This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Kat Chow, whose debut memoir, Seeing Ghosts, is out today from Grand Central Publishing. For many years Kat Chow avoided thinking about her mother’s death. She writes, “The way I endured grief was to think only of the after, and not the before.” Early in the memoir, she recalls one of her sisters gifting her a framed photo of their family; she tucks it away in a closet under a box of clothes. With Seeing Ghosts, Chow allows herself to look closely at her mother—who died of cancer when Chow was a teenager—probing her own memories and interviewing her father, siblings, and relatives for their stories. She examines, too, their family history, which extends through China, Hong Kong, Cuba, and the United States. At times addressed directly to her mother, Seeing Ghosts is intimate, daring, and exquisitely detailed. “Like all books that haunt us long after reading, Seeing Ghosts is a courageous act of excavation and salvage. It is also a feat of rescue and healing,” writes Ocean Vuong. Kat Chow is a writer and a journalist. She was a reporter at NPR, where she was a founding member of the Code Switch team. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Cut, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. She received a residency fellowship from the Millay Colony and was an inaugural recipient of the Yi Dae Up Fellowship at the Jack Jones Literary Arts Retreat.
1. How long did it take you to write Seeing Ghosts?
You know, this seems like it should be a straightforward question to answer, but I wrote Seeing Ghosts in so many different pieces over the years that it’s tricky to pinpoint when the process really began. I’ve been writing fragments of it for the past decade, but really began calling it a book in 2017, around the time I attended the Jack Jones Literary Arts Retreat in Taos.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I found deciding that it was finished to be so difficult. I loved being in the thorny process of making it and getting to explore loss from so many different angles. At first I was afraid that finishing this book and turning it into my editor would mean that I couldn’t keep working with these ideas—that, in a way, I wouldn’t be able to write about my family or loss again. But I reminded myself that this type of thinking is limiting. There is no set amount of what anyone can write about.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I don’t have a fixed routine—and I find it really hard to follow a routine in almost every part of my life. When I’ve hit my groove, I write four or five days a week in the late hours of the night. My sweet spots are between 10 PM and 4 AM. That’s when my mind is the most clear and uninhibited, and I take the biggest risks with form or structure or subject. I tend to do my reporting—interviews and research—during the day, and I like to take long walks around the neighborhood with my dogs when I’m struggling with structure or am not sure how to write through something. I count all of this as writing because it’s just as crucial to my process.
4. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading some ARCs right now, including Jami Attenberg’s I Came All This Way to Meet You and Jean Chen Ho’s Fiona and Jane. On my nightstand I have a collection of Amy Hempel’s short stories, this worn copy of an elementary school favorite—The Witch of Blackbird Pond—that I found in my childhood bedroom a couple weeks back and brought home, and a biography of James Baldwin that I’m slowly making my way through, Talking At The Gates. But if I’m being honest it’s been hard to focus on reading any book right now with all of the recent news, and I’m drawing up a reading list of books about imperialism and climate change.
5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Everybody should read Diana Khoi Nguyen’s poetry collection, Ghost Of.
6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Seeing Ghosts?
Sometimes I still cannot believe I finished writing and editing this book during this pandemic. Writing this book was a necessary distraction, but I also spent much of 2020 in a fugue state. I keep a journal dedicated to my process for Seeing Ghosts, per the writer Alexander Chee’s advice, and so many of my entries from the last eighteen months have been about the coronavirus and the uncertainty we’re all facing. I think it’s important for me to mark this—and to remember the circumstances surrounding this book.
7. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
I’ll miss the easy excuse to interview family members and talk to them about things we might usually be afraid to talk about. In a way, writing this book made me closer to my family, which is a plus, and now it’s easier to reach out.
8. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
So many things to change. But the other day I was chatting with a friend who’s starting work on a memoir, and we got on the subject of how writers are expected to have a “platform” in order to be taken seriously by some agents or publishers. That word is just so strange and disheartening, and a reminder of how this industry commodifies writers. If you don’t have X or Y, your work isn’t worth the risk, or it’s not seen as marketable. It means so many talented writers who don’t look or seem like the norm are overlooked.
9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I have a small circle of friends who I send drafts to for gut checks. They’re all so different from one another, each of them incredibly thoughtful.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
While I was writing Seeing Ghosts, my good friend, the exceptionally talented writer Mariya Karimjee, told me, “Writing a book is like a series of trust falls.” I think of that every day.