Yiyun Li at SMC: “What we think is real is our imagination”

Li_590x270By Your Salonniere

On Wednesday, October 5, 2011 your salonniere’s English 4: Composition class at Saint Mary’s College of California met with recent MacArthur fellow and best-selling writer, Yiyun Li, who’s short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers was the select title picked for 2011’s Freshman Year Experience. The students came armed with sets of questions they prepared after reading Li’s stories twice, once over the summer and again during the fall for closer reflection.

She sat down with all nineteen of my scholarly writers and instructed them to, “Wind me up like a doll. I need questions and promptings then I can keep going.” Here’s a brief recapturing of the sharp inquiries asked and rough paraphrases of the brilliant responses Li shared with us.

A student asked, what inspires you to write and Li explained her love of newspapers. She recounted an article where a man posed as a doctor in Walnut Creek and made a house-call to a woman who was genuinely sick. He told her to eat watermelons in the jacuzzi. The man was arrested and charged. Li was intrigued by this piece of a news because it raised all sorts of questions about the man, the woman, and her children, who were concerned for her health. How can this man think of himself as a doctor, she asked? How can he be so certain that this woman would believe him? “Ask all sorts of questions and suddenly you have scenes coming to mind.” Li reads the local news for these kind of stories. She shared two more stories that had raised more burning questions like a man in Iowa who went gun crazy after a crow kept pooping on his car, or three women in a senior citizen’s writing class whose stories told different sides to the Holocaust, including a sci-fi rendition that involved neutralizing Hitler before the worst could happen.

Li confessed that she eavesdrops and picks up stories then turns them over and ponders them with as many questions she can poke and prod at to get the story and secondary characters out: “Humans are endlessly fascinating.”

Another young scholar asked, “how do you make your stories so real?” Li responded, “why do you think they’re real?” She related a time she was asked by a reader, how do you write an older man so well? “What we think is real is our imagination,” Li urged. She has to know every detail though it won’t all get into the story: “What I don’t put in the story, I trust that the reader will work out. You put details there to get the reader to work with you.”

At this point, Li took to the white board and began to draw a most telling diagram for us, which your salonniere has tried to recreate here, explaining how a writer is at the bottom of a mountainside while a reader is clear on the other side of the mountain base. She drew a sad face for the writer because “writers are always sad.”

Li illustrated, “I can’t go all the way down to meet the reader because the writer would then do all the work and that’s propaganda, so we both have to go up and meet one another. We meet, and we’re both happy.”

Li was then asked, where her stories come from. “Extras” is a very lonely story, she elucidated. Again from the newspaper, she read a story about a boy who was stealing socks, and he would go to bed stroking his face with his socks. Li really hated how people would make fun of the boy, but it was such a lonely story. She wanted to know who would love this boy. “When we talk about imagination… the boy has to interact, so we have to know who are they interacting with? Who would laugh and mother him? Nobody lives in a bubble.”

The inevitable inquiry of how she became a writer was pressed, and Li said she came to the U.S. to be a scientist, an immunologist, when she realized “science only tells about science.” She took a lot of literature classes, and one of her professors said she should think about writing. This professor seemed pivotal in her career.

How do you come up with titles, she was asked, and Li told us of her poet friend, who is one of her first readers. Li originally wanted to call “Love in the Marketplace” “In the Marketplace,” but the poet was truthful in saying, it was a terrible title, and simply added “love,” which made a world of a difference.

How long did it take you to write this collection? Li sold the collection when she only had two stories written. She had to roll them out in a year. Lucky for her, she works well under deadline. She has two small children, and one word they learned very early was “deadline.” Her five year- old asked every night, “do you have a deadline?” and she tells him “I have multiple deadlines.” He answers, “You’re such a procrastinator.”

Why did you put “Extras” first?

Li loves the characters in this story: “If you see they’re all small people. I don’t like celebrities. Granny Lin is a typical character of mine.” Writers need to train readers how to read their work, so “Extras” is the best example of the landscapes of Li’s characters. One of themes that connects these stories “is that the characters are challenged by the culture around them. Again, nobody lives in a bubble. All these things define you. My characters are very stubborn. They don’t want to be defined by nationality, culture, or history. They want to be defined by themselves.”

As to the title of the collection, Li had to consider international interest. She wanted to name her first short story collection “Princess of Nebraska,” but publishers argued that it wouldn’t sell in Europe because not many people there would understand Nebraska. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers translated well. As to the title of her second book, The Vagrants, “some cultures consider the term an annoyance, especially in Spain, so it was called A Beautiful Spring Day or Gateway to Heaven.”

Your salonniere later asked, “how was it turning your stories into film?” In Iowa, one of Li’s children went to school with a child whose parent knew Wayne Wang, and this connection ushered her stories, including The Princess of Nebraska, onto the celluloid screen:

I thought turning the stories into film would be impossible. They’re very internal. Nothing happens. Everything is inside the character’s mind. Wang came to me and said ‘write a script.’ Its interesting how filmmakers’ minds works. He said the story has seven nights and six days. They need to know whether its day or night, indoor or outdoor for stage direction. He asked me to break down the story into scenes and gave me software to do this. I sent him the screenplay, and he said it was a radio play. If the actors all talk, then they can’t act and the director’s can’t direct. All of the acting comes in silence. 40% of the script needs to be in silence so the actors can act and the directors can direct. Making movies is too hectic.

They got funding before the screen play was finished, and Li was really intrigued by how the casting worked. Each actor came to the film with their own stories. The short films were made  in Spokane, Washington because there’s no union.

She ended the talk with some suggestions on writing exercises that would help students with voice, recommending that writers compose descriptions of themselves for a dating agency, which forces us to figure out how we want to be presented. “Write like something is at stake every time you write,” Li urged. Another exercise she found effective was to tell a story in six words, like Hemingway’s six-word story: “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” Or, write a two-page story to get the students out of their own mind.

She directed each of us to “ask as many questions as you can. Does he have hair? What kind of car? Everything’s important. The more questions the bigger his world is,” she said referring to the original story she related about the doctor and his watermelon treatment. Finally, Li ended with some thoughts on what it takes to write fiction: “Where does the story start? Then you know how long the story will be. A novel takes a long time to mature. Write a draft and set it aside. Don’t rush. Don’t race.”

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