The PEN Ten: An Interview with Nicole Chung
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
Tough to remember the first, but one of the earliest was probably E. B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan. I feel like everyone I know is probably tired of hearing me talk about how much I love E. B. White, but oh well. That book is one of the first that made me want to be a writer.
2. How does your writing navigate truth?
I think about this all the time as a nonfiction writer. “Tell the truth” is one of few nonnegotiable rules when you’re writing memoir. You have to be precise; you have to inspire enough trust for the reader to follow you through the story. But truth in memoir is also subjective because it’s one person’s take, and not just one person but one person at one particular point in their life. If I were to write the true story of my adoption and my search for my birth family, say, 10 years from now, it’d be very different from the book on the shelf—no less true, but a different truth, because the person writing it would be different.
How you get at the truth in writing is a complicated question, and there’s no one right answer. One way I try to do it is to think about memoir as a conversation between the truth of the past and the truth of the present—it would feel far more limiting if you couldn’t acknowledge and write about the difference between the truth as you once perceived it and the truth you see now. That’s often the part that’s most interesting; that’s where you and the reader learn all the best stuff! Another freeing thing is to remind yourself that you’re telling the truth in memoir, but it’s not necessarily your job to tell the reader what truths they should draw from your story. People will ultimately take what they want or need from a book, and the writer has little control over that (as is right).
“So many brilliant people are reckoning with devastating aspects of our history and our culture, adding their skills to important movements, forcing others to acknowledge and grapple with things some would rather not see.”
3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
I don’t really have a writing routine, and haven’t since I was in, probably, middle school? At least, that’s the last time I remember setting aside a certain amount of time each day to write. I’d wake up early, even though I have always hated mornings, and get ready for school as quickly as possible to ensure I’d have an hour, maybe an hour and a half of writing time before I had to run to the bus stop. Imagine…being able to write first thing in the morning? I could never do that now?!
Writing has been crammed into the margins for most of my life, with school and then work and then my kids and then a combination of school and work and kids taking up most of my time. Lack of time for writing makes every hour I get to do it feel like an immense privilege, even when it’s hard or slow-going. So maybe this lack of time/routine is partly how I maintain momentum. When I do get that precious writing time, and especially when I’m under a deadline, I can make the most of it. I don’t need any particular conditions to write, which is great, because as a parent I’m never going to get favorable conditions—I’ve joked that I probably wrote most of my first book with some sort of Disney movie on in the background. One thing I’m blessed (or cursed) with is intense focus, but again I think the general scarcity of writing time means I’ve had to learn to be this way, and produce even when there is no routine or the environment is…less than ideal.
Like all writers, I spend a lot of time thinking about writing while I’m doing other things—working, running errands, editing other writers’ work, talking with my family. I used to think this was a terrible cop-out—“no, I haven’t written in weeks, but I’m thinking a lot about writing!”—but then I found, when writing my first book, that this time was actually terribly productive. It’s when I was able to get some distance from my book, think about some of the problems somewhat rationally, brainstorm possible solutions. And thinking about writing, even if I’m stuck, makes me eager for the next chance I’ll get to write.
4. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
Oh, this is tough, because I assume everyone reading this site is extremely well read. Well, speaking of E. B. White, I love his essays about his saltwater farm, but my favorite of his is actually The Sea and the Wind That Blows because it never fails to remind me of how I write (specifically when he talks about not being good at sailing, and making up his own way of doing things, and how he’s still not very skilled even though he’s been at it all his life). Also, I’m sure a lot of people have read The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I don’t think as many know that Baroness Orczy wrote a ton of related stories—I started collecting these obscure sequels when I was a teenager. I own nine or 10 of them now; they’re all rather ridiculous and I love them.
5. How can writers affect resistance movements?
A phrase I saw floating around a lot after the 2016 election and couldn’t help but chafe at, just a little, is “now more than ever”—as in, we need writers, we need stories, we need people who’ll tell the truth now more than ever. We’ve always needed and will always need those things, as does every other country on earth, and there’s so much that needs doing and fighting right now. Of course one can write and fight, but right after the election it struck me that the fight was probably not going to be won by all of us doing…exactly what we would have wanted to do anyway. I think it will require more of us—more sacrifice, more courage, more agility and creativity. But, but, but. I do think for many, writing and the work it requires—thinking about and trying to give voice to things others might find inexpressible—has been a kind of natural way into the fight for people who needed a push like the last election.
I’ve found so much strength and resolve, so much inspiration, so much to admire and aspire to in the work of other writers. So many brilliant people are reckoning with devastating aspects of our history and our culture, adding their skills to important movements, forcing others to acknowledge and grapple with things some would rather not see. Again, this has always been important work and writers don’t do it alone—and we shouldn’t stop there—but sometimes we can do this in ways others can’t, simply because we spend our lives trying to come up with the right words. And then there’s the aspect of writing, of storytelling, that bears witness; I think often of that Bertolt Brecht quote: In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times.
“There is so much to do already, and so much to fight. You owe your solidarity to others, but you do not owe anyone your personal experiences, your traumas, access to your life.”
6. What is your favorite bookstore or library?
This is the hardest question—I’ve visited so many beautiful bookstores and libraries over the past year. I suppose if I had to pick a sentimental favorite, it’d be Powell’s, in my home state, because it’s the first bookstore I really loved as a kid. Also, my little hometown had a big Carnegie library, and even though they built a new library years ago and the old Carnegie building is now used for admin offices, I get nostalgic every time I drive by. I still have dreams about that place. I remember exactly how it smelled.
7. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
I just finished The Beadworkers, Beth Piatote’s debut story collection, and like everyone else I’ve just started The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
8. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I think the hardest thing to write was my very first essay about adoption, which I was terrified to show anyone—finally I had to share it with, like, four other people in my writing group, and even that made me quake. I never published that piece, and in fact it would be another four or five years before I published anything at all. But writing it, owning up to how difficult and painful it was, and then hearing the generous responses from that group gave me so much to think about. It gave me courage—it broke through a dam I’d been building for years when it came to writing and telling the truth about transracial adoption. It showed me that maybe I had something to say about this topic, maybe there was room for my perspective after all.
9. You published your debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know, a year ago this fall. What was your year as a debut author like? In particular, how did you toe the line between public and private—navigating between sharing your story with the world, while maintaining your and your family’s privacy?
Being a debut author is a wild experience; sometimes I’m still surprised that a solid year (and a half! Because it all starts well before publication day) of nonstop adrenaline rushes didn’t kill me. I mean, it was wonderful, I feel very #blessed, but truly who could live this way forever?
It was also a year of personal trauma—my father died in 2018, and a month into book tour I found out my mother had cancer, which she has been battling ever since. So I also don’t know what it’s like to go through this strange, thrilling debut process without carrying huge amounts of separate but related grief and anxiety. I remember sometimes it was hard to answer audience questions about my parents, and at other times it felt really good to talk about them. Sometimes it was impossible to believe my book was even important compared to what was going on in my family, and sometimes it was a relief to have to focus on something else. Mostly, I think I got through it because I am spoiled for support from my husband, sister, mom, friends, coworkers, agent, and publisher. I’ll be leaning on them all again now that I’m going on paperback tour.
As for that public/private balance, I was helped by the fact that I’d really gone through every line of the book multiple times and was 100% certain that I was okay with what I’d shared. It’s obviously a deeply personal story, but there’s also nothing in it that I’m ashamed of, nothing it pains me to have out there. And my family members had gotten to read it ahead of time and voice any concerns, so there were no big surprises for any of them. As a memoirist, you’ll always get lots of questions about your personal life and your family beyond what’s on the page, so I just try to keep the focus on what I wrote and politely explain when someone asks about something I don’t talk about publicly. Nine times out of 10, people respect those boundaries. When they don’t, I reach out and get support if I need it, and then try to shake it off and move on.
10. What advice do you have for young writers?
I always feel ill-equipped to offer advice, but I hear from and talk to talented young writers all the time who are wondering if there’s really space for them, for what they have to say, and I’m convinced there is.
There is so much to do already, and so much to fight. You owe your solidarity to others, but you do not owe anyone your personal experiences, your traumas, access to your life. You have to look out for yourself, your health, your family and those you love. Speaking for myself only, I can say that writing is sometimes wonderful and sometimes largely thankless emotional labor, and so is responding to and engaging with feedback about it. It can feel harder still when what you’re sharing is literally your life.
But I’ve also seen empathy and community grow when writers and readers are open and generous. I’ve heard from so many people who needed to find stories like theirs who might not have realized how many of us are out there, going through or feeling similar things. You know, we talk a lot about how writing can be a solitary experience, but I love writing and reading in part because they can be powerful ways of joining your experience to others; of saying, here I am, where are you? So what I often encourage aspiring writers to think about is the fact that a lot of us need their work, their words, their voices. Not everyone will understand what they’re trying to do or why it matters, but plenty will. And those are the people you want to write to and for.
Nicole Chung is the author of All You Can Ever Know, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award, and named a Best Book of the Year by nearly two dozen outlets, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, NPR, Time, Newsday, and Library Journal. Chung, the editor in chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast, has written for The New York Times, GQ, The Atlantic, Vulture, Longreads, and Hazlitt, among many others, and has taught writing workshops for Kundiman, Catapult, and PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in Schools program. She is working on her next book, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.