Yiyun Li Interview: Gold Boy Emerald GirlOn this Lit Show, Yiyun Li, one of The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40,” reads from and discusses her second collection of short stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

Li’s new stories concern lovers and loners. For many of her characters, solace is a form of strength. In a the opening novella “Kindness,” the narrator serially deserts opportunities for intimacy; in another story, an aged art teacher, pariahed forever after a platonic infatuation with a student, learns to accept his being alone.

Even the lovers in Li’s collection hear the siren song of isolation. In the story “Prison,” a woman whose child has died dreads joining her husband in bed at night, when the couple is forced to share their private weeping. In the title story, lovers are in fact trustees of each others’ seclusion, in Li’s words: “they were lonely and sad people, and they would not make each other less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”

Complete Interview [Download Podcast]

Li has said “I believe a writer writes to talk to his or her literary heroes,” and her new stories are in dialogue with master practitioners of the form. Her characters have Tolstoyian depth and complexity, surprising us the minute we feel we know them, both affirming and dancing away from our understanding at the same time. She’s internalized Chekhov’s economy of language, and his dramatist’s ear for dialogue. And on every page, the author impresses with her generosity of heart: her stories suggest a Dickensian faith in the deep-down goodness of people, even when they are under duress, or doing ugly things. There are no villains in Li’s work: only failed heroes.

Li was raised and educated in Beijing. She came to the United States in to be an immunologist at the University of Iowa: “I dreamed,” she told The Lit Show, “becoming the Marie Curie of China.” But Iowa City’s robust literary scene swayed her from her medical work. She begin writing, eventually earning graduate degrees from both the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the nonfiction program. Li’s debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, among others. Her first novel, The Vagrants, won the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction. She teaches at the University of California Davis, and is fiction editor for the literary quarterly A Public Space. This year, Li was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. Last week, she was one of 23 individuals this year to win a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Junot Diaz has said: “Li is extraordinary … a storyteller of the first order … each tale in this collection is as wild and beautiful and thorny as a heart … Li inhabits the lives of her characters with such force and compassion that one cannot help but marvel. ”

Complete interview transcript

An Interview with Yiyun Li

Joe Fassler: Yiyun Li, welcome to The Lit Show.

Yiyun Li: Thank you very much for having me.

Fassler: This is your second collection, and your first novel came out very recently, in 2009. I’m curious if any of these stories were written while you were working on the novel, or if some go back earlier than that, or if they’re very recent.

Li: I think most stories were written while I was working on the novel. So, when I finished The Vagrants, I had eight stories ready, so I just wrote one more. I wrote a novella to go with the collection.

Fassler: And you’re saying the earliest of them was begun during your process of writing The Vagrants?

Li: Yes.

Fassler: How did you find working on two things at once?

Li: I always love to work on two things at once, because you know, when you work on a novel, it’s like running a marathon, and sometimes you get tired. And I used to have this little trick that I would work on a novel in the morning, and by the time I got tired, I would do something else, and I would write stories, as if I was fresh again, which actually worked for a while. So, I always like to have two projects at the same time.

Fassler: I thought we could start by talking a bit about the first story, “Kindness”, that opens the book. That story’s about 80 pages long. Would you say it’s a novella or a short story, and is that a distinction that matters to you?

Li: You know, it really doesn’t matter to me, but when I started working on that piece, I knew it was a longer story, and I knew it would run to about — I think the manuscript pages was about 100 pages long, and I knew it would be at that length, which was okay for me.

Fassler: One of the things that’s striking about the story is that it’s written in the first person, which may be the only one in this collection.

Li: It’s probably the only one story, or one of the only few stories I’ve ever written in first-person narrative.

Fassler: Did you feel it was important to use that voice to capture this character who’s looking back on her life wistfully and questioning and rethinking some of the decisions that she’s made?

Li: Right. You know, I have to explain to you how I wrote that novella. That would explain why it’s written in first-person. There was this novella by William Trevor, and Trevor is my favorite writer. And he wrote a novella called The Night at Alexandra. And he doesn’t write in first-person often, but that novella was written in first-person about this middle-aged man, or older man looking back at his youth. And I was taken by the narrator’s voice, so I thought I wanted to write a novella with a voice talking to his voice, or the narrator’s voice. That’s why I thought that first-person narrative voice came very naturally. And when I started to write, everything came very naturally.

Fassler: So, it’s a retrospective story, and she’s looking back, and it seems like she’s distilling her entire life into a series of the most important interactions and choices. How did you go about sifting through a character’s experience and choosing the moments that were deserving to be in the story?

Li: You know, in a way I think, again, when you write in the first-person or third-person, it makes a huge difference, at least to me, because when I write in third-person, oftentimes I have to make a lot of decisions, the narrative decisions. But when I was in her voice, I noticed that she would gloss over years without saying anything, and then she would go into details, and I think that’s how memory works for her. She remembers certain things to the extreme detailed moments, while other moments, she pretended they did not exist for her. So in a way, I think when you got into her mind, you started to realize that was her memory, and that was how she looked at life, in that way.

Fassler: I said earlier that I think these stories are often about lovers and loners, and this is a character who for better or worse decides that it’s better to be alone. She has several chances for real intimacy that she rebuffs and turns away from. And it seems that the collection, a lot of the stories are about the decision to live a cleaner, solitary life without engaging in, if at all possible, that sort of human pain that goes with being part of relationships. And then, people who decide to be together, who feel they need relationship. Is this something you were intentionally exploring in these stories in a linked way?

Li: You know, I did not intentionally link the stories, or link the collection that way. I think these are probably the topics, the themes you were talking about probably was the thing that I was drawn when I was writing these stories, partly because I think when the characters live, or choose to live in that very solitary moment, there’s less space for them to lie to themselves. They still lie to others, but I like to explore that moment when a character cannot lie to himself or herself, and that’s always interesting for me in fiction.

Fassler: And it seems too with the solitary characters, it means there’s always — a lot of these seem to be origin stories, how did I get here at the end of my life, how is it that I never had children, how is it that I don’t have a spouse, or how is it that I did? And it seems like it’s charting the progression of these decisions.

Li: Yes, a lot of the stories are in that mood, I think.

Fassler: So, in the story “Kindness”, the novella we’ve been talking about, the main character learns English by reading English literature, beginning with Dickens and the culmination of her education is by reading D.H. Lawrence. So, I was wondering a bit about your early exposure to English language literature, and if these are authors that are specifically important to you?

Li: Right. You know, I often say I’m not an autobiographical author, and I know when I say that I cheat a little bit, because you can’t separate your memories from your writing. But, my early education, I started learning English when I was in middle school, but I had not been exposed to English literature until much later, 18, 19. I think when I was 18, I started reading English literature.

But, I chose Dickens and Lawrence and Thomas Hardy because in a way, they played an important role. When I first started reading English, these were the authors that were pretty much available in China. And again, I read them compulsively. And so, I thought for some reason, they felt important for me, and they also felt important for the characters.

Fassler: I found it so interesting that again, in “Kindness”, the narrator who rebuffs all sexual overtures and any chance for closeness is reading D.H. Lawrence, who wrote such explicitly sexual books. Were you toying with that dichotomy there?

Li: Yes. You know, it’s so interesting, because when I showed this story to a friend of mine, she was very happy. She said, you wrote about sex without any sex scene in it, and I thought, that’s exactly what I meant to do, or what the story meant to do. The character, the narrator, had such a deep feeling about things that she had to constrain herself in all sorts of ways. So, her understanding of the world oftentimes came from D.H. Lawrence, which actually skewed her view a little bit. But I like to imagine, you know, this was an 18 year old woman who had never loved anyone, who had never felt close to anyone, reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the Chinese army camp.

Fassler: So, it seems that you’re comfortable with a fair amount of ambiguity, I think, in your character. She’s somebody who, by the end of the story, it’s unclear whether her isolation is because she’s flawed, because she’s somehow incomplete, or whether it makes her a kind of hero, somebody who’s been able to see through conventional life and choose a better, richer path. Do you think it’s ambiguous, or do you have a feeling if you were writing her in a way who was limited?

Li: No, it’s ambiguous for me too. And the only thing I can say that my characters share, I’m certain about my characters, is they are very stubborn. I think they are very stubborn. And they’re much more stubborn than I can deal with, and I think there’s a reason for that, and they would make decisions about their life out of the stubbornness, and I respect them for that.

Fassler: Yeah. Another of the stories I really enjoyed is “A Man Like Him”, which is a story in which an older man, again an isolated, childless older man, seeks a moment of intimacy from a total stranger. There’s a man who’s story he reads about on the internet, and he seeks him out. Do you think there’s something about chance encounters between strangers that can be really enlivening for individuals and really work in fiction?

Li: Yes, I’m always drawn to those chance encounters. In this incidence, he did make it happen, he sought out, but still, it’s that moment when two human beings exist in that one moment, and then they will just part ways and never see each other again. And again, those moments, they have less space to lie, either to each other or to themselves. And I think fiction in a way is pushing the characters to the point that they cannot lie to you, to the readers, or to the author. So, those oftentimes are the moments I really focus on, to get to know my characters.

Fassler: Another one of those strange sort of congruities is in the story “Prison”, where a woman wants a surrogate mother for her child — and she’s Chinese-American — she goes to China and finds a very poor Chinese woman to actually have her baby. And again, is that one of those examples, do you think, of how strange events can conspire to bring people together?

Li: Right. You know, in a way, I think someone said to me that all my stories are very fatalistic, which I agreed. But in a way, I think fate plays in a way to play with your personality of your characters. So yes, the woman made the decision to find a surrogate mother for her baby, and that like you said, it’s actually a random decision, but that decision I think — oftentimes I think my characters make decisions that they have not thought well out. But then, that’s life. If you think about everything beforehand, nothing happens.

Fassler: Yeah, it’s interesting, in that story, the woman she chooses — she’s got a great variety of women she could choose from, and at the time I was almost yelling, you’re going with the wrong one, because she was attracted to this woman’s rebelliousness. It sets up the suspense. She’s drawn to her for a reason that perhaps is not good for the reason she wants to be near her.

Li: Right, she also recognized in this particular woman that she did not see in the other women candidates, so it’s very interesting.

Fassler: So, there are actually a couple stories in the collection that concern orphans and foster children. Did you have a particular preoccupation with this as you were writing these stories?

Li: You know, it’s so funny, only now I realize I write a lot about orphans and adopted children. I don’t know why. I think there’s that sense that you want to play with again, you know, you want to question your origin. Are you born to your parents, or is there another story? So, oftentimes, I think I’m drawn to those situations.

Fassler: Yeah. One effect I thought that had in these stories is, it helps your characters dispense with the blood nature of parenting and forces them to ask more penetrating questions about the role of these mother/father individuals in their lives. Do you think that’s accurate?

Li: I think that’s very accurate, yes. And I think again, some people would say those are extreme situations. Actually, even with our birth parents, we still ask those questions. And then, there’s other questions we ask. So, it’s so funny, because when you said that, I realized it’s not the first time people have pointed it out to me, and I don’t have a good explanation for that.

Fassler: Do you think that writers have a sort of unconscious linkage between things that they aren’t often aware of as they’re writing?

Li: Yes, I believe so. I think if you read any writer, if you read someone’s whole life work, you would see repetitive or reoccurring themes and those things. I’m sure those things are what the writer himself is really interested in. Exploring for me, also many stories start with a question, so maybe that’s the question I always ask about parenting, about your blood origin, and about who you are other than being your parents’ child.

Fassler: Maybe I’m going too far with this, but it seems to me, I read so many of these stories as being about congruency and incongruency, when people have chosen to spend their lives together even if there’s so much driving them apart. And even the title story, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” which is a story about an engagement, but we know that the man who’s being married to a woman is actually gay and that their relationship will always have certain limitations as a result. The title comes from the praising phrase, “He’s a gold boy, she’s an emerald girl.” And as beautiful as the language is, it seems there’s also an incongruency in there. It’s like they’re not matches, it’s not a gold boy and a gold girl. Is that something you thought about?

Li: Yes, I think fiction is — one reason I like to write fiction is, that’s where you can strip every kind of surface off characters. In real life, when people lie to you, you don’t often point out they’re lying, but in fiction you can always do that. So, I think there’s never a perfect match in fiction, at least to me, or in my fiction. There’s never something quite right. Nothing is quite right, so you write to explore that.

Fassler: These are very character-driven stories. Where do your characters emanate from, where do you come up with them?

Li: You know, I think my characters come from my imagination, but their situations I take either from stories I read in newspapers or stories I hear, like the man in “A Man Like Him.” I read on the internet there was this young woman in China who suspected her father was having an affair, so she sued him, which did not work. So, she started a blog. Very contemporary situation, she started a blog to publish his life story, or publish his data, to condemn him. And that’s the seed of the story, which is the situation.

But then, I never really want to write about the people in the real situation, so I would make up a bystander, a man watching that situation, or someone else to be my major concern in the story, to be my characters.

Fassler: So, to almost inject a third element of someone watching the conflict?

Li: Yes. I think I notice that a lot of my characters are observers. They feel more comfortable observing. But then, as any observer, after a while they cannot hold onto that observing status, they want to participate, and that’s when stories are more interesting.

Fassler: Yeah. In a few stories, you move pretty freely with point of view. I’m thinking in particular of “Souvenir”, where we begin in the brain of an older man, and then perspective actually shifts, and we’re granted access to the thoughts of a much younger woman who he’s interacting with. In that story, why did you feel it was important to sort of mediate both of the characters as opposed to just staying implanted with one?

Li: Right. That story especially, it is about a chance meeting, you know, between two very painful souls, and they were both trying to reach out for that human contact, and they failed terribly in that story. And I think that just the situation between the two characters, it’s very important for me to show both their sides. And in the end, you know why they failed. It’s inevitable they would fail in that story.

Fassler: You said before that you like to be in dialogue with writers, that I believe a writer writes to talk to his or her literary heroes was something I read you’d said in an interview. Who are you in dialogue with, especially in these new stories?

Li: Yes, so these new stories are very much written to have a dialogue with William Trevor, the Irish writer who lived in England almost all his life. And Trevor is really my most favorite contemporary author. And there are things that — his storytelling, I feel very close to his story-telling. And so, this collection especially, almost every story I had in mind when I started writing them a specific Trevor story to talk with. And in the end, my stories are completely different from his stories, but to me at least in my imagination, the music is the same, the mood is very similar. So I think in the way I always imagined these characters, like my set of characters and his set of characters would be talking on the page.

Fassler: That’s really interesting. Maybe you can say more about that. You’re saying you don’t write like him, but yet he was a big influence on the tone?

Li: Right, I don’t think — well, I do. I should revise myself. I think I learned a lot from reading him, so I would consider him a mentor on the page for me. So certainly, his stories are oftentimes about solitary figures, or chance meetings, disappointment, having to make do with imperfect situations. And especially those stories set in Ireland also have a lot to do with Irish history. I’m drawn to those things. So I think I would say only the situations, my situations are Chinese situations, and his are Irish or English situations, but the characters oftentimes either share something about life or some views about life, or you know, share some disappointments about life.

Fassler: That’s interesting too, that you both share a respective interest in a culture, in a national culture. You said before, just now, the phrase Chinese situations. Do you mean literally set in China, or can there be something you would construe as a Chinese situation set in America?

Li: No, I think because most of the stories are set in China, I think just specifically they’re situations that are taking place in China. But those, you know, are really just a frame of the story, or really on the surface, because when you look beyond the surface, when you go into human nature, I often feel that my Chinese characters are not very different from Trevor’s Irish characters.

Fassler: Many people admire your very clean, elegant writing style, and sometimes it reminds me of Chekhov, although I’ve read him only in translation. But, who do you look to for stylistic guidance?

Li: That’s a very good question. I feel that’s a very hard question to answer, because every good writer I read, oh, if only I could write like him or her. I mean, Trevor again is one person I would read just to get his voice and the rhythm of his sentence. John McLaughlin [phonetic] who’s another Irish writer. I’m particularly very drawn to Irish writers, and I like Gwen Crane [phonetic] and [unintelligible] because again, they were the older generation. So, these are the writers that I would imagine I draw influence mostly from these writers.

Fassler: I think some of these stories, as rooted as they are in the everyday and mundane, have a kind of mythic power. The prose at times reminds me on New Testament parables or something, and there is something about that generosity of myth that I find in your fiction. Are you at all inspired by any of those more historical sources, the great books, mythic books?

Li: It’s very hard to go away from those books. In a way, I think the voice of storytelling has come from those great books. I’ve been reading The Iliad and Odyssey, and I just had so much fun reading them. You know, you could just read them again and again, and that voice, the storytelling voice is just in you.

And I’m working on a project to rewrite Gilgamesh, The Epic of Gilgamesh, for children. And again, you can read the story written I would say 5,000 years ago — probably a little bit less than 5,000 years ago — but they’re about the same thing, you know, storytelling-wise, the child, the young man. In a way, I think it’s the timelessness of those stories that you, anybody who writes fiction still wants to achieve.

Fassler: So, let’s talk a little bit about how you actually arrived here in Iowa. You lived here nine years, you’re a graduate of both the — well, first the nonfiction program and then the workshop. But, how did you decide to apply to programs at Iowa? What was the path that brought you here all the way from Beijing?

$Li: I came from Beijing to Iowa to study immunology in the Ph.D. program here. So, I had a whole new — not whole new, a different set of career before I became a writer. So, I was actually on the other side of the river, being a scientist, for many years before I applied for the workshop. So again, Iowa is a very strange, magic place.

Fassler: I hadn’t know that. I imagine that’s something that now you’ve left behind as a full-time writer, but do those research interests in immunology, have they affected what you’ve done at all?

Li: You know, yes. I like my experience of being a scientist. I was a very good scientist, except I wasn’t as dedicated as I am as a writer. But, I like — again, I think someone mentioned that I look at characters like under a microscope. Again, that’s part of my job as a scientist, I would study details about everything and anything. You cannot miss a single detail, and that’s the discipline I would think I brought from science to writing.

Fassler: So, was it just an accident that you ended up studying immunology at this incredible literary town, or was that part of the appeal for you?

Li: Oh, it was completely a fluke. I just came. I did not know Iowa City was a writer’s town, so when I came the second year I was here, somebody told me that everybody in Iowa City was writing a novel. And that started my dream. I thought I wanted to write a novel, too.

Fassler: So, had you had aspirations when you were still living in China?

Li: No, never. I’d never written anything in Chinese. So, I think it was just somehow, you know, when you were at a certain stage of your life and a certain place, all of a sudden, things were just right for that decision to be made.

Fassler: So, how did you begin to generate the courage and words involved to gain acceptance into the nonfiction program?

Li: Oh, you know, I took a bunch of undergrad writing classes, and sort of just got to know what I wanted to do. And I actually did both programs at the same time, but I was in the nonfiction, because the nonfiction program is a three-year program. So, the first year I was in the nonfiction program. The last two years, I did both.

Fassler: So, you did them both at once? Wow.

Li: So, I graduated like it was two MFAs at the same time.

Fassler: So, I understand that Jim McPherson, who’s currently a teacher at the workshop and has been for many years, was an important mentoring influence for you, and I thought maybe you could talk a little bit about that relationship, and how it began and how it served you as a writer.

Li: Right. I was still a scientist, and I applied. Jim teaches summer workshop, which is open to the public, and it’s just a general thing that the workshop would do for the community, so I applied for one of his workshops. And I went in, and you know Jim. Jim has that very strong Southern accent, and he has a very soft voice, so for eight weeks, I was sitting there staring at him, not understanding anything I said. And one day, he said one thing that I understood. He made a comment about America, and American individualization. He said, in America, we pay so much attention to individuals that we have lost that communal voice, the we voice.

And that started my first story, “Immortality.” So, I wrote that story for his workshop, and he was elated. And of course, after the summer, we parted ways, but he kept sending letters and encouraging me to write. And two years later, I applied to the workshop, and the story I wrote for him was picked up by Paris Review from slush pile. So, it all started with Jim.

Fassler: So at that point, you were still across the river.

Li: Yes.

Fassler: But you took, was it a summer workshop?

Li: It was a summer workshop, yeah.

Fassler: And so he actively — did he really have a role in convincing you to pursue this?

Li: Yes. He actually told me I should apply to workshop many, many times before I did.

Fassler: Wow, that’s fantastic. And so, then I imagine you continued to study with him as a student in the workshop?

Li: Yes, I’ve been close, very close to him since then. I named my second child after him.

Fassler: Wow, what an honor. Okay, well, did you have other mentors here at the time, or was he the primary?

Li: You know, Marilynne Robinson, of course. Nobody wants to miss Marilynne Robinson. I actually knew Marilynne also before I entered the workshop. I think it was the year when Jim went on to do a sabbatical, before he left, I think he wrote a note to Marilynne, and he wrote a note to me, and he told me to go listen to Marilynne’s lectures. Of course, you know, that was one of the best things he told me to do. So, I actually started to sit in Marilynne’s lectures, and her wisdom was just beyond me at the time. I was never tired of listening to her at the time. And later, I got into the workshop. Of course, you know Marilynne, it’s always good to listen to her. Anything she says could be very enlightening for a writer.

Fassler: So, you must have very strong feelings about Iowa City in general. How does it feel to be here with all this personal history you have with the town?

Li: It’s a very good, very nice homecoming. I got married in Iowa City, had both my children in Iowa City, I met my best friends in Iowa City and my mentors. Lisa McCracken [phonetic], who was visiting at the time, she also influenced me tremendously too.

Fassler: So, your book is dedicated to Brigid Hughes, who’s the editor of A Public Space, and you’re an editor there as well, and they have also published — “Kindness” I believe first appeared there.

Li: Yes.

Fassler: And a couple things about that. I’m curious if “Kindness”, if there were changes between the A Public Space version, and the book version.

Li: Oh, okay.

Fassler: But, I’m also interested in her role in this. The book is dedicated to her, and if she’s been a mentor figure for you, and what your relationship has been like?

Li: So, the book version, it’s so funny — the reason I published with A Public Space was a little particular, because another two magazines offered to excerpt “Kindness”, and two very good magazines. And partly, I just couldn’t stand that story taken apart, because to me, you have to read the whole story, and an excerpt never words, but for that story particularly, it makes me feel very painful. So, Brigid of course was very generous. She said we should just publish as a whole novella rather than, you know, separating different parts.

So, I met Brigid again — you know, like Jim McPherson, she actually was — she’s always been there from the beginning of my career. So, she was at Paris Review when I sent “Immortality” to the Paris Review through slush pile. So, she pulled the story out of the slush pile and published it, insisted on publishing it with the big 50 year anniversary issue. So, I got to know her. And when she started A Public Space, I got on board with her because I just liked her way of reading, and I like to read with her and I also like to argue with her. We disagree a lot, and we agree a lot. So, I just think she’s a good person to read and to agree with, and to disagree with.

And over the years, she has become my very first reader. So, every story in the collection was read by her before I sent somewhere to publish.

Fassler: That’s fantastic. So, she’s your one.

Li: Yes, she’s the one. So, when I finished the book, I thought I would just dedicate the book to her, because nobody has done more work, you know, along with me in that process.

Fassler: Yeah, and then she obviously has faith in, in your — not just in your writerly ability, but in your readerly ability by having you be an editor for the journal.

Li: Right. Yeah, I think it’s fun for us to work together.

Fassler: Yeah. Is that an experience you enjoy?

Li: Very much, and partly because as a writer, I don’t think I exist much in the contemporary scene, so I actually read mostly — I mean, apart from Trevor, mostly I read dead authors, Russians and earlier authors. So, I could be a little bit isolated in my writing sphere. So, I’d just talk to a few writers in my writing. But, I think a magazine is a good place for me to be with the world, especially to read my contemporaries and publish them, those are very fun.

Fassler: That’s fascinating. So, it helps you have one foot solidly in the current world?

Li: Yes, that’s exactly right, yes.

Fassler: So earlier today at The Workshop, you were talking about the value of nosiness for writers. Why is it important for writers to be able to ask questions of complete strangers?

Li: Well, first of all, it’s my habit. I often go to strangers. I think it’s probably a wrong impression that I feel I’m completely invisible to strangers. But you know, that’s only part of the answer. The other part is actually, I think people oftentimes are waiting all their lives to be asked very important questions. And some of them never get asked. So in a way, I think nosiness is one way of saying curiosity. I think I write really because I’m curious about people, especially people who are different from me, who have different experiences, different views of the world from my views. I’m always very curious about those people. So, to understand them, my way is just to go up to a person and most the most erratic questions.

Fassler: Have you had an experience who some innocuous questions really unleashed the floodgates of somebody really talking?

Li: Oh, all the time. I think maybe that’s one thing that I could consider as my talent. Any stranger, if I give them two or three questions, the life stories really do come out. Sometimes, I don’t think it’s me. The people, they really want to be — either they are lonely, or they just really want to be heard. And not many people have the patience to listen, not many people have the curiosity to listen.

So, I went to a reading, and I just gave a little talk about how people oftentimes lived on the surface, while you have to look beyond the surface. And this older woman came to me — she actually prepped her talk, very interesting, she started to talk about how much she loved her husband and he loved her. And you know when people say that, they’re lying. And pretty soon, she started to be in tears. You know, she started to talk about all their disagreements, and years of accumulation. And I thought, she’s just been waiting for someone to listen to her.

Fassler: So, to any extend, do you see fiction as the response to an unasked question in the life of the characters you’re exploring?

Li: Yes. You know, I think there’s a reason some of my characters, or some of the people I meet in life, they’ve been waiting. First of all, it’s because nobody asks them, nobody wants to listen to them. And also, it’s very hard for them to talk about these things. And so for me, I think because we talk about how so many characters in the book are lonely people, sad people or they choose to live solitary lives, but I think they really share that they really want a connection to other people. They would be willing to give up any connection, because they don’t want forced connection, they want the real thing.

So, I’m always happy if one reader really loves a story. I got a letter from someone when I was giving a reading, someone slipped a letter to me and then ran away. And this was a young man. He told me he read one story I wrote, I published in The New Yorker. He said he read it five times in the same afternoon, and he said he couldn’t stop reading. And you know there’s something in that story that actually connects to him. I think that matters to me greatly as a writer.

Fassler: So, it seems like it’s a journalistic talent in a certain degree to be able to have somebody be comfortable and speak to you. And you do have that nonfiction degree. Is that something, nonfiction writing, that preoccupies you at all anymore? Is it all fiction for you now?

Li: No, you know, I don’t do as much nonfiction. Many of the nonfiction pieces I publish are really just stories about either my family or myself in China. So, that’s not even part of the reason I think people talk to me. I don’t know why people talk to me, except I smile all the time. I think people like a friendly face.

Fassler: I spoke last year with another Chinese-American author, An Chi Minh [phonetic]. And she has an interesting situation. I think she’s actually been denounced at times politically in China. And do you have any sense if your works have been published in Chinese, and if there’s any awareness of you there as a writer, or is the cultural divide too great?

Li: Right. My work is not translated into Chinese, so they’re largely unavailable except in one English bookstore in Beijing, but the bookstore caters to expats in Beijing. You know, I think I’m largely unknown, except I guess there are news about me that are picked up by Chinese newspapers. No, I think, you know, if your work is not read, in way, it doesn’t exist, at least for that audience, which is fine for me.

Fassler: Okay, so do you have wistful feelings or not about writing about China and not being read in China?

Li: No, you know, I actually made the decision not to have my first book translated into Chinese, because I got an offer. But my thinking is, it’s not just I don’t want to be read, it’s actually, my stories would have to be rewritten completely for a Chinese audience, because the audience has a different knowledge of history and the cultural background. I wouldn’t want to do a direct translation.

Fassler: So, your stories are really then written for a specifically western, English-speaking audience, in a way?

Li: Yes, in a way.

Fassler: In terms of what you’re assuming, maybe.

Li: Right. Like, I can give you an example. If I say 1958, if I say that to a western audience, western readers, most of them would not know what I mean. but if you say 1958 in China, almost every Chinese can tell you that’s the beginning of the famine that killed 200,000 people over three years. So, when you write that into a story, even though it’s just one line, 1958, when the famine started, that’s what I would do in English. But, if you translate that into Chinese, you’re underestimating your reader’s intelligence. So, I think mostly, the stories are harder to translate because of the cultural and historical backgrounds.

Fassler: Is that something you think will ever interest you? It seems really difficult to have to rewrite stories.

Li: Right. No, I think it’s nearly impossible. Also, I’ve never written in Chinese, so that makes it impossible for me.

Fassler: That’s true. Yeah, it would be a completely different vehicle.

Li: That’s right, yes.

Fassler: Well, I’m interested in something else that I believe you were speaking about today, that you warn writers to stay away from the internet.

Li: Ah, yes.

Fassler: What are your thoughts on that topic?

Li: I’m a huge advocate for an internet-free zone for writers. I did this experiment, mostly because I was becoming impatient with myself. You know, you get anxious when you look up other people’s Facebook updates or Twitters. I just thought I would spend 15 minutes dealing with emails. Actually, I started to ignore a lot of people’s emails. I end up reading so many books, rereading, reading Russian novels, Dickens, George Eliot, all these big books that I think people don’t have time to read anymore, don’t have the patience. And I think all of the sudden, I reread The Iliad and Odyssey. They were just wonderful. It’s just a wonderful time, a wonderful way to spend your life rather than getting onto the internet.

Fassler: Do you think there’s something different about the way we read online and the way we read in books?

Li: You know, I think unless you can find something equivalent of Tolstoy and Chekhov or Homer on the internet. I think to me, there’s just too much fluffiness on the internet that is not exciting to me, that’s not engaging. So, that’s why — if I can read Tolstoy online, I probably would do it, except I really like the physical book. But, I just think there are not many interesting things as the books I read.

Fassler: Do you have any responsibilities, professional responsibilities that shackle you to using the internet is ways that you wish were not there? I often feel like I have to be responding to my email because of my students, and how do you handle the daily responsibilities that more and more are getting relegated to computer time?

Li: I know. And you know, over the summer, this summer I actually had an automatic reply. Everybody that emailed me got this reply, “I’m going into summer hibernation, and if you do need to talk to me, please call.” I think people, if they do have something important, they would call me or write another email again. But, I try to stay connected, I try to reply to emails, but again, I think a lot — there are just too many emails. They’re eating my life, in a way. So, sometimes I just pretend the emails don’t exist for me.

Fassler: Yeah. We have a couple more minutes. There’s one last thing I wanted to ask you about. You mentioned before, your current project is a children’s rewriting of Gilgamesh, and I understand you may not want to get too into it as it’s what you’re currently on, but what’s drawn you to that particular story, and what is it that gave you the idea of trying to write something for children?

Li: Oh, you know, this is just a project that I’m a participant. There’s a project called Save the Story, and again, the concept is to save the classics for the children, for the next generation. So, each writer gets to choose what he or she likes to rewrite for children. And someone chose Crime and Punishment to write for children, which was extremely ambitious. And I think you can imagine, it’s a little bit easier for me, only because I think that’s a very human story, even though there were all these Gods in the story. In the end, it was about this one man having the best friend, losing the best friend, dealing with death, and all these very human issues that everybody in fiction or in real life has to deal with. So, I thought that’s a good start for children.

Fassler: Do you have other projects, or are you looking forward to another novel?

Li: Yes, I’m currently working on another novel, and that’s a major project, and a couple stories that I’ve been working on, and A Public Space, which I’m spending a lot of time on because I just love the magazine.

Fassler: Yeah, what do you like so much about it?

Li: You know, I think partly because just watching Brigid at it. And she treats every story with such seriousness that I just think it’s wonderful someone would read with such care. I think I’ve met a few editors, but not every editor treats a story with that amount of care. And I think she treats my story with that care, but also other people’s. So, I just like to watch her work.

Fassler: It shows in the loyalty of the readership. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a journal become such a smash hit in so short a time.

Li: Yes, thank you.

#101: Ryan Berg
Season 10
Air date: 10/12/2015
Interview by Lucy Schiller
#100: Celeste Ng
Season 10
Air date: Monday, 9/28/2015
Interview by Lucy Schiller
#99: Steven Pinker
Air date: September 21, 2015 at 11 AM CST
Season 10
Interview by Lucy Schiller