Friday, March 19, 2010

Writing and Place: Wena Poon - everywhere!

This is the first time I have done an interview for my Writing&Place series with someone I have  actually met in the real world! I met Wena Poon, who was born in Singapore and now lives in the US, at the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Festival in 2008 - what a great week that was. It was like short story summer camp, hanging out with Vanessa G, Carys Davies, Adam Marek, Alison McLeod, Wena and her husband, and so many more, and talking short stories! (I'll be there this year too, so do come! - I'll be announcing the winner of the Sean O'Faolain Short Story Competition - which, coincidentally, has just opened for entries!

Hearing Wena read from one of her short stories at the Festival was one of the most memorable experiences. This woman is funny! She has a talent for comedy, and for voices. She writes long short stories, which we will get onto later.

A little more about Wena. She is fluent in English, Mandarin, Cantonese and Teochew and "gets by" in French, her third language. She's a partner in a California law firm, and as well as her short story collections, Lions in Winter (published by Salt) and The Proper Care of Foxes, she designs and publishes her 7-volume literary sci fi series, Bibliophilia. Her short story is shortlisted for the 2010 Willesden Herald Short Story Competition.

Her most recent book is Alex y Robert, a novel set in Spain, California and Texas, and follows an American college girl who wants to become a Matador! The novel will be launched in England this summer. Take it away, Wena....!

1) Where are you?
I am now in Madrid.

2) How long have you been there?
Just for the weekend! Before training elsewhere in Spain.

3) What do you write?
Fiction, often episodic, often in the same universe. I wrote historical novels when I was a teen (you know, like fake Jane Eyre). I stopped because the contemporary world that we live in now is far more amazing. It would be a pity not to capture it.

4) How do you think where you are affects what you write about and how you write?
I currently live in Austin, Texas (long story). Compared to all of the major international cities I've lived in in my life, Austin is small and insular. The more I feel trapped in middle America, the more exotic the location of my stories.

Living in America as an Asian expatriate has shaped a lot of my work. Everything I write is intensely political. I make strong statements about people in the margins reclaiming their place in the center. So far, no reviewer has noticed. People see what they want to see.

There is not much to do in Austin (by my standards). The number of movies screening here is dismal compared to New York or LA. So I have to make my own "movies" to watch in the evenings. In the last couple of years, I have been writing as if I was shooting and cutting a film. Sentences are very short and clean; there is a lot of dialogue. I let the reader fill in the blanks. I like him or her to do some of the work because it's a joint emotional investment. The contemporary audience has amassed a huge vocabulary from literature and film. Often all you have to do is play a single note, they will fill in the rest of the chord. It's thrilling to hear it when they do.

I suppose if I was any good at it, I would be designing and playing interactive video games instead of writing fiction. But I suck at Halo.

5. You say your natural short story length is 7500 words and that it's not so much the length as the time and emotional commitment per story. What does this mean? And has it changed since you began writing stories? If so, then why? If not, then why not?

Terry Gilliam said that he believed there was a platonic essence of a story and that his job was to find it. I agree. A story is a form in a block of marble. I carve and I try to uncover the form. It is already pre-existing and complete.

When I first started, I wrote stories of all lengths. Recently, because I'm writing them for the same book, I notice that my stories have been around 7,500 words (give or take 200 words). That doesn't mean this is my standard length. The story decides its own word count. Sometimes it's just a poem. Sometimes it's a novel.
I see them as films that I am shooting. I need to spend a certain amount of time with the location and the characters. Rather than word count, I think of units of time, of emotional investment - both on my part and the reader's. When I write, I look at the scene and the actors, and I ask myself, how much do I need to show? After finishing each story, I am as convinced of it as a film I have just watched. Some people lament that a cinematic consciousness has permeated playwriting and novel-writing; I think that is for the best, because of modern attention spans.

At a literary festival last year, someone interviewed me and was shocked when I said I didn't see myself as writing "short stories". I majored in English Literature in college - that kind of awareness of form and genre I associate with an early part of my life. Now, I just shoot the story.

Wena, thank you so much. I love the concept of "shooting the story", I've been thinking about the parallels between cinema and short fiction ever since I read Story by Robert McKee, which is useful not just for screenwriters but for anyone telling stories in any medium. To read an excerpt from one of the stories in Lions in Winter, visit Salt. find out more about Wena and her many, many projects, visit WenaPoon.com.  Read other Writing&Place guest posts and if you'd like to do one, wherever you are, drop me an email.

6 comments:

E.P. Chiew said...

Thank you Tania. I've just gotten her short story collection -- husband was in London recently and I made him go to Picadilly Waterstones to get it for me. Looking forward to reading it.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thanks to both of yous. What an inspiring interview. I think cinematically more and more - interesting about the story length, too - I'm a predominantly 680 worder (fits into my one free hour) - other stories have to come and go at different times but the 680s were all written during my son's nap times!

Nik Perring said...

Interesting stuff - especially the shooting bits.

Best of luck Wena and thanks Tania for asking the questions.

Nik

Tania Hershman said...

Elaine, how great, enjoy! Ahh, very nice Waterstone's, that one.

Rachel, I love the idea of a collection of 680-length stories! Funny how we all have our "length".

Thanks, Nik!

Shahnaz said...

This was great... Love looking at a story as a form in a block of marble. It is like Michalangelo chipping away at all the parts of the stone that was not David. Especially true of the revision process.

w said...

Wow look at all these comments! Thank you all for reading this interview and thanks Tania for hosting it.

I am thrilled to think that my book might possibly be available at Picadilly Waterstones.

Ok, back to proofing the novel "Alex y Robert" so that it can be "coming soon to a theater near you!" -Wena Poon