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“Leavened by Comedy and Moments of Grace”: An Interview with Leland Cheuk

Interview by Megan Giddings February 22, 2016

The writer of the story Leland Cheuk selects during his guest editing week (February 22-28) will receive a copy of The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong. He’ll also be doing a giveaway on Goodreads in celebration of his guest editing week.

A story by you that I love is “First Person Shooter.” I was so tense while I was reading it between Marcus’ emotional state, the flashbacks to Eugene, and the way pressure built and built. And then the ending moments are so cathartic. Can you talk a little bit about your writing process for this story? Was it always going to be Marcus’ point of view?

First of all, thanks for reading it. It makes me endlessly happy that you enjoyed that one. I know someone like Marcus, likely an agoraphobe, who is way too old to still be living with his parents. And because he’s Asian and his parents are somewhat insulated immigrants, they lack the easy access and understanding of psychiatry that privileged Americans take for granted. For Marcus to go to a therapist and get diagnosed would almost be completely outside their imagination. I was thinking about the Virginia Tech shooter (another kid who might have benefited from psychiatry) and decided to make him his best friend Eugene. It was Marcus’s point of view from the first draft. I probably feel most comfortable writing in the first-person because it’s like doing an impression of someone. I like Marcus a lot, and it was a relief to be writing about parent-child relationships in an open-hearted way.

You recently published The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong. The way most novels about family are discussed, especially families of color, they’re always beautifully suffering. They’ve usually been very American Dreamy and then the kids grow up and they realize it was all shit. What I think is interesting is that you have a family that deals with a far different American tradition: dirt bags who can’t help being dirt bags. What advice would you give someone trying to write characters who a reader has to spend significant time with, but whose actions are often harmful to those around them?

The beautiful-suffering-ever-overcoming American immigrant story has never resonated with me. I enjoyed Aziz Ansari’s show Master of None, but the idea that immigrant parents should be excused from giving their kids hugs or ever saying “I love you,” because they risked their lives to come to America is absurd. Cultural differences notwithstanding, expressing love for your children should be easy compared to fleeing political turmoil. Feeling guilt as a Second Generation immigrant is natural, but we should also remember that our parents also came to America for a better life for themselves. My dad wasn’t buying a new Benz every year for me, that’s for sure.

My experience and upbringing couldn’t have been further from an Amy Tan book. The parents in my novel are very much like my real parents. When I was 27, my mom was calling me all the time, emotionally distraught because she followed my dad in her car one day and discovered him on a date with a woman my age. I had always thought my dad’s philandering was an open secret because they fought about it all the time when I was a kid. But this time, for whatever reason, my mom was such an emotional wreck, I got her a divorce attorney and tried to initiate the proceedings. I recall sitting there in the attorney’s office with both parents and just thinking how awful this was for everyone. For me to see them at their weakest and most broken. For them to know that I would never again see them as those beautifully suffering, sacrificing immigrants. I would just see them a flawed human beings, like the rest of us.

Stories about charming dirt bags are almost exclusively the territory of the white male, from Bret Easton Ellis and Martin Amis to Walter White and Don Draper. When the antihero is a white guy, the reaction is usually: “oh, that guy is so intriguing.” When the antihero is a person of color or a woman, it’s: “he or she is so unlikeable” or “I just don’t connect with the characters.” Then readers of color or female readers will tell you: “how can you write about us in such a negative way?” These reactions are just another reminder that white male protagonists can be anything the author wants, while non-white male authors are burdened with having to prove their characters worthy of a reader’s affection.

My advice to all writers, no matter the story: study your muse. If you want to write about a pongcover400dirt bag, study the hell out of dirt bags and dirt bag stories. The best ones are leavened by comedy and moments of grace in the midst of the dirt-baggery.

You recently published a deeply personal essay in Salon. In “I wanted to publish a book before I died” you frankly discuss two things that a lot of people tend to avoid talking plainly about out of politeness and embarrassment: literary rejection and your health. Can you talk more about what it was like to shape these things together into an essay?

Since getting diagnosed with cancer and going through the stem cell transplant, I’ve had a renewed and natural desire to live as honestly as possible, hiding nothing, leaving no bullets in the chamber, so to speak. The early drafts of the essay were more of a final confession. It had a few anecdotes from childhood, times when I wished I would have behaved differently. But after a few months of drafting, the essay became more sharply focused on writing and the transplant process.

I think writers avoid talking about literary rejection because it’s like talking something as ubiquitous as air. And of course, non-writers typically don’t understand and/or assume that writing is just like any other industry. It would be like every other industry if every other industry made it impossible to make a decent living wage and every available job was filled by just one of 10,000 applicants. I wanted to put the truth out there for writers and non-writers alike that for the vast majority of writers , even accomplished ones, no one is waiting for their work.

As for my health, I didn’t really understand until after I went into the hospital for the transplant how much my life would change. In the months before, I tried to get as healthy as possible. I ran four or five days a week. I quit alcohol. I was still in denial. My life was predicated on this notion that I would live into my seventies like the average person. After I went home from the hospital, I immediately lost ten pounds because the nurses had been pumping me full of saline “to keep my organs wet.” A year after transplant, I was half-an-inch shorter from bone loss and my lung capacity was 70% of what it was. I’ve come to realize, even now that I’m essentially back to health, that psychologically, I’m never going to be one of the healthy people again. If I get to my seventies, I’m going to consider it an incredible blessing. We should probably all feel that way.

Describe your forthcoming story collection: Letters from Dinosaurs.

It’s going to have the stories that have been published in Vol.1 Brooklyn, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. They’re unlinked shorts set in the past, present, and future. I hope the collection shines a light on hidden corners of American lives, exposing the fissures between family members, friends, spouses, and lovers caused by race, culture, and class. There are video game champs, impoverished teachers and janitors, and lots of douchey businesspeople, because I was working in tech and financial services when I started the stories.

What makes you fall in love with a story? 

An unusually constructed first line or scene will pique my interest. I like quiet stories too, but I absolutely love stories that go for a big, transformative climax with no signs of crafty, authorial restraint.

Define flash fiction in ten words (your choice related or unrelated) or less:

 A short, short story with propulsion beyond the image.

About the Interviewer

Megan Giddings will be attending Indiana University’s MFA in the fall. She has most recently been published in the Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review and Knee-Jerk.


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