An interview with Yiyun Li, whose new novel is being called a masterpiece

The acclaimed author, whose new book will be released Tuesday, is this year’s Distinguished Visiting Writer

When Yiyun Li moved to the United States from her native China in the late 1990s, she hoped to pursue a career in immunology. However, she eventually switched paths, turning to writing short stories and novels in her adopted English language. She has since published two story collections, three novels (including her newest one), a children’s book and a memoir, while becoming one of contemporary fiction’s most admired writers — known for her spare, precise storytelling, mastery of subtle tension, and intimate understanding of her characters’ inner lives

Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li

Li’s new novel, “Where Reasons End,” will be published Feb. 5 and has received lavish early praise. In the novel, a woman’s teenage son commits suicide. The woman is a writer and attempts to consider her grief on the page in an imagined conversation with her son, who is as witty, sharp and serious in his replies in death as he was in life.

Andrew Sean Greer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Less,” said Li’s new novel is “the most intelligent, insightful, heart-wrenching book of our time. I will be pressing this into everybody’s hands, saying: ‘Read this, read this now.’”

Elizabeth McCracken, author of “Thunderstruck & Other Stories,” said, “‘Where Reasons End’ is about the saddest thing in the world, and yet the experience of reading it is mysterious and expansive, as though the limits of all things — language, love and life — are further than we ever imagined.”

Li, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University, is VCU’s 2019 Distinguished Visiting Writer. She is on campus teaching a workshop for students in the university’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program, part of the Department of English in the College of Humanities and SciencesShe also gave a public reading Jan. 30 at the James Branch Cabell Library. 

Li’s visit to VCU is in some ways a long time coming. She said VCU was the first American university she can recall ever knowing. Her father came from a poor village in China, she said, and she remembers from her childhood that it was big news when a young man from the village was admitted to VCU.

In a phone interview this week, Li spoke about her career as a writer and her newest work.

You came to the United States to pursue a career as a scientist. How did you find your way to writing?
I was a scientist training to get a Ph.D. in immunology, and I think I just wanted to write as sort of a hobby. Then I fell in love with the English language. I found it easier to write in English than in my native language. It took me a few years to give up science. At one point I thought I could see my life as a scientist but I could not see my life as a writer. That made me want to try it. It was about not knowing.

You've talked about learning to express your feelings in English in a way that you never could in Chinese. Was that part of the initial appeal?
When you grew up in a culture, the history of that culture is a part of you and that language’s history is a part of you, too. And I came into English clean without any history with the language. To use a bad analogy, I started to build my own house in English instead of living in the one I inherited.

You clearly demonstrated great skill as a writer from the start. You were accepted into the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and had a short story published in The New Yorker while you were still a graduate student.
I think I was fortunate that when I first got into writing, I was not thinking about those things. I was reading and writing without thinking about being published by The New Yorker or publishing a book. I was young and I was fearless. I just wanted to try something that was very difficult. I don't know if I have talent — maybe I have talent — but I also think it may just be that I have found a way to be myself in English, and to be a writer in the English language, and that to me is what’s important.

How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer?
I would say that part of my evolution or development is that with each book I have written I have found a new book or a new set of writers to emulate. Each book is different from my previous book, so I don't get bored and I don't get repetitive.

Some writers complain about the writing process. The famous phrase is “I don’t like writing. I like having written.” Does the process itself appeal to you?
Yes, I’m the opposite of those writers. I actually know a lot of writers who would prefer their books were already written so they could be on the other side of it, and that aspect is not appealing to me. It’s not something I look forward to. Being in the middle of a book, in the middle of the revision, that's where joy comes from for me. 

What about the process brings you joy?
Because you have this time where you have the freedom to have a conversation. If you're working on a novel, you have this freedom to interact with a set of characters, but once the book is published, it's all public and the book goes out and every single reader has his or her own interpretation. That's the second part of a book’s life that I don't care to know. (Laughs.) I think my entire joy of writing comes from interacting with a book while the book is still in my hands.

You said that with each novel you are at least partly inspired by other writers. I wanted to ask about William Trevor, in particular, because I know that he was an important writer for you at the outset of your career. How has his work inspired you?
I learned writing by reading William Trevor. I always say if there was no William Trevor there would be no me as a writer. With him, I wouldn’t say that this book or that book is emulating him. I think his entire body of work is there just for me to think about how I can write my own body of work, though nobody can write a body of work like he did. I think a lot about his relationship with his books and with his characters. I became friends with him and we talked a little about one's relationship with characters and the public, and he maintained a very low-profile public life. He went out to see the world as William Trevor who was writing and not as William Trevor who wrote books. 

Can you talk about how your life as a reader affects your life as a writer?
I feel lucky. My biggest hobby from early on in my life was reading and I turned that hobby into part of my profession. I have a reason to read all day, every day. I don’t get tired of it. Someone said to me once, “Is writing a lonely career — isn’t it a lonely thing to do?” And I said I think reading is maybe lonelier than writing. When you're reading a book, you’re having a conversation with another mind, but that mind doesn't talk back to you. You have to train yourself to understand that the truth is you're not lonely, but you do have to be in a solitary state to have a conversation with these books. It's like listening to classical music. You cannot just chat with the next person and say, this is how I feel. You can feel everything, but you cannot really say it. That's my relationship with reading.

In your experience, do aspiring writers read enough? Writing teachers often cite it as a shortcoming of many writers in training.
I certainly agree that maybe some younger writers and aspiring writers are not reading or they're only reading very narrowly — like maybe a few writers, other young writers, or maybe they only read Fitzgerald because they want to be the next Fitzgerald. That is a narrow diet, and you can’t really become a chef without tasting everything. When I teach, I expose my students to all kinds of writing and try to challenge them as readers because I think that’s very important.

Your writing often has this understated but incredibly powerful sense of a strong pressure building beneath the surface. It's remarkable the amount of tension that you're able to build into seemingly ordinary moments. I know you've talked about the concept of “life with the lid on” in fiction and I wondered if you could explain how that relates to your writing?
“Life with the lid on” I actually I borrowed from Elizabeth Bowen. That’s very Anglo-Irish, you know, they always live life with the lid on. There are two kinds of dramas in life — really there are probably many more than two — but roughly speaking there are two kinds. There are dramas like car chases, bombs going off, earthquakes, these extreme events that do happen but they don't happen all day every day. Then there is another kind of drama that is a husband and wife sitting there not talking with each other even though they have a lot to say to each other. That’s the kind of tension — the kind of drama — that doesn't get too externalized. That interior drama is the drama that I like to explore. Sometimes big events happen in life and I certainly have written about big events, but it's that everyday life and everyday people that are most appealing to me.

Speaking of those big events, your new novel takes place in the aftermath of a big event  a teenage boy’s suicide. What drove you to take on this topic?
I would say certainly that yes, this is probably one of the biggest events that could happen to anyone, but a parent especially. Before this book, whether I was writing fiction or nonfiction, I always wrote to ask questions for myself. Sometimes these were questions that other people also had asked in their work, but I asked them again because I didn't feel that I was satisfied by other people's answers, or I decided I needed to write to get my own answers. But with this book, this newest book, I don't think it's the questions themselves that drove me to write. I think I wrote this book to see if there are questions that have never been asked and if I could ask those questions. The novel is written as a dialogue between a mother and her dead son, and they're pushing each other to see if they can get closer to that question that has never been asked or that question that people don't usually ask in everyday life. There are a lot of things that we don't talk about and questions we don’t ask, but in the aftermath of this kind of tragedy I wanted to see, “Do we have the space to ask those questions?”

In light of that challenge and the nature of the topic, was your approach to writing any different for this novel?
I mean, certainly this is a book very close to my life and to my life events, but for that reason when I was writing it, I was aware that there were many ways for this book to go wrong. For instance, if I made it over-sentimental, that could be understood, that could be accepted and people would say, you know, this is sad. People would have reactions to that kind of narrative, but that's not what I wanted. I remember thinking if I wanted the book to be written the way I wanted it to be, I’d have to be both fierce and fearless. Fierce meaning I could not be … I said sentimental and that's probably one way of not being fierce enough, and also just being too soft. There were many ways this book could go wrong. And fearless because I think there are topics you don't want to explore with a suicide but you cannot avoid them in a book like this. For me, I feel that that's where fearlessness comes in. 

Did that make the writing more challenging for you?
No, it actually did not make the writing difficult. This novel was a challenge I set for myself and it was probably the highest standard I’ve set for myself before, so I had to meet that standard. That doesn't make the writing difficult, but it did make me write with precision. I always want to be precise. Precision is one thing that I always value in writing, but it was particularly important for this story.

How important is it to you to challenge yourself and your readers with each story?
It’s always important. I think challenging myself is the first step. I said I don't want to be repetitive. I don't want to repeat a story. I don't want to repeat a sentence. I think only when I challenge myself enough then can I think about readers. I know some of my books are also challenging for readers. I just talked with the students here yesterday about how writers reach for their readers, but the readers also have to do their work, too. They have to reach, too, and I didn’t want to pave the road for the readers with this new book. I think each book has its own “right” readers. I suppose my books when they go out, they are looking for readers who will challenge themselves.

Your new novel has gotten lots of attention, including raves from some of your peers that indicate they see this as a major work. What has the response meant to you?
It’s funny because when I was writing this book I thought, “Oh, this book is going to be read by my two best friends and that’s it.” So it has been a relief. It reminds me that the book’s public life is separate from my relationship with the book.

It has to be rewarding, too.
It is rewarding but I want to make a distinction between the book and me. I think it's rewarding for the book. I wouldn’t put myself in there.