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"Be patient. Keep working. Be persistent.": An Interview with Esmé Weijun Wang

by Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Our annual summer nonfiction contest is currently open to all types of creative nonfiction essays up to 5,000 words. The entry fee is $20 and includes a copy of the Spring 2018 issue of Prairie Schooner, in which the winning essay will appear. Our guest judge, Esme Weijun Wang, will name a winner and finalist. The winner will receive $250 and publication in our Spring 2018 issue. Below is an interview with Wang that touches on the art of writing, both fiction and nonfiction, living with chronic illness, and more.

SFM: The Border of Paradise is your debut novel, and your second book is the forthcoming essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias. How did you arrive at each of these projects? Do your writing processes and practices differ depending on genre?

EW: The Border of Paradise happened in a fairly mundane way: I needed to whip up a thesis project for my MFA in Fiction, and beginning a novel was the most obvious way to go about meeting the requirement. Prior to starting The Border of Paradise, however, I’d finished at least one full novel draft that ended up in the trash. And the project that became Border went through all sorts of dramatic changes before it turned into its final incarnation.

Arriving at the essay collection was a much stranger process. I’d taken a single nonfiction class in graduate school, but never saw myself as much of an essayist. It wasn’t until my first published essay, “Perdition Days,” came out in the Toast (RIP) and saw a fairly remarkable response that I began to wonder whether essays could be a form to explore as I tried to find a home for Border. Eventually I had enough essays to think about a possible collection, which led me to submitting a book-in-progress to the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize.

SFM: Tell us more about The Collected Schizophrenias. What was it like to win the 2016 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize? What has the writing process been like since then? What writing joys and struggles have you faced with this project?

EW: Winning the 2016 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize was one of the most incredible experiences of my life to date. I found out I’d won only two months after my first novel came out, which meant that I quickly had a second book to think about—Steve Woodward, my Graywolf editor, called to tell me I’d won, and I was so shocked that I just repeated, “What? What?” for what seemed like forever.

Prior to 2016, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize had required a full manuscript. By the time I submitted to the prize, the requirements had changed; Graywolf wanted a work-in-progress of at least a hundred pages, and the winner would be working with a Graywolf editor to finish the book. I found out I won in June 2016, and my contract for The Collected Schizophrenias stipulated that I'd submit the final manuscript in August 2017. Steve and I have been sending one another notes and documents ever since; I write this in early July, with approximately two more rounds of edits left before the book is finished.

The biggest struggle in writing The Collected Schizophrenias has been something that isn't fully relevant to the book—it's been trying to write a book that I can be proud of while living with disabling chronic illness. I was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease in 2015 after having been mysteriously ill for three years, and Lyme has taken so much from me, including the ability to sit at a laptop for hours at a time. Because the disease has impacted my brain, my cognition is also affected. I've had to go about writing in a very different way because of the limitations of my body.

SFM: In addition to your writing, you also cultivate supportive online spaces for other writers with “Encouragement Notes” and “Resources for Ambitious People Living with Limitations,” among other things. Why did you start this work and what do you hope it will accomplish? How does this work speak to other kinds of literary activism and advocacy?

EW: Yes—that's the work I do with my site, The Unexpected Shape (http://www.theunexpectedshape.com), which was borne from my own needs as an ambitious person living with limitations (chronic physical and mental illness, in my case). My deep hope is that it helps others in similar situations. In terms of other kinds of literary activism: I try to be a good literary citizen, which is something I am constantly learning more about, and The Unexpected Shape, which an unusual form of advocacy, is a part of that.

SFM: You’ve been very open about the process of getting The Border of Paradise published. What advice do you have for writers working towards first (or second or third) books? What tips do you have for writers facing the long road to publication?

EW: Be patient. Keep working. Be persistent. There was a time when I thought I'd never get published. As you mentioned, the process of getting Border published was horrendous (it was rejected 41 times, and my agent had given up on it when I finally submitted it myself to Unnamed Press). If not for my stubbornness and bizarre faith in my own writing, I would've ditched it all.

SFM: Who are the nonfiction writers you love? What voices should we be listening to? What books should we get our hands on?

EW: I love this question. I also find questions like this paralyzing, because I know I'll forget someone. Andrew Solomon, although there are always things he says in his books with which I vigorously disagree; Eula Biss; Dani Shapiro, whose recent book Hourglass is a treasure; Yiyun Li; Porochista Khakpour; Mark Nepo. Jen Percy's Demon Camp is so good—it kills me that it's not more known. Many of those writers are also brilliant fiction writers. James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Joan Didion feel like obvious mentions, but there you are. There are up-and-coming writers who don't have books out yet, but whom I admire greatly; writers with gorgeous TinyLetters include Brandon Taylor and Helena Fitzgerald.

SFM: Along those lines, what nonfiction submissions grab your attention? How do you approach editing? What principles guide your practice?

I'm a sucker for good prose, but good thinking is just as essential. This is also how I approach my own work: write beautifully, write intelligently, and write like your heart is on fire. I want to feel like all three of those things are happening when I read nonfiction.

SFM: And finally, in addition to The Collected Schizophrenias, what other projects do you have on the horizon? What other work can we look forward to from you?

EW: I expect that my next book will be a novel, which I've already begun to sketch out. I look forward to working on fiction again. The Unexpected Shape is growing and changing; I hope more people find it and make use of it. So: I'm working. Keep an eye out for more.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011. Her mental health memoir is forthcoming with The Ohio State University Press, and she is the author of the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (both Finishing Line Press). Her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Los Angeles Review, The Normal School, Passages North, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She is Assistant Professor of English at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts.

Esmé Weijun Wang is a novelist and essayist. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, was called a Best Book of 2016 by NPR and one of the 25 Best Novels of 2016 by Electric Literature. She was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017, and is the recipient of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for her forthcoming essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias. Born in the Midwest to Taiwanese parents, she lives in San Francisco, and can be found at esmewang.com and on Twitter @esmewang.