Thursday, July 23, 2020

Sung J. Woo

Sung J. Woo’s short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, PEN/Guernica, and Vox. He has written three novels, Skin Deep (2020), Love Love (2015) and Everything Asian (2009), which won the 2010 Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Literature Award (Youth category). In 2014, Everything Asian was chosen for Coming Together in Skokie and Niles Township. A graduate of Cornell University with an MFA from New York University, he lives in Washington, New Jersey.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The working title of this book was Shadows Deep. I still reference it in the epigraph:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep

It’s from W.B. Yeats’s poem, “When You Are Old,” which highlights the aging of beauty (among many other things). The central theme of my book is the concept of beauty and the disturbing lengths some people will go to attain it. Early on, private detective Siobhan O’Brien discovers that the college where a female student went missing has curiously admitted an overwhelming number of attractive young women for its freshman class. Now led by an ex-runway fashion model, Llewellyn College has not only gone co-ed for the first time in its two-hundred-year history, but it seems possible that its president may have even stranger plans for her school.

I was given a two-book deal, and the second in the series was to be titled Skin Deep. But my editor and publisher thought the title Shadows Deep sounded too dark and unrepresentative of this book’s contents, and I do believe they are right. Also, it made sense, since the phrase “beauty is only skin deep” very much applies to this novel. So the second becomes the first, and all is right with the world.

What's in a name?

I’m hoping that after my book comes out, many more people will know how to pronounce the Irish name Siobhan (“show-vaan”). Back in 2009, when my first novel came out, a group of Korean adoptees in San Francisco attended my reading. Since then, I’ve wanted to write about these folks in some way, and it all just snapped into focus at the outset of this project. The thing that I love about Siobhan O’Brien is that she’s not what she appears to be. A short Asian woman who just turned forty shouldn’t have a name like that, but she does, and this juxtaposition imbues her with conflict and drama. She is an unlikely gumshoe, and that people will underestimate her gives Siobhan a great advantage.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenage self would not be the least bit surprised about this novel, because I was an avid reader of mysteries in my high school days. My favorites were Dick Francis and Robert B. Parker; for months, every week I switched between the world of horseracing and the playful quips of Spenser and Hawk. In my senior year of college, I took a year-long workshop where I began this book with Stephen Varley as my main character, a mixed-race male. But many other parts of that book made it to the final product, such as the all-women’s college and a powerful billionaire antagonist.

I must say, there’s one thing my teenage self would be surprised at – that it took me more than thirty years to finally write a mystery! I did the best I could, my teenage self, I swear.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings have always come easy for me. Since my first novel, what I do is write as much as I can before I get stuck. Usually this happens after about 5000 words; sometimes I get lucky and it happens around 10,000. Once I get to that point, then I sit down and try to see where I’m going. So yeah, beginnings are always easier because I’m not encumbered by anything. Also, there’s just the effervescent energy of starting something shiny and new.

Endings are actually fairly easy, too, as there’s a great degree of velocity when a book you’ve worked on for years is coming to an end. In all the novels I’ve written, I’ve never neared the finish line not knowing what it’ll be; my preparatory personality would never allow it!

What is difficult and has absolutely taken most of my rewrite time is the middle, the very dead middle. It’s at the midway point I feel most unmoored, almost adrift, afraid of what I’ve written so far and of the vast unknown ahead of me. If I could take a pill to avoid this feeling, I’d empty the entire bottle.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

None of my characters are wholly me, but no doubt they are all a piece of me, or if not my actual self then my striving self. Like Siobhan’s doggedness – I have some of that, but I wish I had more. And even in villains like Victoria Wheeler, the ex-fashion model president of the college who is obsessed with beauty, I see my vanity amplified. So much of writing is wish fulfillment, where we authors get the chance to live lives we’ll never lead. But all of those fantasies have roots in reality, and the people, too.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

No question that films have inspired me more than any other medium, since like novels they are fully-realized stories with a beginning, middle, and end, but recently I’ve been inspired by art. There’s a term called ekphrasis, whose meaning is “the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device.” And I’ve done just that with my next novel, which incorporates the works of Dina Brodsky. Flash fiction that I’ve written ekphrasistically--see here, here, and here--are integrated into the book.

Learn more about the book and author at Sung J. Woo's website.

My Book, The Movie: Skin Deep.

--Marshal Zeringue