Recent Work By Sung J. Woo

If you’ve never read Alix Ohlin, you should.  She’s one of the good ones out there, and she’s no slouch when it comes to publishing.  Two story collections and two novels in seven years – perhaps not an impressive haul for bionic typewriters like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, but plenty impressive to me.  She may not have won a Pulitzer or a National Book Award yet, but Ohlin is someone I look up to, because she’s just a very solid writer.

More than a month has passed since I listened to the unabridged recording of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and read the paperback of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles.  To be frank, I’ve been avoiding writing about either of these novels, not because I didn’t like them, but because I feel inadequate even discussing them.  My words, no matter how carefully chosen or artfully rendered, cannot elevate these books any further.  They are two of the finest works of literature I’ve read in years.

Dear Love Love,

Yesterday, you were born.  You were not an easy delivery, for the ink on my laser printer was ready to give out.  I fed thirty sheets of you at a time so I could take out the toner and shake it, to make sure the words on your pages printed solid and streak-free.  I carried you from the output tray to the stack.  I watched you grow.  I picked you up.  You were as warm as a blanket in my hands.  Bound with a long rubber band, you were my hefty, luminous bundle.

It was they who led me
to your Golden Arches.
And to this forsaken ordering line.

A man’s heart has heard
two ways through lunch…
the way of the Chicken McNugget
and the way of the Big Mac.

You have to choose.
The Chicken McNugget doesn’t try
to please itself.
Accepts being trimmed
fried, dunked in savory sauces.

The Big Mac only wants
to please itself.
Like this idiot
at the counter
paying entirely in change.

The Big Mac
likes to lord over the McNugget.
Is it the bun
sandwiching its carnivorous nectar?
Or the melted cheese
gooey in its own transcendence?
I don’t know. I just want to eat.

Bless these foods.
To have their own way.
It finds reasons
to be unhappy…
when the customer ahead is
mulling instead of ordering
when hunger is grimacing
through all things.

They taught us that no one
who loves the way of the Big Mac…
ever comes to a bad end.
I will be true to you.
Whatever comes.
Which I hope is sooner than later
because much film editing still remains.

My son.
I just want to die…
I’m so famished.
My stomach is in God’s hands now.
It was in God’s hands the whole time.
Wasn’t it?
My hope.
My God.
My burger.

How did you come to me?
In what shape?
What disguise?
I hope it was either a Big Mac
or a Chicken McNugget.
I see the child that I was.
That child got to eat
when he was hungry.

Is there some fraud
in the scheme of this neverending line?
It’s that woman
who stands alone but is ordering
for her entire fucking family.
We cannot stay where we are.
We must journey forth.
Maybe to the Burger King
on the next block.
We must find that which
will fill our empty stomachs.
Nothing can bring us peace
but that.

Help each other.
Eat everyone.
I mean love everyone.
Every leaf.
Every ray of light.
Every French fry.
The only way
to be happy is to eat.
Unless you eat,
your life will flash by.
Why the hell didn’t
The Thin Red Line
win Best Picture?

Follow me.
l give him to you.
I give you my son.
Seriously, he’s yours.
If I can just order a Number One.

For the last month, I could see the end, that moment when I’d write the last sentence of my second novel. I imagined there would be exaltation, relief, a supreme sense of satisfaction rolled into that single keystroke when I’d tap the period and put an end to this work that began on August 11, 2002.

Much changed during those nine long-ass years: my father passed away, I got married, and my first novel was published. I also wrote about half of another novel that I paused (abandoned is too harsh a word – I’m coming back for you, little book, I swear!). For seven years, I did not add a single word to this eventual second work, but I did think about it often, and when I started it back up in the fall of 2008, I knew I had to bring it home. Because if I didn’t, who would? Andy Warhol once said that he wished for someone else to paint the paintings in his head. For a long time, I thought it was a goofy quote, lazy, even, but now I interpret it differently. Sometimes, I see a scene in my head that’s so perfect that the translation from brain to the written word, no matter how accurate or graceful, will still fall short. Times like these, I understand Andy completely.  I wish somebody else would write it for me, just to take away the disappointment of my eventual failure.

Writing any novel isn’t easy, and the problems are there from the start, built into its framework. The rate at which people read is not the same as the rate at which you write the work – perhaps unless you’re Stephen King – so it’s as if you’re running a race in slow motion, constantly having to gauge the pace of scenes and dialogue and make sure they’re in balance within the rest of the exposition. Unlike short stories, whose plots and logistics can be contained wholly within a manageable slice of a writer’s brain, novels are sprawling creatures, so it’s very possible to decapitate the head of a character in chapter ten and have him bake an apple pie in chapter twenty, without any sort of Frankensteinian resurrection involved. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that you yourself are changing as the years roll by, so what you might have considered to be smart and moving in 2004 might seem smart-alecky and sentimental today.

With the second novel, there are added pressures. It’s not your first, so people expect more from you, bigger and badder and important and non-sucky. Except what few seem to realize is that you really didn’t know what the hell you were doing in the first place, that the debut novel is the result of hope and faith and persevered serendipity. It’s not as if I had a specific end product in mind while writing Everything Asian; the book formed itself during the process of writing, so there were no guarantees that things would work out the second time around just because they happened to do so the first time.

Adding to the angst was that with number one, as I came to the last couple of chapters, I sped up, excited to reach the finish line, while with number two, I found myself inexplicably slowing down. After slogging through three years of steady writing, when the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel revealed its glow, I wanted nothing more than to turn into Superman and burst through at supersonic speeds, and yet each new page came as willingly as a cat going to the vet. What the hell was going on?

My theory is that the novel had become a form of Stockholm Syndrome, where I learned to love my captor and did not want to leave its confines. Because what lay beyond this book was an even blacker unknown. What if, after slaving away for all this time, I was writing a spectacular turd? Once it was done, people would read it, and the verdict would be in. And what about book number three? And for that matter, just how many books did I actually have in me? Would I run out of things to write about at some point, and then what would I do with myself? As awful as it was to keep writing this second book, there was safety in these characters and their stories.

But last weekend, I hunkered down. With my wife out of town, it would be possible to write all day and all night, something I hadn’t done since – well, never. Three hours is usually what I can handle in one sitting, but I knew that if I made this final push, I’d be done. On Friday, I managed two sessions of three hours, and on Saturday, I started at nine in the morning and finished nine at night. Of course we’re not actually talking about twelve consecutive hours of banging at the keyboard. Staring at the wall, chatting with the cat, playing with the dog, straightening up the pile of magazines on the coffee table for the fifth time – it’s all part of the process. And yet despite all of this “writing,” I did find myself on the last word of the last sentence by the time day turned to night. Which means there was only one way to end it: the final period.

I wish I could say that pushing on that dotted plastic plateau was what I’d hoped, an orgasmic release of pent-up literary forces that transformed the books on my shelves into a hundred Nabakovian butterflies, but alas, I felt none of it. I was beyond exhausted, and all I could think was the amount of rewrites it would take to straighten out this morass of a novel.

In any case, it starts with the words His father was against the idea, and it ends with and so was he, my book number two, whose vital stats are as follows: 121951 words, 404 pages, three parts, 26 chapters plus an epilogue. If writing a book is like having a child, I think it might have been a C-section. The baby remains nameless, so I got my work cut out for me.

Related Link

Check out Taylor Antrim’s excellent essay about the difficulties of writing the second novel.

“It’s time to talk about talking,” Sylvia said.

“So we’re just talking to each other about talking, just talking,” Mindy said.

Sylvia held up the small music box.  Mindy caught a flash of the gold sticker on the bottom: MADE IN CHINA.  “Yes,” her mother said, “we’re just talking.  You’re my daughter and we’re shopping in his little oriental store and it’s the most natural thing to do.  So we smile, and we giggle, maybe even bump into each other.”

Do you get the feeling that this self-interview is actually more like a self-conscious-interview?

Yes.  I have to tell you, and by you I mean me, that this just feels odd.  I’ve read the other ones on the site, and some of them are very serious, while others are very much tongue-firmly-in-cheek.  I’m glad to see other writers have come before me, blazed the trail so I can see how it’s done, but I’m sorry (which means I’m apologizing to myself) – I just can’t shake the weirdness of this single point for both question and answer.

No Deliverance

By Sung J. Woo


Sunday night, I was sitting at our dining room table, half watching the football game between the Manning brothers and wholly reading James Dickey’s Deliverance.  It was about ten o’clock, and the moon was out, and there was enough light from the kitchen window to cast a shadow on something odd on the floor.

There was a time in my life when I read purely for pleasure.  Before then, I read pretty much for pain, or more accurately, I read and it caused me pain.  Like reading Thoreau’s Walden and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage for English class – now there was torture.  But thankfully, there was Stephen King and Stephen R. Donaldson and Stephen Coonts and even some authors not named Stephen, and I was in bliss.  These were my lazy high school years.  I remember reading Misery in a single day, from nine in the morning until nine at night, and I had no other desire than to feel every word on the page.  It was pure hedonism.

From various newspapers around the country:

If there has been one chink in the Lakers’ armor this year…

Twitter’s rise, however, exposed a chink in Facebook’s armor…

“It was a chink in the armor,” says Billboard senior editor Ann Donahue.

She knows the chink in Princeton Plainsboro’s armor: House.

Notice a pattern here?

For non-Asian folks, “chink” probably doesn’t strike the same uncomfortable chord, but for me, every time I see or hear it, I wish I hadn’t. Of course in this case, it means a cleft or an opening, but more often than not, it is a racial epithet hurled towards Asians. Look up the word on Merriam-Webster Online, and you’ll find the first listed (and therefore the most common) definition is the offensive variant.

Out of curiosity, I searched for the phrase “chink in the armor” on Google and came up with a whopping 1.47 million hits. I’m certain this isn’t a vast East-wing conspiracy, but there are apparently a lot of holes in the Kevlar of the Internet.

Do white folks feel the same way when they walk through the supermarket aisle and pick up a box of Saltine Crackers? Or how about Latinos who stop for a bottle of Windex and see Spic and Span on the shelf below? I have no idea.

Now I’m not some kind of a politically correct nut who wants to eradicate all vestiges of anything sounding possibly hateful. Instead, what I ask is for people to choose not to use this particular phrase. Because it is a choice, you know?

Let me give you another example. The other day I was walking my dog, and a man came up to me and asked, “What a beautiful dog. It’s a bitch, right?” Yes, I suppose she is, in both sense of the word (sorry, Ginny, but it’s true), but that’s not the point. Words often carry more than one meaning, and it’s okay, even preferred, if you were to refer to my gorgeous German shepherd as a girl.

At the same time, I don’t want to encroach upon our First Amendment in any way. So if you consider my request as a form of self-censorship, how about doing it for the sake of originality? Just say no to clichés! Put on your best Don Draper thinking cap and create that next great catch phrase. Before you take the lazy route and declare that so-and-so has a few chinks in its armor, maybe you can say there’s “a gap in the fence.” Or “a rent in the fabric.” Perhaps even “a leak in the pipes.” You can also go fancy and be topical: “There are at least a couple of cocktail waitresses hiding in that team’s supposedly solid marriage.” Or show off your literary chops: “Boy, you just know there’s a Titus Andronicus in that corporation’s Shakespearean portfolio.”

And just for the record, “Asian in the armor” isn’t an option.

The R Word

By Sung J. Woo


We’re sorry to inform you…there were many strong entries…we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere.

You’d think that after twenty years of writing, revising, and submitting, these responses of thankful apology, these kind-hearted notes of rejection, would be easier to take. But they hurt, every time.

Writing teachers and how-to books tell you the same thing, that you are supposed to write for yourself. That you will never truly achieve literary nirvana until you free yourself of external validations. Which is true, but it’s a truth like communism: great on paper, terrible in actual execution. Because for most writers, the endgame isn’t the completed manuscript. There’s one more hurdle to leap, and usually it’s not pretty.

In order for us to share what we’ve created with the reading public, we have to offer ourselves to the few people who are willing to read and print our work: editors of journals, magazines, newspapers, and publishing houses. With the advent of self-publishing and blogging, writers no longer have to run through this literary gauntlet, but in order to get street cred (and who doesn’t want street cred?), you have to do it the old-fashioned way.

In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami writes: “In the novelist’s profession, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as winning or losing.” Easy to say for a guy who completed his first novel in just six months, and who shipped off his handwritten manuscript to a magazine for a contest without bothering to make a copy. “So it seems I didn’t much care if it wasn’t selected and vanished forever,” he says.

Murakami isn’t boasting here, he’s just telling the truth, and maybe that’s what hurts more than anything. He’s one of these lucky people born with talent, so much talent that he hardly has to try. In Paul Auster’s memoir Hand to Mouth, he refers to a mystery novel he published under a pseudonym, something he churned out even faster than Murakami’s first, in a mere three months. Or how about Stephen King, who blazed through The Running Man in a single week? In racing terms, these are the people who finish their 5Ks under 15 minutes and have so much energy left over that they run the course all over again. These are your winners.

And then there’s me. I’m what racers call a mid-packer, somebody firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack. It took eleven years to get my first novel published this past April, which you’d think would wash away the feelings of inadequacy I’ve built up over the years. How wrong I was. Was it because I received a bunch of scathing reviews, the ones where the reviewer wishes he could travel back in time to murder me as a baby so he’d never have to read my novel? No, because I didn’t receive a single bad review, but apparently you can still lose in this game, because I didn’t receive enough reviews, with only one major newspaper choosing my book. Good reviews don’t automatically sell books, but the media attention certainly doesn’t hurt. Besides, it’s an honor to have work critiqued by a professional. And as much as I hate to admit it, I feel like what I’ve written matters a little more if somebody takes his or her time to analyze it and discuss it. Simply put, it is a sign of acceptance, and for someone who has subsisted on a steady diet of rejections, it’s a blessing.

I never thought my world would change with the publication of my novel. I didn’t expect Oprah to call me up or Ang Lee to option it for a Hollywood makeover. But at the same time, I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t a tiny, insane voice embedded in the deep crevices of my shameful brain that did whisper the possibility of all of that and then some. An in-depth interview with Charlie Rose; chatting it up with Meredith Vieira on the Today Show; President Obama holding up a copy in the Rose Garden for all to see. I really despise that voice, because it is the epitome of everything a writer, an artist, isn’t supposed to be, a materialistic, fame-sucking vampire. I wish I could be a pious, Zen master of an author who only cares about his words on the page, but I can’t.

Maybe it’s because I know my own limits. Because I know I’ll never be able to write with the quicksilver beauty of Kevin Brockmeier or pump out a bestseller like The Lost Symbol because Dan Brown, too, has gifts I don’t have. And yet here I am, turning on the laptop this morning like every morning, opening up my Word file and stare at the screen, fingers poised over the keyboard.

Many days I wonder why I struggle to write this second novel, trying my best (which we all know won’t be good enough) to get that next word out so I can finish this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter, this book. Often it feels like failure: the word is wrong; the scene is misplaced; the dialogue rings false. Delete, retype, repeat. I know this makes me a writer. And for better or for worse, there’s always one more story to tell.

I’m a man, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I like romantic comedies.  Notting Hill is my favorite, a picture-perfect execution of the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-runs-after-girl-with-the-help-of-his-quirky-friends formula, but I even enjoy the lesser, second-tier jobs like Two Weeks Notice, Runaway Bride, or this year’s The Proposal.  I enjoy these films in the same way I like action flicks such as Die Hard or Crank 2: they abide by the genre’s blueprint and let me lose myself in their silly worlds for two hours.


By Sung J. Woo


At this point in my life, I’m used to getting lost. There are some people who have no idea how lucky they are, blessed with an organic compass embedded into their brains, but I’m not one of them. To give you an idea of how easily I can lose my bearings, at my neighborhood mall, once I enter a store, on the way back out, I have to pause and remember and look around and figure out whether I need to take a left or a right to begin the always-challenging journey back to my car. And most likely, there will be more dithering at the parking lot as I struggle to recall just where I parked.

Every time I open a new book of fiction, there’s a part of me that hopes for the improbable: to encounter something new, something utterly original. So as you can imagine, I’m let down a lot. But sometimes I get lucky.

It’s been two weeks since I finished reading J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, but here’s this little gem of a book, still sitting on my desk. I don’t know when I’ll return this paperback to its designated shelf, but it won’t be anytime soon, for I keep going back to it, reading one of the 100 anecdotes in this collection at random, smiling and chuckling along the way.

On June 25, I did a reading in New York City for an event titled “Generation XYZ.” What appears below is the essay that I delivered. You can watch the video of the reading here.

When April asked me to comment on how Generation X culture changed my life, I was sort of stumped. Because it’s not so much how it changed my life, but how it was my life. These TV shows and music and movies that almost seem quaint now – I grew up with them. Generation X is me, and I’m Generation X. How could I possibly delve into something that is so tightly integrated into who I am?