Tell us about your most recent release.
My new novel is titled Bitter Orange. This is my fifth book (I’m also the author of two short story collections and two earlier novels), and I wrote it while I was living in Korea. It’s a dark little novel about a guy with a peculiar almost-superpower: he can become invisible, and when he does, his presence can’t be detected in any other way. But it only happens when he’s doing something he believes is morally wrong. Crime can be fun (sort of)! On a thematic level, the book is also about getting your shit together (or not) after a devastating setback.
What else do you have coming out?
Several things. To accompany Bitter Orange, I’ve released a free e-chapbook containing excerpts of my first four books. The title is Never Turn Away, and it’s meant as an introduction to my work. Ten years have passed since my first novel, The Concrete Sky, was released, so now’s the right time to do something like this. Never Turn Away also contains the first chapter of Bitter Orange, so with luck it might get a few people interested. In addition to these two, I’m co-editing an academic collection of short fiction with a World Englishes focus, and it should be out this fall (2013). I won’t have a story in it but will coauthor the introduction. I’d share the working title, but my co-editor and I haven’t even decided what that ought to be yet! There are a few other things in the pipeline as well: by the time this interview is published, I will have just finished the first draft of a new novel, Murder in the Cabaret Sauvignon, my first attempt at a mystery. It should be out in 2015, depending on when I can find time for edits. I’ve got a fair amount of short fiction that hasn’t been collected yet, and I imagine those stories will appear together as a book in a few years’ time. And my dissertation (I’m starting a PhD in creative writing this year, if everything goes according to plan) will be a new novel. So that’s my books for the next five to seven years.
Is there anything you want to make sure potential readers know?
The editor who accepted my first novel The Concrete Sky for publication once said that he thought my writing was like sparks shooting off the pages. So if you’re looking for the writing-style equivalent of Katy Perry’s breasts, I’m your guy.
What's the most blatant lie you've ever told?
Believe me, it’s not fit for print!
What is the most demeaning thing said about you as a writer?
Ironically, the most demeaning thing was also perhaps the funniest. Back in the day, some idiot reviewed The Concrete Sky and took a big, patronizing dump on it for being “unrealistic,” especially the part that was set in a hospital psych ward. This came right on the heels of a reviewer at the American Psychiatric Association praising the book for the realism of those chapters. Not long after this, the book found its way onto a recommended-reading list for psych students who’d be working in that milieu. I used to be a sign language interpreter, and I did a lot of work in mental-health settings: psych wards, counseling sessions, and hospitals. It’s an environment I know very well. For this person to give my book such a rubbishing was pretty hilarious. It pissed me off at the time, but it was really pretty damn funny. Illustrative, too.
How do you react to a bad review of one of your books?
A challenge with fiction, especially depending on the genre or minority group you are perceived as belonging to, is that some readers think it’s the author’s job to represent them in exactly the way that they see themselves... or in the way that they want to see themselves. If you deviate from that (as I have tended to do), then they take it personally, get all worked up, and rant about what a lousy novel you’ve written. But the ranting is less about craft than it is about their assumption that you’re there to represent. To me, this is putting the cart before the horse. In the decade since The Concrete Sky (which has been by far my largest-selling book) was published, I’ve taken a fair amount of heat for precisely that reason: my characters piss some readers off for not being enough like them.
It’s important to bear in mind that no matter how important the reviewer thinks his or her comments and emotions are, not all feedback is valid. Some people simply don’t know what they’re talking about. As I mentioned already, some of the most negative reviews I’ve gotten have been so dumb that I couldn’t take them too personally. But I’ve acquired a bit more self-control over the years. A decade ago, I sent lacerating emails to a couple of reviewers who said stupid things about The Concrete Sky. I published these rebuttals on my blog as well (even though this is supposedly Not Done), and I don’t regret having done so. These days, I can’t be bothered. There aren’t enough hours in the day. Last year, my collection The Infernal Republic got an awful, factually inaccurate review from a British book-review portal I’ll decline to name. Not responding to the imbecile who wrote it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I opted not to have a Marshall’s Mouth Moment.
When are you going to write your autobiography?
Ideally, before I’m dead. Ouija boards are slow.
Are the names of the characters in your novels important?
At an atavistic level, they have to feel right to me. They have to suit the characters, of course, and they have to sound realistic. In the new book, I went through many names for my characters because the ones I’d given them never seemed to fit (despite my pretty clear understanding of all the personalities involved in the story). I’m happy with them now, but it took months of trial and ugh.
Sometimes I know names before I have the characters fully formed in my mind and/or the stories to go with them. Probably the best example of this was a minor character in my novel An Ideal for Living. Her given name was Flora Trust, and I never assigned her a surname. I think people thought this was weird, but I knew what I was doing. In the American South, it’s common (or it used to be) for people to have double names like that, or to go by their first and middle names. The characters were Southerners in Northern California, and I wanted that to resonate, especially for readers familiar with the South. When I was very young, I overheard people in my family talking about someone whose name sounded like fore truss. I could never quite work out what the name really was, nor who they were talking about. So for years, this approximate sound pattern (for lack of something better to call it) was stuck in my head. Eventually I decided Flora Trust was as close as I could come. Even if I could never figure out who the real-life person was, I knew I could get a character name out of it. So it has worked out rather well, apart from the unsolved mystery.
What about the titles of your novels?
The novels are The Concrete Sky, An Ideal for Living, and Bitter Orange. Plus the new one, Murder in the Cabaret Sauvignon. I’ve also written two short story collections, Black Shapes in a Darkened Room and The Infernal Republic. There’s an e-chapbook of three short stories that were translated and published in Italian, Il look del diavolo. And there’s my retrospective compilation thing, Never Turn Away.
Are there any occupational hazards to being a novelist?
Alcoholism, insanity, bad posture, and carpal tunnel syndrome are the more obvious ones, even if these are very stereotypical. Having no social life is a problem too, especially if you also have a day job (or two) and run a small press. And Neglected Kitty Syndrome is endemic to writers with cats. I don’t neglect my own cat, although he might feel otherwise. He’s kind of an attention whore.
What's your favorite fruit?
I don’t eat much fruit. The texture grosses me out, and I’d prefer to avoid the sugar. I’m more of a veggie guy. Broccoli is the coolest vegetable ever, and I think celery is brilliant. Back to fruit: apples, I suppose. And dragonfruit is rather tasty in its rather tasteless way.
How many people have you done away with over the course of your career?
Characters? Armies of them. I’ve never destroyed an entire planet before, but it’s on my authorial bucket list.
Ever dispatched someone and then regretted it?
In my books, there’s only been one character I hated killing. (I won’t say who it was.) The death was essential to the plot, so I don’t regret it, but that scene wasn’t one I enjoyed writing. In real life, there are a couple of people I regret not dispatching.
Have you ever been in trouble with the police?
So when were you last involved in a real-life punch-up?
I’ve never been in one. *knock on wood*
If you were going to commit the perfect murder, how would you go about it?
I’m not the murderous sort, despite what my work may suggest. But if I had a perfect-murder idea, which I actually don’t at the moment, then I’d save it for a book!
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Exactly who and what I already am, albeit with a lot more money.
What is your favorite bedtime drink?
Either ginger or peppermint tea.
Do you ever wish that you had an entirely uncreative job, like data entry or working in a factory?
No. I have a particular skill set and academic background that would be wasted in that environment. That work is valuable and should be honored, of course, but it’s not the right fit for me. I’d be miserable and wouldn’t last a week.
Do you believe in a deity?
I believe that there’s something out there that’s bigger than we are. But we demean both it and ourselves by making it out to be a petty, humorless, wrathful asshole who’ll cast us into eternal hell for not worshiping it. And I certainly don’t believe in a deity that would set us up to fail by giving us brains and bodies in the expectation that we not use them. In general, I think religions that expect people to behave and to think as if we still live in walled villages to keep strangers out, and still huddle around fires at night because we’re scared of the dark, have outlived their usefulness and should be stamped out.
Do you ever write naked?
God no. I live in Hong Kong, and the people in the buildings across the street can see right into my apartment. I’m in pretty good shape, but the last thing I need to do is put on a show for the office ladies over there!
Who would play you in a film of your life?
Probably someone with a flatter stomach (although mine’s not bad at all), bigger deltoids, and a lower IQ.
What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?
Persistence, thick skin, and a robust liver.
Have you ever read or seen yourself as a character in a book or a movie?
Sort of. An author friend I won’t name poached a couple of things from The Concrete Sky and gave me a shout out by naming a minor character Marshall. I’ve never asked him whether this was deliberate or unconscious. It doesn’t really matter now, either; this was years ago. You know you’ve arrived when somebody way more famous borrows from your work!
What is the single most powerful challenge when it comes to writing novel?
Getting through the third quarter of the book. The excitement of starting wears off by then. By the time I reach the halfway point, the writing is a slog through the swamps: I’m hip-deep in self-doubt, but I also know I’m committed. If I were going to abandon the book, I’d have done it before (or around) the 15,000-word mark. The last quarter gets easier because I know where I’m going, and the closer I get to the end, the less unpleasant the journey becomes. But that 50 - 75% stretch is rough going.
What do you consider your biggest failure?
I was gutted when my novel An Ideal for Living flopped. It was a loud flop, too, like when an Olympic diver lands on his belly with the whole world watching. While I was writing it, and even before, I had so much confidence in it. It was and is a damn good book, and I was convinced it would hit a public nerve. Timing was a big problem, though. For one thing, I was in grad school when it came out. You can only promote a book so much when you’re up to your neck in academic journal articles, so I didn’t do as much as I could (and should) have. The publisher did manage to get a few reviews in a few places, and to be fair, he also rescued it from limbo after the original publisher sat on it for years before going tits-up. But during that time, any momentum I may have acquired from The Concrete Sky fizzled out, so in spite of the very good reviews Ideal got, it sank without a trace.
Do you research your novels?
Yes and no. I do research them once I’ve started writing, as I identify facts I need to know and gaps I need to fill in. That’s where it ends, though: I’m not the sort of author who does extensive research ahead of time, makes an outline, and then starts writing. That’s too rigid for me. However, this will change when I start my PhD research this fall: I’ll have to do considerably more work in advance because the novel I’m proposing to write will be a departure from the previous ones. Also, the way a creative-writing PhD works is that in addition to the creative work you write as your dissertation, you also have to do a critical exegesis of 20-30,000 words. In my case, this will involve a literature review. Part of the reason I’m doing this is to challenge my skills as a writer, specifically to keep from doing the same thing I’ve been doing. I’m hoping I’ll learn a lot this way.
How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?
I had a spectacularly fucked-up childhood that I am lucky to have survived, so yeah, I think it’s safe to say there’s an influence. But I’m in my 40s, so my life has stopped being a reaction to the Very Bad Things that happened back then.
What was the greatest thing you learned at school?
If you can survive being bullied and gay-bashed as a kid without taking one of your father’s guns to school and shooting the place up, then you can survive most other things. As a kid, I also realized something that I wish would occur to anyone contemplating an act of violence today: even if certain people arguably do deserve to be shot in the face, their families and friends don’t deserve for that to happen to someone they love. Nor do innocent bystanders deserve to take a bullet or three for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As awful as it was to be tormented, made fun of, and beaten up for years on end, I made a conscious choice to live through that shit... and to let certain people live.
Do you laugh at your own jokes?
Only the funny ones.
Do you admire your own work?
When it’s good.
What are books for?
Teaching us about ourselves. Helping us pass the time. Helping us make our way through our lives. Teaching us about the world. Looking cool on our bookshelves. Draining our checking accounts. Have I overlooked anything?
Are you fun to go on vacation with?
Probably not. I have a couple of annoying health issues and am not a low-maintenance traveler.
How do you feel about being interviewed?
I appreciate the fact that anyone is interested in what I have to say. At the same time, I always worry that I’m too blunt, for better or for worse. I want to say positive, informative, engaging things. Read me! Have a laugh! Love me! Buy my books! But I also want to give honest answers, too, preferably without sounding like a whiny, entitled douche who’s gone off his meds. It’s a delicate balance. Is it working?
Why do you think what you do matters?
It matters very much to me.
Have you ever found true love?
My partner has put up with my shit for six years now. If that isn’t true love, I don’t know what is. :)
How many times a day do you think about death?
This somewhat depends on how low my blood sugar is. Hypoglycemia can take you to some dark places.
Are you jealous of other writers?
Only the inferior ones who are making more money.
What makes you cry?
Cruelty to animals. There’s a real problem with that here in Hong Kong, and it’s been in the news quite a lot in the last few years. Some really brutal things have been done to dogs and cats here, and to a few other types of animals as well. A couple of the stories have made me lose it. My cat must think it’s weird that I have to go sob on him after hearing about this shit, but there it is.
What makes you laugh?
The weird hybrid English you see here in Asia, on clothes and signs and other places. Chinglish, Konglish, Japlish, whatever -- it’s just surreal. People wear the language as an ornament seemingly without having a clue what it means. This is something like Western people getting tattoos of Chinese characters without being able to read them properly. When I see the F-bomb on shirts and accessories out in public, I’m not offended (please, it’s my favorite word), but I do wonder sometimes. You’d think the people would notice it.
What are you ashamed of?
There are some political things I could say in answer to this question, but it’s probably better if I don’t go there.
What's the loveliest thing you have ever seen?
I can’t decide!