An Interview with Lan Samantha Chang

by William H. Coles


Lan Samantha Chang Interview July 26, 2012

William H. Coles

Lan Samantha Chang InterviewLan Samantha Chang Interview 

 

Lan Samantha Chang is an American novelist and short story writer who has studied and taught creative writing at Stanford, Harvard, Warren Wilson, and Iowa, where she is now the Director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including the PEN Open Book Award for Inheritance in 2005. Her most recent acclaimed novel is All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost.

WHC

I’m at Napa Valley Writers’ Conference in Saint Helena, California, with the novelist Lan Samantha Chang, who is also the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’d like to thank you very much, Professor Chang, for your willingness to interview for www.storyinliteraryfiction.com.

LSC

Oh, it’s lovely to talk to you.

WHC

Story is so important to humanity in general; when you write, what is your concept of story? What is the essence of story for you?

LSC

For me, a story is connected to the human experience as lived through time. I’m particularly interested in the passage of time and all of its attendants such as memory, desire, prophecy, and fate. Time seems to be, for me, inextricably linked to my understanding and rendering of human experience through narrative.

WHC

How do you choose the narrator?

LSC

You know, I don’t have a brilliant piece of advice about the choice of narrator.  I have found in my work that this is one of the most challenging aspects of its conception. In one novel, for example, it was two years before I figured out who the narrator would be. That was my first novel, Inheritance, which spans several generations of a Chinese American family.  When I was learning to write, cutting my teeth on stories as a graduate student, I noticed that I would often be able to tell a story quickly and fluidly if I knew who was telling it, and yet it would take me three quarters of the time it took to draft the story, just to figure out who the narrator was. Sometimes I’m able to reach for the narrator instinctively. Other times, such as when I was writing my novella, Hunger, I reached for the narrator and resisted her many times before I eventually decided to write from her point of view. I tried for two other perspectives before I finally admitted to myself that it was indeed the mother’s perspective that I needed to write from. And then once I did, having gone through the others unsuccessfully, I was able to write the novella pretty quickly.

WHC

Do you think of the narrator as separate from the author? Or, do you think of them a fused? And is the relationship different for different works?

LSC

Clearly the narrator is of the author, comes through the author, is rendered by the author. But I tend to think of my narrator as separate from me, as much as any of my characters is separate from me.

WHC

So then the narrator can change throughout the work as you develop it?

LSC

Oh, absolutely.

WHC

You don’t have to have the same perception of the narrator throughout . . .?

LSC

Oh no, not at all. I think, like many writers, beginning writers, I began by writing in the first person, and I wrote work from the point of view of a narrator who was fairly similar to me. And then as I . . . it’s pretty traceable, actually . . . as I kept writing, my narrator grew further and further away from that sort of categorical definition of me. So for example, in Hunger, the majority of the pieces–almost all of them except one–were written from a first-person perspective, from a female Asian or Asian-American woman. And many of the narrators were adolescents. And at the time I wrote Hunger, I was in my late twenties, and suffering through a protracted adolescence myself. In my next book, I insisted on a first-person female Asian narrator, and yet I found that it was impossible to stay in her perspective. The story was too large for her to experience herself.  So I created a point of view that allowed her to imagine the points of views of others, including men. And then in my most recent book, I broke out of the first-person altogether and wrote in the third person, and the protagonist was a white male; the point of view came pretty close to his head at times, and at times backed off.  I now feel that I could write from many perspectives. I have an understanding that’s been developed over time, and I understand the costs and benefits of writing from first or third. 

WHC

What is your conceptualization of voice in literary fiction?  As a beginning writer, it’s hard to grasp voice. Yet it’s a term we use so frequently.

LSC

I have two ways of thinking about voice. One is purely instinctive, and it’s the way I respond to voice as a reader. I instinctively know if a piece is written in a voice that I will believe, that I’m interested in following. I feel it instinctively if the voice has authority.  My other idea of voice is, of course, related to teaching.  I think of narration, choice of narrator, voice, diction, diction of the narrator, language. I think about humor, tone, attitude. I think of consistency and flexibility of the tone and of the other elements. And all of that is encapsulated into a larger sense that a voice must be strong and believable. So I break it down when I’m teaching. I try to break down the ways that voice works, and [I] talk in class about which aspects of a voice are working and not working. 

WHC

Is there an advantage to having a distinctive voice–for character or characters, for a narrator–from an authorial voice?

LSC

Sure. It depends on the kind of writer you want to be. But great writers, even the ones who try to make their prose as transparent as possible, leave an authorial imprint on their work.

WHC

How does point of view relate to voice?

LSC

Point of view is one of the most, if not the most, important elements in the creation of voice. The narrator is going to have an angle toward the material that determines the tone of the entire piece.

WHC

What engages a reader in a story? I’m sure it depends upon the reader, but . . .

LSC

This is so interesting.  I think it does depend upon the reader. And I think that’s becoming more and more clear to me as I get older. When I first started writing fiction, I had a clear idea that a reader would become engaged with a character who has something at stake. The character, it’s often said, must want something and must want it intensely, and the writer must create obstacles to their desire. I assumed that if all of this were well done, the reader would follow.

I still think that’s true. But I have read extraordinary work that I think is less dedicated to this approach. My example would be The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald.  It is the most mesmerizing, hypnotic work, yet the narrator’s day-to-day personal needs are not often mentioned in the novel. It starts off by saying, “I took a . . . I decided to take a walk along the coast of England.” By the end of this walk, he’s emotionally devastated.  All the book does is describe the places he goes and what he’s thinking about at each place. And the novel this extraordinary catalog of the effects of colonialism over hundreds of years.

WHC

Interesting.

LSC

He visits the most desolate ruined places, and there’s a sense of both great sadness and great horror.  It’s an amazing book.

WHC

Yes.

LSC

I never had a feeling that the book was plotted in the traditional sense of the word.

WHC

I see.

LSC

So I think that my ideas about this have evolved over time. The kind of fiction I write–I think the kind of fiction I’m interested in writing–has to do with characters who desire something very much.

WHC

Yes.

LSC

And now I can’t remember the original question.

WHC

You’ve actually answered it very well. The elements for having a reader move on in a story, relate often to information and information release. I’m particularly thinking in terms of genre fiction, where the information–usually, the key information–is not released. And the part of the story, the function of the story is to deliver that information after creating some suspense because of that non-delivery. But in literary fiction, it seems that suspense is more about worrying about something that will happen to a character that you really like, so that . . .

LSC

Oh, that’s interesting.

WHC

. . . so that you have to develop the character in a way that the reader cares and then develop the situation [so there's interest in] what’s going to happen to that character . . .

LSC

Well, what would happen . . .

WHC

. . . which allows you to load the information of the story, the story information up front. Does that make sense?

LSC

I don’t know what you mean by loading the story information up front. But the first thing that occurs to me when I think about what you just said is that–you made an interesting point, if I understand correctly–in saying that in literary fiction things happen to the characters. And I think that could be true, and it also could be a sad commentary on the state of literary fiction now. We’re so attached to our characters that we don’t want them to do bad things. We don’t want to think ill of them. We don’t want them to be the agents of their fate, so to speak.

WHC

Yes.

LSC

I find that statement interesting. I’m not sure I agree with it. So I’m not sure how to answer your question.

WHC

Is literary fiction actually character-based fiction as opposed to plot-based?

LSC

I think it depends on the author.

WHC

Is the concept of a character-based work of value in the sense that that what happens in the story actually evolves from the character’s personality, morality, thoughts and rather than the fait accompli . . .

LSC

Being imposed.

WHC

Yes, rather than fatalistic.

LSC

I really don’t want to simplify or define what literary fiction is or commercial fiction for that matter. I think we want to keep all of our readers in this broader world of possibilities . . .

WHC

I see.

LSC

. . . [as much as] as we can. But I do understand what you’re saying about the relationship between plot and character for the novelist. I’m thinking about E.M. Forster’s awareness in Aspects of the Novel that it’s very difficult to develop the plot, focus on the plot, think about the plot, make the plot do what it needs to do, without sacrificing in some way [the] character. And conversely, that the writer who focuses the most energy on the development of character will end up, on some level, letting the plot drop away a bit. So I think there that is tension for the novelist. I’m just not persuaded that all literary fiction is character-based and that all commercial fiction is plot-based.

WHC

Forster seems to do character-based writing in Howard’s End in the sense that almost everything that happens in Howard’s End is really from characterization that drives the plot, which without vibrant, three dimensional characterization, the plot would be very contrived in many ways.

LSC

He does have lovely plotting in his books, though. I really love A Room With a View, and there’s a very delicate and sort of pleasurable balance of character and plot struck in that book. I think his example of the person who was thinking of character over plot was Henry James. And I would put Henry James further to the left on that continuum of Forster.

WHC

The reason I ask these questions, of course, is not only to explore the need to identify and learn from the differences among books, but it’s to be able to approach writing as a new author, and how to think about going forward.

LSC

I actually think – and I could be wrong – but I actually think that as a new author, the smartest thing to do is not to think about what it is you’re writing, not to try to put it into a pre-existing category, but to look into yourself and find what you think is most powerful to you, most important to you. And then write from there. All of that other stuff will come in time. But establishing the connection, [and] establishing, discovering, and developing one’s own preoccupation seems more important to me than looking outside of self.

WHC

And what’s important to you is in terms of how to live, I guess.

LSC

I suppose it’s about how to live. But I think also it relates to emerging writers and developing writers and I think about it all the time . . . so I think I’m right.

WHC

How do you approach handling back story?

LSC

You know, my attitude toward backstory has changed over time. I think that when I first wrote fiction, I was enamored of authors such as Alice Munro, who often worked three levels, or four levels, or five levels of time simultaneously in one story, creating a fluid sense of time. And so I began my work with a very flexible idea about how to use time. And then over the years, as I studied, I became aware of the power of linear narrative and then because there’s such a cultural insistence on linear narrative in so many ways, my obsession became about how and where to work in movements outside of linearity, and then also how the linear experience through life tracks or ambushes our sense of what we know and who we’ve been. I think in my most recent novel, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, I was most interested in portraying the movement from youth to experience and age because it seemed to me that in the revisiting of youth with age, youth becomes so much clearer.  I decided to portray that in a very linear way. There’s one huge flashback in the middle of the book. It’s necessary, and I just sort of took a deep breath and thought, okay, this is a huge flashback you’re throwing in here. Just do it.

WHC

And you’re pleased with it?

LSC

Actually, it’s my favorite book that I’ve written.

WHC

Because of the flashback?

LSC

No.  Because the novel came out of me in a piece. I understood it . . . and yet felt a pleasurable sense of discovery at the same time as I was writing it. And I feel certain about it in a way that I did not feel certain about some of the other things I’ve written.

WHC

That’s very valuable because you’re looking at backstory as it relates to the front story or to the story present. How about backstory with expository information in which there’s need to get certain facts into the narrative? Do you actually consciously not do that in a flashback? Or do you . . .

LSC

Backstory as factual exposition?

WHC

Yes.

LSC

I think any movement in time in fiction should be done for five or six reasons. It shouldn’t simply be expositional because that’s wasting space and time, and it waters things down.

WHC

So your exposition is in front story.

LSC

Yes, whenever possible in a linear narrative. Backstory should be, I think, reserved for significant scenes.

WHC

And character development through . . . ?

LSC

Scenes.

WHC

But often in backstory you’re into reflection, either character or narrator . . .

LSC

Sure.

WHC

Does that compete with scene development?

LSC

Sure. I mean if any scene contains some reflection, and most scenes do, and so a flashback would –I guess I can’t figure out why you’re asking me that question. 

WHC

Well let me work on that a little bit. The reason for the question is the backstory often stops momentum and stops character development in ways that are sometimes negative . . .

LSC

That’s what some people believe. It’s not always true.

WHC

But it does occur. Don’t you think?

LSC

It does. What I often see in student stories–and in my own drafts–is that the drafting reaches a point where the writer is not sure about something about the characters. [In my own writing] I want to know about something that happened before the story started, and so I write it, flesh it out. I write a scene from the past. [What] often [occurs] is that I need to cut those scenes in revision. This is part of my process. But I don’t think we should sort of develop a draconian rule that flashbacks are bad.  Some of the most beautiful books have extended passages set in the past.

WHC

The goal would be to utilize flashback to the best advantage for your story, the characters, and plot. And of course, the reason for asking my question is because it’s so hard to structure these things sometimes when you’re writing. All of a sudden, you’re in backstory for four or five pages: how do you recognize its contribution and how do you do it right? I presume it is not only from inherit talent, but also from experience, education, and comprehension of the process.

LSC

I don’t think it’s something to be worried about. I feel that in a draft, writing about anything is okay. At some point though, the writer has to look at the draft and say, what of the story do I want to keep? And where is the story in this? What is this about?

WHC

And that’s the whole issue, revision in general. How do we become good revisers?

LSC

I don’t have a boilerplate answer. I am thinking of something that happens in student stories that I see frequently, and in my own work, which is that writers protect their characters. They don’t want to let them get into trouble and they don’t want to see them acting in an unattractive way. And so the characters sometime float through the stories where very little happens. On the other hand, stories are generally about situations in which trouble happens.  And so ultimately, we have to let our characters get into trouble.

WHC

The idea that in life, any human being tries to avoid conflict. But as characters in a story, conflict is essential for the story. As writers, we need to allow our characters to be in conflicting situations, both in story structure as well as emotionally. Is there value in considering epiphany and enlightenment? Particularly in short stories? 

The short story is about a moment after which nothing will ever be the same again. This moment does not have to be insightful.

LSC

I had a professor, John L’Heureux, whose definition of a short story I thought useful: A short story is about a moment after which nothing will ever be the same again. This moment does not have to be insightful.

WHC

Insight for the character or insight for the reader?

LSC

Insight for the character . . .

WHC

Okay.

LSC

. . . or the reader. I think that the recent mulling over epiphanies and whether or not they should be used is coming from a concern that there might be fads in storytelling, and I don’t think that following fads leads to the creation of the most vivid or original stories. So many people get into writing because they have something unique that they want to express in themselves, and yet when they begin to write stories, they turn to templates, such as “Dubliners”, and try to copy them. Sometimes that can actually lead to beautiful work. But there are cases when I don’t think that following templates are useful.  The most important thing an emerging writer must do is develop their voice and aesthetic.

WHC

Yes. That’s a very interesting idea. I think that attitude as a teacher makes you a very valuable teacher.

LSC

The most important thing an emerging writer must do is develop a voice and aesthetic.  I do think there’s a kind of obsession with the idea that if writing is going to be taught in the classroom, then there must be a correct way to teach it and there must be a correct way to write. And I’ve seen many teachers with very strong ideas about what they think fiction should be who impose those ideas on their students. To a certain extent, this is valuable. A strong student comes in contact with a strong teacher who has a clear aesthetic, and he or she sharpens him or herself against that aesthetic, either adopts it wholesale for a period of time and then moves away from it, or challenges it.  I’ve seen a lot of that challenging taking place in the classrooms where I teach. I think it’s appropriate. I think that a developing voice or aesthetic is sometimes well sharpened against the voice and aesthetic of others, of authorities or authority figures, for example. And yet I also see–in the presence of a teacher with a very strongly developed and imposing aesthetic–students who cave and adopt it, and in that way bow to authority and think that they should write exactly as the teacher says.  That’s the problem.

WHC

Particularly in creative writing workshops where there is often little value to the set rules that you’re talking about.

LSC

Well, there are things even the most rebellious and original, generative writer needs to hear about his or her work. This is where the flip side of the problem comes into the picture. A person can be a deeply original, strong-minded writer, and still there are times when they need a teacher to say to them, “This isn’t working.”  If they can’t hear that, then they’ll never be able to write work that appeals to readers.

WHC

Good.

LSC

In my case, since I admire many aesthetics, I try to look at each story in class on its own terms.  This is the basis of the way I run a workshop.  However, as I said, I think there’s a great value in the kind of teacher who has a very strong aesthetic.  It seems to me best if a student is exposed to more than one teacher. 

WHC

That’s very valuable.  Thanks.  What can we expect from you and look forward to in your writing?

LSC

I have two interests right now. I’m still very interested in the development of our artists and art-making.  My most recent novel was about a group of poets who meet when they’re studying poetry in school and become writers and teachers themselves . . . I’m still interested in this. I’m sure that something’s going to come out of it.  I started another couple of manuscripts along these lines.  And I’m also interested in the idea of a long friendship and enmity between two characters that I’ve started to work on.  This is [about] the way that relationships develop over time, in this case, between two men in a small town.  And we’ll see where that goes.

WHC

Terrific. We’ll look forward to that.

LSC

I’m looking forward to it too.

WHC

If any of our readers would like to study with you, what are the venues where they might enjoy your teaching?

LSC

Well, I teach permanently full time at the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City.  That is very pleasurable for me because I get to work with people for an entire semester, and sometimes more than a semester.  I see most of the fiction writers in the program over a period of two years or even three years. I’ve also taught at the Warren Wilson low-residence program, which I think is a wonderful program for anyone interested in a low-residence MFA.  And in the summers, I have been teaching frequently at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and I also teach periodically at Bread Loaf and at Tin House.

WHC

Do you have a website that . . .

LSC

No.

WHC

… or some place that tells people where to go? Faculty schedules for that year, that sort of thing.

LSC

I also teach in the Iowa summer graduate program, which are graduate level workshops open to applicants who don’t feel they have the time to come out to Iowa City for two years [for the two-year MFA].

WHC

Yes.

LSC

But I love teaching at summer conferences because I meet a variety of writers, many of whom are very gifted.

WHC

I’d like to thank you very much for this very enlightening interview.

LSC

You’re welcome.  It’s a pleasure.

 


Read other Interviews by William H. Coles

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