Attempting to write about the experience of reading Chia-Chia Lin’s debut novel, The Unpassing, is like trying to describe listening to a masterfully rendered performance of Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt. The composition features a piano and violin in the most excruciating and yearning of conversations. Both works—Lin’s and Pärt’s—engage with loss, and both provide an encounter with agonizing beauty.
The novel is narrated by ten-year-old Gavin who, after contracting meningitis at school, awakens from a weeklong coma to learn that the illness has killed his younger sister. What happens when young children grieve a sibling? How do bereaved parents nurture their surviving children? Where is home when no one understands you? Even as Lin’s book explores these devastating questions, her magnificent prose builds an unflinching and ultimately endearing portrait of each character.
Chia-Chia Lin has an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received the Henfield Prize. Her short stories have appeared in the Paris Review, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, Zyzzyva, and other journals.
Lin and I recently corresponded via email about her writing process, her close call with the Alaskan mudflats, and finding delight in the small things.
The Rumpus: Perhaps because our guide for this book is ten years old, issues such as mental health and the grieving process are dealt with implicitly, and maybe even peripherally, and yet, we see each family member struggling and suffering through his eyes. Can you talk about how you went about keeping such a limited point of view?
Chia-Chia Lin: It was hard! I vowed never to write from the point of view of a child again, at least not a sustained one like this. It places real constraints on how you explore the world you’ve created. Also, the voice of a child always threatens to consume the whole work. At the same time, of course, constraints can be good—they force new doors to open—and I did often find pleasure in this. But I always felt very restricted. Children are tricky. You don’t want to veer into the “precious,” if you know what I mean.
Rumpus: I think you balanced it expertly. The retrospective point-of-telling elevates the voice, for sure.
Well into the novel, I began to notice subtle areas where the narrator Gavin’s point of view is so close, the result is that he withholds information. One example is when the family straightened the house for a visitor. It wasn’t until then that I realized how cluttered their home was. Of course I hadn’t seen the clutter because Gavin was used to it. In that sense, he’s almost unreliable, but not quite. Do you think of him as an unreliable narrator?
Lin: I guess the way I see it, all narrators are unreliable in some sense. When we tell stories, we’re constantly choosing which details to share, and our omissions and angled approaches reveal our defenses, vulnerabilities, and assumptions. If there isn’t any tension at all between what a character is saying and what he actually thinks or knows, then I’d worry that character is oversimplified or flattened.
Rumpus: Other than the child’s point of view, did you use any other constraints as you wrote the book? Can you talk about unexpected doors that opened as a result?
Lin: I think any choice you make that needs to be sustained through an entire novel will begin to feel like a constraint. Even something as simple as the first person point of view. For the reasons we just discussed, there are a lot of restrictions that prevent you from simply writing whatever the hell you want: Is this something the narrator would notice? Would he notice it in this way? If he wouldn’t notice it at this moment, is there a way to get this into the story elsewhere? This is a clumsy example, but in the novel, I wanted to describe what had happened in a legal settlement conference that Gavin, a ten-year-old child, wouldn’t have attended. So I had his sister tell the story to him. That story, I realized, would have to be told at a slant, so I had his father tell his version of the story in a later chapter as well. And the two versions turned out to be more interesting to me than a single “straight” telling.
Rumpus: Actually, that’s a great example. I just reread both the sister’s and the father’s accounts of the meeting, and—I’m being vague to avoid spoilers—each telling reveals not only character, but also their emotional states. And as you mentioned, their omissions add to the tension.
Shifting gears, in the opening chapter, the youngest daughter, four-year-old Ruby, dies of meningitis. One of the ways the parents’ grief is portrayed is through their lapses in care-taking of their three surviving children. Examples of this range from the trivial, such as foregone haircuts, to more serious matters like physical safety. Gavin hasn’t only lost his little sister, he’s lost essential parts of his parents. Although this family is fictional, I imagine it was painful to follow them through their grief. How did you cope?
Lin: It’s true, there is something not exactly healthy about being immersed in a tragedy, however fictional, and returning to that space in your mind every day for years. But I don’t have a lot of self-preservation instincts when writing (I do have many in life). I will say that I think it helps to be interested in delight when you are writing about grief. I know the events of my novel are not objectively happy; there is death and financial ruin. But there are also moments where the narrator is captivated by small things—the way his friend chews on spruce branches, the color of a hat, the way potatoes grow below ground. The point is not to balance out the darker circumstances, at least not for me, or to insert happiness, but to allow space for other kinds of observations. Even the appearance of a well-shaped mushroom in the woods can be delightful.
Rumpus: Oh yes. I love the way you put this, “interested in delight.” There’s so much wisdom in this idea of “allowing space.” One of the remarkable things about the potato scene for me is Gavin’s empathy. He says of the potatoes, “I shivered at the thought of them growing in the ground, enlarging, quiet and unseen…” Meanwhile his mother says, “What have they been doing all this time instead of growing?” It’s at once funny and poignant. And the comment is so indicative of her character.
Lin: Haha, yes, Gavin is flabbergasted by the idea that you can chop up a potato, bury it, and then dig up newly grown potatoes, while for his mother, it’s possible no potato could ever grow big enough.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the mother. Her actions are striking from the very first page. To say she’s multifaceted is an understatement. During the course of the novel, we see how resourceful she is. She’s adventurous and brave. She’s a scavenger and a survivor. How did her character emerge?
Lin: Placing her in new situations allowed dormant aspects of her character to come out. She’s an immigrant, of course, and that circumstance by itself is one that forces you to improvise and use what you have in new ways. She’s also found herself in an environment that on its face seems like an utter contrast to her home village. Then there’s the death of a child. And financial concerns. I think these pressures force her to dig deep, though I don’t think everyone responds this way to pressures, and in fact the father does not.
Rumpus: Your control of atmosphere on every page is masterful. The result is a sentence-by-sentence, insightful beauty. I particularly love the way you anthropomorphize natural elements to convey meaning. At one point, Gavin thinks, “It seemed to me the woods wanted something of us. And the farther you went into the woods, the bigger that thing was, and the more intensely it was wanted.” At what phase of the writing process do layers like this show up for you?
Lin: Those sentences were probably there from the first draft. It has to do with the way I write, which is, I think, not very artistic. I can’t move on to the next paragraph until I’ve rewritten the previous one so many times there’s no meaning left for me when I read it. So writing a first draft (whether it’s a story or novel) is extremely laborious and not particularly pleasant, and neither am I. But that’s when most of the layering happens. It happens when you’re working that same little block of text over and over—if it doesn’t fall apart, it gets more complex. For me, the next drafts involve a lot of cutting and reordering, which are more enjoyable. God, I love to slash things.
Rumpus: That sounds perfectly artistic to me. Do you save what you slash? Have the cuttings grown new projects?
Lin: Actually, some of the descriptions of the mother’s seaside village were saved from an old and terrible novel I otherwise trashed.
Rumpus: How did you know the trashed novel was “terrible”? Or, put another way, how was writing The Unpassing different from your experience with the earlier work?
Lin: I guess I knew because it was too easy to let the other novel go. I took a break from it and didn’t feel a real urgency to return. Also, I don’t think the characters were complex enough; maybe that’s why they didn’t keep my attention.
Rumpus: There’s recurring imagery of outer space and stars in the book. The father liked to declare that his reason for moving the family to Alaska was to be closer to the stars. The inciting incident coincides with the tragic space shuttle Challenger disaster. Later, Gavin reflects, “The idea of space gave me a spinning feeling; it was too big and unbounded, and the more I tried to believe in it, the more I believed in nothing.” How did this element arise?
Lin: Though I don’t actually know much about astronomy, I like people who like it. My husband is an aerospace engineer, and I’ve noticed there’s a thread of optimism or innocence in people who are captivated by space exploration, and it’s a part of them that can never be disillusioned. A part of you remains a child who wants nothing more than to fly.
In the first version of my novel, Gavin became obsessed with microscopic things, while his father was transfixed by a more colossal scale of things. For various reasons this contrast fell through, but Gavin’s opposition to his father’s space yearnings remained, so there are several sentiments in the book like the one you quoted, and I think they offer a counterweight.
Rumpus: Absolutely. Despite the crisis they’re going through, the father’s temperament as a dreamer remains apparent. Gavin’s relationship with him is such a complex and vital part of the book. As you developed their scenes, did their interactions ever surprise you? If so, how?
Lin: The first scenes I ever wrote were full of antagonism between Gavin and his father, and as I wrote more and more pages, their relationship developed into something gentler. Usually it’s the other way around—I layer on the conflict as I go—but here something intrigued me when I took the conflict away to see what might be hiding beneath it. Now there are moments when Gavin looks at his father and sees his failures and shortcomings and feels a kind of quiet recognition.
Rumpus: You’ve done an exceptional job of capturing the intricacies of Gavin’s relationship with each of his family members.
What drew you to writing a book set in Alaska? Two of the most riveting scenes in the book take place at the mudflats. How did you learn about them?
Lin: A decade and a half ago, I lived for a summer in Anchorage and spent much of it meandering the Coastal Trail, where you can gaze upon the mudflats. It looks like a beach, but instead of sand it’s made up of silt—particles of mountains dislodged by glaciers and deposited by rivers. The mudflats often look very smooth, like wet clay. It’s a gorgeous and complicated landscape, and one that is representative of the Alaska that I experienced: beauty, expansiveness, danger. (The locals are full of dire warnings about the flats.) Once, while backpacking along a river in the interior, I became stuck in glacial silt—it operates like quicksand—and it was terrifying.
Rumpus: Oh my gosh. How did you get out?
Lin: I probably owe that to my friend. She somehow had the presence of mind to call out instructions—simple stuff like staying calm and lying flat, which I already knew but couldn’t quite access in my panic. Probably (hopefully) we would have survived anyway. But I think it’s also a good thing we did not flail around excessively.
Rumpus: A very good thing!
Lin: Actually, the novel’s cover, which I love, depicts mudflats. June Park, the cover designer, offered two versions of the flats—one was brown, and one was blue and white. I opted for blue and white because I found it more striking, though I also realize now that it might look more like water than mudflats. I don’t mind that abstractness, especially since water is also important to my book.
Rumpus: Yes, I see what you mean. Park’s design is beautiful and works well with the content. That reminds me, your watercolor representations of book covers appeared last summer in the Paris Review. They are so much fun. Has painting ever been a part of your writing process?
Lin: Last year, after I’d just had a baby, I didn’t have the mental capacity to write for a while, so instead I started painting silly things related to books—kind of like doodling. I think it helped me hang on to a little sanity until I was able to write again. I don’t want to overstate it. I’m not a visual artist or anything! I don’t know what I’m doing.
Rumpus: They’re delightful! What are you working on now?
Lin: Too early to say out loud. I can tell you what it’s not: narrated by a child, set in or near wilderness, a story about immigrants. I hope it will be funny. I’m also thinking about plot, for once. Basically, I want it to be as different from this book as possible.
Rumpus: Can you say more about how your approach to plot is different this time?
Lin: Well, my main fixation will always be character over plot. But I hope to think through the events of the story more completely at the outset this time. I’m not sure if it’s possible, or if I’m the sort of writer who has to discover what happens as I go, but if it is possible I’d like to do it because I’m stupidly hopeful it will spare some of the writing pain.
Photograph of Chia-Chia Lin by F. Yang.