Letters From Dinosaurs

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.

The shorter the better

dino

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.