An Interview with Author Michael X. Wang
Genre-bending fiction writer next invitee to Behrend's Smith Creative Writers Reading Series
The award-winning fiction writer Michael X. Wang will read from his work as part of Penn State Behrend's Smith Creative Writers Reading Series on Thursday, March 3 at 6 p.m. via Zoom. More information and the Zoom link can be found at www.behrend.psu.edu/readings.
Michael X. Wang describes himself as a writer, teacher, and explorer. Born in Fenyang, China, a coal-mining city in the mountainous Shanxi province, Wang immigrated to the United States when he was six. He holds a Ph.D. in Literature from Florida State University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Purdue. His story collection, Further News of Defeat, won the 2021 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award. His debut novel, Lost in the Long March, will come out next summer from The Overlook Press.
HS: You've moved around quite a lot; how do you feel that's influenced the sorts of stories you tell and how you tell them?
MW: Because I've moved around so much, I'm always searching for a place that I can consider home. And there are many different definitions of home, at least for me. There's the city that I was born in, Fenyang, China; it's this small city, by Chinese standards ― it has a population of 100,000 to 200,000. But I also grew up in Beijing for about three or four years before coming to the United States. After coming to the United States, I went through grade school in Rochester, Michigan, so I consider that to be my home, my childhood home, because, you know, second grade through seventh grade, those are some of your formative years, and I remember it very fondly. After that I lived in Long Island through my junior high and high school years: bad years where people go through bullying. And then I went to North Carolina and lived there for about half a year before moving back to New York. So I think place is really important in a lot of the fiction I write because I've lived in so many places. On the other hand, not knowing a place extremely well gives me a sense of freedom. I can think of the place of my birth, Fenyang, as this near mythical place that I hear stories about from my parents. Or, my father's village, which is in the same province, but much more rural ― they're farmers. So all these locations, because I haven't lived in them all my life, I can use my imagination to fill in the blanks. In a lot of what I write, no matter if it has some science fiction background or historical background, I can use these places that are kind of mythical to me as this backdrop.
HS: I've had the chance to read your stories "The Whole Story of a Tugboat Driver on the Suzhou River" and "Cataloguers of the Galaxy," and I've noticed that your endings leave the reader with more questions than answers. What do you think leads you to write that kind of story?
MW: I think there are two different types of endings in short stories. There is the plot-based ending, in which some things get resolved ― in a love triangle, the main character decides on which of the two suitors they like best, the killer is found, or whatever ― but there are also theme endings, too. The plot might not be resolved, but the theme goes somewhere. In "The Whole Story of a Tugboat Driver on the Suzhou River," that story for me was an attempt to investigate the life of this tugboat driver on this river, and the impossibility of that task in fiction. The thing with fiction is, it supposedly allows us to know somebody fully, because the character's existence is just on the page, whereas in real life, we can never know that person fully, because we're never privileged to hear their thoughts. We never know everything that they're thinking about, all their desires. In fiction, we kind of are, at least traditionally that's how people think about it. But I think maybe even in fiction that is wrong. That task is kind of impossible. So by the end of "The Whole Story of a Tugboat Driver on the Suzhou River," hopefully the reader understands thematically that the task of truly telling "the whole story" is impossible. I got this idea from Richard Bausch, who's teaching at Chapman University. He writes a lot of stories with open-ended endings, and the theme is explored to a great extent, but the main question of the story isn't really solved. Plot-based questions tend to make the reader keep on reading, and then once they figure it out, the story becomes less interesting. If you leave plot-based questions open-ended, though, maybe the reader can think about the themes of the piece afterwards. That's what I was going for. Whether or not it's truly successful, that depends on the reader.
HS: How do you choose the subject matter for your stories, and how do you choose when and where to set them?
MW: In terms of subject matter, I feel like I would start with something that intrigues me. Maybe something in real life I don't have an answer to, and I'll try to investigate further. For the story "Cataloguers of the Galaxy" that you read, I had a student in one of my creative writing classes when I was at Florida State, his name was Harlen, and he was a very enthusiastic student; we talked a couple of times during office hours, and he mentioned how his father was in a band and would tour, and his father wouldn't be around, and Harlen missed him a great deal. So I took that backstory and imagined what his relationship with his father was like, but I threw in aliens or the possibility of aliens as well. I think sometimes, when you have an initial idea, something you're very fascinated with, it might not be enough to sustain an entire story, so you need this other idea. I like to think a story is made up of two or three ideas that have been brewing inside your mind, and sometimes these things don't correspond or don't seem related whatsoever, but I like to challenge myself ― aliens and my student who had a rockstar father. I'm going to challenge myself to see if I can write a somewhat cohesive story bringing those two together. Other stories of mine came about through stories my parents would tell me. The title story of Further News of Defeat came about because my grandmother on my father's side told me two or three times that her grandfather was the village chief during the time in which the Japanese invaded and took over. My story was loosely based on all of the stories that she told me. Another story in the collection, "Cures and Superstitions," was based on a newspaper article my mother read to me over the phone. She thought it might make for a good story, and I think it did.
HS: Since you mentioned Further News of Defeat, and I know at least one other work you've done has dealt with Tiananmen Square, I wanted to ask, since it's a very pivotal moment in history, is there anything in particular that made you want to use that as a backdrop for stories?
MW: "A Minor Revolution" is a story based loosely on personal experience. I was in Beijing when the Tiananmen Square Massacre was occurring; my parents were graduate students, and I was only five years old, so I don't remember anything about it, but my parents have told me. On the night of the massacre, my father ran up the stairs at around midnight or one a.m. and stormed into our apartment and said the soldiers started firing. My mother didn't believe him, and she said, "Be quiet, or else you're going to wake Michael up." So, that was a story I heard afterwards, and I thought it's interesting because in some ways, I was so close to that time in history, but I don't remember anything about it. I remember 9/11, I was a senior in high school, and how it affected everyone in my classes, but for something like Tiananmen Square, I had no idea when I lived through it. I think part of it was just hearing that and trying to reimagine that time in my life. It was different from my real life, too, because my mother wasn't someone from the village, wasn't someone illiterate, and I think that's important too, because even if you're writing from your personal experience, you should still somehow deliberately and intentionally try to separate it from your real life, otherwise you risk the story feeling too close to you, and almost unbelievable. When you're writing too close to home, you might have forgotten to include details or information or pivotal context because you know everything. That's something I always try to do.
HS: I think I'll turn to your science fiction-like work now. I've noticed you've done at least a few works like "Cataloguers" that would at least border on the genre, so I was wondering if you have any notable interest in science fiction, and if so what pulls you to it?
MW: I definitely have an interest in science fiction and even fantasy. I like to think that the lines between different genres and literary fiction are very much blurred. So that's something I'm very conscious of. And of course, like everyone else, I'm very influenced by popular culture. I like Game of Thrones, Star Wars, all those kinds of things, and I don't think I can ever write something that is full-on in the genre. That might be too much, for me at least: there are too many rules to that kind of writing. For example, if you're writing fantasy you probably need to spend many, many pages describing the world, but that might be too boring for me, I may not have the patience to do all of that, but the ideas are still interesting. And I like to bring a little bit of personal experience over to whatever genre I'm doing as well. The novel that I'm currently working on, The Red Synthetic Utopia of the Mind, combines video game culture and the search for consciousness and alternate realities, and it's also a novel about immigration. The main character, Harriet Chu, immigrated to the United States on a video game visa as a kind of prodigy, and her hometown is Fenyang, my birthplace. There's a lot of politicalness to the novel as well; she meets an artificial intelligence in the video game world, and it changes her world so that China and the United State switch places: the United States becomes a kind of third-world, developing country, and China is this developed country. In someone like Harriet's mind, that might be a more ideal world, making this kind of political statement as well. Even if I am writing novels that feature genre elements, I like to bring in political themes, personal experiences, and I think that's really important, that a work says something about what people are talking about and engaging with contemporarily. I think I am very conscious about thinking about my reader sometimes. I include thriller elements in my work as well, because I want my work to be interesting. I think when I first started writing, what motivated me was just to write a story which people can read from beginning to end and feel engaged. I respect writers who want to engage the reader with their themes and believe so strongly in the issues they're writing about, but I'm conscious of the reader, more than maybe I even want to be.
HS: So, you're going to be reading at Behrend on March 3rd. Is there anything you particularly enjoy or find valuable about getting to do readings for (pseudo-)live audiences?
MW: As live as we can get nowadays, yes. I mean, I always love to engage with my readers. They tell me things about my stories that I've never thought about before. One of my other stories, "Cures and Superstitions," I read the first half of that story at a reading and one of the audience members had this terrific question: "How do you feel about the main character in that story?" The main character, he's kind of unlikeable. He's this shop owner who runs this herbal medicine store, and he uses animal parts like tiger bones for herbal medicine, and just in general is an unlikeable character. So the question was, does the story treat the character in a cynical way? How do you write cynically about a character while still giving him the respect that he deserves? I think that was a really fascinating question and something that I consciously didn't think about, because I have known characters like the shop owner, Old Wisdom, it just seemed second nature that people like that exist, and for me it's not so much whether or not I respect their point of view, it's simply "this person exists, they do this in this way, I want to portray them as realistically as I can," despite whether or not I agree with their vantage points on politics or whether or not selling tiger bones is right ― which, definitely it is not. In that other story you mentioned, "The Whole Story of a Tugboat Driver on Suzhou River," I had another reader indicate to me that to him the story was about the inadequacy of language and formal writing, and I thought that was really fascinating. That's something I love about reading and engaging, just hearing things back. I do think that it's difficult sometimes to make readings engaging. If it's too long, we've all been in readings where the reader is reading there for half an hour, 40 minutes, and if they don't read in an engaging way, it's difficult to remember and hear everything. It's a challenge, and something that I really want to embrace. How can I make this reading, any reading, as engaging as possible? What words in my sentence should I really stress, what words should I emphasize? Which sentences should I read quicker? How long should my section breaks last? One second, two? What's the appropriate amount of time to signal that we are changing points of view, we're changing scenes? All of that, I find really interesting, because storytelling initially was oratory, it was done traditionally in this epic poem-type of deal, but we've moved away from that. When we read a book, it's a different experience than watching a TV show or even listening to an audiobook. That unique challenge I find very interesting, and I'm still trying to grapple with. I still haven't found the exact answer, but the text, when you read it on the page versus when you hear it out loud, it's not totally different, but different enough to be a unique experience, and I find that fascinating too.
Hayden Schroter is a senior in Penn State Behrend's Creative Writing BFA program. This interview was conducted over Zoom.