Siel Ju‘s novel-in-stories, Cake Time, is the winner of the 2015 Red Hen Press Fiction Manuscript Award and will be published in April 2017. Siel is also the author of two poetry chapbooks. Her stories and poems appear in ZYZZYVA, The Missouri Review (Poem of the Week), The Los Angeles Review, Denver Quarterly, and other places. She gives away a book every month at sielju.com.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Siel Ju
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!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?
Honestly, I can’t point to a single event. I did start keeping a diary early on, and I remember winning a story-writing award in fourth grade—so there were some early writer tendencies on my part and some early outside encouragement. Despite the fact that I majored in English writing and even went to a grad writing program, my writing path has definitely not been a straight trajectory, and my commitment to writing has waxed and waned dramatically over the years. I’d say it’s only been in the last five years or so that I’ve truly committed myself to a lifelong writing career!
You’re about to publish a book next year, Cake Time. What can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed?
One thing I would say is that as a writer, I’ve really had to learn to be tenaciously encouraging and supportive of myself. The process of getting a book out is long: there’s the writing of the book, the getting of feedback on the drafts of the book, the endless revising, the submission of excerpts of the book to lit journals and zines, the agent search, the publisher search, etc. etc. Each step of the process is rife with rejection and self-doubt! I’ve had to learn that I need to spend real time and effort encouraging and supporting and finding support for and rewarding myself for pursuing writing—that this mental work is just as important as the more physical work of writing and revision and submission.
Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?
If forced to generalize, I’d say coming of age stories tend to attract my attention, especially those featuring strong female leads (this actually comes up as a recommended category for me on Netflix).
My writing focus has changed quite a bit. In grad school my emphasis was poetry, but now I write almost exclusively fiction. Thematically, I’ve gone from wanting to write about experiences and feelings I’ve personally gone through to wanting to make things up more. I’d like to think this shift is evidence of growth on my part, but I’m not sure that’s actually true.
What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?
Mostly women who write fearlessly: Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, Elizabeth Ellen.
In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses and journals? I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with presses.
This may seem obvious, but I look for presses and journals that are publishing work I like and resonate with. I’m often surprised by writers who will submit to a journal without having first read at least a few stories or poems in the journal. How then do you know that the journal is deserving of your work?
You recently published a story with 7×7 in collaboration with Kevin Sampsell titled “Vaseline.” Can you tell us more about that collaboration and how working with Kevin fueled a new side of your writing?
This project actually felt more like a return to the writing I was doing previously, with my poetry. I really loved the exquisite corpse-inspired process that 7×7 requires its collaborators to work within. Kevin kicked off the collaboration with a collage, then I had to respond within 24 hours with a text I’d taken no more than a couple hours total to compose. We went through seven cycles of this, responding to each other’s work. I really found the constraints of the process freeing; there’s little room for procrastination or obsession when you’ve only got two hours to get a piece out the door (or email outbox)!
What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?
Join a writing community in real life. This doesn’t have to be anything huge or tremendously time consuming; it can mean committing to always attend the events of a local reading series, or joining a bookstore reading club. But don’t try to go alone. The act of writing in itself is lonely enough as it is.
After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
Ha! I don’t feel like I’ve successfully accomplished so much! But thank you for saying that. At the moment, I’m working on a novel called On Sundays. It’s about a sixteen-year-old girl called Lake, who, after her best friend suddenly dies, follows the friend’s alcoholic brother down to Los Angeles and begins a convoluted, tragic affair. My goal is to write this first novel (since Cake Time is a novel-in-stories) then find a great publisher and an enthusiastic audience for it.
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