The Millions Interview: Lan Samantha Chang

October 5, 2010 | 3 books mentioned 2 7 min read

coverI finished All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang on a Sunday afternoon at my local coffee shop.  The sun bathed the high-ceilinged room in gorgeous light, and my cappuccino had me nicely buzzed.  I was not going to cry for the beauty of the small book I held in my hand, nor for the sadness of time passing and friendships lost or changed, but I wanted to.  I’d started Chang’s novel with the expectation that it would be a book about three poets in writing school and their magnetic teacher.  It was about that–but only at first.  The story spans many years, and many concerns, including what it means and takes to make art, and to love someone.  It basically slew me, and I read it a second time a few days later, to get that feeling again.

Chang’s first year as the Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was my last year there as a student.  I was lucky to have her as my thesis adviser.

The Millions: I decided to read this book a second time soon after I had finished it, something I rarely–if ever–do.  On my second read I saw so many more connections, echoes and motifs in the novel than I did on my first.  The subjects and ideas that the novel is soaked in, poetry and love, yes, but also mortality and aging, marriage, and success, can be traced through all three parts. What’s introduced thematically in part one, when Roman, Bernard and Lucy are students at The School (and when Roman has his affair with Miranda), ripples through the entire book. These ideas deepen and complicate and change with each part, as the characters get older, and that development is stunning. How did you come upon this structure, and how did you conceive of each part, both on its own and in relationship to the other two?

coverLan Samantha Chang: The structure came instinctively.  After finishing my first novel, Inheritance, I was unproductive for a few years.  I’d reached the end of a creative period. There was almost no desire to write, and when I wrote, the work did not feel vital.  Then in summer, 2006, a 50-page sketch of this novel tumbled out in the space of two weeks.  My husband Rob, a landscape painter, and I were living at a painting school on a small farm in France. I opened my laptop one morning and began a classroom scene, not knowing who the characters would be.  The writing felt unusually urgent and went at a feverish pace. By the end of our two weeks in France, the sketch contained the dance and graduation scenes from Part One, the final scene between Roman and Lucy in Part Two, and the final scene between Roman and Bernard in Part Three.   I had a strong sense of what I’d need to fill the white space, but wasn’t entirely sure.  I put the work aside.

Then two years went by when I didn’t touch the sketch. I felt the subject matter was esoteric and controversial.  Although the story isn’t about writing programs, it begins in a program setting.  I assumed many readers would not see beyond their own opinions about the setting in Part One.  Moreover, the work felt very private, and I had started two other projects that seemed more socially acceptable.  I’d also fallen, suddenly, into mid-life, with its responsibilities: my new job as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was demanding and, to complicate things, Rob and I had a daughter in 2007.  After she was born, I realized I would not be able to get creative work done without taking a leave from work.  The next year, I was fortunate to be given a Guggenheim Fellowship, enabling me to do so.

There’s something about having a family and full-time job, about always being aware of the needs of others, that can give the act of writing an illicit, desperate feeling.  Every hour is bought by denying other people.  During the Fellowship period, I tried for weeks, then months, to work on the two “more acceptable” projects, feeling more and more frantic.  I got nowhere.  Finally, my husband suggested I spend just one month of this precious time on the poets’ manuscript.  During the month, I set up Bernard’s visit in Part Two; I wrote the long flashback between Roman and Miranda. Then I gave myself “just one more month” and wrote the long scene, set in the parking garage, between Roman and Bernard.  The project had taken on, for me, the feel of a guilty secret.  The hours of work were intense and concentrated, with very little time to doubt what I was doing.  I was spending precious fellowship time on a story that gave me enormous pleasure, but one I assumed no one would ever want to read.  When I had finished a draft, in fall 2008, I showed it to a good friend and then to a former teacher.  They told me to keep going.

I see I haven’t answered your question, which is about the form of the novel.  The form grew organically from the story.  I wrote the story for my own pleasure, and I put it together entirely on instinct.  I hardly tinkered with it and I never doubted it.

TM: In the past year or so, I’ve also interviewed Michelle Huneven and Jennifer Egan, whose recent novels, like yours, depict the passage of time in ways that have startled and moved me.  What went into covering this much time passing. How thrilling was it compress whole years into a single sentence?  Did you realize this would be necessary before you began writing?

LSC:  I wanted to write about characters whose adult lives’ defining moments took place in relatively concentrated sequences.  To portray those defining moments required skipping a lot.  I did take great pleasure in the leaps through time, as I was writing; there was a thrill in the ruthlessness of it.

TM: The language of this book is beautiful in its simplicity and there’s an elegance that comes with the slightly elevated third person perspective that’s able to distill consciousness in crisp, perfectly-articulated phrases.  What was your approach to the sentence-making in this book?  Since you were writing about poets, did the poetry of the language seem more important than usual?

LSC: I’m personally convinced that the authority of the “slightly elevated” third person comes from my having learned to write in the voice of “Workshop Director.”  In the last five years, the University of Iowa has gone through a budget crunch, and I had to write a lot of documents in order to protect our program’s funding.  It was imperative that I learn to write in a third-person voice with a weight of authority behind it.

It was not a goal to write poetically; the poets I know are so far beyond me in that arena that I tried to capture only their desire to write beautifully.  But I do think there was a special pressure on the language in this project, a pressure related to its brevity.

TM: Bernard is such a compelling character to me. In Part Two, Roland observes in his friend’s gaze: “that startling blue clarity, veering toward judgment, which Roman, feeling weary, now recognized as the extremity of innocence.”  Throughout the novel, Bernard is a figure of purity, an artist who labors in the pursuit of truth until he reaches what Roland calls “a piercing clarity of feeling” in his poetry.  Bernard contrasts with Roland, who is so ambitious, and doubtful about his own work, and often quite selfish.  How did Bernard’s character emerge for you?

LSC: During the composition of the first classroom “bludgeoning,” Bernard appeared in his red tie, quoting Emily Dickinson.  I was happy, even relieved, to find him.  (I’d been writing from Roman’s point of view, sitting inside Roman’s malcontent.)  Bernard’s “purity” felt familiar to me.  In graduate school, we used to sit around asking ourselves, “If you had the choice between writing several decent books, and writing one great work, which would you choose?”  Bernard would choose the one great work.  Implicit in our discussion was another question:  What would have to have sacrificed one’s life in order to make that work?

TM: Roman is also compelling to me: unlikeable, incredibly vulnerable, and often utterly devoid of self-knowledge.  I was most interested in his relationship to women in this novel.  Was that a big part of creating his character?  What do you make of Roman, both as a man and a poet?

LSC: Roman is Roman.  I can’t critique him or his relationships to women.

I wanted to write about a powerful feeling I’ve had as an adult: the sense of becoming aware of a truth long after it was too late to do anything about it.  This feeling, akin to waking up after a dream, is central to my experience, and it seems to come after periods of great blindness, or lack of attention—periods that can last for decades.  If anything, Roman’s defining quality—his awareness of his own desires, his needs, and the consequences of his actions far too late—requires that he be self-involved, also inattentive.

TM: Early on, Miranda tells her class that “few outside our world read the poetry that is written.”  Nowadays, this could be said not only of poetry, but short stories, maybe even literary fiction in general.  I certainly felt a connection to these poets, even though I myself am a fiction writer.  Why did you decide to write about poets and poetry?   Was it a big leap from your own process and struggles as a prose writer?

LSC: At the risk of making gross generalizations:  The lives of poets seem to distill and illuminate many of the questions all writers face.  Because poets never write for money, the art-vs.-life choices they make are brought into sharp relief.  Most of the poets I know are keenly aware of mortality and survival, they know we are all living on the edge of an abyss. This awareness brings them joy, and anger, and the ability to see clearly.  Poets are the canaries in the coal-mine of our collective consciousness.

TM: Much of this novel is concerned with the question of whether poetry can be taught, and what makes a good teacher of poetry.  It also considers the ways we become poets beyond instruction in the classroom—be it through romantic relationships, friendships, suffering, loneliness.  You studied writing at Iowa and have been the director of the Workshop for a few years now.  Do you have a particular philosophy of teaching or a way of considering writing in the classroom?

LSC: Every workshop is different, and what works well in one classroom conversation fails utterly in another.  I don’t have a set philosophy about teaching, but more of an awareness that things are always shifting in the world and in the classroom, and that over the years it is the instructor who must adjust. At Iowa, I’m also highly aware of the limitations of teaching.  The students are so gifted that the sources of their creative leaps, and of their periods of productivity, are internally discovered as much as they are externally provided.  Why does one strong writer fail to grow, and how does another find discipline?  It’s certainly not something over which I, as the instructor, have much control.  Sometimes I feel I might achieve the same results as I do now if I were simply to gather my students and feed them chicken soup. I do see things very differently as an instructor than I ever did as a student.  I’m aware now of the instructor’s vulnerability in a way I never was as a student.  I’m fascinated by the academy’s current discourse about power dynamics that assumes the instructor holds all the power.  It’s been my experience, as a teacher and director, that the students hold much more power than this discourse allows.

covercoverTM: Because this is a site primarily about books, I must ask you what the last great books you read were–one book of prose, and one of poetry.

LSC: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and Chronic by D.A. Powell

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.