Samantha Xiao Cody’s “The Driver” was selected by Kimberly King Parsons as the winner of our 2019-2020 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers, and we were proud to publish her phenomenal story last week. Now, dive into her interview with Melissa Hinshaw below, as she discusses her influences, writing process, and the soundtrack to “The Driver”.
“The Driver” felt like such a classic, traditional story when we read it, in the sense of how clean and straightforward the writing is. Is this typical of your writing? What sort of influences drove (pun intended) the style of this piece?
I actually began writing the first iteration of this story nearly five years ago. I was reading a lot of Alice Munro at the time, but the story that most directly influenced “The Driver” was “A Real Durwan” by Jhumpa Lahiri. There was something so straightforward, almost parable-like, about the story that I admired and tried to emulate. I was also influenced by Yiyun Li, who has a strict and sparse prose that does a lot within the bounds of its cleanness. I would say that this style is fairly typical of my writing, especially my longer pieces of short fiction, though my stories have become a little weirder in the five years since.
It’s not often we read a piece about a suspicious character or possible-near-villain like this. Did you build the story around its title character, or did he appear once you began creating this world?
This character was an attempt to personify a particular feeling evoked by a 2010 trip to China. We were visiting my ma’s cousin and her husband (an airport executive, and the basis of the uncle in the story). I remember being very aware of the power that came with his position and their “new-money” status, a class positioning far from what my ma and her cousin had grown up with. It was unfamiliar to me, as well. I was aware of this power in the way of a child—sensing the shapes of things, without the words to describe them. I felt it in the way we found cars waiting for us as soon as we disembarked from the plane; the board dinners in ornate, private rooms full of officials and airport executives, where massive political decisions were volleyed over a table full of lavish food; the fully-arranged trip to the mountains. These extravagances always seemed to necessitate human resources—drivers, silent servers waiting to pour more baijiu, hired guides. I wanted to capture the layers of power I experienced that summer, the way even familial gatherings felt too large or significant. I wanted to create a character (the driver) who has a slightly dangerous mode of engaging with this wealth and power, someone whom the narrator thinks she understands, because she too is trying to figure out how to engage. I also wanted to explore the way in which people with wealth can sometimes project certain attributes—friendship, fondness, attachment, even love—onto their household employees, and in doing so, ignore or deny the power gradients at play.
What percent of this work of fiction is based on real-life experiences, if any?
If I were to quantify it, I would say around 60% of this work is based on real-life experiences. The familial relationships were slightly changed, and there is no such driver like the one in the story, nor a possible affair/theft. The narrator is based on my own experiences and perceptions, and the mother character is based on my own mother, whom I have always seen as quite strong, mysterious, and wise.
What do you focus (or ignore!) as you write in order to capture a child’s narrative style and point of view so well?
For me, being a child involved having strong intuition and reacting to that intuition, without the ability to fully understand what I was reacting to. I was often aware of something being significant or strange, but couldn’t grasp why. Returning to this state feels fairly natural. Even though I’ve progressed beyond childhood in years, I don’t think I’ve left my child-state behind; I don’t think anyone has. It emerges in moments of intense fear or joy.
I still find myself in situations where my intuition is telling me something that I only form connections to weeks or months later. In this story, I focused on conveying the innocence of the narrator and how she observes without realizing what she is observing, such that the reader is (hopefully) able to see more of the truth than she can. I also wanted to capture her interest and trust in Xiao Wu, which I also feel is a childlike quality—being disproportionately attached to certain people, despite not knowing them (as well as the flipside, distrusting certain people but not being able to justify why, which is how Mei sometimes reacts to Xiao Wu).
There are so many class and culture distinctions at play in this story—so much information, and yet none of it feels life fluff or “extra.” How do you think about these elements when you sit down to write a work of fiction?
This is funny to think about because I always try to cram a lot into my stories, and am often unsuccessful. For this piece, I was aided by the real-life experience of wading through these intersecting layers of class, culture, and modernity, and seeing how these factors projected onto daily decisions and interactions. I generally approach a piece knowing the different intersections and layers I want to capture; the success is determined by whether I can pin those abstract ideas to more concrete goals and motivations held by the characters. In this piece, the goals of each character are fairly simple. If my characters’ motivations aren’t entirely clear to me, or if their decisions seem unreasonable, the “abstract themes” fail to emerge in a believable way, or perhaps the piece feels overcrowded. I’m currently writing a novel that my brother has lovingly told me is “trying to tackle a lot at once.” Only time and extensive revisions will tell if everything fits together in a reasonable way.
The piece ends on such a nostalgic note and sad note. How did you decide that that was the proper final touch for this story?
I wanted the story to end as a mirror to its beginning, showing the change that has happened in and between the characters. At the start, the aunt has the driver pick up the family; at the end, she has ordered a taxi to send them away. All the characters have lost the driver—the status signifier he was used to represent; his competency; his practiced (or not-so-practiced?) companionship with his clients, and their false sense of his friendship. At both the beginning and the end, the mother comments on the lemon trees, mourning how much her home has changed. By the end of the story, the mother is realizing that it is more than just the material markers of her former home that she has lost; her sister is no longer the person she was in their childhood, and in that sense, the loss of home is deeper than she initially realized.
If “The Driver” were a movie, what songs might be on its soundtrack?
This is the hardest question! To capture adolescent longing and confusion, I think I would go with Nao’s album “Saturn,” plus any and all Sally Yeh ballads. If I were to throw some jazz in, I would go with “Across the Crystal Sea” or “If I Forget You” by Danilo Perez, both of which have a dreamy and nostalgic quality. I have no idea if any of these songs go together.
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw