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Interview with Korean-American Writer Sonya Chung, Author of Long for This World

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Sonya Chung is the author of Long For This World, published in March 2010 by Scribner.

Tell us a little about yourself? When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I consider myself a “late bloomer” as a writer. I didn’t start writing seriously until my late 20s. Before that, I was still learning to read — meaning , both what to read, and also how to read with my whole self, in the way that a writer needs to read in order to develop as a writer. I like what Marilynne Robinson says about this label: you are a “writer” when you are writing. Apart from that, the word is meaningless.

So did you come from a family of readers? How did your environment or upbringing foster your interest in your writing?

I didn’t grow up in a creative environment, so the idea of being a writer was not really on my radar. On a whim, I applied to a few MFA programs in my early 20s, and I got into one. But again, even during those years, I really did not consider myself a writer (even though I published a handful of short pieces, and won a few awards and honorable mentions). It took a long time for me to think of writing as my work, my core vocation.

For me I think the most significant influence of my Korean upbringing is language. Even though I’m not nearly as bilingual as I wish I was, there is something about growing up around two languages that makes one very attuned to the sounds and expressions and nuances of language. I always knew that language was power — if you could articulate and express something, people listened. I also knew that language was play — I think my sisters and I always loved to play with accents and impersonations because we were always hearing the different ways of saying the same thing and recognized how much fun could be had, and what dramatically different messages you could convey depending on how you expressed something. This started with English and Korean, but we easily extended our play into all kinds of languages and accents.

As a side note, a writer who greatly influenced me was Ha Jin, his novel Waiting in particular. Reading that book was a revelation to me; Ha Jin writes in English, but his characters are understood to be speaking a Chinese language. I saw the possibilities of writing characters who speak English with an Asian intonation, so that the English-speaking reader hears the tones and rhythms of a different language in both the narration and dialogue.

When I finished Long for This World, I suppose, was when I started to sense that I was not only putting my feet into the writer’s shoes, but also walking down the road in them.

Nice! Yes, I saw on your website that you made a trip to Korea and along the way you became convinced that the story needed to be told in a novel. So, how did the story come to you?

On my first trip to Korea (I was born in Washington, DC; my parents are both Korean-born immigrants), I spent a couple of days with one of my aunts by marriage on my father’s side. She played tour guide and was very generous with her time. But she speaks very little English, and my Korean is elementary at best, so, given how little we communicated in speech, I had a chance to observe and get a sense for her in other ways, and she intrigued me; she seemed like a woman with a story. I still to this day know very little about her (this is not uncommon in a Korean family, for a wife’s personal history to be unspoken once she marries)

Wow, that’s interesting. That’s the kind of thing that sets a writer’s mind spinning. . .  and imagining.

Yes, my curiosity about her became the seed for the novel’s first character, Han Jung-joo. From there, the story spun out in many directions (I filled a few notebooks with scribbles and notes). I knew the novel would include both native Korean characters and Korean American characters, traditional cultures and contemporary ones (and everything in between); and I also knew the story would have both global and intimate (domestic) concerns. Given the broad canvas, it seemed clear to me that this was going to be a novel.

Global and intimate concerns? So, is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

Hmm… maybe, “life is complicated,” and that the meaning of human existence is both enormous and tiny.

So what was your creative process like? Did you use a road map or think about the 'life is complicated' theme? Or did you discover your characters and your message along the way?

It’s the discovery that I find most engaging about the writing process. As Joan Didion said, “I write to figure out what I think.” I hold off on outlines until the last possible moment, when I absolutely need to start creating some sense of “order” for the story — timelines, family trees, etc. I do these at key points, like pit stops.

Yeah, I don’t know if it’s me but sometimes I can tell when a book was written from an outline from the start, as if the writer didn’t allow herself to discover anything. I find books like that predictable and, well, they just don’t breathe for me. So that was how you worked out your first novel? I see you’re working on a second novel. Do you still work this way?

For the novel I’m currently writing, Sebastian & Frederick, when I found myself approaching the final two sections of the novel, I sat down to map out the action in outline. A strange thing happened then. I lost steam, I found myself less motivated to get to the page each day. I think it’s because now that I know what’s going to happen, that discovery energy has deflated. But there’s also the satisfaction of knowing you’re close to the end, so with a little discipline, I hope to complete the draft in the next couple of months!

Me too. And you’re right about the discipline being part of writing. As well as discovery, of course. So, you had to push past the discovery part in this second draft. What about Long For This World ? What was the hard part of writing that, since it was your first novel?

For me, the first two-thirds of a novel draft pours out in a fluid way. It’s at the final third mark when the whole thing starts to either come together, or, more likely, I see that I have some fundamental flaws that need to be resolved. Going back and doing surgery on the first two-thirds so that I can go forward on the last third is the hardest. Overall, I’d say I love sentences and words more than structure and plot.

[Laughing] Sounds like an essayist talking, definitely. I’m sure there’s a great structure and plot, though. One of my favorite essayists was John Updike and he had some great plots in his novel. So, tell me about the main characters in Long For This World. Do you love them? Is there any character who’s like your stand-in in the novel?

I suppose I love my characters because each one expresses/contains a piece of me, along with pieces that intrigue me — in other words, every character is me (catharsis) and not-me (exploration). I get to live all these alternative existences. It would be easy, I think, for the reader to identify me too closely with Jane Han, who is a 30-something Korean American woman. But I see as much of myself in the philosophical playboy painter Chae Min-suk, the matriarch Han Jung-joo, Jane’s troubled, romantic father Han Hyun-kyu, and Jane’s younger brother Henry.

How does history, politics, society, or spirituality affect your work?

[Laughing] Goodness, how do these NOT affect my work? The novel form is, for me, a kind of repository for all these, which swirl around in my head chaotically. In the novel, everything can exist in the single universe that you, the author, create. The heterogeneity of the form is what I love most — you don’t have to choose politics OR history OR spirituality; it can all co-exist, mingle, collide, layer. In most contexts in life, you are forced into narrow specialization; in the novel, you can wander and cross boundaries and try to make whole what feels atomized in life.

Ooh, nice! More and more I want to read this book.

Thank you. Please do.

I will. Maybe in the summer when I can read a book for enjoyment instead of because I have to review it. So then, what spiritual journey — if any — did you have to work through in order to finish it? Or, did you learn anything spiritual about the world or yourself as you wrote it? And what do you think of art and its power in society?

When I was writing Long For This World, I was very isolated; my solitude was both necessary and deeply challenging. I had quit my full-time job in order to finish my draft, was struggling to find/maintain freelance work, fell into debt, was living in a rural place; most of my peers were getting married, having children, advancing in their careers, acquiring material things. It felt crazy and fantastical to be doing what I was doing, like I was regressing in life. It was a very unstable time. And yet, I never really doubted in my core that this was what I needed to be doing.

I suppose that’s the spiritual journey — connecting with your truest self and living your life out of that place, no matter what else is going on around you or how out of sync you are with “everyone else,” or how shaky you feel sometimes trying to manage the day-to-day. You have to access a new and deeper inner solidity. It’s a kind of growing up, even though it looks like a second adolescence. No one is going to do it for you — write your novel, take these risks — you have to do it yourself.

As for the power of art, I’ll refer to the late poet Jane Kenyon, who said that journalists report on the externals of life, whereas artists report on our inner lives (my paraphrase). David Foster Wallace talked about fiction as showing us what it means to be a f*&^ing human being on the planet. I think it’s terribly unfortunate when “art” and “society” become dichotomized in an either/or way. The poet Denise Levertov wrote much about the integration of these — how art nourishes our capacity for empathy and compassion, without which we cannot be full human beings in society. There are certain politicians, for example, whom I think could benefit from authentic engagement with art. Where is our Vaclav Havel? I sometimes wonder.

Wow! So true. And very inspiring. And the trip to Korea was also part of this spiritual need to do what you felt your spirit had to do. Being Korean-American, how did the trip to Korea affect you?

Most American-born second generation Korean Americans make a trip to Korea at some point in their youth. There are some popular Korean language summer programs at universities in Seoul, for example, for high school and college students. I somehow never made the trip back then, so I was ripe for it when the opportunity arose. I was grateful, actually, to have waited; my mindset was one of exploration and curiosity (as opposed to, say, shopping and partying).

What books have most influenced your life most? Who are your favorite authors and what really strikes you about their work?

Too many to name; but I’ll say that Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was my “conversion” book, i.e. I read it and thought, very clearly, “I need to be a writer. ”

Readers can check out Sonya's Reading Events page.
She’s also written a memoir-essay, "How to Become a Writer," describing her journey as a writer. She also writes regularly for The Millions. Her essays can be found at Sonya Chung’ Essays.

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