Panning for Gold: A Conversation with C Pam Zhang

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If there is a top-secret list of crucial writers that everyone will have read three years from now, I feel confident that C Pam Zhang will be on it. The writer of strange, speculative stories spent years working on her writerly identity and with it, her vividly written debut novel How Much of These Hills Is Gold. For months there have been murmurs about this book, about this writer, who crafts poetry in individual sentences and strings them together to rush headlong into knife-edge plot, who speaks carefully about her characters and their power and writes arrestingly about the idea of belonging.

If you’ve known where to look, her voice might be familiar. The first chapter of How Much of These Hills Is Gold was published, back when it was still a short story, in the Missouri Review, in 2017. Her short story “See it Slant” was featured in The Cut in January, adding to the toxic female friendship fiction oeuvre as we were all still processing Caroline Calloway.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a sort-of historical, sort-of speculative piece of fiction set in a sort-of northern California at the end of a sort-of recognizable gold rush. The reimagined history is the story of siblings, their dependencies, and their differences. It is ultimately an odyssey, a quest to find a small space to belong in a great big country.

It is a strange time to be launching a novel, and Zhang and I spent the first part of our telephone conversation, before we dove into the interview, talking about the uncertainty of a book tour in this fearful time of closed businesses and closed borders, and about the importance of independent booksellers (the keepers of that top-secret list) to bringing interesting words to the reading world.

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The Rumpus: Many debut novels are obviously autobiographical. The setting and time is recognizable as the writer’s own; they’re set at an MFA program. Are you purposefully subverting that by setting your novel in the past?

C Pam Zhang: The funny part about that is that prior to writing this novel I’d written quite a few short stories and in fact, most of my short fiction is set in contemporary times. A lot of it does have a speculative twist, which is true of the novel as well, but I had almost a crisis of writerly identity when I was writing this novel. “Who am I? This is utterly unlike anything I’ve written before and I can’t figure out why?”

Rumpus: You’ve said in previous interviews that you were haunted by the pressure to write a “Sad Immigrant Story” but that you’ve fought to exorcise realism about big issues from your work. But How Much of These Hills Is Gold does dwell in the big issues of an immigrant experience. Was it hard to exorcise those issues from your work altogether?

Zhang: I think that part of my journey as a writer has been a journey of self-acceptance. Of understanding that certain stories or certain themes of my life have worth. What I mean by that is, if I go all the way back to college when I took a few fiction writing classes, the stories I wrote during that time period were all painfully white. They were classic Carver or Cheever imitations. I wrote a story in which there was a middle-aged white professor who has an affair with a young white student. They were very hollow for me. I was writing beautiful sentences but I hadn’t really found my themes and I think it’s been a very slow journey to cast off my own internal desire as a writer to project whiteness and to be accepted by whiteness. Even the stance I originally had that “immigrant stories are tired and played out and not worth telling” is coming from a place of internalized self-hatred and internalized whiteness.

Rumpus: That journey of acceptance, did that have more to do with self-development or with exposure to the writing of other people, other immigrant stories and seeing how not tired, how vibrant and important those stories were?

Zhang: I think it was a combination of the two. One really formative book that I was reading in my early twenties, after I’d left college, was Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin, who is primarily known as a poet. The book is about two Chinese-American children, but it’s also sarcastic and bawdy and very visceral and kind of gross and just wild in its form, and very daring in the way it tackles these stories. It was through exposure, it was through talking to a really good friend of mine who is a Thai and American writer about this that I realized that you could tell stories that had this emotional or thematic question of immigration or belonging at their core. But that didn’t mean that you were tied down to a specific form.

Rumpus: Is this the first novel you’ve ever written? Or have there been others that were started and discarded on the way to this one?

Zhang: I have a drawer novel that I wrote before this one that will never see the light of day.

Rumpus: Who doesn’t, right? At what point in your development was that written? While a student? Before? After?

Zhang: That came after I graduated from college. The work I wrote during that time didn’t feel very good because it didn’t feel like honest work—it suffered from the same blandness as my college work, a hyperconsciousness of the white gaze. I labored over that first novel for a couple of years, on and off, and when I finally showed it to a writer friend who I trusted and got his judgement on it, it was a relief to put it away.

Rumpus: There is an intensity of attention surrounding How Much of These Hills Is Gold—it’s on a lot of lists for 2020, and deservedly so. Is that a dream come true or do you wish that, in doing this for the first time, you were rolling out more quietly?

Zhang: The funny thing is that you can’t really tell the size of the storm from inside its center. I think that every debut author, no matter what, feels the same intensity of anxiety and perplexity. There’s so much opacity in this industry and it can be so hard to tell what’s actually happening.

Rumpus: In the novel itself, the story is from the point of view of Lucy but in many ways it is about Sam, about the slow roll out of realizations about how that character came to be who they are. Why inhabit the mind of Lucy in your storytelling?

Zhang: It was important to me to have the tension between Sam and Lucy at the core of the story. I wanted to show how they have opposite survival strategies when it comes to surviving as a non-white person in America. Lucy, who is our narrator, tries to assimilate. She lives out a model minority myth. She thinks that if she can be quiet enough or pleasant enough or docile enough, she can be accepted as white. Of course that’s impossible and what we see in the book is that the attempt warps Lucy. She comes to hate herself as well as other people of color who remind her of her differences. But what this shame and self-hatred does is it physically protects her. She is comfortable, she’s safe, she’s well-clothed and well-fed for much of the book. Sam is the opposite. Sam lives out their life boldly, free of expectation, is outwardly defiant. Part of what I wanted to demonstrate through Lucy’s fixation on Sam is that Lucy, despite being physically safe and comfortable, is envious to some extent of Sam. But also, it’s hard in the book’s world to applaud Sam for being completely themself. Because that does come at the cost of Sam’s physical safety. I wanted to show how society chips away at these two characters in different ways, and that there is no perfect or right way for them to live in the world that’s set against them.

Rumpus: You’ve said in your stories that you’re interested in how women in traditionally unempowered roles can subvert these roles through acts of violence. In the novel Sam performs these acts of violence—but Lucy subverts her role in other ways—gaining power through cunning.

Zhang: I would use the word “power” carefully in this context. There are ways that Lucy sees the expectations put upon her and then sort of twists and uses those in a way. She’s backed into a corner but grabs whatever she can and makes the best of that corner. But I don’t know if I would use “power.” It is such a diminished power. It’s like telling someone that they’re going to go into a fight with a butter knife, and maybe they find a way to sharpen that butter knife, but it’s still a butter knife.

Rumpus: The book unfurls in a way that is rife with spoilers. Did you always know it would unravel this way, or did that come out in the editing?

Zhang: I always knew that the book was going to step backward in time before it stepped forward. I knew that the core of this book was going to be family secrets. I thought a lot about how it’s impossible for children to fully know their parents, and I think this is particularly true of immigrant families, where there is a break in the generations. An entire culture and world is lost. In general I believe that family members only see one another in very narrow contexts. For a daughter to imagine a father, who has only ever played out the role of father, as a young man, or a lover, or a villain—that’s a feat that I don’t think most of us are capable of.

Rumpus: So is the idea of family secrets where the writing of this novel started?

Zhang: The kernel at the heart of the novel is grief. It is really a novel about how grief deferred, as the children have to defer it in the beginning, always comes back and haunts you. I think that secrets—the secrets that we’re forever cut off from as a result of death—came after the theme of grief.

Rumpus: The structure is extremely effective in keeping the reader reading. How did you learn that technique of keeping the reader with you; was it inspired by anyone’s writing?

Zhang: I really love stories that keep something back from the reader. There’s a debate as to whether you should put everything you know as the author in the first page or whether you should work up to it. I always derive an Easter egg-y pleasure from authors that are playing deliberately with craft and structure instead of just telling the story in its most straightforward way. A key, inspirational book in my life is Beloved by Toni Morrison. I love so many things about that book, everything from the language to the intensity of emotion, but one thing I learned from it was that you can make a book compulsively readable on first read, but also make a book that offers so much on further rereads. I like books where something learned in the latter stages can cast a shadow back on the rest of the book, and make you see the events at the beginning in a different way.

Rumpus: A literary thing is so seldom paired with a story that has a page-turner quality.

Zhang: I really love plot. We live in an age where sometimes I’m ashamed to say that I love plot so much. We’re living in the age of the elegant Cusk-ian novel and don’t get me wrong, I love that, too, but I also really love a good juicy plot. There’s an internal click for me when I get both things at once: when I get the beautiful prose and I get the propulsive plot.

Rumpus: In older interviews you’ve said that food and sex are the biggest non-writing influences on your work. Is that still the case?

Zhang: That is still true. Something I’ve leaned into in the past couple of years is really putting the visceral on the page. To circle back to the question of race that we talked about, one result of my trying to write these fake white stories was that I lost the body on the page. There were stories that I wrote in college where I was afraid to use a physical description of a character because I had this very silly notion: if I don’t name the race of the character, then theoretically they could be an Asian character. It made me afraid of letting the body be inhabited in my work. Another thing that seeps through my work is that I have a great respect for and fear of the outdoors. Because of that, I’m often drawn to writing that is, not in conflict with the outdoors, but that is pushed up against it.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit more about that? What is it about the outdoors that you fear?

Zhang: It’s a lack of control. There’s this Kant-ian notion that sublime beauty comes from a vibration between pleasure and fear. And I feel that way toward the outdoors. When you go to the forests of California, for example, you go into these pristine redwoods and you stand alone and dark is coming on, and you can hear sounds all around you, and you know very viscerally in your body that you are not made for survival in this place. And however much control you have in your home, in your life, however large your professional achievements, all of that, you can be completely undone by the outdoors.

Rumpus: When you’re writing the outdoors, do you put yourself in those places that make you feel so uncomfortable or do you conjure it from imagination?

Zhang: It’s a combination of both. The landscape of this book, it isn’t named, and there’s a speculative quality to it, but it’s inspired by northern California and the American West. Those were places that were fairly formative to my young adulthood. The funny thing was, I couldn’t write about this landscape until I was living very far away from it. I wrote the first draft of this book when I was living in Bangkok. I think that distance was necessary. I think I needed to be less tied to the details and the precision of the place, and almost be able to imagine into that gap between my memory and reality. My objective was to make it an impressionistic painting and not a photograph.

Rumpus: The first chapter of this book was in the Missouri Review in 2017. That’s a long life for a book publishing in 2020. In the rewriting and the editing, how did you know when you were done?

Zhang: I tend to hold projects very close to my heart. Putting the first chapter aside, because I thought of that as a standalone short story, I didn’t show the draft of this book to any human being for years. I took the advice of Lauren Groff, who said you know when you’re done with a book when, if you were married to that book, you’re ready to divorce it. I really responded to that. I had written so many drafts; I was at the point where it was frustrating. I knew I could make a thousand changes but I no longer knew if those changes were for good or for bad. If they would make the book better or worse. I couldn’t look at it any longer. It was only at that point that I knew it was done.

Rumpus: The book that you decided was done, how different is that book from the one that is now in print?

Zhang: If you were to step back structurally, it’s the same book. It was always four parts, it always had the same emotional arc to it, I always knew what the ending was going to be, I knew what the major milestones I needed to hit were going to be. But every time I edit I have to write from scratch. So I would say that the sentences have changed pretty radically. My editor was such a joy to work with.

Rumpus: I don’t believe in asking about what you’re writing but I want to ask about what you’re reading in this very strange year. What are you reading to cope or inspire?

Zhang: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so seen in a book, in terms of the shame and mixed feelings of being Asian or Asian American in America. Luster by Raven Leilani, which is an utterly strange and beautiful book that is both very visceral and very intellectual, about a young black woman trying to find her artistic identity. Lakewood by Megan Giddings, which is so consuming and disturbed me. Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang, a smart and poignant and complicated kind of contemporary road trip novel. Temporary by Hilary Leichter, which will make you laugh and also question your existence. Godshot by Chelsea Bieker, a novel about California and survival and being an unprotected girl.

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Photograph of C Pam Zhang by Gioia Zloczower.


Eva Jurczyk is a writer and librarian living in Toronto. Her agent promises that someday, somewhere, you will be able to read her novels. Until then, find her on Twitter @msevav. More from this author →