The Rumpus Book Club chats with Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn about her debut essay collection, A Fish Growing Lungs (Burrow Press, June 2020), form vs. content, how teaching has changed her writing, and more.
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. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Lauren J. Sharkey, Matthew Salesses, Alison Stine, Beth Alvarado, Jenny Hval, Mattilda B. Sycamore, Randa Jarrar, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Alysia Sawchyn about her debut essay collection, A Fish Growing Lungs!
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: Hi, everyone! Thanks for having me.
Marisa: Thanks for joining us, Alysia. How’s your, um, weekend going? (It’s so strange now to ask these once-normal “how’s it going” questions…)
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: Hah. What a time. On Friday, I was part of a planning meeting regarding social distancing measures for fall 2020; yesterday, I went downtown here in DC and saw people just eating! food! in! restaurants!
So I guess it’s going well? I have health, and health insurance, and also a job that allows me the flexibility to participate in protests and giving donations…
Marisa: It’s truly bizarre. I haven’t been beyond my yard in three-plus months. People are mostly still social distancing around us (Westchester, just north of NYC) and things are just starting to reopen a bit this week.
What’s it been like to have your first book come out right now? Are you finding ways to celebrate the book being out in the world? It feels like a minute ago we were at AWP and Ryan Rivas, publisher of Burrow Press, gave you the news about the book! And it also feels like twenty years ago, at the same time.
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: Time has turned into a giant slinky. At least, that’s how it feels to me.
Marisa: Ooh, that’s a good metaphor; I haven’t heard that one yet. Time is definitely getting weird.
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: I’ve had a number of events/opportunities get canceled because of the pandemic. It was absolutely the right decision, and it also sucks.
In general, i’m getting better at “holding opposing feelings” or however that quote goes. Like, I am so grateful that i still have a job! I also wish that the job search I was on wasn’t canceled!
Marisa: I am… still working on holding opposing feelings together.
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: “My cat” took over my press’s Instagram this week in celebration, which was a “fun” pandemic thing we planned and in light of recent events I used that platform to make reading lists of Black authors by genre.
I’ve also asked people to send me photos of my book in the world, which has been nice. I’m planning on sharing those with their location (city, not like, personal addresses) once I get a few more.
Also, I’m really looking forward to the chat with Kaveh Akbar on Wednesday!
Marisa: I love that! And I’m so looking forward to Wednesday, too!
So, let’s give this brilliant first book its deserved attention: When did you start writing the essays that appear in A Fish Growing Lungs? How did the collection come together as a whole?
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: The first essay i wrote for that book was back in 2014ish! At the time, I didn’t know that it was going to be part of a book; it was just something that I’d written. Flash forward a few years, and I heavily revised that essay (think: I kept two sentences) into “An Apology.”
The collection came together in part because a) I was in an MFA program and needed a thesis; it’s not the most glamorous answer, but a true one.
But then b) I really love essay collections and also linked short stories. I find that essay collections tend to vary widely in terms of their connectivity, and so my idea was “linked essays.”
And c) the theme of the book, the misdiagnosis, came in late 2015. Once I had the theme, I started writing work that specifically lined up with/was part of that theme.
Marisa: How did you decide on the arrangement of essays? Even in a linked collection (or maybe especially) ordering seems like something I might spend months on!
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: It’s very loosely in chronological order. Like… the first third of the book spends the most time in-scene in the past. The middle section spends the most time in like 2010ish range. And then the end spends the most present in the “recovering” stage. So, even though I intentionally didn’t write a straight chronological memoir, I still leaned on the form for organizing. I also tried to mix up the more narrative and experimental essays.
Marisa: Were there other books and/or writers you looked to who do this kind of work with form in creative nonfiction?
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: Absolutely! In terms of writing about mental health: Emily Fox Gordon. Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted is actually fairly experimental. I’d seen the movie back in high school (of course), but didn’t read the book until my MFA.
Marisa: I love that book and movie, both of which I encountered in high school.
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: The bit about Polly always gets me. Every time.
Marisa: How do you choose what to reveal to the public about yourself and your life? Is anything categorically off limits?
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: There are definitely things off limits in terms of other people’s lives—their traumas, their illnesses. In terms of my life? There are definitely things I left out of the book, but on the whole, the biggest subject I tiptoed around was family.
I think many people in close relationships (of any kind) have different interpretations of what their relationship is comprised of. Think Fates and Furies (minus the chaos). And conflict often occurs when those contradicting interpretations are brought to light. I’m not saying this is healthy! But I am saying that there is some peace I would like to keep.
I was talking to a former student yesterday and he was asking about my experiences with college, and I told him that I’d failed out the first time I went. When he asked why, I answered, “drugs.” He blinked very hard at that, but I don’t do drugs anymore, and I think one of the things I can do with the privilege I have of being employed as an instructor is to take down some stigmatizing ideas.
It’s also easier because I’m far away from it all. I feel stable and secure. Also—i feel like a misdiagnosis has different implications than a diagnosis, both from a storytelling and from a “revealing my life” perspective.
Marisa: That makes sense. And, I think is really wonderful for the students you teach that you are so honest/transparent.
Did you speak with those who appear in the collection prior to publication or share sections of text?
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: Some of them. 😇
Sorry; I can’t resist an emoji.
Marisa: Lol, that’s perfect.
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: “Alice” from “Go Ask Alice” read the whole book and actually was part of the first round of edits for the chapter. I have this really fun annotated document, actually, of the first few paragraphs of that.
And then one of the men from “Three Men,” I interviewed specifically for the essay, and so he got to read the essay and give feedback.
I gave my parents an advance copy but they didn’t read it (peace keeping and all).
Marisa: How did you land on the title “A Fish Growing Lungs”? I vaguely remember there was a different title for a quick minute… but have no idea what it was. I love this title, and the book’s cover!
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: I am so bad at titles! That was such a long process. I love the current title, though.
An anecdote from grad school I like to tell: I had this amazing professor (Jill Christman), and I was in her office talking about an essay I’d turned in. She said, “But, Alysia, this title. Sometimes we need to try twenty titles before we get the right one.” And I was like, “But, Jill, that is my twentieth title.” Without missing a beat she replied, “And sometimes we need twenty more.”
This is all to say: the title I submitted to publishers (which was still not the first title I’d tried out) was “From the Cliff Face,” but i didn’t love it. So, my publisher and I ended up doing a giant brainstorming session where I sent him a list of like… many, many possible titles. And we both settled on the fish.
I also love my book’s cover. Burrow Press has been wonderful for many reasons, one of which is that the cover process was very collaborative.
Marisa: Ryan and Burrow are very wonderful, yes.
I wanted to ask about the essay “Withdrawal,” which plays with form in an unusual and very successful way. Did you conceive of the essay written this way, or was it first written in traditional prose? What led you to this form?
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: I was fortunate to have a lot of “experimental” work in my MFA program, so form was something i was comfortable playing with. Initially, this essay was a lot more like “From the Cliff Face”—short segments, but with the BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER in place. In terms of structure, this was the most pragmatic of all the pieces: I wanted something that would be able to capture the entirety of that withdrawal process. Somewhere in revision I had a “WHAT IF I USED A TIMELINE” moment.
There are a few different approaches to the form vs. content conversation in writing, and for me, the two are intertwined but in my writing process the content comes first. Like, as an exercise I might try a form, and that might result in something, but in terms of the writing urge, it’s usually a content thing.
Marisa: Do you exclusively write prose, or is there poetry hiding in there somewhere?
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: Hah! There’s always poetry lurking. I don’t know if I’d ever try to publish a collection or chapbook, but I read a fair amount and sometimes write it, too.
My current nonfiction project is mostly micro essays, and i feel like they’re straddling a line. I don’t have a lot of formal training in poetry, so i don’t want to make any definitely claims about what is a prose poem vs. a micro essay but… **whispers: I think they’re related**
Marisa: More writers seem to be working in-between creative nonfiction and poetry in the last few years, and even more in the last year or so, and I love it.
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: One of my professors liked to say, “They’re in the same house.”
Marisa: What’s it been like to move from student to teacher? Do you think teaching changes your writing?
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: I think teaching has changed my approach to writing. Like, I can study all the process pedagogy I want, but it’s one thing to do it just for yourself and another thing to do it for others.
Put another way: I always intellectually knew that revising is important and that drafting takes time, but it’s much easier to see the results of that, objectively, in others’ work. I’m a much slower writer nowadays and much more comfortable with my pace.
Marisa: Are you working on another book manuscript?
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: I am! the micros. My current pitch: imagine The Crying Book, but it’s researched flower species and a discussion of sensuality and relationships. The writing is going much more slowly than with A Fish Growing Lungs because of the research and also working full-time.
Marisa: The Crying Book is at the top of my to-read pile!
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: I really loved it! I’d been reading a ton of micros because of my book and when I came on that one it helped me articulate/better envision what I wanted in terms of structure.
Marisa: So, we have just a few minutes left and I want to ask you what new and forthcoming books are you especially excited about? What’s in your to-read pile?
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: Ooooooooooo. The new Brit Bennett novel, The Vanishing Half. I loved The Mothers so much. I am also reading Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, which is a beautiful poet-writing-memoir. Also, The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg. And then some Jenny Offil.
My pile is… really a tower. A mountain.
Marisa: These are such great recommendations! And I’m assuming they’re all cat-approved?
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: But of course! He’s my best reading companion. We sat on the couching reading for like five hours yesterday; it was really nice.
Marisa: Omg I know that’s a typo but I love “couching” as a verb for laying on a couch with your cat.
Marisa: OMG he is amazing.
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: I’m obsessed with him.
Marisa: Thank you so much for your time today, and for your candor and care in this essay collection—I really love it, and I will be gifting it to many friends!
Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn: Thank you so much for having me! It’s been an absolute privilege to talk about the book.
Photograph of Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn by Eve Ettinger. Photograph of Salem Sweet Potato Pie courtesy of his reading companion, Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn.