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LP: TBL's Official Members' Interview with Bill Cheng

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:18:47 GMT

Letters Administrator We are thrilled to have Bill Cheng, author of Southern Cross the Dog, in the Literary Sittery this week! From the 10th to the 16th, Mr. Cheng will be answering all your questions about his phenomenal debut novel, his writing, and any other queries you have about his work! Remember, Mr Cheng is very busy writing his new book, so please pace your questions throughout the week. Good luck everyone!

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:22:23 GMT

billcheng Author Alison: Yes! Read everything by Michael Ondaatje. EVERYTHING. (but in particular Coming Through Slaughter, Divisadero, In the Skin of a Lion, Anil's Ghost, etc.) Also E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime is also an amazing book to look at for structure and form.

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:23:05 GMT

SkyTy Author Dear Mr. Cheng, Thank you so much for talking with all of us. I must admit, I was really intimidated by the review of your novel here at TBL. I thought to myself, "Sky, are you really in the mood to read something this heavy?" but I've never missed a Tethered Tidings recommendation, and I didn't want to start just because I was feeling like a lazy reader. Oh how grateful I am that I picked up the book. It's amazing! I love the characters and the different sections, that crazy dive into different character' minds. It's brilliant. I couldn't get enough of it. I agree with David: there was a hangover afterwards, but my spinning head and tired bones just reminded me of how much greatness I'd experienced. Really, I couldn't gush enough. I loved it. I also really loved the interview you did with D.M. Hedlund, especially how forthright you were about the struggles you had writing the book. I'm particularly drawn to the section where you talk about the secondary characters taking over the plot, and you having to sit down and ask yourself what the book w as really about. I'm curious: how did you realize this? It's so hard when you grow attached to what you're writing. And how did you steer it back on course? Perhaps even more difficult, how did you decide what the "right course" was? Again, thank you so much for joining us. It's been amazing reading your comments already! Skyler Tyler

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:24:25 GMT

Shining Author Nice question, Sky! Can't wait for Mr. Cheng's reply!

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:24:59 GMT

Shining Author Dear Mr. Cheng, I suppose I had an opposite reaction to the review as Sky. I read about the way you wanted the writing to be an experience, and just rushed to Amazon to order my copy. I LOVE literature like that (I esp. love to teach literature like that). And you certainly didn't let me down. SCTD is a phenomenal novel with incredible depth. I have a lot of questions about the prose, too, but I thought I'd mix it up first. So, I've been teaching a lot of works from American authors recently who write about life in other countries/cultures, and it's been really interesting to discuss the authority of the author in these situations. For instance, if a white privileged author writes about life in poverty-ridden mainland China, does he or she have "the right" to write about that issue, having no way to really know what that's like. I side with the view that doesn't believe there is a "right" to write about something. If you construct great art that elucidates some interesting element in our world, more power to you. However, I was curious if you ev er ran into this perspective while writing about something as political charged as racism in the south, usually from the perspective of the victim. If so, how did you confront that as an author? Did you struggle to relate? Did you feel responsible to do the maximum amount of research to tell the story authentically? Thank you very much for your time. It's an honor to converse with you. Sincerely, Maggie

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:25:27 GMT

billcheng Author Hi Sky, Glad the book lived up to your expectations! As to your question, I think at some point you can tell when the writing isn't going well. It'll be like you're writing against your own intuition somehow. That's the point when you take a step back and try to see what's happening holistically. With the problem of too many characters directing attention away from Robert, it was plain to see that Robert wasn't taking an active enough role in the chapters. So: what can you do but raze the whole thing and start over? It's also worth mentioning that it's useful as a writer to have readers you trust-- people you can go to with your problems who can look at your work with a dispassionate eye. I was lucky enough to study under Colum McCann when I was in grad school and he saw an early version of the book. He might've been the one to first point out that I was straying too far away from Robert. Thanks for your question! Bill

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:25:41 GMT

SkyTy Author Thank you so much for the reply, Mr. Cheng! That was very helpful.

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:26:44 GMT

billcheng Author Hi Maggie, Glad you liked the book. Your question is a good one and one I've been thinking about a lot since the book got published. The most succinct thing I can say is that my perspective on authenticity is an evolving one. Firstly, I'm of the mindset that free expression is absolute so even the most disgusting works of art should have an avenue for expression. But I'm also aware that writing doesn't exist in a vacuum and that the choices that I, as a writer, might make has real political implications for real people living in the world. This is why it's so important for minority writers (in terms of race, gender, etc.) to gain wider acceptance in mainstream literary America. They keep the system honest. We're less likely to get away with lazy or sloppy portrayals of people who aren't politically empowered enough to voice themselves in fiction. But with that said, I don't think we should stop trying to write outside of our own cultural contexts (whatever that might mean), because stories are at its heart about transcendence & exploring that part of ourselves that we want to share with others. As for how to do that in a way that's sensitive and respectful, I think, first of all, research is important. But I say that with the caveat that all research will at some point come up short of actual experience and that it's up to imagination to bridge that gap. Second is that you have to be serious with yourself and with your subject matter. Treat your characters as if they are people because-- that is in essence what you want them to be. They don't have to be all good or all bad, but if in every point you can see yourself making the decisions they make for the reasons they're making them, you're off to a good start. I hope that helps! Bill

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:27:20 GMT

the existential eljera Author Dear Mr. Cheng, I'm new to the site, so I'm excited to be utilizing all its available resources, including you! I'm in college right now, aspiring to become a professor of literature. I've always had a love of writing, but it wasn't until English Comp I that I realized my potential as a writer. A couple minor publications and writing contests later, I find that I'm receiving increasingly more support to continue writing, but there seems to be a high expectation of my writing a novel, which I'm not particularly keen to. I write short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and the occasional creative essay, but I'm told that these don't do well commercially. Most writers have so much to say, making ending a story difficult, so the story goes on until it's done. But what if there isn't more to say? The majority of my stories aren't over 2000 words, so writing a novel is incredibly daunting. Which elements of a story do you think require the most exposition? How do you expand one thought to the length of a chapter? What expectations do readers have of novels that you find the hardest to fulfill? Thank you for taking the time to respond to our questions. Your success as a writer is very inspiring. Most sincerely, Marie

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:29:10 GMT

Harley Quinn Author Mr. Cheng, Like Marie, I also have trouble expanding my works and I was wondering, how do you plan something as long and extensive as a novel? Do you just have a lot to say and then later divide it into chapters, or do you consciously have to think about how you're going to divide the narrative and what ideas/plot points will be covered in what section? Thanks, Ellen

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:29:39 GMT

billcheng Author Hi Marie, I think you might find it helpful if you stop thinking of short stories and novels as the same kinds of animals. Their length isn't really what sets them apart-- it's how they're conceived. Short stories, for me, seem to be written with a clear path in mind. Every scene, every moment is strictly orchestrated. Novels on the other hand are written more based on intuition. Sometimes drafting a novel is about finding out what the novel will ultimately be about. I think for short stories, you, as a writer ask yourself "What is it that I want to carry out in this scene?", whereas in a novel, you should be asking yourself, "What am I trying to find out?" The length of either, then, I think isn't as important. As to your other questions, I'm afraid I'm not really sure. In general, I think it's good practice to avoid exposition in writing (unless we're talking about two different things?)-- and as for reader's expectations: I think all readers just want to be treated with respect. They don't want the work to be lazy or cheap. They want everyt hing to make sense within the logic of the story. All of it is easier said than done, of course, but nothing stands out for me as particularly more difficult than anything else... Hope that was of some use! Bill

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:29:59 GMT

billcheng Author Hi Ellen, The short answer is that you don't, really. Generally what I like to do is, for the whole novel, have 4 or 5 plot points. These are points that I, for me, will chart the major movements of the whole book. I spend time thinking about how I can connect those points. I scheme. I plot. I strategize. And then I'll just start drafting. Invariably, though the writing itself will take the story in a different direction. That's fine. That's what I want to happen. And I'll just keep writing until I get stuck. And when it goes far enough away from what I originally intended, I'll look at what I've got and then reassess. I'll chart out a new path-- see which of those plot points need to stay, what can go, and then continue on from there. On some level, what happens in a book has to remain on some level a mystery for me, or else I'm disincentivized from actually writing thing. Maybe a better way to frame it is to say that I don't need to know my destination, only a direction... Hope that's of some use! Bill

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:30:17 GMT

BrokenSticks12 Administrator Mr. Cheng, First of all, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. It's rare to get a chance to pick a writer's brain. I'm mostly curious about the presence and creation of the American South in your novel. I think that world building is one of the most important and useful ways to immerse a reader in a story. It's already been mentioned that you draw a great deal from classic blues artists, but I'd like to know how you went about conceiving your setting as a whole. In particular, did you spend a great deal of time doing specific research on the South? If so, how did you go about it? Also, and perhaps more importantly, how (if at all) do you think your writing is influenced by some of the greats of Southern literature? I've always been fascinated by this subject, in particular how that setting seems to maintain a kind of mystery that remains distinct from the rest of the country. This seems true looking back to writers like Faulkner all the way up to modern popular culture in a show like "True Detective." Thank you!

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:30:41 GMT

billcheng Author Hi BrokenSticks12, Interesting question! And not one that's put to me very often. Let me think... I think it always begins with "research." Not intensive scholarly research necessarily, but just making yourself available to listen, to watch, to read the things that interest you. The first book I read for the novel was probably Alan Lomax's Land Where the Blues Began which I think had a lot of first hand accounts, photos, transcriptions and such for me to draw from. And as that's happening, these things are percolating in your mind, just beneath your consciousness. For my book, there's a wealth of documents and footage of Mississippi from that era. I was still in college then and just logged into one of the college's databases and looked through what it had to offer. But I think with all research, you eventually come to a point where research alone can't ferry you across-- and that's when you go back into your imagination. I've never been in a dogtrot or a shotgun shack, but I've seen pictures, I've tried to place myself there-- the feel of it, the smell, the movement of the air. It's really these details that create a book's sense of its authority. There's a section in the book where the characters are in a expansive swamp. It was easy enough to google map a section of MS, look over the tops of the trees, check out the ecological survey of the area, find pictures-- these things are all important to get you to the place where you can finally talk about the heat, the feel of the mud, the insects. As to your second question, when I first started the book-- as far as Southern literature goes-- I read a few Flannery O'Connor stories, and As I Lay Dying. I read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (who is really Western anyway) about a third of the way through the first draft, and maybe two thirds of the way in, I read Larry Brown's posthumous The Miracle of Catfish. So I don't feel like I really read a lot of Southern canon in preparation for this book. I was more into what's known as the dirty realists (Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Ann Beatty), and stuff like Haruki Murakami, Raymond Chandler. I don't know if it's necessarily a good thing to fetishize the South. "THE SOUTH." I mean there are real people living in these places, and some of these places have real problems in terms of poverty, race, education, etc. And some of those problems, I think, can be exacerbated by us not really addressing the place as it is, but as the dream of that place-- which, you know, kind of calls out my whole book but is nevertheless a concern.

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:30:54 GMT

texasgrampy Author I just saw your post to Mr. Cheng. I wanted to tell you that the best "read" I've had in a long while was Paris Trout by Pete Dexter. It captured the feel of the South in a Georgia town like no other book I've read. The story is riveting all the way to the end.

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:31:12 GMT

Sphere23 Author Dear Mr. Cheng, I think it's really interesting that the other members posted about having issues expanding into novel form, because when I was reading your book (and working on my own), I just kept marveling at how you managed to even stop writing. By that, I mean, your novel has several main characters, spans three decades, and multiple persons...and it's less that 350 pages. On top of that, as you have already discussed, you do not use a short-narrative style. Your work is heavy with descriptions and characters development, very few short sentences, etc. How in the world did you get that all in? Was the novel significantly bigger and you had to cut it down? You created not only a whole world, but several, several settings and times and fully actualized characters. I'm just amazed. I feel like any other writer would need a whole book series to tell this story. Please, tell me how you accomplished this feat! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. It's been a wonderful adventure every time I get another email notifying me that someone has posted to this thread. With gratitude, Janet

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:31:50 GMT

Hughes Author Hey everyone! I'm really enjoying this members' interview so far! It's been wonderful to hear all of Cheng's thoughts about his book and writing in general. Mr. Cheng, What I'm really curious is both about your book and our role as the "god of our stories." I love Robert, his character is so easy to love..but god, the plot just kept striking my hero down. Again and again, it seems Robert can't help but draw the short straw. Every time he has a taste of happiness and security, it all gets ripped our from under him. I know he's bad-crossed...but damn... So what I'm curious is: did you ever feel guilty as a writer for hurting your characters? Did you ever just think, "come on, Bill, let's give ol' Robert a break?" If so, how did you overcome this? Also, does this play into the idea that there are writing cop-outs? Where the author ties the plot together too perfectly, where the author didn't have the balls to kill his or her darlings (epilog ue to Harry Potter, for instance)? Did you want to steer away from painting an inaccurate portrait of life? Thanks so much! Hughes

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:32:05 GMT

billcheng Author Hi Janet, The book was bigger and I did have to cut it down during edits. I think I cut about a hundred pages during the edits-- but I also added in a substantial amount as well... But I don't think writing long or writing "large" necessarily counts as a feat. Most writers, I imagine, become so immersed in their work that they can't help but want to expand on the depth and size of their fictional world. I don't necessarily think that's a feat. I wonder if part of that doesn't come from not being brought up or having spent time in Mississippi. And that part of how the book was written was a s a means of creating that world for myself. If the book were set in New York for example, I wonder if the book wouldn't be less expansive in its scope. Best, Bill

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:32:27 GMT

billcheng Author Hi Hughes, Nah, I'm just a sadist when it comes to my characters. I guess I'm of the mindset that the core element of all drama is unhappiness. Your characters have to be unhappy, or at least dissatisfied before they can be spurred into some course of action, or be moved to a new understanding. I'm not saying it's impossible to write compellingly about people who are happy. It's just harder and doesn't lend itself as easily to the story form. This may sound terrible but I'm usually not very moved by my characters. I think when you're writing, you fall into this place of deep intimacy but also a clinical remove. They happen simultaneously. I think being overly cruel can be as much a cop-out as being overly generous to your characters. I think ultimately what it comes down to is satisfying the question: "is this OK within the logic of the story?" So what happens to Robert I don't consider an accurate portrayal of life. But I do think it's consistent within the logic of that universe re: karma, cosmic debt, jinxes, etc. Ultimately, you're the god of your story, right-- but even you take marching orders from that subterranean part of your brain, the place where intuition sits, the place from which you dream. And it's from this place, I think, that you suss out the logic of your characters and their worlds. Hope that helps! Bill

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:32:41 GMT

Akaless Administrator Mr. Cheng, Thank you so much for joining us in our forum. What I always wonder about is how a writer approaches their stories. Do you edit as you go? Pour ideas into the page and edit later? Do you write everyday or just in great bursts on somedays? Overall what does your process look like? Thank you, Joe

Tethered by Letters
Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:32:58 GMT

avandamme Author Hello Mr Cheng, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us! I have the same question ad Joe does, what does your writing process look like? Do you get inspired throughout your day then sit and write, or does the inspiration wait until you are writing? I absolutely loved your book. Thanks again for doing this! Sincerely, Alex

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