2014 Contest: An Interview with Fiction Judge Lily Hoang
Lily Hoang is the author of four books, including Changing, recipient of a PEN Open Books Award. Her choose-your-own adventure love story is forthcoming with 1913 Press. With Blake Butler, she edited 30 Under 30, and with Joshua Marie Wilkinson, she edited The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on the Avant-Garde and Accessibility. She teaches in the MFA program at New Mexico State University, where she is Prose Editor of Puerto del Sol. She is the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell College.
Interview by ZACHARY DOSS
Black Warrior Review: You currently teach at the New Mexico State University. How do you like living in New Mexico?
Lily Hoang: New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment, and every day, I am further enchanted. It is a fairy tale landscape, only bare of trees. At night, I walk from my house to the Rio Grande, a ten mile round trip. I walk along an arroyo, which is an arroyo in my mind only, it is really a ditch, as my friend Richard Greenfield reminds me often. But, but: doesn’t arroyo sound more romantic? An arroyo, I walk along an enchanted arroyo.
BWR: What impact do you feel like teaching has had on your writing?
LH: To be completely honest, my writing has become much more conservative because of teaching. As I teach, I learn more about the “craft” of fiction, which I had learned in MFA school but actively rebelled against. Now that I have to teach it, craft fails my writing, or, succeeds me, or, it secedes me. I just finished a domestic realist novel, which I blame on teaching, although, although, it was a challenge, something I’d never done before, and now that I’ve done it, I’m eager to get back to magic, swoon.
BWR: I’ve noticed that your books, while similar in some ways, are really very different in terms of form and content; you’re an extremely versatile writer. Do you start each project intending to take on a new style, or do you find that it just happens?
LH: Most of my books are OuLiPian games. I tend to let the form dictate the content, which is why my books are so varied, so unfamiliar—especially to me. I start with the formal game, and then I enter with the sentence, one first and then the next. I guess the commonality among my books is that they’re all syntactically questionable.
BWR: How do you think social media, or the internet in general, has affected your life as a writer (if at all)? Do you think the internet has had much impact on us as writers generally, other than the fact that I can now Tweet at Stephen King?
LH: Years ago, I was in Houston for a reading and I hung out with fellow HTML Gianters Gene Morgan and Ryan Call and Gene said that we’re all the Internet generation of writers and there’s some real wisdom to that. Or: maybe wisdom isn’t the right word. It’s just—look at the trend in very short fiction and it seems impossible that social media has had no influence on form, consciously or not.
BWR: You recently tweeted this: “Most ppl would say I misuse the comma. I say you just haven’t maximized the comma, its magic superheroic power.” I was excited to see someone else who was enthused about the comma. What mileage do you get out of the comma in your writing? What are your thoughts on the magical power of the comma?
LH: I have the word parataxis tattooed to my chest, it’s my favorite poetic device. Some people would call this a comma splice, others might call it a run-on sentence, but to me, it’s parataxis. I am working on a non-fiction book with Bhanu Kapil on punctuation, desire, and the post-colonial body. The magical power of the comma is its ability simultaneously to connect, to separate, to fuse and infuse.
BWR: I’ve seen your work referred to as “experimental,” and when I hear that I’m always unsure of what it means. Do you consider yourself experimental, and if so, what does that mean to you?
LH: When I was younger, I was determined to be “experimental.” I didn’t quite know what “experimental” meant, but I was sure my work followed in that tradition—the irony! Today, I’m not so sure what experimental means. For instance, Ben Marcus’s work. He’s been criticized for his turn to the traditional, but I think his newer work is even more “experimental,” it challenges in its recognizability.
I guess now more than ever, I have no idea what “experimental” means. I’m constantly questioning its definition and its intention. That being said, I have a cat named Gertrude (after Stein, obv), and I just edited an anthology with Joshua Marie Wilkinson called The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on the Avant-Garde and Accessibility, where close to 100 writers explore the very meaning of “avant-garde” and “experimental” and “accessibility,” among other things. I’m often typecast as “experimental,” and I’ve worked to cultivate it, or, a younger me at least. And most of my writing friends—ahem: virtual friends—are also typecast as experimental, whether they accept the role or not. So, sure, I’m experimental, whatever that word means anymore.
BWR: In her introduction to The Evolutionary Revolution, Anna Joy Springer notes that it takes place in “A place familiar-yet-strange.” This seems to be true of a lot of your writing. What is it about this blend of strangeness and familiarity that appeals to you?
LH: I went to this master class—if I dare make the musical equivalent—with Susan Steinberg, who said that the only necessary elements to fiction are place and conflict. That happened years ago, but the idea has stuck with me. Since I heard her explain this idea, I’ve really focused on world building. Because most of my writing occurs in a magical landscape, the world building is even more essential. I try to explain to my students that when writing magic, you have to ground the reader in elements of reality, ways for the reader to relate to and empathize with.
BWR: What are you working on right now?
LH: I recently finished my domestic realist novel and I’m currently working on two collaborative books: with Bhanu Kapil, a book on punctuation, and with Carmen Gimenez Smith, a verse novel called Hummeltopia. Otherwise, I am turning ideas about a fairy tale trilogy, which is nascent, barely burgeoning.
BWR: I’m not going to ask you what your favorite book is, because that’s always really hard question to answer. But what have you read recently (or you know, in your life) that really stands out in your mind?
LH: Every word of Selah Saterstrom’s the Beau Repose trilogy. Every single word.
But to be honest, I read a lot more theory and philosophy than fiction. Recently, I have been obsessed with Lauren Berlant’s work.
BWR: What are the things you’re going to be looking for in a contest winner? Or, what really excites you when you read it in a piece of fiction?
LH: I’m really excited by works of fiction that are conceptually driven—and let us all shift up from fourth to fifth gear with the sentence.
BWR: Do you have any non-writing hobbies? What do you do when you’re not working?
When I am home, my idea of fun is inviting my friend Carmen Gimenez Smith over and we work on our laptops and periodically laugh together. Otherwise, I enjoy what other people do: cooking, knitting, walking. Let us resurrect the flaneur, and this time, let the term include women, yeah?