Lan Samantha Chang, director of the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is an avid knitter. “I can’t stop knitting—I think it must be part of my creative process, just moving my hands,” the 56-year-old says over Zoom from Berlin, where she’s finishing a fellowship at the American Academy.
In fact, while working on her latest novel, The Family Chao, which took 12 years, Chang says she “knitted at least a hundred small items.” She adds, “I also folded hours and hours of origami. I took lots of walks. I think better when I’m not sitting still. These activities helped me to incubate the complete change in style, voice, and form that went into The Family Chao.”
In the novel, Leo, the Chao family patriarch and owner of a decades-old Chinese restaurant in the mostly white community of Haven, Wis., is found dead, and his three sons are confronted with their varying roles in what turns out to be his murder. For Chang, it all began with the characters: “a family in the Midwest with a troubled parental relationship… I don’t know how to describe the father character in my book—a larger-than-life sort of tyrannical patriarch who was somewhat funny.”
At the same time, in the back of Chang’s mind was Dostoyevsky. A student she’d taught at Harvard had inspired her to look at The Brothers Karamazov again. (She’d attempted to read it in high school and failed.) “I was just blown away,” she says. “There are so many things about Dostoyevsky that go out of the box in terms of what people like to think of as crafted writing today. It was a huge pleasure to encounter characters who spent pages and pages on raving monologues, characters who used a lot of exclamation points, characters who were barely able to keep their anxiety or their shame or whatever issues they had under control, characters who were engaging in page after page of fights with each other. And then to add on top of that a patricide and a trial, and this kind of wonderful sort of upside-down feeling that the book takes you into—it just was such a work of audacity and brilliance.”
Chang’s project became clear: to undertake an homage to The Brothers Karamazov, weaving in her own experiences as a second-generation Chinese American, as well as questions of what assimilation, and being an immigrant, truly mean after living in a place long enough to have ghosts there. Each of the three sons struggles to confront the truth about what happened to his father, and one of them becomes a public scapegoat; at the trial that ensues, they and other members of their tight-knit Chinese American community are faced with a new sense of how they are viewed by their white neighbors and, more broadly, by the country where they have lived for so long.
“I do think that some of these characters sort of learn to understand themselves better within the context of the world they live in during the course of the novel,” Chang says. “And part of growing up for them is to see these things, accept them, and continue to live a life here in this country.”
The Family Chao is Chang’s fourth book and third novel. Her first novel was 2004’s Inheritance, in which two Chinese sisters who’ve promised never to leave each other are torn apart by the Japanese invasion of China during World War II. It was followed by 2010’s All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, about two poets at a renowned writing school and the price of ambition.
Throughout her career, Chang says, she’s juggled writing with teaching (and everything else), “digging out time to go off and focus on a book, where I could spend a whole day just thinking about it.” When discouraged, she adds, “I would have to think, ‘Come on, Sam, what would you tell one of your students at this moment?’ Either let it sit for a while and come back to it or keep going, or get to the end first and then see what you have.”
With The Family Chao, she not only channeled Dostoyevsky but also tapped into certain internalized beliefs, surprising even herself: “There were people, teachers, who have really strict ideas about what they think fiction should be like and what is ‘good,’ and a lot of these rules don’t really apply once you start to leave a certain realm of realism,” she says. “I had to be flexible with rules that I learned as a writer in order to finish this, and I’m okay with it. Actually, I think it was so much fun that I’m sort of loathe to go back to them.”
Chang is the first woman, and the first Asian American, to hold the position of director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. All students now receive full tuition and a stipend, which had been one of her goals when she started at the program in 2006. There’s also far more diversity: “Aesthetically, the work that people are doing is more diverse, and the people themselves are more culturally diverse and racially diverse,” she says. “We’re trying to create a space where writing is at the heart of things—not people’s particular level of fame, writing career progress, et cetera—because it all comes from the writing itself, the work. We’re trying to give people a time in their lives where they don’t have to think about these other things, ideally.”
But teaching isn’t the only thing that has kept Chang away from her writing of late. While the ideas for The Family Chao were gestating, she had a child. “I have never been a very fast writer, so it was a challenge,” she admits.
Here, perhaps, the teacher in Chang comes out, as she takes a moment to ponder her process, and the result. “I think that finishing the book with my schedule being as it is, is probably the major accomplishment of my middle age,” she says. “Also, I enjoy the book. I like the book, you know? So that I’m happy about.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.