Lan Samantha Chang

26 July, 2012
By 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 University, Harvard University, Warren Wilson College, and the University of Iowa, where she is currently the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has received numerous fellowships and awards, including the PEN Open Book Award for Inheritance in 2005.

William H. Coles

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?

Lan Samantha Chang

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, for me, is inextricably linked to my understanding and rendering of human experience through narrative.

William H. Coles

How do you choose the narrator?

Lan Samantha Chang

You know, I don’t have a brilliant piece of advice about that. I have found in my work that this is one of the most challenging aspects of a book’s 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 sometimes 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 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.

William H. Coles

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

Lan Samantha Chang

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.

William H. Coles

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

Lan Samantha Chang

Oh, absolutely.

William H. Coles

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

Lan Samantha Chang

No, not at all. Like many 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 — 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 the first-person perspective of an Asian or Asian American woman. And many of the narrators were adolescents. 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 it 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.

William H. Coles

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.

Lan Samantha Chang

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. 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.

William H. Coles

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

Lan Samantha Chang

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.

William H. Coles

How does point of view relate to voice?

Lan Samantha Chang

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

William H. Coles

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

Lan Samantha Chang

This is so interesting. It does depend upon the reader. 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 want it intensely, and the writer must create obstacles to their desire. I assumed that if all of this was well done, the reader would follow. I still think that’s true. But I have read extraordinary work that 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 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 is this extraordinary catalogue of the effects of colonialism over hundreds of years.

William H. Coles

Interesting.

Lan Samantha Chang

He visits the most desolate, ruined places, and there’s a sense of both great sadness and great horror. It’s an amazing book. I never had a feeling that the book was plotted in the traditional sense of the word. So, my ideas about this have evolved over time. The kind of fiction I write, the kind of fiction I’m interested in writing, has to do with characters who desire something very much.

William H. Coles

Yes.

Lan Samantha Chang

And now I can’t remember the original question!

William H. Coles

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

Lan Samantha Chang

Oh, that’s interesting.

William H. Coles

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

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

Lan Samantha Chang

I don’t know what you mean by loading the story information up front. But the first thing that occurs to me from what you just said is that it’s an interesting point, if I understand correctly, that in literary fiction things happen to the characters. 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. I find that interesting. I’m not sure I agree with it, so I’m not sure how to answer your question.

William H. Coles

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

Lan Samantha Chang

I think it depends on the author.

William H. Coles

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 a fait accompli.

Lan Samantha Chang

I don’t want to simplify or define what literary fiction or commercial fiction is. We want to keep all of our readers in this broader world of possibilities. 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, the writer who focuses the most energy on character development will end up, on some level, letting the plot drop away a bit. So there is that tension for the novelist. I’m just not persuaded that all literary fiction is character based and that all commercial fiction is plot based.

William H. Coles

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

Lan Samantha Chang

He does have lovely plotting in his books, though. I really love A Room with a View, which strikes a very delicate and sort of pleasurable balance of character and plot. 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.

William H. Coles

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 to think about approaching writing as a new author.

Lan Samantha Chang

For a new author, the smartest thing is not to think about what it is you’re writing, not to try to put it into a preexisting category, but 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. Establishing the connection — establishing, discovering, and developing one’s own preoccupation — seems more important to me than looking outside of self.

William H. Coles

And what’s important to you in terms of how to live?

Lan Samantha Chang

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

William H. Coles

How do you approach handling backstory?

Lan Samantha Chang

My attitude toward backstory has changed over time. When I first wrote fiction, I was enamored of authors such as Alice Munro, who often worked three or four or five levels of time simultaneously into 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. 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. 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.

William H. Coles

And you’re pleased with it?

Lan Samantha Chang

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

William H. Coles

Because of the flashback?

Lan Samantha Chang

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 other things I’ve written.

William H. Coles

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

Lan Samantha Chang

Backstory as factual exposition? 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.

William H. Coles

So, your exposition is in front story.

Lan Samantha Chang

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

William H. Coles

And character development through . . . ?

Lan Samantha Chang

Scenes.

William H. Coles

But often in backstory you’re into reflection, either character or narrator. Does that compete with scene development?

Lan Samantha Chang

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

William H. Coles

Backstory often stops momentum, stops character development in ways that are sometimes negative.

Lan Samantha Chang

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

William H. Coles

But it does occur. Don’t you think?

Lan Samantha Chang

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. But often I need to cut those scenes in revision. This is part of my process. But I don’t think we should develop a draconian rule that flashbacks are bad. Some of the most beautiful books have extended passages set in the past.

William H. Coles

The goal would be to utilize flashback to the best advantage for your story, the characters, and the plot. I ask the question because it’s so hard sometimes to structure these things 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 inherent talent, but also from experience, education, comprehension of the process.

Lan Samantha Chang

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

William H. Coles

How do we become good revisers?

Lan Samantha Chang

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, or 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 occurs. Ultimately, we have to let our characters get into trouble.

William H. Coles

In life, humans try to avoid conflict. But conflict is essential for a story. As writers, we need to allow our characters to be in conflicting situations, both in story structure as well as emotionally. Do you consider epiphany and enlightenment? Particularly in short stories?

Lan Samantha Chang

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.

William H. Coles

Insightful for the character or insightful for the reader?

Lan Samantha Chang

Either. 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 following fads doesn’t lead 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 it’s not always useful. The most important thing an emerging writer must do is develop their own voice and aesthetic.

William H. Coles

Yes. I think that attitude makes you a very valuable teacher.

Lan Samantha Chang

There’s a kind of obsession with the idea that if writing is going to be taught in the classroom, 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 into 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. A developing voice or aesthetic is sometimes well sharpened against the voice and aesthetic of authority figures. And yet other students, in the presence of a teacher with a very strongly developed and imposing aesthetic, will cave and adopt it, bow to authority and think that they should write exactly as the teacher says. That’s a problem.

William H. Coles

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

Lan Samantha Chang

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 writer can be deeply original and strong minded, 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. 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, there’s a great value in the kind of teacher who has a strong aesthetic. It seems to me best if a student is exposed to more than one teacher.

William H. Coles

That’s very valuable. Thank you so much for this enlightening interview.

Lan Samantha Chang

You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure.



Read other Interviews by William H. Coles


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