interview issue 32 Miami Book Fair International

Alexandra Chang on Tomb Sweeping, Autofiction, and the Dirty Word of ‘Ambition’

by Travis Cohen

Alexandra Chang is the author of Days of Distraction (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2020) and was recently selected as a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree, chosen for the impact her debut and future works promise to have on the literary landscape. Her forthcoming collection of short stories, Tomb Sweeping, is set to be released by Ecco/HarperCollins in August 2023. Gulf Stream’s fiction editor, Travis Cohen, had a chance to sit down with her. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

Alexandra Chang by Alana Davis Photography

Travis Cohen: So, before we get into any of these questions, the first thing I wanted to say – which I didn’t get a chance to at the National Book Foundation event at Books & Books – is congratulations on being named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honorees, that’s amazing. 

Alexandra Chang: Yeah, it was very surprising. As I said that night, for Crystal [Hana Kim] and I, both of our books are older, so it’s always surprising to know that books have longer lives beyond the debut year. And it’s gratifying to know that, too. 

TC: One thing I was curious about was if you could throw your mind back to before you graduated from your MFA or right around when you graduated, before Days of Distraction was published, and you could tell that earlier Alexandra that X amount of years later you’re going to be a 5 Under 35 honoree, you’re going to have a debut novel that ends up on better than half a dozen lists of the best books of the year, what would you say to that Alexandra? And what do you think that Alexandra would say to you? 

AC: I would want my past self to talk to me now, give me a reality check, because when I was in that space, just writing the book and doing my thing in the MFA program, I didn’t feel like I cared as much about what would happen to the book. I wanted to finish it and I wanted to write it. I knew that I wanted to publish it and it would be nice if good things happened, but at that time, I remember thinking, ‘If anyone is willing to read this, if anyone is willing to publish it, I’m going to be so happy and so grateful.’ And then once you get to that stage where you have an agent and they’re sending it to publishers, probably not surprisingly, those dreams get a little bit bigger, and sometimes those expectations get bigger. Once you step in through one door, you notice that there are all these other doors that you can step through. 

So, I would prefer to have my past self talk to my current self, to remind me and say, ‘Hey, this is amazing. You’ve done this thing that you wanted to do and that you spent years doing.’ It can be easy to forget that past self, who just wanted to write a book and have people read it. I am incredibly grateful for the 5 Under 35 and was very surprised because again, my novel came out at the beginning of the pandemic, which was rough. I thought I was going to have a launch event and I thought that I was going to have all these experiences as an author that I didn’t have, like getting to meet readers. But I think that past self, the person who was just working on the book by herself in the MFA program would be so happy to hear that all of this has happened. 

That’s a very long-winded way of saying, I don’t even know that my current self would need to say anything to my past self. I need that past self to remind me that, hey, you’ve done this and that is an achievement in itself. 

TC: I don’t think that most people have a really good understanding of the professional side of publishing and what that industry looks like. There aren’t necessarily a lot of people who have that experience of querying and querying and querying and then waiting for your agent to find a place to shop it to and then…and then…and then. I think every writer who takes writing seriously has to reconcile with the reality that this is a punishing thing to love. 

AC: *laughs* Yeah, the sad parts of writing.

TC: And I think having that connection to what you have accomplished as something to take joy in and give yourself credit for is really important. I think that’s a great message from your former self. 

I want to ask about the things you enjoy in your writing today. I’ve read past interviews where you’ve said that the fragmented way of writing in Days of Distraction was what came naturally and was perhaps easier to wrap your head around than the idea of a book length, continuous piece of writing. I wonder if that’s still the case or if that’s changed at all, and how that plays into your experience and your enjoyment of writing a short story collection. 

AC: I do think it’s changed a little. I’m not writing in the short bursts I was with Days of Distraction. It might have been the circumstances of my life, what I was reading at the time, being in school, and having little breaks between classes to write whatever I could in that moment. But now, I don’t gravitate to writing in fragments quite as much as I did. 

What’s interesting about most story collections is that they usually span a long time in the writer’s life. So, the oldest stories in that collection are from before I had started the novel. The very first story I wrote in this book is “Tomb Sweeping”, the title story. That I wrote in 2014 when I was working at Cornell, writing about research for the communications office. I took an undergrad workshop with J. Robert Lennon and that piece came from a prompt he gave us to click around Google Street View until we found a location we wanted to set a story in. The newest story, “Unknown by Unknown”, I finished this year, and modelled after a classic Chinese, Japanese, and Korean story structure in four acts called Kishōtenketsu. There’s background and introductory information in the first section and the second is developing a routine. In the third, some sort of complication or twist happens, and the fourth, it’s not resolution, but a conclusion, where characters have to live with that complication, the event that has altered the characters’ lives or altered the story’s trajectory. 

I really like playing with form or having a structure to build a story around, including the kind of haphazard fragments in Days of Distraction. For the stories, what’s fun is that each one is its own entitity and I can do something new and play around. Say I want to do a backwards story, or I want to do a structure that follows this four-act narrative, or I want to do a nested story where there are basically three narrators who are going deeper and deeper into the internal story. I get to have fun with form.

TC: You do some things in this book, as well as in Days of Distraction, that seem formally difficult in terms of point of view. First person present tense, for instance, fragmented or otherwise, seems hard to do for a long period of time. And in this collection, you have things like third person present tense – backwards. You do some things that are really, really tricky and I’m curious what about those tricky modes of point of view is attractive to you? 

AC: Well, to be very honest, with Days of Distraction, first person present was not hard for me. But it’s interesting to talk about ease with writers because some things might come easily for some and not for others. We had a visiting professor, Fiona Maazel who said she didn’t like writing first person for a whole book. And I thought, ‘Really?’ Because it’s really hard for me to move around in perspective. Very minor teaser, but the next novel that I’m working on, I’m hoping is going to have upwards of ten perspectives – and that’s hard for me. I don’t think that I am someone who naturally gravitates towards a challenge as a writer. But recently  I’ve been trying to challenge myself to do things that are difficult for me. The backwards story “Li Fan” was directly inspired by a Stephen Dixon story, “Wife in Reverse” and I don’t know that it came naturally either, but it was a fun challenge to write. 

I have to have a reason for why I’m making these choices when it comes to form and perspective. And there are times when there’s a personal reason. I want to capture some kind of emotional truth, but also something that’s bothering me in my life. Putting it down in story form helps me see it from a different angle. “Klara” from Tomb Sweeping is a good example of that. That loss of friendship, that was something that was nagging at me, so being able to write a story about the heartbreak of losing a friend or growing distant with someone who you used to know intimately helped shape that voice. Then there’s the for fun element where I want to see if I can write a backwards story. But again, I have to find the right story for that perspective or structure, beyond it being for fun. It has to relate to the character, it has to relate to the story itself. With “Other People”, for instance, there’s a first person narrator that kind of transitions into third person, but it’s essentially an omniscient first person the whole time who’s relaying these stories. That’s because that story is very much about how we relate to other people, our obsessions with other people’s stories, and how those stories affect our perspectives ourselves.

TC: Last question about the collection as a whole: even though it’s focus isn’t as narrow as Days of Distraction, where it was one character’s experience, there’s definitely a lot that carries over thematically in what you’re exploring, whether it’s weaving in history in “Tomb Sweeping” or “To Get Rich is Glorious” or the growing pains in “Klara”. But there are also stories like “Unknown by Unknown”, which felt genuinely surprising to me and was cool to see you do something that felt more out of your wheelhouse. And I’m wondering, when you look over the collection now that it’s there, now that they’re a family of stories and live there, what are some of the through lines that tie them together for you.  

AC: All of these characters are dealing with grief in some form, they’re struggling with loss, whether it’s a loss of a friendship, loss of a sense of self, or sense of identity – which is probably what Days of Distraction was really about, losing that sense of self and trying to rediscover a new sense of self – or losing something more concrete, like one’s virginity or a job. 

Another the thing that binds story collections in general is that one person wrote them all and you can see what they were concerned with from multiple angles across a period of time. There are writers like Lucia Berlin, who’ll write almost the same story over and over, and they’re all amazing. I love her. And then there are writers where each story is totally different. I think I’m somewhere in between. 

I was thinking earlier today that a lot of the characters [in Tomb Sweeping] are women who are struggling with work in some way and how that plays into who they are as a person, their ambition in the world and the constraints that are placed on them by external forces. I find that other people who have read the collection in full, like my editor, will say things about the book that I don’t even see. Because sometimes that outside perspective notices things. It’s like how you notice things about people you’re close to that you don’t notice about yourself. 

TC: You said something that almost exactly mirrored one of my questions when you were talking about what you would say to your former self or have your former self say to you in relation to your expectations growing, your ambitions growing and you see that happen with the main character in “To Get Rich is Glorious”. It’s in her family, in her society, in her marriage. That ambition is pushed back against consistently and while she’s not looking for growth and ambition, not looking to broaden her horizons intentionally, it just kind of happens. And that sort of accidental self-discovery seems thematically connected to a lot of the writing you do and – 

AC: See! It’s like what I said. I like when other people talk about my work. I’m like, ‘Oh, interesting, I hadn’t thought about this connection.’ 

TC: I’m going to braid that with “Klara” and that story feeling almost viscerally autobiographical. That question of work as a theme and work life balance came up there, as it has in other works of yours. All of this is sort of building to a question about your relationship with the idea of autofiction. It’s something that’s come up in a couple interviews you did around the release of Days of Distraction and it kind of read like you were still figuring out your answer to that question back then. 

AC: Yeah. 

TC: And then during the National Book Foundation panel at Books & Books, it came up again and you gave what was maybe my new favorite response to the question. And I wanted to bring it up because it feels profound and important and something that writers ought to hear. This was tucked in the middle of your response: “The truth is separate from fact.” That’s not just more of a defined concrete response than you had in interviews a couple of years ago, it’s a wonderful distillation of how to think about autofiction and writing about yourself. And I’m curious how you would say, if at all, your relationship with autofiction has changed or grown since 2020. And I’m sorry, that’s a really long-winded question. 

AC: I like long winded questions because it gives me a lot more to think about. My relationship to autofiction has changed many times throughout the years. When I was writing Days of Distraction, autofiction was big, like [Rachel] Cusk, Jenny Offill, [Karl Ove] Knausgaard, everyone was talking about autofiction in relation to these authors. And people were maybe even kind of claiming that [Elena] Ferrante was of autofiction, even though we don’t know her story and her life. But when I was writing, I wasn’t necessarily thinking a lot about my novel being autofiction. It goes back to the question of what I gravitate towards. I gravitate towards writing about lived experience, I’m just one of those writers. I don’t know why. Maybe, to borrow from one of my own stories, I just like to pick at the scabs of my wounds, figuring out what happened and putting form to it. But when I was writing Days of Distraction, I don’t think I really had a troubled relationship with autofiction, it was just what I wanted to write it. Then when the book came out, everyone’s asking ‘How do you think about autofiction? Do you think your book is Autofiction?’ 

A lot of the times when I’m making decisions, it really is on the sentence level, I’m living in the sentences and living in the words or in that particular fragment or that particular scene or that particular line. And a lot of the fiction comes in through those moments where I’m just trying to figure out what the next word or the next sentence is going to be. So, once the book did come out, I probably did have a weirder relationship with autofiction because I just didn’t have good answers at the time and wasn’t sure where I fit in in that world. 

As a woman of color, writing about a woman of color, of course, people are going to just think, this is definitely you, even if it is fiction. I’ve had readers ask, ‘Why didn’t you just write this as a memoir? ‘ When it’s not even close to 50% fact. Why would I have ever written it as a memoir? But because I know there is that expectation and even that invitation to read the novel as autobiography, I kind of wanted to play with that expectation. So there are moments in Days of Distraction where it’s like, is this real or is this not? That’s just the question. There’s no answer, really. It does feel weird, though, in a world where facts can be made up now. I don’t want to completely disregard fact as not having value. Facts obviously do have value everywhere else. But in fiction, that’s not how I get at truth. 

TC: I think that’s an important distinction to make as a writer and really important for young writers to hear. It can be hard to make that distinction between truth, which is what we’re digging for, and fact, which is not necessarily what we’re getting at. It can be, but it’s not necessarily the driving force.

Which brings up a related question about a theory I have about fiction writers who start out in journalism. You have the desire to be a writer and to some degree you think, ‘Well, I should make money as a writer.’ And you try to think of a way to do that and realize this gig has writing in the job description. I think that’s part of it for creative writers who at some point in their journey, work as journalists. But I also think there’s an element where we’re trying to use that title of “writer/reporter” as an official thing next to our name to prove that we are what we aspire to be. I’m curious if that resonates at all for you. 

AC: I got into journalism when I was out of undergrad and I think it was a combination of both for me. I knew that I needed to make a living and I wanted to do it writing. Journalism seemed like a natural path career wise because I did not think it was possible to – and it’s still barely possible to make a living as a fiction writer *laughs* – but I did not think it was at all possible. And the other thing that you’re talking about, that title of saying, ‘I’m a journalist, I’m a writer’, that is something that I experienced a lot of when I was at Wired because it just felt good to say, ‘I’m a reporter at Wired. I am validated by these institutions. The world has to take me seriously as a real writer – I have the credentials to prove it.’ 

The other third element, though, that I try to capture in “Klara” and in Days of Distraction is that there’s also that drive to contribute to the world and feel like you are affecting some kind of change, that it matters you are writing and you’re covering these topics. What my characters struggle with is that they don’t think that what they’re writing and reporting on matters anymore. They don’t feel that connection anymore. So they’re sometimes only in it because they need that validation or they need to have that identity in order to feel secure about who they are as a person. 

And I have definitely experienced that, especially when I was in journalism, especially when I was younger. Even getting into an MFA program, I thought, ‘Okay, now someone has agreed to say that I’m a real fiction writer.’ That has changed for me. It probably does sound like a privileged thing to say and I don’t want to sound super cliché in that way but it feels like once you move through all these phases of being a writer and these phases of your life, it really is the writing itself that makes you a writer. 

TC: I don’t think that’s cliche at all and for me, selfishly, it’s very heartening to hear that. I have felt the goal posts move over and over and over again. I know not just all writers, but artists experience that. It’s part of that drive. It’s part of what makes us feel tortured and keep working and chasing our own tail and making things. But to hear that to some extent you get past the goalposts and the work is its own source of meaning, it’s not cliche at all. It’s good to hear.

AC: And I’m sure I will go backwards later. I’ve noticed that with writers who have been around for a long time. It’s like you reach a level where you say, ‘Okay, it’s the work that matters.’ Then you might backtrack a little and think, ‘Oh, I want to achieve these things, I wish I had more readers, I wish I had more attention.’ So, I want to just hedge that I’m definitely not a fully transformed person who has transcended all of their desires for external validation. I just sometimes say these things to also remind myself there are moments where I do feel certain, like the work is what matters and it’s meaningful. And then there are other times when I think, ‘Oh, I wish I had this or that for the story collection or for Days of Distraction or maybe my next book will be this or that.’. 

It’s a constant cycle. Also, I want to be very honest about how those forms of external validation can be genuinely motivating. For me, if I hadn’t gotten into an MFA program, I probably wouldn’t have written a book. If I hadn’t gotten an agent, maybe I wouldn’t have finished Days of Distraction as quickly. So, reaching those goalposts and trying to get some kind of recognition is motivating, too. It’s just that you can’t only have that. I feel like it has to be a ratio around 80% you and 20% that other stuff. 

TC: I think that is worth mentioning. And it’s important to point out because you can’t hang your entire soul and sense of worth on it – 

AC: But it really does give you a boost. 

TC: Yes and having something to drive you is important.

AC: It relates back to the question of ambition. I was probably in the middle of the age range in my MFA program. I was five years out of undergrad and had been working as a journalist. Most journalists are ambitious people and they’re not scared to talk about the fact that they’re not just doing it for the art of the writing. But when I was in the MFA program, sometimes ambition or being ambitious was like a dirty word. It was treated like you didn’t take your craft seriously enough. I remember a professor calling me ambitious and thinking, ‘Oh, I think that they’re insulting me a little by saying that.’ I think that sometimes MFA programs can be treated like you’re going to a monastery and you’re going to practice your art only and meditate on that and not think about the outside world. And that’s just not the reality of being a writer if you want to have readers. I was very ambitious when I was in the MFA program, but that has changed for me, too. To answer your question of growth, I’m not saying that I’m not ambitious anymore, but I don’t think about those goalposts as much. 

TC: If I try to imagine myself where you are based on what we’ve talked about, I don’t think it would be a question of less ambition so much as a question of a less desperate feeling of ambition. 

AC: Yeah! *laughs* Maybe the desperation is it, yes. I was similarly desperate. I thought, ‘once I get there, everything’s going to be great.’ No, it’s not actually. Unfortunately, it’s not all great. People say it doesn’t get easier. It probably does get easier in terms of the practicalities, like maybe it’s slightly easier to publish a second book, slightly easier to publish a third book, but it doesn’t get that much easier emotionally.

TC: I wouldn’t imagine. But it’s an interesting thing that you bring up about ambition, sort of being seen as a dirty word and the importance of not making your entire life based on hitting those mile markers while also recognizing that they are worth chasing sometimes. 

AC: It is just such a balancing act. I was asking a couple people if their MFA programs talked about publishing in the outside world because in ours, the professors didn’t really want to talk about it that much until we were in our last year of the program. And their philosophy was, this is your chance to not worry about that and to finish work. I do think that sometimes they’re trying to protect students who haven’t finished a project and taken their writing very seriously. But another thing that I noticed, for me personally in my program, is that my professors’ experiences were completely different than our experiences as emerging writers. They published and got their agents decades ago when it was a completely different publishing world. The people who I ended up talking to and learning the most from were my peers. 

 TC: I have two more questions. There’s something that comes up in Days of Distraction and in a couple of stories in Tomb Sweeping and in your work at Wired: writing instruments. 

AC: *laughs* Oh, yeah. 

TC: And I’m curious what you like to write with. 

AC: I like pretty simple pencils the most. I think my favorite one is this Camel HB one. There used to be a shop called CW Pencils in New York, and I had friends who bought me tons of different pencils from there so I could test a bunch of them out. So, I would say sometimes pencil and paper, specifically a Mnemosyne notebook. And of course, the computer. But I always try to edit with pencils. 

TC: Last question is one I’m going to steal from Marci [Calabretta Cancio-Bello] because she’s the best. What questions do you wish you got asked in this sort of thing? Not necessarily to say what should I have asked, but rather, what do you wish you got more chances talk about? 

AC: One thing that I’ve been surprised I don’t get asked about more often with Days of Distraction – maybe because it is so much about race and interracial relationships – are questions about class and how that shapes how a person inhabits the world. That’s something that comes up in Tomb Sweeping, too, but maybe not directly enough to be asked about it. Sometimes I wish that I could talk more about that. Even thinking about ambition being described as a dirty word—sometimes that ambition comes from a place of lack, a lack of resources or a lack of comfort in one’s early life that drives that kind of ambition. That’s true in “To Get Rich is Glorious,” but when it comes to Days of Distraction, it’s not something that I’ve talked about much. 

TC: I have a feeling it will come up, not just because of that story but because I think that’s a theme that definitely comes across in this collection, and especially in “To Get Rich is Glorious”. That story does such a great job of weaving questions of class and movement through class and one’s own internal relationship with class and pride and ambition through this woman’s life. Race also reads as a facet of a number of these stories, much like it did in Days of Distraction, but I think class and ambition feel more amped up in the collection, maybe because there were more perspectives and stories to explore. 

AC: There’s so much stuff going on in a novel, you can’t really talk about everything. 

TC: I think it will raise a lot of questions that people didn’t necessarily have with Days of Distraction and I’m excited to see you talk about it more. Thanks so much for taking the time.

AC: Thank you!

Alexandra Chang is the author of Days of Distraction, which was named a best book of the year by NPR, TIME, and The Washington Post, among others. She is a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honoree. Alexandra currently lives in Ventura County with her husband, and their dog and cat.

Travis Cohen is a Cuban American writer born and raised in Miami. His work has appeared in Litbreak Magazine, In Parentheses Magazine, and Litro. He earned a BA in English from Vanderbilt University and is currently enrolled in Florida International University’s MFA program. He is the fiction editor for Gulf Stream Magazine. Travis can be followed on Instagram and Twitter @travisjcohen.