Monday, November 21, 2016

Q&A with Sonya Chung

Sonya Chung, photo by Robin Holland
Sonya Chung is the author of the new novel The Loved Ones. She also has written the novel Long for This World. She is a staff writer for The Millions and the founding editor of Bloom. She teaches fiction writing at Skidmore College, and she lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Loved Ones, and for the two Lee families?

A: The Loved Ones—like many ultimately successful creative projects, I'm learning and realizing—was actually born of failure and lack of confidence.  

I'd been working on another novel for about three years, and in the summer of 2012, it became clear to me that the project was dead in the water. I was anxious and very low after that, wondering if I'd be able to move forward as a novelist.  

Later that summer I resolved to "just show up"—at my desk, to the blank page. In baby steps, I started working in territory that felt both familiar and interesting, which turned out to be an awkward, lonely Korean American girl's adolescence in the D.C. area in the mid-1980s.  The rest grew from there.

The two Lee families—Hannah's Korean immigrant family, and Charles and Alice Lee, who are an interracial couple (African American and white) with two biracial children—are ostensibly different in every way and "shouldn't" converge or collide. But they do—a series of unusual circumstances bring them together—and that was my primary interest.  

One thing I've realized in reflecting on my childhood in the D.C. area is how segregated it was: we lived in Montgomery County and were a minority among white, affluent families; my father's medical practice was in Prince George's County and D.C., and almost all his patients were African American; my mother's family founded the Korean church we attended in Silver Spring, and that's where we immersed in Korean community (mostly working class).  

These worlds never collided for me, and I wanted to explore/pursue that in this story. Since Lee is such a common Korean family name, and a name also somewhat common in the American South, it seemed not improbable, though interestingly coincidental, that the two families would have the same last name.

Q: How would you describe the role of race in the novel?

A: This is a Big Question and hard to answer succinctly, I confess. So maybe I'll go with the simplest version: all the characters in the novel are both deeply shaped by their race and also deeply individual.  

This is the line I'm most interested in walking—in life and in fiction. You cannot separate Charles from his identity and experience as a black male, and he is a unique, dimensional person, kind of an oddball for a black male of his time and place.

The same is true for Hannah in relation to her Korean immigrant identity and experience, and her specific quality of mind and soul. Alice is in some ways fleeing aspects of her whiteness, and she is coping with the particularities of her personal history.  

My ideal for this novel was that it all matters, it's all relevant—both/and, not either/or. 

I've spoken at length about cross-racial and inter-racial writing at an interview I recently did with Electric Literature, in case readers are interested.

Q: The novel jumps back and forth in time. Did you write it in the order it appears in the book, or did you move things around as you wrote?

A: Thanks for this question, as I'd never really thought about this process explicitly: in fact, I wrote the sections in the order in which they appear. My storytelling instincts seem to move naturally back and forth in this way; as if this movement is in fact "linear" in my mind when it comes to telling a full and layered story.

Q: Did you need to do a lot of research to recreate the various decades you write about?

A: I did a bit of research about the Korean War and the Peace Corps (Alice Lee went to Chile for two years after college), as well as military training and the climate for black soldiers at army bases in Korea in the '70s.  

I also did some statistical research about young black males and their incarceration and mortality rates in D.C. in the mid '80s. I had general ideas about all this but wanted to confirm a few specifics in later drafts.  

But in general, my goal as a novelist is not necessarily to get all the facts exactly "right"; rather I'm interested in possibility and plausibility in relation to the story I'm telling.

I did have a wonderful copy editor who helped me refine my memory: there were businesses like Staples and The Cheesecake Factory that appeared in original drafts.  These did not exist in the mid-‘80s as it turns out. At some point the world between ages 5 and 17 gets all blurred for me when it comes to certain details!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Two projects — a novel, and a collection of essays. The novel is early on, so I can't say too much about it. The main character is an art historian and academic who was born of a French mother and a Japanese American father; she is living and teaching in the Pacific Northwest when a series of events shake up her (ostensibly) stable existence.  

The essays are thematically linked around the tensions and intersections between body and mind. One of the essays that I hope to appear in this eventual collection was recently published at Buzzfeed

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As I have opportunities to talk about my book and my work, I always like to give a shoutout to my publisher, Relegation Books, which is a new, tiny micropress based in Northern Virginia.  

My first novel, Long for This World, was published with a large corporate publisher, and I was a bit nervous at first about making the transition to a small indie press. But the experience has been fabulous: I could not have asked for a more ideal experience in bringing The Loved Ones into the world.  

The team at Relegation has been devoted, creative, collaborative, nimble, and just all around brilliant in working together to forge a dynamic and individualized publication path for The Loved Ones.  

I feel very, very fortunate to have found my way to Dallas Hudgens and Relegation and want aspiring writers out there to know that small presses offer an exciting, promising path if you're willing to branch out—i.e. roll up your sleeves and seek less conventional possibilities.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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