*Lily Hoang and Stacey Levine*
I interviewed Lily Hoang and Stacey Levine by email during September and October of 2008. I wanted to interview two writers whose work corresponds in ways that make sense to me and which I admire.
Lily Hoang’s Parabola won the Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest. She is also the author of the forthcoming novels Changing (Fairy Tale Review Press, Dec. 2008), Invisible Women (StepSister Press, late 2009), and The Evolutionary Revolution (Les Figues Press, 2009-10). Her eBook Woman Down the Hall is available through Lamination Colony. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana and Associate Editor of Starcherone Press.
Stacey Levine wrote *My Horse and Other Stories* and the novels *Dra–* and *Frances Johnson*. Her fiction has appeared in *The Fairy Tale Review,* *Tin House,* *Yeti,* and other venues. She has also contributed to the *American Book Review,* *Bookforum,* *The Chicago Reader,* and *The Stranger.* A collection of her fiction, *The Girl with Brown Fur,* will be published in 2009. Her website is Staceylevine.com.
Here’s my interview with Lily. My interview with Stacey follows.
1. I recently read The Woman Down the Hall, your e-book published by Lamination Colony. I’m curious about its form—did you intend to write it as stories within a story, a series of interconnected stories? Or did you intend for a more “linear” narrative, or something else? What was the process of writing The Woman Down the Hall?
First off, thanks for reading it! I actually wrote The Woman Down the Hall to submit for a contest that Lydia Davis judged last year. I had just finished writing this surrealistic/speculative fiction novel called The Evolutionary Revolution (I’ll tell you more about this book later on) & I wasn’t really interested in working on anything else for a while. Then, one of my friends sent me the call for submissions for that contest. I’m a huge Lydia Davis fan, & I thought that my writing had some similarities to hers that would make it interesting, or at least provocative, for her to read. So I started writing The Woman Down the Hall. (Luckily, I didn’t win because if I had, I would have never had a chance to work with Lamination Colony!)
Process-wise, the most I can say is that I think the way I write, by which I mean that I think in little pieces. I’ve always loved puzzles & seeing how these seemingly different, un-unified pieces could add up to make something quite beautiful. Whereas I can’t claim that all of my stories or novels always add up to make something beautiful, I’m always excited to see exactly how the pieces of my stories accumulate to make something new and different. In short, I wrote The Woman Down the Hall almost exactly as it appears on Lamination Colony. I wrote the first bit, then for some reason or another, that bit sparked another bit. Even though the stories themselves seem entirely unrelated, there is something in there for me, some semblance of dialogue and potential.
I really love your question about intention. This is horrible for me to admit, but I didn’t have any intention of what the story would be, other than a word requirement. I simply sat down to write, and quite frankly, I was a little surprised, once I was done, by exactly what had transgressed on the page. I should, however, mention that I actually always think of my stories as linear. I think that most of my stories are quite traditional as well. Perhaps it’s just that my conception of linearity and traditional begin with Tristram Shandy & Joyce.
I’m also happy to say that The Woman Down the Hall sparked a whole new writing project of mine. This story became a chapter in my feminist conversation with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, only rather than cities, I discuss women who “live down the hall.” This novel, called Invisible Women, is forthcoming sometime in 2009-10 from StepSister Press.
2. Here are some of my observations about fables and your writing:
In some ways, The Woman Down the Hall makes me think of the more macabre fables in The Brothers Grimm.
You’ve got a book, Changing, forthcoming from Fairy Tale Press.
You write in The Woman Down the Hall, “We’re not going to call it karma or fate or any of these words, but it is impossible to deny that there is some kind of cycle involved…”
In The Butterfly Effect (published by BlazeVOX in 2005) you play with the idea that disparate events are connected by cause and effect, which I think “updates” the logic of the fable, wherein some sort of divine justice guides the outcome of events.
Could you talk about the influence of fairy tales/fables on your writing? Are there things about fables that you don’t like and want to comment on/subvert/alter by using their tone in your writing?
I have to be honest: before Kate Bernheimer approached me about the possibility of her publishing Changing with Fairy Tale Review Press, I had little more than a cursory knowledge of fairy tales. Of course, like most children, I’d read fairy tales and watched plenty of them, but as a genre, I didn’t know all that much about it. So Changing (in its original form) and “Butterfly Effect” (which is the opening chapter of my novel Parabola) were conceived without fully understanding the rules of fairy tales and myths, other than of course my childhood memory.
After my text was accepted, however, I started this kind of love affair with fairy tales. I started to read them, as many as I could, & I even taught a course on fairy tales. The Woman Down the Hall is very much so the effect of all these fairy tales. Whereas my writing has tended, in the past, to have a macabre edge to it, reading fairy tales definitely pushed me over the edge, such that now I have women pulling out their teeth and dead men’s heads hanging on the wall. Sometimes, even reading what I’ve written gives me chills!
I think something that my writing has in common with fairy tales—to get back to your question!—is that I’m obsessed with causality. This may have to do with the little pieces I talked about in your previous question, but I am really fascinated with how the juxtaposition of one thing next to another creates something else. Isn’t this ultimately what myth deals with, how one thing can make another?
3. About her story “The World of Barry” (published in the anthology The Clear Cut Future) Stacey says, “The story is typical for me in that it cites a person with a conflict about their identity, and a very interiorized struggle that I communicate to the reader via chains of external imagery.” In your writing I also see an interest in identity and identity conflicts (or if not conflicts, then identity shifts, as in The Woman Down the Hall, whose narrator seems to change during the story). In your mind, is “identity” something you’re writing about? Also, in your previous answer you mention being obsessed with causality–I’m wondering how you reconcile this with the shiftiness of identity–is this one sort of the juxtaposition you mention?
I absolutely love Stacey’s response. I wish I could offer you something so sophisticated as that. But yes, I do write a great deal about identity. My first two books, which are quite autobiographical, all pertain to my experiences growing up as an Asian American female and family politics. Woman Down the Hall, which is part of my novel Invisible Women, is also about identity but in a very different way. Invisible Women is an examination of portrayals of femininity and woman-ness, the way women are idealized/idolized and demonized. Woman Down the Hall epitomizes this in so many ways. I shift point of view and voice as a method of creation. Although the characters are all different, they eventually merge to become the collective “we” voice. They blend, lose their singular identities, and become a new identity. The juxtaposition of these disparate seeming stories highlights the moment when the reader realizes exactly who the “we” voice is. One of the most pleasurable things about writing with these very short pieces juxtaposed next to each other is the suspension or delay of epiphany or knowledge.
4. The excerpts I’ve read so far of Changing (in Jumps Journal, Mad Hatter’s Review, and Alice Blue Review) leave me with a lot of questions, in a good way; I especially want to know how you came to the form you did for these prose poems/hexagrams—was there a moment when you realized what the form should be? Did you figure it out slowly? Did you draft Changing using a computer or did you write by hand?
I started writing Changing in grad school after I finished my thesis. There’s a whole funny story involving a workshop that required a lot of writing, a “no recycle” rule, & a lot of ego. (Sadly, I think that ego part has to do with me, although I wouldn’t really want to admit it!) I basically wrote Changing out of spite for being forced to write new work when I’d already produced a huge thesis. Somehow, I didn’t think this was fair at the time. (I’m not at all sure how I thought it, but I did!)
My thesis, which is now Parabola, was a loose collection of short stories about “modern day mythologies.” I became really interested in the occult & notions of fate while researching, but I didn’t get to incorporate any of the I Ching, or Book of Changes into my thesis. The “no recycle” writing workshop gave me an opportunity to use all the research I’d done on the I Ching. (There was also a “no nonsense,” by which I mean “experimental,” tone to the class. Of course, this only further fueled my experimentation and innovation.)
But back to your questions: I started writing my hexagrams by hand. I spent a lot of time in graduate school reading & studying the OuLiPo (who believed that writing reaches its truest potential when superficial constraints are forced on the writer during the process of writing). As such, the I Ching hexagrams became my constraint. I started the project with the form in mind. I’ve often been told (in workshops) that you should just start writing & the form will come to you. Generally, I spend a lot of time thinking about the form, and then the story comes to me.
It’s actually been quite a challenge, moving my hexagrams from hand-written pages to 8.5×11 pages to book manuscript pages. In truth, when I originally started writing Changing, I had no real expectation of ever publishing it. It was more of an exercise in form for me. That being said, I am ecstatic with the way Fairy Tale Review Press has transformed my text into a beautiful, lovely book!
5. How do you decide where to publish your work? Or a little more generally, what kind of press do you want to see your work published by, and why? What has your experience been with publishing online?
I have to say that I’ve been really very very lucky with the presses who have taken my work! But more generally, I submit to presses because of the writers they’ve published & the editors. I originally submitted Parabola (one of the many manifestations of my MFA thesis) to the Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest. I love Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing and have immense respect for her as a writer and publisher. I’d also read several Chiasmus books and really enjoyed them. When I heard about the contest, I knew that my manuscript would fit perfectly there.
I’d also read Kate Bernheimer’s books so when she approached me about FTR Press, I was overjoyed to have her publish my book. I was familiar with Fairy Tale Review, which is a stellar journal. I feel a little like I’m repeating myself, but a friend of mine had suggested that I read Vanessa Place’s novel Dies. Vanessa & I very quickly began an e-mail correspondence. Eventually, I submitted my novel The Evolutionary Revolution to her press, Les Figues Press, and when they offered to publish it, I didn’t hesitate at all. My newest manuscript was accepted just last week with StepSister Press. This was the first press I submitted to where I was unfamiliar with the publisher’s work; however, I loved the description of the press. I have been wanting to collaborate with an artist for a while, and StepSister’s emphasis on art (the press is run by an artist!) made it extremely appealing to me.
In general, I look for presses that share similar aesthetics and politics with me. I heard it said somewhere (maybe AWP?) that small presses today are like brand names, & I think there’s a lot of truth to it. There are only a handful of small presses really dedicated to innovative writing, and I love them all!
As far as journal publications, I try my best to find journals that would be interested in my kind of writing. I get rejections all the time. It’s all hit or miss. The same goes for publishing online. I really love online journals. They’re easy to read & quite often, they house the most exciting writing!
6. Does what you’re reading impact what you’re writing? How? Who are some writers who’ve been important to your writing?
Of course it does! For instance, before I started writing The Evolutionary Revolution, I had just finished teaching a course on Speculative Fiction (which I must admit I didn’t know very much about), but after teaching that workshop, I couldn’t stop thinking about Speculative Fiction. I think it’s carried on to today. I still can’t let go of it! I’ve also been teaching a lot of Women’s Studies courses over the past couple years. As such, feminism finds its way into my writing almost through osmosis.
As far as writers who’ve influenced me… I think I’d first have to thank my teachers: Catherine Kasper & Steve Tomasula. They both gave me incredible reading lists that show-cased innovation & play. (Catherine Kasper is a poet & there’s definitely something wildly fantastic about being taught “fiction” by a “poet.”) Of course, I’m influenced by the Modernists—Joyce, Stein, Woolf, etc.—but there are always two texts that I return to time & time again as these integral texts that made me rethink what a novel can do. Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red and Dubravka Ugresic’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender totally shocked me out of passive, traditional writing. More recently, I’ve been loving Selah Saterstrom and Peter Markus.
But I think what’s been most exciting for me has been reading manuscripts that have not yet been accepted for publication, reading works by writers my own age who are doing mind-blowing things. I’m thinking in particular about Blake Butler & Michael Stewart, both young writers to keep an eye on before they explode onto the small press scene like a bad habit. Reading, seeing, and conversing with other writers—emerging or not—has brought about the most inspiration to me as a young, emerging writer.
7. When you were researching mythologies, religions, astronomy, and mathematics for Parabola, did you begin to see science, or aspects of what might be called scientific thinking (like the belief that we can understand a system or process by isolating its parts and studying those) as being similar to myth and religion? Another way of asking this: what did reading about mythologies, religions, astronomy, and mathematics during the time you were working on Parabola reveal to you about how these ways of thinking are related?
I began conceiving of Parabola during the summer after my first year of grad school. I had a series of stories, some of which I liked (& some of which I didn’t!) that had nothing in common. I’d spent the previous semester doing an independent study with Steve Tomasula on the OuLiPo so I knew that I wanted my thesis to have some sort of constraint to it. I had actually–at this point–written a story that used the quadratic equation as a formal constraint (as in each part of the formula had a short short dedicated to it). Then, as I was drinking coffee one day, it suddenly dawned on me that the quadratic should be the constraint for my whole thesis. Then, I looked at the pieces of stories I had and tried to find a common thru line, which happened to be what I considered modern day mythologies.
Ok, I really am getting to your question…The parabola as a method of organization allowed me a certain degree of freedom, as long as the chapters/stories connected in some way and had a “reflection” piece for the other quadrant. In undergrad, like so many others, I was fairly obsessed with Chaos Theory (or at least my rudimentary understanding of what it could mean). Even though it is–obviously–science, because it’s so intangible, I viewed Chaos Theory as something almost mythological. The same is true for astronomy. I took a course during grad school about extraterrestrials (I think the class was called Modern Astronomy but it was really about aliens!!). As such, I started to conceive of many forms of science as myth.
As I worked through the various stories in Parabola, I came to think of everything as a type of mythology, even love and family. I began to see odd creation stories and a movement away from realism in everything. I guess what I’m saying is that even though the elements in Parabola may seem disparate–because really, what does math have in common with religion have in common with Atlas and Adam & Eve?–we create mythologies to account for most things in life. We simply need to see and acknowledge these things as myths.
And my interview with Stacey.
1. About Robert Walser’s novel Jakob von Gunten, Walter Benjamin wrote that the characters are like characters from a fairy tale after the fairy tale has ended, so that they have to live in the real world. When I read this, I thought immediately of your characters Frances Johnson and Dra–. They, too, seem like characters who have become separated from their stories and, along with their stories, the purpose their lives might conventionally have in a larger context. So they find themselves living in odd landscapes where inexplicable things happen. In both Frances Johnson and Dra–, both main characters and narrator seem at a loss to explain why things happen the way they do. For example in Frances Johnson you’ve written lines (like “She saw her father sitting at a rough wooden table, eating a freakishly large apple, his head in half-shadow”) which are often not made to relate to anything that has come before or will come after. Why such a large apple? I’m interested in your reaction to any of this, and in what you have to say about how fairy tales are important to your writing, if at all.
On the other hand, Frances and Dra— (if they can even be considered full-on “characters”) could be considered mechanisms in a fictional world that chiefly aims to give readers a very particular flavor of experience. From my point of view, those characters and their worlds are all of a piece, not separated, and the whole represents the illogic of the real world. I also use imagery and events that are familiar yet defamiliarized.
At points while writing those works, I knew a sentence or scene was right if it looked and/or sounded “off.” This is how I’ve worked with short fiction, too.
That’s how it was for the apple. The father-with-apple image may not directly pertain to the rest of the story, but it does tonally and compositionally. That is, in the context of everything that happens to Frances, it’s not surprising that she’d see her father sitting in this way. That’s the great thing about writing novels-you have the space to toss in details for fun and enjoyment and just to try them out. Really different from short fiction, in which every line must build rigorously toward the whole.
As for fairy tales, I could yak on and on about them. They are important to me because, in dreamlike symbols, they express people’s unconscious impulses, wishes, desires, etc. They are barometric. They were not usually written by an author, but instead passed on via oral tradition. Jung’s so-called Collective Unconscious-how amazing that it is real, as expressed in these tales.
2. In many of the stories in your first short story collection, My Horse, characters suffer from physical afflictions. It often isn’t clear if an affliction manifests itself on the character’s body or if it exists entirely in the character’s imagination. But this distinction doesn’t seem important-either way, the character’s life is made uncomfortable by the affliction, such as the character in “Cakes” who wants badly to eat many cakes but cannot so long as the dog and cat are looking on, and who begins to feel ill as a result of being unable to consume in privacy. In many of these stories, psychological and physical dispositions become ambiguously intertwined; I’m interested in hearing about how you achieved this in terms of language and writing process.
I later clarified what I meant with this question and emailed the following to Stacey: It’s like the circumstances in which characters in “Cakes” and “The Hump” and “The Son” live are making the characters sick, or their reactions to the circumstances are making them sick. For instance hypochondriacs might react to stressful circumstances by believing themselves to have some sort of illness which will allow them to escape from the stressful circumstances, to be at home recovering or in a hospital. One thing I’m trying to ask in question two is whether you were thinking when you were writing these stories that their characters were being made sick not only by their particular circumstances, but also by the culture that perhaps legitimizes (or doesn’t) those circumstances. For example, in The Son, an adult son is still living at home with his parents. This might be seen by his culture as indicative of sickness or rottenness or some kind of personal failing. I’m also interested in the experience of shame in these stories, whether shame causes sickness.
In “The Son,” a story about pure anxiety, the rotten tooth in the son’s mouth becomes the family’s focal point. I think this is humorous, but I was also aiming to show how the family members are too interdependent, too intertwined for the son to experience himself at all, or freedom. His parents define his life for him and never have shown him how to be independent, so naturally, he doesn’t have the know-how to behave as an adult.
About illness…I’ve worked at a hospitals a lot, and it seems abundantly clear to me that our states of mind and emotions routinely become somatized, that is, expressed through the body. It seems normal or at least common. I’m surprised this is not more widely addressed by doctors. Maybe it’s impossible for them to do that: “Oh, you’re having blackouts and there’s no medical reason for it; why don’t you go to a psychotherapist to find out what your body is trying to say?” It sounds reductive and patronizing. Anyway, working with this idea in fiction has been really rewarding for me. It’s super-rich territory.
3. What role(s) do doctors and nurses play in the stories in My Horse and in your novels, Dra-and Frances Johnson? Why do characters expect so much from doctors and nurses?
For some reason, I’ve always thought the word “nurse” can be really comical in the right context in a sentence. I think it’s also funny when fiction describes a character’s professional role as a kind of stand-in for further description or even personality. You see this in genre fiction, old and new. (“Brad, a handsome surgeon, strode into the room.” Etc.)
Beyond that, I’ve always tended to use doctors and nurses, especially in the past and maybe now just by force of habit, as holders and dealers of power. Tension is created in the fiction if some characters have high expectations of other characters.
4. In your interview with Michael Silverblatt for the show Bookworm on KCRW, you talk a bit about inequities of power in the stories in My Horse. I found this question really interesting, particularly in terms of how language reflects these inequities. In your writing, how do you use language to suggest inequities of power?
I’m not sure about language, but I think I did that through characterization and other elements in the stories.
5. Lily mentions (in response to one of the interview questions I asked her) that she has spent time “reading & studying the OuLiPo” and that she often writes within self-imposed constraints. I wonder if you have similar practices, using formal constraints or other “rules” to guide your writing. If not, why not?
Some amazing writing comes out of those constraints. I love hearing/reading it. Have you read Doug Nufer’s work? It’s good. I don’t do constraints because I’m too absorbed by content, sequence, and psychology. If someone made me do it, though, i.e., in a class or something, I would try it. One thing I do a lot, however, is to misread signs, ads, food labels, and other text by accident. Then I try to make myself write down these misreadings for later use.
6. Why have you’ve chosen to publish with the (smallish, independent) houses you have? What effect do you think publishing with independent presses has on the content of your writing?
It wasn’t a choice. My work was rejected by the big guns New York publishers. I’m with a semi-larger house for my next book, but it’s still an independent (MacAdam/Cage). Still, I’ve been happy with smaller presses. They suit me and my slow way of writing. Of course, they have their well-known downsides…. Yet with smaller houses, there’s less nonsense like the imperative to sell, sell no matter what, the crazy competitiveness and drive to promote that is discombobulating and not very real, in a way. I mean, we’re all going to die anyway, whether we have loudly and lavishly-published books or not. The most important is to have people around the book who love it. The do-it-yourself aesthetic of my last publisher, Clear Cut, was a great match for me.
7. I recently read and really like your story “The World of Barry” in the anthology The Clear Cut Future. It reminds me of some songs by David Byrne in the way it gently, poetically mocks aspects of (it seems to me) middle-class life. The narrator is so expressive of her thoughts and emotions even while she is clearly repressed by her daily habits and others’ expectations and her own expectations of herself. She seems aware of this repression as repression, yet she finds some beauty in it, too. I’m interested in hearing how you describe “The World of Barry,” how this story fits among the rest of your work, the ideas you explore there.
Thanks. I think the narrator is maybe not distant enough on her situation to fully mock, but using indirect correlatives, she effectively complains or at least is wry, ambivalent, and, okay, maybe sarcastic (“pepper-crusted chicken,” etc.) To be fully honest, I had a strange part-time job a few years ago as a census taker, going door to door in a subdivision of upscale, yet cheaply made new homes in South King County, Washington. The surrounding scenery was classically Northwest-beautiful, but the homes were depressing and really stuck with me. So that dreary setting of poorly-considered property development, a non-neighborhood, and the blaring background of crass real estate promotional billboards, all facing the mountains, became the backbone of the story. I think the area really is called Sky Island Drive.
The story is typical for me in that it cites a person with a conflict about their identity, and a very interiorized struggle that I communicate to the reader via chains of external imagery.