What I’m Reading

Author Interview with Leland Cheuk

A few years ago, the author, Leland Cheuk, joined my writing group. Except then he was the writer, Leland Cheuk. The personal statement part of his application described one novel, his writing sample was an excerpt of another, and once he was in our group, he shared with us countless short and very short stories. The overall impression was that this guy was prolific and that he also had a huge cache of finished work. Well I think first impressions were correct, and in short order it seemed Leland was constantly publishing his short stories. Then about a year after he joined us, following a routine blood test, Leland found out he had a very rare blood cancer and needed to undergo a bone marrow transplant, and live in semi-isolation for a long time. We didn’t see Leland for over a year. I bring this up because it became part of his journey of becoming a published author. On the same day Leland underwent his bone marrow transplant, he received an email from a publisher that they would like to publish his novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong. And then two years later, on the same day, another publisher asked to publish his short story collection, Letters from Dinosaurs. I love Leland’s work and how utterly surprising and fresh it is. And I’ve always enjoyed his life stories too, told with dry humor and a good natured astuteness. So no surprise, I really enjoyed this recent author interview we had and hope you enjoy reading it too.

 RSG: I started The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (TMOSP) before our election and after the results came in, I had to put it down for a week or so. The campaigning and election between father and son Pong was too disturbing and prescient, in light of the Presidential election unfolding here in America. What was your model for that campaign and those characters being in politics when you first conceived of and wrote TMOSP?

LC: Yeah, I wouldn’t want to read TMOSP either during that dumpster fire. Haha. The book is about the dark half of the American soul as embodied by the Pongs. Unfortunately, the 2016 presidential election was also an example of that American dark side. I’ve paid close attention to politics my whole life, and when a campaign gets negative (and this one was probably the most negative of my lifetime), voters tend to detach. I started TMOSP around 2005-2006 during the George W. Bush presidency, and I think even the most partisan Republican would agree those eight years did not go well. We really are still digging ourselves out of that hole. And yet, we re-elected Bush handily. In TMOSP, the Pong v. Pong election is supposed to be darkly humorous commentary on the willful ignorance and indifference of the American voter. We really take our democracy for granted. Less than half our population votes—absurdly low compared to newer democracies.

My drivers ed teacher used to have a catchphrase related to defensive driving. He said, “You want to be right, but you don’t want to be dead right.” That’s kind of the way I feel about the election in TMOSP and Donald Trump. I wish I wasn’t right, because chances are we’re going to be dead right.

RSG: What’s your family’s history of immigration to America? Anyone as colorful as your characters in your own family?

LC: My grandfather was a dissident, anti-Communist essayist who was forced to live in a rural re-education camp in South China during the Cultural Revolution. His banishment forced my dad and uncle to flee because there were no educational or economic opportunities for the children of those deemed disloyal to the Communists. My parents walked two weeks straight to the coast where they had to swim across a rocky channel to the Hong Kong customs station. They trained for months for this swim, wading in rivers with makeshift floating devices strapped to their waists and small edibles in their pockets so they wouldn’t starve. My dad was 5-7, 99 pounds, and he passed out from hypothermia on the way across. My mom dragged him unconscious onto shore. Their legs and feet were sliced up from the rocks. She was afraid that the Chinese would be shooting at them from the mainland, but she wasn’t strong enough to carry my dad to the customs station. They were saved by a friendly Hong Kong customs officer. Some of their cohort didn’t survive the swim because visibility was so bad that you could easily get swept out to sea.

Let’s just say their story makes me unable to empathize whatsoever with the rural white working class voter who’s upset that they can’t work in the same factory for 50 years. The day one of them risks their lives the way my parents did for a better life will be the first.

RSG: I know you made a shift from writing only novels to writing shorter and shorter fiction as well. Can you describe that journey as a writer?

LC: It’s liberating. As a society, we’re moving toward briefer and briefer forms of communication. From Twitter to text, the future is bright for profound concision. Writing shorter also requires you to unlearn all those craft tricks you might have learned in MFA programs or writing workshops. You don’t have the space or time for large containers like scenes and chapters. You really only have the sentence and the word. I also feel like I learned a lot from reading epigrams and aphorisms and doing standup comedy where jokes have to land every ten seconds, or roughly every two sentences.

RSG: Where do you hope your writing leads you and your readers?

LC: Wow, this one is a tough one. Some writers write to show beauty in the messiness of life. Some writers write to highlight injustice. Some writers write to share their lives. I’m not sure I do any of those things. I think I’m trying, through comedy, to raise serious questions about the way we live and what we value as a contemporary society.

RSG: You’ve recently stepped into the role of publisher as well! Can you tell us about that?

LC: Yes! I’m very excited about it. My life was saved on July 13, 2014 by a successful bone marrow transplant. On that same day, an indie press asked to publish TMOSP. Then two years later, also on July 13th, another indie press asked to publish my story collection LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS. So to pay it forward, in November, I started 7.13 Books, a small press for debut literary fiction for adults.

After going bookless for almost twenty years (and nearly dying bookless), I realized that I (and most writers) go about the publishing business all wrong. We get caught up and beaten down by the need for approval from agents and editors at the big houses. As a young, aspiring writer, I feel like no one told me that you can be the best writer you can be and still, it’s very possible—highly likely, in fact—that no one will pay attention. And not only that, New York publishing has zero intention of paying more than a few dozen literary authors each year a living wage for their work. If I knew that earlier, I wouldn’t have waited twenty years for that precious approval from people who view our work no differently than apparel at Banana Republic. The author, for the most part, is just the kid in Bangladesh making a sweater for $50 a month.

Every author should go through the traditional process, if only because it’s basically your only chance of making more than coffee money for your book. But if you’re rebuffed, you shouldn’t spend decades trying to break into the big houses without publishing on small presses and in journals. Having an agent should 100% be a nice-to-have, not a must-have. Authors should take their fate in their own hands and get their work out there when they honestly feel it’s ready, different and additive to literature as a whole.

Another thing no one talks about is that to publish a book is to risk losing money. Before you complain about a press not doing enough publicity for your book, you should realize that the publisher is volunteering to lose hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars for your book to exist at all. I’m happy to lose a little time and money to help other writers experience what I’ve experienced as an author.

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The shorter the better

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This week my friend Leland Cheuk published a craft piece in SmokeLong Quarterly about how he began to write shorter and shorter fiction and why that’s working well for him. Like Leland, I spent many years only writing novels. For some writers, and readers, the novel is the ultimate form. I revere novels, I love reading them, I’m conditioned to that length and expanse and the long, slow arc that occurs within two hundred plus pages. But, this penultimate form not only takes years to complete, but more and more rarely are novels actually published. The bulls-eye has gotten smaller for what publishers want to publish, what will make them even a few dollars. Another writer friend of mine recently said to me, us literary fiction writers are the poets of thirty years ago. I understood right away that she meant we’re fringe weirdos. Leland embraced short and flash fiction a couple of years ago, and he found that his intelligent, humorous and very creative work was much more readily accepted for publication in literary journals, and now he’s published a collection of short stories, Letters From Dinosaurs, some of them very short. I would believe that if a dinosaur sat down to write a letter, it would short and to the point. I met Leland after he’d turned to shorter fiction (as well as his novels) when he joined my writing group, and I’m lucky to have read many of the stories in his new collection while they were still in development.

I’m trailing far behind Leland in my forays into shorter fiction. I’ve written about five short stories in the last two years, which is five more than I’d written in twenty years, but they’re not very short. I still fall into the old-school tradition of writing say a sixteen page short story. Leland has inspired me try something much more new and different for me, to go for the 2,000 word (four page) story. To pack action and character and theme into sentences that work triple time. To make a beginning, middle and an end occur in a tight, complete, satisfying arc that readers actually have the time to read, and journals actually have the space to print.

I know myself well enough to know that I won’t stop trying to write novels, and I probably won’t stop writing a 16 page short story when that story bids for my attention. But reading Leland’s article about his stories, one that takes the form of a letter, one all in bullet points, one that is a group email exchange, was a welcome reminder- have some effing fun with your writing- do strange new things with it, and you just might find more of it appearing in print while you’re experimenting. Life and writing are change, after all.

The books of friends

My favorite thing to read is a novel. And my favorite thing in the world is being lost in a novel, pining for the story during the day while I work, eager to get in bed at night with the book or have half an hour alone on the subway with it. Reading a story that I get lost in is a very specific and palpable experience for me. The novel can eclipse the world. My husband has said that I look most at peace when I’m sitting, reading a novel. For every birthday and holiday, he gives me several novels, and I read them within a month. When I’ve finished a great novel and haven’t yet picked up another, there’s a limbo period that can actually get disturbing. Sometimes, I don’t find the right next book easily, and I’m stuck reading a novel I can’t get lost in, or I just read old New Yorkers on the subway for a month straight and don’t get the escape I crave. Well, I’m in one of those limbos right now. A few weeks ago I finished Barkskins, Annie Proulx’s latest novel, about the deforestation of the world, spanning 400 years and about 15 generations of “barkskins,” men and women who stripped the worlds’ forests of their trees. This book enveloped me and took me into its far-flung worlds, and since I put it down I’ve been re-reading Flannery O’Connor short stories and New Yorker articles. Then it struck me this week. I have three friends whose recently published books I haven’t read yet; Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Joseph Boyden, and Leland Cheuk. Confession: two of these books, I never got around to purchasing. I’ve now rectified that. The books are on their way in the mail, and the plan is to read three friends, back to back. As friends often do- they’ve got my back. I’ve been excited to read these books for a long time, and I would have thought I’d have read them by now, read them as soon as they were available. I’m wondering if the reason I haven’t is that it’s a bit harder to get lost in a book written by someone I know. I might get distracted thinking, ah I know where Miranda got this idea, or did something like this really happen to Joseph, or is this how Leland really feels? I’ll read them and I’ll let you know. But I already know I won’t be disappointed. I’m excited and proud of these talented writer friends as I contemplate diving into their ideas, their words, their books.

BOWERY BUMS

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I’m reading about an alcohol detoxification program that began in 1967 in New York City for homeless men. It’s making me think of my grandma Lill, who was born in New York City in 1911. On payday she used to make sandwiches for the “bowery bums,” and walk down Bowery Street handing them out. She often told me, “Those men were good men and really interesting to talk to. Most of them had read all the classics.”

ARRIVE LATE, LEAVE EARLY

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Arrive late, leave early is a writing adage that you can hang your hat on. Crudely explained, it means enter your scenes (your openings especially) when the action is underway. Put the reader in front of the action as it takes place, without the reader needing to walk in half a mile to find it. Leave early is a little more elusive in meaning. But get out when the reveal/peak/climax is hot and new and not explained to the last crumb. Show your reader what there was to be gained from the story, what was gained or lost by the characters and then split. Leave the reader wanting more, not wishing you’d shut up.

I’m reading a novel right now that I want to love but I don’t. It’s a recent literary-fiction post-apocalyptic story. I’m about two-thirds through it and am starting to give up on being wowed. I couldn’t figure out why it was failing me, until I thought of “arrive late, leave early.” The novelist has chosen to arrive very, very late. How late? Well, the two main characters have gone through the end of the modern world when we meet them. I personally would have liked seeing the end of the world with them. But I understand, things ended very gradually and perhaps their story occurs afterwards. Then they finally, after two years, meet some neighbors in the woods. Then there’s this time jump to after the neighbors have poisoned their children and then themselves. I could have standed the novel being there for those events too. Then they make their way to a settlement of people- they haven’t seen more than 4 other people in years- this is exciting. The settlement has survived the raids of pirates, terrible things have happened- but it was years ago. We learn of it through dialogue. The settlers tell them. All the good plot delivered after the fact through dialogue? Years later? This is arriving way too late. It’s like watching home video of a great circus, but it’s actually footage of the empty tent after all the performers cleared out. I have often wondered how much weight dialogue can bear in fiction. I wrangle with this in my writing, not trusting dialogue to do much heavy-lifting. I like dialogue sort of as proof. You’ve established through prose who your characters are, what they’re like and then you prove it through their dialogue, or you show that they’re being disingenuous, deceitful or changing(!) by the dialogue disproving what we know. But plot-delivery through dialogue makes me wary.  This novel is almost an experiment in that. The author thought the whole book could rest on dialogue, after the fact. Why not just move the novel 4 years earlier; see the world collapse, see the pirate raiders, see the suicides? Arrive earlier damn it. I’m going to finish the book for sure. I’m still hoping something crazy will occur that wasn’t years ago. Maybe it will be the last page and the whole book is a set up for a series….

On another note. When I went running today along the Hudson River, there were two girls about fifteen or sixteen years-old, skate-boarding on the bike path. They rode plastic skateboards, mostly just scooting and gliding, nothing fancy. It was 61 degrees and overcast. They were vaguely dancing while they skated to music coming from an iphone one of them held. She was wearing an off the shoulder tiny purse too. They looked alike. The world could use more of that.

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

9781594200694_custom-f03becf20830b170ef232802ff0e955a36b8ef02-s6-c30Turning to E.B. White for help with your writing is a double-edged sword. His advice is spot-on, unequivocal. Do it. Everything E. B. White has to say will improve your writing. However, read enough of his offerings from Elements of Style and you will soon grow to believe that you cannot do it. Writing that well, avoiding all those pitfalls- fatal missteps feels impossible. Now, if you’re reading this and you’re an arrogant writer, then go right ahead and dive into Elements of Style, and you’ll probably walk away thinking, I do all that already. As in all things arrogant, your thinking is misguided. You don’t, you’re wrong, and look again. Read one page of your writing and you’ll find these common weaknesses in style. When I read Elements of Style, I feel guilty of all he warns against. I’m pleased if I was at least already aware of the bad habit. There’s someone in my house who is obsessed with E.B. White. It’s not my four and a half year-old, although he is reading The Trumpet of the Swan.

We’ve always taken E.B. White very seriously in my household. When in doubt about creating straight-forward drama in our writing, my husband and I have turned to the first sentence of Charlotte’s Web more than once. “Where’s Pa going with that ax?” Recently, I sense we’re about to get way more steeped in him. As I write this, there are six of his books on my coffee table. I don’t want you to suffer vicariously from the notion that you just can’t do everything correctly, as he urges us to. So, I’ll share just a little of his sage advice. But trust, humble writer friends, there’s more good advice where this came from.

Write with nouns and verbs.

Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech…In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.

Do not overstate.

When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgement or your poise…..A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.

Brooklyn Public Library

lib frontThe Brooklyn Public Library, main branch has been my writing home for many years. Although I joined the Brooklyn Writing Space for a few years, leaving right before my son’s birth, I never needed it. This large, airy, majestic and architecturally beautiful library is a block from my home. The second floor, and many other rooms/floors/alcoves/spaces have work tables and abundant outlets to accommodate writers on laptops. (There’s also delicious coffee and food in the lobby these days from Four & Twenty Blackbirds Café.) But its not the bells and whistles or amenities that entice me. It is that near silent room on the second floor with huge windows, high ceilings, the five or six long tables that seat up to 8 people, the cranking heat in winter and cool air in summer, the tens of thousands of bound books sleeping on their feet all around and the cross-section of Brooklyn citizenry circulating with the air, that just makes me purely happy- and productive. I wrote the final draft of The Sign for Drowning in this room, at these tables, and the first draft of my current novel.

baby in libIn fact, as my maternity leave drew to an end in early 2011, I realized that if I brought the baby to the library every morning, I could finish my first draft of the novel before returning to work. I’d bundle him up and plop him in his stroller right before I knew he would start his morning nap and we’d hike over to the library. I discovered their elevators because of his big stroller. Then he’d sleep for over two hours in this room which was not meant for babies, and I’d write in the perfect atmosphere. Many times, I’d eventually look at him after two plus hours, and see that he was already awake, contentedly watching. Maybe he was as pleased as I am to just have a clean well-lighted space to think. He’s got his own library card now and does his own browsing. And I’m back for more hours a week than I have been in recent years, gratefully.

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