An Interview with Esmé Weijun Wang

An Interview with Esmé Weijun Wang

You may be already familiar with Esmé Weijun Wang’s nonfiction. Her essays are powerful pieces that meld the science behind mental health issues with generous insight into her own personal experiences. Her essay “Perdition Days,” for instance, begins with this arresting sentence: “Let’s note that I write this while experiencing psychosis, and that much of this has been written during a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes that she is dead.” Now, with the recent publication of Wang’s debut novel, The Border of Paradise (Unnamed Press), we’re able to read her fiction too.

The Border of Paradise has been called “gothic in tone, ambitious in scope, and creepy in spades” by Kirkus Reviews. While different characters trade off their points of view, the book revolves around the life of David Nowak, son of Polish immigrants and heir to the Nowak Piano Company. It follows him first as a boy in Brooklyn, then as a young American visiting Taiwan, and finally as a husband and father in Polk Valley, California. A lingering childhood infatuation with a schoolmate’s sister and his deteriorating mental health color each of these stages in his life. The reader knows David is doomed from the outset, though: in the book’s opening scene, he’s about to kill himself.

I’ve followed Wang’s writing over the years, not just through her essays, but also in zines or on blogs, like the fashion blog she once wrote with poet Jenny Zhang. I’ve been anticipating her debut novel since I first learned of its existence. Beautifully and meticulously written, The Border of Paradise‘s progression is at turns shocking and devastating. But the book is respectful and reverent to its characters, and perhaps succeeds most at giving careful renderings of their unique psychologies.

Shortly before its publication, Esmé and I chatted about TBoP, incorporating Chinese characters into the text, the complexity of labeling mental illness, zines, and more.

The Border of Paradise‘s scope is impressively broad. Characters run piano factories, work at brothels, flee to nunneries and the navy. The book’s geography is also vast: Brooklyn, New York; Kaoshiung, Taiwan; Polk Valley, California. Can you tell me about the research process you undertook to get the details just right?

I was never able to study with him, but I often heard a line of advice attributed to Peter Ho Davies passed around by fiction students at Michigan: “Don’t research much in the beginning; write it first and then research to fill things in later.” This was pretty much my approach to working on Border. I did a minimal amount of research to get things going, just so I wouldn’t paint myself into any horrible corners that I wouldn’t be able to get out of later, and when the book started to coalesce, I went about truly looking into things — a challenge because there were multiple layers of research, including, as you said, different sorts of jobs, a variety of locations, and three decades’ worth of events.

Then I went about each kind of research in different ways. For the piano bits, for example, I knew a small amount of playing the piano from childhood, but nothing about how they were made. I wrote to the Steinway company and pretended that I was interested in buying a piano, which earned me some pamphlets and correspondence; I also watched a documentary about how Steinway pianos are made, and extrapolated from there. Polk Valley, which is where the Nowak children are raised in isolation, is a fictional town.

I didn’t realize it was fictional!

It’s based on two real towns in California: Grass Valley and Nevada City. I’d been to both many times as a teenager, but used some grant money from UMich to go there for research. My husband came with me — we’d just gotten married — and he tagged along while I poked around in various libraries and sifted through documents at the Historical Society. One of the best things that came out of that was a hardback Grass Valley phone directory that I found at a used bookstore. It was dated 1972, which was smack-dab in the correct time frame for the Polk Valley parts of the book. There’s a part of the book where William essentially quotes the various facts and figures that made up Grass Valley at the time.

In the end, though, I don’t consider myself a research-heavy fiction writer. Much of the stuff in the book is based on reality and then molded for my own purposes. I didn’t want to adhere too closely to Grass Valley as a place, for example, because I wanted the freedom to, uh, make shit up.

TBoP is polyphonic. It starts with David and Jia-Hui, but we later hear from other characters as well, notably the children, William and Gillian. Was it your intent from the beginning to include multiple points of view?

The book started with William’s first section. Then I realized that it would be too hard to maintain an entire book in his voice — it’s a bombastic, over-the-top narrative that I personally think would be difficult to read for 300 pages. Plus some of my professors had brought up some questions about the plot — questions that could really only be answered if William weren’t the only narrator. I went backwards and added David’s sections, and then Daisy’s. There are, in total, seven voices.

Is there one character you felt more strongly about than the others? (I know I feel most protective of Gillian!)

I love this question because I’ve been getting feedback about this from readers since the galleys have been out. People really like and dislike certain characters, and there’s absolutely no consensus there. I saw those divisions when the book was out to publishers, too — I’d get an editor saying they loathed one character’s sections and loved another’s, but then another editor would say the complete opposite.

In the end, I love all of the characters equally. It sounds like a pat line, but I really do. I see them all as human and flawed and trying their best, and I loved the challenge of giving them all distinctive voices, too; and to answer another question, no, I didn’t necessarily like writing in any one character’s voice more than the others, either.

I loved the decision to leave portions of Jia-Hui/Daisy’s text in Chinese characters. You see this type of blending more frequently with the Romance languages (I’m thinking of Junot Diaz, for instance, working words and phrases of Dominican Spanish into his sentences), but I’ve never seen it with Chinese. Why did you decide to do this?

I’m actually working on a craft essay about this, which will go into the subject in more detail, but in short — using a combination of Chinese characters and pinyin (a Russian-influenced form of phonetic translation for Mandarin) was a way for me to achieve a few things. I wanted it to preserve Jia-Hui in her original form as much as possible. I also wanted her use of language to be as potentially opaque to other characters — and to the reader — as possible. For example, there are sections in Jia-Hui’s chapters when her English is still quite poor, but she’s already immigrated to America, and so you’ll see parts of other people’s speech that are blanked out (e.g. “_____ ____ and _____”). I was trying to indicate how difficult it is to parse a foreign language when you only understand bits of it, and I wanted to be able to do the same thing to the reader — assuming that most readers don’t have the ability to read Chinese.

The extra-fun bit, to me, about using the characters as opposed to the pinyin (and the decision-making process behind using one in some places and the other in other places is too complicated to get into here!) is that unlike Diaz’s use of Dominican Spanish, you can’t just type the words or phrases into Google Translate and get a result. Unless you know how to input Chinese characters, you’re going to have a hard time figuring out what those characters means. You can’t even sound them out, the way you can with pinyin. If I write, “jiu jia nü,” you might be able to at least make the noises with your mouth that sound like those words, but “酒 家 女” is going to be a more difficult mountain to climb.

Was there any editorial resistance?

When I received the copyedited version of the book, I was horrified to discover that all of the Chinese characters had been transformed into pinyin. So I wrote a long explanation of my decision making in the margins and changed everything back. I didn’t get any pushback after that.

David is open about the fact that the “primary pleasure” he derives from his Taiwanese wife, Jia-Hui/Daisy, is her exoticism. You did a wonderful job of humanizing the uncomfortable trope of a white man fetishizing an Asian woman. Was this difficult for you to explore?

Oof. I had an ex-boyfriend in high school — a rather lovely guy, all in all — and found a stash of Asian fetish porn in his sofa cushions one afternoon, which was an unpleasant surprise.

Something that I like to do in my fiction, though, is to take the point of view of someone who’s either done something unpleasant or is generally an unpleasant person. For example, I once wrote a short story in which I took the point of view of a thirty-year-old who begins to date a teenager. In reality, I had been the teenager being dated by the thirty-year-old. But in the years following that experience, I was interested in considering what it might be like to be that guy — a depressive in his early thirties who becomes attracted to a teen girl and doesn’t handle himself particularly well in their ensuing relationship. I could say that I do this to humanize, say, men who date teenaged girls, or men who eroticize Asian women based on their ethnicity, but that feels like the easy way out. It’s not like I’m on some crusade to make these people more likable. I’m more interested in challenging myself to figure out what it’s like to be in their shoes.

Your book is, in some ways, a portrait of a mental illness. David refers to it as vitaphobia, “the fear of actually being alive.” Can you tell me about David’s relationship to his mental illness?

I believe that David has a very private relationship with his mental illness, even though its consequences bleed out and into the lives of those who care about him.

TBoP made me realize that many books involving characters with mental illness often skirt around the issue, relying instead on excuses of eccentricities or just unexplored “craziness.” For instance, when David, Daisy, and the children are isolated deep in the Polk Valley, I recalled Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which I believe is also a representation of mental illness without saying so explicitly. You write a lot about mental health issues in your non-fiction, most recently writing about schizophrenia for The Believer. Were you purposefully explicit about it in your fiction as well?

Oh, Housekeeping. Will you believe that I never read that book until last year? And I did see similarities between that book and mine, regardless.

I made a conscious choice while writing this book not to label David’s mental illness. He’s not described at any point as having manic-depression or schizophrenia or whatever — whatever afflicts him, the things that he calls “neuroses,” are more ambiguous than that. The decision to keep him label-less was in part influenced by my own experiences with mental illness and mental health diagnoses; my diagnoses have shifted time and again, and while I think that psychiatric diagnoses can be useful, they’re also a fallible human construct. Insanity is much more complex than the DSM gives it credit for — I say that both as someone who has gone through the mental health system since early adolescence, and as someone who has worked for years as a lab manager in a research psychology department.

As a lab manager, I was tasked with running detailed clinical interviews. Speaking with hundreds of people about the ins and outs of their mental workings was a funny little wakeup call after studying psychology in school — no one fit properly into the given boxes! In research, you want to find subjects who are as “clean” as possible, but humans are messy, and diagnoses overlap and cross over and obscure one another.

I’m more straightforward in my nonfiction. Most of the time, I’m writing about schizophrenia or some relative of schizophrenia. In some ways, I see nonfiction as having less tolerance for ambiguity — maybe that’s because I can’t see myself pitching an essay that’s about “living with some form of mental illness,” although I suppose the very ambiguity of such a thing could be the hook.

You’re a writer who’s known more for your nonfiction than fiction, however you started writing TBoP before the essays and blogs took off. Can you tell me about your novel’s journey to publication? The writing world is inundated with overnight success stories, and I think it’s more important to hear the slower, more realistic ones!

It’s funny to me that I’m known more for my nonfiction, because I definitely didn’t start out that way — I wrote a few essays in graduate school, none of them published. I ended up becoming known for my nonfiction because I’m not what I consider a natural short story writer, and novels have such a long gestation period that I ended up fooling around with nonfiction in the meantime, in part so that I could get my name out there. Compared to a lot of freelance writers, I have an extremely low level of output — part of that is due to living with disabling chronic illnesses, and part of that is due to, as you mentioned, running a small online business.

TBoP was written over five years and took over forty rejections to get published; I think that’s what you might mean by a “slower, more realistic” publication story! My friends from college and graduate school had comparatively meteoric experiences with their debut novels — the fact that they “went first” horribly skewed my perception of what publishing a debut looked like. I don’t think I had a single friend who didn’t earn six figures. One friend sold her book within 48 hours of it first going out — and for a quarter-million dollars.

Wow. I don’t blame you for having a skewed perception!

When my book first went out, and then kept coming back to me and kept coming back to me, usually accompanied by very kind notes, and sometimes with close calls where my agent and I would be dragged through a “we’re very interested and excited to potentially publish this, we’ll get back to you soon” process, only to be shot down later — it was crushing to me. I look back and can still feel how upset the disappointments made me. I didn’t know what to blame it on, so I blamed the rejections on anything within reach, including the publishing industry and what was considered marketable, and my own abilities as a writer, and so forth.

In the end, I reached out to Unnamed Press myself with the manuscript. I have an agent who did marvelous work with me on this book, but we’d decided after all of those rejections that perhaps this book wasn’t going to be The One. Emailing Unnamed with an unsolicited manuscript was a last gasp. And then they took it. They’ve been wonderful in many ways that I don’t think the bigger houses are — at least, from what I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances. There’s a certain amount of attention that you can get from a smaller press, and Unnamed has a combination of terrific factors going for it, including a strong editorial team, attention to design and aesthetics, and an excellent marketing and PR component.

Is it difficult for you to transition between fiction and nonfiction? How do you decide what medium to use to say the things you have to say?

I’m in an interesting place with fiction right now. I don’t write a lot of short fiction, as I’ve mentioned; I think I’m more of a novel writer. And so I’ve done a lot of essays in the last few years. I’m working on a manuscript of a collection of essays about schizophrenia, actually. But fiction triggers a light in my brain that doesn’t get lit otherwise, and I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to use fiction for.

I’ve been asked a little bit, but not very much, about whether TBoP is autobiographical, to which I laugh and say not at all. I’ve maybe only been asked once or twice. But I think the reason I’m not asked this common question is that I conceal the truths that I really want to write about in layers and layers of characters and places and times that aren’t anything like mine.

Which is to say that I save the most painful, wretched, awful truths for fiction, because they can be disguised more easily. Certain things I can’t write about because they’re not my stories to tell, and I try to be careful about that — my first little niece was born recently, and I’ve had some things come up in my mind since her birth that I could, if I wanted to, write essays about. And yet I feel it’s not my place to write those essays, so I’ll likely transplant certain feelings and thoughts into a future work of fiction.

It’s not that I don’t tell painful or wretched stories in nonfiction. But I tend to use that medium in a more clinical way. I put essays together like puzzles — I like to use an elaborate index card system to write my biggest essays, such as the “Toward a Pathology of the Possessed,” the Believer essay. I ended up with stacks and stacks of index cards for that one. Putting that thing together felt nothing like the visceral blood and guts of writing fiction.

Going back to David’s vitaphobia — I felt a frisson of recognition when I saw the word. You used to write a zine with the same name! In fact, I’ve known your writing since those early zine/Livejournal days, and feel lucky to have seen it develop over time. How did your experience in the zine world inform the writing you do today?

I did indeed write that zine! Zines were my first way of distributing my writing to a wider audience — I published my first cut-and-paste, Xeroxed zine in the mid-’90s — and my experience was a complete cliché: I lived in a small town, felt isolated and freakish, and discovered zines as a way to connect to other weirdos around the world. Being in the zine world informed the person I became. That’s as much as I can say about how it informs the writing I do now.

I’m curious if you’ve seen the Greek film, Dogtooth. It came out in 2009 and was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. It’s about parents who keep their children, now in adolescence, trapped on their compound until one inevitably tries to escape. The reason I ask is because the feelings evoked by TBoP reminded me a lot of how I felt watching Dogtooth — the film is shot beautifully and is largely set in bright daylight, but the subject matter is dark, often horrific, complete with uncomfortable sex scenes.

I’m so delighted that you asked about Dogtooth, because it completely blew me away when I first saw it. Like The Wolfpack, which I saw much more recently, Dogtooth was indeed an influence on The Border of Paradise, although I’d already created the Nowaks’ world and story before seeing it — but Dogtooth prompted questions like, What kind of cultural influences are the Nowak children aware of? The VCR tapes the siblings gain access to in Dogtooth clearly indicate to the viewer what they do and don’t refer to, culturally. They show the viewer what the siblings know. (The Wolfpack is a documentary about a pack of brothers, and one sister, living in near-complete isolation.)

What were other influences for TBoP, both aesthetically and writing-wise?

There was a certain kind of atmosphere that I tried to reach for with this book, perhaps best captured by the Japanese film Nobody Knows, which is about a group of siblings who are abandoned and left to fend for themselves. It’s an incredibly sad film, but the soundtrack is essentially one chipper acoustic guitar, the lighting is bright, and the cinematography is beautiful. I wanted to try to achieve something both Gothic and lovely. Other influences: There Will Be Blood, Wise Blood and Flannery O’Connor in general, Song of Solomon and Toni Morrison in general, and, especially for the William chapters, Lolita.

You’re a prolific writer (and I so deeply admire this given how open you are about the challenges of living with chronic illness). What projects are you working on these days?

As I mentioned, there’s a collection of essays about schizophrenia in the works, although that’s not on assignment; I’m just seeing where it goes right now. I’m hoping that if I cast my line out enough times, I’ll reel in the beginning of a new novel. I’m teaching an online course about restorative journaling through my website. There’s always so much to do — life with chronic illness is a major challenge, but I try to indulge in work as much as I can.