“What you are aching to tell”: An Interview with Xuan Juliana Wang
Illustration by Kendall Moore, photo by Ashleigh Shea
“Instead of adding forms where nothing existed, I would recollect the fragments I’d left behind. If I left something in every city I’ve ever lived, with every person I’ve ever loved, at every building I’ve ever called home, then I would go looking.”
- Xuan Juliana Wang, Home Remedies
Xuan Juliana Wang’s debut short story collection Home Remedies has racked up a list of accolades, winning the California Book Awards Gold Medal in First Fiction and making shortlists for The New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize For Debut Short Story Collection. In anticipation of the book’s three year publication anniversary, we checked in with Wang on what she’s been up to during her sabbatical from teaching creative writing at UCLA. Read on for musings on the push and pull between the short story and novel forms, the sacred space of the workshop, and reading what you want to write.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Katherine King: First off, how is your sabbatical going?
Xuan Juliana Wang: It's been great. I'm adapting my TV show with Sony and 88rising, and I have been writing my novel, and I wrote a nonfiction piece that's coming out soon. It's been great. I love teaching, but I also think when I’m not teaching I have more room in my brain.
KK: Where is the nonfiction piece coming out?
XJW: The LA Times has a magazine called Image, and it's in the next issue. It’s a really long piece. I haven't written something nonfiction in so long, so I'm excited for it.
KK: We miss you in the English department, but I hope that this year has served as an opportunity to explore your writing interests (it sounds like it has). We wanted to interview you this month because it's been nearly three years since the publication of Home Remedies, which was an exceptionally well-received debut. How would you say this success has impacted your mindset as you work on your first novel and on other projects? Is it a looming challenge, exciting opportunity, or something in-between?
XJW: That's a great question. Thank you for saying such nice things about Home Remedies. So I was on tour with Home Remedies—I was in New York attending the PEN Awards ceremony, and I was supposed to go to Oklahoma and then Shanghai for a book festival. I was still in that book festival circuit when the pandemic hit, and instead of flying to Oklahoma then Shanghai, I just flew home from New York and haven't gone anywhere since. So I think it was a really swift transition from being an author to a writer. I was immediately a writer again, and it felt great. It was so nice to travel all around the country meeting readers and potential readers, but, because of the pandemic, I don't think I felt any more attention about the book after 2020. I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few years, after the publication of a short story collection, about what a short story is. What am I asserting by saying that a story is a short story, versus something that's a memoir, versus something that's a novel?
I have always said that I'm obsessed with short stories. I love this form, I love the brevity of it, and I love how it doesn't have to have a conventional narrative arc or a story to feel complete. In the last two years since the publication, I've been working exclusively on my novel, and I think I've come to realize that the two forms are not so different. I think that a short story and a novel both have an emotional core, or something that it is trying to say, and it's just the length of time in which you get to say it. Since the publication of a short story collection, I’ve been talking about short stories for so long that I think it's really gotten me to think about what it actually is and how I can write something else.
KK: That links into another question I wanted to ask: you said that writing a short story and writing a novel aren't as different as some say they are, but would you say that there are any major differences or challenges between preparing the two?
XJW: I think the biggest challenge for me has been that, with a short story, I can hold everything in it in my head at one time. And when I’m working on the short story, it seems to be this hole that sucks in all of my experience—everything I notice, every conversation I have pertains to the short story. But with a novel, because it's so expansive, I can't really hold it in my head. I forget other parts of it, so I have to make these very detailed charts before I start writing just to remember what happened, to try to keep this world in my head. I think also that, in a short story, every sentence, every word is taking up so much real estate on the page that it makes it feel more precious. I feel like I’m really tweaking it sentence by sentence, and then in a novel I have to really get myself to just write the thing, to just get it out and then go back to it, which is something to get used to.
KK: I liked what you said about the charts, because I remember that from taking your workshop.
XJW: I’ve been making wheels now.
KK: Ooh, interesting. I like the three notecard method. I hadn't read any of your work before I took the workshop with you, and then I read your work after that. I felt that it really allowed me to connect pedagogy and practice in a way that I hadn't yet been able to do in regards to creative writing. In her review of Home Remedies in Los Angeles Review of Books, Carol Muske-Dukes notes that you were one of her undergrad creative writing students at USC. I'm interested in the degree to which her writing, or that of other teachers and mentors you've studied under, has defined the way that you write fiction. This is maybe putting it too simply, but how much of an author's style would you say is nature versus nurture, in terms of formal creative writing instruction?
XJW: Let me try to answer this as honestly as possible. First, I want to talk about what Carol Muske-Dukes taught me. I was in her poetry workshop, and I felt like what she gave us most importantly was that she made us feel like a life as a writer was possible. I think she was the first professor I've had—maybe the only professor—that ever made me feel like it was within our reach, and that if we just wanted it bad enough and worked at it then maybe we too can drive a convertible and write every day and talk about your favorite books all the time. I think that is very valuable for a young writer at that time in your life, and in my class I try to tell that to the students as well.
In terms of what can be taught in the class in terms of style: in terms of voice, I honestly believe that everybody has a voice that is unique to themselves and that you're just born with it. But in terms of how you deploy that voice, I think that your teacher has a huge influence in pointing you towards things to read. I feel like whenever I teach a creative writing class, I look for what kind of story the writer is trying to tell—what is it that they're trying to say? Usually you can distill it down to a sentence, like, “I miss my grandma.” Something is in there, like, “this one is about distant fathers who don’t do anything.” I can kind of take everything and boil it down to a feeling or an idea they're trying to express, and I look for somebody who's expressed that similar idea, maybe in a completely different way, and I try to just put it in front of the writer and say “read this.” I can't make you read it, and I can't even make you read it carefully. I just hope that in doing so, you'll maybe find a new avenue to tell the story you most want to tell, like it will shape the way that you tell that story. So although I'm trying to influence, I think the original voice is definitely the writer’s own.
KK: On the topic of teaching, would you say that not only learning from others but teaching others has affected the way you approach literature?
XJW: I love teaching. I think it's such a privilege, and I love talking about writing. You know, our classes are three hours long, but if we didn't all have to pee or something I would just keep talking forever. We’d just keep talking about our favorite books. I definitely think that I often find debut books—or, when it’s a writer without a published collection, sometimes a story that they published in a small magazine, usually in Ploughshares or something—and those are the ones I want to teach. Or a debut novel that's vaguely autofiction, but experimental. I think, sometimes, those books give permission. I feel like especially at a college like UCLA, where students are very well-read and have taken a lot of literature courses, you can break down a good story—a story that is clear. A masterful story where you can see what it's doing and how it's manipulating the reader and that flash of epiphany coming at just the right moment.
I think those stories to me are easier to teach, but I like to teach the ones that are kind of weird. The writer might actually edit it again if they put it in the collection, but those ones give students a sense of permission. It's not as simple as, “Oh, this is not perfect, so I could do it.” You can tell when something is raw and new, and I have a theory that it draws out what you are aching to tell to the surface, when you like to see something like that. So I think teaching creative writing has made me read more debuts, and it has made me look to literary magazine short stories just to look for what's out there and to give permission.
KK: I know that many of my peers in the workshop have been writing for a while, but it felt like such a privilege to be able to read everyone's writing. All of it was really imbued with their own sense of self, and that was very cool.
XJW: I was in a creative writing workshop with Téa Obreht when I was a sophomore, and I remember thinking about her story just as I lived my life. I was living in Beijing, and I moved to New York, and I just kept Googling her name, because I was like, “What's going to become of this person?”. And then lo and behold, she has a huge book 10 years later. She's a brilliant writer now, but I remember that story. Even though it has never been published, I just remember it. I think it's really exciting to discover that in your undergrad workshops.
KK: Moving on a little bit, there's a really great Octavia Butler quote that I always go back to: “Every story I create creates me, I write to create myself.” And I think I like it because it gets to the root of writing as something that is both shaped by and shapes a writer, which seems to be a sentiment you share. How do you believe the experience of creating your first book has urged you to change professionally and/or personally, and how do you expect this to impact you as you move forward?
XJW: As I've said, my first book was a short story collection, which many agents and publishers were telling us—at the time, I think it's changed from when I was publishing—that it was impossible to sell a short story collection, that nobody read it. So I really wanted to have a short story collection. I just assumed that I would never get to publish another one: It’s difficult to publish a short story collection because usually publishers publish one a year, if that, because they're not marketable. I thought this short story collection better have every idea I have in my life, right now, everything I think about love and family and everything I think about my sense of morality, my sense of reality. Everything I wanted to put in there, and I wanted to use every style I could think of—the things that I really like to write in, like second person or second person plural, I better have that in there. I better have really good nested stories and stories within stories.
I think when I finished the collection, I was exhausted, but I also felt like, “I did that. I showed that I love short story form, and I can do it in all these different kinds of ways, and these are the stories that I most want to tell at this moment.” And I think since publishing it, I’ve felt very relieved. I was like, “Wow, my next book can be about anything.” That was my “who I am” at that moment, but it's been three years and now I’m like, “Oh I'm a completely different person, the second book actually must be about everything I think about life.” In a sense it hasn't really changed much, but I felt so relieved of it when I was able to turn it in.
KK: You just provided me with a perfect segue, by the way. So the three sections of Home Remedies—family, love, and time and space—provide a thematic roadmap for its contents, that you told Women's Wear Daily represent “the journey of [your] twenties.” A novel is a different beast than a short fiction collection, but I’m wondering whether you're interested in incorporating a scaffolding of this sort into your novel and whether this project will perhaps reflect your thirties in a similar manner.
XJW: Yeah, I’m writing about my thirties and late twenties. I feel like in the novel I’m focused on a smaller cast of characters, but I think the themes I'm obsessed with remain. The stories I most want to tell are about family, love, and I like to incorporate a sense of the surreal. I find life very surreal—I don't want to call it magical realism, but let me say the absurd and surreal is something that I always think is happening in life, and I need to get that down in fiction. I am maybe more conscious that in a longer piece I can play more with language and my theories of what language is doing. I say this a lot in writing, because Chinese was my first language, and I still use it sometimes too. I translate things into Chinese and then back to English to hear what it would sound like. It’s just the most direct way to understand that you can get at the same idea in completely different ways. My novel is set in Beijing, so I feel like I've been playing with language and the idea of translation a lot.
KK: I don't want to keep you too long, so I have one last question (and it's fun).
XJW: Thank you so much for these thoughtful questions!
KK: No, thank you for your very thoughtful responses! They’re amazing. So, out of the novels and collections that have kept you company this year, which have left the most lasting impressions?
XJW: That's a great question. I’ve found it very difficult to read in the last two years, because I have given birth to two kids. I've been a reader since I learned. I came to the States when I was in second grade, and I remember I read my first book in third grade. I think since then I have always been the type of person that would max out how many books you can check out at the library at one time. These last few years are the first time in my life that I’ve found it difficult to stay within the world of a book, but I loved Klara and the Sun. I thought that book was at once about a parental type of devotion, but then also it was about the old people in my life. Like my grandma, who passed away this year— I used to watch her sitting there in the sun, and I would wonder what she was thinking about, and I felt like somehow this book captures the beginning and the end of life in this very palatable way. It felt very masterful to me, even though I’ve read so many of Ishuguro’s books and I feel like sometimes they're the same book. But somehow, this was the best version of his books, and it made me feel so excited to be a writer—that even if you just need to tell the story over and over again that you can get somewhere else with it.
I read Sula recently, which I really loved. I've been reading a lot of short books, because I'm trying to write a shorter novel. I read Julian Barnes’s The Only Story, that one also stuck with me. And the last book I truly enjoyed was my friend Jean Chen Ho’s collection Fiona and Jane, which is set in LA. I don't think I've read any other short story collections set in LA. I think those are the stories I grew up with, and it felt like reliving my life or something.
KK: I’ve heard such great things about Fiona and Jane. In terms of slim novels, I would definitely recommend Assembly by Natasha Brown—I don't know if you've read it, but it's fairly new and a very short book. It really packs a punch. It's so good.
XJW: I'll get it today.
KK: Oh yay!
XJW: I’ve been compiling a list, like I read Crudo by Olivia Laing. I read In The Café of Lost Youth, The Dud Avocado, all those old short books that you can buy at glasses stores. So Long, See You Tomorrow. There's these classic short books. I don't think I’ve heard of Assembly, so I'll read it today.
Xuan Juliana Wang was born in Heilongjiang, China, and moved to Los Angeles when she was seven years old. A Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, she received her MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Best American Nonrequired Reading and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her debut collection of short stories, Home Remedies, was published in 2019 and hailed as the arrival of ‘an urgent and necessary literary voice’ by Alexander Chee, and ‘tough and luminous’ by The New York Times Book Review. Home Remedies was named as one of the Most Anticipated Books of 2019 by Nylon, Electric Literature, The Millions, and LitHub, and one of the Best Books of the Season by Elle, Publishers Weekly, The Daily Beast, and New York Observer. She currently teaches creative writing at UCLA.
Katherine King is a third-year English major and history and professional writing double minor. On the weekends she works in a bookstore, bakes bread, and gossips with her houseplants.