

Do you feel kind of like an anthropologist in your own country?

Yes, or a sub-ethnicist among my own ethnicist study pool.

Plus, you know, with very few exceptions, poets almost never write for money.

It’s true. They really can’t. So for that reason they distill and illuminate the dilemmas of survival and relevance that all writers face. Their embodiment of the essential precipitousness of the artist’s existence makes them so attractive as subjects and characters -- they are the canaries in the mineshaft of our existence.

The two poets are compelling. Bernard is really a figure of such purity, seeing in the gaze of a friend a “startling blue clarity, veering toward judgment… recognized as the extremity of innocence.” Roman, the other poet, seems more ambitious, more worldly, and publication-wise, more doubtful about his own work. How did Bernard emerge for you?

I was happy to have him suddenly appear, quoting Dickinson. Bernard’s “purity” feels very familiar to me, because when we were in grad school, we’d ask ourselves, “If I could write several very good books, or one great one, which would it be?” I think Bernard would take the latter.

I am wondering, though, with workshops tending more toward (maybe out of necessity) the practical and vocational, if Roman is more an exemplar of a workshop student?

[That's a] great question, which I find completely impossible to answer. We get such a fascinating, diverse mix.

So much of the book seems to be about realizations reached (as they most often are) too late to do anything about what’s being realized, seen for what it is for the first time.

Oh, yes. Yes, this is a feeling I’ve had so much more as an adult, and after having a kid. It is a feeling kind of like waking after a dream. It comes after periods of obscurity in one’s vision, occlusion, if not outright blindness. And those unseeing periods can last decades.

It is Yeats’s metaphor of the winding stair. You see what the steps you’ve climbed are really like from above, too late to go back and re-climb them.

And there’s nothing worse (or more educating) than the chill that sends through you.

Roman seems to be the character least aware of the implications of what he’s doing, and the most predisposed to have those Yeatsian stair realizations.

Yes. Yes, being so aware of his own desires and needs, and so agendized and ambitious, he sees the consequences of his actions way too late. And in that sense he may be the most universal and fully human.

The character Lucy seems the most outwardly-focused and thus the most, in a way, non-writerly of the characters. She puts her charge, Avery, first, before any artistic vocation.

Yes, but her sense of duty is almost too deep. So she is the kind of person who, with only so much energy to go around, really has to become divorced before she is able to devote herself to something other than her family.

Of course, the central female character, Miranda, the main workshop poetry teacher, is very compelling. She seems to embody the dilemma of whether writing -- especially poetry -- can be taught. And she conveys the power of teachers.

Well,  thank you for that comment about the character; most people just want to know who she’s based on. But in terms of  power, I am baffled a little by the academy’s current discourse about power dynamics, and the assumption the instructor holds all the power. In so many ways I think the students really do.  

How has the latter affected your writing?

(Laughter) Made me have to write many letters to thwart budget cuts. Developing a big, third-person voice with a weight of authority behind it.

What prose writers have influenced you most, especially in your early years when you yourself were a student at Iowa?

As a non-English major who did not begin to write seriously until my mid-twenties, I did a lot of pleasure reading in my “early years.” The choices were pretty much a mix. I spent the twenty-third year of my life reading nothing but Jane Austen and M. F. K. Fisher. In my twenties, I also loved Colette, Poe, Hawthorne, Charlotte Brontë, Tolkien, Ishiguro, Wallace Stegner, P. D. James, Malamud, John Gardner, James Alan McPherson -- as you can see, it was really a jumble. While I was “studying” to be a writer I read the requisite Raymond Carver, William Trevor, and Alice Munro; at some point I began to really love them. Later Faulkner and Chekhov. I became a big fan of Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (The Makioka Sisters is a favorite, but I also love Seven Japanese Tales). I also love William Maxwell, Shirley Hazzard, and Marilynne Robinson; lately I’ve been reading Dostoevsky and Elizabeth Bowen (my favorite of hers is The House in Paris). Still a jumble.

So I have no idea who “influenced me most.” I never set out consciously to imitate a writer. When I would read so much of someone that I began to write like them, I would immediately become aware of my own inadequacy, and I’d put down the writing. It’s been most useful for me to treat my writing and reading lives as parallel existences, each with its own unconscious, its own inner world. That said, I’ve always been highly conscious of form and of length. If I could write anything, at this point, I think it would be a beautiful, short, lucid work. So Colette’s “Cheri,” [William] Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, or Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

You've worked in the short form.

My first book, Hunger, is a collection of short fiction. I love the short story and suspect that I am, have always been suited for it, for compression. I am currently writing a story for the first time in about ten years. I plunged into it as an escape from the world of the novel -- such a long gestation! So many pages! So much at stake. And so much disappointment. But keep in mind a simile from James Thurber -- I suspect that “falling back” on the short story will be “like falling back full-length upon a kit of carpenter’s tools.”

Have you considered any profession other than that of a writer and teacher of writing? Did you ever want to just teach literature, be a professor of English?

Never wanted to be a literature professor, and never considered any profession other than that of a teacher and writer. I certainly never expected to be running a graduate program, and suspect that I am not suited for the bureaucracy, the politics. My desire -- a pure desire since I was four years old -- has been to make books.  

Would you have written a novel set in a writer’s workshop if you were not otherwise a graduate of one, or administering one? In other words, would these characters have presented themselves to you in another setting and been pretty much who they are?

Fascinating question. It’s very possible that these characters would have presented themselves to me in another setting -- landscape painting, for example, or dressage competitions -- and still have been pretty much who they are. I’m fascinated by the pursuit of art, and there have been failed artists in both my previous books. Having said this, I will say that the workshop setting feels integral to this book. It’s perhaps necessary at this point to explain that the book was not one that I’d planned; it just dropped out of me when I was pursuing another project. I wrote it with very little forethought; if I’d have thought about it too much, I would have balked. I think that the book is set in a writing program because I’d just started my job at the Workshop, and I was immersed -- years after my own time as a student -- in studying the lives of the young people around me, young people who’d given up so much to come to a small midwestern town, young people immersing themselves in heady discussions about literature, creation, desire, and despair that are only possible in such intense geographical concentrations of aspiration and talent. I have strong feelings of affection and strong hopes for the students.

Yet, having been “out in the world” in a number of other writing communities, and having observed many, many writers and poets at different stages in their careers, I felt compelled to portray the limitations of one’s youthful aspirations, as well as the changes that come along with adult life.

Was it a challenge to spread this narrative over the arc of time that it occupies? It seems easier to do that with a big, baggy, Jonathan Franzen type of length, but your novel seems such a model of brevity.

Is it possible that the essence of a lifetime can be compressed into a few key relationships, conversations? I wanted to write a work so compressed as to be brutal. I wanted to cut everything extraneous. So that a relatively short relationship between Roman and Miranda -- and a few of their key conversations -- held the essence of the most important disappointments of Roman’s life.