The Rumpus Book Club Interviews Lan Samantha Chang
The Rumpus Book Club talks with Lan Samantha Chang about All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost , MFA programs, writers experiencing non-writing periods, and biker bars.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.
Stephen Elliott: Sam, this was probably our most popular book so far.
Sam Chang: That’s great to hear, because the reviews have not been good so far.
Stephen Elliott: It seems like the biggest questions being raised here are about what it means to be a successful artist. I think that’s something every creative writer has had to deal with.
Sam Chang: Are lots of Rumpus Club members writers?
Stephen Elliott: I thought they were at first but I get the impression that the book club members are more hard-core readers, though many of them write.
I still don’t know how I feel about that, what success means. Are you posing an answer to that question in this book or just challenging readers to think more about it?
Sam Chang: Just challenging readers to think more about it. It seems to me that the idea of success in our society has become all about achieving some kind of quantifiable status, while actually making art requires an entirely different focus.
Stephen Elliott: But where do the MFA programs fit into that?
Sam Chang: Ah. The MFA program in the story is meant to be only a setting, and the characters take off from there. It’s really about what happens after the MFA.
Stephen Elliott: But… it says something about the characters. To go into an MFA program is to be pretty focused in a way, and maybe have an idea of what creative success is.
Sarah E: But would those characters be found anywhere BUT an MFA program?
Sam Chang: Back in the 1920s, the characters would be in Paris. Now they’re in MFA programs.
Stephen Elliott: I wrote throughout my twenties and never held a real job, which I felt was very similar to doing an MFA.
Sam Chang: I think it’s cool that you wrote through your twenties and didn’t have a real job. The thing about the MFA is that it does give you two years when you theoretically don’t have to find work. But other than those years, I think that the apprenticeship to writing requires a lot of uncertainty.
Stephen Elliott: I think of a real job as having health insurance. That kind of thing. The kind of job you might still be thinking about after you clock out.
Sam Chang: The ideal job for a writer would give him/her insurance but he/she would NOT have to think about it when he/she is not there!
Stephen Elliott: So you don’t think the book is making a commentary on MFA programs?
Sam Chang: I didn’t write this book with the aim of making a commentary on MFA programs. For one thing, I approached the book on an entirely non-cerebral level. It was all instinctive and it had nothing to do with making any kind of pronouncements about the state of literature, the MFA, etc. I DID want to explore some questions about how it is that writers, artists, actually learn.
Stephen Elliott: All I write now are my Daily Rumpus emails. For a while I kept thinking I should be writing something else, but I kind of think you should be working on whatever is coming easiest and feels creatively satisfying.
Sam Chang: I know what you mean about writing Rumpus missives. I am currently writing lots of memos to the Dean’s office and waiting for the next book idea to sweep me away–ha. I think I’m spoiled because I WAS weirdly swept away by the process of writing this novel. It’s not always how things get written–my first novel, Inheritance, took forever and required a serious act of will.
Corey: I sometimes feel that MFA programs have churned out a bunch of slick writing with no soul or balls — is this just me?
Sam Chang: The whole question of MFA programs fascinates me. I suppose they are turning out some slick writers, but there are also some amazing writers. Also, things change. It seems to me that there’s much more aesthetic diversity now in the Iowa program than there was when I was in the program as a kid. When I was here, lots of people were writing stories along the lines of Raymond Carver.
Rayme: The choices you made about showing the extent of Lucy’s character puzzled me. She seemed the least well drawn, and you are so thoughtful about your writing, I was guessing there was a purpose. Can you talk about Lucy?
Sam Chang: Lucy is seen from Roman’s POV, so he sees her in relation to what he needs from her. Although he does care about her, he doesn’t really understand her. She’s smart and talented, but she’s the kind of person who doesn’t put her own artistic work first. Also, she married someone who takes up all the air in the room, and she can’t actually do her own work until she’s un-married. Then it all gets better for her.
Doug P: Have you ever had any conversations like the one Roman has with his student? Where she dismisses most of her school experience?
Sam Chang: I’m fascinated by how ungrateful I have been to my own teachers, and I sometimes see echoes of my own youthful lack of considerateness when I’m talking to students.
When I was a grad student, back in the dark ages, we saw our teachers as these immovable, powerful figures. Now that I’m a teacher I realize that teachers are way more vulnerable than students think.
Sunday: I’m wondering if anyone else (author included) feels nostalgic for the time when professors were towering, god-like figures and were also sleeping with at least one student per semester? I missed that period in academia, but I think it adds a little something that is sorely lacking these days.
Sam Chang: I do feel nostalgic for that time when my teachers were towering, godlike figures who made pronouncements from on high. It gave me the pleasure of watching them, and I found them fascinating and sometimes tragic.
Stephen Elliott: But there’s little in the way of guidance, I think. More like, here are a number of paths artists can take, most of them with a level of sadness that’s maybe inherent to the profession.
Sam Chang: I think that any powerful commitment, like the one Roman makes to his writing, creates a kind of solitude, and the repeated commitment can rule out so many possibilities that there’s a great deal of sadness involved over time. This is one of the primary experiences I had as I’ve gotten older: I’ve become more aware of how the choices I’ve made have sent me away from possibilities. This may sound depressing, but I don’t know how else it could have been done.
Stephen Elliott: Do you still idolize any of the people you studied under?
Sam Chang: I don’t know if I did idolize my professors. But some of my classmates did. My professors did matter to me, though. Just having them around made me feel the relief of not being responsible, not being senior. When Frank Conroy died, I found it hard to believe he was dead for the longest time, even after I got here and started directing the program.
Sarah E: How did the book go from a secret, private project to being published?
Sam Chang: The book went from a secret project to being a finished book because I found myself unable to work on my other, more respectable projects. During my Guggenheim Fellowship period, I was actually supposed to work on a completely different project called “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost.” But every time I tried to work on the official project, I fell asleep. Finally, my husband suggested that I spend just a month on AIFNIL, and that month I set up Part Two. Then I gave myself another month and wrote that horrible conversation between Roman and Miranda in Part Two, and then the scene in the parking garage between Bernard and Roman, etc.
Bill: I feel like there is something really interesting between poetry and fiction writers.
Sam Chang: I wrote about poets because it seemed to me that because they NEVER write poetry for money, their art/life choices are brought into sharp relief.
Sarah E: Werner Herzog exhorts aspiring filmmakers to do anything but go to film school. “Be a bouncer at a strip club” is one of his pieces of advice.
Isaac Fitzgerald: I was a bouncer at a biker bar and I ended up at The Rumpus. Not sure what the lesson there is…
Stephen Elliott: Any gains Isaac made by being a bouncer in a bar are outweighed by his drinking problem.
Doug P: On a different question path, as an “Official Asian-American Author,” do you feel pressure to write about the Asian or Asian-American experience? You have in the past, and was it strange/refreshing for you to break out of that with this novel? Has your family cut you off? I kid.
Sam Chang: Regarding being an Asian American writer: I think I wrote myself out with Inheritance, which took practically ten years. Then I didn’t write for a couple of years, and then this book hit me. I had this amazing feeling of expansion while I was writing it. I suspect my writing will never be the same again. I don’t know if that means I’ll be writing about different material or not. Something shifted, something opened up. It was exhilarating.
Patty: Sam, were any of the characters loosely based on people you knew/know and that was what made writing it easier?
Sam Chang: The question of whether characters were based on people I know….that question has come up. To be honest: Some of the things people say to their teachers are things I’ve heard, but I didn’t use anything I hadn’t heard from more than one person. And some of it was completely invented. The main characters….I don’t think I had any one person in mind, but I did have certain dynamics I’ve seen happen repeatedly over the years. Specifically I was interested in the mentoring of students, and how sometimes the mentor became a parental or romantic figure. The way younger writers could idolize their mentors, also, and then the seemingly inevitable falling out that had to take place in order for the younger writer to emerge.
Sarah L: One thing I noticed is that there was little discussion of the writers reading. Do your students read, are they expected to read widely and deeply?
Sam Chang: My students are wonderful readers.
Kim: What was the last book you read “for pleasure”?
Sam Chang: I am TOTALLY reading Tao Lin’s Richard Yates right now!
Stephen Elliott: Most people in the book club hated Richard Yates, but the discussion was amazing because he’s so polarizing.
Sam Chang: That’s fascinating, I mean that Richard Yates was so polarizing. I was/am particularly interested in the way he converts online chats and technology into older, more straightforward structures.
Neal: The book only fully hit me when I got to the last section. It was pleasant throughout, but I really only felt it fully at the end. Was that type of cumulative impact by design?
Sam Chang: It seemed to me that I was writing about the way I’ve sometimes become aware of something long after it was too late to do anything about it. I felt that in order for the book to work, narrative had to be “hiding in plain sight”–that is, it had to be there but the reader couldn’t know what it meant until later.
Stephen Elliott: So you always had a pretty good idea of where the book was going?
Sam Chang: I wrote fifty pages in to weeks in summer 2006. Those pages contained the dance, the scene where R goes to M’s house, the graduation scene, the fight between R and L in part two, and the last scene between R and B. So yeah, I guess I knew where I was going. But remember this is coming off of two or three years of not writing anything at all, really. So it might have been growing in there, in the dark.
Leah: Your book made me want to write again. In a way it’s reassuring to hear that other writers experience non-writing periods. Both in your book and in this discussion.
Sam Chang: Writing this book made me realize that sometimes writing comes as a complete surprise. It was one of the most reassuring and pleasurable experiences I’ve had as a writer. I try to tell myself I deserve it because I spend so much time writing memos to the Dean’s office. I even wonder, sometimes, if writing all of those memos was what enabled me to write in the third person.
Stephen Elliott: Is this your only book in the third person?
Sam Chang: Yes, this is my only book told entirely in the third person, and it’s at times in a more distant third than anything I’ve written before.
I found that switching points of view was helpful–it got me to seeing things from a different angle.
Doug P: Samantha, you mentioned earlier that there weren’t a lot of good reviews out. I thought the NY Times one was pretty good, other than completely giving away the entire plot
Sam Chang: I hope someone else writes another review.
Stephen Elliott: There’s only the NYT and the Rumpus Book Club. Nothing else really moves the needle, unless you get on some crap TV show.
Jen B: What are your hopes for the book? To be seen and appreciated as art by a few, or to achieve “quantifiable status”?
Sam Chang: At this point, my hopes for the book are that I can make it through this publication process! To write another book, I mean. Make it through with my writing self intact. The book, which was a secret project, and a pretty private project, is now out there in the world.
Stephen Elliott: Sam, I think your book is going to continue to have an impact. It really moved people so much.
Sam Chang: Thank you, Stephen…I wish I could meet all of you! I’ve been reading about your in-person book club meetings and wishing I could be there.
This interview was edited by Book Club member Susan Clements.