Author Q&A: Robert Yune

As a Navy brat, Robert Yune moved eleven times by the time he turned eighteen. In 2012, he was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award and was one of five finalists for the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, selected by Sherman Alexie and Colin Channer. His fiction has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Kenyon Review, and Los Angeles Review, among others. In the summer of 2012, he worked as a stand-in for George Takei, and has appeared as an extra in movies such as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Father and Daughters. Currently, he teaches at DePauw University. His debut novel, Eighty Days of Sunlight, has been nominated for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award. Follow him on Twitter @robertyune.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Robert Yune

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

Why did you choose a pen name for your writing career?

That’s a good question. It feels like I made that decision ages ago (looking back, I started publishing around 2008, which certainly feels like a lifetime ago). The name on my driver’s license (Robert Stevens) is really common. In 2008, if you googled that name, a number of people popped up: one was a prominent dogfighting enthusiast, one was an architect, and one was the first fatality of the 9/11 Anthrax attacks.

Brian Doyle wrote a great essay about looking up all the other Brian Doyles in the U.S. He found that the other Brians had a lot in common, but there were surprising differences. I don’t look like most of the other Robert Stevenses on Google and I wanted that to be reflected in my pen name. Names are complicate and they’re a big part of identity for some people. For me, though, it seemed important at the time to be transparent about who I was. The thing is, the name on my driver’s license isn’t the one on my book, which isn’t the one on my Korean birth certificate. I don’t see a big connection between my name and identity, but I understand why it’s important for others.

Why did you become a teacher?

I’m not sure. In my high school yearbook, I wrote that my career goal was to become a teacher, just like Mr. Hopkins (my AP English teacher). I taught for three years when I was in grad school. I had a lot of anxiety about letting down my students and faculty mentors, so I spent an unhealthy amount of time planning lessons and obsessing about teaching. At the end of this period, I divided my salary by the number of hours I taught and was horrified by the amount of money I made per hour. I swear, it felt like a negative number—in the “less than zero” sense. I decided that teaching, as a career, was unsustainable. So I worked in other fields. There were moments when I’d read a book and think, “Wow, I can’t wait to show this part to my students… oh, wait.”

Then, in 2009, I received a $5,000 artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and moved back to Pittsburgh to conduct research for my first novel. I started looking for work, and because I had teaching experience, I started adjuncting at local colleges. Things just took off from there. I teach full time now.

What drew you to writing?

My father was in the U.S. Navy and my mother always had these great stories from our travels around the world. We used to live in Hawaii—I became a naturalized citizen there. My mother would tell stories about the sugarcane fields there. Before the harvest, they burn down the fields, and she’d talk about the bodies and cars and other stuff people would discover.

Earlier in my career, I’d say that I wanted to be a storyteller like my mother. She was and still is good at it. People were drawn to her. But I’m not a very good raconteur, unfortunately. With writing, though, you can compose and then revise.

However, at this point in my career, I’ve been thinking about those cane fields as a symbol. I think part of our job as writers is to burn down the cane fields; eliminate the noise and strobe lights of daily life and reveal something deeper and more meaningful. If you do it right, you actually become kind of dangerous. I’d like to think that’s the direction I’m heading in as a writer. Not to get preachy, but there are many aspects of contemporary American life that we prefer to keep hidden. There’s a cost to that, but the truth is, we’re paying whether we discuss it or not.

What do you feel like you are first: a teacher or a writer?

It’s probably impossible to separate the two. I’m reading Dan Chaon’s Ill Will right now, and sometimes I’ll sneak a chapter between grading. It’s a strange thrill to read something that I don’t need to grade. It’s probably that way with a number of professions, though; I’m kind of glad I’m not a TV or film director.

Has teaching writing in the secondary education environment affected your writing at all?

Probably, since I’ve been teaching for about twelve years now. I do try to turn off the “writer’s eye” when I’m working with students or reading their work. I mean, I consciously do not base characters on students or plots on real-life campus events.

What do you look for in good writing? What qualities or characteristics must it have?

Yeah. I should say that I was the fiction editor and web co-editor of the journal The Fourth River from 2009-2013. It’s hard to say. Different stories do different things differently. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I think good writing contains something unexpected. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but as an editor (or as a reader), it’s lovely to encounter a piece of writing that’s trying something new. And it’s exhilarating to see someone take a risk and pull it off.

How long did it take you to write your first published novel? Could you tell us why you chose the themes you did?

It took me six years to write Eighty Days of Sunlight and three years to find a publisher. (It got rejected 39 times over that three-year period). Then, it took two years for the book to hit shelves. You know, I’ve read letters from Flannery O’Connor and Vladimir Nabokov where they reveal “what they really meant to say” in their books, and I remember feeling disappointed and, for some reason, vaguely disgusted afterwards. I don’t think it’s the author’s place to explain their work to the public, and it always feels reductive…

I’ll say that I chose the themes I did because my first novel is based on my own experience. I took certain truths that I gathered from those experiences, wrapped them in interesting lies, and handed it to an unsuspecting public.

What was the publication process like? Could you walk us through the steps?

My book’s path to publication was a strange one. At first, I tried to find a literary agent. But then, after a few years, no one wanted to represent the book. However, Mink Choi, who was an editorial assistant for an agent I queried, later became the head Book Publisher at Thought Catalog Books. Around 2013, she asked if my book was still available, and the rest is history.

What did it feel like to hold your published novel for the first time?

Well, it’s weird because I’d seen cover images and photos of advanced review copies (ARCs). It’s a hard feeling to describe. I got a box full of ARCs and at first, I didn’t know what it was. But then my roommate at the time looked at the return address and told me, and I tore into the box literally like a kid at Christmas. We’ve all held new books before—there’s that strange combination of lightness and hardness. The first ARC I held had a glossy, expensive-feeling cover. I may or may not have rubbed it on my face just to appreciate how wonderful it felt.

I don’t want to build this up too much because you should look at your first book as the first of many in a long career and adjust your expectations accordingly, especially if things go wrong with said book. However, imagine years of education and training, followed by six years of sacrifice and obsession. Imagine long nights spent isolated in front of a keyboard with no end or reward in sight—imagine all of that shaped into a beautiful physical artifact by publishers and designers who share your passion and vision. That’s how it felt. In a word: affirming.

What advice do you have to give to people who just discovering writing? Trying to get published? Trying to finish their novel/collection?

Those are three very different groups. I could repeat other more famous writers’ advice, but I won’t because you can find that everywhere else on the web. Uh, for all three groups, I’d say this: Ask yourself why you’re writing, and be honest about it. Faulkner once said something like “Few wish to write. Most wish to have written.” It’s a nasty little quote but there’s some truth in it. If a lot of writers were honest with themselves, they’d say, “I want to be part of a community. I want someone to validate my experience as worthy.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think you have to ask yourself about the best way to accomplish those goals and then figure out how writing factors into that equation.

As someone who’s taught for twelve years, I could (and often do) spout advice about inspiration, productivity, and efficiency. All those things are important. But one simple, hard, true thing I’ve learned through the years is that when writing fails, it almost always fails on a fundamental level. It’s boring. It doesn’t present characters the reader can connect with. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze. I’ve learned this as a teacher and from sometimes writing boring stories that don’t offer the reader much. I think it’s easy to get caught up in one’s ego (“Hey, I’ve been writing for twelve years, so I probably know what I’m doing”) and the complexity of writing (“I’m trying to build a world here”). One secret to writing is to stay humble in the sense that if you believe your work can fail on a fundamental level, that’s the first step in fixing the problem.

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