Working Through the Apocalypse: An Interview with Ling Ma

In Ling Ma’s “Severance” — a novel she began to write after getting laid off, while living partly on severance pay — the characters keep going to work, even though they know it’s the end of the world.

Ryan Chapman | Longreads | August 2018 | 12 minutes (3,139 words)

The end of the world in Ling Ma’s novel Severance comes not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but a stream of misinformation, social media hysteria, and plenty of willful denial. If this sounds familiar, it’s far from dreary. Ma injects comic levity into a world ravaged by “Shen Fever,” whose victims perform habitual tasks in a mute, somnambulant state until they waste away. Candace Chen, a New York-based, Chinese-American millennial, is immune to the disease, and joins a small group of survivors led by a former I.T. specialist.

Although this post-apocalyptic remnant waves a typical number of red flags — micro-authoritarianism, liberal use of euthanasia — Candace makes do as they scavenge for food and mercy kill the “fevered.” Ma depicts the end times with alternating chapters on Candace’s pre-apocalyptic life: dating in Brooklyn, navigating adulthood, and working at a book production company. She specializes in Bibles and takes occasional business trips to printing facilities in Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

Ma has fun with the end of the world: Severance reads like The Walking Dead infected with the anarchic spirit of Office Space. Candace’s coworkers sport designer flu masks, idly wonder about the colleague who didn’t return on Monday, and debate whether to take the spot bonus for staying on when everyone else has the good sense to get the hell out of NYC.

Candace doesn’t have good sense. She maintains her routines and eventually moves into her office. She updates a photo blog called NY Ghost with images of the empty city. And we learn Candace is guarding a secret which may imperil her chances with her newfound “friends.”

Severance has a light touch, belying Ma’s literary acuity and brilliant imagining of capitalism’s death spasms at civilization’s end. I spoke with her by Skype; the following has been condensed and edited.

Ryan Chapman: The book reads very seamlessly. But I bet there was an incredible amount of drafting and revision behind it.

Ling Ma: There was definitely a lot of drafting and revision, but honestly when I started I had no idea where I was going. I was just thinking, Something about globalism! And anger about the workforce!

I had a general idea of the arc of the novel. But it was very, very loose and actually over time it changed quite drastically. I would just think of specific scenes and be like, Oh well that sounds exciting, let’s tackle that! I wrote the book out of order, but once I had enough pieces I could start to see how they were speaking to each other.

This book is about 80,000 words, and I cut 40,000 words. There was no real mode of attack — I was just all over the place. (laughter)

There’s not a line demarcating the before and the after, what is pre-apocalypse and what is post-apocalypse. That was something I knew from the outset I wanted to convey.

Did you have the voice of Candace pretty early? Her voice works for covering a lot of ground. She’s credible as our guide to the apocalypse but also as our guide to becoming an adult in New York.

How did Candace’s voice come? Originally I was just writing this as a short story. I was writing it in the last days of this office job that I was getting laid off from. I was thinking, It’s the apocalypse, so it’s just fun! It’s crushing things, destroying things… I had a lot of anger. (laughter)

It was a short story meant to be written in the first person plural, like Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End. But there was this one voice that kept popping out over time, and I realized she needed to take over the story. The second thing I realized was I know exactly what her job is.

What was that path like from the short story to building it out into a full novel?

I’m not really sure. My job ended. I had some freelance work, but I also had some severance pay and unemployment. I thought, great, this is my arts fellowship. (laughter) But I had to figure out a way to secure more funding. I had to get an MFA. I moved to Ithaca, NY and finished the manuscript.

That’s what it looked like for me personally. Writing it from short story to novel, I spent a long time sourcing the anger and the angst. It just felt like there was a lot to unpack.

Anger can be a great motivator. Did you have a sense pretty early on how you wanted your apocalypse to work? It’s believable in the book because it comes on slowly.

There’s not a line demarcating the before and the after, what is pre-apocalypse and what is post-apocalypse. That was something I knew from the outset I wanted to convey.

I was working at a company and they were downsizing. They were doing it in a very strategic way. One year it was, the vacation days you might have accumulated from working a decade at the company? Now you can roll over a maximum of ten. Nips and tucks like that. Also the small policy changes they would make, essentially to force the senior employees into retirement. So what you see is this gradual, year by year change.

The book has a great way of trojan-horsing stories about being a young adult in New York City, and the Chen family’s assimilation from China to Salt Lake City.

I didn’t even know Candace was Asian-American at first. (laughter) I realized that when she goes to Shenzhen and Hong Kong that there is a disconnect in being Chinese-American and going back to China, looking at those factory workers — I wanted to explore what exactly divided her from working in a printing press or a Chinese supplier.

I really resisted writing the immigrant thread for a long time. The parts about Salt Lake City, the parents’ journey. That was really difficult to write because I feel like any time a character is a minority, their narrative is automatically an immigration narrative. Growing up I used to get asked the question where do you come from? I grew up in Utah, Nebraska, and Kansas, so you would hear that a lot.

I was just like, Can we just not have a character who needs to explain how she got to the U.S.? I think my difficulty with that came through. With chapter sixteen, there’s no first person. I couldn’t get Candace to talk about it. When I was writing it she was going, this is really cheesy, I’m not a part of this. So I had an omniscient narrator and then let her take over that chapter gradually.

But I really did want to explore the idea of: you’re Chinese-American, you’re back in China for your work, you’re going into these Chinese factories — what is that disassociation like?

From the beginning Candace knows this job is not worth it, she knows where it leads, and yet she’s compelled to stay. I wanted to figure out why.

It works in a number of ways. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has talked about the difficulty of having to put the proper nouns of where her characters live in the first couple paragraphs of a short story. It can be so awkward to write, “He was driving through Lagos,” when the character wouldn’t think to name the town at all.

Switching to the workplace setting and themes, quite a few people have said Severance is the best book on office life since Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End.

There’s Ed Park’s Personal Days too.

Right! You thank him in your acknowledgments.

A long time ago I read something in the Times about his New-York Ghost newsletter. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it when I was writing the novel, but at some point I went, Oh, NY Ghost, that should be the name of her blog. Eventually I figure out it must have been from Ed Park. Or the Sonic Youth album NYC Ghosts & Flowers, which I listened to as a teen. I don’t know. There was something there that was resonant. It felt like the right name for the blog. And I got to meet Ed Park and he was really cool.

It’s nice when that happens. (laughter) Going back to Candace. Her approach to office life and the post-apocalyptic community she joins is one of “going along to get along,” both watchful and passive. I thought, I would do the same thing. I would privately critique the way the group was being led, but refrain from saying outright: “You guys this is totally fucked. We’re going to die if we choose this.”

For Candace it’s sort of a defense mechanism: Collect as much data as she can and see how these social interactions are working out. Then see if she can live within these terms. That sort of easygoingness, rolling with whatever comes next, but only up to a certain point — when it becomes dicey.

Very dicey. There are some clear danger signs in both her office and the post-Fever landscape. I laughed out loud and then became a bit depressed when she was offered a giant payday to stay on while everyone else was dropping from this mass contagion. Most people would sympathize: your boss says just stay on for another month, represent the company, and here’s a boatload of cash. Even in the last gasps of civilization, capitalism reigns supreme.

Even when there’s not much left Candace can buy. There aren’t a lot of stores open anymore. I imagine Amazon would still be functioning. (laughter) Maybe they’d setup special vending machines for the apocalypse.

Oh yeah. You depicted some of the vestiges of civilization. FedEx was still delivering packages, but they’re now two weeks late.

Were there texts or writers that informed the book?

There’s Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. His opening chapter about New York and how quickly it would go away: the first thing to go would be the subway pumps. I read that and thought, yep, that’s going into my book.

I also read Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide. I was bingeing a lot of The Walking Dead at the time. There was something in season two, right before I started the short story — I forget the characters’ names — it was this guy and his best friend, and his best friend was going to kill him… It was a very intense scene…

I remember this one. With Jon Bernthal, on a hilltop?

Yes! And Andrew Lincoln. For some reason, the next day I started working on this apocalyptic short story.

I have to say the biggest influence — and I’ve said this so many times — I watched Mad Men a lot. Eight years of watching Mad Men, that’s how I learned how to plot these things. Even though I didn’t know how to plot Severance as I was going along, the thematic layering Mad Men does over the seasons, especially like they setup all of these themes starting in season one and season two and then in season five you see they start cashing out really quick. I’ve never been more emotionally moved by a TV show than season five of Mad Men.

Also other TV shows about work. The Sopranos, which I think is really about work and office politics. The X-Files was a huge one.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day I also saw as a work novel, how this butler is trying to figure out in a roundabout way: Did I waste my life? Was this job worth it?

And I think the difference is, from the beginning Candace knows this job is not worth it, she knows where it leads, and yet she’s compelled to stay. I wanted to figure out why.

One of my friends, Katie Moore…. after work she would go to Zuccotti Park and take photos of the protests. It was this strange thing where she was going to work in the day and at night she would do this other thing… It felt really exhilarating. I thought, I hope it spreads.

A few books in the past couple years take on Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, and how large a moment that was for New York City: Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Andrew Durbin’s MacArthur Park, Hermione Hoby’s Neon in Daylight. Sandy appears in Severance as a kind of precursor to the end of the world. Did that come about through lived experience?

When Hurricane Sandy was happening I was in my parents’ condo in Washington D.C. For some reason I was alone that weekend and I kept hearing about Sandy. It didn’t affect DC that badly. But I kept checking the internet, as one does, getting these real-time updates. It was nuts: the front page of the New York Times showing the blackout. And on the other hand on Twitter you have the pictures of the subways with sharks in them. It was very hard from that distance to separate the fake catastrophic and the real catastrophic. There were pictures of the East Village completely flooded, water up to the awnings of the storefronts. And I just took that to be real. I was fascinated.

It was only later that, you know, I realized that a bunch of these images were doctored. (laughter) And some of them were taken from that movie with Jake Gyllenhaal.

The Day After Tomorrow?

Yeah, The Day After Tomorrow. Wasn’t there a Statue of Liberty meme…? It was reality and fantasy just totally jumbled in the online space. I was riveted. I was also really paranoid. Because I was by myself and I didn’t know what was going on. The rain was lashing at the windows… It was an interesting experience. As scared as I was looking at all these images, I was also felt very exhilarated for some reason. The rules are broken! People don’t have to go to work now!

Right! This book is going to lead to a lot of people quitting their jobs. It’s very anti-work. (laughter)

I wouldn’t mind that. Wait, should I say that?

Well, if they find better work.

Or if they ask for better terms. I think that’s good.

There’s a paragraph in the book that touches upon this really well, and describes realistically what the end would look like. I’m going to do the embarrassing thing of reading you your own work.

“The sheer density of information and misinformation at the end encapsulated in news articles and messageboard theories and clickbait traps that had propagated hysterically through retweets and shares had effectively rendered us more ignorant, more helpless, more innocent in our stupidity.” (p31)

I felt you had diagnosed perfectly how difficult it will be to discern what the end will be. I imagine you were writing and editing a lot of this book before our crazy (and crazy-making) moment.

Yeah.

Are you optimistic about the next few years?

I don’t know. I think things will reset themselves. I’m saying this just from the point of view of a pedestrian, not as a seer or anything like that. I really don’t know.

Somebody had asked me why is Severance set in 2011. Part of it was that I had to date it no matter what, because of the brand names, and the way New York was, it had to be affixed to a year. The other part of it was around the time Occupy Wall Street happened, I felt like it was diagnosing the current moment — the moment that’s still happening — in which we’re not treated as people, as citizens, but just as consumers. When we’re online, we’re valued as far as the clicks that we give to various companies.

Occupy Wall Street felt like, for a time — in the same way we were talking about Hurricane Sandy — oh my god, the rules are gonna break. I don’t have to go to work tomorrow!

One of my friends, Katie Moore, she was onsite as a photographer for all of that. After work she would go to Zuccotti Park and take photos of the protests. It was this strange thing where she was going to work in the day and at night she would do this other thing. She showed me a lot of her photos, and it felt really exhilarating. I thought, I hope it spreads.


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You mentioned you had 40,000 words you jettisoned. Novelists sometimes wrestle with books for years, even decades. It’s nice to hear your process wasn’t so fraught, filled with years hitting your head against the wall.

You know what it is? The whole time I just kept thinking to myself, This is just a short story, an extended short story! That’s all it is! (laughter) Somehow that seemed to work. I knew it was a long manuscript. But I never tried to think of it as a novel, because that felt too daunting.

I heard you have a novel coming out?

Yeah, next year.

Congratulations!

Thank you. You were talking about writing scenes as they occur to you, that are fun to tackle, and then collecting the different notes together, never thinking of the larger project… That was certainly my experience. It’s why I’m amazed by writers who say, I’m going to write a 300-page novel. And start with sentence one, then sentence two…

There are those types of writers.

I like your idea. Think of the novel as just a longer and longer short story. To keep you going.

Stay in denial.

Exactly! Anger and denial are both excellent tips for writers. Are there other lessons you can share?

I think you should just go hang out with your friends and put yourself in weird situations. And observe from afar what’s going on. A lot of my inspiration was, you know, sitting around with friends and tape recording them in my mind.

Or hearing how your colleagues speak to each other. What are the inherent power dynamics subtly conveyed?

In Severance the CEO welcomes everybody to the meeting and then the HR director is the one who actually gives the bad news.

Yeah. I’m interested in how power works. You had asked me about texts, and another one was Kafka. He just knows, man. He knows how power works.

I always felt bad for Kafka’s colleagues. Could you imagine being the nice one in the insurance office? “Hey Franz, we bought some cake for John’s birthday.” And Kafka’s all moody — “I don’t want cake!” — while scribbling notes about everyone.

In terms of lessons for young writers, they should read all of Kafka’s journals. They’re so depressing yet so relatable at the same time. It seems like he had no faith in his work, and then you look at the work he produced… I don’t know. Maybe talking down to yourself is a way of keeping the faith.

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Ryan Chapman lives in Kingston, New York. He has written for BOMB, GQ.com, Electric Literature, Guernica, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere. His novel Riots I Have Known (Simon & Schuster) will be published in 2019.

Editor: Dana Snitzky