All posts tagged: Marni Berger

“I Hope I’m Not a Moth”: Lindsay Wong on Coming of Age Through Memoir

MARNI BERGER interviews LINDSAY WONG

wong headshot

Lindsay Wong’s debut memoir The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, selected for the 2019 edition of Canada Reads (where it was defended by fashion personality Joe Zee), longlisted for the Leacock Medal for humor, and awarded the Hubert Evans Nonfiction Prize. Wong holds a BFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. Her short stories and nonfiction have appeared in Apogee Journal, No Tokens, Ricepaper, and The Fiddlehead, and she has earned residencies from The Studios of Key West, Caldera Arts, and the Historic Joy Kogawa House, to name a few.

In this interview, long-time friends Marni Berger and Lindsay Wong span Portland, Maine and Vancouver, British Columbia via the beauty of the internet (as they have for the better part of a decade). They cover topics from sleeping on a mattress beside your grandmother during Hurricane Sandy to visiting your mother’s haunted playground in Hong Kong; and from avoiding self-promotion on social media to coming of age while writing a memoir.

 

Marni Berger (MB): We attended Columbia’s MFA writing program at the same time, both concentrated in nonfiction, and then swapped our writing with one another for the better part of a decade. I attribute so much of my success to your friendship and editing! Do you remember our long walks along Riverside Park with my dog (George Eliot)? They were full of dreamy musings. I treasure those moments in that place.

But NYC wasn’t all dreamy for you. You spent some time in a busy part of Chinatown living with relatives at one point, then in midtown at an internship at Random House, while you battled vertigo. Even at Columbia, your living situation wasn’t ideal at first—and included cockroaches and a violent roommate. Could you name a few different NYC locations that inspired your process as young writer, ones that made you persevere, whether they involved dreams or struggles?

Lindsay Wong (LW): Your literary friendship has been a dream. I am so lucky we met in Patricia O’Toole’s research seminar (we were assigned by a random number) and I owe you so much for your comments on my work. I think you read Woo-Woo in every form, and I am so grateful for your editorial feedback. New York was definitely difficult since I was struggling at the time with vertigo, and I would say Riverside Park was where I could relax from the stress of workshop and roommates. I think there were a lot more struggles than dreams.

In terms of places, I spent a lot of time indoors in my room because of health problems, and in hospital waiting rooms for doctor visits. I would sometimes visit the Columbia Student Health Center four times per week. These were all places that I would write about in my memoir: places of illness and uncertainty, not knowing whether I was having a psychotic break.

I also lived in the Lower East Side projects of Manhattan after graduation: my grandpa had died, and there was an extra mattress in my grandmother’s room. I shared a bedroom with my grandma, and that was a very interesting experience. During Hurricane Sandy, we had to evacuate and she refused, and I remember being stuck for three days without heat, running water, and electricity. My grandma and I took turns peeing in an ice cream bucket. It was hilarious and gross. That’s how I left NYC in 2012, and then I came back in 2018 to promote the memoir.

I think NYC hates me unfortunately. In November 2018, when I went to promote my book, my Airbnb reservation had been cancelled last minute. My flight was delayed. I couldn’t find the radio station for my interview. There was a blizzard, so the reading got moved and no one came. I guess I would say that NYC taught me to be able to write anywhere, in any situation.

wong screenshot

MB: That reminds me of the saying that went around our nonfiction program—and probably elsewhere in the writing industry—which was something like, “The more tortuous the life, the better the memoir.” Would you agree? 

LW: Oh, my God! Yes! Most of the hard work, struggles and misfortunes made it into the memoir, and I think I will have enough to write another one when I turn seventy. A calm, happy, peaceful life is boring and no one wants to read about that. Then again, having too much excitement leads to insomnia, TMJ issues, bad posture, and wrinkles. You’ll have a great memoir but look like shit! This year was horrible in terms of aging. I went to Hong Kong in March and tried five different kinds of anti-wrinkle cream. I’ll let you know what works!

MB: Good Lord, you do not need to try any anti-wrinkle creams!

I once had an advisor for teaching writing who said she simply couldn’t write on the days she taught because, and I’m paraphrasing what she said: “As a teacher, I can’t be as stupid as I need to be as a writer!” I took that to mean: as a teacher, she needed to have a sense of authority; as a writer, she needed that authority to break down, so she could discover a story. Do you feel like you need to have a sense of authority, during your writing process?

LW: That’s an interesting question. I feel that as a writer, you are the authority on the page. Your voice is the guiding force or is the device that is going to take readers from one paragraph to the next. If you don’t have authority, there is no voice or conviction. I think I’m largely introverted so my voice on page is way bigger than it is in person; I’m technically translating my thoughts. A good voice has conviction. Your character might be wrong, but they have to believe one hundred percent in themselves and the events unfolding around them.

I think a lot of people are scared about what others are thinking of them or how they will be read on the page. As I cheekily wrote in the beginning of the book, I dedicate this memoir to my past, present and future selves, so I tend to write for myself. I don’t really have an audience in mind. I’m the authority of my own life.

MB: You write both fiction and nonfiction—and in both genres the theme is always hovering that ghosts can cross continents to haunt us. Implicitly, your work covers the topic of inherited trauma—grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, who’ve fled war-torn areas, traveled from east to west and passed down trauma to children who are growing up in relatively safe areas. I’m thinking of Pot Mountain, Vancouver, as a kind of comical but safe place in your memoir—almost the opposite of war-torn in its level of peace so peaceful that you aptly describe it as a sort of boredom so bored it starts to circle back to trouble, violence, drugs and scandal. Is inherited trauma the theme you intend to follow when you sit down to write?

LW: It’s funny you ask because I never sat down to write about inherited trauma, which shows the unconscious power it holds over generations. I don’t think I even had a name for it—just the recurring motif of ghosts haunting family members as well as myself. I think that I witnessed family members suffering, and then I absorbed their stories and horrors through osmosis. It was almost something that I had to explore: Why is my family like this? Why are they so wound up and angry and upset? Why does the past have such a hold on my mother, grandmother? Now that I have a name for it, I want to explore that theme more. Writing, I think, is after all a search for identity and understanding.

If no one in the family wants to do the hard and dirty work of digging into secrets and discussing trauma, then it’s up to me. Don’t they say that a family is cursed if a writer is born into it?

MB: Either way, you’re very humble. Before The Woo-Woo was published, you told me you believed it was garish to post your awards or prizes on social media, because it could make other writers feel badly. But how did anyone discover you without you self-congratulating, at least on social media? Could you talk a little bit about how you got your book out into the world and still maintained your sense of self and humility?

LW: I eat my words now, M! I have posted on media about awards and prizes, but those are all public news. My guideline is, if it’s in the news already, it’s okay to share. I mean I still feel it’s garish to post about fellowships and funding. That should be private, and as writers, we are all applying for the same funding so I can see it being hurtful if you receive funding from the Canadian Council for instance, and someone you know has never received a grant from them.

Literary friendships, such as yours, have been one of the most sustaining things for me. Writing is solitary. It is hard and you will feel like shit when you get rejections (bound to happen). But writing friends totally get you, and they encourage you to keep submitting. The process of publishing is arbitrary, and just because one book does well, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be okay. It resets back to zero once you have handed in a manuscript, and I think just knowing that everyone, all the writers that I know, are working hard at their craft—we’re being rejected every day and all in it together—keeps me real.

book jacket

MB:  I won’t hide your achievements: You have been involved with many prestigious residencies. What is it about going to a different place that fuels your writing?

LW: I began doing residencies because I didn’t have a place to stay, meaning I was so broke and unemployable that I was living with my parents after I finished my MFA. As a writer, you need your own quiet space to focus and create. If you read The Woo-Woo, you will know what I mean. No one should be living with my parents. Anyway, residencies offered free rent and sometimes meals, as well as a stipend. You also get to travel all over and meet some really cool artists and writers.

MB: Do residencies enhance that sense of camaraderie among writers?

LW: For sure. In Key West, some of the locals took the other artists and me on a boat on the first day of the residency and it caught fire in the middle of the ocean. We were stranded in the blistering heat for seven hours, and we all became quite close, even talking about who we would eat first. There’s nothing like being stuck with six strangers on a boat that makes you unusually close.

MB: You’re onto writing your second book—a young adult novel.  How does generating this new work compare to writing The Woo-Woo?

LW: The YA book is so much fun! That’s probably because it’s fiction and I am not expected to expose myself on the page. Memoir is the hardest genre to write—if I had known that at twenty two, I wouldn’t have even tried. But then if I didn’t go to Columbia, we wouldn’t have met!

For my YA, I really enjoy crafting a younger, spirited voice that is a lot lighter and happier than that of my memoir. I’m really grateful to Jennifer Ung at Simon Pulse for giving me a chance to work on a project that is completely new to me.

MB: It’s interesting to me that you had never traveled to Hong Kong or mainland China when The Woo Woo was published. I know how deeply you research—you’re one of the hardest working people I know—so I wonder if this was an intentional choice. Did you decide not to travel to the places that have haunted your family members, the characters in your story, and—as you reveal in your memoir—you, while writing the memoir?

LW: I didn’t go to China for my memoir because during the time the book was set everyone was in Vancouver. While writing, all I had to do was ring up an auntie and ask them for dim sum. My mom’s side is in Canada, and my dad’s side is all over the United States, particularly NYC. My family fled China at the time of the Communists, so I’m not sure if it would have helped with the writing of my memoir, as none of it was set there.

For my fiction, which is mostly set in mainland China, my plan is to visit some day! Can you hear that, literary funding?

MB: You have been to Hong Kong, since the book was completed. Do you think this newfound knowledge of the geography, where your ancestors are from, would have changed how you wrote The Woo-Woo? Do you think it will affect future writing?

LW: Hong Kong was a really interesting trip. We visited my parents’ former villages—they have since been bulldozed and turned into restaurants and shops. My mom took us back to the ruins of her old elementary school, which is set on top of a graveyard on a mountain. True story, this gardener came out and was like: This place is cursed. Don’t pass this fallen tree. My mom and her classmates would climb on graves at recess, and my mom said sometimes kids would grab bones jutting out of graves and play with them.

MB: I don’t know if I should laugh or cry at this anecdote.

LW: I think this place had a lot of trauma for my mom, and I think if I had seen this before writing Woo-Woo, I would have understood more about her childhood and her upbringing and why ghosts are so important to her. I think I would have included more about this place, and I would have been more inclined to learn about the ghosts that surrounded her every day. Apparently, there were several suicides by an old tree and people said in the evening you could see people hanging there.

Lindsay's mother's schoolCaption: Lindsay Wong’s mother’s school (image by Lindsay Wong)

MB: In The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk writes that each novel has its own “secret center”—not an actual place, but a central wisdom that a novel imparts. He argues that the act of writing and reading is inspired by the hope in both the writer and the reader to find the secret center. Although it’s a memoir, not a novel, was there a point in writing The Woo-Woo that you noticed its secret center?

LW: I’m not sure if the “secret center” applies to memoirs since [a memoir] is an act of weaving together one’s life. But I do think the secret center lies in the memoirist discovering what their book is really about. At first, I thought I was writing a book about my aunt’s ordeal on the bridge on Canada Day 2008. Then I realized the book was actually about me, rather than the incident. It sounds obvious now, but I had thought the book was going to be about what happens when someone seemingly normal suffers a psychotic break, and the aftermath [of that].

Columbia University was where I realized there was so much mental illness in the family, and I think that comes through in the book when the character finally believes she has to leave Hongcouver. The book is about what happens when you find out your family is not normal. Your belief system and your way of being are totally fucked up. Then of course, you have the OMG sobbing moment—as in the book, when I cry on the subway stairs at Columbus Circle—and then you laugh about it.

MB: Does that make The Woo-Woo a coming of age book?

LW: It is a coming-of-age book in many ways. It’s about a young person changing and growing, for better and worse at the same time. It’s about transforming or moving onto the next transition of your life. You’re not fully the person that you will become or the person you hope to become, but it’s the cocoon phase. I hope I’m not a moth.

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Lindsay Wong’s memoir The Woo Woo is available from Arsenal Pulp Press. Her debut YA novel The Summer I Learned Chinese is forthcoming from Simon Pulse in 2020.

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Marni Berger is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Maine.

Griffin Lessell“I Hope I’m Not a Moth”: Lindsay Wong on Coming of Age Through Memoir
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This Frightening and Beautiful World: An Interview with Richard Michelson

MARNI BERGER interviews RICHARD MICHELSON

Richard Michelson is a poet and children’s book author who has written sixteen children’s books and three books of poetry—More Money than God, Battles & Lullabies, and Tap Dancing for Relatives—as well as two fine press collaborations with the artist Leonard Baskin. Michelson’s poetry has been published in many anthologies, including The Norton Introduction to Poetry, and has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, Parnassus, and Issue No. 09 of The Common. He has served two terms as Poet Laureate of Northampton Massachusetts and in 2009 he received both a Sydney Taylor Gold and Silver Medal from the Association of Jewish Librarians, becoming the only author so honored in AJL’s 47-year history. Most recently, Michelson was awarded the 2016 Poetry Fellowship by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

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Pressure Makes Diamonds: an Interview with Rowan Ricardo Phillips

MARNI BERGER interviews ROWAN RICARDO PHILLIPS

Rowan Ricardo Phillips was born and raised in New York City and is a graduate of Swarthmore College and Brown University, where he earned his doctorate in English Literature. He is the author of two books of poems, Heaven and The Ground: Poems, as well as a book of essays, When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, and a book of translations of Salvador Espriu’s Catalan collection of short stories, Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth. Rowan is the winner of a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship, the 2013 PEN/Osterweil Prize for Poetry, a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award, and the 2013 GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry. In 2015 he made the National Book Awards Longlist for Poetry. He has taught at Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and Stony Brook, and he is a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. He lives in both Barcelona and New York City.

Phillips and Berger discussed the stenography of poetry and the “beautiful challenge” of geography as “fate.”

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Writing and Violence: An Interview with Judith Frank

MARNI BERGER interviews JUDITH FRANK

Judith Frank

Judith Frank is the author of the novel, Crybaby Butch, and a professor of English at Amherst College. She received a B.A. from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a Ph.D. in English literature and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Cornell. She has been the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, and support from both Yaddo and MacDowell. Marni and Judith spoke online about Judy’s new novel, All I Love and Know, and what it means to write about violence in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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August Reads: If You Open a Window and Make Love to the World: An Interview with A.L. Kennedy

MARNI BERGER interviews A.L. KENNEDY

For the month of August we are revisiting some of our favorite content from the past year. Publication of new work will resume on September 1.

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A.L. Kennedy was born in Dundee, Scotland. She is the author of 15 books: six novels, six short story collections, and three works of nonfiction. She is a fellow of both theRoyal Society of Arts and the Royal Society of Literature. She writes for publications in the UK and overseas and has a blog with The Guardian Online. In addition to author, she is a dramatist for the stage, radio, TV, and film, and a standup comedian. Her All The Rage—a collection of short stories—was published by Little A Books in spring 2014. Marni Berger and A.L. spoke about the culture of humor, constructing the landscapes of characters’ minds, and what it means to “write to please.”

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View from Up High: An Interview with Jacquelyn Pope

MARNI BERGER interviews JACQUELYN POPE

Jacquelyn Pope is the author of the poetry collection Watermark (Marsh Hawk Press, 2005). Her next book, Hungerpots—translations of the Dutch poet Hester Knibbe—is due out in October from Eyewear Publishing in the UK. Jacquelyn is the recipient of a 2015 National Endowment of the Arts Translation Fellowship and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. She has received awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

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Often from Kansas: A Conversation with Sarah Smarsh on the Privilege of Rootedness in Midwestern America

MARNI BERGER interviews SARAH SMARSH

Sarah Smarsh

Sarah Smarsh has reported on social justice, the environment, culture, and class for Harper’s, The Huffington Post, Guernica, The Pitch, Aeon, and others. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia University, as well as degrees in journalism and English from the University of Kansas, and has taught at Washburn University, Columbia, and elsewhere. A fellow of the Center for Kansas Studies, earlier in her career she wrote about her home state for everything from airline magazines to pop-history paperback series. Her essay “Death of the Farm Family” appears in Issue 08 of The Common. Marni Berger and Smarsh discussed the privilege of rootedness in America and what it means to be “often from” a place.

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Sorting through a Dream World: An Interview with Valerie Duff

MARNI BERGER interviews VALERIE DUFF

Valerie Duff

Valerie Duff is the author of the poetry collection To the New World. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Prague Revue, Ploughshares, Blackbox Manifold, Poetry Northeast, AGNI, Gulf Coast, and Issue 07 of The Common. She is poetry editor of Salamander Magazine. Marni Berger and Valerie Duff spoke long distance this summer about Mexico City, Virginia, Boston, and writing poetry as if you’re sorting through a dream world.

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Filling Up the Creative Glass: A Conversation with David Breslin

MARNI BERGER interviews DAVID BRESLIN

David Breslin

David Breslin is a Curator and Associate Director of the Research and Academic Program at the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, and a writer of nonfiction on art, feminism and language-based practices. His essay, “Plugs: Five Thoughts on Cady Noland’s Stocks,” was published in Issue No. 07 of The Common. Marni Berger spoke with Breslin at a coffee shop off Washington Square Park in New York City, where they discussed the American art world, how to handle painful subjects, and finding the ideal writing space.

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