It’s a beautiful day to be a golem in NYC.
Category Archives: Novel
My good friend Nova Ren Suma, who also happens to be an amazing writer and author of Dani Noir (aka Fade Out), Imaginary Girls, and the forthcoming 17 & Gone, recently tagged me in the “Next Big Thing Blog Hop” interview series.
The point of the series is to give you some insight into an upcoming book or in my case, a work-in-progress.
While I usually don’t like to talk about my novel, I’m looking forward to re-engaging with my writing after a pregnancy-induced months-long hiatus–and excited about participating in this blog series. It is time to germinate all these dormant thoughts about my novel, even if it means stepping away from motherhood and thrusting my newborn daughter into someone else’s arms for a few hours to do so. Also, now that I consider my novel more finished than unfinished, it’s nice to share some of my thoughts with the public.
Here goes… because the Next Big Thing in my writing life is THIS:
What is your working title of your book (or story)?
Golem of Korea. Or Golem of Seoul. I haven’t decided. (And now you know why my blog features a picture of a golem).
Where did the idea come from for the book?
My book is inspired by my parents who were immigrants to this country. I began to think, “What if they had an additional culture outside of Korean culture from which to draw for wisdom and insight? What if they embraced a hybrid identity? How would this impact their world view?”
I wondered what could save a couple of immigrants–and drawing from my own Korean Jewish life, I created a golem for my characters.
Also, I want to note that over the course of writing this novel, the golem has been the saving grace of my characters and for me as the writer. The golem has kept me adventurous as a writer–every time I’ve felt stuck, I let the golem loose, and it has led me to different spaces and story lines. So the golem has saved me, too.
What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction. Asian American literature. New York literature. Historical fiction. Magical Realism. Someone dared called it “fantasy” (if golem literature is a subset of “fantasy”). Golem literature. If I add a university, can it also be a campus novel?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
This is when I wish there were more actors of Asian/Korean descent in Hollywood. Right now I can pick from John Cho, Bobby Lee, Daniel Dae Kim, and Ken Jeong…? So, John Cho and Bobby Lee. Seriously, we need more actors of Asian descent.
Also, I love B.D. Wong so much–I should write a character for B.D. Wong to inhabit. I also wonder if I can create a part for Jon Hamm, because–because I am a bit enamored with him.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Yong Kim is a war-traumatized North Korean man homesick for a time and place to which he can never return; upon immigrating to the United States in 1973, he builds a golem to help him cope–in doing so, he establishes a new relationship with his future.
(I find writing one-sentence synopses of my work so difficult).
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? (my note: in reality, these aren’t the two only outcomes for a book–you can self-publish, you can have the book represented by an agent, the book can find its way to a big publishing company, or its way to a small press, among so many other things).
Can you predict the future? I can’t. I don’t know what will happen, but I do hope that my book is represented by an agent who believes in me and my work, and finds its home at a publishing company with an editor who loves and supports my novel.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It’s hard to say–it took years and years. I had a stroke, and recovered from the stroke, and even had a baby during the course of writing this thing. It’s taken a long time to write, so I’m going to say it took my entire life. This novel is my life to date.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
A little bit of Midnight’s Children (my book is about nations), a little bit of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle (there are underground tunnels and talking animals). And because there’s a golem, a little bit of Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
See my answer above regarding from where the idea for this novel comes. My mom and dad. My late Jewish mother-in-law as well. And the idea of monsters. The idea of being able to create companionship and resolve loneliness–it’s awful lonely to be an immigrant in America. The idea of nations. The idea of war. The idea of rescue. The idea of hybrid identity. The idea of New York City.
Mostly, I was inspired by New York City. This book is a way for me to always find my way back to New York City.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
There is a character named The Frog. He is not an actual frog.
Now I’m supposed to tag five writers to take on these “Next Big Thing” questions themselves…I asked a number of writer friends who blog, but did not get to five. *shrug* In which case, I’ll list the three who were game–and urge you to do this on your end, if you wish. Or–I’m happy to tag you!
Can’t wait to hear your answers to these questions!
Guernica, a litmag I’ve long admired, is commemorating End Times with a series of flash fiction this week. I am honored and delighted that my flash piece entitled “Maps” is up today and part of the End Times series.
“Maps” happens to be an excerpt from my novel-in-progress; I have an ongoing obsession with the Apocalypse and so I am happy that my two greatest obsessions to date (my novel and the Apocalypse) are represented. I hope you enjoy reading it.
When I get stuck on my novel revision, it’s like sitting in a room with furniture covering every wall, including possible doorways out. There is something going on with my novel that is not right/should not be there/needs to be moved so that I can get unstuck.
Oftentimes, it’s my tyranny as a writer in a previous draft that causes a block in a subsequent revision–usually it is because I’ve forced the characters to do something that is unnatural and against their will. Or I’ve just cluttered the draft with unnecessary, incongruous details. Either way, I and my novel end up with roadblocks.
So it is with this point in my revision. There are more than a couple instances of roadblock going on in my novel. Because I’ll look at a chapter and just SIT there, wondering where to go from there. And I’ll see no openings, no windows, no doors, not even a trapdoor (okay, I haven’t yet looked for a trapdoor, and maybe I should). It feels like a dead-end, in which case I have no choice but to take the whole damn room apart, or demolish it altogether.
It’s scary to delete entire chapters. Sometimes it has to be done.
In the interim, I’m working on strengthening chapters and scenes that do work. I wrote five sentences of my novel revision the other day. This, my friends, is a miracle. Because that’s the most I’ve written in my novel in weeks. Weeks. Weeeeeeks. Some people say you get a burst of creativity when you’re in my specific physical condition–but I’ve just gotten massive creativity constipation.
It just so happens that another dam is breaking, too. I built up an emotional wall to brace myself for a personal event–and it isn’t the healthiest of things to do, and certainly not healthy for writing. It’s more honest to fall and cry and stand back up than it is for me to stand rigid and quivering. And I’m stronger when I stand after falling. And a good cry is even better for my writing.
Sorry for being so vague. Personal stuff.
And then there’s more personal stuff that is challenging me to open up, that makes me less alone on this earth, and yet makes me feel more alone than ever. It’s good stuff but again, sorry for being so vague. Personal stuff yet again.
I’ve also stepped back in as Fiction Editor over at Kartika Review. If you’re Asian American and/or write about Asian American related writing (whether theme or character), please send your fiction in.
And being as I’m in NYC for a few weeks, I’m surrounded by readings. The big reading event of Fall 2012 was the Junot Díaz reading at Barnes & Noble on Union Square. There were hundreds of people at that reading. I showed up over an hour in advance of start time, and got myself a seat (my friend had gotten there about ten minutes earlier and saved me a seat). There were hundreds of people behind me standing. There were people downstairs trying to get up to the reading. NYPD was there for crowd control. It was awesome to see literature need rock-star-crowd-control measure.
I live-tweeted the reading (Junot makes his readings less about reading and more about a dialogue with his audience, so there are good tidbits all around). Here are a few excerpts from my live-tweets:
“ppl in the back we love u. It’s one thing 2 hv a fucking seat. It’s another 2 hv 2 stand the fuck up.” –Junot Diaz (2 the capacity crowd)
“when ur rendering chars on paper, u’ve gotta be strategic. Chars hv no weight until u attach them to relationships.” — Junot Díaz
“male representation is so absurd, trivial. Despite the over abundance of men the internal lives of boys are overlooked.”-Junot Diaz
“what’s intriguing w most of us is it’s so much easier to live w the safety of work unrealized. It’s safe.” –Junot Diaz
“Truth is Tht safety of work unrealized does not in any way compare to flawed beauty of work realized.” –Junot Diaz
“first you have to suck for a long time. The only thing Tht separates a published writer is a tolerance for imperfection.” –Junot Diaz
“this is a wired generation. My MIT students ask me where my reading is. Lookitupmotherfucker dot com!”–Junot Diaz
“get to fucking work, yo.” -Junot Diaz
If ur an immigrant what the fuck haven’t u survived? –Junot Diaz
It is u & ur story, fuck everybody else. The best part is when it’s done every1 will get their say so why give them say before? -Junot Diaz
I don’t know about you, but listening to Junot always flips a light switch on in my head.
I hope you’re finding the doors in your work. I’m trying to find the doors in mine. I’m so determined to get some work done.
These days, I’m blogging here and I’m writing in my Moleskine journal–but I’m not writing my novel. I want to write my novel, but it’s just not happening; I’m either forcing something that doesn’t belong in the novel and/or I am on the brink of a breakthrough. Or I have to just admit that I don’t write well at all in the Summer.
There is a small part of me that says “That’s okay, you’re still writing,” but the rest of me is completely discouraged and self-condemning.
I have friends who write everyday–they write through the blocks and they turn in complete novel manuscripts within a year’s time. That is so not me. There are writers who take ten years to write a novel–that’s more like me. Writers-who-take-years-to-write-a-novel are traumatized by that creative timespan. We are asked “How’s your novel coming along?” way more often for starters.
I think part of the pressure comes from the fact that most writers don’t talk publicly about the dark parts of writing–the blocks, and the days you sit in front of your computer and all you do is revise one damn paragraph. And the days you sit in front of your computer and you can’t think of a single idea. Or the day you sit in front of your computer and you delete every single word you wrote in the last four weeks.
We writers like to, in the public eye, present writing as “magical.” We like to prolong the myth of genius. That the words come out of thin air and shine with brilliance on the page. There are movies that show writers in action–like Katherine Turner in “Romancing the Stone” tearing her hair out while writing (but that typing never stops, does it?) or Nicholas Cage in “Adaptation” (okay at least there, writing block is accurately depicted–for like Charlie, I often negotiate brownies as reward for words written). And I love the depiction of a writer-gone-astray by Michael Douglas in “Wonderboys” (but even then, he’s written an over-long novel, and again, the typing doesn’t stop). But those are stories–stories don’t happen without Something Awful happening–and the Something Awful for a writer equals struggling with a long project. But even in movies, the writing happens, and no one in real life likes to talk about those horrible days and horrible weeks and horrible months where the writing doesn’t happen. Because it makes us seem less than perfect. Because it makes us look stupid. Because it’s tragic.
So in sum, I feel imperfect. I feel stupid. I feel tragic.
So there’s that.
And then I think in my case, my novel is waiting for me to grow up. This novel and its story is bigger than I am. And I wonder if I fail it, every day. Even on my best days, I fear to fail my novel.
In my worse moments, I think that even if I don’t finish this thing a lot of good has come out of it–my novel has made me a better person. It has stretched me. It has been the thing that drove me to recover from my stroke. It has been the thing of so many lessons learned–lessons that I could not have learned any other way than facing a blank page and exploring worlds with the goal of seeking understanding and communicating understanding. It has made me grow up. It has given me comfort. And it has kicked my ass. Everyone needs a good ass-kicking now and then.
But on the worst days, I look at my novel and wonder if I should walk away from it. The only things that keep me from walking away is the incredible encouragement I’ve received from my writing mentors–and my amazing writer mentors are not men or women who give out encouragement lightly. So I keep at it. On my very worst days, my mentors save my novel’s ass.
So for now, I am gestating, in more ways than one. The words and ideas will come. It’s just summertime, I guess, when writing traditionally doesn’t happen for me.
<hits head on table>Looked at my novel-in-progress; it is such a mess and I HATE it today. I know I must soldier on, because I am probably near a breakthrough moment if I hate it this much, but it is agonizing and awful and I feel hopeless. </hits head on table>*
*table on which I am slamming my head is pictured above.
There are a lot of new directives in my life these days, all to a good and healthy end. And so I thought to myself, if everything is on a timeline and I’m to be so disciplined, I’ve got to do the same with my novel manuscript.
Truth be told, I’ve been
revising rewriting my novel-in-progress like it’s a day at the spa–with languid leisure. A page here, a page there. An occasional chapter. When I’ve come across a bump in plot or character, I let the mystery wash over me and then when the uncertainty became too uncomfortable, I’d go do something other than write, something other than stick to my chair and computer screen.
Writing has been a daily part of my life, but the great urgency I felt after my stroke (as only a brush with death can achieve) to finish a draft of my novel-in-progress, the very thing that got me to finish a draft, has been languishing for some time.
But I am now once again writing with exigency. Because I have to finish a major rewrite of this novel by the end of 2012. Because if I don’t finish a major rewrite, I’ll have deep regrets, and any discomfort I feel now as I navigate the interstitial spaces of my novel is going to be nowhere near the pain I’ll feel next year when I look at a half-finished novel revision.
I am the slowest writer I know. Writing with urgency for me means muscling through the pain and making a deep commitment to stick with my manuscript even if tomorrow is another day. It means I am still a slow writer. It does not mean writing two thousand words a day, because for me, five hundred words a day is a good writing day. But I know I can and will do it.
So I’m making it public: I’m finishing a major rewrite of this novel by year-end. That gives me about seven months, which I think is completely doable, even at my elephantine writing pace.
I am drowning today. I woke up feeling awful about my novel. Like wondering-why-I’m-even-doing-this awful. And I felt even more hideous knowing that I’d continue to re-write despite my despondence. And yet even more horrific because then of course all this self-doubt was a massive waste of time, keeping me from said novel-rewrite.
On these self-doubting occasions, I feel like my novel is an act of perseveration–of crazy unfulfilling repetition that speaks to the adage, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
That line speaks not to perseverance but to perseveration, which is an actual psychological term describing unhealthy behavior repetition.
There’s a difference between perseveration and perseverance. Perseverance, which is steady persistence (and a novel-writing virtue) towards a goal despite obstacles and discouragement has value in the effort whereas perseveration recreates old, unresolved issues (i.e., like how someone who felt left out in junior high then ends up, in her adult life, trying to connect with people who reject her–or at its simplest, repetition of spoken phrases).
It’s when I fail to see value in the process and effort, that I feel like writing this novel is an act of insanity.
One of the most hurtful things someone has ever said to me (other than the time someone told me, “My husband will not be happy if I get fat–but your husband doesn’t seem to care!”) is “Are you still working on that novel? Finish it already.” That a novel is solely about a finished product is false–that a novel’s value is positioned solely in its finished product is daunting and stomach-turning, at least for someone in the thicket of revision.
And yet, because of this end goal, I push. I push.
And sometimes, it’s the pushing that is the wrong thing to do with my novel-in-progress.
I’ve taken up yoga in the past year or so. After living in yoga-infused-Berkeley for decades and scoffing at the practice, I found a yoga instructor and studio in Tara Stiles and Strala Yoga in NYC that did not make me feel alienated or like I landed on Mars or had me speaking a foreign language in class.
I learned that yoga isn’t about pushing. It’s about being in the moment, and connecting with your breath and going with the ease. That anything is possible. That I can do crow and when I did crow, the moment felt utterly effortless and beautiful and marvelous. That it happened like magic one day. That getting to crow and holding crow meant staying very much in the present moment. That pushing to do crow was the very thing that made me topple.
It is hard to fight self doubt. Maybe it might be better to cave into it and process the feelings that self doubt brings. Either way, I thought that by writing about my self doubt and defining the creature that embodies it in my life today, I’ll know better how to manage it.
That I am pushing to “finish” my novel is what stalls me–that I fail to see value in the process and the present moment of revision is what pushes me to doubt myself.
So I downloaded my yoga class playlist and I’m writing to it this morning, so that what I learn in yoga can infuse me as a writer today. No pushing. Just be. Write the words. Breathe. Listen to my novel. Listen to me. Allow myself to cry. So that I can amaze myself.
Writers (and I’m talking about creative writing) who in the debate about whether or not writing can be taught say that “writing cannot be taught,” or writers who say they “don’t revise” are engaging in a game of intimidation.
Whether they are accurate or not in their assessment (if you are 140% talentless, I guess writing cannot be taught…and perhaps some brilliant writer out there really doesn’t revise their work), I hate it when writers try to make writing “magical” and solely about “talent.” It’s such an arrogant thread of thought to imply that you either have it or you don’t. Certainly, talent is a crucial part of the pie–but people with talent still need coaching, mentoring, and practice. Tons of practice and hard work.
This bucket of sick giraffe bull reminds me of my high school. I have a lot of wrath toward my high school years, so be forewarned. I went to a super cut-throat competitive high school that happened to be a public high school. The counseling office would actually publish the top 100 GPAs of students in descending order every semester. They didn’t list names, but they did list student ID numbers. Who were they kidding? You think we ultra-competitive students hadn’t memorized each others’ SIDs? We knew exactly where we all stood.
But I guess the counseling office was bored, and needed to generate work. Because I’m sure after those rankings, they’d have to do a lot of counseling. And I’m not talking about the academic kind.
Anyway–I’m talking about people who front about how easy shit is, just to intimidate other people in a competitive atmosphere. And I was talking about my high school, which was full of students with gray bags under their bloodshot eyes saying they had a full night’s sleep, didn’t study for the test at all, and the test was a cinch. For awhile I believed them. Until my father said, “Are you an idiot? Of course they’re studying. They’re just psyching you out! Now go to your room and study all night until dawn breaks.” My dad is such an Asian Dad. Literally. And figuratively. Okay. I just wrote notes to my friends all night long. Like, twelve page handwritten notes. I was destined to be a writer. But I did study, just not as hard as my father wished I would.
The claim to a well of genius/brilliance without the investment of hard work stems from deep arrogance and/or fear.
You mean to say that Jackson Pollock just threw some paint up on a canvas and that was it? That dude worked long and hard to attain those splashes. There is an entire history of Pollock paintings preceding his “drip canvases” that attest to that. You mean to say that Itzhak Perlman fell out of the womb playing a violin? That Lance Armstrong just rode his bike and rode it to victory from the start? No shit. They all worked hard. There’s the equivalent of about 100,000 bottles (probably more, but I don’t feel like researching the amount of sweat a bicyclist would exude in his/her training) of Gatorade that Armstrong had to suck down to replace the sweat from training exertion. They played until their fingers bled. Or at the least, had whopping callouses.
I know someone who was a concert violinist earlier in his life and even if he did not make it his lifelong career, he has a little hollow in his jawbone; he practiced so often and for so long, the bone grew as if his face were attached to his chinrest. Which it was. Because he practiced for hours and hours as a small child.
At AWP this week (and I’ll be quoting from AWP for awhile to come), Nami Mun at her Works in Progress panel said you can’t succeed solely on talent–that there is the concept of practice, citing Yo-Yo Ma. That the only difference between an average person and a successful person is focused practice; a “willingness to practice, develop your craft, and understand the difference.”
And Margaret Atwood, in her keynote said, “I’m startled by people who say they want to write but don’t like reading. Those people want an audience for them to listen to their sad story and that’s the end of it. They’d be happier on reality TV, because that’s less work. And yes, I said the ‘w’ word: WORK.”
I know that my novel certainly has waited for me to grow and develop as a writer. And that it’s guided me through my own maturity as a human being. I molded the novel into shape, and in recent times, my novel has been the thing to mold and shape me in return, and it has led me into amazing life adventures, calling to me with its needs s
uch as much time spent on wikipedia and google and sometimes twitter for novel research. That I couldn’t write this novel eight years ago didn’t mean I could never write the thing.
It takes practice. It takes hard work. It’s pain. And it’s joy. Sometimes I suck. Sometimes my novel sucks. Whatever. Work more.
I am one of the legions of writers who has been married to a novel-in-progress for more than five long years (and I am not close to being finished). We, the slowest of writers, salute those who write a novel a year (I’m looking at you, Joyce Carol Oates). At AWP, Don Lee said he takes two years to write one novel: the first six months spent on generating ideas, another year to write the draft, and then another six months of revision. I salute you too, Don Lee.
But over cocktails, my tongue freed up by a gin and tonic at the AWP conference headquarters bar (by golly, all ten thousand writers BROKE that bar–it was four people deep, and it took 20 minutes to get a drink order in–it’s a wonder that ANYONE even got tipsy)…I announced that my novel dictates the speed at which it is written. I think at least one person said “Amen” to that. Who knows. I get drunk off half a cocktail. Some stories demand a long time. And some stories demand to be told immediately.
My novel is better than the person I am. And it’s being patient. And asking me to be patient, in turn. And to work my ass off so I can deserve the novel I end up showing the world.
And yes. I revise. Everyday I’m a better writer than the day before. I’m learning to write everyday damn day. I also had eyelid surgery so I could have double eyelids. And I hate bell peppers.
I wrote about my turning point as a writer on Nova Ren Suma’s blog, Distraction No. 99.
(At this moment, you can also enter to win a copy of Men Undressed which contains an excerpt from my novel-in-progress on Nova’s blog).
My turning point is my stroke at the age of 33. It’s a topic to which I often allude, but do not often write about as a central subject. I find it awkward to talk about my stroke. I don’t want it to define me. Some people are just not interested in hearing about a past ailment. But awkward or not, it is undeniably The Turning Point of My Entire Life.
So when Nova asked me to write about my turning point as a writer, I inevitably found myself writing about recovery from my stroke, as lesson-filled an experience it was.
One of my friends, while visiting me in the early days of recovery, wisely advised me to look for lessons throughout my recovery; my hunt for lessons learned made what could have seemed like a meaningless random and stupid happening a much more meaningful and valuable experience.
I shared a few of the things I learned about myself as a writer in the wake of my stroke and as I fought to write my novel again. The message of my story is, as quoted from the last paragraph of my post at Distraction No. 99:
“It took years before I could remember this experience as a cohesive narrative. And while most writers don’t have strokes at the age of 33, I don’t think my experience is all too unique, because many of us have been kept from our writing in one way or another in our crazy writing lives. It could be a year away from writing as you raise a new baby, or a year away from writing as you immerse yourself in financially-necessary work, or a year away from writing because your writing just breaks your heart and you just can’t look at it anymore. Maybe you were really sick and couldn’t write. But sometimes, it is that very time away that forms the negative space around your identity and determination and your writing. When you come back, you know who you are, more than ever. And who you are is a writer to the core.”
I hope you check out Nova’s Turning Points series, which includes a number of amazing and inspiring posts about writing.
*The picture above is a picture of the whiteboard in my hospital room where I lived for 10 days following my stroke. The nurses were so nice, and left me uplifting messages!