Q&A with Bonnie Chau, author of “Newfangled Creature”
Donate to The Offing! Our Patreon supporters received early access to this Q&A with The Offing contributor Bonnie Chau, and receive other perks as well. The Offing pays our contributors, and we appreciate the help of all of our supporters in sustaining our work. If you are able, consider donating to The Offing today, whether one-time or monthly.
. . .
Megan Giddings: One of the things I find really engaging about your work is the velocity you create by honing in on questions of identity. In “Stevie Versus The Negative Space” the titular character is in a battle to figure out who she is with and without a partner. In “Newfangled Creature” the story moves back and forth between what it means to the unnamed main character to be good. Writers are often taught to chart the tension and pacing of their fiction through rising action, a climatic moment, epiphany. But you often ignore these things! Can you talk more about how you revise and work with pacing? How do you know when one of your stories is for lack of a better way of phrasing it, “working and ready to be sent out”?
Bonnie Chau: I rely very heavily — maybe too heavily — on intuition, both in life and in writing. Probably it’s a reflection of more general beliefs about identity and how to be, but I tend to avoid or ignore this kind of triangle-shaped Aristotelian dramatic structure because it doesn’t feel natural to me, doesn’t feel accurate to my own experiences of self-narrativizing. A lot of these stories were written using sort of a collage-like process, akin to cut-ups. I’ll write short sections revolving around themes or situations I’m interested in, in very disorderly google docs that contain just piles of paragraphs, about a memory of a meal, of a former apartment, a certain character, a certain summer, a trip, sometimes associatively jumping from one idea of a story to another. After a random amount of time, I’ll go back through months’ worth of google docs and read and comb through, selecting certain segments, and piecing together a story from what I feel like is taking shape. It’s a lot of layering, and rearranging, which doesn’t quite seem like revision at all, but is the part of my writing process that comes closest to what revision seems to refer to. It’s very much a process of reading and rearranging and rereading and intuitively feeling out the pacing, and then doing that over and over. As for when I know a story is “ready to be sent out” — I have no idea. Haha. At some point toward the end of the process, it seems like it wouldn’t be totally a misnomer to call the thing a story, it’s taken on some sort of shape and cohesiveness, and then I work on figuring out a title for it, and sometimes that sets off some more reevaluation and reworking, and then I’ll probably let it sit for a while, and look at it again after a period of time, and then start thinking about sending it out.
MG: To be blunt: you’re not afraid of using exclamation points. In “Newfangled Creature,” I felt like some of the moments where the story shifts into free indirect and uses exclamation points were when I felt closest to the character. How do you think punctuation and its use can illuminate a character and create voice?
BC: This made me laugh! I exclaim a lot, in my day-to-day life. But I also feel like I might be described as laconic and reserved. This incongruity probably carries over into my writing. I love using and manipulating and thinking about the nuances of punctuation. Using exclamation points is a bit like being able to allow a facial expression to hover over a moment, or to break through the fourth wall for a second. It’s very much an insertion of a voice, and from there, also a reminder that there is a physical body attached to that voice, that enables that voice. At various moments in this story, I was looking to enable a sense of quiet indignation, or of exuberance, some sort of expression that gestures to the fact that the real-life work — and I mean the real-life work of being alive, not the real-life work of being a writer — of creating a voice, and a character, and direction or purpose, and an identity, all of this is an insane amount of work, and trial and error, and I wanted to really point at this kind of effortfulness, this exertion of energy.
MG: What was your process like for putting together All Roads Lead To Blood? How did you determine the order? The title?
BC: Honestly I just threw together pretty much all of the short stories I had written from the end of 2011 through the end of 2016. When I was ordering them I thought about the length of stories, and the tone, the style, and also tried to shape it according to some instinctive sense of progression. I went back and forth with my editor at 2040 Books, Allen Gee, a bunch. And also had long discussions with a small, committed group of writer friends whose opinions and feedback really helped me, especially with figuring out what felt right and made sense as the first few stories and the last few stories of the collection. As for the title, I was basically skimming through all of the stories for phrases or words or images that might work as a title, something that could feel true to the big themes and motifs of the whole book. It’s a line from the story “Triptych Portrait With Doors in Closed Position” but actually I had forgotten that that was where it came from. That was a story I’d been working on, on and off, for quite some time, but I don’t think I’d looked at it in a while, and that particular passage wasn’t something that was very…shall we say…pleasurable..?.. haha…to work with. So, I’d settled on the title, and then submitted it out sporadically over the course of around eight months to a handful of small presses and contests. And then when I first started working on the book with the publisher, they were talking about using an excerpt for press materials or something, and mentioned using the paragraph that the title came from, I was like wait, what? oh right!, that’s where that’s from! Oh god. Hahaha.
MG: Tell us a very short story that might give some insight into your writerly world.
BC: For as long as I can remember, I’ve stubbornly written stories the way that I have wanted to, and not paid a ton of attention to how my writing might compare or measure up to everything else, largely, I think, because writing has always been a very private, instinctive practice for me. Which isn’t to say that I have not been hugely influenced in conscious and subconscious ways by the literature (and films, art, etc.) that I have chosen to and been instructed to consume. But more to emphasize that I have done my writing pretty willfully the way I have felt like doing it, despite being told countless times in workshops that a story doesn’t make sense, or what is this story actually about?, or there’s no plot, or nothing really happens in the end. And that I haven’t been able to motivate myself to rectify that, even back when these sorts of comments bothered me more. Now I don’t really care, but getting to that point took a while you know? A couple of years ago I read Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s Literary Hub piece, “Our Fairy Tales Ourselves: Storytelling From East to West.” In the essay and also in her travel memoir, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, Mockett writes about Hayao Kawai’s book The Japanese Psyche: Major Motifs in the Fairy Tales of Japan, in which he notes that in contrast to the types of resolutions found in many western fairy tales, e.g., a happily-ever-after conquest or marriage, many Japanese fairy tales end with an “aesthetic solution,” just a beautiful image. Kawai writes that “in Japan, beautiful endings are much preferred to happy endings.” And I sensed that perhaps this was something I had been adhering to, had been building and growing, all along. That this is something I purposefully am moving toward when I seek out art that exists outside of the conventional western canon, that all of the college classes on Caribbean literature, on African, African-American, Indian, Islamic, Japanese, Pre-Colombian, South American art history, all of the literature in translation I read, all of this is a search for an expansion of what a story is, what it means to tell a story, what kind of story I am interested in giving life to, what I am trying to do as a writer, what I am trying to see, how I am trying to see, and how to express and share that.
Bonnie Chau is from Southern California, where she studied art history and English literature at UCLA and ran writing programs at the nonprofit 826LA. She received her MFA in fiction from Columbia University, with a joint concentration in translation, focusing on French and Chinese fiction. She has received scholarships, fellowships, and residency opportunities from the Fine Arts Work Center, the American Literary Translators Association, Vermont Studio Center, and Art Farm Nebraska, and her writing has appeared in Flaunt, Drunken Boat, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Joyland, and other journals. A Kundiman fellow, she works at an independent bookstore in Brooklyn and is assistant web editor at Poets & Writers.