Interview with Jennifer Chung

Jennifer Chung is the author of Terroryaki!, winning entry in the 2011 Three Day Novel Contest. Terroryaki!, her debut novel, is perhaps best described as a humorous light horror, difficult to classify, but clearly speculative!

Jen and I know each other from Live Action Role Playing in college. When I learned that she had won the Three Day Novel Contest, I immediately bought and read her book.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I think readers of Expanded Horizons will also enjoy it.

Expanded Horizons is always looking to promote talented, up and coming women authors and authors of color. Jen has kindly agreed to an interview, and so, without further ado, I introduce you to this amazing, new speculative fiction author! I look forward to reading more from her!

–Dash

Tell us a little bit about yourself as a writer.  How long have you been writing?  Have you always written speculative fiction?

My cousin Susan and I used to write and send fiction to each other through the US mail when we were kids. I usually wrote about dragons, so I guess I have always written speculative fiction.

I wrote for student newspapers in high school and college. This gave me experience with journalistic writing (news and feature stories), writing under deadline, learning how to be edited, and learning how to edit – useful skills to develop for any kind of writer, fiction or otherwise.

In college, I also wrote a few Live Action Role Playing (LARP) games with friends. LARP writing is neat because it gives you a different writing experience that’s much more collaborative. In the LARPs I worked on, a team of writers would develop characters with conflicting goals and motivations, belonging to an invented or borrowed universe and using game rules to guide how they interact (eg how lethal is a shot from a plastic dart gun). These characters would be assigned to players who would then work with (or against) each other to achieve their characters’ goals. It’s a bit of a cross between improv theatre and Dungeons & Dragons. You get upfront collaboration in developing the game with the other writers. You also get collaboration with the players in seeing what they do with the characters you’ve set up, and discovering how they resolve the conflicts you introduced. Often, the players will do things you never expected, because they’re human and it’s hard to predict how humans will behave.

I fell off writing when I graduated college, but I got back into the habit when my friend Kei encouraged me to try National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2008. When I write fiction, it’s usually speculative fiction – that’s what I like to read and that’s what I’m most familiar with. I started a spy thriller once. It’s not a genre I read regularly, and the result was a mess.

How did you get involved in the Three Day Novel contest?  What was the experience like?

After two years of NaNoWriMo, I was addicted to the idea of writing fiction under pressure. I learned about 3-Day Novel Contest from a list of other timed writing challenges, and I resolved to try it the following year.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. During the weekend, it felt like finishing last-minute assignments in college – a persistent, nagging panic that you couldn’t (but tried to) ignore. I was always aware of what day it was, how many hours there were until midnight, how many words were left until my next wordcount writing goal. Unlike NaNoWriMo, there was also the awareness that the judges were going to read my draft, so I couldn’t just ignore bad writing. I remember feeling relief when I finished, and I definitely felt pride when I sent my manuscript off at the post office.

Logistically, I spent most of the contest holed up in our guest bedroom with occasional trips outside to get food and coffee. My sister, who lives with me, had decided to go out of town that weekend, so I had the house to myself.

Do you love Teriyaki?  Do you keep a food blog?

Teriyaki is fine – I get cravings for it, like many other types of food (pho, yakisoba, corn dogs), but I don’t particularly love it or hate it. I do think it’s fascinating that there are so many teriyaki places in Seattle, though, and teriyaki strikes me as something that one could obsess about, like bacon – maybe because they’re both simultaneously mundane and delicious. (Or so I hear. Being vegetarian, I haven’t tasted chicken teriyaki or real bacon since the late 90s.)

I don’t keep a food blog (though I used to take notes in a spreadsheet whenever I tried a new recipe), but I’m glad the internet exists so that I can read other people’s food blogs.

I’m always impressed when a blogger can take something and conquer it, and I tried to capture that sentiment with Daisy’s teriyaki reviews. The closest real-life example is a 50-part chicken fried steak review series that I saw on DallasFood.org several years ago. That series is no longer online, but it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the internet. There are also online examples of people conquering (or trying to conquer) restaurants by region (eg reviewing all restaurants in a neighborhood) and conquering (or trying to conquer) all recipes in a cookbook (eg French Laundry at Home, Mondays with Maida, The Julie/Julia Project). I really admire that kind of focus, dedication, and obsession.

Are any of the restaurants in the book based on real restaurants in Seattle (or elsewhere)?

No, not really. The Puyallup Fair actually exists, but I still haven’t been. Some of the fake dishes are inspired by my eating and reading about real dishes, of course.

I hear there were supposed to be zombies in the book…

Doubtful; my editor and I agreed that adding zombies would be too jarring. The unnamed great-aunt whose funeral is referenced on pg 5 is a different character than the Great-Aunt Jade who appears in the tension-filled wedding climax (gnawing on appetizers and lurching around). That the second great-aunt happens to share a name with one of my zombie-loving friends is merely a coincidence.

Who/what have been your influences as an author?  Favorite authors, favorite books/stories, personal experiences?

I’ve always been a fan of Jane Austen, and I’ll tend to model my romances on hers. I enjoy reading short stories that bring in the unexpected and (occasionally) macabre – O. Henry, Shirley Jackson, Damon Knight, John Collier, among many others. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Roger Zelazny’s collected stories, and I admire his language and his protagonists.

How would you say that your cultural background(s) influence your story-telling, and your characters?

I’m not quite sure how to answer this broadly, but I can try to speak to cultural influences on this book specifically. Regionally, I tried to bring Seattle (and the greater Seattle area) into this book – a bit awkward, because I don’t live in the city (though I do work there), but it is very much on my mind. So, for instance, there are the obvious references to chicken teriyaki, which is almost a staple around here, but there are also other brief cues like referencing drive-thru espresso shacks, visiting specific neighborhoods and suburbs, and dropping notes to Wagner (a major influence on the local opera company).

For this book, I did also want to write with Asian and Asian-American characters generally and Taiwanese-American characters in particular. I write more confidently when I have more in common with my characters – I imagine this is a universal sentiment. So, for a three-day novel contest where there isn’t much time to perform cultural due diligence during writing, I felt more comfortable working with a Taiwanese-American female protagonist because I could check her experiences against mine. There don’t seem to be very many Taiwanese-American protagonists in literature, either, which is another reason to write from that perspective.

There aren’t actually that many Taiwanese-American cues in the book, but there are a few, like the food that Daisy’s mother serves at dinner. There’s also a brief scene in a park which, to me, feels like the most Taiwanese-American thing I’ll ever write, where Daisy and an elderly Chinese man argue about whether she’s Taiwanese or Chinese. For some people, the distinction is a really big deal.

I also wanted to see if I could cue characters to default to Asian without calling out “almond-shaped eyes” or using the word “exotic”. From reader feedback, I realized that I needed to cue Daisy’s race early in the book to set up that expectation, so I moved a reference to the first paragraph. There’s another character, one of Sam’s friends, who is introduced as a bombshell from Hong Kong with a hot accent. She’s intended to be Chinese, but maybe readers defaulted her to blonde and British. I’m still working on this writing skill.

What do you think your next literary project will be?

I have a first draft of a futuristic young adult novel (with robots!) set in the Pacific Northwest that I’d like to revise. I’m also working on a few short stories that I’m hoping will go somewhere.

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