27 May 2010

The long weekend seems to start earlier and earlier every year.  Or at least the traffic does.  Before you take off for the shore or the woods, here’s the scoop on where I’ll be, virtually, this weekend:

Saturday, May 29th @ 2:30
Interview on the Catskills Review of Books w/Ian Williams
WJFF 90.5 FM (Catskills public radio)
You can stream live online, or catch the mp3 on the Web site in a week or two after it airs

Monday, May 31
A piece at The Millions about books left half-read, called “It’s Not You, It’s Me: Breaking Up With Books.”  [Correction: this will run later next week.]

Have a great weekend, and welcome to summer.

25 May 2010

My interview with Bethanne Patrick of WETA’s (DC public television) author interview program The Book Studio.

more about “Sonya Chung at The Book Studio“, posted with vodpod

23 May 2010

Bronte Sisters Power Dolls!

“All forced to fight evil publishers to get their books into print!”

22 May 2010

… for shelving Long for This World face-out in Syosset, and at the Madison Square Garden store.

(Thanks to Sarah and Sophie for this pic)


(These copies at Mad Square are now signed)


As I’ve been saying (probably too often), it’s a jungle out there for debut novelists; so every bit of support means a lot!

14 May 2010

“The First Person” course syllabus reading list is taking shape.  It’s really fun to assemble this, thanks for all your suggestions. So far:

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud
King by John Berger
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price
Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

One or two more will be added, possibly some of these exchanged.  The working list is four times this length!  Difficult, but fun, to choose.

13 May 2010

Today, I step up onto the soap box for a moment — hopefully we can all bear it and emerge the better for it.

The thing about “waiting for the paperback” is that, if you knew what I know about the state of literary fiction in the marketplace right now — “It’s a damn shitty time for literary fiction,” an agent said to me recently — you’d recognize the folly of that position.  (A “hot” writer’s novel — someone who’s everywhere in the press the last few months, who’s work has been critically lauded everywhere you turn — has sold somewhere around 7,000 copies.  That’s not a big number, commercially speaking, in case you were wondering.)

Here’s the zinger, folks: if you “wait for the paperback,” there is a pretty good chance there won’t be one.  And if a publisher decides not to issue a paperback, this becomes an X-mark in the “no publish next novel” column for that writer.

“It’s too expensive” is something that’s begun to grate on my ears as of late.  I hear this most often, about hard covers, from middle class people.  I think to myself, “Seriously?  It’s too expensive?”  I follow the e-book pricing wars — $12.99 vs $9.99 — and I hear readers weigh in on it — educated, middle-class people — and I think, “Seriously?  The three bucks is a deal breaker?”

Let’s talk about what healthy, middle-class people spend three bucks on, without even thinking about it:

a cup of coffee
a protein bar
a transit ticket (instead of, say, walking)
a $10 bottle of wine instead of a $7 bottle of wine
anything at Bed Bath & Beyond (which is overpriced)
one day of heating your house at 71 degrees instead of 69 degrees

Ok — now I’m getting too personal and mean. But let’s move on to what you might spend the 6 bucks you’ll save by “waiting for the paperback” on (I’m not here even going into the support-your-indie-bookstore argument; most hard covers can be purchased at Amazon for $16.50):

two ice cream cones
three Vitamin Waters or bottled waters
a matinee movie
an $11 bottle of wine instead of a $5 bottle of wine
a fruit smoothie
a full tank of the middle-grade gasoline instead of regular
a fast-food meal
pretty much name-brand anything over the generic

We spend money in this way, regularly, without a second thought. But a hard cover is “too expensive”?

At a high-ranking major state university in California, a new policy has been instated, whereby instructors are forbidden from requiring students to purchase hard covers.  Many students are funding their own educations, acquiring debt that will follow them for years into adulthood; I get this.  Still, I question this institutional message about priorities.  Food, shelter, clothing, transportation, health care.  No arguments here.  But what comes next?  And doesn’t it matter?

I am a middle-class person who has, at times, made a decent living and at other times made almost no living at all.  I’ve done this with a partner and alone.  I’m not someone who doesn’t understand that every dollar counts.

And I’m not — let me be clear, since I’m someone who’s just published a novel — arguing for the pity purchase. I’m not saying buy the hard cover of a book you don’t really care about because the writer needs you to. I’m also not trying to convince anyone of the value of literature; I’m addressing this to the people who already claim to value literature. I’m saying, if you know this is a book you want to own, and that this is a writer whose long-term career you want to support, because you believe in the beauty and/or importance of this writer’s work and care about his ability to continue producing it; then buy the hard cover. For God’s sake. “Every vote counts,” I swear it does.

11 May 2010

Dear Elizabeth Bachner:

I’ve been reading your feature essays over at Bookslut for some time now, so I’m writing you this fan letter.  I’ve tried seeking you out in the typical web-stalking ways — Facebook, at Bookslut, etc. — to no avail.  Good for you for minding your online privacy!  I even sent a review copy of Long for This World to you at Bookslut, care of Michael Schaub, which perhaps you received; no offense taken that it may be buried in a pile somewhere.

When I first started blogging, I posted some thoughts about a certain well-known writer’s Twitter essay, and shortly thereafter was contacted by that author.  It seemed a fluke, but then a few months later I posted about another writer’s online essay, and that writer contacted me as well.  I realized, hmm, maybe this is how it works; posting about someone is a little like waving at them from across a crowded bar?  So here’s a try at contacting you…

Your March essay about Marilyn Monroe, play writing, Oscar Wilde, Jillian Weise, and David Mamet is terrific.  I wanted to thank you for, essentially, reinventing the book review.  I’ve always thought that the veneer of “objectivity” in book reviewing seemed odd, and unnecessary; I love that your “reviews” indulge your very personal experience of books, putting your responses and reactions into the context of a person’s (yours) life and literary journey, and synthesizing your thoughts and questions about a number of works at once.  How else could it be?  How else, after all, do we read?

It must be strange to be an icon, even if that’s what you’ve chosen for yourself. Although, I guess in this world, of branding, of Facebook, of photo-retouching and plastic surgery and cybersex and virtual everything, we’re all icons, things instead of people, things instead of artists, and our art, if we have any, is a product, like our lives and bodies. Maybe the difference is that some people are good at being icons, and others mediocre. I don’t really need to be a famous playwright. But, I don’t want to be an image, or a thing. If you have to be a thing, instead of a full person, maybe it’s best to be a famous icon?

This passage struck me as so insightful.  To be a mediocre “brand” or icon just seems like a waste of time, and perhaps a recipe for unhappiness for an artist. With all the self-promotion we’re expected to do, one can fall into this trap.  If you can make the branding work for you, at a high level, that seems probably worth it; otherwise… probably best to just get to work on the art itself.

“Things” versus humans, the multiple-selves existence of artists (wonderful quote from Borges), mid-life reinvention, engaging in art with your whole body, solitary art-making versus collaboration — all ideas that swim around for me constantly.  Thanks so much for exploring and synthesizing so compellingly.

Good luck with your play writing.  It’s a goal of mine as well — to write a stage play, but also to work on a project that has a collaborative element to it.  I do think, however, that novels can be whole-body experiences, both for the writer and reader.  The best fiction engages all the senses, I think; minds, spirits, and bodies, all cylinders firing.

My best regards,
Sonya Chung

p.s.  Haven’t yet read your piece on The Ecco Anthology, but look forward to it.

p.p.s.  You are the third person this month to mention/recommend The Picture of Dorian Gray; I’ll be getting on that this summer.

7 May 2010

Notice the hyphen in this blog title — not a slash, nor a conjunction, but a hyphen.  Allow me to explain…

An interesting and timely convergence: I’ve just finished reading Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca — thanks to fellow Millions contributor Emily Wilkinson for the recommendation — along with a review of Long for This World in the Philadelphia City Paper – which is bundled with a review of  fellow Millions contributor Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel The Singer’s Gun.  That’s quite a vortex of convergences, actually — with the Emily vectors criss-crossing and bracing the whole thing like a Norman Foster structure. But that’s not the convergence I’m speaking of, primarily. Read on…

Rebecca was gripping; I really couldn’t get enough, fast enough.  Some of you may also know the novel from its 1940 film version, directed by Alfred Hitchcock under David O. Selznick, and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.  As I read, I was aware of two things: that I was reading genre fiction, and that the novel is stunningly well-crafted.

When I use the term genre fiction, I am mostly referring to certain conventions of plot and structure: in the case of Rebecca, we have a complex and intricate blend of a few different genre plots — a murder mystery, a romance between a wealthy older man and a young woman, a courtroom drama, a (possibly) homoerotic thriller/horror, and a coming-of-age story.  Each of these threads is fueled by impeccably wrought suspense, which is channeled through an “unreliable” narrator, i.e. memories from the past relayed through an unknowing (live-time) consciousness.  From the moment the novel opens, Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again — the reader’s mind is filled with questions — about the subdued, world-weary narrator, about the “he” that is her companion, about how the past, like a vicious sea tempest, has swallowed these two characters (and others), tumbled them about, and spit them out on shore.

Rebecca is lauded as du Maurier’s masterpiece and has had an enormous readership over the years; but at the time of publication (1938), the novel was received with mixed reviews. It’s been criticized as melodramatic formula fiction with one-dimensional characters.  According to Wikipedia, The Times wrote that “the material is of the humblest…nothing in this is beyond the novelette…”, and du Maurier was contrasted with more intellectual female writers such as George Elliott and Iris Murdoch.

Me, I am obviously a Rebecca fan (and, by the way, I am also crazy for Elliott and Murdoch); plot, I often tell my writing students, is nothing to worry over.  Borrow a plot, steal a plot, there are — as EM Forster wrote — only Two Plots anyway: somebody goes on a journey, or somebody new comes to town.  Within your plot, write well: tend to your sentences; become masters of inventive, crisp, language; know your characters and your settings intimately, make them concrete, dimensional, specific, real.

The only problem, to my mind, with a familiar plot is if the characters act inexplicably, unconvincingly, or too predictably (which is a different kind of unconvincing, I think) within it.  And it’s the characters in Rebecca — each of them mysterious, prismatic, moving targets, and beautifully differentiated – along with mesmerizing descriptions of Manderley (a grand English estate) and its milieu, which propel the novel’s unsettling emotional movement, scene by scene.  It’s a dark novel — its hero and heroine both flawed and on some level doomed — with no easy or happy ending; the Hollywood Production Code of the 1940s in fact mandated that Hitchcock/Selznick change major elements of the story to meet prescribed standards for “cultural acceptability.”

Back to The City Paper, and Emily #2.  Here is the gist of the review, by Justin Bauer:

Chung is good at assembling [...] conventions: Long for This World includes a wedding and a funeral or two, a few generations of a family gathering in a single house, and simmering cross-cultural conflict between the modern demands of youth and the dictates of tradition.

These elements aren’t mere empty gestures. Like a useful cliché, most exist because they get at something universal; this is the case not only with soapy family dramas, but also romances and science fiction and cop thrillers. For some novels, it’s enough to animate these relationships and shared experiences with the specifics of a situation or a culture. But Chung’s story  [...] uses these commonalities to develop a circle of delicately drawn characters out of a series of resonant snapshots.

Chung builds her narrative out of those isolated, telling moments. They’re not obviously stitched together, and she moves freely between different characters’ histories and perspectives. But it’s Jane whose particular vision provides a key to the whole. Her debate between love and lust, responsibility and self-gratification, defines her relationships to family and lovers and work. Even as Chung refracts this debate across other scenes and characters, she maintains her photographic style, careful in its reserve, with no unnecessary disclosure.

And here is a bit from the review of The Singer’s Gun:

“Emily St. John Mandel’s strange, spare novel also features a single central character working to define himself despite the legacy of family, and, like Chung, Mandel co-opts the structures of a specific genre to highlight this.

The Singer’s Gun wears the trappings of a thriller, with an FBI investigation, a femme fatale and a double cross or two. But Mandel avoids tension, intentionally [...] she concerns herself much more with careful description and boredom and waiting than with tension. The criminal stuff is important as a canvas, but by removing the velocity of the thriller form, that canvas lets Anton carefully unpack the deeper issues of morality and obligation that his author’s really interested in.”

Fascinating, no?  Readers who remember my bust-up over at The Millions when I wrote about genre fiction (carelessly, inaccurately — it was my first blog post for a significant audience ever; quite the learning experience) might be particularly amused by these convergences.

I confess I would not have expected Long for This World to be described as “conventional” or “like a useful cliche,” though now, given what I both think and preach about plot, it makes perfect sense.  When readers have told me that they “couldn’t put it down” or have described it as a “page-turner,” I’ve been surprised.  Pleasantly, though — since my greater worry was that the book might be inaccessible in its fragmented-narrative form.

I feel, in the end, in good company.  I keep a running list of books that I feel are both genre-influenced page-turners and emotionally complex; familiar in terms of universal story lines / uses of conventional literary tropes, and also rich in language and characterization.  Rebecca joins this list, as does The Singer’s Gun (which is on my to-read pile); others include Edith Wharton‘s The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, Sarah Waters‘s Fingersmith, Balzac‘s Pere GoriotCormac McCarthy‘s The Road, Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina, and Elizabeth Bowen‘s The House in Paris.  Read these, is what I most wanted to express in that original post at The Millions; be entertained, absorbed, and also challenged, transformed, enriched; it needn’t be either/or.

5 May 2010

So I’d set up this reading at a Border’s in northern VA a few months ago, thinking that it would be nice to do a bookstore reading while in the DC area (for the Asian American Literature Symposium). I grew up in Maryland, so I thought of it as a sort of “hometown event.”  As the date (4/26) grew near, though, I started to worry a little.  I haven’t actually lived in the DC area since 1986; many of my friends have left the area, and many others I’d lost track of (and vice versa).

Every book event is a little fraught, I’ve learned.  Will anyone come?  Often, the folks you were sure would come out don’t; and then people you’d never imagined would come show up.  It’s pretty unnerving, and yet at the same time really fun; surprises are always like that, I guess.

The Border’s reading was no exception.  When Long for This World first hit the stores, the question arose:  who will be the readership?  I had no idea.  I especially wondered if there would much of either a Korean or Korean-American audience.  I did not at all take that for granted; it’s much more unpredictable, and complex, than that.  Friends who knew the Korean publishing world, for instance, intimated that Koreans only read “famous” writers, i.e. reading is more about celebrity than literary engagement in contemporary Korean culture.  I don’t know how true that is, but more on that in a moment…

The Border’s reading turned out a mostly-Korean audience (but let me not forget to thank to Devra and Pete, our intrepid non-Koreans!), the first in my experience thus far.  (Even my reading with Nami Mun, also Korean American, at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, did not seem particularly populated by Korean Americans.)  And, interestingly, the audience was almost split down the middle, between first-generation Koreans and second-generation Korean Americans.  Thanks to a friend from the Korean church I attended as a child/youth, who brought out a handful of her friends, and to my “little” (now married) cousin Susan; along with an old family friend of my parents, who spread the word with a local first-generation writers’ group; it turned out to be a really interesting event and Q&A.

It was such a treat, and humbling, to have an attentive and interested audience among the older generation, who asked a slew of good questions (in English, thankfully!). The younger folks, too, engaged in the Q&A, and bought books for me to sign. A number of the older attendees bought books for their children and grandchildren.

Finally, friends Val and Pete came with daughter Claire (9).  It was Claire’s birthday, and I was especially honored by her offer to be my “assistant” as I signed books.  Claire is apparently now working on her own book, publication date TBD.

In a million years I would never consider myself a “representative” of my race or ethnicity. But that night, at Border’s, it was as if I was making a lot of people proud, more than just the people in the room; it was a great privilege.

Will a Korean publisher decide to translate Long for This World for Korean readers?  We sincerely hope so.  Stealing from my friend Ed Lin, whose Facebook-status-series, “C’mon, Chinese People!” cracks me up:  “C’mon, Korean people!”

4 May 2010

At Bookslut, in the new May issue, Terry Hong interviews me about my writing schedule, development as a reader and writer, literature and ethnicity, and solitude.

2 May 2010

From the spring issue of Hyphen Magazine:

“Chung writes with great empathy and clarity. Her characters are lovingly fleshed out in direct, yet often haunting prose. For the novel’s ambitious scope – spanning multiple decades, continents, generations, cultures & wars – this is really an intimate work… Closely observed and detailed, the characters become real, and their search for the tailwinds that will let them carry on urgent and satisfying.”     -Nawaaz Ahmed


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