Brian Leung, author of Ivy vs. Dogg: With a Cast of Thousands!, , , and , is a past recipient of the Lambda Literary outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize. Other honors include the Asian-American Literary Award, Willa Award, and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Brian’s fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , and . He is the current Director of Creative Writing at Purdue University.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The success of World Famous Love Acts certainly caught me off guard. I mean, it’s a literary short story collection and somehow it became an editor’s pick in People. My long-time agent, PJ Mark, found me with that first book, as did the editor of my first two novels. It felt like overnight I went from obscure scribbler, to respected writer.
I should probably mention as well, that the publication of that collection taught me a lot about biases in book business in terms of how one’s work gets categorized. I took a friend in to a Chicago Borders book store to show him my baby. Not on the shelf. We looked it up on their electronic data base. Not in the store, BUT, if it were, it would be in the gay section. Out of eleven stories, four had gay characters. To cut to the chase, after two months of inquiry, Borders finally explained that they had taken it on themselves to categorize my book because it was one of five boxes checked by my publisher (Asian-American, Literary Fiction, Short Stories, Gay, General fiction). My book was in only 40 of their stores, on the Gay Fiction shelf, and even at that, only one copy each. I was devastated.
It's funny, because all these years later, a book store where I scheduled reading wrote on their website that I would be reading from my YA novel, Ivy vs. Dogg: With a Cast of Thousands! It isn’t a YA novel and isn’t even listed such. But this time, I wasn’t devastated. I simply asked for the correction and moved on. Too little time to perseverate on such silliness.
You asked how this current novel is different. It is very different than World Famous Love Acts and even my two novels. For one thing, this novel is funny. Not to say that my previous work was humorless, but I certainly was in the mode of writing serious literary fiction. Take Me Home, for example, take place in the shadow of a historical event, the 1885 massacre of Chinese miners in Rock Spring, Wyoming. My friends and family constantly claim they never find “funny, quippy” Brian in any of my work. My answer? Take on the pro-choice pro-life debate. . .with a smile.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I remember Stuart Little being read to us in Second Grade. Then Where the Red Fern Grows in CCD (totally off the catechism). And in 7th grade our English teacher read a few pages to us from Z for Zacharia. Even though I was in a physical place, the words made me see another place. I was fascinated by that power.
Crucially, I had a professor in college, the fantastic writer Kate Braverman, who basically told me I sucked because my writing was to yuckity-yuck. I was trying too hard to be a crowd pleaser. It pissed me off, so I wrote a piece imitating her style and read it out loud in class, red hot and angry. I asked her directly if that’s how she wanted me to write. She waited a few beats and then said, directly, “yes.” Fortunately, I light went on. She didn’t mean write like her. She meant give a damn. Maybe now, after all these years I’ve learned to pull that lesson together with my sense of humor. Anyway, I knew then fiction was my mode because for me, giving a damn takes space.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
If I’m being honest, it takes me between one afternoon and eighteen years. The quickest thing I ever wrote was one of my favorites, a flash fiction called “All the Presidents, Men.” I wrote it in just a couple of hours at a friend’s NYC apartment. It is not explicit, but I can share that all the sex acts are named after U.S. Presidents. There’s even a Millard Fillmore. The idea for Ivy vs. Dogg started eighteen years ago when I was in the car listening to conservative talk radio and yelling at the host. I actually thought it was going to be my sophomore novel, but my editor thought it would be “off brand.” BUT if you read the introduction in Lost Men you’ll see my sneaky way of keeping the idea of Ivy and Dogg alive.
All this is to say, I don’t have a particular urgency of getting “done” with a piece. I know if I write half a thing, and if it lingers in my mind over time, I’ll come back to it. Lost Men was a failed short story from about 1993 called “Three Rivers of Chinatown.” Then I took a trip to China with my father and a light went on. So that was fourteen years Take Me Home had a ten year journey.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
The most fun thing is writing from a title. The first story in my collection is “Six Ways to Jump Off a Bridge.” I’d written that in my travel journal on that trip to China because we had walked across a six-hundred-year-old bridge and figured in that amount of time, at least once every hundred years someone would have jumped. But I had no story, and strangely, the one that came about is set in the Pacific Northwest. When I discovered the history of the massacre I mentioned earlier, I knew that was a book. In fact, my editor bought it based on a one page synopsis for a manuscript I hadn’t written. Talk about pressure. Never again. So, perhaps I’m more prompt oriented than “big idea” driven.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like to play at readings, especially when I know lots of people in the audience. I can work a room from onstage. And I’m vigilant about knowing few writers can command attention reading for a half hour from a single text. So, I mix it up, and yeah, I’ll slip in some fresh fiction to see what kind of reaction it gets.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
How long do you have?! My career as a writer and teacher has been about diversity and difference. By way of example, and I promise I’m not tooting my own horn here, look at these two awards; The Asian American Writers Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Mid-Career A Novelist. And so, Ivy vs. Dogg presented a problem for me because the town is quite homogeneous, except, it’s not and they don’t know it.
A bit of clumsy personal history and mixing of terms. I’m half Chinese, half Euro-mix. One of my sisters is Chinese-American and two are white. Two of my nephews choose to identify as black and one is half-Chinese, half Euro-mix. My family is filled with Catholics, Mormons, and Evangelicals. I’m married to a man. I grew up in a family affected by alcoholism, molestation, misogyny, love, and support without question. I raised chickens and ate government cheese. I have a cousin who is convinced, given the chance, that Muslims want to throw me off of a rooftop. So, what are the current questions? Apparently, the ones I’ve been living with for half a century, and that’s sad. We are facing a roll back of hard one civil liberties and a retreat from the concerns that just started to resonate with movements like Black Lives Matter. It’s a welcome wonder that Me Too has broken through.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
This depends on the writer. My colleague, Roxane Gay, is a true public intellectual. She must do over a hundred appearances a year, and she creates across multiple platforms. Not every writer can be that. There isn’t the space. But I think all of us can, collectively, hold up a mirror to the culture, but without being scolds. Personally, I’m enjoying supporting other writers. I think that’s where I can contribute, helping these writers find space on the shelf for their work.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I like the sandbox, so every editor I’ve worked with has given me joy. It’s like I’m a Polar bear and the keepers are throwing a new ball and a block of ice filled with frozen fruit into my enclosure. Maybe I should have used a juggling metaphor, but the point is, I enjoy that final person looking at my work and asking “what if?”
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Know when somebody doesn’t love you, and move on. He doesn’t love you.” Oh, but you’re probably talking about writing advice. Helena Maria Viramontes pulled me aside early on after reading a draft of one of my stories. In it the main character is bi-racial and having a cultural identity crisis. Viramontes told me that was my subject; that and all the other complexities that made me a specific Brian. I didn’t have to write about myself, but I needed to draw from that well.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to creative non-fiction to poetry)? What do you see as the appeal?
I have scads of unpublished poetry, which is probably a good thing, but in writing it, I’m reminded to stay in touch with each sentence of prose as if it were poetry. And, well, check out “Where Went Niola?” online to see how CNF affects my fiction. The character is named Brian.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
If I have one regret about getting married. . . . Well, maybe let’s start a different way. I used to get up around 5 or 6am and write until 9 or so. But I was single, or living alone. Man, I wrote a lot, and I go a lot of attention for my writing. But I was emotionally lonely. When I met Brian, my husband (Yes, that’s his name), I knew within 24 hours that I needed to make love a priority. Let’s set aside my increasing university responsibilities. Love as a priority, well that means coffee and news in the morning with my husband because I want to spend time with him. It means looking at my week and picking the four days a week and maybe 12-15 hours I’m going to write. It’s different every week. Brian and I have been together almost ten years. I’m happy to have written less and loved more.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Not to get all advicey right off the bat, but this is why it’s important to have multiple writing projects going on at once. But something maybe less transferable is this, through Purdue Extension, I completed the Master Gardener program, so, wait for it, I’m a Master Gardener. This means I spend hours volunteer gardening for food pantries and other gardeners. Plus, I have a quarter acre of my own and two large community garden plots. I stall, then garden, then write, then stall, then garden, then write, then. . . . Of course, my mind is problem solving when I’m gardening even when I’m not aware of it. At this point I’m also able to ask myself why I’m stalling. Let’s say I’m struggling with the point of view I’m attempting. I’ll walk away from my laptop pick up, say, Jazz. Other writers have solved my struggles in their books. Susan Choi’s work is frequent go-to in this regard.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Mint reminds me of my grandmother. Meyer lemon reminds me of my grandfather. Sage can remind me of growing up in rural Southern California, but it has to be a dusty sage scent.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I don’t listen to music unless my husband turns it on. He has good, vast taste. Once, when I was in a swimming pool in Key West, I spent ten minutes following an ant around the edge. I mean I was at eye level inches away and it didn’t seem to care. It didn’t seem to have any particular agenda, but it’s an ANT, so of course it has an agenda. I don’t think there’s any scientific evidence that shows ants take leisurely strolls. I spent the rest of that day watching strangers, thinking of agendas, making them up. That night in the hotel, I was watching news, and catching up on news online. Before I went to bed I started writing something. That’s my pattern, nature, people, news, write.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There’s no doubt that ALL of James Baldwin’s work has guided me. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek changed me as a writer, as did Scott Russell Sanders. They helped me think about the natural world in an essential and spiritual way. And I’m thinking of this just now as I respond to your question. Three of my favorite childhood books are Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Watership Down. Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever floored me (the natural world preying on humans). KarenTei Yamashita’s I Hotel has helped me rethink form.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
By accident I’ve checked of so many bucket list things, even silly ones that weren’t on my list. I’ve eaten dinner in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion hall of portraits and I’ve been to the Academy Awards. I’ve been to France to support my book in translation at a book fair. I got married, something I never thought possible. What’s left? I’d like to see the bottom of the ocean before it’s covered in plastic, like, in one of those deep-diving small submarines. Do you know anyone? I hope the world will accept one volume of poetry from me. I haven’t sent a book manuscript out yet, but it’s coming within the next five years. Rest.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’d be a landscape designer. Yes, only that. Except, I’m no good at math. So, I’d need underlings.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Is there anything else, really? I’m part of the thousands of years’ Parietal art movement. I hunt, eat, then paint the cave walls. I don’t have children, so I must leave my physical mark.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Greatness as a category requires the perspective of distance. So, for the future, I’d nominate in terms of recent reads, The Underground Railroad. Roxane Gay’s Hunger is unbelievably brave and vulnerable. Again, in a recent context, Phantom Thread, is a perfectly executed film. The documentaries Hoop Dreams and Grey Gardens are recent re-watches that deserve mention.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Purdue’s College of Liberal Arts awarded me a Center for Artistic Excellence Fellowship, which will allow me to complete a new collection of stories with a novella about an alcoholic dog portraitist. Also on deck, archival research for a follow up novel to Take Me Home. Some of my LGBT readers felt like the gay character in that novel was treated a little harshly. Maybe they were right, so Muuk gets his own novel. So, Finnish migration in the 1870’s. I know, but trust me, there’s an interesting story there.