Ten Questions for Maureen Sun

by Staff

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Maureen Sun, whose debut novel, The Sisters K, is out today from Unnamed Press. In this reimagining of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov—with a bit of Shakespeare’s King Lear mixed in for good measure—three Korean American sisters reunite after a period of estrangement as their father, Eugene Kim, faces death. After a lifetime of making his daughters miserable, Eugene pits them against one another to vie for an inheritance. Each Kim sister considers her father’s impending demise and the fortune he dangles before them through the lens of her distinct temperament. A cutthroat attorney, an intellectual, and a kind soul, the sisters must also navigate the difficult feelings that arise as they face their father, triggered into memories of childhood trauma and the knowledge of how those experiences warped their chances for sisterly camaraderie and connection. When a surprise family member arrives, the sisters find themselves reeling once again, questioning their pasts and futures. Kirkus praises The Sisters K, calling it “a deeply intelligent examination of the ties that both define and bind our lives.” Maureen Sun’s work has appeared in The Best American Essays 2021 and has received support from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the MacDowell Foundation; she has taught at Princeton University, Barnard College, and the University of Hong Kong.

Maureen Sun, author of The Sisters K.  

1. How long did it take you to write The Sisters K
I’d had the idea for the novel on my mind for a long time but didn’t sit down to start writing until around the winter of 2018. I finished the first draft some time in 2020, I believe, and then finished a second and a third—until I finally produced a solid draft, not too different from the finished copy out now, in the spring of 2022.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
The chapter “Esther at Home” was especially difficult for me to get right. It occurs early in the novel, but I had to keep revising it as Esther developed as a character in the later chapters. She posed the challenge of representing an engaging character who remains, to some extent, enigmatic. I had Shakespeare’s Cordelia on my mind; I wanted to write a credible and morally powerful character who is distinguished, in part, by her relative reticence, at least compared to her two sisters. I think I spent about five intense weeks rewriting that chapter for my second draft.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I can write only at home or in a private, enclosed space, like a room at a residency. And even then I need to wear ear plugs—otherwise I can’t hear myself think. Even libraries are too loud for me for that reason; I get distracted thinking about what others are working on and imagining their own writing processes. It’s hard for me to work in small chunks of time, partly because it always takes me a little while to warm up. Writing doesn’t seem to come naturally to me, so I need silence, isolation, and at least about five hours of uninterrupted time—though I prefer the entire day to be unscheduled. I’m not at all a morning person, so I might get other tasks out of the way in the early hours (if I’m up) and then devote myself to my book from about noon onward. On a good day I will write for about eight to ten hours, maybe with a break to take a walk with my dog. Ideally I’ll write like this four to five days a week. Because I was teaching while writing the first drafts of the novel, I did most of my writing on weekends and during academic holidays. I was fortunate to receive a grant for my second book project after selling my first novel, so last year I was able to write full time, revising The Sisters K while developing my next book project.

4. What are you reading right now?   
I’m rereading one of my favorite texts of all time, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in Ted Hughes’s classic adaptation, and have also just received Stephanie McCarter’s recent translation. Publicity can be stressful, and this is a comfort read for me, though hardly any of the stories in it are cheerful. For me, the Ovidian myths are about everything: most obviously the mutability of identity and permeability of bodies, power and silence, the human and the nonhuman, art and storytelling, violence and love. I think I’m more drawn to poetry when I’m busy or stressed: I’m reading Jana Prikryl’s Midwood, which is like a clear glass of water suddenly refracting a prism of light, and I recently finished Diane Seuss’s Modern Poetry, which, like her other collections, simply makes me happy. And I’m revisiting John Donne and Andrew Marvell because they understand the ways that the lover is the world—something that’s on my mind now. But I am also reading prose, fiction and nonfiction. Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is helping me think through some of the concerns of my next book: the perennial, vexing problem of reconciling the political and the personal. I’m returning to some works by Mary Gaitskill; my first drafts are often shallow and clichéd, and Gaitskill’s work always reminds me I need to look harder and go deeper. David Shulman’s Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine is an extraordinarily incisive and nuanced memoir on the urgent and often lonely and despairing work of political activism, which is another subject often on my mind these days.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?   
Since I’m still at the beginning of what I hope is a long career as a writer, it’s hard for me to tease apart which writers have influenced me generally or shaped The Sisters K in particular. But I’d say the following writers and works were often on my mind while writing my novel: Dostoevsky, especially The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, of course; D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love; Sophocles’s Antigone; Han Kang’s The Vegetarian; much of Henry James, especially The Wings of the Dove (Kate Croy was one inspiration for the character of Minah); and Ingmar Bergman, especially Scenes From a Marriage and Persona. I think in voices, and from these writers I learned how to write two or more characters wrestling with intimacy, locked in an ongoing (not always strictly verbal) dialogue that becomes a collective search for meaning. As I explained to a friend of mine, “My novel is a fantasy that, when you put two or three people together, each will find the words to say what they want to say, and what they say will have an effect on the others with them.” These writers showed me how we are locked in meaning with others, and that the most powerful eloquence emerges from the moral and erotic tensions between intelligent bodies.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Sisters K?
The deep and lasting impression Antigone made on me. Antigone’s argument with Ismene was often on my mind while writing. I first read the play when I was about twelve. Back then I was frustrated and bewildered by the impossibility of wholly accepting one point of view over the other. For me at that age, good and evil were clear-cut categories. Antigone may be the hero, but I couldn’t accept that Ismene was in the wrong for wanting to avoid further conflict and tragedy in her life and choosing civil obedience over martyrdom and religious extremism. I still can’t, though I also admire Antigone’s ferocious idealism and loyalty. It was very important for me, while writing The Sisters K, to depict three distinctive characters with three compelling perspectives, each of which the reader could imagine themselves occupying.

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My editor said she had to take a walk after first reading my novel. She’s a very smart reader, so I was moved by this, and flattered, because I think I understand the impulse: I love to go on a long walk alone after watching a good movie in the theater. Hearing this made me feel good about the book—because my ambition isn’t to write something that lets you shut out the world, but to write a book that makes you restless and pushes you further into it, sometimes in a very literal way.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Sisters K, what would you say?
Write it. It will be published.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I was helping to raise two kids and teaching intensive seminars while writing the first drafts of this book. I also did research on cancer treatment—for which I interviewed a doctor a few times at length—and on inheritance law and a couple Supreme Court cases, for which I consulted a scholar of legal theory. Fortunately both the scholar and doctor were friends and quite patient with me.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
I’ve never taken a creative writing class, but I’m always reading about other writers and artists and their approach to their work. The only piece of advice that has stuck with me—which I think I read in different iterations in interviews with different writers—is that becoming a writer makes sense only if you can’t live without writing. And since realizing I really couldn’t not write and feel sane, I’ve found it much easier to rearrange my life to prioritize and wholly throw myself into my creative work.


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