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At Squaw Valley, Leland and I were at the same place in our careers: unpublished, with stars in our eyes.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

Monogamist Writing: An Interview with Author (and GLB September Guest) Danielle Trussoni

by Julie Chibbaro

We are lucky to live in the Hudson Valley near the Hudson River, which attracts many artists and writers to its luscious shores. Danielle Trussoni, along with her filmmaker husband Hadrien and her two children, is a recent transplant. Danielle will be our Get Lit Beacon guest in September 2018.

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Danielle is a phenomenal writer; she’s an award-winning memoirist and novelist, the author of the New York Times and international bestsellers Angelology and Angelopolis, as well as the memoirs Falling Through the Earth and The Fortress. She has also written under a pen name. Her books have been translated into over thirty languages. In addition to writing, Danielle co-hosts, along with Walter Kirn, “Writerly,” a podcast devoted to the practical aspects of the writing life.

I recently had the chance to catch up with Danielle, and asked her about the monogamist approach to writing, how and if becoming a parent affected her as a writer, and what part giving birth played in writing her books.

GLB: Your fiction has a wonderful mix of history, mystery, magic, and the imaginary wrapped in a tight literary package. You’re quite prolific; along with fiction, you’ve written memoir and essays. Your latest, Home Sweet Maison, published under the pen name Danielle Postel-Vinay, is a handbook on how to create a beautiful home like the French. My question is: Are you a monogamist writer—meaning, do you work on one project at a time? Or do you dip into various projects all at the same time?5189JQ6eAAL._SX381_BO1,204,203,200_

Danielle: I am definitely a one project at a time kind of writer. I need to concentrate fully on whatever I am working on. I try to be very clear in my mind about what I am doing and when I will be doing it. I am a planner. I have a journal that I keep in which I write down the number of words I write each day. I give myself a timeline for each project, and work to stay within that schedule. I am rigorous when it comes to keeping myself healthy, both physically and mentally. That means that I don’t drink much (if at all) when I’m working on a book. I exercise. I get lots of sleep. And then I show up every day at 8AM at my desk, ready to see where the road leads me.

When you’re writing, you must create your own day every day. It is important to be realistic, but also to challenge yourself. I’m always impressed by writers who are able to produce great work consistently. I believe that happens by keeping focused through desire, discipline and a strict schedule.

GLB: You have a new baby. Do you find that the publishing world treats mothers differently, as a “woman writer” with a baby who is therefore somehow less focused? Did you notice that attitudes were different in France when you lived there toward the question of work-life balance?

Danielle: I chose to keep my pregnancy a secret for the most part. And now that my daughter has been born I don’t post about her or go into the details of motherhood on social media. I don’t believe that my choice to have a baby should affect my work, and I have never allowed it to stand in the way of what I’m doing. I wrote a novel while I was pregnant. I was back at my desk three weeks after my daughter was born. Being a mother has made me more focused. That said, this doesn’t seem to be the case for everyone. I have worked with women agents and editors who have disappeared or become less focused after having a child. This served to make me more determined to keep my career on track.81wdN9coEaL

Another added benefit of having a child is that it allows you to see the world from a different point of view. Suddenly, you are caring for and protecting a very vulnerable human being, one who cannot fend for herself. This shift in perspective is inherently good for fiction writing, as it allows you to examine your perceptions and how they alter.

GLB: You run the podcast “Writerly,” in which you discuss all sorts of subjects of interest to writers. Why did you start this podcast? What do you hope listeners will take away from it?

Danielle: I found that I wanted to talk about writing, but that I was so tired of formulating written sentences by the end of my writing day that I couldn’t begin a blog. I also really hate the word “blog,” and couldn’t bring myself to create something with such a horrible name. Starting a podcast was a way to free myself from the computer screen and still discuss my ideas about writing in language, without being tied to my computer. It is very collaborative, as I co-host Writerly with the author Walter Kirn, and every episode is a kind of riff on a theme related to writing.

My favorite part of the podcast is that it is giving new writers a window into what it is like to be a working writer. It is like sitting in on two professionals having coffee and talking about their days. I wish that I had something like this when I was an MFA student, as it would have given me such a different perspective about what I was doing. I love getting messages from listeners, and sometimes we even read them (and answer them) on the show.

We now have nearly sixty episodes and we’re still finding important topics to discuss. It seems that it will be a never-ending endeavor! You can find the podcast in your app store or at www.writerlypodcast.com.

 

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.

Lauree Ostrofsky, of Simply Leap

By Julie Chibbaro

We were lucky to snag author and speaker Lauree Ostrofsky for our April 11, 2018 Get Lit Beacon event. I asked her to answer a few questions for us – we all know how writers are curious about other writers’ processes. In this blog, she does a terrific job of revealing what keeps her coming back to the page. Read her books for more about Lauree and her incredible journey.

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1. What keeps you coming back to the page and not giving up (your sources of inspiration)?

Three things help me stay motivated and focused on writing: deadlines, knowing what I want to say, and the desire to articulate a feeling. 1) Working with a writing coach, professor or respected colleague, has been invaluable to making writing a priority. The deadline must be applied to someone outside me, otherwise I can negotiate around it. I don’t want to let someone else down. 2) Knowing what I want to say encourages me to fill the page. I completed the draft of my second book, “SIMPLY LEAP: Seven Lessons on Facing Fear and Enjoying the Crap out of Your Life,” in one month, because I spent valuable time before imagining my audience. I was eager to “talk” to them and felt compelled to share my message, believing it would be useful. 3) It’s a wonderful and frustrating challenge to articulate a feeling to the point that someone else can feel it too. I worry about my vocabulary lacking and it’s tough to sit long enough in pain or sadness to speak from experience. Writing especially the opening chapter of “I’m scared & doing it anyway” was definitely that way. But, it feels so good after! Having moments when I achieved what I wanted as a writer encourages me to dive deeper on new work.

2. Who is your mentor (you mentioned studying with someone – can you tell us more about that?)

One of my college professors has become a good friend and mentor.
David Hicks now runs the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver, but we met when he was teaching at Pace University. Last July we read together at Oak Vino Wine Bar while he was on a 40+ city tour for his first book, “White Plains.” (Also reading that night was Joselin Linderfrom her new book, “The Family Gene.”) Leading up to it we bartered: I coached David on developing his tour and committing to a regular writing practice, and he edited both of my books and blog. Having him in my corner has been invaluable.

3. How does it feel to have written a book, and what made you want to write a second one?

It felt incredible to finish a book, seeing the last line on my computer screen. I never allowed myself to imagine writing one. It seemed like something only “real” writers did, but not me. When it happened and I could see that it was a full story with a beginning, middle and end, I was shocked and then proud. I knew I’d write another book the moment I signed, “I’m scared & doing it anyway,” at my first book party. It felt so good to share this personal story and see first-hand that it was helpful to others. I knew I wanted to do it again, and halfway through that book tour the next book idea came to me. And because I’d already written a book, had proven to myself that I could, I didn’t doubt it as much this time.