Here’s the second in a series of author spotlights.
This spotlight is on my dear friend, an author oozing with talent: Yasuko Thanh. I met Suko in 2009 at The University of Victoria. The first thing you should know about Suko is that she’s a brilliant writer. The second thing you should know about Suko is that she is an amazing–always put together–dresser. This little interview is going to focus on her writing; however, if you buy Floating Like The Dead I’m sure she’ll offer you a fashion tip or two.
So, grab a cup of tea, sit down here with us, and listen to what Suko has to say about The Journey Prize, the writing workshop, writer’s block, The Bearded Lady, and a whole lot of other things.
1) In 2009, while completing our MFA degrees together at UVic, you won the Journey Prize for your short story, “Floating Like the Dead,” which then became the title of your (brilliant) novel published in 2012 by McClelland & Stewart. Did the experience of winning the Journey Prize have an impact on the development of the collection?
As a writer-starting-out I used to study the anthology like a textbook on craft and discovered some of my favourite writers this way. The prestige of being included in a book I’d long admired was awesome. And so was the fact that a great many things spun from it: getting an agent, acquiring a book deal….
At the Writers Trust Awards in Toronto I met my future-editor, Anita Chong, who also manages the Journey Prize. She believed in my collection and fought the good fight for it — even before I won the prize. As one of the nominees, I’d sent her a bunch of short stories, letting her know I was working on a collection. Some of the drafts were pretty rough. She was very understanding, and saw the potential in them. She worked with me to bring out the best in them, by pushing me to look deeply at my characters, and showing me where my intent wasn’t shining through.
2) On the topic of UVic, how do you think the MFA program helped or hindered the writing process? I’ve heard various writers explain that after completing writing degrees they either longed for the workshop setting, or that they were never looking back. How do you think the workshop setting influenced your work?
The workshop setting certainly influenced my writing while I was at university, to the point where I felt extremely uncomfortable, as if I had someone sitting on my shoulder and pointing out my flaws whenever I tried to craft a sentence.
Eventually, I experienced a complete block.
To overcome it required revaluating my relationship to writing (though it should be said at first I didn’t know that my writer’s block was related to the workshop setting).
To clarify: it wasn’t that I couldn’t write. As a mother of two, I knew enough about pushing myself through adverse circumstances to muster the discipline to sit down at my computer and squeeze out words. But the writing was mechanical, the words devoid of…life. And whatever positive vibrations had been previously associated with the process were gone.
My relationship to my writing is like a marriage, with ups and downs. And at various times I’ve taken a step back to say, “What’s going on here? Why have we lost the spark?”
When I examined the relationship this time, I discovered I’d killed the love by letting other people – the workshop participants – into our monogamous relationship.
I needed to regain that intimacy between us in order to write again.
When I blocked the internal critic from the earliest stages of the process, especially during first drafts, things smoothed out again.
But like many open relationships, they can perhaps work if the primary relationship is not forgotten or undervalued during the process.
3) What have you learned about publishing/promoting your work since the release of Floating Like the Dead that you could share with emerging writers?
Manage your expectations. Advice no writer needs, of course: anyone who’s been in the game long enough knows it. Expect to put in a lot of yourself, of your time, passion, blood, sweat, and tears.
Yes, promote your work. Yes, try to publish. Never give up.
But try not to expect external validation akin to what you have put in.
4) I read a draft of a story you wrote that’s stuck with me. It was about a woman named Julia, a performer known as The Ape Woman, whose face and body were covered in hair. Where have you gone with this project? Is it near publication? Or, are your lips sealed on this one?
The story you read turned into a novel tentatively titled Teddy’s Blow-Off Attraction. It’s inspired by the true story of Julia Pastrana (1834-1860), a woman known variously as Ape Woman, Bear Woman, and The Bearded Lady. In the age of Darwin, she came to be seen as the missing link between apes and humans.
She married her manager and became famous first in the USA — even attracting a gift from Napoleon III, who gave her a ruby for her beard — later touring through England, Poland, and Russia. She was her husband’s blow-off attraction: the grand finale of his show.
Simplistically viewed, Pastrana was a victim. Yet despite the power imbalance, I was attracted to the story as a look at love in an unlikely place.
She died shortly after giving birth to a child in Russia in 1860, but her embalmed body continued to tour Scandinavia and the USA right up to the 1970s; it now rests in Oslo.
The plan now is to find the manuscript a good home and get it published.
5) What books inspired Floating like the Dead?
A Measure of Value, by Chris Yorath. Last Rites by Reverend Joseph B. Ingle. A Hard Place to Do Time, by Earl Andersen. The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence. And Jean McNeil’s short story “Bethlehem.”
6) What are you reading now?
I just finished rereading Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton because I was having trouble sleeping and something about the New England snow put me in a better state of mind before bed. I also just finished The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin.
Well, now I have some new books to add to my to-read pile, including Teddy’s Blow-Off Attraction! Thanks to Suko for the conversation. Mosey on over to her Facebook page to stay up-to-date with the happenings of the newest novel.