“I’m trapped in the future,” says author Lindsay Wong, who is perpetually reading upcoming releases or in-progress manuscripts. As a result, her literary consumption is out of sync with the rest of the world. “I’m either two seasons behind everyone else, or I’m reading things that haven’t come out yet. It’s like my own little parallel universe of reading.”
This is a stranger answer than I expected when I asked what she’s been enjoying lately. But then again, Wong excels at the humorous and uncanny. This is exemplified in her debut memoir, The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons and My Crazy Chinese Family, an unflinching memoir of familial trauma and mental illness that manages to also be incredibly funny.
Wong began writing The Woo-Woo at 19 while studying creative writing at the University of British Columbia. After graduating, she moved to New York to do her MFA in creative non-fiction at Columbia University and ultimately finish her manuscript. “I only got funny after I moved to New York,” she deadpans. “You can’t survive New York without a sense of humour. Like, you cry a lot on the subway, but you also laugh.”
The Woo-Woo was a sensation when it was published in 2018; it won the 2019 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for Canada Reads 2019 and the 2018 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize. But it wasn’t a straight path to literary acclaim for Wong, who is forthcoming about her early-career struggles. “I think a lot of people think that you sit down and write a book, and then it’s published, but then there’s so much revision, and rejection, and waiting,” she says. “I’ve had people call me an overnight success, but I couldn’t get a job for many years. Editors wouldn’t respond to my pitches.”
Now, she’s not letting any opportunities slip by. Last June, she released a frothy, charmingly chaotic YA novel, My Summer of Love and Misfortune. She’s also hard at work on a forthcoming collection of short stories, and a novel slated for release in 2023. And since May, she has been the Vancouver Public Library Writer in Residence, mentoring emerging writers and reviewing manuscripts.
Somehow, she carved out time in the parallel universe to talk about her favourite books — and the ice cream concoctions she would pair with them.
Michelle Cyca: What book made you want to be a writer?
Lindsay Wong: Evelyn Lau’s Runaway, because it was the first time I’d seen myself represented in someone who is young, Asian, has a dysfunctional family and wants to be a writer. I could see myself in this beautiful prose. I think that’s why I wrote a memoir — she was one of my earliest influences. Her and Maxine Hong Kingston, who wrote The Woman Warrior.
And then every Asian Canadian or Asian American person thinks of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. It’s a classic, but Evelyn’s was the most modern telling. When I was younger, I followed authors like Nancy Lee, Madeleine Thien and Jen Sookfong Lee. I saw their careers take off and read their books in high school, and I wanted to do that.
But there’s a difference between being young and wanting something, and the reality of doing it. I didn’t know it would be that hard to get published.
What are you reading lately?
I have a short story collection coming out next year, so I’ve been studying short stories. I recently read How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa, and then Téa Mutonji’s Shut Up You’re Pretty, which is a really interesting, raw book.
I’ve also gone back to Doretta Lau’s How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun, Nancy Lee’s Dead Girls, Madeleine Thien’s Simple Recipes, and Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart. My agent also suggested I read 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad.
What’s it like working on a short story collection?
Short story collections are so different from writing a novel or a memoir. With memoir, you are shaping things that happened to you and putting them in order. And with novels, you are spending so much time with your characters.
But with a short story, every word has to count, every scene has to have a level of perfection in it because you have so little space. So studying all these short story collections, I’m trying to figure out: How do they put it together? How do they create different characters? The short story collection is the hardest to write, but also the most interesting to examine.
After reading so many of them, what do you think makes a great short story collection?
I want to feel like I’ve been sent into a very specific world, a world that no one has really explored. All these writers have created that: you feel you know these characters, you’re sitting on their shoulders.
Character development and a great voice, too — I want to feel that these are people I could know. What I love about writing is that the most unlikeable, weirdest people do so well on the page. I’m drawn to these messy, complex characters who don’t always do or say the right things. There’s something about a short story collection that gives us a glimpse into the subconscious of a person who wouldn’t necessarily do well in real life.
It’s more bearable to read about unpleasant or challenging people in a short story collection too, because you’re not locked into a whole novel with them.
Exactly! I feel like I’m a difficult person, too, and I like other complex, difficult people. I feel like I understand them. That’s why we read, right? To find people who are similar to us, and who say things that we would love to say in real life, even though we know we shouldn’t because we might get fired from our jobs.
Are there any particular authors you’re excited about lately?
I have very eclectic tastes and I like to read my contemporaries. I recently read Sarah Berman’s Don’t Call It a Cult, which is such an excellent piece of reporting. She does such a good job of putting all the pieces together.
I also read Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers by Marcello di Cintio. That’s really funny and really well-researched. I’m blurbing a lot of non-fiction lately, including Eddy Boudel Tan’s The Rebellious Tide, which is like a pirate novel.
Oh, and Meghan Bell — her book just came out, Erase and Rewind, which is dark and funny and feminist; it’s about being young and female, and I think it’s going to appeal to the millennial crowd. And my friend Joanna Chiu has a book called China Unbound coming out next year, which I’m excited about! It’s all non-fiction or short story collections right now.
I saw on Twitter you were dreaming up an ice cream/book pairing event. What would you pair with those books?
Sarah Berman’s Don’t Call It A Cult should be savoured with a decadent bacon, vanilla and olive gelato, served in an edible gingerbread bowl, with crunchy bits of toffee and toasted almonds sprinkled on top. Be sure to add in a pinch of molasses syrup to give us the powerful dose of reality that only well-researched non-fiction can offer readers.
Marcello di Cintio’s book Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers should be paired with an extra-large boozy milkshake. It’s a wonderful work of darkly funny non-fiction. Think massive scoops of espresso ice cream, two-per-cent milk, copious amounts of chocolate syrup, Baileys, and of course, whipped cream — and some dark chocolate and mocha chips all blended together.
Eddy Boudel Tan’s The Rebellious Tide is a thrilling, fast-paced high-seas adventure, so it should be enjoyed with flavourful scoops of ginger, pineapple, blueberry and lemon shortcake gelato, all piled high on a crunchy sugar cone. There should be a maraschino cherry or three on top to celebrate this talented author.
Meghan Bell’s book Erase and Rewind should be eaten with five scoops of raspberry white chocolate chunk ice cream, served in a delectable waffle bowl, but also drizzled with sticky caramel sauce. I might add pink sprinkles, marshmallows and strawberry mochi for additional texture because this book is deliciously quirky.
How do you find time to read, between writing your short story collection and your novel, and serving as the VPL Writer in Residence?
I don’t know! Though I do find that I have a little bit more time lately, because due to COVID-19 we don’t have to commute right now. When I was promoting The Woo-Woo I would be on the bus for like eight hours a week, carrying books to sell. I took the bus to Ladner once, which was like two hours each way, carrying all these books. I’ve learned I can carry 30 books at once — that’s my max.
What was it like trying to get The Woo-Woo published?
I had 13 rejections, and mostly it was because it was “too dark,” which was hard to respond to. It’s my life, I don’t know what I could do to make it less dark. Sometimes I got “too niche,” which could be a coded thing — not white enough, not mainstream enough. And then, there’s always “too weird.” I always get “too weird” on my writing. What can I say? It happened! Real life is sometimes stranger than fiction. There weren’t specific things we could do, it was a taste thing — but fortunately Brian Lam at Arsenal Pulp Press really responded to it.
I feel like readers are getting more of an appetite for weird books. I think the weird book market is growing.
I hope so. I think readers can tolerate weird things. But maybe publishers are not weird? I guess it’s always a risk to take on someone who is unknown and writing strange things. But I hope there’s a place for me, where I can have my weird bubble.
Are there other memoirists who influenced you when you were writing The Woo-Woo?
I read so many memoirs when I was starting out because I didn’t have a sense of my voice — but Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors really clicked in my brain, because it was so funny but so dark. It was compelling and vivid, and he really takes us into his specific world. That was one of my main influences.
I also read The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston — she combines storytelling and the Asian family. And The Liars’ Club by Mary Carr is another example of really dark, funny storytelling.
I read everything from Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life to Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood to Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time. A lot of memoirs about growing up, about the authors’ childhoods and their families and dysfunction. I have a high appetite for dysfunction.
You released your second book, My Summer of Love and Misfortune, early in the pandemic. What made you want to do a YA book next?
An editor at Simon Pulse reached out to me after The Woo-Woo and asked if I wanted to write a YA book, and I said yes, I’ll write anything but a memoir.
It took such a long time to get The Woo-Woo published — I signed with my agent in 2015 but didn’t get a book deal until 2018, so that was three years of waiting, trying, and not being successful. So when someone says, “Do you want to do this?” I say yes, because for so long I didn’t have any work.
Did you read any young adult novels as research?
Yes, I did a ton of research before I sat down to write. The editor sent me American Panda by Gloria Chao and When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon. They’re so fun and light and really speak to being a teenager.
I’ve also always loved Crazy Rich Asians, and I read all the Confessions of a Shopaholic books growing up. So when we talked about what kind of character to write, I said, I wanted to write about an Asian girl who is not perfect the way people expect, and who loves to shop.
Do you read different books on vacation versus when you’re working? Like to relax or on an airplane?
I haven’t had a vacation since The Woo-Woo came out! But if I was to go on vacation, I wouldn’t want to read. I’m done with reading. I can’t relax if I’m reading. As soon as I start reading, I start analyzing it, like: What is this writer doing? Is it working here? I can enjoy a book, but my critical brain is thinking about how the author put it together.
On vacation, I just want to sleep and watch TV. One of my guilty pleasures has been Bling Empire on Netflix. It’s a reality series about these crazy rich Asians. That’s been very funny, I’ve been watching that.
What is your forthcoming novel about?
It’s inspired by this time when someone from high school asked me to be a bridesmaid, which was strange because we hadn’t talked in a really long time. I’d just gotten back from New York, but I couldn’t get published, and I felt like I was a failure because no one would hire me. With an MFA, you can’t even work at Starbucks, because they think you’re going to quit in a month.
So I got that offer, and it was such a strange wedding. She was marrying a wealthy Asian person, so it was like Crazy Rich Asians but more raunchy and more surreal. And she had chosen all these bridesmaids who looked alike so that we would look really cute and match in the wedding photos. And I hadn’t talked to this person since high school, and when she asked me to be her maid of honour I was shocked, but I also said yes, because I wanted to know what would happen. I was talking to my agent and editor, and asked, "Should I write about this?" And they said yes. So, long story short, an unwilling bridesmaid has to infiltrate this wedding.
Last question: What are you excited to read next?
Because I like everything, and because I’m stuck in the future, I don’t know! What’s coming out soon? Are there any darkly comedic novels? That’s what I love. If there are, send them my way.
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