Lan Samantha Chang on Teaching, Tone, and Literary Generations
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Lan Samantha Chang about her latest novel, The Family Chao.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: After writing this book and seeing all the synergies you noticed from teaching and journaling and writing, I’m wondering if you’re paying attention in a different way to your writing?
Lan Samantha Chang: I definitely am paying attention in a different way. But one thing I have to say is that my practice, such as it is, is in a stage I hate, where I’m now fishing around again for a big project. That can take very little time or it can take years, and it’s just the worst stage for me. So, one thing I noticed that had changed about my practice is that when I started a project about a year ago, I thought, you are going to write something else this year if it kills you, because otherwise you’ll lose your mind. Because I really don’t like not writing. So, I wrote an entire arc of another project. It’s totally not right. There are passages that I like, but there’s something really off about it.
One of the things I realized that was problematic to me is that the tone in The Family Chao is so different from the tone than anything else I’ve written, that I have a choice with my new work: I can continue to write in the tone of The Family Chao or something that’s an offshoot of it, or I can return to the tone that I had before, but there’s very little overlap between them. There’s an overlap of subject matter, which is writing about Chinese American characters. But the tone is entirely different, so I need to think about it. The tone of The Family Chao is influenced by Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which is different from a lot of his other novels. It’s more raucous in a way, and this book is more raucous than anything I’ve written. The book that I returned to is something that had passages I liked, but I can tell there was something missing from it that needed to be informed by what I’ve just gone through with this book, that I need to back off from it before I can see what it is.
And also, this whole process of going back and looking through my journals about how I wrote The Family Chao, because people are asking me about it, made me realize how intertwined my writing and teaching have become and how much teaching has been a huge pleasure and advantage for me as a writer. There are disadvantages to teaching, and the biggest disadvantage is that it takes up time where you bend your attention toward other people’s work. But in doing that, you can learn a lot about writing in general and your own work. And if you’re working with the students that I have, who are really engaged and absorbed in reading and writing what is being published now, as well as things that have been published long ago, you can see a fresh view on where literature is today. I was thinking, a critic said that the length of a literary generation is 15 years. And so, I’ve been through two literary generations since I published my first book, and I feel like teaching has helped me grow along with American fiction by constantly spading up the soil, turning it over, turning it over. That’s what teaching is like for me.
Lan Samantha Chang is the author of three novels, The Family Chao, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost and Inheritance, and a story collection, Hunger. Her short stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, and The Best American Short Stories. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Academy in Berlin. Chang is the director of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She lives with her husband and daughter in Iowa City, Iowa.