In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Bill Cheng’s new novel, Southern Cross the Dog is a work of fiction sure to keep reader on their toes by challenging assumptions right from the start. Once upon a time Bill and I were in a book club together, so it so much fun to see him make good on his writerly inspirations to such acclaim. Here is what Bill had to say about reading, writing, and listening obsessively to the blues.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I’m Bill Cheng. I wrote Southern Cross the Dog, a novel about a boy who believes he is jinxed after his brother is lynched and the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 decimates his home and family. I cut my teeth writing adventure stories when I was twelve with two of my best friends in junior high school. We wrote ourselves into this fantastical Tolkien-esque world where we were the heroes and the kids we didn’t like were dragons and evil sorcerers and such. We took turns slipping chapters into this massive binder that we passed between ourselves.
I was twelve. I don’t do that anymore.
By and large, I write about the things that I find interesting and important. For instance, when I was working on Southern Cross the Dog, I was very much into blues music and blues culture. I would listen almost obsessively to people like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Son House, Big Bill Broonzy, Mississippi John Hurt. There were whole landscapes that came out of the music—a way of feeling and being that I thought needed to be explored in a book.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you through the writing process?
I work a 9 to 5 job, so I’ll try to get my writing in however I can. Sometimes I’ll get up at 6 to write. Sometimes I’ll stay up till 2. With a long form project like a novel—something that can take years—there are valleys and troughs in my productivity so it’s inevitable that I’ll get jammed up. So routine is important. It lets you slip more easily into the story. Staying with the work is important. Being adaptive. Powering through problems. Approaching the work from different angles.
Sometime during writing this book, for example, I had a problem understanding one of the main characters, who they were, what they were about. So I looked at a gallery of faces off Google Images, found one that could most resemble my character, and I started sketching. It put me in a state of intense focus, following the lines of the nose, the eyes, the cheeks—it freed something up in me and somehow made the character more solid in my mind.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
I think that’s a question that can only begin to be approached well after the book is done. When I first started the book, I didn’t have a clue as to what would happen or what the “themes” would be. I was just telling myself a story— a little bit more every day. And with each new piece, I felt like another layer was lifting away—that I was understanding more about myself as the book goes on. I’m not sure that even now I have the full picture.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
Sometimes reading another author is the only way to get through your own book! A lot of writers are worried about the poison of influence, and to some extent that’s something to watch out for—but my experience is that every book is in itself a kind of map. If you pay attention to its construction, the book can give insight on how to address the problems in your own writing.
I can’t remember all the books I turned to when I was writing Southern Cross the Dog, but I know I didn’t stick to a particular kind of writer or kind of writing. I think I read some Raymond Chandler, some Shakespeare, some Haruki Murakami, some Don DeLillo, some Peter Carey, some P.G. Wodehouse.
Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?
Never! It’s mortifying!
This is my first novel and I was writing short stories almost exclusively before that. I feel like the best short stories are designed like mouse traps. They’re small, sensitive to pressure, and elegant in function. Novels, by contrast, are clumsy, mysterious—like searching your way through a strange room in the dark. So the short stories I’m trying to write now, I suppose is like stumbling through a dark room and then stepping on a mouse trap?
How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
Too many. I feel like I always need at least two so when the work on one goes bad, there’s another to fall back on. The ones I give up on are those where I can’t get the language right. I’ll read the first few lines and the prose is dead on the page. But with computers and cloud-file sharing nothing really gets tossed forever. They exist half-formed, maybe waiting to spring up as a full story a few years down the line or to have bits of it poached for other projects.
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
Being an author is not as much fun as being a writer.
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
I try not to draw a line between things I research and things I find interesting. For this book, for example, I had about a decade’s worth of blues music bouncing around my brain. Was that research, or was it just something that I loved? It’s important, not just as a literary person, but as a person to cultivate your curiosity. Be surprised and intrigued!
But to answer your question, the answer is yes. I did a lot of research. I did the usual things: read books, watched documentaries, put in hours at the library, listened to old recordings, visited museums, etc. But I like to think that research doesn’t inform the book as much as it informs the writer. It enters into the psyche, conjuring up images and smells and textures so that when it comes time to invoke a particular world, the details are there for the using. It clues the writer into the invisible and primal things the book wants to be about.
Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others? I write anywhere I can. I live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with my wife and we’re always bumping into each other so I try to take my writing out into the world: in coffee shops and restaurants and subways and park benches and libraries and offices and break rooms… really any place where there’s a semi-flat surface and a place to sit.
Raymond Carver wrote about how when he was starting out, he’d write on the back of a napkin while he was waiting to pick his kids up from school. I think that’s the right way to do it.
I understand there’s a comfort and ease to having rituals, having a place where the spirits align just right for you— we need our coffee; we need our mood music; we need to be at just the right level of not hungry but not quite full; our window has to look out at a particular meadow or tree or wall or wino— but writers, we can’t afford to be too precious. Human life is short! The world is tearing itself apart! Get the words on the page!