The Sculpture and the Dark Well: A Conversation with Author Val Wang
This summer, Val Wang, author of the memoir Beijing Bastard, visited Grub's Teen Fellowship program. While she was here, Teen Fellow Karlecia Berganza had a chance to interview Wang about the publishing process, and her tips for future writers.
KB: What was the publishing process like?
VW: Long and agonizing. Three agents in all and numerous rejections and rewrites. I tried to give up and move on a number of times, but my book had a mind of its own; it was very determined to be published and so I went along for the ride. Obsession like that is a great gift.
KB: How do you portray your characters as close to their real life counterparts as you can without letting your bias and emotions take control and ruin your own reputation, relationships and your characters' reputation as well?
VW: I think the ruin of my reputation has been the making of my reputation, luckily. The worse your experience, the better it is as fodder for writing. As for other people, my guiding principle was to write out of affection. I only wrote about people for whom I had a deep well of love, which doesn't mean they didn't frustrate me, and doesn't mean I didn't put that frustration on the page, but I hoped it was buoyed by my affection and respect. Of course I worry that people won't like how they're portrayed or that it will damage them, but so far so good. I know it's hard to see yourself represented. My book was very much about the relationships I had with people (versus being only about me or only about them), so my emotions and my bias were actually central to the book. It wasn't like being a journalist, where I’d have to keep myself out of it. Quite the opposite, in fact.
KB: How is writing nonfiction any different from writing short stories or novels?
VW: Nonfiction feels like sculpture, where I'm carving negative space out of an unwieldy block of lived experience. Fiction feels like diving into a dark well with my eyes closed and my hands open.
KB: While writing, have you ever gotten to a part that you feel like could be expanded, but at the same time you feel like it wasn't necessary? If so how do you deal with it?
VW: There were two phases to the writing of this book - what I called the "vomiting" phase, and then the much more gentile editing phase. Because I began writing about my years in Beijing as soon as I returned to the States, I was urgent to get down on paper everything I could remember that seemed important, the characters, the stories, the conversations, the smells, the sounds, even if I didn't know if it would make it into the final edit. I let myself do that for about a year and then it took many years to carve from that initial block the final story. I didn't know what was necessary until I had it down on paper and could step back and take a look at it.
KB: Do you have any tips for any future writers?
VW: Read. Find a community or at least one friend who also writes. Go easy on yourself. This is the hardest advice to follow, even for me. These days I am very deliberate about finding ways to be kind to myself or to let myself off the hook. I don't write well with a hook in my back!
Karlecia Berganza was a Teen Fellow in this summer's GrubStreet Teen Fellowship Program.The Fellowship offers teens a chance to study craft for in a rigorous, supportive environment under the guidance of Grub instructors.