With the shortlist for our fourth volume announcing at the end of the month, we are happy to bring you the last in our series of interviews with volume three authors. Meng Jin’s “Electronic Heads” is an excerpt from her novel-in-progress and stands alone beautifully. It is at once surprising, dense, and highly readable.
“Electronic Heads” is set in Beijing in 1989, and part of it takes place during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Though the story is not set at the protests themselves, we directly see their effects, and they feel like a very big part of the story. There are many historical details in this story, and it is clear that it is thoroughly researched. (Without giving too much away: it’s evident that you must have done a great deal of medical research as well.) What was your research process like? How did you incorporate your research into the story?
Yes, I did do a lot of things that might be called research, but none of it was organized enough to merit the word “process.” This story is part of a novel that I’ve been working on for a few years. When I first started writing the novel, I looked at anything I could get my hands on that even marginally had to do with the Tiananmen Square Protests: novels, memoirs, articles, historical texts, documentaries, photos, art exhibitions. I talked to people in my family about their experiences and memories of that time. Though most of their accounts were peripheral (no one was in Beijing), it was important for me to get into a Chinese headspace. The Tiananmen Square Massacre is a very fixed thing in the Western popular imagination—the very complicated event has been turned into a simple icon of Chinese Communist Party oppression (think: Tank Man)—and I didn’t want to write something that would just tell that same story again. I wanted my story to humanize and enliven what for many readers may have become a static, petrified thing.
So much of doing research is building the confidence to not use any of it. But you have to do the leg work to know the world and the history well enough that you can start to imagine and invent. In the end, none of the facts were useful: they couldn’t tell me how my characters felt. And the creative work–well, someone else had already done it that way. When I sat down to write the draft, I didn’t look at any of my scattered notes, not even the color-coded hour-by-hour timeline taped next to my desk. Only after the story was written did I go back and check the little details. Often, these details had not surfaced in the original research: the weather on a certain day, the exact locations of streets and buildings.
How is the novel coming? We’re eager to read it! Can you tell us a little bit about it, and how the excerpt fits into it?
This excerpt is the beginning of the novel (though it’s changed quite a bit!). Actually, when I submitted this story, it was the middle of an unwieldy novel-in-progress that I’ve now broken into two novels in a series, about two children who are born on the night of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The two novels are meant to stand alone, but also to complicate and to speak to each other when read together. The series is about the stories we tell in order to live with the past. The first focuses on history, memory, and mythology, while the second (where this story is from) focuses on genetics, science, and technology. Perhaps there will even be a third novel? It’s too early to tell! Currently, I’m finishing up the first novel, and this one is on the back burner. The working title is The Second Brain. So . . . it’s coming.
Who are some of your favorite writers? Who do you look to for inspiration?
This is the hardest question! The writers who made me want to write were Gabriel García Márquez, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. I admire novels that tell a great story while asking the most important questions. Chang-rae Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, Jennifer Egan. My professors at Hunter: Peter Carey, Claire Messud, Colum McCann, Chris Adrian, Nicole Krauss. Chinese/Chinese American writers I love: Ha Jin, Yu Hua, Yiyun Li, Gish Jen. I’m sure I’m leaving so many writers out!
I also love very compressed short stories: “Wants” by Grace Paley, “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick, “The School” by Donald Barthelme, “Signs and Symbols” by Vladimir Nabokov. Right now I am obsessed (that is the only word) with Elena Ferrante. When I have writers block I read poetry. Usually Louise Glück.
What is your writing process like? Since you’re working on such a long project, do you have a specific routine?
I like to write first thing in the morning, with a hot cup of tea, nibbling on breakfast. Sometimes I write by hand, sometimes on the computer—it depends on what is (or isn’t) working. I’ve tried a daily word count—sometimes this works. I’m very happy if I’ve written 1000 new words or more in a day. This happens perhaps once a week. Most other days I get around 600, or get caught up revising or reading.
I think the idea of a writing process or routine is a bit of a myth. Writing is arduous; you’ve just got to kick your own ass and do whatever works. Sometimes this means tricking yourself into thinking you’ve got a fancy routine.
Can you tell us a little about your experience at the MFA program at Hunter College? What do you think makes it unique from other programs?
The MFA at Hunter College has been absolutely wonderful, and it is completely one of a kind. It’s sort of an MFA for those skeptical about MFAs. It’s very no nonsense, no frills—what really matters at Hunter is the writing, and the opportunity to work with amazing writers.
What makes Hunter unique is the people: the faculty, and the students. In no other MFA will you find writers of this caliber working so closely with each and every student in the program. I (like many of my classmates) applied to Hunter after being inspired by the faculty’s work. It has been incredible and surreal to watch my literary heroes become not only my teachers but my mentors: people who genuinely care about me and my writing, who are invested in my becoming the writer I want to be. The faculty at Hunter are a fancy bunch, who collectively hold a ridiculous number of awards. But they are also kind, generous, and wise. The same can be said about the students. The program is small, and we all take every class together. Our writing is incredibly diverse, but we share the same dedication to our own and each others’ writing. Watching my classmates grow as writers, and seeing their projects take shape, has made me incredibly invested in their work. The alumni network is also unbelievably warm. The Hunter program is truly an amazing community.