Digging for Characters: A Conversation with Sonya Chung
Sonya Chung is the author of the novels Long for This World and, most recently, The Loved Ones. She is a staff writer for the The Millions and the founding editor of Bloom. Chung is also a recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Residency, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a Key West Literary Seminars residency. Chung’s stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Tin House, The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, Short: An International Anthology. She has taught fiction writing at Columbia University, NYU, Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and the College of Mount St. Vincent. She currently lives in New York City and teaches at Skidmore College.
The Loved Ones is an intricately crafted, mesmeric novel, and focuses on a biracial couple living in Washington, DC, in the 1980’s. Charles Lee forms a connection with the thirteen-year-old babysitter, a Korean American named Hannah Lee. When the family suffers a loss, they are forced to take another look at what ties them together, and at what might break those bonds.
We spoke through email about The Loved Ones, writing rituals, and television shows.
The Rumpus: I understand this project began after a novel that didn’t quite work out. What was the hardest part of writing The Loved Ones? Do you feel like you’ve regained your confidence?
Sonya Chung: To be honest, everything was hard. By which I mean, on the level of both craft and subject matter, the book always felt just on the threshold of impossible, but ultimately in the right way, to keep me engaged, motivated, and working with all cylinders firing.
The novel features an “ensemble cast,” so there was a lot of characterization work—a combination of really getting to know these people more deeply over time as you would any real person in life, and some research into their contexts. Narrative structure is always difficult for me, particularly the final third, so that portion (including the novel’s ending) was rewritten multiple times, all the way through to the final editing stage. That last stage may win the prize for “hardest.” I remember feeling like I’d given everything I had to these characters, and yet I knew I had to dig down for more. I want to credit the support of my publisher and editor; it’s one thing to be digging and struggling in a lonely vacuum, and another to be doing so in the context of a book’s imminent reality in the world, with a team working alongside and rooting you on. By the end, my editor Steven Bauer cared about giving the characters their due as much as I did.
The confidence question is interesting. It’s all much less traumatic in retrospect, of course, but to my best recollection, it was an absolute confidence catastrophe for about six weeks—intensely and existentially demoralizing. Then, I sat down to start working on something new, and while I began tepidly and modestly—with the character of Hannah, who was familiar in her basic form (about my age in the mid 80s, in suburban DC where I grew up)—I was also hearing a narrative voice in my ear that felt interesting and exciting. Once I was in the work, even though I was unclear where it was heading, questions of confidence receded. For me, being a novelist means foremost cultivating that immersion: as long as I’m absorbed in a world and a project that have some “juice,” that’s all I need.
Rumpus: I’ve read that you try to stay off the Internet until you’ve done the bulk of your writing for the day. This is something I try to do also, but it’s so tough! I wonder if you can articulate why this helps so much?
Chung: Ah, I’ve let this slide since The Loved Ones came out, but it’s a good reminder to get back to it!
It’s really just about noise in one’s head. I need a lot of mental space to roam around the universe of my fictional world. My mind is very susceptible to busy-brain distractions; all it takes is one email or news story and the whole thing—my focus—goes off the rails. I think Nicholson Baker has talked about keeping the lights off in the morning, so he can transition “from dream to dream,” a semi-trance state that flows directly into the writing.
It’s also about feeding the fire and stamina: I write one day at a time, and I need to put together days that feel productive, mini victories. If something substantive has happened on the page by noon, then it’s a good day, the rest is gravy come what may. A succession of those good days makes for the quality and content of life I’m aiming for.
Rumpus: I’m the same way, with distractions. It’s good to have that sensitivity—the way your mind can obsess or absorb a story in the news, for instance, but this makes it tough for me at least to allow new input to be a part of the process while also staying focused. I love the idea of keeping the lights off. I’ll have to try that.
I was listening to your interview with Brad Listi for the Otherppl podcast, where you said that Hannah was the most difficult character for you to write. How so?
Chung: Hannah, by intention, is a kind of mystery. She is shaped by a charged, but muted, childhood environment, and the loneliness of that was familiar to me. But she is also lucid and brave—remarkably so for a teenager—and I found it challenging to render the textures of an emotional makeup that doesn’t resemble much of what we tend to see, in either life or literature. I knew that she was kind of strange: she reacts to people and events in her own very particular way, and that strangeness was important to me; but also thus difficult to hone just so.
And I worried a little about “the average reader,” aka contemporary cultural forces. I think young people are considered and treated younger and younger, i.e. adolescence extends into what used to be adulthood. I’m not a fan of that trend, and I suspected there might be readerly resistance to a portrayal of a young girl who is as self-possessed and unconventional as Hannah. I had to quiet those concerns and go forth.
Rumpus: Were you often lonely as a child?
Chung: I was. We had some difficult, chaotic stuff going on in our family, and somehow we all coped by isolating ourselves from each other, even as young children. I did have friends and playmates, I guess, but when I think of childhood, it feels muted and watery, and sad. I lived inside my head a lot, remote from things. The upside of that is I learned how to be alone, to be comfortable and alive in solitude, and that of course is crucial to the writer’s temperament.
Rumpus: What’s the best stress relief for you, as you’re working on a large project? Do you have any writing rituals?
Chung: I’m a walker. I walk and walk and walk, and not only does that relieve stress physically, but my best creative processing happens while walking as well. It’s a crucial post-writing ritual, very integrating, and why I am a forever city-dweller: I need walking to be a part of my daily life. Sometimes when I walk I listen to audiobooks—this is how much of my pleasure reading happens, and that relieves stress too—and podcasts, which keep me learning about interesting things and people in the world.
In spurts, I also bake: breads and sweets, etc. (I went through a croissant-making phase, but that’s mostly over.) I’m health conscious, but I’m never going to cut out carbs and sweets, so if I’m going to eat them, I like being the one calibrating the ingredients.
Lastly, I watch a lot of TV. Other people read trashy novels to escape; I watch TV, and some of it is trashy, but there is also so much good TV these days. Serial dramas are complex and compelling, so I get to relieve stress and learn about character and story structure and dialogue all at the same time. (I also really like Jeopardy.)
Rumpus: I’ve been watching a lot of TV myself lately—which does feel both relaxing and semi-productive in terms of inviting the brain to process stories—and find that I have very particular taste. I’ll binge-watch shows like the Real World or Parenthood, but wouldn’t waste five minutes watching South Park or The Big Bang Theory. Are you looking for certain things in the TV you watch? Which kinds of shows do you gravitate towards?
Chung: Sometimes TV is for unwinding and/or allowing my brain to be passive. Jeopardy is fun for that, as is The Voice, which I also love for its earnest populism. Empire is another fave in the unwinding category; Taraji Henson kills it as Cookie, and beyond all the delicious bling and melodrama and music, I think that show is doing some groundbreaking things.
I also watch a lot of dramatic series of the “prestige” variety, as they say—I’m currently absorbed in the new season of Homeland, loved The Crown and Atlanta, eagerly await new seasons of House of Cards and Billions, and was a fan of Mad Men and Breaking Bad and The Night Of. Three series that I’ve watched backwards and forwards more times than I care to admit, and from which I can recite dialogue, are The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and The West Wing. And I guess the common denominator there is dialogue that’s incredibly sharp and hits the ear like music.
VICE News has newly become part of the daily routine and is fast-becoming my favorite news source.
Rumpus: And which podcasts do you listen to?
Chung: For many years, my daily news came from podcasting NPR’s Tell Me More with Michel Martin; when the show was cancelled last year, I was bereft. One’s trusted news sources is a sacred thing. I do still listen to a daily five-minute NPR news update, as well as the World Story of the Day and Codeswitch. Lit Hub recently did a fantastic feature in which popular podcasters recommended their own favorite podcasts: I took away from those recommendations Kirsty Young’s Desert Island Discs and KCRW/The Believer’s The Organist, both of which I love; and there are more on that list I want to check out. Brad Listi and Daniel Ford both were kind enough to feature me on their literary podcasts, and they do great in-depth author interviews.
Rumpus: You’re currently working on your next novel. Can you talk a little bit about what this one is about?
Chung: The main character is an art historian of mixed race who, through a series of events, becomes the sole arbiter of materials that could break open scholarship and expose historical figures in shocking, important ways. She has decisions to make about what to do with said materials—has her own personal stakes to weigh against broader ones and is forced to ask whether exposure at all costs is the job of a scholar. She is also navigating complicated relationships—familial, romantic—and these are really the crucibles of her story.
I’m interested in exploring the collisions and conflicts of art, politics, and life, and looking freshly (hopefully) at the age-old debate of art’s relevance/irrelevance through these characters, the choices they face, and the art that impassions them.
Author photograph © Robin Holland.