Saturday, March 26, 2011

An Interview with Lan Samantha Chang

Posted By on Sat, Mar 26, 2011 at 12:14 AM

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Last month,
Current contributing writer Adam Coronado gifted Lit-URL with a glowing review of Lan Samantha Chang's All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, a novel chronicling four artists grappling with following their dreams while leading their (often) obstructive lives. This month, Lit-URL got a moment to discuss with Chang the story’s ultimate questions, why she thought no one would read it, and varying reader responses to the characters. The Wall Street Journal quoted you saying that you thought no one would read All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost. Why? I began writing this book in 2006, shortly after I became director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and seemingly (although, in reality, not at all) came to the end of my life as a student. At that point, I’d spent fifteen years considering how we “learn to be a writer.” By this, I mean that I was thinking about how we learn not only the process of writing, but the practice: the daily discipline, the benefits, and the drawbacks of writing seriously. Because my explorations on this subject felt very personal, I drafted this book under the assumption that no one would read it. It was a private project. In 2008, I finished a draft of the book almost accidentally and showed it to a friend, who told me that it was actually something that might interest others. In that same article, you are quoted as having said that your novel questions things you shouldn't be questioning because these questions don't have answers. What questions does the novel wrestle with? I suppose the novel’s big questions are: What kinds of sacrifices go into the creation of art? What do we really learn from our teachers, and how do we learn it? I certainly never meant for this book to be prescriptive. When Roman discovers Bernard's epic poem years after its inception, what struck me most was not Roman's reaction, but my own. I feared that Bernard's rejection of "normal" life would be vindicated. It was heartbreaking because Bernard came from you, a writing instructor. Most artists fear that they're not "doing enough" to be great. Do Bernard's choices line up with your thinking? I respect Bernard's choices. I respect the other characters' choices as well. I actually know people who live like Bernard, and they don’t live for display. They have chosen to live their literary lives in private. One of the writers I most respect almost never publishes her work. The story traffics in some of the finite binaries that writing instructors condemn in real life. For example, Lucy doesn't embrace being an artist until she is free of her marriage. To encourage your students to write, you might tell them the realities of the book don't hold up in real life. Of course you can be married, bear children and write. And yet, the "truths" in the story tell us otherwise. Where do you stand? The unfortunate fact is that there’s no life recipe for the creation of art. At one point in my life, before I was married and had a child, I used to study successful women writers who’d written great books in an effort to understand the effect of marriage and motherhood on productivity. My conclusion was that the circumstances of productivity seem to vary from writer to writer. I was almost disappointed to learn this. I wanted instructions, but it turns out we all have to figure out what works on a case-by-case, month-by-month basis. Personally, I know many writers who are struggling, as Lucy did. Many of them do not begin to finish projects until their children are grown. However, some are raising families and writing books. And some excel in these circumstances. I have learned something about my own process in the last five years: that at the moment, I personally can't raise my child (born in 2007), be in my marriage, hold down a full time job, and draft new work at the same time. However, I can revise. My current circumstances require that I draft in spurts, during breaks, and revise during semesters. So, for example, I began drafting my book in summer 2006, but because of work, and life events, it lay in a state of thinking and tinkering, until I had a semester off in 2008 and was able to complete the draft. I then revised it earnestly during more time off in 2009. You and The Millions described Bernard as someone who is wrought with "an extremity of innocence." I found his lifestyle and attitude as partly an act, a character who was not only aware of how he looks to others, but who was proud to the point of being judgemental. How do you see him? I don’t see Bernard that way. I’ve gotten some really vehement and negative responses to both Bernard and Roman. I really don’t have any control over how people view the characters in this book, and, at this point, I don’t mind what impressions readers project upon it. At first, I was troubled to learn that people assumed I was trying to make a statement of some kind. Now, I’m just glad that people are reading the book, and that it’s kindling conversations about art and art-making. You told The Millions that this story gave you "enormous pleasure." I find that experience profoundly ironic because an overarching theme of the novel is that writing and making art can be a private hell. Your thoughts? This is hilarious. I suppose that writing and making art can be private hell, but it’s a hell we choose to go to, and I don’t think most of us would return.

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