Yiyun Li Interview
By: PP Wong
"Do you want to become a writer because you have something to say, or because you want to write to find things to say?"
Yiyun Li is an ex-scientist who swapped microscopes and bacteria for pens and paper. Her debut short story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers won the 2005 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and the 2006 Guardian First Book Award. Her debut novel The Vagrants was shortlisted for the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
When she is not working on her next epic novel, Yiyun spends her time teaching and encouraging new writers at the University of California, Davis. We are delighted to share her wise thoughts with our BW readers.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Winnie the Pooh.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A book (War and Peace) and a pen to write on the margin.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Irrelevant, miscellaneous, and stubborn.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Unfortunately, I am allergic to bananas and always have to be careful with it.
You went to the USA to pursue a graduate degree in Immunology. What made you decide to switch career paths and become a writer instead?
What happened, to make a long story short, is that I had an early mid-life crisis. I was twenty-eight, a year short of getting my Ph.D. and could see my life unfolded nicely as a scientist. That was rather frightening. So I thought I would give up science to become a writer. It was a risky move, illogic, full of uncertainties, but I knew I would always regret if I didn’t try. I think of all things, that regret of having never tried is the worst feeling.
In 2006, you won the Guardian First Book Award for your collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. What tips would you give someone who is writing a short story for the first time?
I think in the beginning writers tend to mistaken situations as stories. There are all sorts of situations, some exciting, some interesting, some thought provoking, some saddening, but situations are only a small part of a story.
More important is for the characters to find a space to breathe, to become known, or else, to become strangers to others and to themselves. Stories and novels are challenging in different ways: in stories you have to exercise control and put a lid on a situation; in a novel you have to have enough to say (many first novels read like an expanded short story, which may not be the best thing).
Imagine a ghastly world where you are not allowed to write stories for a year. What would you do in this year off from writing?
Reading, reading, reading. Writing for me is one way to have a conversation with the world, but it is not the only way. Reading is a way to communicate with other minds. I read War and Peace once a year, during the summer months. It’s one of the most sustaining books for my mind.
In previous interviews, you have said that your books are not autobiographical. Some writers would argue that authors should always write about something they “know”because that way the words and stories come across as more authentic. What do you think about this?
I do make sure that certain facts are right. For instance, if I write about the first McDonald’s near Tiananmen Square I would make sure the year it appeared in Beijing was right. If I am writing about an illness, I would like to know as much about it as possible. But most research should not enter fiction, which is about the emotional worlds within the characters rather than accumulation of facts. Authenticity can lead to lazy writing where a story or a novel is bogged down by unnecessary research and useless details. Edward P Jones’ The Known World is a perfect example of how minimum research carries a long way.
Your stories have wonderful characters with multiple layers. If you had to cook a dinner for three characters in fiction, which characters would you choose to invite?
The old man from The Old Man and the Sea, the whisky priest from Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and Lucy Gault from William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault. Why do we invite them? All three live in a meaningful solitude, and despite their different backgrounds, all three have perceptions of the world that I would love to listen to at a dinner.
What would I cook for them? It doesn’t matter. They seem the kind who are not fussy about food.
Do share with us about your experiences as a professor of English at the University of California, Davis. Do you think the most talented writers have an inherent talent or is it something that can be trained if someone works hard enough?
Talent has many facets. If a student has a wonderful touch with language and images, I would say, that is good, but that would not carry the student very long. Understanding the world and human nature is a more important part of the talent. I don’t teach writing as much as I teach reading, as it is one way a student can learn to understand the world beyond his immediate environment. Hard work is a must. I come from a science background. If you don’t go to a lab to carry out experiments, failures after failure, you can have the most brilliant ideas but they are only soap bubbles.
Another thing I would ask a student: do you want to become a writer because you have something to say, or because you want to write to find things to say?
Of course it is not only for the students but also for all writers at all stages.
We would love to know more about your writing process and what inspires you.
I try to write every day, but don’t always do so. I read every day, which is the most important thing for a writer. People often set up all sorts of rules in writing only for others to break them, so I never believe in any of the rules.
Beyond the crafts and techniques, I believe a writer should invest so much of his or her passion and emotion in the characters that in the end, his or her self is eclipsed by the characters’ lives.
In your latest novel Kinder Than Solitude, you create a mysterious story that Sherlock Holmes would be proud of. In your opinion, what is the greatest mystery on this earth?
That is a good question. There are many mysteries within human nature that baffle me. For instance, we seek comfort in strangers more than people close to us sometimes. Or, sometimes we are attracted to people who lie to us, not because we don’t know they are lying, but their lying seems to help us in our own lying. I think the greatest mystery on this earth is that people often want to be close to others yet resist meaningful closeness. BW