Writing styles

Lan Samantha Chang on the Joys of Tribute Writing ‹ Literary Hub

Lan Samantha Chang is the guest. His new book, The family chaosis now out of WW Norton.

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From the episode:

Brad Listi: Something to land on a plot if you have trouble finding a story to tell. What better than to pay tribute? I also thought in a similar vein about historical fiction and how wonderful it must be to write historical fiction if you’re modeling real events, you know, some kind of political intrigue or a period of time that has a kind of built-in structure. You know where it will end. And then it’s about how to execute without copying too much and distinguishing one’s work from the book one is trying to honor.

Lan Samantha Chang: Having written a historical novel, I would say that writing a tribute is more fun. Because when I was writing the historical novel, I constantly worried about whether I was historically accurate. And I realize that it’s possible to write a historical book that isn’t accurate and just accept it, own it, and tell everyone about it. But me, because I was trying to piece together a story—I didn’t know what my parents had been through, to some extent—I wanted to know as much as I could and be specific. Actual events that unfold over time do not necessarily unfold the same way a story unfolds. And so, writing historical work means you have to cut, pinch, and put away things that really shouldn’t be. And I had a hard time doing it. It made me uncomfortable. Whereas if you’re writing a tribute, there are some dramatic bones laid out, and all you have to do is decide what works and what doesn’t with your project.

I will say that I have now tried to write two homages, and one of them worked, this one, and then the other one I tried to write didn’t work. It didn’t work because I was fascinated by a book that has a completely linear structure, a very specific story that ends in triumph. I can’t tell you what it is because as far as I know it’s still a life project, in which case it’s bad luck to talk about it.

But it has a really specific linear structure that ends in triumph. It’s bildungsroman. I was trying to write a künstlerroman, which is the artistic version of the bildungsroman. And what I found out doing that is that my story may not have this really clear linear structure and it may not end in triumph. And if it doesn’t end in triumph, which would be nice, then I have to rethink the structure period. I could just feel it; I could tell that the material and structure didn’t work, that the tribute I was trying to write wasn’t close enough. I didn’t want it to be so close either. I wanted to be able to write a book that follows a certain structure and doesn’t recall the exact same book.

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Lan Samantha Chang is the award-winning author of the collection Hunger and the novels The family chaos, Legacy and All is forgotten, nothing is lost. A recent Berlin Prize Scholar, she has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Chang is the first Asian American and the first female director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Iowa City.