When I was 21, three weeks after I’d moved to San Francisco to live with my boyfriend Stephen, his lung collapsed on the way to a party. He was casual about it — he had cystic fibrosis, and though he’d only had one health crisis before this moment, he wasn’t surprised. I panicked and went into a coughing fit. The next morning, we headed over to the hospital at UCSF, and began the part of our life together for which there was no map. That evening, home alone, I wandered around our living room. We were sharing an apartment with two of Stephen’s friends, both English majors at Berkeley. I browsed through their books, looking for good end-of-the-night-on-the-day-your-life-has-changed reading. Unlike most of the books I’d brought with me from the University of Chicago, the books on these shelves were written by living authors. (I remember feeling jealous: my roommates had gotten to read these books for school?) I crawled in bed with a book my roommate Steve had raved about, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. In the morning, I woke up with the light still on, my face pressed into the book’s pages.
Hospital time is funny — both heart-quickening and slow. You know you are at the center of life, that what’s happening right where you are matters, so you feel a constant sense of urgency, and at the same time, the hours themselves are vacation-like, stretching out long, not much to do. In the evenings when I visited Stephen, we’d lie on his bed, talking, watching movies, and reading. He didn’t want to read any of his favorite books in the hospital, on the grounds that they’d carry the aftertaste of the hospital once he got out. He stuck to magazines — the current issue of Rolling Stone, or something football-related. And there’s some truth to his theory — the characters and the landscape of Housekeeping are somehow connected to the hospital in my mind. But the reverse is true too, which was what made it worth reading the book while sitting in a beige chair eating chocolate pudding. The hospital became infused with Housekeeping. I looked forward to diving into its world those evenings. It offered an escape unattainable from a football magazine — or maybe escape is the wrong word — it offered a depth of experience that was part-escape, part-reckoning. The two sisters in its pages, whose mother had died, faced a loss much larger than any I’d ever gone through, but I was dipping my toe in, glimpsing the loss that likely lay in my future. And more, the story evoked a strange state that I was newly experiencing and had no words for — the sudden awareness of how little control I had over life, which left me both at sea and sharpened, helpless and purposeful. That hospital visit, which was longer than expected, I moved from Housekeeping to Beloved to A Personal Matter. And though these three books are so different that their authors might be surprised to see them all appear in the same sentence, they are linked in my mind, for the broad understandings they offered me of suffering and joy, and the complications of love.
After that first health scare, Stephen and I lived a double existence. He was healthy for the most part, and we were kids in our 20s like the rest of our friends, and yet we knew he’d be lucky to live until he was 35, so we were sort of in our 80s, too. It was an unusual existence — no one we knew had gone through it — and you’d think this would have sent me straight to the psychology section, or at least the illness memoir section, of the bookstore where I worked. But the closest I ever got to reading a book that directly addressed my circumstances was when I braved the “issues” shelf in the children’s section, and picked up The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst, in which a family grieves over the death of their cat. It was partly denial, but it was also the same force that had driven me to fiction since I was kid — I didn’t want to read about my own life. I spent enough time in my own life — I wanted to read about all the lives that I’d never have. Though occasionally, a glimpse of my own life snuck in without my asking. I remember reading The Sheltering Sky, and feeling my stomach drop when the main character dies halfway through the book, and his wife takes over the story. I also remember reading Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant by Aurelie Sheehan, thinking, yes, I know that feeling, Kerouac but tied down, the road trip and the responsibilities all taking place at once.
By the time we were 27, Stephen’s health had begun a dangerous decline. We were living in Cambridge, where he was attending grad school, and we had to admit that we couldn’t pretend to be normal anymore — he needed to quit school and get on the list for a double-lung transplant. At that time, the risks of a transplant were huge, as were the possibilities. If Stephen survived, his lungs would be free of CF for the rest of his life. But the operation was at the cutting edge of modern medicine — half of the people who underwent the surgery died in the first five years. It was a big decision, and we made it together (so sweet, Stephen’s doctor joked, young couples, deciding on everything together — the couch, the kitchen table, the transplant). We packed everything we owned into our 1976 green Volvo and headed back to California to make this next move. This was the first time I ached for nonfiction, for someone who’d been there ahead of me to tell me what to do, or if not that, how to go about living with the unknown. My friend Caitlin was a poet and she gave me Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast. I recently looked back in my journal from that time, and there are pages devoted to notes for the letter I planned to write to Doty after reading his book. (I never got around to writing the actual letter.) Reading them now I feel a little embarrassed. Why would this stranger want to know about all the small and large ways I felt connected to him? And yet I did — more so than I did to the other partners of transplant patients, even to our friends and family who loved me dearly. He’d written intimately about his life with his partner who’d died of AIDS, offering observations that you’d never hear buzzing around a support group, admitting feelings and thoughts I shared but had hardly admitted to myself, much less to Stephen. I was grateful for Heaven’s Coast in a way I can still feel, even though it’s been over 15 years.
Still, in the eye of the storm, when the midnight call for the transplant came, I reached for fiction. Packing hurriedly for the hospital I grabbed Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us and Ethan Canin’s Blue River. The adrenaline rush of the day of surgery, the euphoria of seeing Stephen breathe with new lungs, it was all mixed up with the stories I read, sitting by his bed. Usually when I read, the story I’m devouring is more dramatic than the events of my own life, but for those weeks, the lives in my books felt calmer and slower than my own, digestible, the authors offering subtle reflections on complicated relationships when there wasn’t room for me to do any reflecting myself. And somehow this allowed me to slow down, too, to sink into the daily events of the transplant a bit. Even if I couldn’t quite reflect, I could observe, and this in itself made the days less harrowing.
I reached for fiction again when Stephen went into the hospital for the last time. I didn’t know it was the last time right away, but he’d landed in the ICU with a ventilator, which was as worrisome as things had ever been. I’d been reading Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, so I brought it along, and sank deep into the stories that first morning, sitting by Stephen’s bed, waiting for him to wake up so we could decide whether we needed to call our families. I read for two hours straight, and kept laughing out loud. A nurse asked me to write down the name of the book for her. She didn’t care what it was about. “If it’s got you laughing in the ICU,” she said, “I have to read it.”
When Stephen died three weeks later, I was reading Platte River by Rick Bass. And while soon I’d read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and find deep, specific solace in its pages, I also found solace in Platte River, if less personal, maybe more expansive, too — an acknowledgment of the mysteries in living, of all that we can’t know. It was partly the characters in Platte River, with their bottomless and invisible longings that drew them together and kept them apart, set against the sudden hole in my own life. And it was partly the landscape of Montana, both physically and personally too large for any frame. Montana was the place where my father’s family was from, holding everything I’d never know about his childhood, his parents, why certain family events unfolded the way they did. And its sky and plains were coldly soothing, as endless as the ocean, and offering a similar sort of comfort, with their indifference to my own ups and downs.
Still, when I’m grappling with my life, I reach for fiction. In the years of emerging from grief, of falling in love and marrying again, of having kids and being a part of several families cobbled together, I’ve been up late with The Deptford Trilogy and A Gathering of Old Men, with The Sea, the Sea, and Olive Kitteridge and Sum. I am lost in worlds far from mine, and yet grateful for what they tell me about my own life, too — that it’s only a variation on a theme, that maybe it’s unusual to lose your first husband at 29, but so what — love and loss and grief and more love are out there for all of us, unremarkable in the human scheme of things.
Aside from being a fellow contributor to The Millions, Sonya Chung is the author of the debut novel, Long for this World, a beautiful book that focuses on the small but complicated negotiations of a family, and larger, global questions of identity, art, and happiness. Sonya and I met for the first time last fall, and I was excited but nervous to read her novel. What if I didn’t like it? To my relief–and joy–I loved it. It’s so gracefully told, and rich–not to mention riveting. Of the book, author Kate Walbert says, “An intricately structured and powerfully resonant portrait of lives lived at the crossroads of culture, and a family torn between the old world and the new, Long for This World marks a powerful debut from a young writer of great talent and promise.” I concur. In this interview, Sonya and I discuss her book, the publication process, and what’s it’s really like to go from human to author.
The Millions: I was impressed with how effortlessly you moved from one character’s perspective to another in this book. The choice to give war photographer Jane, the Korean-American daughter of Han Hyun-kyu, her own first-person perspective seemed almost intuitive. Was it? The jacket copy calls your novel a “pointillist triumph”, and that’s accurate: these differences in voice ultimately make up a whole, united story. How did these shifting perspectives come about, and why is Jane the only one who speaks in the “I”?
Sonya Chung: Thanks for your kind words, Edan. And, you are correct: I knew early on that the story would span multiple cultures and settings, and I knew that sections would pivot among points of view. I tend to write without a detailed outline, but I have these intuitive (good word, your word) backdrops that guide and propel me. Polyphony was one of these backdrops. It’s a word/idea that I first grasped as a literary structure (as opposed to a strictly musical term) via Milan Kundera, who was an influence in graduate school; and saw the form modeled in novels like As I Lay Dying, Julia Glass’s Three Junes, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, DeLillo’sUnderworld, Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us, and many others.
Even with its global canvas, Long for This World is ultimately a family novel; and to me, all families are deeply, radically polyphonic. Jane is a Western character, American born, and of the younger generation; she is also individualistic, relative to her native-Korean counterparts, so it “sounded” right in my ear that she would narrate in a first-person voice (I write very much in an aural way). Conversely, I heard the more traditional Korean characters in third-person, and with a bit of narrative distance (it was almost as if I, the author, was paying these older characters their narrative-distance respect). Ultimately, the collage form provided a way for this multi-layered story to be told compactly, with the shifts in voices/perspectives becoming a part of the story-telling itself.
[Note: see my comparative review essay for The Millions about multi-voiced novels; apparently, this form has been on my mind a lot!]
TM: Although the book only has a few snippets of foreign language, the dialogue often reflects, in English, that the characters are speaking Korean; this is managed by imbuing the speech with a distinct formality. At one point, Han Jae-kyu notes that his brother Han Hyun-kyu–whose been living in America for so long, “seems to have lost, during his years in America, an intuitive sense for the humbled “I”: juh, instead of nah; the manners of apology, overstated in good measure, and self-effacement.” I wonder, did these “manners of apology” influence the actions and destinies of your Korean characters, versus those who have been Americanized? How has moving away from Korea changed Han Hyun-kyu and his wife, Lee Woo-in? As you were writing, did you focus centrally on questions of culture–those behaviors and rituals that are either inherited, learned or discarded?
SC: This question has a bit of the “nature vs nurture” debate in the subtext, I think. My perspective on that is very much both/and, i.e. these characters are at once shaped by culture/circumstance, and also by something essential in each of them. I never conceived of any character as exclusively a metaphor for his cultural experience, but at the same time each character’s backstory does exert a pressure on the present.
For example, the semi-romantic collision between Han Hyun-kyu (who emigrated to the US as a young man) and his sister-in-law Han Jung-joo occurs mostly because the cultural alchemy is just right: they are the same but not the same, Han Hyun-kyu being both native Korean from a small town, and also shaped by Western romanticism. On the other hand, in a scene between Jane and her brother Henry, Jane is trying to better understand their mother— a character who has caused the family grief — by painting her own version of her mother’s childhood, and Henry’s response is, “Shit goes down. People survive. You overdo it with Mom sometimes.” Later, when Jane tries to trace her own struggles back to something in her childhood, the Korean artist Chae Min-suk basically responds with, “That’s too bad.”
I’m fascinated by the fact that individuals raised in basically the same circumstances can evolve so differently; in Long for This World, this is very much the case, and one of the novel’s central concerns is how to manage/understand this randomness, this mysterious sense that some people are strong, some are weak, some people survive, some don’t. Is it culture, family, individual spirit, God, chance, all of the above?
TM: It took me almost two years to write a first draft of my novel, but I feel like I was floundering for the first nine months. I always find it helpful to hear from other young writers how the process was for them. How long did it take you to write your book?
SC: About three and a half years, from when I started to when an agent took me on.
TM: Can you describe for readers how you found your agent? My own search–though it now, thank goodness, has a happy ending–was harrowing.
SC: Finding an agent was tough — a wilderness time, not for the faint of heart. But I basically “followed directions,” did what teachers and writers advised: I made a list of contemporary writers I most admired, flipped to the Acknowledgments pages of their books, and found out who their agents were. I wrote succinct query letters. I followed submissions guidelines. Over a period of several months, I received both form-letter rejections and some very thoughtful, thorough ones. I came very close with three different agents; after the third turned me down, I wallowed and fretted for a few months. Then, miraculously, two friends whom I’d asked to read the manuscript came back with comments — both honest and encouraging. “You’re much closer than you think you are” were the magic words, the refueling I needed to dig in to a final, significant revision. With a new manuscript, I found a champion in Amy Williams — who’s been wonderful, as both agent and friend. In retrospect (that darned 20/20 hindsight), I probably sent the manuscript out too early; in my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn’t ready. But I was impatient and hungry for affirmation, so I flung it out there. I don’t recommend that.
TM: What was it like, once you found your agent, getting published?
SC: Finding a publisher was weirdly fast, given the long road of writing, revising, finding an agent. I met with Amy on a Tuesday, she sent the manuscript out to editors that Thursday, we had an offer on Monday. It took a week for it to sink in, and even then, I don’t think I quite understood just how lucky I was.
TM: Has anything surprised you about the publication process?
SC: Pretty much everything has surprised me. I knew almost nothing about publishing a book, and it’s funny — well, sometimes not so funny — how people in the biz expect that you would. In other words, there’s no Orientation Day for New Writers. I would get these emails referencing “second pass pages” and have no idea what that was; or I’d get a manuscript in the mail with a deadline but wouldn’t know what I was expected to do with it exactly. I was surprised by how long some things took and how quickly other things moved. It became pretty predictable that what I feared would happen didn’t, and what I never saw coming did – maybe kind of like life? I’m glad to have the first book under my belt; next time (assuming there’s a next time), I’ll know a little better.
I was a little surprised by how gut-struck I was when the hardcovers came in. For a first-time author, there is nothing like the hardcover.
TM: How about touring and promoting your book? Do you find that an easy or fulfilling aspect of being a published author?
SC: The social networking aspect of publicity – what most authors are now expected to do – is a mixed bag. It’s wonderful and energizing to connect with other writers and enthusiastic readers in this direct, boundary-less way; but it’s also time-consuming and creates a weird sort of self-consciousness that I’m not sure is conducive to the writing process (Kazuo Ishiguro talked about this in a great interview several years back).
These days, the writer perhaps feels both more control and more responsibility, with regard to how much attention her book gets: if you want to go gangbusters on blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, scheduling your own book tour events, you can do that, and to good effect, but the amount of time/energy you can devote is also endless. If you happen to be a natural networker, it definitely works to your advantage; if, like many writers, you prefer the writing cave, it can be burdensome. There are some days when I realize I could spend 12 hours just exchanging emails and Facebook messages with people who might “open doors” for publicity and events. It’s definitely a choice, and you want to make sure that you’re continuing to choose to write in the midst of all that networking.
With the book tour these days, authors are encouraged to be “lean and mean” and strategic about it. No more 20-city book tours! As for the experience, maybe I’ll start by saying what, for me, it’s not: it’s not exactly “exciting” or “fun.” Those seem to be the two expectations – “Are you excited? Are you having fun?” Primarily, it’s work, which is not a bad thing at all – it’s just distinct from the romanticized notion that it’s glamorous or the pinnacle of dream-fulfillment. I don’t mean to be down on it. It’s absolutely gratifying to meet readers and to hear their good questions or that they’ve been moved by your book; booksellers are a special group of people, and it’s a privilege to connect with them in person; your friends and family roll out endless generosity, support, and hospitality. But book touring is also a lot of scheduling and shuttling and talking talking talking, and also, in a way, performing. After returning from an intense book-events trip a few weeks ago, I sat down to my blog, which I had not updated in several days, and found myself writing, essentially: “Hi everyone. I have nothing to say. I am all talked out.”
TM: I think for debut writers, it’s both exhilarating and slightly scary to have people reading something you worked on for so long. It would be for me. Have the people close to you read your book, and if so, what’s been the reaction?
SC: It’s very strange when your friends and family read your book. After the release date, I started getting emails and Facebook notes – “I’m reading your book!” I thought, “You are?” Promotions had taken up so much space in my head, I forgot that people would actually be reading the thing. Most of my friends and family are not writers, and some aren’t even avid readers; so it’s been gratifying to hear that people like the book, that it seems to have an “all things to all people” quality to it, which surprised me, frankly. I worried that the book might not be that accessible, because it’s complex in structure and perhaps more densely populated than some other novels. A number of people have said they “couldn’t put it down,” that it was a “page-turner.” I love that, because the narrative is fragmented, and I know that agents and editors sometimes shy away from that because of the readability factor.
Of course, not everyone will connect with your work; my expectations were pretty low about this, I know all too well that you can love a person but not love her books (and vice versa). So overall I was pleasantly surprised.
TM: It’s interesting to me that you weren’t considering the readability of your novel, because it is such a page-turner. When I’m writing, I’m (perhaps unhealthily) obsessed with the question of readability, perhaps because I find it’s such a pleasing quality in other people’s books. As you were writing Long for This World, did you imagine for yourself a reader? How did you perceive of their reading experience?
SC: That’s interesting that you think about the reader. Maybe somewhere between you and me is a good, healthy place to land? I did not, and do not, consider the reader when I’m writing. The work is a contained world for me, unto itself, it has its own internal energy and design; and when I sit down to work I’m like the astronaut landing on Planet Novel. I’m worried that this is going to sound pathologically narcissistic, but “the reader” – during early drafts – is me. Going with the astronaut analogy, it’s me who needs to be able to find good air and solid footing and navigate the place while I’m in there.
This does raise challenges later on. For example, I named the characters from inside the astronaut suit. During the editorial process, it became clear that the Korean names were going to be tough for native English-speakers (siblings in a Korean family typically have similar names, e.g. Han Hyun-kyu and Han Jae-kyu). But by then, their names were their names, they weren’t going to change, so we decided to put a character list in front to help readers navigate (I’m also now considering an audio pronunciation guide for my website). I suppose I’ll incorporate that experience as I go forward, but generally speaking I find that, for me, cracking open that door to self-consciousness lets in all kinds of monsters.
TM: It certainly can! I suppose my imagined reader is me–and also not me. I certainly write what I would like to read, but my writing is also for some imaginary person, someone who lives across town, perhaps, and reads in the tub, and in line at the post office, and during breakfast. She has impeccable taste, of course. This lady, she absolutely loved your book!