Didn’t your first novel just come out?
In March. That was three months ago. Which is a century in media time. 15 minutes is now 15 seconds, and my 15 seconds of fame expired 8,899,200 seconds ago.
The Digital Age has sped everything up, hasn’t it?
I find myself lost and confused about time lately. I have been using the phrase “I am neither young nor old” somewhat frequently in my recent blogging and writing, which reminds me that I’m a little caught between the old world and the new when it comes to physical and digital, slow and fast, depth and breadth, reclusiveness and social networking. Or maybe age has nothing to do with it, maybe it’s just my own nostalgic and hand-wringing nature. At any rate, yes. Long for This World is out from Scribner. But again, the time thing is very strange – three years writing it; a year to find a publisher; two years in production; then the release comes and goes in a blip.
But you’re writing about it here, aren’t you?
Right. Which confirms TNB’s self-proclamation of being a force for good, in my book (so to speak).
In what other ways are you confused by time?
For instance: every Web site that requires a password has different requirements for the password – length, character-to-symbol ratio, etc. So I now have many passwords, and each one born out of a particular time in my life – a street address, an inside joke from a past relationship, the name of a beloved (now deceased) pet. I recently turned in the personnel paperwork for my new faculty job at Columbia, and I was assigned the email ID that I had as a college student there 20 years ago, because I was still in the system. I went round and round online trying to login and access various resources, but the system wouldn’t let me re-set the password; it was apparently hell-bent on my remembering the one from 20 years ago (I don’t remember). Everything is supposedly pulsing forward, something new every time you blink; but in this case I needed to go way backward to go forward. That was very confusing.
Nice job weaving in your biographical/professional details there.
Do you wear a watch?
I don’t. I haven’t for about four years. It started when my watch battery died. Then it dragged out because I was too lazy to replace the battery. Then I just got used to not knowing what time it is when I’m out and about, to intuiting by feel and observation. I also sometimes don’t wear my glasses (I’m very near-sighted) when walking in the city, because it’s just too much stimuli. But in that case, it’s harder to deduce what time it is.
I see what you mean about neither young nor old. That willful ignorance has both a youthfulness and a dinosaurish-ness to it.
How’s Long for This World doing?
I don’t know. Or, rather, that’s a multi-level question. There are all these different indicators and measurements that you’d think would be tied but are actually weirdly discrete. I was talking to a fellow novelist who said she was fielding a lot of “Congrats! The book is doing so well!” emails. And in her mind she was thinking, “It is?” She and I have both been invited to do guest-blogging and interviews and events; so maybe that’s the red herring as far as a book’s “success”? Sales is its own mysterious universe.
The critical reception of Long for This World has been good. It’s especially wonderful when it’s clear that a critic or a reader has engaged with the story and characters on many levels. And then there are readers who tend to read more genre fiction or don’t read much fiction at all – friends/acquaintances who read it because they know me – who described it as “engrossing” and “a page-turner” which I found delightfully surprising.
The book is written in collage form, with sections shifting in point-of-view. It moves around in time and geographical setting. It’s not a linear narrative, in other words. And it is more populated than most novels of its length, with an ensemble cast of characters – an extended family – that have, I’ve been told, funny names. So I thought the book might strike some as a bit inaccessible, but that has not been the case.
Ah. But they’re in good company. Our Fair President seems to have upped the stock value on “funny names.”
Do you have a funny Korean name?
I don’t. I’m not sure how that fell through the cracks. Most of my Korean American peers do have Korean names, in addition to a Western name. But friends used to joke that if you say my name with a certain inflection – So-NYAA? – it could be translated into Korean as “Is it a cow?” or, alternatively, “Are you a cow?”
How do you feel about readers commenting on the characters’ names?
You know, it’s come up so frequently now that I’m thinking of it as a “teachable moment.” There was no way that the names were going to change after I’d spent four years with these characters. So when I first got that feedback, from my editor, I made a decision – to maintain the challenging reality of cross-cultural reading. We added a “List of Characters” in the beginning to help navigate, as in many Russian novels, or Garcia Marquez novels. But the funny thing that’s occurring to me lately is how goofy it is – and how my Korean friends, who consider me one of the most un-Korean Koreans out there, would find it so hilarious – that I’m on the radio or in interviews acting as cultural translator on behalf of Koreans.
So you feel unqualified to explain Korean cultural mores and language?
Well, actually… I guess in a way a person like me who’s been steeped in Korean language since birth but who ultimately hears it and interacts with it as an outsider, as a second language, might be the right sort of person to notice and be fascinated by linguistic intricacies like honorifics (six levels of address that reflect different levels of formality), and the infinite number of terms for addressing familial relations (at least seven different kinds of “aunts,” for instance).
Winding up here… how about one conventional interview question, i.e. advice to writers starting out?
Well, I guess I’m still a writer starting out. But first I’d say read this –- “Ten Rules For Writing Fiction,” from 14 well-known writers. You’ll find that 1) there are no rules, 2) there are lots of rules, and 3) the only rule is to figure out what the rules are for you. Second, I’d say keep a forearm’s length from everything, especially media noise, and even “literary community.” I don’t mean sequester in an ivory tower. I mean, in the immortal words of the late Patrick Swayze, don’t lose track of the fact that “This is my dance space; this is your dance space.” The writing life can be lonely, but giving yourself over to swaths of unbroken solitude is the only way to write well, to write something that only you can write. Also, tend to the physical side of your life, writing and otherwise; use a pen and paper, once in a while, scissors and tape; go for walks; do research in the physical world, using all your senses, not just online.
So what’s next?
1) Another novel, in-progress now for 2 ½ years, currently titled Sebastian & Frederick.
2) Gathering up my gumption to take a motorcycle safety course (and now that I’ve said that here, maybe I’ll really do it).
3) Visit a bunch of doctors once my health insurance kicks in next month.
4) Read War and Peace and The Magic Mountain this summer
5) Try to grow okra
Does it? I think about the word “ambition” a lot. The playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan said in an interview that ambition intrigues him in characters and historical figures, because “ambition is a sure sign of damage.” I often think that my so-called ambition will always be limited by the fact that I prefer health and happiness to damage. Or maybe another way of saying this is that both ambition and health/happiness take a lot of focus and energy; and I (being neither young nor old) am not a particularly good multi-tasker.