Saturday, March 15, 2014

Q&A with writer Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li is the author of the new novel Kinder Than Solitude. Her other work includes the novel The Vagrants and the story collections Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. A professor of English at the University of California, Davis, she grew up in Beijing and now lives in Oakland, California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Kinder Than Solitude?

A: I was always curious about poisoning. I think murder is a crime with a plot. Poisoning is a special kind of crime. If you use a weapon or physical violence, it’s more confrontational. Poisoning is a very intimate crime; it’s done by someone close. I started thinking, poisoning is a very interesting thing to explore. I had an idea about a character who was poisoned and lived on.

Q: Did you know how the book would end when you started, or did you change it along the way?

A: They [the characters] did evolve. I knew there would be three main characters, in a very unstable triangle. Part of it was how the exact sequence of the poisoning [came about], how one character manipulated the other two. I wrote it to find out!

Q: What was the inspiration for the character Ruyu?

A: I finished the book a year and a half ago and I still think about her all the time! It’s very hard to say who she is. There are so many things: that she’s orphaned, that she was raised in this way, but it doesn’t explain who she is. 

What if she was not an orphan? Would she have turned out differently? A little, but there’s some sort of vacuum in her, a power [that] gives her power over other people. I don’t think she cares to use it, but when there’s such a person in the world, people don’t mind their own business. She is so unique, people try to understand her by trying to reshape her.

Q: Why did you pick "Kinder Than Solitude" as the book’s title?

A: In the beginning, for a while there was no title. I think I was one-third into the novel when I came up with a working title, "The Art of Solitude." It was a deceptive title; I think the title was more from [the character] Moran’s point of view. She is not an artist of solitude. It was self-deception on my side [for the characters]: I do want solitude, but I want something kinder.

Q: As someone who lived in China and moved to the United States, how do you blend both cultures in your work?

A: If you grow up in a place, you know the place really well, inside out, and being away doesn’t change [that]. If I go back, China has materially prospered, but the way people view life is very much the same. I came here as an outsider, and you can [have] an observer’s advantage—you’re always curious!

Q: You’ve written short stories and novels—do you have a preference?

A: I don’t, I really do love both formats. Many writers prefer one to the other, or for marketing reasons people stop writing short stories. A novel is a really long process; you live with the characters forever. With Kinder Than Solitude, the characters were really engaging! 

With stories, I think it gives you more pressure to write. Everything has to be done in a [shorter] page limit. You write about time in different ways. Characters live in multiple moments. In short stories, every sentence has to be written so you realize they have multiple lives.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a collection of stories ready, so naturally I should go on and finish the collection! I’m also working on non-fiction, which is different for me than writing fiction. I like that challenge. Eventually, I will start another novel!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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