Saturday, December 09, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Mandy-Suzanne Wong is a Bermudian writer of fiction and essays. Her novels include The Box, a Bustle Best Books selection, and Drafts of a Suicide Note, a Foreword INDIES finalist and PEN Open Book Award nominee. Awabi, her duet of short stories, won the Digging Press Chapbook Series Award; and her essay collection Listen, we all bleed was a PEN/Galbraith nominee and ASLE Book Award finalist. Her work appears in Black Warrior Review, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Litro, Menagerie, Superstition Review, and Necessary Fiction and has won recognition in the Best of the Net and Aeon Award competitions.

She is represented by Akin Akinwumi (aakinwumi at willenfield dot com) at Willenfield Literary Agency.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book, Awabi, a duet of short stories, won the inaugural Digging Press Chapbook Series Award. It was my first opportunity to work with an editor, the great Gessy Alvarez, from whom I learned so much. She gave me the confidence to develop some of Awabi’s characters into protagonists of my current novel-in-progress, of which the lead character, Ayuka, daily brings me joy.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

Since my earliest days, all my favorite books have been novels; and it’s reading other books that makes me want to write them. Fiction has always been a refuge for me, a way of getting out of myself.

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?

It depends on the project. All my books begin as reams of handwritten notes; but whereas my novel The Box came together in less than a year, with the final manuscript bearing a surprising degree of resemblance to the first drafts, Ayuka’s novel is already in its third major overhaul.

4 - Where does a prose work 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?

Again, it depends. The Box and my first novel Drafts of a Suicide Note were conceived as novels, the novel form being my first love as a writer and my favorite kind of book to read. My short story “The Indoor Gardener,” though its acceptance for publication preceded that of The Box, began as an excerpt from that novel. Ayuka’s novel, though, is arising from short stories.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I do enjoy giving readings, but I also find it terrifying. I’ve been fortunate in my audiences, which for the most part have been encouraging rather than discouraging. But I prefer only to give readings of work that’s already settled into itself.

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?

I seem to be obsessed with anti-anthropocentrism. Even when the first spark of a project is a human character, some nonhuman thing or phenomenon, like the handful of paper in Drafts of a Suicide Note, shows up to undermine the human characters’ agency and self-control. Dispelling the human from the center of our imaginative universes is vital: it has long been time to put other Earthlings first and to admit that without, for example, a healthy Ocean, our species will not survive. It’s our species’ hubris, believing humans to be the most important beings on Earth, believing ourselves to be entitled (by virtue of nothing whatsoever!) to exploit and consume everything else, that’s directly causing global ecological collapse.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Literature has the ability to pinpoint and question the ambiguities inherent to each and every moment; great writing discovers beauty in ambivalence, complexity, even contradiction. In today’s egocentric, exclusionist, and exploitative cultures where simplistic demagoguery and unquestioning cancelations decide what counts as “free expression,” ambiguity is suffocated at every turn—and yet, it may be the only truth.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I’ve been really fortunate so far in that the best, most talented, professional, and companiable editors have wanted to work with me; and they have shared my determination to make the book or story of the moment its best self. Even when that self is weird and doesn’t “fit in.” They’ve also relished joy and laughter as integral parts of the process, and that is so important.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

From Grace Paley in The Paris Review, an interview to which my awesome editor Yuka Igarashi drew my attention: “One of the first things I tell my classes is, If you want to write, keep a low overhead. […] Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. […] Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to essays to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

I wouldn’t say that moving between forms has ever been easy for me. Novels and short stories require very different strategies for timing and pacing; essays are beholden to things beyond themselves to a greater extent than fiction. These constraints present specific challenges and opportunities that preclude effortless flowing between forms. But I do aspire to such flexibility in my writing; I don’t want my work to fall into unbreakable patterns. That means continuing to experiment with form, genre, language, subject matter beyond my comfort zones. Each project has something new to teach me.

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?

I try to keep to an eight-hour workday just as I would in any profession, but that doesn’t always pan out. Each morning begins with some sort of caffeinated beverage and a phone conversation with my mom, almost always about books!

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

From the edge of writerly despair, I turn to other writers’ books. Anything with beautiful prose might help me to stave off panic and regroup—to find, if not exactly inspiration, the courage and desire to carry on searching for ideas.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Seaweed in salt water.

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?

Other-than-human Earthlings, including boxes, snails, sounds, artworks, buildings, shapes, and theoretical or scientific papers, are vital influences on my writing. I tend to think about language in musical terms; my sentences prioritize rhythm, timbre, tone, breath, phrasing . . . Even though I’m not a poet, the way a piece looks on a page, even in manuscript, is also an important consideration for me.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Ah! You got me started. This list could go on for reams. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, Clarice Lispector, Sofia Samatar, Andrei Platonov, Antoine Volodine, Lev Tolstoy, Mark Haber, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Fernando Pessoa, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, Salman Rushdie, Amina Cain, Terry Pratchett, Mieko Kanai, Marie N’Diaye, Maxim Osipov, Chinua Achebe, Maria Stepanova, Yoko Tawada, W.G. Sebald, Maaza Mengiste, Yoko Ogawa . . .

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I wish I understood Greek, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese, and German, and I wish I could improve my totally inadequate French and Italian. If only such things came easily.

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?

Had I not decided to throw caution to the winds, throw over my education and common sense, and become a writer, I would’ve ended up a miserable musicologist or piano teacher wishing daily for the world to end me.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Can’t help it. Can’t stop. Tried to stop and (see question 17) shan’t try again.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Right now I’m reading two phenomenal novels for blurbs. Watch for both of them in 2024! Lesser Ruins by Mark Haber (forthcoming from Coffee House) is an inimitable digression on digression, grief, and techno that curls and stretches language in ways that English doesn’t often dare. The Future Was Color by Patrick Nathan (forthcoming from Counterpoint) looks obliquely at McCarthy-era artworlds while experimenting elegantly with the very idea of “plot,” with what makes a story a love story, and of course with color. Films haven’t been doing it for me lately, but Nathan’s novel may just make me want to take another look at Old Hollywood.

20 - What are you currently working on?

In addition to Ayuka’s novel, I’m working with several writers and artists on The Tubercled Blossom Pearly Mussel Memorial Library of Hope, which I was invited to create for Delisted 2023; an international artistic collaboration curated by Jennifer Calkins in honor of twenty-one nonhuman species that were recently stricken off the US Endangered Species List and declared extinct, relieving the US Government of the obligation to either seek them out or preserve their habitats.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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