Everybody! It's time for an author interview! The author you will be learning about today is Yoon Ha Lee. Just reading her bio will make you smarter. She went to Cornell and Stanford. She's written over 40 short stories, but she also writes poetry and her website has interactive fiction games created by her! This is one multi-talented lady, as you will see from her answers!
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Please ignore all the weird formatting. I'm having issues.
You write in several different formats including poetry and short stories. Is one format harder than the rest?
I'd say that they're hard in different ways. In poetry, formatting matters in a way that it typically doesn't in short stories (or at least, not the kinds of short stories I write). You have to pay attention to things like line breaks. And every word counts for more simply because there are fewer words to work with. It's not unlike writing very short flash fiction in that regard. If you're writing an 8,000-word story, you have some leeway with your first 1,000 words. If your story is 2,000 words, you'd better get moving much faster than that! So part of it is mathematical.
For me, writing poetry feels harder for the unrelated reason that I do it far more seldom. Every so often a poem idea hits me and I commit one. I've devoted far more time to short stories, so it's probably a matter of practice. I've done it more and I have more of a method developed that works for me.
In general, I need to know the ending, the midpoint, and the beginning. Preferably in that order, but I'm usually not so lucky. The ending is what I want to leave the reader with--whether that's an image or a "moral" or a plot twist. Everything has to build toward that ending, so the sooner I know what the ending is, the more I can tailor the rest of the story toward it.
For the midpoint, I want to know what happens to recontextualize the story so that the reader can be prepared for the climax/resolution. And then I worry about the beginning, something to catch the reader's attention. I sweat blood over this stuff--I want to know these three things at minimum before I even start writing. Usually, for a short story, I will also write a mini-outline in the form of a list of events/plot points that I want to hit. This sometimes changes in the process of writing but I need the guideline to keep me from writing myself into corners.
I used to write stories by just coming up with a cool-sounding opening and following it, but this was generally disastrous. I still have a bunch of story openings from high school and college that wound up going precisely nowhere because I was just wandering around in circles. This is a waste of my time and I prefer not to do it anymore.
Characters are often very difficult for me. I can come up with a plot but then I need to find characters for that plot to naturally happen to, and sometimes that takes a while.
How does your extensive math background help your writing?
Well, I wouldn't call it extensive! A B.A. only gets you so far; sometimes I regret not pursuing a doctorate, but it wouldn't have worked out.
The first big thing, which I glimpsed in high school, is the sheer beauty of mathematical imagery. I used to read books like Ivars Peterson's The Mathematical Tourist and James Gleick's Chaos back then, and I was fascinated by the pictures of fractals and the descriptions of nonlinear systems and so on. Math is the language the universe is written in, and its poetry breaks my heart. I know a lot of people have had bad relationships with math in the USA, but I want to enable other people to glimpse what I've glimpsed. Because I know it's only a glimpse; there's so much that I never got to see because I stopped studying math so early.
(Wesley's note: I'm so stupid at math and it has been the cause of many angry feelings and tears but the way Yoon describes it makes it sound so lovely to me).
The second is that being a math major informed how I structure stories. I want to emphasize that this isn't the only way to do it! But one of the things that people get confused about with pure mathematics is thinking that it's about solving equations and doing computations, and math is so much more than that. It's about patterns and structures and making arguments based on premises in a very rigorous fashion. When I write a story, I think of it as an argument that I'm trying to make, and I want to structure the plot like a proof. Science fiction and fantasy are especially interesting for this because you can control so much of the initial setup, the axioms.
What special challenges does writing sci fi present?
One of the difficult things is the necessity of explaining the world and context in which the characters move. For other genres of fiction, you can say, "This is set in Las Vegas in 2000" and people automatically have some idea of what that means and what a character's behavior means in the context of that setting. With sf that's not necessarily true. Granted, true originality is difficult--I don't aspire to it myself!--and there's a lot of premade genre furniture you can use. Aliens that want to enslave and eat humans, FTL spaceships, clones, whatever. (I spend a lot of time on TV Tropes reading about this stuff.) But there's the possibility of losing the reader in a setting so unfamiliar that they can't figure out what's what. Handing off information to the reader is interesting: you don't want to do the old "As you know, Bob" lecture, and you don't want to kick them out of the story with paragraphs of bad exposition, but that information has to be conveyed somehow. It's something I'm still working on.
I like computer games and roleplaying game campaign sourcebooks for general ideas. Also poetry; I keep Bryher's Arrow Music, Sonya Taaffe's Singing Innocence and Experience, and Amal El-Mohtar's The Honey Month next to my desk for when I get stuck and I need to read something beautiful to encourage me to go on.
If I get truly stuck, I take some time off and wander around looking at random things, especially nonfiction. I never know when some chance throwaway detail will strike a chord in me. Catalogues and magazines are good because they don't require a huge commitment in terms of reading and you can find brief articles on whatever topic. Zingerman's Mail Order catalogue is great for learning appetizing ways to describe food! In general, it's a lot like how I dealt with recalcitrant problem sets back when I was in college. If I got so stuck I couldn't even see the problem in my head anymore, I'd take a break and play a computer game or go for a walk or do something totally unrelated, and more often than not this break would get my backbrain working.
For plotting, I like to think of stories that really inspired me, in whatever format, and try to extract what I liked about them and figure out how I could do my own take on them. For example, "Combustion Hour" is about shadow puppets dealing with the end of the world. That came to me after reading John Tynes' tabletop roleplaying game Puppetland, in which the players play puppets fighting against a tyranny. Tynes' version does not involve cosmology and stellar evolution as far as I remember, though!
Inspiration can come from anywhere, including a mail order catalogue, love it! Thanks for taking the time Yoon!