Suspend Your Disbelief

The Stories We Tell Ourselves: an Interview with Sonya Chung

"I always think setting should be active, a driving energy and a character, as you say; not just a passive backdrop."

Interviews |

The Stories We Tell Ourselves: an Interview with Sonya Chung

"I believe difficulty and loss of control forge us into our truer, fuller selves, and I hoped to bring each of these characters to that real-ness": Sonya Chung talks with Melissa Scholes Young about her new novel, The Loved Ones.

In The Loved Ones, Sonya Chung’s second novel, the bonds of generations and cultures are tested by duty and secrets. Charles Lee tries to heal the wounds of his youth growing up without a father in Washington, D.C. by marrying Alice and embracing his new responsibilities. He struggles as an African-American father raising a biracial family in a stale marriage. When Hannah Lee arrives to babysit for the family, she finds a familiarity with Charles as she stumbles to find her own identity as a Korean-American teenager from a family torn by tradition and repression. A mutual tragedy pushes their fragile boundaries, and through Chung’s patient prose, what we call love must be redefined.

From the opening pages to its pitch perfect ending, The Loved Ones shows us what we can learn from literature: how to fracture and to rebuild ourselves and the world around us.

In addition to this new novel, recently published by Relegation Books, Sonya Chung is also the author of Long for This World (Scribner, 2010). She is a staff writer for the The Millions and founding editor of Bloom, and is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Residency, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a Key West Literary Seminars residency. Sonya’s stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Tin HouseThe Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of BooksShort: An International Anthology, and forthcoming in the anthology Wherever I’m With You (Seal Press), among others. Sonya has taught fiction writing at Columbia University, NYU, Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and College of Mount St. Vincent. Currently she lives in New York City and teaches at Skidmore College.

Sonya and I met recently at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. where she did an event prior to The Loved Ones’ release. We met up later online for the following conversation.


Can we chat Bob Dylan first? In your interview with Sion Dayson at Electric Literature you shared your adoration for Dylan’s ability to reinvent himself. I believe you called it “Dylanology.” The shaping of identity, especially biracial ones, is prevalent in The Loved Ones.

Indeed, I discovered Dylan—his music, his life, his person—late in life, but with a passion. I didn’t coin the term Dylanology by a long shot—I believe the term commonly refers to the deep and wide study of/writing on Dylan—by academics, music journalists, biographers, die-hard fans, et alia. In any case, I resonate with Dylan’s insistence on reinvention and refusal to be pinned down or predetermined: for him, art is everything, he’s always making, including his life and self.

How do the differences and tragedies of the two Lee families in your novel unite and divide their reinvention?

In The Loved Ones, all the characters are forced to reinvent themselves; the shock of tragedy upends what they thought was fixed and known, about the world and their so-called loved ones. I like your idea of “unite and divide”—there’s this sense of centrifugal force flinging them all away from each other, but at the same time the intensity of shared experience continually pulls them back toward a core. Each is solitary in figuring out the new self in the new reality, but they also come back to touchpoints with one another. I believe difficulty and loss of control forge us into our truer, fuller selves, and I hoped to bring each of these characters to that real-ness. They may not be “united,” strictly speaking, at the end of the novel, but I think they are more united in this human journey.

Do we always need to go backward to go forward in our understanding? I’m thinking specifically of Hannah’s sorting and fleeing her past for her future. 

One of the novel’s epigraphs is a quote from a New York Times article about the African notion of sankofa:

There has also been some inconsistency regarding what the sankofa, thought to stand for a West African proverb, means. [Previous] reports render the proverb as, “It is not a taboo to return and fetch it when you forget,” while the new interpretive display offers the easier-to-grasp phrase, “Look to the past to understand the present.

I love the “inconsistency” here: “It is not taboo to return” says to me, “if you need to go back, you can, it’s ok.” Whereas, “Look to the past” is more imperative. I don’t think we always need to go backward to go forward; I resist the always. Sometimes we just need to go forward; there are mysteries of human experience that aren’t traceable to family or cultural history. I say this as an avid student of history, someone who is often compelled to learn origin stories (and I majored in history in college!). So it’s not either/or.

The Loved Ones covers many generations and cultures. Did you struggle with structure?

I always struggle with structure! But I am happy to report that—this being my third novel (though only the second to be published)—I am learning, I think, how and when the crafting of structure comes into my process. I’ve developed a more intuitive feel for when to move back in time, for instance, the rhythm of that; or when to cut to a new setting. I also know it’s not particularly productive for me to worry too much about structure until after writing a full, messy first draft.

As the story moves through time, the distance is marked with Kenyon Street & Hospital narratives that ground our reading. They function almost like historical prose poems. The voice in these sections is so haunting. It’s distantly observed and intimate at the same time. How do these anchor the story? Why were they important for you to include?

Right, this is an example of how structure came into my process at a later stage: I wrote these sections during a later revision, when I was trying to frame proportions and convey movement through time in a way that both addressed key plot moments and held the reader’s hand a little. I also liked being able to break up the narrative with a different voice—more lyrical, compressed, a bit ghostly.

cover-the-loved-onesAbsolutely ghostly. Did you look to another writer for a model?

I credit Kathleen Norris for this concept—her memoir Dakota, in which she interspersed prose poems called “Weather Reports.” I read in an interview that these interludes were an excuse for her to thread poetry through the prose, as she considers herself primarily a poet, even though she is better known for her nonfiction.

Much of the novel is set in D.C. You’re from here. I live and work here now. We met last summer at Politics & Prose, one of D.C.’s most iconic independent bookstores. How is the city a character in the story?

D.C. has been a racially segregated city for as long as I’ve known it. Also the MD suburbs and the city are quite divided from each other. I grew up in the suburbs, and downtown D.C. was another world to us. Placing the two Lee families—one a Korean immigrant family, the other a biracial family who had inherited the African-American patriarch’s home in the Pleasant Plains neighborhood—in these different locations established those separations, along with the opportunity to cross the lines, literally and metaphorically.

The dynamics of gentrification also come into play: the Korean family is able to make the mistake of assuming that Charles’s family is white, since his wife is white and they live near a metro stop that is adjacent to a gentrifying (i.e., increasingly white) neighborhood. That mistaken assumption sets in motion the collision of the two families, which may not have happened otherwise.

I always think setting should be active, a driving energy and a character, as you say; not just a passive backdrop.

Who were the authors and artists who also amplify setting and voice that inspired you?

Prior to starting on The Loved Ones, I was reading James Salter and Tove Jansson—both writers who often employ an intimate, omniscient narration. It’s a deceptively simple, almost homely sort of voice that can slide into and out of characters’ voices and thoughts, while also taking on its own expression, without calling too much attention to itself. I was completely taken by that way of storytelling and wanted to work in that mode. I had also been reading Marguerite Duras, who wrote in a similarly spare voice that holds so much tension and danger in it; not to mention the danger of her subject matter, approached with both restraint and intensity.

Hwang Sunwon and Colette were also inspirations. The story of Hannah Lee’s parents, Chong-ho and Soon-mi, is based on a short story by Hwang called “Lost Souls.” Colette became a direct influence on the character Hannah, through her French teacher: her Claudine books and La Vagabonde in particular opened up intriguing ideas about womanness and sensuality for Hannah.

Were there specific styles or books that provided models in form?

Annie Proulx helped me figure out some structural issues (again, I need all the help I can get!). During the last phase of revision, I knew I needed to better shape the passage of time and the narrative arc; I remembered that Proulx’s long story “Brokeback Mountain” featured the most dramatic event in the first third—Jack and Ennis coupling so passionately and shockingly in the mountains—then, there’s the rest of the story, which spans two more decades. This early “main event” and time structure is similar to The Loved Ones. So I sat down with that story and literally mapped it out—the proportions of the sections, the velocity of the fast forwards, how much time passes in each section, etc. It helped me immensely in tightening and adjusting the shape of The Loved Ones.

You published your first novel, Long for This World, with a corporate publisher. What led to your decision to work with a micropress like Relegation Books for this novel?

The short answer is that my first publisher rejected the manuscript.

The longer answer is that working with a large corporate publisher wasn’t the best experience for me, personally. The machine-like bigness of it was ultimately demoralizing; and back in 2010 (it may not be so different now, I’m not sure), an unknown debut novelist like myself was not really invited to collaborate substantively on the publishing and publicity process. My editor was smart and kind, and I believed she cared about my book and advocated where she could, but the overall m.o. was for the publisher’s sales, marketing, and publicity mechanisms to kick in and for the author to sit tight and wring her hands and be grateful for anything at all that might happen. Then when nothing much happened, that was that. I’m a very DIY person, and I always want to know how things work, or why they don’t work; so this was particularly frustrating for me.

Sonya Chung photo credit Robin Holland

Sonya Chung credit Robin Holland

Thus I knew from the beginning—I talked with my agent about it at the outset—that a smaller, more personalized and collaborative publishing process would be a better fit for me and The Loved Ones. We were extremely lucky to find the truly perfect match in Relegation—via Emily St. John Mandel’s review at The Millions of Dallas Hudgens’s wonderful story collection, Wake Up, We’re Here. Dallas—the publisher of Relegation—had had similar experiences with a corporate publisher. He knew exactly what I feared and what I hoped for and has been exceptionally attentive and supportive as a result. He also understands that smart, nimble publicity is both extremely important for any book, and also the thing that gets most skimped on if you’re one among hundreds of books at a large house; so hiring the best publicist he knew, Lauren Cerand, was his first decision when he started Relegation. Also extremely lucky for me.

What’s your advice for debut authors like me?

My advice is somewhat contradictory: be savvy and pro-active, but also manage your expectations when release time comes. Educate yourself and ask questions when you have them, and pay attention to when to let go and trust the team around you. Remember that you only have one debut, and that you’re the only one who will care about it as a first priority. On the other hand, be generous and humble and a good literary citizen, because there are a lot of other wonderful and important books in the world to care about.

Holding all this together is not easy, but it’s important.

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