By Grace Marie Liu and Abby Comey
Could you tell us a little bit about when and how you got started with writing? We’d love to hear about what sparked your interest in this craft.
I think I was always going to be a writer no matter what, but the catalyst, as with so many passions for so many people, was a great teacher. In second grade, Mrs. Wilson had me and my classmates write stories in little bound books with blank pages. We could choose the color of the spines and draw our own illustrations. We wrote our prose in pencil, and then copied over the letters with felt pens. She made us into a tiny publishing house! She was the first person to make being a writer a tangible reality for me. Teachers are wizards. She blew my mind, and my life hasn’t been the same since.
“Grand, Otherworldly” pays homage to Elizabeth Bishop and Audre Lorde in its introductory paragraphs. Are there any particular writers or books that inspire your work today?
No writer has ever moved me like Toni Morrison. I constantly return to her work to feel deeply, to power wash my worldview, and to be awed by the highest reaches of human language. I find her novels to be a particularly helpful guide when I’m struggling with time in a piece. Her writing is bold, but she bolsters that boldness with insane technical command.
Recently, I’ve been obsessed with Weike Wang. Her writing is clean without being sparse, funny without being mean, and poignant without being sentimental. I’ve read so much of her work that I worry my stories are starting to sound like Walmart knockoffs of Chemistry, but I can’t help it. She’s wonderful.
You’ve penned essays for The New York Times and The Washington Post. How would you say essays and fiction intersect and diverge as genres, and how do your writing processes differ between the two?
I love the way Elif Batuman interrogates the fiction-nonfiction divide. I kind of think she’s the smartest person alive. When I first read The Idiot and Either/Or, I was struck by the freedom she wields through her narrator. People don’t ask as many questions when you’re writing fiction, and they don’t expect you to have everything figured out. At the same time, people don’t take fiction as seriously. Society associates fiction with the personal and nonfiction with the political. I like the idea of blurring those lines. I’m not a good enough writer to obliterate them like Batuman does in her work, but I dance around them. I write political fiction and personal essays, and the two often inform one another.
Speaking of which, could you describe your current creative process? Are there any specific routines that help you get your artistic juices flowing? Specific times that you write best? Songs that you enjoy while drafting?
I love a good cup of tea. The whole process– heating, steeping, drinking, holding– brings me into my senses. If I listen to music, it has to be something I know all the words to by heart, or l get distracted. It’s been a lot of boygenius lately. Those guys put me in this dreamy state where I can still access the raw and emotional. It’s perfect. If I really need to hunker down, I put on a piano playlist an ex-girlfriend made me years ago. Chopin hits like adderall.
In that vein, how do you deal with writer’s block, or feeling “stuck” on a particular piece?
Writing is a matter of mental hygiene for me. I need to write like I need to go pee. I say this to my friends, and they laugh, but it’s true. If I’m not writing, I’m not taking care of myself. My struggles are usually floods, not droughts. When I need to figure out how to sift through all that muddy water, I walk. I recently encountered the concept of a flâneur—a writer who wanders city streets thinking literary thoughts— in The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. The book raises the question of whether a true flânerie can exist, given the dangers of female solitude in urban spaces, or any public space for that matter. I walk to think about my writing or to get away from my writing, but I also walk as an act of rebellion. I do carry pepper spray, though.
I’ll also say that my life is a constant toggle between writing and reading, production and consumption. I read somewhere that a good writer needs to read significantly more than they write. When my writing is crap, it usually means I should be reading instead.
Are there themes or subjects you find yourself drawn to in your writing? What are they?
I use writing to process things that happen to me, so I end up writing a whole lot about family, relationships, gender, and sexuality. Oddly enough, infidelity comes up in almost all of my stories, even though it’s something I’ve never dealt with personally. I’m just fascinated by the idea of cheating— by its self-loathing undertones, by the dissonant violence of using love to destroy love, by the inner forces that compel a person to break an emotional contract, and by that contract itself.
Lately, I’ve found myself critiquing the norms of contemporary literary fiction in my writing, and I think that comes from being tired of restraint. For years, creative writing instructors have pushed me to be subtle. Don’t be sentimental. Don’t be heavy-handed. Tighten. Pull back. After thousands of nuanced pages, I’ve gotten to a point where I just want to press caps lock and vomit unambiguous angst onto the page.
Are you able to share any details about upcoming writing projects you’re excited about?
I have a short story coming out in the I-70 Review next month. It’s about violence in same-sex relationships. I also did a lot of traveling this summer, so I’m working on a novel reflecting that experience, while trying not to reinvent the wheel (the wheel being Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert). To be honest, I’ve mostly been writing a whole lot of fanfiction over the past few weeks. I guess that’s become the space for my unambiguous angst vomit. It brings me such joy. Shoutout to Marauders AO3 and the half dozen blessed souls who’ve been reading Punks.
Lastly, if you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice as a beginning writer, what would it be?
This is hard because I still feel so young and clueless. I don’t generate much wisdom of my own; I collect it from people I admire. I recently read Imogen Binnie’s Nevada for the first time, and it made me feel like I could do anything. In the afterword of my edition, Binnie talks about this Joanna Russ quote: “When critics do not find what they expect, they cannot imagine that the fault may lie in their expectations.” That idea is so freeing to me as a writer, and I wish I’d been exposed to it a long time ago. To that end, I guess I would tell myself that I’m a good writer. Or rather, I’d command myself to believe I’m a good writer. In order to survive as any kind of artist, you have to harbor a fundamental belief that you are good. Being good doesn’t mean you don’t produce bad art, or never face rejection, or don’t have to work hard. It means you are worthy of continuing to make your art. It’s not something that someone else can convince you of. You have to decide, plant the conviction, and let it beat at the center of you, no matter what.