Sonya Chung

Sonya 0809_207_scrsSonya 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.

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.
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Renee Robinson

reneeheadshotRenee Robinson is a legendary American dancer who, on December 9th, 2012 at City Center in New York City, danced her last dance as the iconic woman with the umbrella in “Revelations,” one of the most popular and recognizable dances in modern history. Robinson has retired after over thirty years with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, her tenure being the longest of any female dancer in the history of the company. She was the last dancer in the company to have been chosen by Alvin Ailey himself.

Robinson was trained in classical ballet at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in Washington D.C. She was awarded two Ford Foundation scholarships to the School of American Ballet and received full scholarships to the Dance Theater of Harlem School and The Ailey School. She was a member of Ailey II before joining the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1981. She has performed at the White House several times and was awarded a Dance Magazine Award in 2012.

The first time I saw Robinson perform, I was a child. Nearly two decades later, she continued to entrance me as she moved across the stage with infectious energy and otherworldy grace. As the New York Times wrote in tribute to the retiring star, “The way she turns that head and those eyes to different points in the theater — aiming never at the rehearsal mirror but always at you, you, you and me — has long been a thrill. So has been the sheer power and sensuality of her dancing.”

What was your first exposure to dance?

Right beside my school they had a recreation center. And a part of the many activities that were offered were dance classes. I don’t remember the type of dance that I was involved in, I just remember movement. I don’t know if it was the same year, but I was still pretty young, when my family went to a football/dance/all kinds of sports activities camp, just for one day. You could try a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and of course I wanted to try the dance camp. The lady who conducted it, she told my mother that she thought I had talent. She gave my mother the name of a dance school in Washington D.C. that would accept students of color, because at the time there were not ballet schools in D.C. that would accept students of color. It was the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet – a very, very strict school. Their goal was to produce professional ballet dancers. When I went to audition, they liked my body. My parents didn’t have extra money for dance classes, so it was arranged that I would have scholarship support. I was ten years old. And that is basically where a big part of the story begins.

Were the arts a big part of your family culture?

I don’t remember dance or the arts being specifically spotlighted in my upbringing at home, no.

I’ll tell you what was a part of the family culture. [Laughs. ] My mother always believed – and she still does to this day – that children should be involved in more than just their schoolwork; they should have other activities that help to develop them as people. It was just a part of the education of our house: Nope, you can’t just sit and do nothing. You can’t just go to school, come home, and do your homework. You have to have some other activity that you are involved in. Sometimes she would choose, but she was very open to letting us choose. But if she chose and we didn’t want to do it, we had to try it at least once. That was the rule.

So, dance just sort of fell under her belief that if children are not exposed to different things when they are growing up, how will they know what they want to do? And exposing your kids to things also gives them a chance to interact with different people in different ways, to learn other things beside what their school is teaching them or what they are learning at home. And how to interact with the public on other levels. To interact with people who are not doing what you are doing at home. Just building a broader, young person who hopefully will go on as an adult and have a broader view of her neighbor or her neighborhood.

Sounds like you have a very wise mother.

[Laughs. ] Yeah, and it was a strict rule. You know, you go through certain times in certain periods when you’re just like, “I don’t want to do anything!!” “Uh-uh, you’re gonna do something. Either you choose or I will find something.”

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t h e h i t l i s t

saladdaysWe did it. We survived 2012, with its apocalyptic predictions and tragic realities. 2013 is either a magical year or a jinxed year, depending on your inclinations for superstition. Or else it’s just a year, like any other. But particulars of definition or superstition aside, a year is a collection of weeks and months. And since we strive to publish a new interview every Monday, a DoY year is a collection of many, many interviews. Some measure their life in coffee spoons, we measure our existence in conversations.

And so, to honor the official beginning of 2013, we have sorted through weeks and months of conversations and put together a DoY hit list. There is no scientific method for making it onto this list, but the list can be divided loosely into two categories: the most read, most tweeted, most reblogged and reposted interviews on one hand and the hidden gems on the other.

And the DoY all-time hits are (in no particular order)…

Jennifer Egan, writer. Published on April 19, 2011.
A beautiful combination of fate and fortune: Jenny Egan won the Pulitzer Prize one day, we published this interview the next. The most popular interview on the site by far, it is also one of my personal favorites because of the richness and originality of the stories she told and the vulnerability she was willing to show. Oh, and the advice in here? Some of the best a young writer can get.

Thomas Roma, photographer. Published on August 2, 2010
Do you believe in fairytales? Here is the true story of a man who faced death and won life, who was given wealth and chose poverty, who tells the truth like it is and won’t sugarcoat a damn thing. It doesn’t get any more real than this.

James Franco, actor, director, writer, artist. Published on May 2, 2011.
You people love this one. But I can see why. The mysterious Hollywood hottie allows a crack in his cool facade and speaks refreshingly openly about self-doubt, self-realization, and downright searching for himself. Oh, and he tears up a little, too.

Heidi Julavits, writer. Published on July 23, 2012.
We already know the Believer founding editor and novelist it witty and competent, but in this interview she shows irresistible candor. Here you will find stories about early drinking, early love, and what happens when you don’t wash your underwear while sharing a room with hungry rats… Gross, hilarious, charming to no end.

Marina Abramović, performance artist. Published on December 19, 2011.
One of the most read of our interviews and one of the most thrilling ones to do. Dressed in a black dress lined with hundreds of safety pins, Marina talked about mysticism, resolution, and saying fuck off to fear. She also told some pretty incredible stories about working as a mail-delivery woman and nearly being killed by her own mother.

George Saunders, writer. Published on August 23, 2010.
He is arguable one of the most important writers working today in the English language, but he published his first book quite late and had a long, winding path to recognition. Did you know Georgey-boy was a geophycisist in Sumatra? I bet there’s a whole lot else that you don’t know in here about this revered MacArthur Genius.

Cheryl Strayed, writer. Published on March 19, 2012.
Cheryl Strayed is utterly beloved and so is this interview. Not only is she laugh-out-loud funny, she tells some heart-breaking stories and gives some damn freakin’ good advice. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, coming as it does from the blessed Sugar herself.

Tom McCarthy, writer and artist. Published on June 20, 2011.
This bad boy of British letters delivers an absolutely irresistible interview filled with the weirdest survival stories we’ve got in our extensive archives. Hallucinatory nude modeling, Rosicrucian priests, feeding cat food to colleagues, chopping up furniture for firewood… Is this shit real? Yes, my friends, in the life of this International Necronautical Society founder, reality is often stranger than fiction.

Kate Christensen, writer. Published on September 24, 2012.
This interview is terribly infuriating, touching as it does upon sexism at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, abusive bosses, and destructive romantic relationships. But, in a satisfying-to-no-end narrative, Kate manages not only to survive, but to thrive. She is fierce, funny, and utterly, utterly real.

Lorin Stein, writer and editor. Published on October 1, 2012.
The commonly championed party-boy persona of the Editor in Chief of the Paris Review takes a backseat to the sensitive thinker in this interview. Here are wonderful tales about being a wallflower at early publishing parties, of debilitating self-doubt, and of gentle regrets.

And, finally:

Ernest Hemingway, writer. Published April 2, 2012.
We didn’t actually interview Hemingway, it’s true. We’re not too good at communicating with the dead. But have you read this April Fool’s Day interview? DoY co-founder Lucas Kavner wrote it in all his comedic brilliance and it is just that, brilliant.

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h a p p y h o l i d a y s

Dear Friends,

Another fabulous year filled with fascinating Yores is now drawing to a close. And, as the snow falls and the many holiday parties approach, we are taking some time to reflect and reload. The Days of Yore will be back with a new season of inspirational interviews in the new year.

Happy 2013!!!! (2013?! How crazy is that?)


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André Aciman

André Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt to French-speaking parents in a Jewish home where Italian, Ladino, Greek, and Arabic were also spoken. After his family was forced to leave Egypt in 1965, they lived briefly in Italy and France before settling in New York. His critically acclaimed memoir Out of Egypt paints an impressionistic portrait of what The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani called “a now vanished world.” The book was published in 1995 and won the Whiting Writers’ Award.

Aciman’s has written two novels, Call Me by Your Name, and Eight White Nights and has edited a collection on Marcel Proust entitled The Proust Project. He has also written two essay collections, False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory and ALIBIS: Essays on Elsewhere, the paperback edition of which was published by Picador in December 2012.

Aciman earned his BA from CUNY and his PhD from Harvard University. He is currently a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of City University of New York.

Fittingly, this interview took place between two continents, facilitated by Skype. We spoke about displacement, linguistic exile, and regret.

Let’s go back to the very beginning. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was nine or ten, I wrote a poem. It was called “The Night.” I don’t know what made me write the poem – I was probably trying to get admiration or attention. It was a long poem, about two pages. What it did for me is that it didn’t just get me the attention I wanted to get; it also opened up an entirely new universe. I loved the idea that one can think in poetic terms when everything around me was so prosaic and so dull and so far flung from mainstream anything. I mean, I was living in Egypt, which I felt was a backwater. Here was a universe that opened up to me, and I cultivated that universe for quite a few years, writing poems all the time.

Did you show this first poem to anyone?

I showed it to my dad, of course. That was the whole Oedipal situation. He gave me the admiration I wanted, it was shown around to the family, people liked it and said all the right things, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. As I was growing into an adolescent and even into late adolescence, I showed my poems to my teachers and so on. They said nice things, but I could see that there were problems. And then at some point, one of my teachers – a man I admired a great deal – said, “They are all very nice, but they still smack of childhood.”

Ouch, that’s pretty rough.

Oh yeah. Here I was, thinking I was a blooming person…I was being almost chastised and humbled to the point where I realized that maybe poetry is not for me. I am saying all this and I’ve said it before: I came to prose because I wasn’t good enough for poetry. I think Joyce had the same problem, so did Marcel Proust – they were really poets who didn’t quite do it as poets. So they settled for second best.
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D.T. Max

D.T. Max is the author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery and the bestseller Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Max is a staff writer for The New Yorker and has written for The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine and Condé Nast Traveler, among many other publications. He also has held a fellowship at the Leon Levy Center of Biography at the City University of New York.

Max lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife and two children and often writes at the Montclair Public Library. This interview took place in the library’s Fair Trade tearoom. Over tea and lemon cake, Max described how David Foster Wallace became much like a friend, although they never met.

You went to high school in New York. Were you always a New Yorker?

Yes, I grew up in Manhattan.

And you went to Collegiate, the private boys’ school on the Upper West Side.

I went to Bank Street before that. It’s important to mention Bank Street. I went to Bank Street for eight years and to Collegiate for three years.

They both contributed to why I write, but at Bank Street we did a lot of writing. It was a progressive school. There was a lot of emphasis on writing, although not so much on handwriting. When I sign copies of my books, I actually feel I’m lowering their value.

So did you write in high school? Beyond the classroom, I mean.

No, not really. I think for a period of time, much like David Foster Wallace, I thought of writing as what other people did. I would write about their writing. Or edit their writing. Or otherwise be a handmaid for their writing. But at Bank Street I wrote. Words were just flowing all the time.
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t u r k e y a n d t h a n k s

In honor of Thanksgiving last year we published a compilation of some of the very best advice that had been printed on these virtual pages. Now we are featuring a repeat-performance. Last year you got the advice pre-Turkey; this time we offer up our gift of thanks post-tryptophan.

And so, with no further ado…


Victor LaValle
There are great reasons for working full time. One is to have an income, two is health insurance, three is you have a family to support, four is you just want to live like a fucking grown up. All those things are great reasons, but doing it because you feel like, “Well, I’ll find time to write in between…”
All these things are sacrifices one way or the other, the question is just where you can make sacrifices. And, at the time, I was on my own, I was okay with living pretty broke, and that was my equation. Everyone has a different equation and there are just pluses and minuses to everything along that path.

Kate Christensen
There is no better life than the writing life, if you are a writer. Don’t give up and do something else because someone needs you to. There are plenty of times in a writer’s life when you could give up and go do something else because something else is invariably more lucrative and possibly easier.

But if you are going to lie on your death bed and wish you had written books…that is sort of what kept me going throughout the years. I couldn’t imagine getting old and not having become a writer, not having written, not having shaped my entire life around it. And that’s something you have to do. Every choice has to be toward that shape of the writing life.

Cheryl Strayed
Even within the experience of acceptance, there’s rejection. With my editor for Wild, there’s been, “This scene is not working, Cheryl,” or “You come off like a braggart and an asshole in this scene.” Well, she didn’t say it that crassly. You have to take that criticism and lick your wounds and keep going. You learn to accept it. So yeah, I was rejected a lot, and still am and will be. I’m sure there’s a lot of rejection still awaiting me.

Jonathan Lethem
Experiment, play, dare to be really bad, fool around, and just notice what an incredible luxury it is to be in this formative, uncertain, experimental phase, one where you learn and discover new things very rapidly but also haphazardly – you don’t know when and how it is going to happen so it is crucial that you try different things and weird things, and that you read very unexpected things and glom onto influences that are uncomfortable but fascinating. Because you know, later, if you persist and become a writer, the rate of change will slow down, expectations that you produce from within and expectations that are produced from without will tend to slightly concretize this task for you, it will become something more professionalized, so make sure you relish this period that won’t come again. It belongs only to you, for the time being.

Ed Park
For me, one thing was finding myself as a reader. What kinds of things do you like to read? Are there books that you wish you had written? Who are your models? There are great books that everyone loves that I also love, but I’m thrilled when I find something obscure that I love that no one else has read—or that I would not have read had it not been sticking out of that cart at the used bookstore. I’ll still be strolling with my family and if there’s a bookstall I’ll be like, “Hold on.” You never know: there could be something there that will be a lot of fun to read and also change the way you think about what’s possible. My students know that my syllabi always mix in lesser-known things that I feel passionately about. If you let these books into your life, they can help you write in a way that you didn’t know you could. To discover yourself as a writer, you have to read interesting stuff. It’s strange to me when people who want to write seem not really to want to read. It doesn’t have to be highbrow—just something that activates your imagination.

Lauren Slater
Competence is what you should strive for. If you come to your desk every day, and you work hard, and you try to put together honest, competent work, eventually the muse will visit you, but you shouldn’t spend your time chasing after some kind of transcendent state. You have no control over it. But you do have control over writing honest, competent work. The transcendent state will come when it comes. You just have to be at your desk and be ready to receive it. I really did spend time in my twenties, a lot of time, being so frustrated, because I couldn’t get into that state of mind. Without that state of mind, I thought my writing was worthless, and that’s not true.

Karen Russell
The kindest thing that ever happened was when an editor said, “No, this isn’t ready yet.” And as painful as that was, sometimes it was extraordinarily good news. You want someone to say no, this can be better.
Sometimes you need to figure that out for yourself. I wanted some editor or outside reader to tell me exactly what to do. It can be difficult when you just hope there’s this doctor on the outside who can cure what ails your story.

But he doesn’t exist.

No. You have to figure out a way to manufacture the medicine from within.

Lorin Stein
I think I wish…I don’t know how to put it, but I think I would just say: Be nicer.

Do you think you weren’t nice to yourself or to others?

A little of both, a little of both.

E.L. Doctorow
Read. Press on. Perseverance is all.

Go forth. Create, believe, and work your ass off.


The Days of Yore

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Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle is a writer and teacher who was raised in Queens, New York and now lives in Washington heights with his wife and young son. He is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, three novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, and The Devil in Silver, and an ebook only novella, Lucretia and the Kroons. On the back cover of Big Machine, Mos Def proclaims that LaValle’s writing, “is like nothing I’ve ever read, incredibly human and alien at the same time.”

He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Whiting Writers’ Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the key to Southeast Queens. He earned an MFA from Columbia University, where he currently teaches writing.

Sitting across from LaValle at a campus cafe, it is impossible not to be warmed by his contagious optimism about people’s ability to change and grow. He generously offers up his own life-lessons-learned-the-hard-way and speaks with extraordinary patience and affection of the blunders we all make as we try to navigate our way through the everyday struggles of life.

When did you first start thinking that you would write, or when did you first write a story?

I wrote my first story when I was 13 or 14. And then I even sent it in to magazines. I sent my first story into a magazine called Grue Magazine, a horror magazine put out of the lower east side. The woman who was the Editor in Chief is now either the vice president or the chancellor of the Church of Satan. The magazine had closed, but the church of Satan took her in, I guess.

But when I sent my story in, she sent back this great rejection sheet. It had a list of all these craft issue like characterization, plot, language, pacing, and beside each of them this chart: “good, very good, not so good.” She went through and checked off all these things and then gave notes like: “characterization: good—and here’s why.” It was a real labor of love because I’m sure it [the magazine] was not a money-making venture. At the bottom she even wrote a little note —because I must have said in there that I was like 13 or 14— that said, “This is an auspicious start for someone so young.” And I saved it. Continue reading

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Sloane Crosley

Sloane Crosley is a young American writer who established her voice early and forcefully. Both of her collections of essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number, were New York Times Bestsellers. In 2009, I Was Told There’d Be Cake was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Her work has been featured in a long list of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The New York Observer, The Village Voice, Vice Magazine, Vogue, Esquire, and Playboy Magazine. She is also a frequent contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered” and was Editor of The Best American Travel Essays in 2011. Before quitting to write full time, she was a publicity director at Vintage Books.

What is Crosley’s style as an essayist? The Independent described it well: “Take David Sedaris, divide by Dorothy Parker, times by Mary Tyler Moore and add Kingsley Amis.”

You’re pretty funny. Were you a funny kid? Was humor always something you resorted to?

Thank you. “Resort” is an awfully strong word. Though I guess there is an element of ingratiation to humor. But no one “resorts” to science or “falls back” on engineering. How are we going to dismantle this bomb? Should we pun the red wire? Humor gets a bad rap for being too practical. It’s a crutch if you want it to be but most people I know who use it or specialize in it or whatever do so voluntarily. It’s never struck me as a backup plan.

I guess I was a funny kid. You’d have to ask my parents and teachers. All kids are funny. Recently, a friend’s daughter was curious about a conversation the adults were having about World War II. She said, “What are you guys talking about?” And my friend looked at her husband, unsure if now was the time to explain Hitler to a seven-year-old. But she did and the daughter, wanting to act smooth, waved her hand and said “Ohhhh, that Hitler.”
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Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is an American writer whose work spans styles, genres, and odd nooks of curiosity and philosophy, garnering him devoted fans across a broad spectrum, from sci-fi junkies to social realism devotees. He has published nine novels, among them the modern New York classics The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the Salon Book Award, and was named Book of the Year by Esquire. He has also published a number of short story collections and works of nonfiction, including The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc., a dauntingly dense yet delightfully idiosyncratic compilation of essays and musings. In 2005, Lethem was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship – possibly the most prestigious and definitely the most lucrative award out there, save the Nobel Prize. Oh, and it’s commonly called the Genius grant.

Lethem has a furious energy about him. You need hardly ask before he’s deep into an answer, a story, a memory. And, somehow, he manages to keep the veritable flood of words articulate and to the point. This conversation took place over video Skype between continents and time zones. It was morning when Lethem checked in from his office at Pamona College in Claremont, California, where he teaches writing. This interviewer waved in response from a kitchen in Stockholm where night had already long since fallen.

Let’s start at the very beginning. You grew up in a rather unconventional situation. You had parents who were political activists and you were raised in a commune – right?

There were two different ways in which I lived in communes. The brownstone where I grew up in Brooklyn had extra rooms and my parents’ friends, my father’s art students, or activists, would be there all the time and some of them lived with us. We would rent out the rooms on the upper level. But because this was in a neighborhood that had what I thought of as real communes in it – the same size row houses but from top to bottom every room was an individual young person or couple and they had sort of commune rules and communes parties – I thought of our house as a family home. It just had some extra people in it. It didn’t seem like an official commune to me because I knew that those places had very official definitions. While, in fact, it sort of was. And then when my parents separated, my father moved into one of those in the next neighborhood over, that was a real commune. We, three kids, would spend two or three nights a week there.

For me, it was really amazingly enlarging to have all these really interesting, weird young adults to go and visit and hang out with. By the time I was ten, eleven, twelve my appetite was really for hanging out with NYU students or hippies who were just a lot more interesting than kids were. I was very oriented toward adults, so I liked those environments. And I also took them as pretty normal. You know, it’s only in retrospect when you say “unconventional” that yes, I have to acknowledge that now it seems that way, but when you are in that… We didn’t have a particular credo or religion or ideology that separated us from the world. I just thought we were people and that was one of the ways people lived. We didn’t feel apart. In fact, it took me a really, really long time for it to sink in that if I widened my viewfinder a little bit, people were mostly not living the way I was.
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