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Christina Chiu: “Live the life you want”

Live the life you want, and if you aren’t, do the inner work it takes to change. Never believe anyone who says, “that’s just the way it is.” Ultimately, many of us may not get the house or car we wanted, but that fact is you definitely won’t get it if you don’t try for it. And […]

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Live the life you want, and if you aren’t, do the inner work it takes to change. Never believe anyone who says, “that’s just the way it is.” Ultimately, many of us may not get the house or car we wanted, but that fact is you definitely won’t get it if you don’t try for it. And often, many find that the process of striving toward your goal becomes a gift in itself.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christina Chiu.

Christina Chiu is the winner of the James Alan McPherson Award for her novel Beauty, and is also author of Troublemaker and Other Saints, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Chiu has published in Tin House, The New Guard, Charlie Chan is Dead 2, Not the Only One, Washington Square, The McGuffin, and has won literary prizes from Playboy, New Stone Circle, El Dorado Writers’ Guild, and World Wide Writers. Chiu received her MFA from Columbia University, and now curates and co-hosts the “Let’s Talk Books” Author Series sponsored by the New York Writers Workshop, as well as the Pen Parentis Literary Salon in New York City.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I’ve loved writing since I was in high school, but I never truly considered being a writer until my freshman year of college. I was at a party in the basement of my dorm when a junior called me “chink.” He yelled it from across the room to be sure that everyone heard it, and they all did. It was humiliating, but what made it worse was that there were at least 20 people in the room and no one said or did anything. I felt ashamed, but after I left, I felt angry. I wrote a piece for the college newspaper, and it appeared in the next edition. In it, I said I was disappointed that it happened, but just as importantly, I told the others who had been there that by not saying anything, they, too, were implicated. Actions speak louder than words, but non-actions do, too. It was one of the first times I had confronted racial injustice. I went from internalizing rage to expressing it on the page, which was liberating. For my junior year abroad, I traveled the world on the Semester at Sea program. I saw that life was so much bigger than my small world at home and school. When I returned for my senior year, I took 6 classes instead of the usual 4. I also devoured two novels a week. Being exposed to work by authors like Gish Jen, Audrey Lord, Jessica Hagedorn, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and Maxine Hong Kingston made me realize that being a writer was possible; that I might have something to say as a writer, too.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I was at a reading for Michael Cunningham at Provincetown Work Center in Cape Cod. As it was ending, the woman next to me asked my advice about how to write dialogue. I said, “Well, if you really want to learn about dialogue, read Grace Paley. She’s the great master. Everything I learned about dialogue, I learned from her.” I got up to leave, and there in the seat behind me was Grace Paley!

“Is that so?” She said, smiling.

It’s Grace Paley! It’s Grace Paley! My mind short-circuited, and tongue-tied, I couldn’t speak. Grace left and the moment was gone. Why hadn’t I said anything to Grace Paley!!! I couldn’t stop kicking myself.

But the next summer, also in Provincetown, I spotted Grace walking down the street with her granddaughter. I raced across and caught up with them.

“Grace!” I said, and when they turned, I explained what happened the summer before and said, “And you said, ‘Oh, really?’, and well, yes, REALLY. Everything I learned about dialogue, I learned from your work.”

She took my face in her hands, looked me in the eye, and smiling, said, “Oh, isn’t that nice.”

My hands over my cheeks, I walked around like I was floating on clouds the rest of the day.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

I had a difficult time writing Beauty. I wrote in circles for years, gave up for a while, then started up again many years later. I grew up in the suburbs of NYC, hated it, but ended up moving there anyway after I got married. My husband and I wanted children; the thought of schooling in Manhattan gave us a headache. We eventually bought a beautiful house in Scarsdale. A stone Tudor with lead glass and It was my dream house. Only, it wasn’t my dream. My dream was to be a writer. I had been a founding member of the Asian American Writers Workshop, had published a collection of short stories called Troublemaker and Other Saints, and it was important to me to stay active in the literary community.

However, I felt isolated in Westchester. It wasn’t as easy as “hopping on a train” to get to the city and see my friends or exhibits, and my husband returned home from work later than I needed to leave the house to make it to different workshops and classes. It sounded ridiculous to say, “I need to move back to the city so I can write.” So I didn’t insist. But after the birth of my second son, everything changed. My son was born with many medical issues and went through numerous surgeries his first two years. After I got through fighting for my son, I realized I needed to fight for myself and what I needed. So we moved back to the city. I started taking a writing workshop with Charles Salzberg, one of the first writing teachers I ever had. Then, a friend of mine from Columbia where I got my MFA asked if I’d like to curate and co-host a reading series. To research my novel, I took a shoemaking class, and now I also design and make boots.

What I’m saying is that sometimes what you need doesn’t make logical “sense.” There’s no reason I couldn’t have written a book out in the suburbs. A lot of people do, right? But in the end, I’m not “people,” I’m me. And you are you, so work toward what you want, even if the changes don’t always seem rational. You only get this one life, so why not go for it?

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake, I think, is thinking I could be a writer. If I look at my early work, which isn’t very good a lot of the time. It just makes me wonder how I could possibly have thought I should be a writer. Haha! And also, I had NO idea what I was getting myself into, and how tough it would turn out to be!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’ve just started another novel, which is very exciting, and am finishing up a memoir. I am also working on a boot installation called “Stand.” It’s going to be boots I make for specific female authors making a difference in the literary landscape. The footwear will reflect each individual and express their stories.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

People often ask if I write from my life. I say no, Amy is not me. However, that does not mean I don’t steal profound or even strange moments from my life. A good example is the funeral scene in “A Closet into Eternity.” My grandmother, who lived in Hong Kong, passed away ten years ago. She had been converted to Catholicism as a child; she was devout. I mean, devout. In her bedroom, she arranged a small altar with a marble statue of Mary, a candle, and a small, framed photo of herself from when she was young with her sisters. She prayed every night before bed, and often recited “Our Father” or “Hail Mary,” in Chinese, on a red glass rosary. I’ve been to Catholic weddings so expected the open casket. What I hadn’t expected, however, was that my extended family would line up, circle the casket, and one by one, kiss her goodbye on the forehead. I was horrified, resistant to the idea, but found myself following in step with the others. Touching my grandmother’s clammy corpse filled me with revulsion. But a surprising thing happened. After we circled the casket, the entire family lined up in rows in front of the coffin and bowed. We did it together. In that moment, Christina the individual was gone, and in its place was a community — generations of family — filling the room with love and loss, and all of us weeping, including me.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Live the life you want, and if you aren’t, do the inner work it takes to change. Never believe anyone who says, “that’s just the way it is.” Ultimately, many of us may not get the house or car we wanted, but that fact is you definitely won’t get it if you don’t try for it. And often, many find that the process of striving toward your goal becomes a gift in itself.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Know why you are writing what you are writing. Anyone can write a story, but not everyone can write one that matters. The question is Why does this book you’re writing matter so much that people need to read it? Twenty years ago, many writers believed “art” and politics didn’t mix. If that were true, we wouldn’t have masterpieces like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The personal is political. What you say matters; what you don’t say also speaks volumes.
  2. Develop your own unique voice/style. If you pick up a novel by Salman Rushdie or Flannery O’Connor, or Michael Cunningham, you can tell who wrote it by the second page. You can’t be a great writer if you are mimicking Hemingway’s voice and style.
  3. You can’t be a great writer if you aren’t writing. To stick out the discouraging moments in your career, you need a community. It may be a writing group. Or, it may be an author- or writing-related organization. Writing is a solitary endeavor. To be in it for the long haul, you need to connect with others to discuss writing-related issues, or even personal ones. I curate a reading series for an organization called Pen Parentis, which supports authors who are parents to keep them on creative track. Authors tell us they are grateful that we acknowledge the difficulties, and the writing fellowship we offer inspires them to keep writing.
  4. Believe in your work. Keep working and send things out. If you’ve put all of yourself into your work, you’ve done the most you can do. You may not get the reviews you’d hoped you’d get. Or maybe you got another rejection on your latest novel. Neither of these means your book won’t last the test of time nor get published. Just don’t stop writing. Some of the most famous but rejected books of all time include: Dubliners by James Joyce, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and Carrie by Stephen King. And, of course, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series!
  5. Find a hobby outside of writing that you feel passionate about. I heard Jonathan Franzen on NPR talking about birding. I think writing to the outside world looks easy. If you’re a writer, however, you know how tough it can be. But grinding through it doesn’t work. Trust me. I worked on Beauty for years, wrote in circles, and finally gave up until I started researching the book and decided to take a shoemaking class. I fell in love with the process, and I find that working with my hands and doing something visually creative that I’m passionate about keeps me in the creative flow. Remember to “fill the well,” as Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Brutal honesty. In life, I try to be a good person. I try to be nice. But when it comes to my work, I try to be as brutally honest as possible. Truth kicks “nice” to the curb every time. Authors often describe my work as “unflinching,” which I think means I’m willing to take readers to places they don’t necessarily feel comfortable, but for the work, it needs to be experienced.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I draw inspiration from all kinds of literature. Sometime while I was working on my first book, Troublemaker and Other Saints, I read Ice Storm by Rick Moody. In that novel, there are articles of clothing — a bra in one case — that became a thread that wove its way through the chapters. I realized I had a character in my stories — a fish — that didn’t have much of a role, and yet, meant a lot metaphorically. I read works by a range of writers: Michael Cunningham, Haruki Murakami, Mat Johnson, Lan Samantha Chang, George Saunders, Helen Benedict, Junot Diaz, Min Jin Lee, and Edwidge Danticat, just to name a few. Right now, I’m reading Pam Houston’s memoir, re-reading Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light, and also Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls. After, I plan to read other novels and story collections that came out in 2011 when my younger son was born, and I was too frazzled to read and digest anything.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would establish a national collaborative that would include a major publishing house, radio station, events and reading space, and an artist residency. It would have a very different idea of what publishing views as “multicultural.” It would focus on all Americans. Unlike major publishing houses now, which have foundations that are white and who publish only one or two Asians, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, etc., per year, diversity would be the FOUNDATION of the organization and white authors would be included like the rest of us.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @chrischiu13

IG: @chrischiu13

FB: https://www.facebook.com/christina.chiu.92/

Website: www.christinachiu.org

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