Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Interview: Timothy Wang, author of Slant

I recently reviewed Timothy Wang’s debut novel, Slant. I was so impressed I contacted Timothy and asked him to do an interview with me. The following is the result of that interview.

AC: When did you start writing, and, other than Slant, what else have you published?
TW: I never thought myself a writer before Slant was accepted for publication. In the past, I mostly wrote technical or research documents. The last official writing course I took is Technical Writing 101. After writing a draft of Slant, mostly for fun, a few friends enjoyed it, and said I should try to publish it, but it would need a lot of editing. And I mean a lot. That was when I did searches on how to edit, tips on fiction writing, and how to get published.

AC: Was there someone in your family, a teacher, or perhaps a favorite book, that inspired you to begin writing?
TW: It wasn’t a single person or a single book that inspired me to write. In fact, the lack of the books I was looking for had me thinking I should write something.

When I first came out, I was very interested in gay fiction, thirsting for things I could relate to, like many gay guys did before they became jaded.

I started to notice one thing: very few gay books have minority protagonists.

Being Asian myself, I searched for gay books with Asian protagonists. At the time, I found two: Crystal Boys and Confessions of a Mask. Crystal Boys is about gay boys in Taiwan in the 70’s. It made me laugh and made me cry; I loved it. Confessions of a Mask, by Mishima, made me cringe and bored me to tears. Both settings are so remote I can’t relate to the main characters, who, while having their own challenges, don’t deal with the issues faced by a gay Asian in modern day America.

Of course, I think people’ll be bored to death if I only write about racial issues in the gay world. I had a story in mind. Almost everyone at least for one point had wanted his ex back. So that’s the main plot. A fantasy of what-if’s.

AC: Who are the authors who most influence you today?
TW: The scope, the gentle humor and the emotional impact of Jeffery Eugenides’s Middlesex are an inspiration to me. Most recently, I love Jennifer Egan, whose tone is touchingly melancholy like Murakami’s and prose even prettier. I first read her short story Safari in the New Yorker and was amazed. Then, after buying a copy of A Visit from Goon Squad, I learned that Safari is one chapter of that book, and remains my favorite chapter. Also, I had tried to learn from the brisk pace and the sharp dialogues found in Amistad Maupin’s works.

AC: While reading Slant, I could help believing that much of it was autobiographical. How much of your own coming out experience was mirrored in the story?
TW: The events aren’t real, and each of the characters doesn’t represent any particular real person. But, as in almost all fiction, the authors draw some aspects from real life. Write what you know, I was told. I picked Boston because I knew the city. Many of the locations are real—I have been to many of the named venues—but used in fictitious ways. I noticed the same issues as James did, but we do not share the same views. My background indeed is similar to James’s.

As I said above, I wanted to write something that people with similar backgrounds can relate to, and there’re plenty of gay Asian guys who studied engineering or sciences in Boston or elsewhere.

At the same time, I think the story elements are common to a lot of people beyond the gays. Most people had their heart broken at least once, and imagined what they’d do to get their exes back. Almost everyone had awkward dates and embarrassing first-times. Though my mom isn’t a tiger mom, I have observed enough Asian parents. I even have a friend, a Korean American girl, who commented her parents are just like James’s.

AC: So, if you don’t mind sharing, would you tell us about your latest work in progress?
TW: A family saga. Several people have asked me how much of Slant is true, even though it is fiction. It has given me an idea to write something based on real life. This yet-to-be titled book will be based on my family, and not focused on gay issues. However, I realized, to create a tight plot with real life events has proven a challenge, because life doesn’t fall neatly into a three-act structure.

AC: Name a book or movie written by someone else that you wish you had written, and why that one?
TW: Ang Lee’s movie Wedding Banquet. As far as I know, that’s the first movie (perhaps even fiction) that addressed some of the issues faced by gay Asian Americans. In fact, it was the first gay movie I watched. Back then, Chinese movies were hard to come by in the US. So even though this was a gay themed film, it was still passed around amongst the Chinese community. (If one Chinese family bought a video tape, the rest in town borrowed it.)

Surprisingly, mom and dad didn’t object me watching it. We watched it together. Instead of entertaining me, the film scared me, for it reminded me of the strange thoughts I’d been suppressing. I held my breath through the entire movie, not making a peep.

During the movie, I remember clearly, mom asked, “Why is one of them wearing an earring?”
Dad said, “Oh, I think in those kind of relationships, one guy must be the woman.”
At the time, I had even less understanding of the gay world than my dad did, but the intimate story and the subtle emotions conveyed by Ang Lee impressed me, especially when I watched the film again years later.

AC: If you could offer one tidbit of advice for new writers, what would it be?
TW: Be confident in your writing. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. I’ll admit, confidence in writing is elusive, at least for me. It takes a lot of Stuart Smalley affirmations to bring my fingers to the keyboard.

AC: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
TW: I enjoy traveling. Even though there’s a list of places I like to go next, I’ll go anywhere I haven’t been to before and don’t run the risk of beheading. I enjoy photography, because it goes so well with traveling. My favorite sports are skiing and scuba diving, which involve traveling also.

AC: Had you not become an accomplished writer, what other occupation would you have most liked to tackle?
TW: I’m hardly an accomplished writer. After all, this is my first novel. I currently have a career in the software field.

AC: Do you enjoy writing, I mean, do you find it fun?
TW: I do enjoy writing, but it’s fun less than 50% of the time. Fun: people enjoying your work, writing dialogue that I’m too slow to dish out in real time (Remember the Seinfeld episode in which George came up with a comeback days after being insulted?) and creating situations that I wish I was in or I wish I’d never encounter. Not so fun: editing, editing, and cutting entire chapters—which I worked hard on—that don’t work.

AC: Where can interested reader learn more about you and your books?
TW: I can be found online:
Twitter: @tmwng
Facebook Page:

Thank you, Timothy, for taking the time to answer these questions.

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