by Terry Hong
Journalist Vanessa Hua spent the last couple of decades filing articles from around the globe – China and Ecuador, Burma and Panama, and beyond – which surely gave her the worldly familiarity that resonates throughout her fiction debut, Deceit and Other Possibilities. Hitting shelves last month, her intriguing collection of 10 stories are each populated with protagonists who are never quite grounded, caught between multiple cultures and countries. Each hides beneath layers of deceit as a means of survival.
In “For What They Shared” and “Accepted,” protagonists set literal fires, as if their deceptions might disappear in the flames. In “Loaves and Fishes” and “The Deal,” two fallen men of God attempt desperate other-side-of-the-world tactics to recover their flocks. Before he loses his true self to his immigrant parents’ expectations, an only son decides to show the truth in “The Responsibility of Deceit.” While chicanery destroys relationships in “Line, please” and “The Shot,” betrayal threatens marriages in “What We Have Is What We Need” and “Harte Lake.”
From a sex-scandal runaway to missionary saviors to a lock-picking immigrant, Hua imagines the lives of her disparate characters with nuance and empathy, even when their actions prove threatening and destructive. Recently awarded the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award for fiction, Hua’s career switch from reporting real life to telling tall tales is quickly earning her encouraging validation.
Terry Hong: After gathering other people’s stories from all over world, you’re now making up your own. What was the impetus to move to fiction? And why did it take until your 40s to share your stories?
Vanessa Hua: I got my start in fiction starting when I scribbled stories as a child. But I also had an interest in journalism and worked on the school paper and had various internships in college. When I graduated, I looked for a job in journalism because there wasn’t a job in fiction writing, as far as I could tell! I don’t think I knew about MFAs back then. I focused on journalism for a few years, until I became worried that I was forgetting how to invent, how to craft scenes and characters. I started taking community writing classes, joining writing groups, going to writing conferences, and taking part in literary community. In my early-30s, I decided to take the plunge and go back to school to get my MFA. I wanted to immerse myself in my writing in ways that I couldn’t when I wrote only in the mornings before work or on weekends.
As for why it took until my 40s to publish my stories – it wasn’t for lack of trying! Roxane Gay just posted on Twitter: “You write. You submit. You get rejected. You submit and submit and get accepted and get rejected and write and submit over and over.” And so it was in my case, the long, long process of writing and revising and submitting first to literary journals and later to literary agents and, in the case of my short story collection, to contests. A writer friend told me that from the time someone starts writing seriously, it takes eight to 10 years to get published. That is, if they’re going to get published at all. At the time, I thought, “I hope that’s not me!” but the timeline is just about right. All we can do is try to hone our stories and do our best to put them out in the world – but we don’t have much control of just when – or if – they’ll get published.
TH: If you had been published earlier, do you think you would have been a different sort of writer?
VH: That’s a fascinating time-travel/parallel life question. If I’d been fortunate enough to get my book published before, I would have been shaped by different experience. Though I started the first of these stories in 2000 – “The Responsibility of Deceit” – the last one I didn’t finish writing until 2014. In between, I gave birth to twins, my father passed away, I traveled to different countries, had conversations and experiences that all inspired me. So to the extent that the book reflects who I am – even if not in a purely autobiographical sense – it, of course, would have been a different book because I was going through different things at the time.
But would I have been a different writer? Does getting a book deal “change everything” as I once thought it would? Would I at last feel settled and content? While I’ve been so grateful for the attention the book has already received, I’d have to say no. I still get anxious, but just about different things. Will people buy my book? Will it get reviewed? Will people buy my *next* book? There’s always something else to yearn for.
TH: And along that parallel-life theme, you certainly lived a full life while you were “waiting” to get published … and now that you’re officially a BLOOM-ing debut author, would you have done anything differently, knowing what you know now?
VH: I would have tried to be more kind and patient with myself. If you’re not, you end up sinking into insecurity and despair, and you end up envying wunderkinds when your work should be first and foremost in your mind. And yet, I can also relate to what novelist Cormac McCarthy once said, “Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.”
A dark view! And yet, the desire to write has to be nearly all-consuming, given everything that stands in your way. Otherwise, you’d stop, right? I’m still trying to be kind to myself when it comes to writing – and mothering too. Day by day.
TH: You’re balancing TWIN motherhood with writing? How do you make that possible?!
VH: I love to-do lists, to keep myself on track for the following day, to make the most of the available time I have – and I’m learning to make peace with myself, if some tasks float from list to list for weeks. I also try to “double” up on tasks. When revising, I use a PDF-to-voice app on my phone so when I go running, I can listen to my book, keeping an ear out for rhythm and language and inconsistencies. I’m grateful to have a husband who looks after the kids when I disappear off to a reading or to write on the weekend – “just one more paragraph.” In crunch times, I also let certain things slide … laundry … rotisserie chicken every other day … repaint[ing] the bedrooms.
That said, I still struggle with maintaining balance. I don’t want my kids ever to feel neglected by me, but it’s clear to all concerned that if I’m on my computer, I’m not paying attention to them! I want to add that becoming a mother has expanded my view of the world and human behavior in ways I didn’t realize before I became a mother. I didn’t have children to enrich my writing, but I’m so grateful for how much they teach me every day (even when they’re at their most maddening.)
TH: So when you’re in writing mode, how do you create your “worlds” for each short story?
VH: When I start a story, it may be sparked by a circumstance or a dilemma facing my character. What if the solo woman hiking I spotted on the trail got caught in a snowstorm? What if a fallen preacher wanted to get a pop star’s attention? From there, I build out the characters and the world around them – that is to say, the aspects of settings and the minor characters that raise the stakes for the main character. Everything in that world is filtered through the lens of their experience.
TH: Not that I ever judge a book by its cover (haha!), but I’ve had quite a few comments from reader friends about how striking and unusual yours is! I see Josh Korwin gets cover creation credit; I’m not familiar with his work. Could you tell us a bit about its inception?
VH: I love the cover so much – I even ordered custom tattoos with the bird insignia for my launch parties! Oscar Villalon, the managing editor at ZYZZYVA, recommended Josh’s work; he’d designed covers for the literary magazine, among his other clients. The process wasn’t what I expected, but then again, I’ve never had a book published!
First Josh asked me to create a Pinterest board of what I liked and didn’t like in book covers, while he read the book. Then we talked for an hour not about colors or imagery, but about what it meant to be an immigrant. He got deep inside the book, and that informed the aesthetic. He then showed me several options with different motifs, including a lucky fish and a school of fish, but the cranes jumped out to me, with that color scheme. Cranes figure into the last scene of the last story in the book – and cranes are also present in Asian art. It was an artful but subtle reference to the book, without being overly Orientalized (no cone hats, fans, etc). Cranes also migrate, playing upon the theme of the book. It was an interesting process, to think about what exactly the book was saying as a whole, and how to convey it in an arresting image. I feel so fortunate to have worked with Josh.
TH: So why deceit? Every story seems to have a liar involved … of course, fiction, could also be said to be a process of lying. What’s your inspiration/interest here?
VH: I didn’t set out to write a book around this theme, but somehow, over the years, my characters kept getting ensnared in the web of their well-intentioned secrets, the mistakes they justify for the greater good of their family. Immigrants sacrifice so much for their families, and that reverberates in the lives of their children, too. You strive and strive to make that sacrifice, make that struggle worthwhile. I can relate to that, as the American-born child of Chinese immigrants. But stories are more entertaining, more compelling when examining those behaving badly.
TH: Speaking of badly behaved … Religious leaders don’t fare too well in your collection – two of the short stories deal with fallen men of God (and specifically men, not women, ahem). That’s 20% of the book. Religion is such a personal issue (and religion also looms large for many immigrant communities). Is there a backstory here about your own relationship with organized religion?
VH: My parents, like many Chinese immigrants in graduate school, used to go to a church fellowship when they first arrived in this country; it was how they found a community. Later on, we used to go to church on Easter but when we were supposed to recite the Lord’s Prayer during the service, none of us knew it! (It wasn’t printed in the program of songs and call-and-response.) As a kid, I remember being sufficiently concerned that I wasn’t baptized (and risked not getting into heaven) by “self-baptizing” – falling backwards into the local swimming pool. But I never felt called to religion, in the way that I know many people were. I was curious about getting inside that experience, especially since I began noticing in college how Asian Americans dominated evangelical campus groups, even ones that weren’t expressly “Asian.” Doing research, I went to a service of an Asian American mega-church where the minister gave a sermon on false idols – and by that, he included putting your parents above God. I found that tension so compelling – how to reconcile filial duty with your religion – that I ended up writing two stories about that sort of conflict, though with several years in between.
TH: Like you, your characters are peripatetic. How much of your real life did you weave into your stories? Are you of the ”write what you know”-camp?
VH: My DNA is in all these stories, though not in ways that are immediately apparent. That is, they reflect what I was thinking about, what I was doing at the time that sparked inspiration, and in certain details that I wove into a story – even if the character didn’t share my background or gender. I wrote “What We Have is What We Need” after twice getting locked out; one time the locksmith brought his young son. I was living in San Francisco’s Mission District at the time. Like the protagonist of “Accepted,” I attended Stanford – but unlike her, I didn’t con my way in. I write from what I know, but also from what I imagine – using empathy to understand my characters’ motivations, even as I show them at their worst. The gaps in the official record are the ideal place for fiction to begin – no one knows, or no one’s telling, so why not step in?
TH: Have members of your family read the collection? And …?
VH: My father passed away, unfortunately, so he never had a chance to hold my book in his hands. My mother has read an excerpt from a draft of my novel, and her only comment was, “You know, Chinese can be more than waitresses.” I took that to mean she was suggesting I portray highly educated, middle class or wealthy immigrants. Neither of them read fiction – alas, it’s not a very large percentage of Americans of all stripes who read fiction, right? – yet I know they were proud of me. My father, upon hearing part of my novel had appeared in ZYZZYVA, bought a two-year subscription because he thought the rest would be published serially.
So while I’m sure my mother will mention it to her friends – she’s already talking me up to the Rotary Club – it’s okay that she won’t necessarily read it. After all, I’m proud of the work she does as a scientist, but I’m not reading her research proposals. I’d say we mutually respect each other’s work, even if we don’t know the particulars.
TH: And the unavoidable final question – now that the collection is flying out in the world, what’s next?
VH: In the spring, I was thrilled when I landed a two-book deal at Ballantine. I’m turning in the first novel this fall, and another next year. My debut novel, A River of Stars, features a Chinese factory clerk sent to America to give birth to her married lover’s child. When he betrays her, she flees. The next novel, The Sea Palaces, is set during the Cultural Revolution and is told from the point of view of a teenager who becomes Chairman Mao’s lover. I have a lot of work ahead, but I feel grateful and fortunate to be working with an excellent editor and literary agents.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
homepage photo credit: torbakhopper the soul of the mission : revolution, mission district, san francisco (2014) via photopin (license)