Interview: Lan Samantha Chang
In The Family Chao, publishing today from W. W. Norton, Lan Samantha Chang presents a contemporary Midwestern family in fascinating crisis. I was fortunate to work with Sam in 2018 during the final semester of my MFA studies at Warren Wilson College. What a joy to reconnect recently and talk about craft from new angles: writing an homage, writing at different points in one’s life, as well as reckoning with patriarchs and the influences of early mentors.
The Chao family is led by a tyrannical patriarch, a withdrawing mother, and three brothers who have emerged from the crucibles of their hardworking family and its restaurant both marked and molded in singular ways. Chang found inspiration in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov while writing this novel. In The Family Chao, Dostoyevsky’s themes, structural decisions, plot nods, and cultural critiques meld with her piquantly contemporizing choices: a Wisconsin setting, Chinese-American second-generation rebellions, and an unflinching representation of the pervasiveness of thoughtless racism in social and mass media.
Another significant and arguably corrective difference between the two works is Chang’s foregrounding of women characters. Although the narrative swirls around the Chao family’s sons, the circumstances of the women the Chao men love (or should love more or better) highlight and challenge generalizations about kinship, identity, and morality. All the while, the quotidian, realist grit of the novel is leavened by Chang’s irrepressible wit and use of engaging mystery and true-crime genre tropes.
Candace Walsh: How did The Family Chao come to be?
Lan Samantha Chang: I got the germ in 2005, at Harvard while I was teaching. One of my students was a Russian literature major, and I read The Brothers Karamazov because he loved it. I was struck by the book for so many reasons, including the way Dostoyevsky created such vivid characters within a very ideologically based, theological work.
I was also fascinated by its use of time. The first five hundred pages cover about three days. Then there’s a time jump in the second part, to just before the trial. I was fascinated by the fact that it was told in two parts, maybe because I’d been indoctrinated into the idea of books having a beginning, middle, and end. Around that time I was also experimenting with using the present tense.
I was in between novels, and that’s a rough period for me, when I end up writing a lot of things I never use. I wrote a hundred pages about a Midwestern family with a difficult patriarch, a mother figure who was backing off from her marriage, and three adult children, each in a problem phase; but it lacked a narrative vehicle. It was much more voice-driven than my previous work: present tense, close third. I also enjoyed that it was a humorous take on the Chinese-American family experience. I put it aside because I was working on two other projects. The first thing I managed to finish and publish was All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, a novel about some poets that reflected the life I lived as I came up in various creative writing settings over fifteen years.
After I finished that, I was plunged into a period where I had no project and an extraordinarily demanding job. My husband and I also had a small daughter to take care of. I didn’t start a new book for years. Yet I had an inkling.
I was still fascinated by The Brothers Karamazov and held noncredit discussion groups in 2006 and 2009, where students met with me to talk about the novel as if it were a book club, for pleasure, for hours at a time. In 2013, I realized its narrative could be the vehicle that would work for this present-tense voice I had in the hundred pages.
Ultimately, very little from those early pages made it into The Family Chao: the description of Big Chao in a very early chapter when he first appears; and later on, a description of Ming giving James a “furious, starving stare.” But the early work also gave me the idea of present tense constantly unfolding forward over three days.
When I go through writing logs from those years, I notice how much I didn’t believe it would come together. I didn’t start to really try until I had a fit of desperation. In 2017 I felt the fear of God that I might die without publishing another book, and I realized that no one was going to make me try. So fifteen years went by before this book was finished. I didn’t have a clue when I began the book in 2005 that I’d become the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If I hadn’t been director, it’s possible I would have finished it faster, but also it wouldn’t be the same book at all, not as vigorous a book.
CW: What was it like to write an homage to The Brothers Karamazov? I noticed that women characters had a more well-developed presence in The Family Chao. And the perspectives of family members of a Chinese-American family who own a Chinese restaurant in Wisconsin allow readers to notice, firsthand, micro- and macroaggressions white individuals and mass media inflict on the Chaos and other Asian characters.
LSC: I did consult Margot Livesey’s essay on homages in The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing. She shared that while writing The Flight of Gemma Hardy, an homage to Jane Eyre, she had to put Jane Eyre aside for years. One of the first serious steps I took was to reread The Brothers Karamazov and take notes on the entire novel, but then I had to put it (and the notes) aside. It’s such a tremendous book; it could have scared me off from working on my own novel for years. In that vacuum I was able to gather the confidence to try to do what I was interested in doing. Pretty quickly, after I started drafting, I realized my book was going to be its own thing, get its own energy from itself. For one, the characters of Katherine, Brenda, and Alice each developed her own concerns that set them apart from their Dostoyevskian prototypes. The setting, subject matter, and characters were also obviously entirely different: an immigrant, restaurant family in the Midwest. As I became interested in their concerns as a family, I was able to bring my project into its own.
CW: Conflicts with mothers, or the wound of the absent mother, are so common in fiction. Yet The Family Chao’s father is the central character. What was it like to focus so intently on the impact of a larger-than-life father?
LSC: I never questioned my initial assumption that the antagonist of the book is a tyrannical, patriarchal figure, because he was the very first character in the original 2005 material. I myself had a very strong-willed father. He died in 2020, was born in 1922. He lived to be ninety-seven years old. I think some part of me didn’t believe he would ever die. I spent the first forty years of my life opposing him.
I now look back and feel more compassion toward him than when I was growing up. My dad—he was a force. The thing that fascinates me is that he always believed he was right. He never for once thought he might be wrong about something. Years after I decided to become a fiction writer, I was having a conversation with him about a friend who went to medical school at age twenty-nine after considering a number of other careers. I was in my late thirties. He told me she had done the right thing by going to medical school, and that I should have done it as well. He’d always told me to be a doctor. I had given up on being a doctor when I left home for college. He never thought I’d done the right thing.
My parents grew up amid political turmoil, the Japanese invasion and occupation, and civil war. My dad’s idea of reality was that the world was a tumultuous, polarized, violent, politically unstable place, and the best career to pursue was one in which you had a kind of safety in the nature of the career itself.
He said, “When things get really bad, it’s best to be a doctor, because the richest, most powerful people will always need to see a doctor. You will never be in danger.”
I replied, “The world in the US is not the way you’re describing it. It’s prosperous, relatively peaceful. I can pursue a career I’m interested in.”
We locked horns. I gave up seeking my parents’ approval, which was a life-threatening and yet also life-saving decision. Now in my fifties, I recognize that the world my parents believed in was true and mine was not true. We in the US are now in a violent, politically polarized, tumultuous world. Apart from it being really hard to be a doctor in a pandemic, my parents’ vision was more enduring than the world I grew up in.
CW: What’s it like to think about writing a book at different ages? How would you compare writing Hunger (1998) and Inheritance (2004) to writing The Family Chao?
LSC: When I first started writing, I was very young, and I listened to my teachers and classmates a lot. They were primarily men who were interested in a particular aesthetic: very understated, very few words, very little shouting, low-key suffering, merged with the subject matter. It was one kind of pain I experienced as a child in an immigrant family. Everyone was trying to write like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, writers who used as few words as possible. That was the aesthetic in grad school, and more recently, I had to move away from that to describe in fiction certain aspects of the family in which I grew up: a warm, loud, angry, humorous family. There was an awful lot of shouting where we laughed a lot—in addition to yelling—and ate a lot, and had complicated conversations and monologues.
And I wanted to be funny. Friends would read my early work at the time and say, “You’re a funny person and it’s nowhere in your work.”
I found a whole new set of literary models—Dostoyevsky, Philip Roth—and it gave me great pleasure to draw support from them. I ended up changing to the point where much of what I learned as a young writer, and had taught my own students, are things that with The Family Chao I actively ignored. That wouldn’t have happened if I was younger.
CW: What were some surprises that occurred as you were writing?
LSC: I tried to make the surprises visible. The name O-Lan was a working name, the name of the first wife from Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. At some point I decided, I’m just going to keep this. I wanted to give myself pleasure, to remind myself that my book was a process of discovery and that I enjoyed it. As I’ve gotten older, and the world and life get more and more complex, I escape to writing in a way I didn’t when I was younger. I like to write something that will entertain me.
Another surprise was the bag of cash. I tossed it into an early draft, and as things went on it carried more and more weight in the storyline. Not only because it functions as a coveted object, a kind of bounty. It also begins to symbolize a human desire that comes across in the book as being a Chinese thing but is a universal thing: to accumulate money on earth to protect yourself against death, or what you fear in life. Ming goes on at great length about it: having a life savings, fifty million dollars; but the fate of the bag of cash, the smaller life savings, is playing itself out in real time throughout the book.
There’s a long scene in the restaurant when James overhears Katherine and Ming fighting and the phone rings. It turns out to be a woman searching for the bag that James misplaced very early in the book. Only at this point do we realize what was in the bag. To me, the moment seemed important in giving the reader a sense that the novel’s expositional scenes are tied together. It gives the reader an indication that “Something is going to make sense, I’m reading forward for a reason.”
CW: I noticed a relationship between narrative tension sources like the bag of cash and Alf, the Chao family dog, and exposition.
LSC: Yes, the dog, Alf, is also a binding element amid a lot of exposition. For dozens of expositional pages, James goes from place to place, searching for Alf. For present-tense exposition to work, the reader has to have something to follow. I was attentive to that because the book doesn’t have expositional flashbacks.
CW: But the second part of the book, the court scenes, review everything that happened, so that ends up reminding the reader about what happened the way flashbacks do.
LSC: Yes, detective or crime stories have created a wonderful genre of backstory unfolding in present-time scenes. They are also a kind of time travel. The reader goes back in time as the detective tries to understand what happens, encountering one witness after another. The story gets told and retold. I took a long writing tangent in 2013 about time travel. I even gave a lecture on time travel that summer at Tin House. In an inefficient way, I’ve incorporated time travel into the novel through the court scenes.
The court scenes took so long to write. One of my brothers-in-law is a litigator, and he sent me PDFs of an entire murder trial. I read through it and made notes to understand how to write this section, although the trial in the book became far removed from an actual trial.
CW: What are you working on now?
LSC: I’m in that period I hate of writing unusable work again, trying to find a project. I think I probably lost a book because of my job and having a child—it usually takes me six years in between books, and this time it took twelve—but I’m recovering my slow rhythm.
LAN SAMANTHA CHANG is also the author of two previous novels, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost and Inheritance, and a story collection, Hunger. Her short stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, and The Best American Short Stories. She has received fellowships from Stanford University, Princeton University, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Academy in Berlin. Chang is the director of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She lives with her husband and daughter in Iowa City, Iowa.
CANDACE WALSH is a third-year PhD student in creative writing (fiction) at Ohio University. She holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College. Recent publication credits include Hobart After Dark (poetry); LEON Literary Review, ENTROPY, Complete Sentence, CRAFT, and Akashic Books’ Santa Fe Noir (fiction); and New Limestone Review and Pigeon Pages (creative nonfiction). Her craft essays and book reviews have appeared in Brevity, CRAFT, descant, New Mexico Magazine, and Fiction Writers Review. She coedits Quarter After Eight literary journal. A passage from her novel in progress was longlisted in the 2018 First Pages Prize.