Published: May 3rd, 2015
Yiyun Li is a Chinese-American writer of fiction and non-fiction whose accolades include the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and most recently the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. Li is also a MacArthur Fellow and an editor for A Public Space.
Howl: How would you describe your writing process, i.e. time of day, type vs handwrite, notes vs free write…?
Li: I write on my computer, and I write slowly. Oftentimes I rewrite a sentence many times before going to the next sentence. I try to keep the morning open as much as possible, which is when my brain works the best.
Howl: What is your editing process like?
Li: There are two steps of editing I do. I edit as I write, which often involves rewriting and revising a sentence or a paragraph before writing the next sentence or paragraph; after I finish a piece, I read and do a lot of cutting and rearranging and sometimes adding more sentences.
Howl: Why do you think writing is your creative medium of choice?
Li: I am not a visual person, so I can't do any visual art. My mind feels closer to music but, I am not trained as a musician. Writing is like music, which involves movement.
Howl: Having grown up in China, which is a major political and economic global power, do you feel a pressure to clear up Western perspectives on the East or educate Americans on “the realities” of China in your writing?
Li: I don't ever feel the necessity to educate a reader or to represent China. When you think about it, an American author will not be asked to represent America, as no single author can do that for any country or any era. My goal is to write stories about human beings, and to make connections between my readers and my characters because of their shared human nature and experience.
Howl: As a writer and editor, what do you look for in contemporary writing and should we be on the lookout for anyone in particular?
Li: I would look for writers who don't chase trends or feel the pressure to do what others are doing. The good writers are those who break all the rules. I recently read a few young writers' books, including Kim Fu's For Today I Am a Boy, a fiercely powerful book about immigrant experience as well as a trans boy growing up in Canada. I'm excited to see what she will do next.
Howl: What do you personally enjoy about fiction and non-fiction?
Li: I always say fiction is what I do when I know what I am doing; nonfiction is what I do when I don't know what I am doing. In other words, when I know what I want to write – characters, stories, I write fiction. Sometimes to clear my mind and to think through things, I write nonfiction.
Howl: What do you think is the importance of the literary arts in high school?
Li: I didn't grow up in this country so I am not familiar with American high school. However, looking back at my own experience, the books I read in high school played and still continue to play an important role in my life, not only for my writing but also for my understanding of the world.
Howl: Which do you find more inspiring when writing a story: the plot or the characters?
Li: Characters always. I don't think plot is the most exciting thing, and sometimes it can be artificial. But characters are like real people – we all live without a plot, and that is life.
Howl: As an editor, where do you see literature heading in the 21st century, i.e. specific genres becoming more popular, ebooks…?
Li: I'm afraid I am not the best person to answer this!
Howl: How much of your stories are “pre-written” in your head at the start vs letting the stories evolve as you write them?
Li: I do a lot of pre-writing, to test things out in my head before committing the story on the page. But the story still evolves as I write it. It's the fun part of writing, being surprised at times.
Howl: What advice do you have for budding writers?
Li: Read classics – Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dickens, Austen, Flaubert. The list can go on forever. Be patient with writing, just as one has to be patient with living. You can't rush life or writing.