“Your Character Has to Fail in Telling Their Story.” A Conversation with William Pei Shih
From the Ursa Short Fiction Podcast with Deesha Philyaw and Dawnie Walton
Co-hosts Deesha Philyaw and Dawnie Walton speak with writer William Pei Shih, author of the Ursa original “Happy Family,” a story about a lost childhood, a struggling restaurant, and a bygone era of Chinatown.
“Your character has to fail in telling their story,” Shih says. “I think that’s one of the beautiful things about fiction. It truly is the messiness of life.”
How he first started writing fiction:
I must have started when I was a pre-med student. Just writing fiction felt so subversive. I didn’t have to share it with anyone. I could keep it secret. It felt like practicing the piano. I would write these secret stories. I feel like I’m still writing secret stories today.
What reality TV shows teach us about writing fiction:
Shih: I really enjoy watching reality shows because you have the character in a confessional and they’re telling their side of the story. This is a great way of learning how to write from the point of view of somebody who’s trying to defend themselves. They give up secrets of themselves that they can’t hide for long. Your character has to fail in telling their story. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about fiction. It shows the messiness of life.
Philyaw: And we want to protect them, but then we have no story. So it’s like you have a choice—you can protect the character and have no story, or you can have an amazing story, but things get messy or difficult or painful or devastating for your character.
On exploring his upbringing in New York City and working in 1990s Chinatown:
With “Happy Family,” I wanted to try and see if I could capture some of that, the Chinatown as a kid working in a Chinese restaurant or working in my parents’ fish cake factory. It was a challenging time. Your parents wanted you to succeed and there was so much pressure to do that. Private schools were out of the question because it was unaffordable; you had to apply to specialized high schools like Stuyvesant, and it was seen as the end for you if you didn’t get in.
On hearing a voice actor perform his story, and how it changed his approach:
Ursa recorded a trailer for this story. And when I was listening to [actor Aria Song] read it back, I realized I was writing a bit too much like a writer and I needed to be even more in the character’s head, in order to deliver this properly for someone to perform it. When I listened to that, I was like, “I think I could just get a little closer.” And I ended up revising a large part of it to make that work, especially knowing that there was going to be music and sound effects to it.
Episode Links and Reading List:
“Happy Family” (Ursa) • “Enlightenment” (VQR) • “Necessary Evils” (Southern Review) • What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah • Cleanness by Garth Greenwell • Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike
More Stories from William Pei Shih:
“The Golden Arowana” (The Masters Review), about a precious and rare fish, a young man and his grandmother from China, and the road trip of a lifetime—to Pittsburgh, and what happens when one finds more than they bargained for.
“My Son,” (F(r)iction, Spring 2021) a story focusing on father/son cross-generational and cross-cultural struggles and miscommunications.
More stories: https://williampeishih.com/home/publications/
William Pei Shih’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Best American Short Stories 2020, VQR, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Southern Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Boston Review, Crazyhorse, F(r)iction, Catapult, The Asian American Literary Review, The Des Moines Register, The Masters Review, Reed Magazine, Carve Magazine, Hyphen, and more. His stories have been recognized by the John Steinbeck Award in Fiction, the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction, the Raymond Carver Short Story Award, the UK Bridport Prize, The London Magazine Short Story Award, among others. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He has been awarded scholarships and support from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, Kundiman, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and the Ragdale Residency. He has served on the admissions board for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (MFA in Fiction), where he was a recipient of the Dean’s Graduate Fellowship. He currently lives in New York City, and teaches at NYU.