“I’m Looking Forward to Getting Weirder as I Get Older”: A Conversation With Leland Cheuk


Earlier this year, I read with Leland Cheuk at BookCourt shortly after we’d published a story of his at Vol.1 Brooklyn. Over the course of the year, I ended up reading his two books: The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, a dark comedy about a man’s complex relationship with his morally dubious, politically successful father; and Letters From Dinosaurs, a collection of fiction ranging from corporate satire to descriptions of life in a harrowing near future. In late October, Cheuk and I sat down at Pete’s Candy Store to discuss his work and his future literary plans. A few weeks after our conversation, Cheuk announced the creation of a new press, 7.13 Books, with plans to release their first titles in 2017.

You’ve had a novel and a short story collection come out within a fairly short period of time. Were the stories written after the novel? During it? A blend of the two?

I’ve been writing novels since age 20, so almost 20 years. I’ve been writing short stories intensely only in the last five or six years–which makes me feel like a short story writer imposter. I didn’t start with the short story form.

I remember hearing Victor LaValle announce that he was teaching a class at Columbia on writing novels, and him pointing out that some writers just lean towards the longer form.

It took a lot of practice. When I first started writing short stories, they’d all be 25 or 30 pages long. Then you realize there’s no home for those stories; there are 10 places you can send those stories, and one of them’s The New Yorker. If you really want to see your work in print, you have to compress even more. I tried to keep my stories under 20, under 15; some, even shorter.

Were there any techniques that you had to use to get yourself writing shorter stories?

I tried to make my characters even more bottled-up! (laughs) That always helps. That was the first trick that I tried. In a novel, you get the luxury of going into internal monologues, you get lots of dialogue, lots of characters. In short stories, if you keep your characters just doing actions, you’re able to shorten things up a bit more.

When I started writing short stories, I studied all the ones that everyone else studies–Raymond Carver, Hemingway. All those guys are very tight; there’s not a lot of internal stuff going on. Maybe it’s a male thing.

I’m a big fan of delusion as well, of characters being self-deluded. While I was writing this collection, I was definitely reading a lot of Jim Shepard. His characters have a little bit of that, where they’re cut off from their full reality or full awareness. I think that helps as well; it’s another thing that you don’t have to deal with, or you’re skirting around.

In your novel, there’s a very particular, very contentious father-son relationship, where the father is incredibly successful and the son has issues. The first story in your collection features the reverse of that dynamic. Was that a conscious choice, to explore the flip side of that particular scenario?

I don’t know if it was conscious. It was kind of sub-conscious. The character in that story, writing a letter to his son, is based on somebody that I know. He’s older than I am, he’s from a different generation of Chinese-Americans. He views race differently than I do, and that’s what I noticed and started to play off of in that story. I hope I did it okay.

In your novel, Sulliver’s father emerges as the villain of the piece in many ways, but you have flashbacks to him as a younger man, where he seems much more sympathetic.

That’s actually one of my favorite chapters in the novel, when Saul Pong is back in the 70s and he’s riding a motorcycle with long hair. It’s such an absurd image. It was the total cliché film image of him listening to “Bad to the Bone” or something. If I was to do the movie, that would be how I’d direct it.

Did you plan to have flashbacks to Sulliver’s ancestors throughout the novel from the outset?

No. My agent at the time suggested that: “Can you add these chapters about these other characters to flesh it out?” At first, I said, “Sure!” And then after the phone call, I said, “Wait, what do I do?” Then I got in there; it took about two months to interject those chapters, and it was a lot of fun. It exercised a lot of different writing muscles–I’d never written any historical fiction. To have to do research into history was exhilarating. I’m glad I put those into the book; I feel like it would be missing if those chapters were not in there. So kudos to my agent at the time for suggesting that.

There were a few points when reading your novel when I thought of Paul Beatty’s work–these very particular stories that could only be set in California.

Or in the West. With lots of Asians. The town in Sulliver Pong would, technically, be totally impossible. It would be in the Southwest! There are not a lot of Chinese people there. But I decided to stretch geography and reality a little bit to get them there. There were no railroads running through that part of the country. But I needed the border; I needed to get to Mexico.

There’s a thing I’m working on now where I created a fictional town in Northwestern New Jersey, because I wanted a particular set of buildings and a particular music scene, and there wasn’t anywhere else I could put that.

I think you and I are the same, in that we both love fictional towns.

I have a bunch of badly-drawn maps in notebooks showing where everything is in relation to the river.

That’s what my brother did! He’s the only one who can draw in the family.

How did you get connected with Thought Catalog for the collection?

Just over the web. I was checking out small presses, doing a big push, and never expecting to never get that book published. I kept telling myself, “Oh, that would be okay. It’s just a collection; they’ve been published in journals. I don’t need this to be a book…” But it would be nice. I sent it to a bunch of places, and Thought Catalog got back to me first, basically.

Some of the stories in the collection, including the story we published at Vol.1 Brooklyn, feature people working high-level corporate jobs at a time when people working at highly-paid corporate jobs are not necessarily the most beloved in society. How did you arrive on a style that’s both critical and empathic towards them?

I worked in that environment, and there was a time when I made decent money and was in middle management, and all that stuff. I’m Asian and I grew up in Silicon Valley, so there were great high schools, a great education. All of my Asian friends from high school, the guys who were in my wedding, every single one of them became a doctor. I’m the only one who didn’t become a doctor. And my best friend is the CFO of a startup in LA.

We’re all these people who have lived the immigrant American dream. We’ve done our parents proud. But you get there and look around, and you realize there’s a lot of mediocrity, you know? The story I published in Vol.1, there’s this guy who’s made tons of money and is seen as super-successful, but he’s this totally mediocre person at this totally mediocre company. Which is what a lot of Silicon Valley is like. You hear about the Googles and the Apples, but there are a gazillion companies littered from when Silicon Valley was what it was in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, that are trudging along and are not relevant, so to speak. I feel like I know those people very well. I was one of those people. While I was starting this story collection, I was in that environment. When I was really writing this story collection, I was at American Express, which is a seriously backsliding leviathan of a corporation.

There’s also one story in the collection that’s more in the science fiction/speculative fiction realm. Is that something you’re thinking of doing more of?

I want to do more weird stuff. That’s probably why I gravitate towards your book, because I want to do more of the uncanny stuff. In this collection, there are stories that are more naturalistic, with a classic short story structure. You’ve read Pong–I think that’s representative of the kind of aesthetic I want, a hybrid aesthetic that I want to get to.

I’m working on some short stories that are all either surreal or science fiction, but with real characters. That speculative story is probably my favorite in the collection, but it never found a home.

I’m looking forward to getting weirder as I get older. I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction that has a little bit of something extra to it. There are plenty of Asian-American writers who are doing naturalistic immigrant stories. They’re doing it perfectly well. I want to do something different. I think that’s what makes my writing somewhat off. And not lucrative, at all. (laughs)

When we read at BookCourt earlier this year, you read an essay that Salon had published. Is that more of an isolated thing, or have you been writing more nonfiction as well?

I’m trying to decide. I think in the next few months, I’ll probably do more essays. I was shopping a book proposal for a cancer and writing memoir. I don’t know where that’s going to go. I think I’m going to try to place more essays–some cancer essays, and some writing essays–and see how it goes. But I don’t know how it’s going to work out. I don’t know how good I am at nonfiction; I feel like a nonfiction imposter now. I feel like you have to do it for a long time to feel like you’re comfortable.

For the last year or so, I’ve been writing more essays, but it’s still not a form I feel entirely comfortable with. Part of that, I think, is that I write a lot of criticism, and it’s easy to slip into that voice when writing other forms of nonfiction.

There are so many great nonfiction writers now, doing all kinds of experimental stuff. I’m in awe of all of them; I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t get into that game. But at the same time, I’ve read that the new “getting paid for a novel” is “getting paid for your essays related to your novel.” Apparently I need to write some essays to get paid. (laughs)

In the interview that you did with The Rumpus a couple of months ago, you mentioned the range of Martin Amis’s writing. Is he an author that you look to as far as the breadth of his work?

I’d like to even be broader than him, if I get a chance to write all these books. I would like to be broader, genre-wise. I’m a little more interested in the hybrid speculative than he would probably be. And I don’t know if I’m going to be writing a fascism novel any time soon–though you never know, with the election. (This interview was conducted prior to the election –ed.) There might be a fascism novel coming.

I like playing with forms in general. Martin Amis does what he does very well. He’s one of my idols on the sentence level and the humor level. Murakami’s also one of my favorites. When I’m walking down the street, I’ll get this awesome idea that I wish I could do. “Wouldn’t it be great to do that novel, but in my style”–that kind of thing. I don’t know if we’ll get to that. We’ll see.

I can remember reading an interview with Paul Auster–I think it was around when Sunset Park was released–where he talked about that book being the last one where he’d had the idea going in, which surprised me.

I rarely read past the fifth or sixth book by a writer. I feel like, as a writer, you have a certain amount to say, and then you start repeating yourself. Take Don DeLillo, for instance. He’s great on the line; he’s an incredible writer. But when do you start repeating yourself? Philip Roth starts repeating himself. My modest proposal for the publishing industry would be to have a novel limit. Hit five, and then you have to write in another genre. That kind of thing.

You’ve talked a lot about politics on social media, and several of the stories in your collection deal with political questions–do you plan to address that more in the future?

I’m working on a novel now that’s big, that traces three decades within a very large corporation. The last half time-jumps into the future, in a world where, essentially, they’re the pre-eminent corporation in the land. Their original CEO is now the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, even though he doesn’t have any legal experience. Big, absurd ideas. I hope it’s my Gravity’s Rainbow–that will hopefully not stay on the shelf forever. Those books are very much not in fashion these days, sadly.

There aren’t a lot of writers of our generation doing that right now–you and Joshua Cohen both come to mind. But, I mean, I like what both of you are doing, so that seems positive.

I was telling a friend about this book–it’s in the early stage, and it’s in a Pynchon-esque vein. I was telling him that the world already has Pynchon, and has decided that it only needs one Pynchon; it doesn’t need a Chinese Pynchon! (laughs)

Though Pynchon’s own recent work seems to be moving away from the surreal, somewhat–Bleeding Edge and Inherent Vice have recognizable plots, for one thing. And there are the straight-up adventure fiction aspects of Against the Day

I really liked Inherent Vice. And the movie! I feel like I’m in the minority [there].

I liked it, too. I may have even liked the movie more than the book–I’m in a similar spot regarding the adaptation of No Country For Old Men.

No Country For Old Men wasn’t that well-received as a book, if I remember correctly.

When I saw it, I saw it in Times Square, and a group of high school students snuck in halfway through. As the end credits rolled, one of them threw an empty soda bottle at the screen and yelled, “Explain!” I liked the movie, but I still thought that was pretty hilarious.

That is a central image of our times. You have to start your novel with that image. “EXPLAIN!” It’s like our Network.

So you’re working on this novel about a corporation, some essays, and some weird fiction?

Basically. And I’m hopeful that this other novel will sell–a shorter novel, set in the world of stand-up comedy.

That’s right–you have a background in that, right?

I did it for a few years. It was a lot of fun. I did it for research. It was very straightforward: “I’m going to do this for research.” And then I wasn’t that bad at it. If I’d kept at it, I’d be struggling, just like everybody else. But the people I started out with, doing open mics and stuff, now they’re starting to be on Conan, and be at The Cellar. Which is awesome to see–if you put in the work, you can get there. But the comedy community’s also a lot less supportive than the literary community. The literary community is awesome! You feel like you’re welcomed right away, whereas the comedy community is a little more self-absorbed, a little more “every man for themselves.”

It’s very competitive in New York–but I had a lot of fun performing. Especially writing jokes. I enjoyed having to be funny within two sentences. You’re up there, and you have ten seconds–maybe less–to get a laugh. And then another laugh, and then another. It prepared me for being on Twitter.

This conversation has been edited.

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