Sonya Chung is a novelist, essayist, teacher, and editor whose writing process could easily prove that slow and steady wins the race. She is the author of the novel Long for This World, which was published by Scribner in 2010. Her stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Crab Orchard Review, Tin House, Sonora Review, FiveChapters, BOMB Magazine, and the anthology The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, among others.
Chung is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Fellowship and Residency, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She is currently a staff writer at The Millions and the founding editor of the newly launched literary site Bloom. She also teaches fiction at Columbia University.
During this interview – surrounded by Columbia students, staff, and faculty clamoring for caffeine at Joe Coffee – Chung broke up the chaotic energy with calm focus as she relayed how she came to find balance as a professional writer. Within the hour, it became more difficult to think in terms of slow and steady winning the race, and easier to consider the peaceful possibility of there being no race at all.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
To be honest, when I was a kid I didn’t really think about that. I wasn’t someone who dreamed about being a ballerina or fireman, or anything like that.
No astronaut ambitions?
No astronaut ambitions.
Did you grow up in an artsy household?
I grew up not at all in an artsy household. I came from a family of doctors and ministers. I never imagined being either of those things, which is probably partly why I didn’t have any idea what I was going to be. The models around me didn’t click, and I didn’t really know what else was out there.
Was there a point when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
When I was a teenager, not unlike most teenagers, I journalled a lot. And I was kind of depressive [laughs] – also not unlike many teenagers.
And writers. I was a very internalized person, and I spent a lot of time putting that into writing. But again, I never really knew that you could be a writer. I didn’t really know what that was. Even when I was in college, I was still in that same place, where I knew what I didn’t want to do. Nothing that was presented to me seemed to fit, and I still didn’t quite know what the possibilities were.
I did have something like a conversion moment – thinking about it now, it wasn’t a very coherent thought; it was more like an instinct – that there was something in the creative world I should try to explore. I was reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and it was like nothing I had ever read before. It affected me so much that I just really felt like I had to do what she was doing. It was my senior year in college.
What was your major?
I was a history major.
So were you like, “Oh god, I need to change my major.”
Well, it was too late, and I actually don’t regret at all having been a history major. In fact, it was Annie Dillard who said to Spencer Reece, a poet who studied with her at Wesleyan, ”If you want to be a writer, the best thing you can do is study something else.” So I have no regrets at all about studying history, because I feel like everything we study, everything we learn, everything we explore, feeds our writing.
But that said, what I did was I started to think, ”I think I want to be a writer, but I have no idea how to do that.” So I decided to go to school. That was the thing I knew how to do, so that’s when I started applying to graduate programs.
I really had to turn and put on these writers’ shoes and figure out what they felt like. A lot of people debate whether it is necessary to go to school to be a writer. For me it was useful for that transition. I hadn’t ever been around writers, or even creative people at all. So it was just two devoted years to suddenly be around other people for whom being a writer was a much more natural course.
Was there a time gap between your undergrad and the MFA?
There was two years.
How did you spend those two years? Were you writing a lot?
No, I wasn’t. Again, I applied to school sort of as an inkling. I didn’t have pages and pages in a drawer. It was just that I knew I wanted to do something with words. I knew I could be good at it. And I was feeling very inspired by what I was reading. I had a full-time job at the time. What I’d wanted to do while I was in college – I had some sense that I wanted to make the world a better place. In History, I studied 20th century social movements.
Lots of people making the world a better place.
[Laughs. ] Right. All of my internships when I was in college were for nonprofit organizations. I worked for an organization that provided legal services for homeless people. I had an internship at Harvard Law School in their public interest department – for lawyers who wanted to be public defenders, or public interest lawyers.
My first job out of college was as a grant writer for a women’s organization. And so I did that for those two years before the MFA.
You had a job as a writer right out of college!
Yeah, that’s exactly how I put it together, because one thing I realized as I was doing these internships was that I had no talent for direct service work. Actually counseling the clients. I’d tried that, and I found it totally draining and uncomfortable. I thought, ”How can I be part of this good work using my strengths?”
Was there ever a point when you thought, Now I’m a writer?
Frankly, when I found an agent, that felt very concrete to me. Being in school – not so much. I didn’t feel like a writer in my MFA program at all.
Even though you were writing?
Part of it was that my particular program was very studio-based. I was writing, but I don’t know if I was really learning that much about writing. Looking back, I learned how to read in graduate school. There’s not much that I wrote in those years that I’m terrifically proud of.
But when I started writing my novel, it was very much in secret. I didn’t really talk about it. Who was I going to talk about it to? [Laughs. ] I didn’t have any writer friends. It seemed like something very private to do, just to see if I could do it.
That was quite a while after my MFA. It was probably eight years after I graduated. I had a long hiatus between graduate school and starting a novel. I went back to grant writing; I was married and was a little lost, to tell you the truth, for kind of a long time.
So you didn’t identify as a writer during that time?
No, I didn’t feel like I was a writer at all. There were fits and spurts, where I was trying to write. I was trying to find writing rhythms, to find places – literal, physical spaces to write in. I was actually very deliberate about my reading at that time. I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do as a reader before I could really be a writer. So probably the most productive thing I did during those years was that I read a lot. I kind of did my own English major, because I hadn’t done that.
Writing that first novel was very much like groping around in the dark by myself. I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t have any readers. I just tried to do it.
Then I did research about how to find an agent, and around that time was when I started to get grant writing jobs at arts organizations as opposed to social service organizations. So I at least made that transition.
There were few people in the literary world by that time I could talk to about what to do with a finished manuscript. But the search for an agent was pretty terrible, as it is [laughs]. Then when a good agent – who is my agent, who I love now – took me seriously, that was like night and day. That was like an overnight change. Something that seemed very private and very abstract became real. It’s like you’ve just walked into the room where the literary community lives. And you’re sort of wide-eyed, like: Oh my gosh, they let me in. I’m in the room! Which is both terrifying and invigorating.
And just the conversation I had on the phone with my agent the first time we talked – the idea that someone who did this for a living had taken the time to really read my book and was talking about it like it was a real thing [laughs] and that it was going to exist in the world. There’s something pretty startling about it.
So that was when you were like, ”Okay, I’m a writer.”
I was probably too pessimistic to say, ”I’m a writer.” But I probably said, ”I’m on a path of some kind.”
How did you maintain the motivation it takes to write a novel when you didn’t know you were on the path?
Yeah! I mean – that’s the whole ballgame. You’re completely in a vacuum, or I was. Nobody cares if you write it or not. Nobody cares if you finish. It’s completely inwardly driven.
But I had this very romantic, very clear notion that had lodged itself in me – it was one of those, If I don’t do this, on my deathbed, I will regret… kinds of things.
And there was something about that eight-year gap between finishing graduate school and having lived a bunch of life and having failed at a bunch of stuff in that interim. It was really the failure of a few things in my life – including my marriage – that made starting a novel a very clear process. I was ready.
You had a full-time job while writing Long for This World – when did you find the time to actually write?
During the time when I had that fulltime job, I was writing a little bit in the morning and mostly on the weekends. I had about two-thirds of a draft – this was the end of 2006 – and I had been working on it about two years, and I felt like I had hit a wall in terms of what I could do while working on the novel on the side. It was due to both the time that I had and my mental energy, and it was also this question of who am I? There was something in me that said if I was going to finish this thing, I had to decide I was a writer. I was not a nonprofit administrator. I was not this other person.
Looking back, I think it was kind of this youthful, romantic idea that I had to take this dramatic plunge, but that’s how I felt at the time.
So I quit my job. I just said, ”I’m going to be a writer. I’m going to work on my novel!”
How did you pay the bills?
When I had a fulltime job, it was a good job. I had benefits. I had a salary. I was living comfortably. I was living in Brooklyn Heights.
Where the Cosbys lived.
Exactly. Near the promenade. I had a nice little life. And [after I quit], it was really hard. I started to drum up a little freelance grant writing. I was paying for my own health insurance.
I think for those first two years after I quit my job, I made like $14,000 gross, and then maybe $21,000 gross.
And you were still living in New York?
I was still living in New York. I used my credit cards. I deferred my taxes. I did a lot of the stuff that is really scary to do. It was really hard. And I wasn’t in my twenties anymore, I was 33.
I have to say, when people ask what it takes to be a writer, I often say, sure, it takes talent; it takes discipline; it takes determination. But the ability to live with financial uncertainty is a huge part of the writing life. When I look back on the people I know who have started out on the path of being a writer and abandoned that path, or stalled a long time, a lot of that had to do with decisions and needs for more stability. That is not to say that somehow you can’t have a family and be a writer, but I do feel pretty strongly – you can’t have certainty and stability and be an artist. At least early on.
Part of it for me was I had already had those things. I’d had a fulltime job, a house with a garden. I think the fact that I had chosen this [to write fulltime] helped sustain the ability to keep going. And yeah, I learned to live on very little.
I did that for about four years – really not knowing how I was going to survive.
Where exactly did you live during that time?
I lived in the South Bronx for three and a half years. I actually wrote most of Long for This World while living in the South Bronx. Or finished most of it while living in that apartment. It was a tough place to live, but it was an interesting place to live.
What were your neighbors like?
We lived on this very industrial block. Almost all Puerto Rican. I was very conspicuous; there were almost no Asian American people there at all, except for the Chinese takeout owners and delivery people. And the super in our building was a guy who had never been to Manhattan, who had never left the South Bronx. The City for him was this other place. I felt I was really out in the Wild West, in every way. [Laughs. ]
When I talk to younger writers struggling with this question of money, I hope it doesn’t have to be that hard. It was really hard – especially as I got into my thirties and most of my friends were married and having kids and houses and professional advancement, I felt like a child. Like, I couldn’t go out to lunch with them. I couldn’t go out to the theater. I couldn’t do the things that most grownups seemed to be doing.
Even the basic stuff of – ”Can we meet for dinner?” It was really stressful. It was like – ”Well, can we go get a falafel?” [Laughs. ]
Did they say yes – to the falafel? Did they understand?
It depended. There were certain friendships that really survived that. And certain friendships that kind of fell away.
So writing as a means to weed out the less true friends?
Yeah, exactly. Maybe it was all for the better. [Laughs. ]
Was your family supportive of your decision to write fulltime?
My parents did not understand what I was doing at all. Especially post-divorce. What was familiar to them was to have a stable life – which was either to have a family or a stable job. Theirs was a very, kind of, immigrant mentality. It was a little confusing to them, what I was doing.
They reacted as though you were going backwards?
Or maybe going crazy. [Laughs. ] There was a lot of this, “Who are you? I don’t know you,” attitude. And then when my book came out, you’d think that would be the moment when it was like, ”Oh, we get it!” They were still a little uncomfortable. They were supportive; they came to some readings. I don’t know – it puts you in a strange category, to be doing this for a living.
I think, actually, the thing that made them feel like they could exhale, or they were comfortable, was when I got a job at Columbia. They could understand that; they could say, ”Okay, I get what that is.”
Maybe you helped pave the way for future generations of family members.
I sat on a panel at Hunter College once, for the Asian American Studies program, about Asian Americans in the arts, and a lot of what we talked about was this thing about how weird it is in the Asian American community to do something that’s not professionally stable. But the other half of that conversation was how that’s really changing now. Ten years ago [becoming a writer] was really weird. Now, it’s not so weird. You see actors and writers and playwrights. The generation is further along now.
Did you have any muses for your craft? What did you do to combat the doubt?
I went to books.
I remember having a moment once during the agent search. I felt like, “When is this ever going to get published or see the world?” When I was uncomfortable around my friends because they had money. When I would just go to books. And I thought, “Oh my god, I’m becoming one of those weird people for whom truly my best friends are my books.” [Laughs. ]
It’s like you were being hard on yourself for having a coping mechanism for doing something difficult.
You have this kind of out-of-body moment when you are like, “God, you’re a weirdo.”
But you weren’t a weird cat lady.
Oh, my dog! Pax! I’ve had a dog for thirteen years, my longest standing relationship. [Laughs].
It was actually a big deal during those long, lonely writing hours and months. Just to have a dog sitting there at my feet, sighing and sleeping.
It’s cooler, too, to be a dog lady than a cat lady.
Although, a lot of writers have cat muses.
But the larger question about pets is just mental health, and I think your mental health is always at risk when you are deep into a creative project, and you are that isolated.
I was listening to an interview on the radio with Glenn Close last year. Her sister has a serious mental health problem. So she [Glenn Close] has become a spokesperson for mental health advocacy. And someone asked her on the radio, “What do you do for mental health?” And she said, “I’ve always had a dog.”
But the other thing this reminds me of – one of the most difficult things about having to move, about living in a cheaper apartment in a low-income neighborhood, in the South Bronx – you really take for granted living in a neighborhood where you can go for a nice walk. When you don’t have any money, and you are trying to nurture your mental health, being able to go for a nice long walk with your dog is kind of all you have. And we lived in a neighborhood that was industrial and garbage-y, and it didn’t feel good to be out at night. So that was a real cost.
But you had to go for walks with the dog anyway – what were they like?
They were shorter. I had my crappy car keyed, and then stolen. We were attacked by pit bulls who were off-leash.
Was there a point when you considered giving up writing?
When I was searching for agents, when I was receiving polite rejection letters, I remember feeling pretty hopeless. But I remember having a kind of lucidity about it. I knew that how I responded to this rejection was important – I knew that. I just didn’t know if I could do it. I knew that I needed to have what it took to persist through that rejection.
Basically what it meant was, “Do I think I’m a writer whether I get any external affirmation of it or not?” That’s a big question I think every writer has to face, because there are many points in your writing career – even when you’ve been successful, but then you get panned for something later – when you have to ask yourself: “Even if people don’t love what I’m doing, am I still doing this because I somehow need to? Do I need to make things out of words whether or not anybody cares?” I remember feeling that question. I didn’t have a great, affirmative answer. I was just struggling with the question. I remember it was the middle of winter. It was cold, a very stark moment. [Laughs. ] And the way I got out of it, to be honest, was pretty simple. I just by force of will gave my manuscript to a couple of people, and I said, “Can you read this for me, please? I need some help.” I basically just asked for help.
One of them was another writer that I had gotten to know, who was also older and started later. She was someone who I knew not just as a reader, but as someone who I trusted to be a kind, compassionate person, and I knew I needed that. The other person I asked was someone who had experience in the editorial world. It was a little scarier to trust that person to read it. But it was really that person’s response that helped me go forward again. She said to me, “You’re much closer than you think you are.” Which were the magic words, because you start to feel like, “Oh my god, is this whole thing just a mess? Do I have to trash this?”
Even just the use of the word “close” probably felt great!
[Laughs. ] That actually gave me the energy to go in and do another revision, which was needed, and then go forward from there.
That was after you quit your job. So you were knee-deep in it.
Yeah, and really alone. You know, when you’re not going to work everyday, and you have a solitary personality, it’s really easy to sink into solitariness. You go long periods of time when you don’t hear the sound of your own voice, or get out of your pajamas.
What do you recommend for those writers who require a long time to write, but who in the process tend to fall into that sense of isolation?
My ideal schedule is to start first thing in the morning, work until two in the afternoon; go for a long walk, or go to the gym, do something physical; and then come back to it for a couple of hours in the afternoon. I find it’s good to block your time: these hours are for writing. These are for resting the brain. I feel much happier and freer then to email or go out with friends or whatever.
Schedules are really helpful. I think the mistake could be to try to make a schedule that is supposed to be a good schedule. The key is to find your schedule. And then commit to it. It’s that magic balance of discipline and going with your natural rhythms.
Maybe that means prioritizing your natural rhythms over financial certainty?
Yeah, and that’s the hardest one. It will always be tempting when money is being offered for something, and it’s hard to know when to say yes – because you need the money – and when to say, ”No, I could do this another way.”
I want to talk about Bloom, the new site that you launched, and how it challenges the notion that new writers need to publish early, in order to call themselves successful. What inspired you to create Bloom?
It grew out of this series I was writing at The Millions called Post-40 Bloomers. I was very deliberate not to say late, because who’s to say what’s late?
What made me start writing that column at The Millions was this anxiety I was having about my age, and a recognition that I was going to be a pretty slow writer. Given what I wanted for my life – I wanted to be in a relationship, I needed to find ways to make money, and that money wasn’t going to come from anyone but me, and just that I am kind of a slow thinker, a slow writer – I was feeling anxious about the second book.
Even just realizing with my first book that I was thirty-five when it was accepted for publication, and I was thirty-seven when it was published, and there were a handful of awards and fellowships that were for thirty-five and under – it was really shocking to me that I was not a young writer based on someone else’s criteria.
Since launching Bloom, nobody has asked or questioned the fact that I am currently under forty, and I’ve started this site. So I haven’t really had to defend that. But in a way, I think it makes sense that I was in that in-between age, because I could feel what it was like to be on the younger end, and to feel pressure to get x,y,z done by the time I was forty, but old enough to have missed the boat on the young stuff.
So, I started the series [at The Millions] just kind of as self-therapy. I needed models, I needed to immerse myself in other kinds of paths for my own sanity.
Instinctively I knew it [having to publish early] was a big scam – I knew this was not the way it happened for most writers. I knew off the top of my head I could name ten writers who first published later, and I knew I could start this series. And then it became increasingly clear to me how many writers had bloomed after forty and had lived really interesting or complicated lives before that. Just really interesting stories. Difficult stories. I found that encouraging, and I wanted to put that into the world.
The writers who have been early-Bloomers and successful when they were young – I would never say they should slow down. I think that’s great. My point is that I am pro-diversity of paths. Bloom is meant to open up the conversation.
What would you say to new writers, who are chomping at the bit to publish early, and for whom it’s just not working out?
My answer is persistence; hang in there. It takes awhile.
I would also say, make sure what you are trying to get published is really ready to be published. Don’t rush that part of it.
Especially with the agent hunt, I really do think that if you have invested all of your skill and love and talent and patience and courage into your manuscript, it will get published. I think it’s important, especially now, and increasingly as each day goes by, that we all let go of this idea that there’s one way to publish a book. Now there are so many ways to publish a book.
To be clear, I wouldn’t say to lower your expectations, but I would say you would be cheating yourself of possibly a better and great publishing path if you think, “If I don’t publish this way, at this house, I am a failure.”
Do you have any final words for new writers?
Two things, which may seem contradictory, but somehow, in my mind, and in my life, they aren’t: First, take the opportunities to get involved, in small ways, with online literary sites in this amazingly vibrant digital publishing world. You will probably not get paid, but there is tremendous value, I find, in writing short-form, semi-regularly or once in a while; or even reading slush or doing bits of editorial work. It’s a more substantive way of “connecting” with other reading and writing people than Facebook, for one. It also can energize you to keep going on the longer, deeper project that is going to take the time it takes; we need both community and some concrete evidence that we can finish things in order to keep going with The Novel or The Memoir or whatever.
The second thing is, keep focused on the work itself, what you’re writing, and everything else will follow. That sounds naïve and Pollyannaish, but even with all the things we’ve talked about – all the difficult things of having a literary life – I still, hands down, feel that the writing of the book itself was the hardest part. The rest of it is challenging, and you have to figure it out, and it requires patience and persistence, but actually writing well, writing something of value, writing something that is in fact literature, that’s the hardest part. Invest as much energy as you can there.
Interview by Marni Berger
Photo by Robin Holland