“I Was Ready to Head Out for Parts Unknown”: An Exclusive Q&A with Gish Jen

Posted Wed, 1/29/2020 - 9:00am by  |  Category: , ,

Gish Jen is the author of five works of fiction, including Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, and World and Town, as well as two books of nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories four times, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike.

Jen’s forthcoming novel, The Resisters, is a dystopian parable exploring class divides in a fractured, near-future America. The book is set to come out in February and has already garnered praise from Stephen King and Ann Patchett, who said the book “should be required reading for the country both as a cautionary tale and because it is a stone-cold masterpiece.”

On February 20, Jen will appear at Hugo House to kick off the second half of the 2019-20 Word Works season. Her talk, titled “Politics and Possibility,” will touch on possibility, politics, and the ways in which our politically volatile time could be considered a gift to writers. In anticipation of the event, Jen shared insights into the inspiration behind The Resisters, her ideal writing day, and what she’s learned in nearly two decades of publishing her work.

Your newest novel, The Resisters, is coming out soon. It’s also your first novel in over a decade. What prompted your return to the form?

I had something I really wanted to say in Tiger Writing and Girl at the Baggage Claim. But I explained East-West cultural difference as well as it was given to me to say it, and I was ready to move on. And I really missed fiction. I missed the freedom of it, the unpredictability of it—the surprise. Nonfiction is certainly satisfying and packs some surprise as well. But not as much as fiction does. I suppose you could say I had been home for a while and was simply ready to head out for parts unknown. 

As a speculative novel that takes place in the near future, The Resisters marks a departure of sorts for your work. What inspired this transition?

I sat down to write this book just as my daughter was going off to college and, as any freshman or parent of a freshman can tell you, the word future comes up constantly and in a new way during freshman orientation. So that might have put me in a speculative state of mind. And, of course, looking forward, there’s a lot to worry about—hence the dystopic element in my book. As for how I came to borrow from several genres, including sci fi and the sports novel, as well, I can only think that encouraging my daughter to take risks may have rubbed off a bit on me. There are only so many times you can tell someone else to explore and get out of your comfort zone before you yourself begin to think, Maybe I should explore and get out of my comfort zone.

In a Q&A about The Resisters with your publisher, Knopf, you said: “For the first time in decades… I had whole days in which to write.” What does your ideal writing day look like? Do the conditions differ depending on what genre you’re working in?

It’s relatively easy for me to pick nonfiction up, put it down, and pick it up again. Not so with fiction. Fiction, for me, involves a kind of dream state that brooks no interruption. My ideal writing day involves no obligations of any kind, and none the next day, either, or the day after that. I hardly need say that this kind of time is always difficult to come by. 

Your upcoming Word Works talk touches on possibility, politics, and the ways in which the current political climate could be considered a gift to writers. How, if at all, has this proved true for your writing?

Philip Roth once said that writers need amiable irritants; there is a way in which the current climate is not even an amiable irritant but a plain irritant-irritant. And that’s been wind in, not only in my sail, but in the sails of many. The tricky part, of course—for me as for others—has been to keep a hand on the tiller. You want to harness the wind, not to be blown around by it.

You’ve been publishing work for nearly two decades now. What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing in that time?

Things that seem crazy when you’re writing them are often seen as fresh when they’re published.

Learn more from Gish by signing up for her class, Where’s the Story?, or attending her upcoming Word Works lecture on Thursday, February 20.