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In conversation with Journey Prize finalist Doretta Lau

Doretta Lau knows how to be subversive. Her story “How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?” is a smart, witty, and ultimately invigorating re-take on Asian-Canadian pop-culture stereotypes.

I loved the story’s sense of play, its intelligent and engaging narrative arc, and especially the offbeat characters who inhabit the story’s unnamed city. It’s no surprise to me that the story (originally published in Event magazine) was named one of this year’s finalists for the Writer’s Trust in Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and included in the anthology Journey Prize Stories 25.

Doretta recently agreed to answer a few questions about the story, her writing process and the upcoming release of her new collection for Currently Living.

Doretta Lau is a journalist who covers arts and culture for Artforum International, LEAP, South China Morning Post, and The Wall Street Journal Asia. She completed an MFA in Writing at Columbia University. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Event, Grain, Prairie Fire, PRISM International, Ricepaper, sub-TERRAIN, and Zen Monster. She splits her time between Vancouver and Hong Kong, where she is at work on a novel and a screenplay. How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Nightwood Editions, 2014) is her debut short story collection.

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How and when did you start writing fiction? Do you remember the first thing you wrote?

When I was twelve, I had a writing class in school during which I wrote some sort of melodramatic novella about a girl who was oh-so-tortured and misunderstood.

Last summer I found a hilarious sci-fi novel I attempted to write when I was fifteen. Sample from that: “To the unsuspecting beings of Earth, Blue Smith was just another person, maybe a neighbour or the guy they saw on the subway a lot. The truth was though, he controlled all events in human time and played practical jokes on the gullible race.”

Who were your earliest literary rock stars? Who do you turn to now in your literary hour of need?

In high school, I adored Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, J. D. Salinger, Stephen King, David Eddings, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Douglas Coupland, Wayson Choy, and Amy Tan. I read a lot of mysteries and police procedurals too.

I think my most life-changing literary encounter was with Rebecca Godfrey’s The Torn Skirt. Her publisher sent the college radio station where I worked a copy and I wrote a book column for Discorder at the time. I read it and was so thrilled that such a book existed. The protagonist is a kick-ass girl and the prose is so achingly lovely and sharp. This was what I’d been looking for in Canadian literature. I wrote a review and Rebecca sent me the kindest, sweetest e-mail about it. Later, when I was living in New York, she lent me the desk she used when writing The Torn Skirt; I wrote part of my thesis at it.

At the moment, when I have trouble working out a story, I turn to Mavis Gallant. I love the way she writes a sentence, and how she captures place so well. I admire the risks she’s taken in order to devote her life to writing fiction. To me, she’s an adventurer and a pioneer. I wouldn’t have the privilege of doing what I do had she not blazed a path for me to follow.

I loved your story “How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?”. It made me miss my many years living in Vancouver and brought back a whole host of vivid memories of hanging out with friends in “Middle Kingdom Town”. How was the story born?

Thank you! I like that it’s clear to you that the setting is Vancouver even though I never mention the city by name.

In 2005, I was in my final writing workshop of grad school. My classmates included Rivka Galchen, Jay Caspian Kang, Tupelo Hassman, and Reif Larsen. They had already honed their voices, but I was flailing a bit. The semester before I was writing stories in the form of essays, but there wasn’t the spark I wanted to have in fiction. I figured the only thing left to do was to write something off kilter.

The story I turned in was only partially complete. I just didn’t know how to finish it, and I wasn’t a disciplined enough writer to execute the voice. For a while I gave up on the idea of being a writer; I was sick of waiting months to publish a story when I could churn out articles on a weekly basis.

At the beginning of 2011, I decided to give writing fiction one last chance. If nothing came of it, I would commit to being a journalist. At the time I was thinking about the Wells Tower story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” I sat in my one hundred square foot apartment and spent a week working on “How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?” so I could submit it to the PRISM International contest, which was being judged by John K. Samson that year. (I’m a huge Weakerthans fan, and the first story I wrote in grad school was inspired by the album title Left and Leaving.) I didn’t make the short list, so I continued to send it out, and I piled up rejections until Elizabeth Bachinsky and the Event fiction board took a chance on it.

I also loved the cast of characters in the story – bad-ass Riceboy, glamorous Yellow Peril, and of course the energetic narrator, the Sick Man of Asia. You’re playing here with many layers of stereotype—offhand and satirical, in one way, but also more subversively in how you reclaim certain Asian and Asian-Canadian cultural tropes and bend them to your purpose. Who is your favourite character? Who (or what) inspired the dragoons?

The Sick Man of Asia is my favourite character because of the fun I had with voice while writing him. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to create a protagonist who is that funny again. One of the inspirations for my story is A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. My dragoons are much tamer and almost cute in comparison to Alex and his droogs, but I was thinking about character and language in a similar way.

How did it feel to learn that the story was shortlisted for this year’s Journey Prize? What was the experience of the awards ceremony like for you?

It was night in Hong Kong when the announcement happened. I was just about to watch the finale of Breaking Bad with a friend when I thought, I should get on Twitter to congratulate the finalists. A few of us had been chatting to one another without ever having met, though I knew Naben Ruthnum from Vancouver through one of his childhood friends, who is also a writer. I scrolled through to try to find the names of the finalists, then I saw that you and a bunch of other Canadian writers had tweeted congratulatory messages to Naben, Eliza Robertson, and me. I was surprised and elated—I even delayed watching Breaking Bad for another ten minutes to bounce around my living room and drink a celebratory gin and tonic.

The night of the ceremony, I was experiencing the sort of nerves I used to feel before karate tournaments and regattas, except there was really nothing to do but wait. I didn’t even meet any of the jurors for the prize—there were so many people milling about and I was jet lagged. Eliza and I took some pictures and I had a conversation with Naben but I don’t remember what we talked about. I think we were probably just fidgeting and drinking wine. Cary Fagan wished me luck right before I went into the theatre.

Then the ceremony was underway. The tribute to Alice Munro had me on the verge of tears and by Lisa Moore’s speech I was trying really hard not to smudge my eye makeup lest I had to make it to the stage and be photographed. Right before Miranda Hill announced the Journey Prize winner I was thinking, if I ever have the chance to do something like this again, I should prepare a speech—even if I am certain I have no shot at winning—so that the waiting part isn’t quite so terrifying. When Miranda announced Naben’s name it was still exciting because it’s incredible to see a friend achieve a dream like that; his story “Cinema Rex” is so tremendous and dizzyingly brilliant from the overall structure to the sentence level. I can’t thank the Writers’ Trust of Canada and McClelland & Stewart enough for the entire experience and for how much support they give emerging writers.

Your first collection (How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?) comes out this year with Nightwood Editions. What can readers look forward to in the collection?

The collection is coming out in April. Some of the stories are funny, some have zany characters, and they’re set in Vancouver, New York, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong. It’s my love letter to things sweet and strange and surprising. Gary Shteyngart, master blurb performance artist, says this: “From Glenn Gould to Jeff Wall to an aspiring Miss Hong Kong, Doretta Lau has an imagination larger than the entire county of Canada, which is big. If you want to know how we live today, read this book!” I can’t argue with that.

What’s next for Doretta Lau? What projects can we expect to see in the future?

I have a story coming out in the literary journal Day One called “Robot by the River”—it’s set in Vancouver after 9/11 and it’s my attempt at a voice that’s equal parts Truman Capote and Banana Yoshimoto; it will also be released as a Kindle Single with Amazon Publishing.

I’ve been working on a screenplay that’s based on one of my short stories, “Rerun,” which was first published in Grain. It’s a madcap romantic comedy. I also have a young adult novel I’ve been meaning to finish—I’d love to write something commercial enough to sustain my fiction writing habit. I’m an idea factory. I just have to do the work of writing—that’s the hard part.

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Visit Doretta’s website, read her story by ordering Journey Prize Stories 25, or follow her on Twitter.

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