Brian Leung, author of Ivy vs. Dogg: With a Cast of Thousands!, World Famous Love Acts, Lost men, and Take me Home, 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 Story, Ocean State Review, Numero Cinq, Crazyhorse, Grain, Gulf Coast, Kinesis, The Barcelona Review, Mid-American Review, Salt Hill, Gulf Stream, River City, Runes, The Bellingham Review, Hyphen, Velocity, The Connecticut Review, Blithe House Quarterly, Indiana Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Crowd. He is the current Director of Creative Writing at Purdue
1 - How did your first book change
your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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,
15 - What other writers or writings
are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
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?
20 - What are you currently working
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.