October 27, 2016
A version of this Q+A appeared on the Aspen Institute’s blog on October 13, 2016
When Vanessa Hua left Aspen following a five-day writing workshop in 2014, we knew she was a writer to watch. Less than a year later, she won the Willow Books Grand Prize in Literature contest, which led to the recent publication of her debut story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities.
As one of eight Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellows, Hua attended the 2014 Summer Words conference where she met with literary agents and editors and worked on her fiction with Andre Dubus III, the acclaimed author of House of Sand and Fog, The Garden of Last Days and Townie. During the workshop, she focused on a chapter from her novel, A River of Stars, which tells the story of a Chinese factory clerk who comes to America to deliver her baby, only to find herself on the run with her child. That novel is now forthcoming from Ballantine, an imprint of Random House.
Deceit and Other Possibilities, which Hua wrote over a 10-year period, also focuses on Chinese-Americans, giving voice to immigrant families as they navigate a new country and culture. An award-winning journalist and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Hua has been writing about Asia and the diaspora for nearly two decades.
Days after her story collection hit bookstores, we spoke to Vanessa about her journey to becoming a writer, navigating the publishing industry, and the best advice she has received through the process.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
For as long as I can remember. I recently found an old spiral notebook of stories. At the top of each page, I printed in block letters my name on one side, and the title of the story on the other, just like I’d seen in books. I got in trouble for staying up past my bedtime to read. My literary heroes were Anne Shirley, of Anne of Green Gables, Jo March of Little Women, and Laura Ingalls of the Little House series – who were all aspiring writers, too, and wrote their own fates.
What was the process behind getting your debut story collection published?
After graduating from college and focusing on my journalism career, I started writing fiction again: Taking community workshops, joining writing groups, and submitting to literary journals – getting rejected and rejected until finally starting to get published. On occasion, I was approached by literary agents but invariably, they wanted to know if I was working on a novel. I went to grad school to work on a novel while still writing stories. About five years ago, I realized I’d reached the minimum page count for story collection contests, and decided to start submitting my work. Each time the book was rejected, I revised, added, subtracted and rearranged. In 2015, I won the Willow Books Grand Prize in Literature contest.
How have you dealt with rejection as a writer?
As both a freelance journalist and fiction writer, I’ve been rejected so many times that it stings less each time — though in truth, getting that politely worded form letter will always hurt a little. If I’m accepted, I rejoice. If I’m not, I resolve to revise but also understand that while my piece might not have piqued the interest of that editor, it might work for another. Your chances may be slim, but if you don’t apply, then you have no chance at all.
What has surprised you most about the publishing process?
At first I felt timid and awkward about publicizing my book, but I’ve found that if I reach out to the reviewers and others in the literary world respectfully, explaining why my book might be of particular interest to them, they just might respond. I expect nothing and am grateful to those who have helped me out – sharing my book on social media, considering my book for review, inviting me to speak to their class or book club. Again and again, I’ve been touched by the kindness and generosity of the literary community.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
My mentor in grad school, Susan Straight, told us to “hook each other up.” To trade work, to share opportunities, to support each other, to go to each other’s readings—in short, to foster literary community. Writing is a solitary act, and I cherish the times when I can commiserate and celebrate with fellow writers.
Best piece of editing advice?
If you’re feeling stuck, take some time away and return with fresh eyes. Read other books and study their dialogue, their structure, and everything you can mine that resonates with your work. Find trusted readers, but not too many because that can lead to conflicting advice. And remember—no one cares as much as you do. Sounds depressing, but to me, it’s empowering to realize how much of your work is on you. You must do whatever you can to birth your best work, and later on, to publicize it.
You are promoting a story collection, preparing to publish two novels, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, and raising twins. How do you balance it all?
I struggle with it every day. Often I am distracted, thinking about a scene, a paragraph, a sentence, or a word while the twins race around the park, teetering on the edge of the play structure. A moment later, I feel guilty for failing to focus on the fleeting thoughts, torn between the children I gave birth to, and those sprung from my imagination.
My mother, a scientist, doesn’t seem to have lasting regrets about pursuing her research. Maybe because she sees her three children have excelled and endured, curious and free-spirited and determined like her. Maybe, like me, she came to realize without devotion to her calling, she would never be whole—not the kind of mother she wanted to be.
On a practical level, I rely on to-do lists to keep myself organized and break down goals into manageable component parts. One afternoon I’ll work on expanding sensory detail, another I’ll work on heightening conflict. I also try to multitask where possible. If I’m commuting or going for a run, I’ll listen to my manuscript via pdf-to-voice app, so I can immerse myself in that world.
What are you currently reading?
Jeff Chang’s We Gon Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation
Dawn MacKeen’s The 100-Year Walk
This post was written by Caroline Tory