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Finding One’s Own Way Through the Woods: A Q & A with Short Story Writer Jack Livings

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By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

One of the best works of fiction I’ve read in recent months is The Dog: Stories by Jack Livings, who taught English in China in the 1990s and sets all of the short stories in his collection in that country. The book’s longest story, “Crystal Sarcophagus,” is set in the immediate wake of Mao’s death and follows the lives of people set the seemingly impossible task of producing, in record time, a glass coffin for the Chairman’s corpse that would be superior to those already occupied by deceased Communist leaders in Moscow and Hanoi.  Several other stories deal with politically charged issues as well, such as tensions between Han and Uighur residents of Beijing, but some focus on totally different things, such as a day and a night in the life of a friendless and not especially likable American exchange student. The Dog has been been getting enviable reviews, such as one by Michiko Kakutani that begins by calling it a “stunning debut” collection and later praises Livings for his ability to evoke the “predicaments” of varied kinds of individuals “with an emotional precision that is both unsparing and oddly forgiving.”  In interviewing Livings, I steered clear of “why set these stories in China when you’re an American who lives in the U.S.” sorts of questions, in part because he’d answered these well in earlier interviews for the China Real Time blog, for which Brittany Hite asked the questions, and for The Nervous Breakdown blog, where the person quizzing him was, well, Jack Livings.

JW: Even though I’m interviewing you for something called “The China Blog,” let’s start with a question that has nothing to do with a big country where the Communist Party is still in power, but is instead about Russia—a big country where a Communist Party used to be in control. The adjective “Chekhovian” often comes up when a short story collection is praised, and yours is no exception. I’m always interested in sources of influence.  Is Chekhov someone you liked be compared to, someone whose writings have shaped your own?

JL: I have the feeling that, in reviews, “Chekhovian” is a shorthand way of conveying to the reader that we’re dealing with a dispassionate narrator, or that there’s some observational quality in the work that tries to take into account the contradictions and complexities of the human condition yet refuses to pass judgment on those contradictions. There’s no question it’s flattering to have the term applied to my stories, whatever it means, but I wouldn’t say Chekhov is on my mind when I write – I don’t go to his stories to help loosen up the joints when the work’s not going well.

 

JW: Which writers do you turn to at those moments?

 

JL: I go most often to James Salter or Tobias Wolff, though in Wolff’s case, I have to be very careful because his voice is so powerful that if I read more than a paragraph of his work, I lose my own voice and get to spend the next two hours trying to reclaim it.

 

JW: So, would you like to see your work called Wolffian or something like that?

 

JL: There’s no question he is an influence, but if I’m giving an honest answer to your question, I have to confess: I don’t want to be compared to anyone. I want to believe my stories aren’t like anyone else’s. Of course that can’t be true–they’re like thousands of other stories, and I know they are–but as a writer you spend so much time trying to find your own way through the woods, and once you come out the other side, to have your work compared to that of another writer–even in glowing terms–can lead you to feel that you’ve failed to fulfill that central tenet of art, which is to create something new. Why bother to create something that’s already been done by someone else, and in all likelihood, done better? I’m not writing avant-garde fiction, I’m not pushing the boundaries of structure or narrative. I’m working in a well-worn tradition here, but I desperately want to believe I’ve written something only I can write. I believe that’s what they call hubris.

JW: Okay, turning to China, I want to pick up on something that’s come up in other interviews, which is how you kept up with developments in China between the time you lived there and the time you finished this book. You’ve mentioned talking to people who had been or were bound for China when you came across them, but also said you did a lot of reading. You describe some very specific reading you did to make sure you got things right for the longest story in the collection, and you mention your admiration for Peter Hessler and Evan Osnos, so we can assume you have followed their writing. I’m curious, though, to get some more details. Can you tell me about some of the people, genres, publications, websites or whatever that you’ve depended on to stay abreast of China from afar?

JL: For about the last ten years, blogs have been my main source of daily news about China. Early on, my starting points were EastSouthWestNorth and Danwei. Later, the China Media Project, China Beat, Chinasmack. Offbeat China and the Hao Hao Report always have something good. Just in the last year or so I’ve been getting the sinocism e-letter, which is a fantastic roundup of news about China.

 

JW: What about books?
JL: Mostly nonfiction.  I’ve reread Chinese Lives, the oral history compiled by Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye, many times over the years. The same with Salisbury’s Tiananmen Diary. I recently tried to read Kissinger’s On China, but I’m taking a standing eight right now, which is to say I’m not always the most dedicated student. When I was working exclusively on the China stories, which was a period of about four years, I was doing more targeted, purposeful reading, usually because I’d need to learn about, say, journalism in the PRC during the Cultural Revolution. And in those cases, I couldn’t stop reading until I found an academic paper or a chapter in a book that taught me exactly what I needed to know. Then I’d be able to write to the next roadblock. Usually, the more research I did for a story, the less likely it was that any of it would appear in the final draft. I’m not sure why it worked out that way, but the research was always useful, and maybe necessary, when it came to establishing the boundaries of a believable fictional world.
JW: Let’s talk a bit about Chinese writers. Reviewers have brought up several who, interestingly, like you, live outside of China, albeit perhaps making more trips there lately than you have.  Do you read those writers? Or among writers based in China, do you read Yu Hua or Yan Lianke?  Just by chance, the short story collection I’d read most recently when I picked up yours was Yu Hua’s Boy in the Twilight, a set of tales he wrote in the 1990s but which have just become available in English, beautifully translated by Allen Barr. I saw some parallels–and not just because both collections have a story in which a dog figures centrally! As for Yan Lianke, he comes to mind because he’s written a novel, Lenin’s Kisses, in which a glass coffin built for a Communist leader figures prominently, albeit in a totally different way than in your story. More significantly, perhaps, you’ve said elsewhere that the surreal side of contemporary China attracts you to the country as a subject for fiction, and both of those writers, though they are hardly alone in this among contemporary Chinese authors, are certainly interested at times in this aspect of their homeland.

JL: Once I realized I was writing a book set in China, and not just one or two stories, to a degree I avoided seeking out fiction set on the mainland. I was afraid that I’d come across exactly the
similarities you’re pointing out. They’re glancing similarities, but those are the worst kind. Those are the ones that can shut you down when you’re halfway through a story you’ve been struggling with for months and your confidence is shot and you don’t know where the narrative is going. To come across a fully-realized work of fiction that bears even a fleeting resemblance to the one you’re working on could drive a stake through the heart of your story–that was my fear, at least. It sounds silly and superstitious–and it most certainly is–but why take chances? My decision not to look for Chinese fiction was aided by the fact that until fairly recently, a writer’s nationality wasn’t a criterion by which I chose what I was going to read. There are Chinese writers I admire deeply, though I admire them not because they’re Chinese or writing about China, but because they’ve created works of literature. In the same way I read Tolstoy not because he’s Russian, I read Ha Jin not because he’s Chinese, but because he understands life on this planet in a way few other writers do. I did relax a little after I’d written the bulk of the stories, and among other things I read Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words, which I admire greatly.

I would add, perhaps as a disclaimer of sorts, that it was never my intention to imitate Chinese writers, or to play with narrative forms specific to China, or write in the wake of any particular Chinese literary tradition. I’m an American writer with a strong affinity for China, and my stories are nothing more than my own limited understanding of my characters’ lives. I wasn’t trying to produce a generalized social commentary, or an ethnography. I focused my energies on individual characters, and everything else flowed outward from there.

 

 


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