A Unique Burden: Interview with Writer Leland Cheuk

by Julie Chibbaro

Some writers, even though they’re so different from you, make you want to be just like them. I think of Leland Cheuk, whom I met over fifteen years ago at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, as one of those writers—despite our differences, I admire him so much.

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At Squaw Valley, Leland and I were at the same place in our careers: unpublished, with stars in our eyes. We stayed in touch and shared our work, trying to help one another. As I’ve read his stories over the years, I’ve found myself consistently impressed by his wry, biting humor, the (seeming) ease with which he deals with his difficult family, the way he straddles literary fiction and social commentary. He has also come through the tremendous experience of surviving leukemia, which he has written about for Salon. I’ve invited him to come talk to us at Get Lit Beacon in November, which he has graciously agreed to do. Before his visit, I grabbed him for a few questions about his formation as a writer:

GLB: A fierce awareness of identity comes through in so much of your work (sometimes satirically). Where does this awareness come from?

LC: If I could choose to be unaware of the questions of identity, I would! But it’s a unique burden artists of color carry. When I was doing standup comedy, I quickly found out that my first joke had to address the audience’s first impression, which was that I was of Asian descent. If I didn’t address it, the audience would be distracted, wondering why I didn’t address it. A white comic can just walk on the stage and the first thing people see is gender and age. It’s sadly the same thing for writers. That’s why I find all the back and forth about cultural appropriation amusing. When authors like Lionel Shriver bridle against being limited as an artist, I feel like shouting: try being an author of color for a day!

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If I didn’t have to write about identity to feed the expectations of readers, I wouldn’t. I’d just write weird George Saunders-inspired stories satirizing capitalism and social media all day. In some ways we’ve progressed, and in others we haven’t. Given these unfortunate limitations for authors of color, I just try to find original ways to approach identity issues.

GLB: You’ve started your own indie press. What inspired that?

LC: A little over four years ago, I had cancer and needed a lifesaving stem cell transplant. I’d been trying for almost two decades to publish my first book, and I was thinking: man, if this transplant doesn’t go well, I’ve really wasted my life. On the day the transplant engrafted (July 13), I got an acceptance email from an indie press for my first novel. Two years later on the same date, I got an acceptance email from an indie press for my story collection. If it wasn’t for the help of strangers like my donor and these indie press-runners, I wouldn’t be alive and I wouldn’t be an author. So I felt compelled to give back and start my own press: 7.13 Books, which publishes only first books of fiction.

GLB: You’ve had some heath issues in recent years. How did you manage to keep focused on writing, even while dealing with such intense pain and recovery?

LC: At first it was difficult. I had trouble sitting in front of a screen for more than thirty minutes without getting tired. But over time, it’s become a blessing. I’m lucky. I have a very supportive wife. Having a serious illness helps you focus on what’s important to your day. I kind of liken it to an aging athlete having to do all these extra things to prepare their body to play the game longer. I have to do all these things to make me feel good physically so I can focus and play the game of writing for a few hours each day.

Leland’s bio: A MacDowell Colony fellow, Leland Cheuk authored THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG (CCLaP, 2015), a novel, and LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS (Thought Catalog, 2016), stories. His next book, NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN, a novel, is forthcoming in 2019 from C&R Press. His work has been covered in VICE, Electric Literature, The Millions, and The Rumpus, and appears or is forthcoming in Salon, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is the fiction editor at Newfound Journal and the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books. He lives in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk and reach him at leland.cheuk at gmail.com.

I Used to be a Writer

By Flora Stadler

I’m a writer. That’s what I tell myself when I’m explaining a poem to my son or just editing copy at work. And when I’m buying groceries or cleaning the litterbox or reading Facebook on my phone, I think, “I’m not this, I’m a writer.”

I’ve been telling myself this for 30 years, but it’s never been less true than now.

I spent this summer not writing, which is the exact opposite of what I intended to do. In the meantime, I thought a lot about Kristen Holt-Browning’s spot-on post, Reading About Writing Doesn’t Count as Writing, and about the idea that “Writing isn’t a part of life. It is a life.” I wonder when writing stopped being my life, and why.

As my children got older and a bit more independent, I told myself that soon there would be more space for writing. So why have I filled that space with so many other things?

There was a time about two years ago when writing took up a lot more space in my life. I felt flooded with inspiration, fearless about the outcome, something close to a state of grace. I could pick at the details of a day and pull meaningful patterns from everywhere, I could find lyricism in everything. It didn’t even matter to me (much) if it was good—it felt good and made sense. I was just starting a novel then, flush with love for the first draft. But then it got hard.

If I’m honest, I think the uphill part of the job—editing and pulling all the pieces I’d made into a cohesive story arc—is what stopped me. After all, the first round of writing can be breathless fun. It’s the discipline of a polished draft that’s the real work, and I wonder if I have the stomach for it. Am I a writer because that’s how I see myself?

Am I not a writer because I’m lazy?

Even if you love it, writing is work. You have to want to be dragged out and exhausted by that work. I did at one time, but I’ve lost the plot. I often don’t feel smart enough to finish the story I’ve started. But I miss being a writer. And it’s not about wanting to tell myself that I’m one. I want that feeling of making the world new on the page.

I’m about 175 pages into a science fiction novel that I’ve built page by page, with characters I’ve come to love. I imagine them stuck mid-gesture, waiting for me to give them something to do. The thought fills me with dread.

Have you been here? What did you do? What’s the one thing that can start the gears, especially when those gears are rusty? What’s the one thing that brings you back, fires you up, fills you with that state of grace where creation comes without fear?

Logging Books, Logging Memories

by Kristen Holt Browning

I love historical fiction, and I love to learn about the ancient, classical world. So when I recently heard of David Malouf’s novella An Imaginary Life, which depicts the poet Ovid’s exile to Tomis (in present-day Romania), I rushed, as I so often do, to the online catalog of the local library, and was thrilled to see it in stock (yes, I get that excited over in-stock books at the library).

Settled at home with the slightly worn library copy (the book was first published in 1978), I eagerly dug into Ovid’s struggles to adapt to banishment, living among people with whom he shares nothing: not culture, not habits or interests, not even a common language.

But a few chapters in, a too-familiar feeling set in: an odd mixture of recognition, embarrassment, and a touch of despair. I’ve read this book before! How on earth did I forget? I liked it a lot the first time I read it, and I’m enjoying it now. How could I completely forget that I read this book??

Aside from my job, I read about a book a week for pleasure. So, that’s fifty books a year. That means that, in my adult life, I’ve probably read about 1200 books. Seeing that hefty number, it seems much more reasonable that at least a few of them—even ones I enjoyed—would slip my mind.

Soon after this slip-up, I had coffee with an old, dear friend who reads even more books than me. She mentioned that she keeps a book journal: a log of all the books she’s read. That, I realized, is just what I need. So, I picked up a Muji notebook (my favorite), and for the last three months, I’ve been dutifully writing down every book I read. I just write the month and year at the top of the page, then log each book as I finish it. 

But how does this benefit me as a writer? Although it’s early days for my book-logging enterprise, my hope is that this will prove to be a handy repository of useful examples and models for my own writing. A case in point: I’ve recently been writing short pieces (are they essays? prose poems? honestly, I’m not sure yet) on various ancient women—classical, historical, and mythological. Malouf’s novella centers on a real person from the ancient world, and offers a gorgeous example of how a historical fact of a single life (here, Ovid’s exile) can be broadened  into a full narrative. So perhaps I, too, can take settled fact and play with it, hold it up to the light, and make it into something entirely new.

As I glance at my book log, I notice another recent read that offers an inspiring example of this kind of work: Jim Crace’s novel Quarantine. Crace begins with Jesus’ forty days in the desert (another kind of exile), but his story centers on the small group of fellow seekers who have taken up temporary residence in the desert as well—especially Miri, a young pregnant woman tethered to a lout of a husband. Quarantine takes the bones of a well-known story, and builds from them something original and alive.

I started keeping a diary when I was twelve years old (by the time I was in high school, I preferred the far more mature term “journal”). I occasionally flip through entries I wrote as a teenager or a twenty-something, marveling at how familiar and utterly strange this person is. I wonder if I’ll do the same thing with my book log. Someday, perhaps, I’ll have a pile of these, just lists and lists of titles and dates, and I’ll dip into them occasionally to see what I was reading during various writing projects—or during those fallow times when no writing came. Will I be inspired? Will I remember loved books fondly?

 At the very least, I’ll be able to avoid accidentally reading the same book twice.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: What are editors thinking about when they want to buy a manuscript?

By Ruta Rimas

Thank you to those of you who submitted questions about book publishing. My two previous posts address the most common question – agents and what they do! (Post 1 here, Post 2 here)

The next question I was asked delves into the business of book publishing:

What are editors thinking about when they want to buy a manuscript?

(For the purposes of this post, assume that I am speaking about the big New York City houses that publish fiction and nonfiction, like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Penguin Random House.)

As readers, we know that a book is a wonderful and complex piece of art, cherished and held on high. Every person who works in book publishing feels this same way – it’s an industry of book nerds, basically.

Book nerds work at the above publishers.

Books tend to be held to different standards, and are oftentimes considered more dignified than other forms of art or entertainment. As writers, we need to remember that though this is a creative industry, publishing houses are also profit-driven entertainment businesses, and many are part of a larger media conglomerate. A book is also a product. It’s consumed. It’s for sale, a piece of merchandise created to generate money.

So, what are things that editors might consider? There’s a multitude of factors, including but not limited to:

  • The overall idea: Is this manuscript compelling and fresh? What comparative titles are out there already and how will yours stand out?
  • The type of writing and the publisher’s aesthetic: What is the writing quality? Is the writing literary, beautiful, contemplative, meandering? Is the writing more commercial, accessible, easy-to-digest? A pop-culture imprint may be great for a biography about Beyoncé, but not the place for your Civil War-era romance, for example.
  • The marketplace: Do we see this book as making a huge commercial splash, is this book an award-winner, is this book quiet and niche? Who are the readers, where do we see this shelved at our accounts? Is this book regionally focused? How are other books like this one selling? How can we use those book sales to our advantage?
  • Sales expectations: How many copies do we think we can sell in hardcover? In paperback? In ebook? Are there subsidiary rights that we think we can exploit, like a sale into the UK or other foreign territories?
  • The advance: How do we balance our market-expectations with what we think we can afford to pay the writer? If we overpay, that’s bad for us and very bad for the author – it can kill their career if their book doesn’t earn out its advance. Are multiple houses interested? If so, how can we be competitive with our offer?
  • Marketing and publicity: Will this book require a significant investment in marketing and publicity? Does the author have a pre-existing platform or network that we can leverage in this regard?

This list of factors is not all inclusive but will give you a good idea of what editors are thinking about when they want to buy your manuscript. At the end of the day, for the big publishers, the best type of book balances the beauty of words and ideas with commercial success and wide appeal. For a book to be both literary and commercial is an editor’s dream.

Her Superpower: Interview with Author Lily Burana

by Julie Chibbaro

You’re alone in a room. There’s nothing around you that can distract you. No one needs you. You’ve made it this way. Because you have a priority, and that is to put down one word after another and make sense to someone other than yourself. You have to do this well, or no one will understand you. You have to do this every day till you’re done saying what you have to say.

Outside of that room is the world. You really want to go there, see your friends, lie in bed with your lover, or with a movie. Splash in the river. Garden.

But you cannot get out of the room until you finish what you’ve started, or you’ll have a lot of mental anguish.

To me, that’s what writing feels like.

Setting up the stakes, putting up the boundaries, getting it done so I can live with myself.

I look at other writers and marvel at how much they seem to be IN the world while writing about it. I think they have some superpower that I don’t. I thought that of Lily Burana, author of Strip City, Try, I Love A Man In Uniform, and her latest, Grace For Amateurs.

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It seemed like Lily (who was the featured guest at our very first Get Lit gathering) could write about anything, and still be active and involved in the world around her at the same time. When we talked, I asked Lily how she wrote so much and so well, who influences her, and how she can write about so many different topics, seemingly effortlessly. Her thoughtful and wide-ranging answers surprised me:

GLB: You are such a complex lady with an amazing scope to your writing. I am dying to know who your influences are or were. Feel free to take us through “a short history of Lily via the authors and books she has read.”

LILY: My first and biggest influence, as a teenager, was Sylvia Plath, because she was the first writer I ever read who so beautifully and pitilessly explored the modern female condition, the double standard for women as opposed to men, depression, artistic ambition, the conflict of pleasing your family versus pursuing your own goals. We take all those subjects for granted now as “fair game,” but to be writing about such things in the 1950s and 60s was truly astonishing, as those were the “Good Girl” days. Plus Plath was a poet, and the emotional and sensory depth that her poetic gift lent to her writing really set a high standard for me. I was a total Plathophile. My mother was a librarian, and she’d bring home any obscure Plath thing she could find, like Plath’s book of short stories, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. There was also Memories of Ariel, which was a short memoir by Nancy Hunter Steiner, the woman who was chosen to be Plath’s roommate after she returned to college following her breakdown.

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The writers whose work I most admire—writing that manages to show the full emotional landscape and minute details of a life or a subculture or a setting—tend to be poets at heart: Dorothy Allison, Mary Karr, Plath, of course, plus newer writers like Patricia Lockwood. But I’ve also always loved social justice and political writing so I’ve been influenced by everything from punk ‘zine culture, to canonical LGBT authors like Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Pat Califia, and Susie Bright, to progressive theologians like Nadia Bolz Weber. I enjoy fiction somewhat, but nonfiction is my true artistic engine. Everything I’m most moved by, and thus aspire to create, is organized around a central question: how do we, as artists, portray the lived experience in a vivid, unsparing, but hopeful way?

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I’ve never felt particularly pressured to limit myself to one “beat” or one particular subject. If it interests me enough to investigate it, I figure it’s fair game. I’m not a “write what you know” type. I’m a “write what obsesses you” type, because the more obsessed you are, the more you’ll get to know your topic, and the better the work will be. If you’re not passionate about a subject, you won’t have the steam to keep going. There’s too much fun stuff out in the world to distract you from anything that isn’t a near-consuming flame.

GLB: Again, the words “varied, complex, layered, deep” come to me when I think of your writing. From religious meditations to military-life musings to sex-worker woes, how do you manage to go so far out on so many limbs with your writing, and find the courage to then put the writing out there, despite the potential backlash to your ideas?

LILY: Please understand: I may summon up a lot of nerve to write into a number of difficult topics, but that’s only because that difficulty is counterbalanced by living a simple, and often solitary, life. You know me, so you know I’m not at all shy, but I am very self-protective. I’m not that brave, in terms of my ability to be able to deal with conflict or personal attack. If I were ever besieged by hordes of haters or trolls online, I might implode. God knows what kind of nervous breakdown I’d have if someone got in my face in person. I write the way that I write because I purposely and purposefully constructed for myself a very sedate, very quiet lifestyle: I spend a lot of time alone, thinking about what I’m going to write before I even get started. I tend to not write about something until I’m “finished” with it—that is, I have let it cool down enough in my mind and heart so I can observe it most clearly and honestly. I’m also able to write this way because I know I’ll always be a freelance schmo who doesn’t really need to worry about what Joe in Accounting thinks of me, or how I affect the image of the corporation or the congregation or the nurses on the fourth floor.

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As much as I put out there in writing, I keep a great deal to myself. Many writers are out and about a lot, and they have their family and their home all over Instagram, and I prefer not to. I’m much more reserved, much more guarded than is encouraged these days, when writers are expected to sort of be their own “lifestyle brand.” Readers want to know more about you, want to feel like they’re part of your circle, your family, your scene, but I don’t think I could be open with all of that and be as open as I am as a writer. I need a place to come back to that’s just mine and my family’s. The more protected I feel around the things I feel uneasy showing to the world, like my places of retreat (family, friends, home), the more daring I can be in what I do share with the world.

GLB: What sorts of things do you say to yourself when you’re getting ready to write? Do you have a schedule, a set rhythm, a series of mantras, or any affirmations to help you along in your process?

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LILY: I live and die by “all first drafts are shit.” If I didn’t have that drilled into my head, on a loop like a mantra, I’d never get anything done. That, and “you’ll go over it again later.” Like many writers, I have this negative fantasy that everyone else churns out these flawless pieces on the first try, when in fact, a good piece of writing, even a short one, can take years and years to perfect. Knowing that I can revise it until I’m satisfied gives me the courage to get started in the first place.