Alexandra Chang

Writing the Emotional Stakes of the Mundane: A Conversation with Alexandra Chang


A webcam, an orchid, a shopping cart, a manicured hand over some mahjong tiles, and a pair of cats: these elements may seem commonplace on their own. Rendered into the book cover of Alexandra Chang’s recently released Tomb Sweeping (Ecco), they are heightened versions of themselves, connected in a short story collection where Chang creates art out of the ordinary.

In one story, a recently unemployed woman spends her day plowing weed gummies into her mouth while binge-watching dating shows until a former coworker sets her up with a monthlong house-sitting gig for a wealthy couple embarking on a trip that takes a chilly turn. In another story, an ennui-stricken housewife in Shanghai funnels her stifled ambitions into operating an undercover gambling den. A mother and daughter attend the living wake for the husband of someone the neighborhood knows as Orchid Lady, whose strangeness ushers a new perspective on the grief they live with.

Each story captures the messiness of the mundane and mines the moments in between for magic. The characters hunger for connection, for stability, for their loneliness to beget some sort of understanding of the world they move through, all of whom have one thing in common above all else: they brim with life by virtue of Chang’s irrefutable talent and remarkable ability to find beauty—and meaning—in life’s daily complexities.

And this gift isn’t just exclusive to the National Book Foundation 5 under 35 fiction author. Chang’s answers to my questions, sent over by email, burn just as bright.


The Rumpus: How long have you been wanting to write a collection of short stories?

Alexandra Chang: Since 2014, when I started to take writing short stories more seriously. I’d always wanted to write fiction, but I didn’t have any concept of what that looked like. When I was living in Ithaca, New York, working as a research communications writer at Cornell, I finagled my way into an undergraduate workshop with the writer J. Robert Lennon (who is an incredible short story writer, by the way). That class really opened up a lot for me. I wrote three short stories. I tossed the first one (it was pretty bad), but later drafts of the other two made it into the collection, including the title story. After that, writing more stories—enough to collect in a book—seemed possible enough to want.

Tomb Sweeping

Rumpus: What do you love most about this form?

Chang: The length. As a writer, I really like working with constraints and getting to play with different structures, voices, moods, and characters. The simple fact that short stories are short gives me all of that. I have a word/page count limit to work within. Then when I’m done with one story, I can try something totally different with the next. As a reader, I love being able to immerse myself in a story in one sitting. I barely ever finish novels in one sitting anymore.

Rumpus: Tell me a little bit about how this collection came together. Was it inspired by a singular story, or did you have some sort of an idea of its totality—whether thematic, the characters and their relationships to one another, etc.?

Chang: It wasn’t a planned process, unfortunately. It came together mostly because I’d written enough stories over the course of five or six years to be put together in a book. I went through them all to figure out which ones were strong enough to keep, cut a few, then cut a couple more because they were a little too similar to others. After that, I realized I didn’t have enough stories! So, I wrote a few more. But I treated each story as its own thing. What I found fascinating and fun as I organized them into a book was to see how many thematic resonances there were between them. I had pretty consistent concerns and interests—like loneliness, responsibility, ambition, loss—over the years, and kept approaching them from different angles.

Rumpus: Was there a story or a character or a premise that surprised you, took a turn you weren’t expecting to take? If so, how?

Chang: A lot of the stories surprise me, because I don’t tend to have a plan when writing. I like to see where a character or line or general idea takes me as I’m writing—that’s a lot of the joy of writing for me. One that surprised me a little more was “To Get Rich Was Glorious,” because I did know what would happen in the end (that the character would end up in prison). I’d found a dissertation in the Syracuse library about women in Chinese prisons, and it included a few first-hand accounts from women about what had motivated them to commit whatever crime had gotten them there. That gave me a lot to think about and consider, but what surprised me about writing FuFu, the story’s main character, was how defiant—almost in an admirable way—she is, especially toward the end. I went into writing thinking it would be a sad story for her because of her circumstances, and in some ways, it is, but that’s not at all the sentiment she carries with her.

Rumpus: What story was hardest to let go of? What made you attached to it?

Chang: I find it hard to let go of a story when there’s this little nagging feeling that I haven’t quite gotten it to the place it needs to be. That there’s something more I can do. Sometimes, I’ll try to just be at peace with that feeling and embrace the idea that writing over the course of my life is more about the process than about making sure each product is perfect. I mean, I could probably edit all these stories for the rest of my life. But other times, I can’t ignore it! I was editing “Unknown by Unknown,” “Farewell, Hank,” and “Persona Development” up until the last possible pass, ha! And I’m still thinking about some lines and sections in them, parts that I could change.

Rumpus: You’re also so fucking funny. How does humor influence your storytelling?

Chang: Thank you for saying that! I don’t think of myself as a laugh-out-loud funny writer—I’m not going out of my way to include a lot of jokes or anything in my stories—but having a sense of humor about the world, whether it’s subtle or dark or dry or weird, is very important to me in my stories and in life. It’s less something I do on purpose when I’m writing and more about including observations and moments that feel true to the character or the situation, and they sometimes happen to be funny.

Rumpus: I think my personal favorite was “Farewell, Hank.” I mean, I cried at the end. It just felt so vivid, visceral even. Was that one an intense one for you to write? I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with several writers about this recently: how do you take care of your heart and mind when writing with such emotional depth? 

Chang: Ah, thank you again! This is actually another story that surprised me. I was inspired to write it based on an event my mom had attended and told me about. I initially thought it would be more about the Orchid Lady character and how strange she is, but the more I wrote, the more I felt drawn to the mother-daughter relationship and understanding the grief that’s central to their lives. The role of the event—and Orchid Lady’s strangeness—ends up being about making the character confront this grief more head-on than she previously has. The experience of writing grief and loss (and the fear of loss) can definitely be intense. A lot of these stories are about some of my greatest fears. It requires going somewhere that I have a tendency to avoid when I’m not writing. To recover, I take a lot of breaks. Go on walks with the dog. Pet the cats. Watch reality TV. Stare out a window. Whatever I need to do to reset a little. I also try to be patient with myself and take my time with a story like this.

Rumpus: Another favorite of mine is “Unknown by Unknown.” Funny, but also spooky? What made this story the right one to open the book with? 

Chang: My friend Shruti Swamy said she chose the first story of her brilliant collection, A House Is a Body, to disorient the reader in a way that prepares them for the rest of the collection. I loved that idea. “Unknown by Unknown” initially eases the reader in with a pretty familiar situation—a character goes to housesit—but then it gets, like you said, a little spooky and creepy. It’s also not a story with neat answers. I like to think of it leaving the reader unsettled in a way that prepares them emotionally for the rest of the book.

Rumpus: Would you consider writing more spooky stories?

Chang: That story is a bit of a departure for me. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I’m like, “Oh, stories about people’s day-to-day lives and relationships. Straight realism.” This one was fun in a different way. It’s still very much based in reality, but it’s also kind of a horror story, maybe even a ghost story? When I was living in upstate New York, my husband’s family rented a lake house that was filled with horror books, including an anthology of classic horror stories. I read a bunch of those stories, stupidly, on the deck at night, overlooking the dark lake. I got so creeped out and anxious! I think I’ve avoided writing or reading or watching horror for a while because I just get scared so, so easily. I grew up watching Are You Afraid of the Dark? and I still get freaked out thinking about some of those episodes. (And, yes, I am afraid of the dark!) What I found when I was writing that story, though, is that I experience a lot less of that immediate fear when I’m the one in control of creating the story, so that’s a long way of saying, maybe I will write more! 

Rumpus: A lot of your characters are experiencing growing pains, from their relationships to their cultural identities and how they occupy their space in the world. Honestly, this is my favorite stuff to read about because transition and change is messy and grainy, and I feel like we need to see the unvarnished in unraveling a bit more.

Chang: Same! I love reading and writing about characters who are going through it. People have said that I write about the emotional stakes of the mundane. I do find the everyday mundane very moving. It’s where so much of the messiness of the human experience takes place. When I was younger, I thought, Okay, when I’m thirty, I’ll have my whole life figured out and I’ll be set. Uh, no, far from it. Growing pains don’t stop, or at least they haven’t for me or the people who I’m close to! It’s especially true of my characters who are often pushing up against larger societal forces in their day-to-day existence, whether that be because of class, race, gender, etc. Even if they’re experiencing small or quiet changes, they’re very moving to me—like my mom retired last year and she’s coming into this new phase of life, later in her life. She’s adjusting to a sense of freedom, learning who she wants to be, what she wants to do, what she feels she needs to do, and it seems very emotionally exciting and strange for her. That’s the kind of stuff that I like to explore in my fiction. Now I’m thinking I’ll write a retirement-related story next, ha.

Rumpus: If you could pick one story to expand, say into a novel, which one would it be and why?

Chang: I’m currently working on a novel based in the same world as “Cure for Life.” It’s not really an expansion of that particular story or its characters (though there may be a cameo or two), but it follows several characters who work in that same store. I worked in a grocery store through high school and I couldn’t stop thinking about everything else going on in that space, so it felt right for a novel expansion.

Rumpus: What has writing this collection taught you about yourself?

Chang: That I’m obsessed with loneliness, ha. No, I guess if anything, it’s taught me that even if I go through phases of not writing, I’ll find my way back to it. There was a period of time where I didn’t think I’d finish this collection or ever want to write again. It’s like that saying about athletes dying twice, the first being when they can’t physically perform their sport anymore. That’s how it felt for a while—like this thing I’d dedicated a huge part of my life to was gone forever—and I was pretty depressed. I reoriented my life around other stuff. I got a day job. Not writing slowly felt less devastating, and as time passed, that desire to write crept back in. I think if it goes away again, I’ll be more okay and less anxious about it.

Rumpus: I like how you said you’ll find your way back to it. When I’m feeling depressed about not being able to write, I always approach it from the mindset of, “Oh, it’ll come back, it always does.” Now I’m wondering: do we find our way back to the desire to write, or does it find its way back to us?

Chang: Oh, hmm, maybe it’s both! I often get the urge to write after having an experience that I find moving or curious or funny, after hearing or reading a line of language that intrigues me, after listening to someone else tell a great story, after encountering a piece of art that really makes me feel something. So that desire to write is always trying to find its way back to us as we move through life, offering up all these opportunities to consider. But we also need to meet it halfway, to be alert and attuned to all of that, open to holding up those experiences and shaping them into a new form through writing.




Author photograph by Alana Davis Photography

Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public. More from this author →