Interview conducted by Sydney Austin and Zhihua Wang
Transcribed by Sydney Austin
In April 2023, the University of Central Arkansas hosted its annual Arkatext Festival, where members of the Arkana team sat down with award-winning writer, Michael X. Wang, to discuss the writing craft, publishing experiences, and teaching.
Arkana: Where did it all start for you in terms of becoming a writer? What initially made you pick up the pen to tell your own stories? And what are some of the books that influenced you along the way?
Michael X. Wang: Ever since I was small, if I encountered some music I enjoyed or found a book I liked to read, I would suddenly start writing. I think in freshman year of high school, I was reading The Catcher in the Rye and my English teacher gave us the option to write a boring essay/response/close-reading of The Catcher in the Rye, or to write a chapter of it. So obviously I wrote a follow-up chapter to the book. I surprisingly enjoyed the experience. I never thought I’d want to be a professional writer at the time, but maybe that was the seed.
When I was in college, I was pre-med. Just like most other children of immigrants, who go to college to have a practical career in medicine, law, computer science, or business, I did pre-med for the first two and a half years. I was taking creative writing classes, too, but as time went on and on, I was being defeated by my pre-med courses. I was passing them and my grades were fine, but I did not like chemistry, I did not like linear algebra. I did not enjoy this stuff. I found myself looking forward to working on my fiction or even poetry. That’s the thing I was looking forward to. I’d finish my pre-med homework just to do that.
At the end of my sophomore year, I had a decision to make and that was either to go to medical school or try to attempt an MFA. So I stopped taking pre-med courses and I did full-time writing. My parents didn’t like it – my father really hated it. There was a period of time that was really difficult because I didn’t get into an MFA the first year that I applied. I had applied to six of the top MFAs. I felt really dejected and like a really big failure. So the next year I applied to eight MFA programs, all fully funded, and got accepted into four out of the eight.
ARK: Do you also write in other genres like creative nonfiction or poetry or plays?
MXW: I write mostly fiction. I do think it requires a different mindset to write poetry or creative nonfiction. My friends who write creative nonfiction, they tell me that when they’re writing nonfiction they go into this trance, this state where they are fully engaged with their past, with their history. And they just start writing. Almost every nonfiction writer that I talk to, that’s their process. Remembering and then reflecting, putting down their memories – or maybe false memories – onto the page.
Some fiction writers write very fast like that too, but I feel like it might be half-and-half. It might be that more fiction writers are like me and they write it slowly, sentence-by-sentence. They have to build the world, build the character, move the plot, think about theme. With nonfiction you just have to think about yourself, so it’s a vastly different experience.
In terms of poetry, I like writing form poems. I wrote a couple of villanelles and I like writing the ballot meter. I think those limitations force me to think about poetry in this more structured way, which is similar to fiction. Free-verse poetry, I find it way too free range. Maybe my mind is just not wired that way. I was talking to one of my old mentors at Purdue, he was a poet, and he said that he’d only written one story in his life. He wrote the one story, turned it into workshop, and his instructor said, “really great description, love the feelings behind it, but what’s gonna happen next?” And he realized then that he didn’t want to write stories. He just wanted to write poetry.
When I’m writing, my mind is constantly thinking about all these different requirements like what’s gonna happen next? And is thinking less about this beautiful image.
ARK: When I’m reading your work, I am always struck by the vibrancy of the characters on the page. Can you describe your general approach to building these characters and what kind of decisions you encounter whenever you’re trying to figure out how to characterize them?
MXW: Characters were a weakness of mine when I first began to write. During the first two years of my MFA, I kept being told by my professors and peers that I had to work on my characters. Think about their motivation, think about how to make them three dimensional. Through a series of steps, there are active things I think about to make my characters three dimensional. I always think about what are my characters immediate goals, their immediate wants, their immediate longings? And what is their first obstacle?
When you write about motivation and longing, it’s always engaging. It’s always engaging to hear about what people want and to hear what’s preventing them from getting what they want. The reader is also engaged because the reader wants to know if the character will get what they want. Sometimes there’s this disconnect between what the character wants and what you as the reader know they need. There’s that dramatic irony where you in some ways know better about the main character than they do themselves. So that’s what I always think about.
When it came to my novel, I had to make my main character proficient in a certain skill. I think that is really important. We relate to characters through flaws, but we find characters engaging when they are in their element, when they are doing something with great proficiency. And when you combine that with searching for their desires, getting past obstacles only to be met with a great obstacle, that makes for very engaging fiction.
ARK: Do you think your writing style has changed since your first book?
MXW: I don’t think there’s a huge change in style. I would describe my style as pushing the senses forward, including a lot of details. I was told by workshop mates in my MFA that my fiction is about the details. In terms of the actual language, it’s fine, it’s clean, in the sense that the reader doesn’t need to pause too much or reread. I think that this comes from this period in my writing apprenticeship where I really loved minimalist works, like Raymond Carver, William Trevor, and other writers during the eighties/ninties when that minimalist work was in full swing. I think that right now there is a slight disconnect from that, but I think my writing has moved away from it too. So that was my writing at the end of my undergraduate, and during my MFA I realized I don’t need to do that. I don’t need to copy my style from someone else’s. I should find a way to infuse my own style.
There’s stuff I’d really like to improve about my style too. I do perhaps try to aim for engagement too much. I might care too much about whether or not my readers find my work to be interesting. There are certain authors like Alice Monroe who have such confidence in their work. Alice Monroe knows what she’s doing, she intentionally forces the reader to slow down and to savor her sentences. Maybe when I have four books and maybe when my books sell very well, I might be able to do that, but I think that’s still a far way off. Maybe I will never change my style.
ARK: In your acceptance speech for the Robert W. Bingham Prize, you mentioned how your goal as a Chinese-American writer was to separate the politics of the country from the people by focusing on rarely explored rural life in China. Can you describe your general methodology for approaching place and if you find any difference between approaching the rural setting versus the urban.
MXW: You know in some ways… it might be impossible to truly separate writing about politics and writing about China, because the country is so embroiled in politics, but I do still think that the lives of the individual people in China are less affected than an American audience might think.
I was watching this Chinese talk show and the host said, “China is a great country if you don’t get in trouble and nothing goes wrong with you.” If you are in bad shape, if you do something wrong, if you are in trouble, then China suddenly becomes a country where you have no avenues for a fair trial. That is really, really scary. It’s scary for the average Chinese citizen, it’s scary as Americans looking at China as a country.
In terms of writing about the rural climate, a lot of Asian-American/Chinese-American writing doesn’t deal with rural material because a lot of the people who immigrated to America came from a city background. They lived in Shanghai, Beijing, or Shenzhen, so naturally they would write what they know. They would write about city life.
There are ethnic minorities in China – there’s ethnic Mongolian, the Yi people in Sichuan – but on the whole, China is more divided by class, by city and countryside, than it is by race. The people who have money in the cities are living a quality of life very similar to the United States. People from the countryside, their income might be a thousand dollars a year, if that. So it is a country that is separate in that sense, and in order to get a full picture of the country, you need both sides.
ARK: Do you think you are a prolific writer? Or do you have trouble finding time to write your fiction?
MXW: I wish I was a prolific writer. I was very naive when I was in college, but I had it in mind that finishing a novel and getting it published was not hard. By the time I’m forty, I’ll have like ten books, right? There are people out there we are competing against who literally have to write two to four thousand words a day, so they’re publishing two books a year, maybe more. There’s this author out in Utah who’s in his sixties, and he’s not really well known, but he’s a millionaire. He’s made a lot of money from his writing, he’s published seventy novels, and probably written a lot more. I remember in an interview he said that he just has to write, it’s an obsession. If a million people in the United States are trying to be writers at this moment, then you might have a hundred people who are like that. We are competing against those people, and I really wish I was like them. If I could inject writing into my veins and make it a habit, I would, but I don’t think it works that way.
I go through spurts of intense writing, maybe two months to five months where I write five hundred to two thousand words a day – there are far more bad days than there are good days. After four months, I might have one hundred and fifty pages and then I just need to rest. I need to do something else. There comes this state where I don’t know what I am putting down on the page anymore and I think I am just wasting time. So I have to rest and give myself a couple weeks to breathe and come back to it again.
ARK: Do you think reading helps with writing? Do you have any recommendations for good books or writers?
MXW: Reading definitely helps writing. It helps you know what’s new to write. If you haven’t read enough about the current literary or genre climate, then the novel that you’ve spent a lot of time writing might be fifty to sixty percent exactly the same as some other writers who already wrote it. That could be a real problem. The novel might feel derivative without you thinking it’s derivative. So you need to know the current climate.
It also helps publishing too. In the publishing industry, sometimes the reason they didn’t pick up your book is not because they didn’t like it, it was because they didn’t know how to sell it, especially for literary novels. I was well connected with Amazon Publishing, and their literary or up-market fiction branch is this house called Lake Union Publishing. I knew an editor there and I submitted my complete novel to her before I gave it to my agent. She’s published my work before, so I know she liked my voice. I think the house really considered buying the novel because she sent me this email saying, “I really like how ambitious the novel is, but I don’t think Amazon is able to sell it.” They’re more marketed towards up-market women’s fiction. Each publishing imprint has their own users that subscribe to them, and their users are expecting a certain kind of fiction. So if they recommend a book that might be really well written but is not the same as the other books they have in their branch, then maybe they won’t accept it.
Maybe they already have an author who’s similar and they don’t need you as their second author. I have a friend, her name is Melissa Valentine, who had an essay collection that came out through the Feminist Press two years ago. A larger publishing house almost picked it up, but they told her, “We already have Jasmine Ward. We don’t need you.” They’re both Black writers. Imagine hearing that, even though you might not be the same as Jasmine Ward, to the publisher you’re too similar. So you need to read to know what’s going on.
ARK: What are some of the similarities and differences you’ve encountered between publishing a short story collection and a novel? What are your experiences working with an independent press versus a larger traditional house and how has representation changed that process? What are some things you’re still learning about the process?
MXW: So the biggest thing is money. With a larger publishing house, if your work is agented you’re going to get a bigger advance if it gets picked up. Publishing with Autumn House Press for my first story collection was very rewarding because I was learning about the industry. It’s a smaller readership though. For smaller publishing houses, it’s less than five thousand if that. With Autumn House Press, which has historically been a poetry publishing house, their readership is roughly one thousand copies sold within two or three years. They gave me a thousand dollar advance, publication, and fifteen hundred for promotions. When the story collection came out, it won a couple of awards and I had some agents reach out to me. I’d submitted the novel to a couple of agents before the story collection came out, but they all said no. So I was expecting a no from this agent, but he read it and liked it and submitted it to around ten to twenty editors in different publishing houses.
Usually the standard first novel advance is anywhere between five and twenty thousand. We received an offer at the end of March, and the first offer was five thousand from Arcade Press, housed under Sky Horse. They publish some really good people, they publish Mo Yan’s translations, but they’re a medium-sized house. My agent told the other presses about that offer to try to get a better one, and Abrams with The Overlook Press came back with thirty thousand dollars. So ultimately we sold it to them.
ARK: Do you have any other hobbies other than writing?
MXW: I play video games. I like to collect action figures. I play tennis. Besides that, teaching. Teaching is both a hobby and not a hobby.
ARK: I read in the acknowledgments of Long in the Long March that the novel started as your dissertation for your Ph.D., so I was wondering how much it’s changed since the dissertation and how your time as a professor has influenced your writing and revision process?
MXW: Yeah the novel did begin as my dissertation at Florida State University. I wanted to finish the entire novel by the time I got my Ph.D., but I was only able to write the first half. My dissertation was about six stories and the novel. The novel at the time was about one hundred and sixty pages and it was the first draft. It was good enough to defend, and I got some really positive feedback from my committee. Then I had to rewrite a whole bunch.
Teaching helps you in your writing; it informs you. Whenever you teach, that information solidifies in your mind. Rather than just hearing it, when you rehearse it, when you talk it out loud, then the knowledge cements. I think it helps my own writing too because I am constantly thinking about the advice that I give to my students when I am writing a new scene. Maybe sometimes to the detriment of the writing being a little more out there or experimental. I think teaching has solidified my voice as a writer, too.
Michael X. Wang was born in Fenyang, a small coal-mining city in China’s Shaanxi province, and immigrated to the United States when he was six. His collection, Further News of Defeat, won the 2021 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection and the 2022 Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the 2021 CLMP Firecracker Award. Michael X. Wang received his MFA in fiction from Purdue University and PhD in literature from Florida State University and currently lives in Arkansas.
Image Credit: “The Ocean Side” by Beth Horton