Alex Madison | Longreads | May 2019 | 13 minutes (3,462 words)
In the opening pages of Chia-Chia Lin’s gorgeous debut novel, The Unpassing, ten-year-old Gavin lays in the grass with his father, searching for meteors in an autumn sky. His father claims to see them, but Gavin is doubtful: “Either my eyes were not fast enough, or he willed those fragments of space debris into being. They flamed with the intensity of his wanting.”
We learn Gavin’s family has followed this flame of wanting from Taiwan to the U.S. and eventually all the way to Anchorage, where Gavin’s father feels “closer to the stars.” It’s 1986, and Gavin and his three siblings — Pei Pei, Natty and Ruby — eagerly anticipate the launch of the Challenger shuttle, hungrily gathering details about civilian astronaut Christa McAuliffe. Their world hums with yearning and potential. But before the first chapter ends, Gavin contracts meningitis and slips into a coma, only to awaken in a new world: a world in which the Challenger has exploded, and four-year-old Ruby has caught his illness and died. What follows is the unspooling of a new, lonelier life for each family member.
While Ruby’s death charges each of the novel’s movements, my experience of reading was filled with more wonder than sadness. Even as calamity shortens their childhoods, Gavin and his siblings remain vibrant. Their sorrow can’t erase the marvels of never-ending summer light or the joys of tromping among mysterious fauna with new friends. Grief also holds its own wretched beauty — peeling away surfaces and exposing raw feeling. The aura of grief hovers at the edges of Gavin’s experiences, but his observations are also threaded with strangeness and humor.
Chia-Chia Lin is heartbreakingly attuned to the nuance and depth of the children’s perspectives, and Gavin’s narration reflects an acute sensitivity to his family’s emotional weather. Her prose is unadorned but luminous, distilled to potent precision: “two punch holes” of Natty’s pupils in the night, “shredded clouds” announcing summer, a baseball cap that “sliced and resliced a line in the air.”
I loved the richness layered across every page, and I still find it hard to believe this novel is a debut.
Lin and I became friends at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I was an early reader for The Unpassing. We caught up recently in Portland, first in a homey coffee shop over granola and oatmeal, and later in a tapas bar over wine.
Alex Madison: I know the time you spent in Anchorage a while back made a big impression on you, and the sense of place is in this novel is so powerful. How did the Alaskan setting shape the story for you?
Chia-Chia Lin: The outdoor world has always offered me perspective on my own life. It’s why I ended up in Alaska fifteen years ago, searching for something I can’t exactly explain. I’ve also always liked the idea of exploring domestic spaces against the backdrop of wild spaces. When you’re writing about both settings — the setting within the home and the setting outside the home — those boundaries can dissolve a little bit and interesting things can happen. Domestic spaces are often perceived as spaces of familiarity and intimacy, but in my experience, the domestic space also contains unknown depths. The home is a place as wild as any in the world.
I love that idea of the home as a wild place. Wildness takes so many forms here. As I was reading, I was drawn to some of the passages that describe animals in distress: the “pained smile” of a beached whale, a dying lynx that will “have no cover and have no rest.” How did wildlife fit into your understanding of the setting?
I guess it’s true some of the animals in my book are in distress. That might be due to my own morbid interests more than anything else.
Alaska is a place where tourists flock by the millions to see wildlife, since it exists there in a way that it doesn’t really exist in many places anymore. I lived in Anchorage for a summer, and I would pass moose while riding around on a bike, or I would see them in the front yard. I saw a good number of bears while I was out hiking. Essentially, you come face to face with these large animals you rarely see elsewhere, except in confined spaces. There is something that feels right about large animals being allowed to exist in a place, and us making our home within that space.
I ended up in Alaska fifteen years ago, searching for something I can’t exactly explain.
I think the setting feels even more wondrous and wild because we experience it through the eyes of a kid. At what point did you know that you were going to take the point of view of Gavin, the ten-year-old boy?
From the beginning, I was interested in telling this story from a child’s point of view. What doesn’t he understand because of his age, and what does he in fact understand better? The way I see it, a child’s perspective is equally complex to an adult’s. But it’s also different. Children have more access to their bodies and their senses. Things feel newer. Also, they don’t, or can’t, suppress their emotions the same way. They cry so easily, and the next moment they’re laughing, and the next moment they’re crying again, and there’s something about that way of living on the surface of yourself that intrigued me.
I’ve been reading your work — and admiring it — for several years now, and most of your short stories are told from the perspective of women and girls. Were there any particular considerations that led you to tell this story from a boy’s point of view?
It’s kind of funny that my first book ended up being told from a boy’s perspective. Before this, you’re right that I had written many short stories that were all from female points of view. Maybe I just needed something different to jar me into a new, sustained story.
Or maybe this story, despite being told by a boy, is actually still about women. The book’s strongest personalities are two female characters — the mother and the sister. They are the loudest on the page. And Gavin is always watching them.
But I was also interested in some aspects of Gavin’s maleness. For example, I wanted to explore the idea of his smallness, in conjunction with his maleness. His father is also a small man. I’m not sure if normally sized people are aware just how much your size can impact how you interact with the world, and how others perceive you, and how you perceive other people perceiving you. I’m very small. As you know.
The father was the character I had the most questions about as I read, and it’s interesting that you mention his smallness. Beyond physicality, I think he could be seen as “small” in other ways — though there is also an expansiveness in his thinking. How did he emerge for you?
I was interested in the discrepancy between the father’s own notions of his potential and the reality of what he’s able to do. He has a lot of ideas and thoughts, but he’s often not able to act on them. Partly, that’s because of the environment: he’s an immigrant exploring a new world that isn’t always receptive to him.
But he’s also largely held back because of who he is. There is a familiar narrative about the hardships immigrants overcome, which can be simultaneously uplifting and reductive. But I was also interested in exploring the father as a human being who fails.
His failures have major implications for the other characters. Did you know all along how distant he would become from his family?
I think I knew, early in drafting, that there would be an eventual rift in the family, and I wrote toward that. Everyone in the family is implicated in causing the rift, but especially the mother and the father. Investigating their roles helped their characters become real to me. I didn’t fully answer all my questions about the father in this book, and to me that’s okay. I don’t feel that we ever fully understand people in life, and I wanted to leave a little space around him.
The youngest child, Ruby, dies so early in the book. I’m curious about how her death drove the story for you.
In my first draft, Ruby died later in the book. After I wrote her death, I felt the dynamics of the family changing in a way that created forward momentum in the story. So in revision, I moved her death to the very first chapter. Now we start right away with what’s interesting to me: each family member’s individual and very private journey of grief. They’re all in this one house together, compressed under the many pressures in their lives, yet they are all lonely in their own ways. They’re trying to connect with each other and failing, and very occasionally actually connecting.
I don’t think it spoils anything to say that, near the end of the book, the family makes a move to Seattle. I was struck that they leave behind a version of themselves in Anchorage, and the mother seems to believe life will be better in Seattle. Being from Seattle myself, I agree it’s a pretty great place to live — but what did you see as the draw for this family?
Yeah, I remember that when you read an earlier draft, you asked me, “Why Seattle?” and I think Emily [Bell, my editor,] asked me the same question. That question signaled to me that the move appeared a bit random or puzzling in that draft. I thought, yes, you guys are right, this seems arbitrary. The problem was, the reason behind the move is unclear to the characters as well. What I ended up doing was having one of the kids literally ask, “Why Seattle?” and the mom answer, “Why anywhere?” And I felt like that snippet of conversation acknowledged the uncertainties, and that was enough for me.
On a related note, I think there’s a connection between Alaska and Washington. I know that a lot of people who leave Anchorage for “the lower 48” end up in the Pacific Northwest. I think maybe because of proximity, but maybe also because there are similarities in the landscape of south-central Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. And in some ways, the people are similar.
My daily writing process is one in which I write a sentence — as in one single sentence.
I know what you mean. There’s a strong presence of mountains, water and Northface jackets in both places. I’m also wondering if the connection has anything to do with the role the Alaska gold rush played in Seattle’s evolution as a city. People would pass through Seattle to get outfitted — and some would stay or come back. And now, people still often land in Seattle first to take cruises up to Alaska.
I love the idea that Seattle is like a launching point for exploring the frontier of Alaska. In my book, I think of the family’s move to Seattle as a retreat. Throughout the entire novel, the mother keeps saying she wants to go back to Taiwan. I don’t think of her as a very self-aware character, and at some point I realized that she wouldn’t actually go back. She would leave Anchorage, but maybe not know where else to go. So she ends up in Seattle, a place that is ironically not so far from the place she wanted to leave. The mother has retreated, but she hasn’t returned home. It’s possible she realizes she doesn’t really have a home.
Some writers — myself included — rush through a quick first draft to get the shape of a piece in their mind, and then rewrite. I know you write much slower first drafts, which I envy, because the beauty of your sentences seems to emerge right from a story’s first iteration. What does your daily drafting process actually look like?
My daily writing process is one in which I write a sentence — as in one single sentence. Maybe a few sentences. Then I go back over them. It’s very obsessive. The main thing I do is consider whether the writing feels trite. Whether I feel like I’ve read it before. I’ll describe a character as having, say, curly hair, and then I’ll go back and ask myself, “Is there a way to make this curly hair more strange, or more true?” And then I’ll just go over it, and over it, and over it until the sentence is distinct enough that I have a handle on who this curly-haired character is or how their curly hair is different from other curly hair. Then I’ll go on to the next sentence. The process is not fun. It feels tortured. It often doesn’t even result in great prose. There are people who write more experimentally and loosely, and I’d like to be that kind of writer. But there is some obsessive part of my brain that gets stuck, and I have to get unstuck before I move forward. It takes me a really long time to write anything.
But once you do, it’s so good. What does revision involve, if you’ve already spent so much time getting the sentences just right?
For me, editing is a process of really intense cutting and rearranging, and it changes the story completely. Usually I’m deeply unhappy with the first draft, and the way for me to find life in it again is to cut it up. I’ll slash entire chapters. I’ll throw away a chapter here, two chapters there, half a chapter here… and I’ll move the remaining sections around. One chapter becomes one sentence in a totally different place in the book. And usually what happens is that the book becomes too short. I look at the page numbers, and I’m like, oops, this is not a novel anymore; we’re down to a hundred pages! And then I’ll ask, what’s missing now? And I’ll start writing again to fill those spaces.
So do you know what your novel is “about” during that initial draft, or later? What gets you started in the first place?
I start on this very micro level. I don’t start thinking, I’m going to write about Alaska and grief, or that I want to write a new kind of novel about X. It’s not until I get pretty far in — maybe halfway — that I’m able to see the work take shape. I pull out the big ideas during the editing process.
Your own domestic situation became wilder while you were in the process of revising this book: your baby was born right in the middle of your edits! As you know, I don’t have a kid — and I’m still trying to decide whether to tack “yet” onto the end of that sentence. How did becoming a parent change your process?
I sold my novel while I was pregnant. If you want to get dramatic about it, it sort of happened in the hospital while I was in labor. When my son was five months old, I got edits back and had only two months to turn them around. I had a sitter four hours a day, and during that time I had to nurse my son twice, I had to shower, I had to make lunch, and on some days I really had to catch up on sleep — so four hours a day easily became half an hour. It wasn’t the process I’d been accustomed to, in which you sit with your work and think and despair. There was no time for despair. That time crunch was stressful, but it also focused me. It made me even more ruthless in the way I edited. I think this sort of emergency situation might have been good for my book.
I will say that since my son was born — he’s over a year old now — I’ve written very little fiction. I have written some essays. It could be in part because I’m approaching my novel release, and that has come with its own demands on my time, but I think a lot of it is because I have a baby. My attention span has been drastically different. I have just tiny chunks of time to read and write, and it’s hard to find continuity, which I think is required for writing — not just for a novel, but also for writing short stories or essays. You have to find some way of developing the same thought from one day to the next day, without losing the thread, and without your ideas staying stuck in the superficial realm. I used to spend hours sitting at the computer, staring at the screen, and not writing — just thinking. That was my way of deepening the work. What I’ve found is that I can sometimes shift that part of the process. If I’m with my child and, by some miracle, he’s not clamoring for my attention, I can sit beside him and chew on an idea, and then my next writing session is more efficient.
On another level, having a kid has been good for my writing life in that it has pulled me out of myself. When you’re a writer and you don’t have a have kid, 20% of your time is spent writing and 80% is spent worrying about your writing. At least that’s been my experience. But when you have a baby, you have to keep him alive. He has life-or-death needs that are far more urgent than my need to sit and worry about my work. Writers need to feel things, but not necessarily in a meta way. I mean, we need to feel things about our characters, but we don’t always need to feel things about how crappy our writing is. Having a kid scrapes some of those less helpful feelings away.
Writing this book was a way of saying what I didn’t know how to say directly.
Did having your own child change any of your thoughts about the family members in your novel? Or anything about your orientation to your material more generally?
I was worried about that happening, but I’m happy to report it was not the case. I’ve heard people say that having children changes the way you write and see everything, but I feel essentially the same as I did before I had a kid. I find that comforting. I was afraid everything I wrote prior, which would include this book, would feel false somehow. But in an artistic sense, motherhood has been sort of a non-issue. Or rather, it’s a logistical issue. The impulse to create art and my artistic interests are still the same, but the challenge is how to make time for it. How to get enough sleep. How to carve out a writing routine and hold back the chaos. Helpfully, I have a strong instinct for self-preservation. Whenever I am starting to feel completely subsumed by my role as a mother, I will claw my way back up and demand time for myself. That’s easy for me, because of my husband, who conveniently doesn’t have instincts of self-preservation and will always take over for me.
Some people say that becoming a mother makes you more empathetic, or that it expands your emotional depth and range. I like to think that my emotional range was just fine to begin with. But I know what they’re saying. I don’t want to suggest nothing happened. Something happened. Something big. Becoming a mother is probably the most normal thing I’ve ever done. It’s extremely boring. It’s also extremely wild.
As we speak, you’re about a month out from the release date of your first book. Has anything surprised you so far about the publishing experience?
This is going to sound weird, but I’m surprised I have things to say about my book. I mean, the fact that I did not spend the entirety of this interview in awkward silence is a small miracle to me.
Writing this book was a way of saying what I didn’t know how to say directly. Or it was my way of giving life to what couldn’t be said in one or two sentences, or even thirty or forty pages. But the publishing process, for better or for worse, forces you to scrutinize your book with a different mindset and come away with concrete insights. People want you to talk about the big themes. They want to know what inspired your book, as if there is ever just one or two things, and not a lifetime of obsessions. I try my best. When I talk about my book now, sometimes I can’t tell if I’m learning things about myself, or if I’m just grasping at answers. I hope it’s the former.
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Alex Madison is a writer based in Seattle. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the Indiana Review, Harvard Review, Salon and elsewhere.
Editor: Dana Snitzky