The author of The Vagrants talks about dislocation, relocation, writing about the history of China, and being inspired by Jewish and Irish writers.
In The Vagrants, you tell the stories of two young women, Nini and Gu Shan. Nini, especially, is a very unusual character. Why did you choose to hinge so much of the tale on her?
I feel very attached to Nini. When I grew up in China, there was so much focus on heroism, or motherism. And Gu Shan was a beautiful woman, she was a tragic heroine and she was a martyr, but Nini was the opposite of Gu Shan. You could not find anything of the martyr or heroine in her. I felt there was so much life in that character. It was very, very hard for me to write a beautiful character like Gu Shan. The more complex a character is, the easier it is for me to spend a long time with her, as I could with Nini.
You chose to write this novel about a very particular time in Chinese history. Do you feel that as a burden—that people here may be reading you not just for the experience of the novel, but to get some insight into the history and culture of China?
I don’t feel the obligation to represent China, but I would hate to misrepresent it. I’m a fiction writer; it’s very hard not to make up things. But I think that the historical period has to be right, has to be accurate, in so far as I can do that. And, of course, I’m always aware that I am only representing this history as I understand it, from my very particular, and partial, perspective. I am very conscious because there are two sides, especially for people who don’t know any Chinese history. I get very kind responses from readers saying, “I’m so sorry you had to live through this hell,” and that is not what I meant to evoke. On the other hand, Chinese audiences say, “Why do you have to write about this dark period in Chinese history? Why can’t you write about a brighter, a stronger country?” My only response to either group is that I’m only able to represent how I, as an individual writer, understand that world.
Do you travel back and forth to China very much? It seems it’s changed enormously in the years that you’ve been in the U.S., yes?
Yes and no. I think the physical world has been changing dramatically, but human nature changes very slowly. When I go back to China, I get lost in the streets and I even get lost in my own neighborhood because everything looks different. But when I talk to people, I don’t feel lost at all.
Do you feel that the experience of dislocation, relocation, has made you a writer or contributed to your writing in a very significant way?
Yes, definitely for me, yes. When I was in China, I did not write, mostly because when I grew up, there was not a private world for me. You were living your life in front of other people all the time, and I think when you grow up in that way, you tend to become a child with a lot of secrets. And, to me, literature often is about secrets. I think that experience in China as a child made me into a writer, though I couldn’t write until I came to America. Here I feel that I can comfortably live a private life. I am now free to explore all my past in China, as well as the future here. I don’t feel I belong to either place, and that is mostly helpful when you’re a writer.
You came to the U.S in 1996 to train in immunology? How did you land at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop instead?
I was at the University of Iowa doing my Ph.D. in immunology and had one of those moments in which you have a second thought about your life.
That was quite a big second thought, wasn’t it?
Yes, I had never written anything. I’d always been a reader, but not a writer, and so that second thought was a huge fluke. I suddenly thought, “I want to write,” and I enrolled in a community writing class.
And you wrote stories in that class and submitted them with an application to the MFA Program?
No, it took me awhile. I wrote on and off for three or four years before I applied to the program. I was trying to finish my Ph.D. and was writing on the side. After I passed my Ph.D. qualification, I had a panic attack and decided I didn’t want to become a doctor. So I gave up that study, but continued to work in a hospital for two years. I got a Masters Degree instead, which they gave me because I’d already done so much work there.
And then you entered the MFA program at Iowa?
Yes, I got a nonfiction degree and a fiction degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And I had a lot of fun. For me, the most important things about the MFA experience were that it allowed me to discover which writers I admired and might want to emulate, and it allowed me to discover writing friends. I met a few people in the program who have been very close friends ever since. And I admired Marilynne Robinson so much. Just listening to her in the workshop was a treat. For me, it was not about what she thought of my work; it was about what I learned by listening to her.
Which writers did you want to emulate?
My major influence was and is William Trevor, and I really did discover his work when I was at Iowa. A friend of mine gave me his books and I still haven’t stopped reading them over and over. I fell in love with his short stories. I was not, by nature, a good storyteller when I started. I think I learned to write stories by reading him.
So was Iowa as important because it gave you an experience of guided reading?
Yes. My mentor at the workshop was James McPherson, and he introduced me to Isaac Babel, who is another writer I greatly admire. And a friend introduced me to Singer and Malamud. Like them, I came into the language late and I felt like a child, reading whatever people told me to read. But the friends I made and the professors I had knew me so well and were able to introduce me to the best work. In some ways, I think my reading experience there was even more important for me than the writing I did at the time.
It’s interesting that the three writers you talked about—Babel, Singer, and Malamud—are such important Jewish writers. What attracted you to them?
Babel was fascinating because he was not writing in his first language. He was writing in Russian, which turned out to be his second language. And though I don’t think I write like Singer, I was so interested in how his mind worked. And Malamud as well. I was interested in writers who wrote both short fiction and novels very well and also in writers who had long careers. I read Malamud from the first story to the last to see how he changed over decades, both in his writing style and in what he saw. It just happened that I was very attracted to these writers. I think my major influences are Irish writers and Jewish writers.
Who are the Irish writers?
I love John McGahern and I love Elizabeth Bowen. And there’s another writer, named Molly Keane, who is not as widely read in America. She was a little bit after Elizabeth Bowen, but they were friends. And Frank O’Connor. I feel a closeness to Irish literature and to the land there. I am very drawn to that part of the world.
You published a lot of short stories before The Vagrants. Was there a time when you thought you might not write novels at all? Or did you always know that you wanted to do both? And were you in fact working on the novel intermittently while you were producing a lot of short stories?
I’ve always known that I want to write both, because one cannot replace the other for me. I always have a novel project, but I’m always running away from it to write a couple of stories at a time.
And the material dictates to you which will be a novel and which will be a short story?
Yes, but I also notice that when I’m working on a novel, the stories I write around that time reflect the things I’m working through in the novel.
You published your first story while you were still doing your MFA. How did that come about?
It’s very interesting. In fact, even before I entered the Iowa Workshop, the story Immortality was accepted by The Paris Review.
Did a fellow writer or a mentor bring it to them?
No, I just sent it in. That story was in the mail for two years, going from magazine to magazine, and I was starting to collect a file of very nice rejection letters. Eventually, I sent it to The Paris Review and Brigid Hughes called me and said, “We are wondering if the story is available.” And I laughed and said, “Available? You should realize you’re from The Paris Review and if you ask me if a story is available, it’s available.”
Your relationship with Brigid Hughes has continued through your work as an editor with her magazine, A Public Space. Do you feel that editing has had a great impact on your writing?
Oh, that’s a very good question. I feel that process makes me so much pickier about my own work.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
In general that is a good thing, but sometimes it’s frustrating.
What was the editorial process for The Vagrants like?
I sent the first draft, which was very long—about 500 pages—to Random House, and Kate Medina said it was too long and she pointed out certain things, including one character who was not working. So I spent two more years just rewriting that character—Kai. And I cleaned things up a bit up and made the novel tighter.
That brings us to that inevitable interview question: What is your writing process?
I think a lot before I start writing, but I don’t think through everything, and when I do start a story—and this is especially true with stories, not novels—I already know what the story will be and so I don’t edit a lot. My first draft is often very close to my final draft.
With a novel, it’s different. It’s such a tough thing to write a novel. I think through everything, but so much in the novel is unexpected, so you have to really let the control go, a little bit at a time.
But you knew how The Vagrants would end before you began writing?
Yes, but to get every character from point to point took a lot of planning and re-planning. I’m not a very messy writer in my short stories, but for the novel I learned to be messy. It’s impossible to keep a novel clean as you write. You have to make a mess before you can clean up the mess.
And The Vagrants actually was your first novel? There’s not an earlier one sitting in a drawer somewhere?
I did write one novel, which was terrible, really unbearable, before I started the first story collection. I did salvage one story out of it, The Princess of Nebraska. I was very happy that I stopped working on that novel. Sometimes I think you have to write a bad novel to learn to write a good one.