Dispatches | October 25, 2013

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Today’s Working Writer is Tien-Yi Lee.


Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am the mother of two young boys, ages 3.5 and 1.5 (they will insist the “half” is terribly important). I work part-time as a freelance web and graphic designer, a field I’ve been in for over fifteen years. My educational background is in Biology.

In my previous life without kids, I was a night owl, playing drums in bands, dancing salsa, watching late night TV, waking up when I was ready to wake up the next morning. Nowadays, evenings are the only quiet time in my day, and are reserved for writing (ok, I squeeze all my reality shows into one night of TV watching). I try to write between 8:30 and midnight. On most days I feel like I am stretched too thin, doing too many things, and doing nothing well. But then I’m reminded that everyone feels this way.

I started writing six years ago, mostly short stories, including one which was published in TMR in 2010 and awarded the Peden Prize. Last year I won an Artist’s Grant by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. I felt terribly guilty about it, since I hadn’t written a word in months, but I think something about winning that award substantiated my identity as “a writer” (a term I never associated with myself). This past January, after an almost two-year writing hiatus, I decided it was time to start working on the novel, which had been brewing in my head. It’s actually an expansion of the short story published in TMR.  I’m up to 65,000 words, which is pretty amazing for me, since I often feel like I am the sparest and slowest writer ever. In August, I took an entire week off and went up to Vermont by myself. It was heavenly. And shocking, how productive one can be without the distractions of everyday life. My goal is to finish a first draft by the end of the year. I am still trying to figure out how to balance writing with the rest of my life, both in practical terms and as a part of my identity — though some part of me acknowledges it may never be clear.

You sound quite busy! Your educational background and current career are so far from writing. Does having these outside interests influence your work or distract you from it?

 I’d have to say that my outside interests, though integral to who I am, mostly distract me from my writing. It would also be true to say that writing distracts me from my work. With my graphic design work, I do it when I do it, and when I’m not doing it, it’s done. With writing, especially when it is going well, it is pervasive — distracting me from my work, my kids, and everything else.

You said you’re currently working on a novel, which is an expansion of your TMR short story. When did you first realize this story deserved more attention and space? Has it been difficult to expand such a short work to a full-length fiction or has it flowed naturally?

 The original short story is quite compressed — it covers a lot of events over a long time span, so I knew there was room for expansion. I liked that the characters were complex, and I wanted to see them continuing on with their lives. I could see it resulting in messy situations and difficult moral dilemmas, which I think make for good stories. So the novel basically continues where the short story left off, though the next section is told by a different narrator. Plotwise, it feels natural to tell it this way, in large chronological chunks, by different narrators who each interact with the protagonist. That being said, I find the novel form a real challenge to negotiate. I’m not used to lengthy descriptions or detailed, blow-by-blow recounting of scenes. I have a hard time with slowing down the pace at the right moments, and filling up all those pages has been tough! But I am learning a lot, and that’s fun.

 You said you think messy situations and difficult moral dilemmas make for a good novel. What are your favorite novels that feature difficult moral dilemmas, and what have you learned from them while writing your novel?

 This is a tough question — I’d have to dig back into the novels I’ve read, as nothing quickly comes to mind. So I’ll resort to saying that what draws me to a story, whether in novels or short-stories or movies or TV, are those in which there are multiple characters who are both sympathetic yet deserving of blame. First thing I can think of that fits this bill is the characters in the TV series The Wire— are they gangsters who kill people, enterprising kids who grew up under duress, or just people caught in the system? The Iranian movie A Separation also had a bit of an intractable situation in the beginning, where there was a woman who suffered from a miscarriage and it wasn’t possible to lay blame on any one character, but each played a role. The stories that stick with me most are those in which there is no clear cut good guy or bad guy, where multiple people are flawed, culpable, yet also deserving of sympathy.

You said your writing is “pervasive,” but do you have a writing routine?

 I try to write in the evenings, usually starting around 8:30 or 9, until whenever I fall asleep. I write in bed, on my laptop. Not ideal, but if I’m in the groove, it actually works pretty well. If I’m not, I just fall asleep or get sidetracked by “other things” (internet….)

If I’m on a roll, the ideas will come to me anywhere — while I’m driving, on the treadmill at the gym, often in the middle of the night. That’s what I mean by pervasive. But they almost always come sideways, when I’m not trying to generate them — so often I’ll deliberately try to read something boring, as a way to get my mind to wander.  At these times it doesn’t matter if I’m not sitting down with my computer, because I can be productive wherever I have a little mental space. A lot of it is plot development, new scenes, new character traits to weave into the story. It can also be phrases, sentences, descriptions. I write all these things down in a notebook.

If I have a little extra time during the day, when I am light on design work, I will also try to squeeze in some writing. On the days my kids are not in the house, I’ll write in my baby’s room, because it is the least cluttered. I’ve also written in cafes, libraries, and most recently in my car. Twice a week, I have a sitter come to my house to watch my kids for three hours. On those afternoons I like the car, because it means I don’t waste time commuting and it is actually very private and cozy. I like being able to take off my shoes.

You say ideas come to you anywhere. Are these ideas fully formed or more like a kernel of an idea? And if so, how do you develop it into a larger story?

 These are usually ideas for scenes — so plot ideas. For example, I decided I wanted to create a creepy vibe that permeates one section of the book. I remembered a friend telling me about a scenario where she came home from vacation and found dead cockroaches all over her apartment. It turned out her landlord had brought in an exterminator while she was away. The bugs had come out of their hiding places and died all over her floor. Pretty gross. So I decided to incorporate bugs throughout the section (the sound of them in the walls, finding their shedded husks under the refrigerator etc), culminating in that scene.

But ideas could also be a phrase, a conversation I want two characters to have, a line of dialogue, a way of describing something — for example, I recently added the phrase “pinball energy, all flashing lights and snapping rubber bands” into a scene I’d already written to better describe the character. Ideas can also be bigger picture — for example, themes that I want to reinforce throughout the book.

 Earlier, we discussed what are your favorite works about moral dilemmas, but more broadly, who are your favorite authors? What books most inspire your work overall?

 There are a lot of writers who inspire me, and who I admire for different reasons.

For a long time my favorite author was Milan Kundera, who I love for his succinctly stated observations of human nature and his simple writing style.

More recently, I loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, for its complexity, and the way it draws disparate narratives together in a surprisingly moving way.

I also recently read Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, The Burgess Boys. I loved Olive Kitteridge, and even though the two books are completely different, what I admire most is the way she conveys the nuances in her characters’ relationships. Every two characters interact with a slightly different dynamic (like in real families!), and she does it using the subtlest gestures, a choice phrase in conversation, and with economy. It’s masterful.

Another book I found memorable was Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. What amazed me most was the seamlessness of his prose. I read it in less than a day (on my trip out to Missouri, actually), and at the end, I thought, not much really happens in this book, but it just flows and flows, smooth as butter, and I couldn’t put it down for that reason alone.

Right now I’m interested in how writers create mood — I liked Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin for its grittiness, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland for its creepy, claustrophobic feel.

I also read a lot of short stories. I love Alice Munro, the way her stories make me cringe, Lorrie Moore for her humor, William Trevor, Tobias Wolff, though my favorite is probably still Raymond Carver. I like simple, beautiful writing.

As a graphic designer I often have to ask my clients to describe what they’re trying to convey, turning something visual into words. Conversely, I sometimes find inspiration for my writing when I look at visual mediums and styles. Just today I was discussing this with a photographer, because we’re about to have some family portraits taken. She asked me what kind of setting, and I said I’d prefer outside, but wanted to avoid bright colors, too many angles or patterns floating around. I like wide-open spaces, with subtly textured layers for background — beach, ocean, and cloudy sky, for example, with an overall wash of white/gray/blueness, nothing too distracting from the main subjects. I have a photo like this that I look at sometimes, to inspire that feeling in how I write.

Tien-Yi Lee can be found at her website.