Why Elaine Hsieh Chou Wrote Her Novel (from Scratch!) Three Times
In Conversation with Christopher Hermelin on So Many Damn Books
Elaine Hsieh Chou drops into the Damn Library Hyperspace Zoom Zone to chat about her incredible new campus satire, Disorientation. We get into the world of academia, writing villains, and of course, why she wrote this book three times. Plus, she brings along Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World, and we talk about the wisdom found therein. And lots more!
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
From the episode:
Christopher: You said that you wrote three different versions of this. What do you mean?
Elaine: Yes, three different versions with different storylines and characters and from scratch each time. I think I allowed myself to copy and paste a couple paragraphs, but otherwise it was writing from scratch. It was not some conscientious writing exercise or a sort of program that was like, this is how you produce the best writing—it was failure. I was not trying to write three versions. I would write a version and be like, aha! I’ve written a novel, this is it! But then it would dawn on me that I hated it or it wasn’t working for all these reasons.
The first version, I couldn’t find my voice. I basically wanted to be Paul Beatty, and there is only one Paul Beatty. I learned that the hard way. I had to find my voice. The second version is all in the first person, and that didn’t work for a lot of reasons, but in retrospect, it was important that I write from Ingrid’s interior space. The third version, I went back to third person and incorporated things from both the first and the second and made up new things. It was honestly so much trial and error. I just didn’t know what I was doing. So three versions is a result of throwing a shot in the dark. You’re just seeing what sticks, because no one teaches you how to write a novel.
Christopher: And really trying to is a crazy thing to try to do. I mean, there are novel generators and things, but I feel like you have to be driven by some internal force that’s like, “Write a novel! Write the whole thing.”
Elaine: Yeah. They’re so unwieldy because it can take so many structures. It can spread so widely across so many years. Versus a short story, it’s much easier, more or less—I mean, they obviously can be very experimental. But you have a page limit that’s much tighter as well.
What’d you buy?
Elaine: The Atmospherians by Isle Mcelroy, You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South, Abundance by Jakob Guanzon
Christopher: Hide by Keirsten White, One’s Company by Ashley Hutson
Search Party (HBO Max) • Remainder by Tom McCarthy • The Sellout by Paul Beatty • Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot • Poetics by Aristotle • The Great Wall (2016, dir. Zhang Yimou) • Lost (ABC)
Christopher: Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton, The Shrink Next Door (Wondery, Apple TV)
Elaine: White People Won’t Save You, Severance (Apple TV)