An Interview with C Pam Zhang

C Pam Zhang is a fiction writer whose stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, American Short Fiction, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, How Much of These Hills is Gold, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books in April 2020. The Fiction Board caught up with her over email to ask a few questions about writing, revising, and feasting.

What is your novel about, and what inspired it? When did you start writing your first draft, and what approach did you take to writing and revising?

My novel is reimagining of the myth of the American West that centers, instead of white men, two children of immigrants who set out with the body of their dead father. It’s about home, grief, tigers and buffalos, mourning for a ravaged land. The kernel at its heart may be this question: what is it like to live with the visceral reality of a dead body?

I had no intention of writing this novel. I woke up with the first images in my head and exorcised them in the form of a short story. Then I tried to avoid the project because, let’s be honest: why would anyone willingly embark on a novel? It is so long, so thankless, so grueling. You can’t want to write a novel; it must be a need, a hounding.

I wrote my first draft quickly because I believe the goal of any first draft is to produce a heap of utter trash. That’s it. Nothing loftier. That’s the only way you’ll get through it without self-sabotaging by way of perfectionism. When you see your first draft as joyous garbage, it becomes much easier to throw great swathes away in revision, which is the real work of the novel. Probably ten percent of that first draft made it into the final draft; the finished novel is draft maybe, I don’t know, twenty?

Which books or authors have had the biggest influence on your writing? I’m wondering, for instance, whether the journey your characters take to bury their father is meant to be a spin on As I Lay Dying? Are you intentional about situating your work within particular genres (e.g., Asian American literature, immigrant literature, historical fiction, magical realism)?

I have never read As I Lay Dying! In fact I’ve never read Faulkner, or Joyce, or a dozen other writers in the supposed canon, and that’s okay. I mention this only because I used to be ashamed, especially in collegiate settings where I assumed everyone was much more learned than me. I unlearned shame fairly recently. Make your own canon.

I love Marilyn Chin’s Tales of the Mooncake Vixen for how she plays with, cannibalizes, thumbs her nose at, mythology. Toni Morrison’s Beloved because she is a genius, and makes language and memory ferociously her own. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove for that classic Western epic. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News for language as engine, as joy even when the topic itself is bleak.

Even to this day I get queasy when I see my novel filed under any genre—historical, Asian American, what have you. Genre designations are for readers and marketplaces. They’re not for the writer to consider when writing. They’ll only stifle you if you think about them too early.

Who are your first readers? Are you friends with other writers? If so, how have you met them?

I met quite a few of my writing friends online, where we exchange work and also lots of anxiety about writing. Highly recommended to have friends with whom you can be free about your never-ending anxiety.

When did you start working with your agent and editor? Did anything surprise you about the process of finding and collaborating with them?

I worked with them very late! Not until I was several drafts into my novel and had polished it as much as I could by myself. The writer Lauren Groff once gave me this excellent advice: if you consider yourself married to your novel, don’t send it out until you’re ready to divorce it. It wasn’t that I thought my novel was perfect when I looked for an agent; it was that I could see a million ways to change it and I no longer had a sense of what change would be for the better or for the worse. I was sick and tired of its stupid face.

I was most surprised by how much I loved being edited. I’d heard before that some writers dislike being edited, and can only conclude that perhaps there are bad editors out there. Both my editor and agent ask questions that force me to think more deeply, rather than give prescriptive feedback. There is a level of foundational trust that they earned at the beginning by speaking about my novel in terms that resonated with me. If anyone ever describes your novel in a way that makes you cringe or gives you pause, that is not your person, no matter how powerful or esteemed.

The first story I read of yours was “Dad.Me” in McSweeney’s 53, which according to your Twitter “was rejected 38 freakin’ times.” As a writer, how do you deal with rejection? How do you know a story is worth working on and submitting even after it’s been rejected repeatedly?

I was once told that a writer needs two things: an enormous ego and crippling self-doubt. They’re uneasy partners in this strange writing life. The enormous ego gets you through to the end of projects; the crippling self-doubt helps you edit and be a decent human in the world.

There are plenty of stories I’ve thrown away after a few rejections, or sometimes just a tactful comment from a trusted reader. I kept submitting “Dad.Me” because, quite simply, it moved me every time I read it. Pay attention to when your own work moves you, really moves you—and I don’t mean when it impresses you, or you think you’ve written an especially lyrical metaphor.

You studied English as an undergrad at Brown. How do you think reading in an academic or critical context differs from reading as a fiction writer? I’ve heard from some writers that studying and analyzing English literature can stifle the creative impulse, whereas other writers find that literary studies and creative writing can be mutually productive. What was your experience?

There can be great pleasure and satisfaction in an academic paper: the pleasure of articulation. The ability to articulate why you love what you love—or why you hate what you hate—is a tool all people, really, should have.

That said, articulation is a tool for readers and editors; don’t pick it up to write with.

What kinds of day jobs have you had since graduating from college, and how have they affected your writing or your ability to write?

I have always had a day job or freelance work. Straight out of college I worked in the San Francisco tech scene full time for about two years, then transitioning to part time. I still do tech work. I grew up in a low-income immigrant family and don’t have a safety net to fall back on. There is no shame in having a career that financially supports you—so many writers have either that or a familial safety net or a romantic partner who pays a greater share of living expenses, and it is criminal that we aren’t more vocal about that.

The hard truth is we do not live in a country that supports artists. Full stop. Support yourself, and be smart about it.

Remember that writing requires both the time to write and the mental freedom to do so. I did not have the latter if I lived in a state of precarity, worried about my next paycheck, how to make rent. Find a balance. Be steely-eyed about what you go into your paying job for, and therefore how much of yourself to put into the job. But it is very possible!

Finally, an obligatory FEAST question —— having lived in thirteen cities across four countries, what are some of your favorite foods and/or eateries that you associate with different places?

Providence, Rhode Island is cheap deals on buffalo wing deals. Bangkok, Thailand is fried fish from the street, where they get their residual warmth comes from sitting all day under the sun. Union City, California is greasy Chinese food at homestyle restaurants with every item on the menu plastered on the wall. Cambridge, UK is chip butties and Sainbury’s basics.