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At Squaw Valley, Leland and I were at the same place in our careers: unpublished, with stars in our eyes.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.

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.

Craft Book Recommendation: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

by Ruta Rimas

July is coming to an end and so the back-to-school sales are on. These dog days of summer seem the right time, then, to recommend a back-to-basics text, one that plants the roots of good writing: The Elements of Style. It’s an informative, straightforward writing manual from the grandfather of writing instruction, William Strunk, Jr., and updated by one of his former students, E.B. White. Yes, E.B. White, author of the children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. The Elements of Style is generally used in college or upper-level English courses to instruct young writers on how to clearly communicate.

The fourth edition of the classic writing book.

Though it’s an introductory text, it’s invaluable to those of us who have been writing for a very long time, too. “Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” says Roger Angell in his introduction to the fourth edition. It’s true. Writing is hard, and it’s smart practice to remind ourselves of the basics.

In this slim volume, Strunk and White take us through the rules of rhetoric. It’s not a comprehensive text, but instead offers easy-to-understand rules of usage, principles of composition, commonly misused words and expressions, and a list of approaches to style. Strunk and White remind readers to embrace the Oxford comma, use the active voice, and put statements in the positive form. My favorite edict, one that I share with the writers I edit, is to Omit Needless Words (S&W consider one phrase, “the fact that,” to be particularly excruciating to encounter, and offer a chart with other options to use).

This thin and mighty reference allows us to reflect on our own writing.  Are our sentences convoluted, complicated, or overstuffed? Are we more in love with the purple of our prose rather than the information we are conveying or the purpose of the passage?  S&W value definite, specific, and concrete language (ex: “He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward” is vague and wordy; rewrite that in definite terms and you’ll have “He grinned as he pocketed the coin.”). Word choice matters. Sentence construction is important. Style and mechanics go hand in hand.

After reviewing The Elements of Style, pick up Charlotte’s Web. You’ll notice that E.B. White takes to heart all that Strunk taught him. His storytelling is clear, written with deliberate precision, utilizes varied sentence length, and is never overabundant in its descriptions.

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Consider this excerpt, when Charlotte, a spider, begins weaving a new web to praise her pig-friend, Wilbur:

And so, talking to herself, the spider worked at her difficult task. When it was completed, she felt hungry. She ate a small bug that she had been saving. Then she slept.

Next morning, Wilbur arose and stood beneath the web. He breathed the morning air into his lungs. Drops of dew, catching the sun, made the web stand out clearly. When Lurvy arrived with breakfast, there was the handsome pig, and over him, woven neatly in block letters, was the word, “TERRIFIC.” Another miracle. (p.94)

Perhaps find inspiration from the book’s arachnid star who weaves simple words into her web to describe her porcine companion. One word, sometimes two, was all she needed. Maybe it’s what your writing needs, too.

How Should A Novel Be? Genre And Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

By Kristen Holt Browning

“So, what do you write?” It’s an often heard question at Get Lit. I have my go-to answer of “short stories and poems.” I don’t mention the multi-part essays I’m working on that draw on events from my own life interspersed with musings on historic events (on a good day, I think of these pieces as “elegant” or “lyrical,” on a bad day, “rambling” or “utterly incoherent”). I don’t bother to mention that I write things that mix autobiography, history, mythology, fiction, nonfiction, the made-up, the concrete. It’s much easier to say, “short stories and poems. What about you?”

As writers, we’re supposed to fit into genre slots. Literary magazines, agents, contests, editors—they all focus on poetry, or fiction, or nonfiction. But what if your work falls between the genre cracks?

If you’re Sheila Heti, you draw extremely heavily on your own life, people your novel with characters who share the names of your actual friends, and subtitle your work “A Novel from Life,” as she did with her first novel, How Should A Person Be?

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Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, also barely confines itself to the constraints of the genre. Over the course of 300 pages, the speaker, a writer named Sheila who is the same age as the author, and lives in the same city as the author, debates whether or not to have a child. She talks to her partner, her mother, her childless friends, and her friends with children. She meanders; she posits; she interrogates; she wavers. In other words, nothing happens, except life. This “novel” contains little in the way of traditional plot, climax, or resolution.

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The central question of the narrative—should I have kids?—is the focus of most of the many articles and reviews that have already been written on this book. But for me, as a writer, what I find so invigorating about Motherhood is how unconcerned it is with genre, and with adhering to the rules of what a novel should be. If the genre doesn’t support one’s writing, she seems to suggest, the work—not the category—comes first. So, inspired by Sheila Heti, I’m going to keep writing my messy, slippery little pieces, and I’m going to follow them across whatever boundaries they may transgress.

Craft Book Recommendation: BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott

By Ruta Rimas

My first post features one of my personal favorite books about writing. Every month, I will recommend a craft book for our wonderful literary group, one that I’ve suggested over the years to various writers with whom I’ve worked on a professional basis. There’s a lot of shelf-space dedicated to the craft and I hope that by offering up books that I’ve found insightful, helpful, practical, and inspirational, they will help you become the writer that you’ve always wanted to be.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

In Bird by Bird, Lamott, a bestselling novelist and creative writing teacher, invites you to join her for a one-on-one creative writing workshop. She asks that you to put in some work. The point of writing is to write and Lamott shares useful ideas like using short assignments to jumpstart your process. She jokes about the inevitable — and important — shitty first drafts, all while providing encouraging tidbits like this gem: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”

The chapters are short and digestible, filled with self-deprecation, writing exercises, humor, compassion, and wisdom. Lamott’s style of narration is relatable and unpretentious as she uses life-affirming and often hilarious anecdotes to relate the, ahem, pleasures of writing (it’s “like bathing a cat”) while also candidly sharing with us her struggles as a human, her failures as a writer, her compulsion to never stop writing. She’s honest and raw about her journey, sometimes sad, but also uplifting and always wry.

Lamott provides practical exercises and writing prompts about developing character, plot, setting, as well as observations on dialogue (“You’re not reproducing actual speech—you’re translating the sound and rhythm of what a character says into words.”). There’s mention of the importance of writing groups and beta-readers, as well as a brief note on publication. But this book isn’t about getting published, it’s about writing, and so not much time is spent on questions like “Do I really need an agent?” because that’s not the point of writing.

Lamott’s book is a good reminder to us all: Take it word by word, writers. Just take it word by word.