This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Lan Samantha Chang, whose third novel, The Family Chao, is out today from W. W. Norton. Written as a homage to The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Family Chao is a philosophical murder mystery with richly imagined characters. At the heart of Chang’s telling are the three brothers James, Ming, and William (also known as Dagou, meaning, big dog). Each has a distinct personality and relationship to their tempestuous father, Leo, and each comes under scrutiny after their father is found dead. Set in and around the family’s Chinese restaurant in Haven, Wisconsin, the novel dramatizes the unique fault lines of immigrant family life. “Devastating and searing, laugh-out-loud funny and profound, Chang’s latest novel is infused with beautiful, evocative writing that will quicken your heart and mind,” writes Jean Kwok. “A masterpiece.” Lan Samantha Chang is the author of two previous novels, Inheritance and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, as well as the collection Hunger. A recent Berlin Prize Fellow, she has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Chang is the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Iowa City.
1. How long did it take you to write The Family Chao?
The earliest sentences in the novel were written more than fifteen years ago, in 2005 or 2006. After one hundred pages I could tell I’d started a book with multiple perspectives. I put the project aside after I moved to Iowa. Between my job and becoming a parent, I didn’t have time to tackle anything complicated. When I took it up again around 2013, I realized that the book would be an homage to The Brothers Karamazov. I dumped almost all of the early work and started over.
2. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Here is the seed from my writing log: “The story takes place in one night: It is a huge dinner party.” The idea of a dinner party raised many questions for me. Whose party was it? What happened at the party? And what did everybody eat? It was a wonderful, loaded situation.
3. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
There were two big challenges to writing The Family Chao: First and foremost, The Brothers Karamazov is a towering masterpiece of world literature. The very idea of writing an homage to that book was daunting, and it took me more than a year to put aside my fear of attempting it. Second, it was a challenge to find time to write. During the academic year I had to carve out half an hour here, an hour there.
4. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I lived alone for the first fifteen years of my writing life. I married at thirty-nine, and at forty-two I found myself living in Iowa with a husband and daughter, working full-time running a program of almost a hundred highly gifted graduate students. I had to get away in order to dig into the novel. For six years I went to residencies twice a year. At the residencies I would write in bed, sometimes waiting long days and evenings until the real world quieted down and words came to me. My husband is a visual artist, and he understood. When I came home from one of these super-infusions of creative time, I would work for maybe an hour a day until the next residency.
5. What are you reading right now?
I’m rereading The Brothers Karamazov. While writing my novel I couldn’t look at it for five years; it would have been impossible to sit with my own frail project in the face of that masterpiece. Now that my book is coming out, I get to enjoy Dostoevsky again.
6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Hundreds of them. Every year good books fail to get attention while the world focuses on only a few. But since you asked, the late James Alan McPherson deserves many more readers. He was one of the most brilliant and least self-promoting writers I’ve ever met.
7. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
My job as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is both an inspiration and an impediment to getting my own work done. The Workshop is a very special community of highly gifted emerging writers, and it’s inspiring to read their fiction and to get to know them. I work with assistant director Aleksandra Khmelnik, and it’s our job to try to protect their time and space from a world of academic bureaucracy and financial stress, to provide support so that they can get work done. It’s hard to write when so many people are depending on you to make it possible for them to write.
8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Family Chao, what would you say?
“You will be very surprised at how much you will change and grow during the writing of this project. You are going to find yourself moving in directions you never thought possible. Just enjoy the process. It’s going to work out.”
9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I eventually relied on a number of friends to help me with this novel. After nine drafts on my own, I sent it to two writer friends. They had entirely different reactions. What this taught me was that the ninth draft was neither one thing nor another. I had to move it in a definitive direction before it could come into itself. After two more drafts I sent it to several other friends. One helped me think about the community perspective; another brilliantly suggested ways to make the story even closer to the bone. A number of issues came up in our conversations. For example, how could I balance the different points of view? How to include perspectives of the female characters in a novel about brothers? Ultimately I had to figure out the answers myself, but I might never have defined the problems if I hadn’t shown the novel to others. For example, a former student explained to me that most young people don’t use the expression “make love” anymore. This led me to consider how fiction has evolved since I started writing. I’m beyond grateful to everyone for reading the book.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard?
Lately my husband and I have been watching Get Back, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour documentary reworking of the material used for the film Let It Be. The documentary follows the Beatles through a couple of weeks as they come up with new material for a performance—and the album Let It Be. There is something so inspiring about seeing this process. The members of the band come in to work every morning. They spend hours—days, weeks—messing around, playing other peoples’ songs, arguing, trying out riffs or lyrics, patiently waiting for new ideas to come to them. There’s something amazing about watching music you love being created through experimentation. Sometimes an iconic progression springs full-blown as if from nowhere, and you realize that it wouldn’t have been possible without all of the hours spent trying things out. It’s a cliché, but I suppose the best advice I’ve heard would be, “Just keep trying.”