A Funny Inevitability: In Conversation with Siel Ju
Siel Ju’s seductive debut novel-in-stories, Cake Time, reads at first like a memoir, capturing painfully awkward moments in modern dating, like the feigned indifference of asking a partner if they have been monogamous. Her observations are so jarringly accurate at times, the reader can’t help but wonder how much of the novel is autobiographical.
Cake Time’s girly cover and Ju’s cheery public persona both belie a serious author with a nuanced slant. Her provocative first novel tackles emotionally thorny ‘gray areas’ that women often negotiate privately for fear of judgment. Think falling for a married man, and the tenuous divide between self-empowerment and loathing.
While readers may confuse Ju with the book’s unsentimental protagonist, the real Siel Ju is a down-to-earth literature professor whose lighthearted stories carry a deeper motive—of giving voice to emotions that many will recognize. The author often says what the reader is thinking. At one point, her narrator reflects on a friend’s “drunken hookup habit, each tryst followed by despondence then resentment”—an observation the Tinder-generation will surely appreciate.
The author of two previous chapbooks, it is obvious that Ju enjoys words. At one point, she describes her character’s roommate as having “the sodden air of someone who’d found a tenuous contentment on Paxil.”
I caught up the author by phone and email to discuss Cake Time, the difference between our online selves and real-life selves, and who she hopes will read and be touched by her work.
The Rumpus: So why did you decide to make the second story, Cake Time, the title of the book?
Siel Ju: I feel like Cake Time sounds very festive, happy, and girly. It sounded vaguely chick lit, and I like that it contrasted with the mood of a lot of stories. There are cheerful or light moments, but I think overall the mood is slightly different. I felt like the juxtaposition of the cheeriness of cake with the moodiness of a lot of the stories reflected a coming of age, in a way.
Rumpus: How does it feel to have Cake Time be launched from winning the Red Hen Press Fiction Manuscript Award two years ago, and now to be judging the Flash Fiction Award?
Ju: I’m excited about it. It’s kind of funny because when I won the award, I didn’t think about it so much as winning an award as getting a chance to get published. I mean, they go hand in hand, but when I won the award, I didn’t think, “Oh, I won the award.” I thought more like “Okay, someone is finally going to publish this. The first time someone described me in an intro as an award-winning writer, I was like, “What is he talking about?” I had no idea! So it’s been cool.
Rumpus: Did you always know you wanted to write?
I kind of wish I could say yes, I always wanted to write, but more accurately, I’d say I’ve always written, though the form has varied over the years, from just passively journaling for myself, to actively writing in hopes of publication.
I think I write as a way of organizing my thoughts and understanding my own feelings. In that sense, writing is something I have to do, to cope with life or to feel like I’m learning from it, and making some sort of “progress.”
Rumpus: Why did you decide to go back for a doctorate in literature?
Ju: I was an English major in college. At that time, my professor who taught poetry was very encouraging. I feel like that was the primary reason why I decided to pursue poetry then. I ended up going to grad school without really a plan. I worked for a year after college and didn’t love the corporate world. So I decided to go back to school. At that time, I just had vague ideas about having time to write. I didn’t really have a long-range plan, or even shorter-term goals. I went into it the way I went into undergrad, because it seemed like the logical thing to do. I focused on poetry there.
Rumpus: How did you go from poetry to writing a novel?
Ju: After I graduated, I felt like even in the periods when I was focusing on poetry more, I was very disconnected in a lot of ways. There’s so few people who read poetry. And I was also writing the kind of poetry that wasn’t particularly accessible. The kind of the things maybe ten people would like. I felt more and more like I was just writing for myself, which was kind of lonely.
At the same time, I was watching a lot of Mad Men and Dexter. At a certain point, I thought, this whole time I’ve been writing poetry and been averse to narrative, as if the poetry I was writing was a higher art form or something. But obviously I love narrative if I love these TV shows. It’s something that speaks to me. All of those things combined made me want to try writing more fiction. So I switched them.
Rumpus: Your protagonist is a freelance writer who grapples with the “chirpy” environmentalist she appears to be online, and the somewhat more unsentimental person she is in real life. You used to blog about environmental living, and even sleeping with an eye mask on like your character in Cake Time does. Was this part of the story confessional? Are you as eco-conscious in real life as you present yourself online, or does some of that come from the outlets you write for?
Ju: I think when I was writing about eco-friendly living, I actually was living in a more eco-friendly manner. It wasn’t so much that my lifestyle clashed, so that’s different from what’s portrayed in the novel. It’s more the sense that my online tone, and even the tone of voice I have in my novel, is very different than how I act in real life, and how I think in my head.
On Twitter or Instagram, I use a lot of exclamation points, and generally have a cheerier tone. In real life, I’m not talking in exclamations all the time. On social media, I will start with “Friends!” I don’t walk up to my friends and say, “Friends! How are you?” When you step back, you realize someone could have a very different sense of me if all they knew me through was social media, than they would if they met me in person. I also feel like there is a difference between the way I think and feel, and how I act externally. I don’t think I’m being fake. The two are just different aspects of myself.
Rumpus: Do you worry that given some of the similarities between you and the protagonist, some people might over-identify the narrator as you, and interpret Cake Time as more autobiographical than it is?
Ju: I wouldn’t say worry; I feel like it’s inevitable. Even already, when I’m giving a reading, I’ll get questions like, “So when you were doing this…” And I have to remind them that it’s fiction. I guess I’m not so much worried as seeing it as a funny inevitability.
Rumpus: In one chapter, you say the woman at the clinic is speaking very slowly, and your character wonders if she looks English-illiterate. In another, she sees her date flirt with a Japanese girl and realizes the guy had a ‘type.’ As a fellow Asian-American woman, I always find that race plays so much in how other people relate to me even when I don’t want it to. Have you found that to be true in your life, and did it inform how you wrote this character?
Ju: I remember, long ago, Margaret Cho had this part where she talks about how sometimes she forgets she’s Asian, and is just living her life until something happens that reminds her. I think that’s how I would describe my experience. It’s not so much I’m walking around feeling guarded because people are looking at me through the lens of my Asian-ness.
I’m lucky in many ways, because I live in Los Angeles, on the West side, so I have the luxury of being able to forget. I’m not walking around thinking about what people think of me because I’m Asian. But inevitably things will happen that remind you, and I wanted to portray that in the novel. I think for a good number of people of color, it’s not like every moment is taken up with thoughts about race. But though there are moments when you forget, once in a while, you are reminded.
There are a lot of books that explicitly deal with issues of race, and then you have a lot of books that almost seem unaware of race in a way. I feel like for a lot of people, the process is somewhat in-between. It’s not like every day, they’re waking up and dealing with all these racial issues. At the same time, it’s still a part of your life.
Rumpus: Your writing has such a vivid realism to it, part of which I think is a very blunt this-happens-then-this-happens rhythm, coupled with powerful imagery. I loved when you said “the moment tensed, then tore, leaving each of us with a jagged half.” I mean, that’s just poetry. How do you go about trying to make real life come alive in your writing?
Ju: I feel like the flat tone is the easiest way to write in a way for me. It’s closer to how I experience life, where there’s a series of actions that just happen. It’s interesting because one of the designs I had was to communicate very specific emotions. Some of these emotions many women have are unique to being a teenager, or in your mid-twenties, or in your early thirties. Oddly, I feel like it was helpful to have a flatter tone, where the emotions come out inevitably, even when you’re just doing one thing, then the next thing, then the next thing.
Rumpus: You do a great job of capturing the experience of a young woman growing up in, and fumbling through this treacherous modern world, where historically we never had the sexual, professional, geographical and other freedoms girls enjoy today. Was that part of the message you were trying to capture with Cake Time?
Ju: I think one thing that happens in the novel is that in the first story, the character is growing up in a home that is very not wealthy, with a single parent. Then by the end, she’s a relatively successful freelancer with a lot of freedom in terms of how she can spend her time and money. And yet she doesn’t really reflect that much on how her life has changed or the privileges she’s been able to accrue.
It’s interesting because you hear all these stories about people who fought great odds to reach where they are today. Obama, for example. You hear many stories of people moving here as immigrants, or were born here but from impoverished beginnings. Yet, in their day to day lives, they may not dwell on their histories much. I feel like we learn to take privileges for granted very quickly. Hopefully some of that comes across, where we can change so much over the course of just thirty years or so, and yet almost not even register that change on a conscious level very frequently.
Rumpus: One theme I noticed in the book was women staying with guys who don’t treat them well. It’s something I’ve observed in my own life. Women are doing all these empowering things, having great careers and taking care of themselves. At the same time, many of us allow casual cruelty from men—perhaps because of self-esteem, loathing, or more shallow reasons like money. Do you see this as a problem among women? Or do you just think it’s the growing pains of coming into your own?
Ju: I do see it as a problem and one of the places I felt it was really a problem was around college age. And the high school years are not much better. I think often in the formative years of a young woman’s life, there are a lot of societal rules, or expected ways of being, that disempower young women. They’re repeatedly given the message that they have to settle for what they can get. And because of that, even as they get older, the message has by then been ingrained for many women. Even though they are no longer in that disempowering setting, they keep repeating that pattern, because they’ve come to believe that is what they can expect and they deserve. The problem, in terms of setting, which young girls at that age can’t control, begins early. And then it takes time for a lot of women to realize, “Oh wait, I’m not in that setting anymore. I have to do things differently, and set different expectations for myself” and this unlearning process has to take place.
Of course when you get older and you are out of those settings you do have to take responsibility for acting differently. All of that said, while I have a lot of friends, and can relate to putting myself in disempowering situations, or feeling that it’s a pattern, I also do have friends who were never like that. Who for whatever reason had very different experiences with dating. I think part of it is things that happen before that, how you grew up, or what lessons you were taught by your parents.
Rumpus: That’s almost material for a second book. A self-help book.
Ju: Well, there are plenty of those. It’s more like finding the right ones. But it’s weird, too. This is something I’ve talked about with girlfriends. Even those of us who think most of our friends are like this, there are probably people we can point to and say, well, she never experienced the same thing. How did she escape? Usually there are some commonalities, like really good fathers, that kind of thing.
Rumpus: On the note of a second book, are you working on anything new, and do you see your sticking with the format of novel-to-stories?
Ju: I’m working on a “novel” novel. I wrote a first draft, but it needs a complete rewrite I haven’t really tackled yet. And I have some vague plans for a book of nonfiction essays. Those two ideas are duking themselves out in my head. I feel like I barely have time to pursue one. One challenge is that I have a lot more ideas than I have time for. Sometimes I expend all my energy trying to figure out which idea, instead of actually working on one.
Rumpus: I know that feeling. It seems to be a common freelance writer problem.
Ju: Do you freelance full-time?
Rumpus: Not exactly. Writing’s not especially lucrative to begin with, and at the beginning it’s particularly lean, so I related to your narrator doing temp work. I know that mental relief sometimes of not having to use your brain creatively and just be paid to do something menial. You were a freelance writer for a couple of years. As a creative, do you sometimes relish the balance of that ‘productive’ feeling from a normal job, with the freewheeling of creative pursuits?
Ju: I definitely ruminated a lot more when I was younger. Or obsessed, or worried, all those negative thought patterns that you kind of left you unproductive. The feeling I was trying to capture was an escape from all those thoughts in a way. My own current job isn’t an example of a job that would allow for that.
Rumpus: What’s a typical day for you now?
Ju: If you ask about my schedule right now, it’s been a little bit crazy since the book came out. There’s preparing and going to these events, but also a lot of little things that come up. It’s all been fun. I just haven’t been in my regular rhythm. In general, I wake up at 6 a.m., I journal and eat breakfast and meditate, then do a short workout. Ideally, I’m writing 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and then I get ready to teach. Then after I teach, it’s more social stuff.
Rumpus: Can you tell me a little about your writing process? Do you have a nook, somewhere you go to write?
Ju: When the writing time happens, it ends up being a combo of sitting at my dining table hand-writing to figure things out, or just get through the resistance to starting to write “for real,” then sitting at a desk and actually adding words to a project on my laptop.
Rumpus: Most of these stories were written in first person, but you switch it up a couple times. For example, the first chapter is in second person. Then “Locusts of Desire” is written as almost a diary. Were those conscious decisions, or would you say your style is more like, as Stephen King would say, ‘uncovering the fossil’ of a story that already exists in your brain?
Ju: I feel like that was more a function of process. At the beginning, I was just writing random stories without really thinking about a collection. At a certain point, I realized it would be a really tough sell if I just had a dozen completely random stories in a literary market that strongly favors novels, where it’s so difficult to publish even great short story collections.
At that point I thought, “Okay, why don’t I see if I can find some commonalities to put a more cohesive collection together. A bunch of them didn’t actually have the same protagonist, but I could edit them so that they did. The two stories you mentioned were a couple of those. The stories I ended up adding, I just chose to write in first-person versus going for more style. So it was kind of accidental in a way.
Rumpus: How much planning do you do in your short story writing? Do you usually know how it will end when you write it, or let it go where it will?
Ju: For short stories, I don’t do that much planning. Usually I have a sense of two things I’d like to “clash,” basically, a conflict. Sometimes I have a vague sense of the ending, but usually not, which maybe explains why, when I get feedback on my stories from my writerly friends, I generally get the comment that the ending could be better. Then I usually revise it.
I’ve also discovered that this almost-no-planning thing isn’t working so well with writing a novel, which is what I’m working on now. I feel like I’ll need to completely change my writing process to write a successful novel.
Rumpus: Who do you hope will read and be touched by this book?
Ju: With Cake Time, I was really trying to capture very specific emotional spaces, most of them specific to particular phases in a girl-woman’s life. So I hope there are girls and women who read this book and remember or recognize those emotions in a visceral way.
Of course, I hope men enjoy this book too! At the last AWP, a guy bought Cake Time after reading the first line of one of the stories: “It happened the summer I joined Match.com.” He said he knew then the book was for him. Fingers crossed that it lived up to his expectations.
Rumpus: You ended the novel on this note of uncertainty with the character in this common adult situation, with someone who doesn’t want to define the relationship. And your main character is suppressing an urge to laugh at life’s absurdity. How did you decide that was where you wanted to end the novel?
Ju: I think I wanted to leave it like a continuing journey, because real life doesn’t have neat tied up ends. Chick lit generally ends with a happy ending of the girl gets the guy, so I wanted this book to be somewhat in contrast to that. I wanted the sense that she had learned something, but that there are other things that are not learnable in a way, because life isn’t over.
Author photograph © Rachael Warecki.