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Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview Two – Yiyun Li

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The Vagrants By Yiyun Li

The Vagrants By Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li has made it onto the Waterstones’ ones to watch list 2009 after the release of her well received novel The Vagrants.

Moving to the United States in 1996 she had work published in the New Yorker as well as winning awards and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and the Whiting Foundation.

Her first collection of works, Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction.

Her most recent novel The Vagrants follows a small group in a small town during the 1970s when China was going through a social and political revolution towards a more open and free society.

In the middle of all this hype and excitement Yiyun Li took some time out to chat to The Scribbler. Read the interview below.

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THE SCRIBBLER: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?

YIYUN LI: I don’t think that is a question I can answer.

TS: As a ‘New Voice of 2009’ you must be inspired by some very contemporary authors. Which writers do you enjoy reading and draw inspiration from?

YL: Of the contemporary authors, I feel greatly indebted to William Trevor, whose novels and stories I read for inspiration.

TS: Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?

YL: I look for situations in life (from newspapers and from conversations with people) that fascinate or baffle me, and I then go on to make up characters to explore the situations.

TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to publisher? Can you talk us through that process?

YL: I suppose I had my share of rejection letters from literary magazines, though I was fortunate enough to have a story published in The New Yorker early in my career, which helped when I signed up with the publisher.

TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?

YL: I write in a second language, so I am always aware that language will remain a challenge. I keep reading and writing, which seems the only way to deal with the challenge, if not to overcome it.

TS: We often hear that artists have trouble dealing with their own pieces (i.e. musicians not able to listen to their albums etc.)

Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li

YL: How do you feel about your own work? Are you comfortable with it? After I finish my work I don’t think about it anymore. I am comfortable for my work to be read by the world, as by the time my words are in print I am distant enough from them.

TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start new one?

YL: I have started to work on my next book, a collection of stories. I don’t find it hard to leave a piece behind. In fact, it is always a joy to leave the old behind and start something new.

TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and advice would you give to our budding readers today?

YL: James Alan McPherson, who was my mentor when I began to write, rarely discussed the crafts of writing when I met him, but every time we met he would say to me, “Keep writing.” An I do believe that is the best advice given to me, and I would pass it on to young writers.

TS: In your opinion what is The Vagrants about?

YL: I don’t think I’d talk about a novel that way, not my books or other authors’ books.

TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and star writing?

YL: Many of William Trevor’s stories and novels inspired me to start writing. So has Graham Greene’s work.

TS: What is your learning background, and do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?

YL: I had a science background – I was trained to become an immunologist when I gave up that career to become a writer.

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Click on the clip to see a trailer for the film adaptation of Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers

Discussion:
Discuss, promote or rant about Yiyun Li or any of your favourite new writers for 2009, and expect more Q&As with the novelists on the Waterstones ones to watch list 2009.

Words: Seamus Swords

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Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview One – Janice Y. K. Lee

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Janice Y.K Lees debute novel

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K Lee

Janice Y. K. Lee has written her first novel to much acclaim, after making it onto the Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 The Scribbler has managed to secure a quick Q&A with the writer.

This interview is the first in a series in which we hope to talk to all the nominated writers competing for the Waterstones award.

Impressing many publications from the intellectual New Yorker to fashion magazine Vogue, Janice Y. K. Lee has managed to impress some of the harshest critiques with The Piano Teacher, a tale of love, passion and survival in 1940s and 50s Hong Kong.

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THE SCRIBBLER: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?

JANICE Y. K. LEE: I think that people like to be transported in a novel, and 40s and 50s Hong Kong is sufficiently far away from most peoples’ worlds that they feel as if they are travelling and learning a little bit.  The Piano Teacher has been described as an historical epic and an epic love story and I think both of those appeals to readers.

TS: As a New Voice of 2009 you must be inspired by some very contemporary authors. Which writers do you enjoy reading and draw inspiration from?

JYKL: I do read mostly contemporary writers, partly because I want to support writers working now and also because it is the closest to my heart.  I think Shirley Hazzard and Michael Ondaatje are amazing.  Also Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides.  I could go on and on.

TS:  Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?

JYKL: I don’t know that I “lift” them as much as they come floating up to the conscious part of my head.  I’ll be thinking about many things, and some will keep coming back, or be resonating for a reason I cannot figure out.  I was interested in a long time by people who steal, people who one would never think would do such a thing.  This found its way into short stories, characters I would write about, and eventually found its way into the book.  TPT started as a short story about an English piano teacher and her young Chinese student.  From there, the characters really led me to their story.

TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to publisher? Can you talk us through that process?

JYKL: I have an unusual story, which will probably not be that helpful, unfortunately.  My teacher from grad school, Chang rae Lee, introduced me to my agent, and she took me on the basis of my short stories but she really encouraged me to write a novel.  It took me a while, but after 5 years, I had my novel.  She was always very encouraging of it and because I took so long to make sure it was right, it was in good shape by the time I finished it.  From there, she sent it out and there were a lot of interested parties and it ended up going to auction.  I had a lot of rejection during my 20s with my short stories, but luckily, with this novel, it was a fairy tale sort of story.

Janice Y.K Lee

Janice Y. K. Lee

TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?

JYKL: I think writing a first novel, in particular, is difficult as you are writing in obscurity, you are likely not making any money, and people often don’t know what to make of you.  All I can say is that you just have to believe in yourself, and in your book, and keep on.

TS: We often hear that artists have trouble dealing with their own pieces (i.e. musicians not able to listen to their albums etc.) How do you feel about your own work? Are you comfortable with it?

JYKL: I haven’t read the book through since it came out.  I don’t know when I’ll do that.  I do flip through sometimes, and read a passage, and usually I will like it.  I suppose that’s pretty good!

TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start new one?

JYKL: Writing a second book is awfully difficult as well!  I feel there is a certain expectation as to the kind of the book I will write, and I’m trying hard to let that feeling go and write what I want to write.  I think I have successfully left TPT behind but it’s just trying to get to that new place right now.

TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and advice would you give to our budding readers today?

JYKL: Treat writing like a job.  It is a job and you have to work very hard at it.  It is not always some romantic life of late nights and wine and talking about one’s process (that may come afterwards! or before!).  You have to sit at that desk and write.

TS: In your opinion what is The Piano Teacher about?

JYKL: I think it’s about Claire (the book’s piano teacher), but I’ve been argued down to the ground about that.  Others think it is about consequences of actions made under duress, east meets west, wartime.  But I’ll stick to my guns and say it’s about Claire’s journey as a person.

TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and start writing?

JYKL: Any of the books written by the writers I mentioned above will move me and make me want to write.  They have a way of surprising readers, using words differently, illuminating character, that make one pause and savour the language.  

TS: What is your learning background? And do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?

JYKL: I went to university and studied English and American Literature which was certainly helpful.  I did an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing which was helpful insofar as it gave me time to write in a community of people who were doing the same thing.

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Click on the below clip to hear an except from The Piano Teacher:

Discussion:
Please take this chance to discuss, promote or rant about Janice Y.K Lee or any of your favourite new writers for 2009, and expect more Q&As with the novelists on the Waterstones ones to watch list 2009.

Words: Seamus Swords

On The Road editor comments on Kerouac’s scroll

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Jack Kerouac holding the scroll manuscript of On The Road

Jack Kerouac holding the scroll manuscript of On The Road

The Scribbler has been keeping an eye on the news surrounding the original On The Road scroll manuscript by Jack Kerouac.

In response to the scroll’s exhibition in Birmingham (3 December), Howard Cunnell, editor of the novel’s 50th anniversary edition, has written to guardian.co.uk offering a deeper insight into Kerouac’s thought process as he wrote the manuscript.

The letter reads:

“It’s been widely known for a long while that On the Road is not an example of ‘spontaneous composition’. Kerouac made and wrote the scroll in the spring of 1951, as a response to his inability to finish a novel he had been working on for over two years. Many Kerouac scholars, including Ann Charters, Tim Hunt, Douglas Brinkley, Isaac Gewirtz, and myself, have demonstrated that Kerouac began writing On the Road as early as November 1948. He wrote a number of proto-versions in which he developed the themes of the novel, while in his journals he kept a detailed account of all the trips he made, with and without Neal Cassady, that became the story of the book. It was with these journals and notebooks by his side, and a ‘self-instruction list’ acting as a chapter guide, that Kerouac wrote the first full-length version of the novel in April 1951.”

As Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker review of On the Road: The Original Scroll:

“Kerouac did not create the published book in a single burst of inspiration. It was the deliberate and arduous labor of years. Spontaneous composition is a technique Kerouac began developing in the late summer of 1951, after his friend, the painter Ed White, advised him to go out in the street like a painter and sketch, but with words. Kerouac used the sketching idea in his finest novel, Visions of Cody, written out of the revisions of the scroll manuscript and not published until after Kerouac’s death. Arguably the most noteworthy example of the technique is Kerouac’s fine novel The Subterraneans, written in three days and nights in 1953.”

It seems that Kerouac’s enigmatic writing style still has us intrigued 50 years on. A new debate has now risen; just how would Kerouac cope with modern day writing methods? Could anyone type for weeks on end using Microsoft Word or is it just the fact that Kerouac’s unique gift was that he could use a typewriter like an instrument, like the great composers could create magnificent seamless flowing movements.

The Freewheelin’ Jack Kerouac interviewed below:

Discussion:
What do you make of the retorts to the public displaying of On The Road? Is Kerouac not the groundbreaking author we thought he was? Would you ever consider writing a novel in one burst of inspiration? What are the pros and cons of that technique?

Words: Seamus Swords