I first interviewed Yiyun Li in 2005 when she won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, among many other awards, for her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Her first novel, The Vagrants, is forthcoming in February 2009.
The Rumpus: As a writer, how do you feel when you’re asked to make public statements on the political direction of China?
Yiyun Li: I usually don’t want to make a comment because I feel if I have something to say, I have to know it really well. I don’t think I know the political situation well enough to make useful comments, so I just pass on this question.
Rumpus: What was it like to see your stories “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and “Princess of Nebraska” in film?
Li: It’s a very fun experience. You make up something in your mind and all of the sudden these real people come in. I have different relationships with each film. I wrote the screenplay for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers so I worked much more closely with Wayne [Wang] on that project. It was a good lesson in storytelling because I’m not a very visual writer. When I think about someone, I never think about the character’s face, even though I like to watch people. Right away I think about their internal world. But in film, you have to present everything on the screen so it’s the opposite of what I usually do with storytelling. It forced me to think about how people walk, where they sit at that moment. With “Princess of Nebraska,” it was just fun to watch because the movie was so far from the story. It was very much a different story.
Rumpus: During our interview a few years ago, you had mentioned that you weren’t an autobiographical writer. Has that changed?
Li: No, it hasn’t. Although when I met Colm Tóibín, he told me one of his students had asked how he started The Master. He said he did a lot of research and had all these things in his mind, but just didn’t know where to start. So one day when he was in Italy, he took a walk in the garden and thought, I’m going to start here, with something in my life. I’ll give this to Henry James. So he started the novel with Henry James having a dream about that garden. I thought that was very nice. He says it keeps you engaged. Ever since he said that to me, I’m always trying to slip or sneak little things in to keep me engaged. For example, if a main character is walking down the street and someone is standing there, that person might be me or somebody I know. It’s just fun.
Rumpus: You cried when you read the galley copy of your forthcoming novel The Vagrants. You also mentioned that writing this novel was your way of questioning heroism.
Li: Actually I was in Kilkenny, Ireland when I proofread the galley and I just got sad. I felt sad for sending these people to their world. Your characters are always your children. And while you are writing, you’re keeping them safe. Now they’re ready to go into the world and it’s sad. I’m happy with the way the novel came out but all the characters’ ending really saddened me.
Regarding heroism, I grew up in a culture where you learn about heroes and heroines all the time. In a way, when you call someone a hero or heroine, it’s the same as calling them a villain. I have one very heroic woman in the novel but she was actually the most difficult character for me to write because I just couldn’t buy her heroism. I had to constantly question her motivation. She was a young woman with a young child; she gave up all this: her status, her child, her family and her marriage for something she was executed for. There has to be something that really moved her to do that.
Rumpus: Did you do a lot of research for your novel?
Li: The major research was how to set up this town. I modeled the town after my husband’s hometown. He has a very good memory of places so he made a huge map (this is before Google Earth) and made it really detailed. There was a department store, a butcher shop. And then I put my characters in it. After I looked up his hometown in Google Earth, I thought, Wow, it’s very similar.
Rumpus: What is your process for accessing memory? Your novel is set in the late 70s, when you were a young child. Did you consciously try to remember details from your childhood? Did you look at pictures?
Li: That’s a very good question. I was doing a New Yorker panel with Manil Suri, so I read his first novel. In the first few chapters, there is a scene where a woman is dying her hair with an old toothbrush. I told him that scene is exactly how my mom used to dye her hair, but I had forgotten. So I think we read to retrieve our memory.
In William Trevor’s book Reading Turgenev, there’s a minor detail in the beginning of the novel about a prosperous fabric shop. The shop is downstairs and the accounting office is upstairs. All the bills and the money would go from downstairs to upstairs in a little train car overhead. That’s a detail no one is going to pay attention to because it’s just one line, but that line really reminded me of a department store when I grew up. There wasn’t a train system, but they had all these metal lines driven by little motors. If you wanted to buy something, the shop assistant put the money on the metal clip and it travelled across the store. It’s really satisfying to me that one sentence triggered that memory.
For the novel, pictures were very helpful. I did look at photo albums from around that time. I saw a really great picture, taken from the New York Times about the time when sunglasses first appeared in China. For about thirty years in communist China, there were no sunglasses, but in the late 70s and early 80s, all of the sudden they were introduced again. The picture was of three young males with really dark sunglasses. Really tough young men. I thought, That’s neat. So I put them in my novel as very minor characters.
Rumpus: How do you feel about the publishing industry’s pressure on short story writers to produce a novel?
Li: Because we come from an MFA background, we’re all writing stories for workshop, so you end up with a collection. I love stories, and I love novels for different reasons. People always say short stories are dead, but I don’t really believe that. If you look at every generation, there is an Alice Munro and a William Trevor. They will not give up writing stories. I try to tune out all these things from the publishing world because they’re very distracting. If I feel like I want to write a story, I write a story. And if I want to write a novel, I’ll go into a novel.
Rumpus: What do you know about the publishing industry now that you didn’t know when you started writing?
Li: I don’t think I know anything yet. It’s still a mystery to me. I prefer not to think about it. But what I do know actually came from working as an editor on A Public Space with Brigid Hughes. It was a good learning experience to think about what you look for in a story. If you read a story and remember it in six weeks, that’s a very good story. Sometimes you read a story, and the next day you can’t remember anything. That’s horrible.
Rumpus: At a recent Progressive Reading event, you became fixated on an older woman who was sitting alone. You were really drawn to her.
Li: What happened to that woman? [Laughs] If I remember correctly, I think that woman stood out a little in that crowd. There was something about her. If you see a room full of people, for instance, you can place most of the people, you can guess where they’re from. Even if your guess is wrong, you still have a guess. But I couldn’t place her. I couldn’t come up with something that explained her existence in that moment. Those are the things that really stand out to me. Then I start to become really curious. I’ll come up with a situation that can possibly explain the mystery to me, and then comes the plot and the story.
Rumpus: I love your piece in the New York Times about how your father used dried orange peels as a home remedy for colds. It reminded me of my grandfather who came from the Philippines. He would perform a ritual with warm coconut oil and Latin prayers to heal us from ailments such as headaches and stomach aches. Do you know of other home remedies?
Li: I remember when my son was a baby, he was crying for no reason. In America the doctors call that a colicky baby. He wasn’t a colicky baby, but one day he kept crying and crying for no reason. My mother-in-law was here, and she said, Let me go outside and do something. She went to talk to these ghosts and she was calling my son’s name. She would say, Fine, fine, just move on. My husband told me not everybody can perform this; you have to have a certain capacity. I find it really funny.
Rumpus: Did it help?
Li: It helped! [Laughs]
Rumpus: What are you reading now?
Li: I’m reading all short stories because I’m teaching short stories this quarter. I’m reading a lot of Chekhov and Grace Paley, writers I’ve read before but not systematically. I just moved War and Peace downstairs to my office, but I don’t know if I want to start it; it’s a big novel. I’m reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes now. Also Patricia Highsmith.
Rumpus: Now that you’ve completed your first novel, do you have any suggestions on the process of novel writing?
Li: One easy mistake to make with the first novel is to expand the short story. Some things are better as a story; you cannot dilute things into a novel. I think the first hundred pages of a novel are very important. That’s where you set things up: the world, the characters. Once you’ve set that up, it’ll be much easier. I always tell my students to go back after a hundred pages and rewrite from the beginning. It’s really harder if you’ve already finished four hundred pages and realize the first hundred aren’t working.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Li: I think I’m going to start another novel in the spring. It’s about a murder. I’m learning about murders, but it’s very preliminary. That’s why I’m reading Sherlock Holmes.
To prepare for the novel, I just finished an eighty-page story. I think that’s probably the last story of my second collection, which I wrote as a side project while writing The Vagrants.
Rumpus: How would you say the stories in your second collection differ from those in your first collection? Are they more expansive? Did you experiment with new forms?
Li: I like the second collection better. If I don’t like it better than the first collection, there’s a problem there. [Laughs] If you look at A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, style wise, there are a few stories that are very much different from the rest of the stories, so you know that I was just experimenting with a lot of different things. The style in the second collection is more developed, more established. I feel like I’m more mature as a storyteller now and I also know what kind of stories I want to tell.