Gesturing Toward Unreality

Chia-Chia Lin and D. Wystan Owen

In Conversation

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In Chia-Chia Lin’s debut novel, The Unpassing, we meet a Taiwanese immigrant family of six struggling to make ends meet on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. The father, hardworking but beaten down, is employed as a plumber and repairman, while the mother, a loving, strong-willed matriarch, holds the house together. When ten-year-old Gavin contracts meningitis at school, he falls into a deep, nearly fatal coma. He wakes up a week later to learn that his little sister Ruby was infected, too. She did not survive. Routine takes over for the grieving family; distance grows between the parents as they deal with their loss separately. But things spiral when the father is sued for not properly installing a septic tank, which results in grave harm to a little boy. In the ensuing chaos, what really happened to Ruby finally emerges. Lin joined Other People’s Love Affairs author D. Wystan Owen in conversation at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers.

D. Wystan Owen: I love the beginning section of The Unpassing. I’m under the impression that you wrote it relatively early in the process of the book. Is that true?

Chia-Chia Lin: Yes, that was one of the first chapters that I wrote without really knowing the context for it yet. I don’t know why I was drawn to that beached whale, but the image of it, stuck on land and waiting for the tide, was important to me. A few months after I wrote the scene, this gray whale washed up at Pacifica. I grabbed my husband and said, We have to go see this whale! I needed to see it in person, for the experience of it, but also to check whether there was anything patently false in what I’d written.

We packed food. I made musubis, which is spam, basically, on top of rice. By the time we’d reached the beach, the whale had already been cut up. They were trying to determine the cause of death. It was all rather gruesome; there was exposed flesh, and there was a smell. We had brought all this food that we didn’t eat, and in the end I learned nothing about what it’s like to stand next to a whale. I ended up leaving that chapter alone. And it stayed almost exactly the same throughout multiple revisions of the novel.

It seems like there was something about the sound of this novel, or the feel of it, that was with you right from the outset.

Owen: It’s bold to start with a white whale. That scene is great because it’s so atmospheric. It seems like there was something about the sound of this novel, or the feel of it, that was with you right from the outset. What was it about that scene that was an entry point for you into writing the novel?

Lin: This particular scene takes place in Anchorage. There are these mudflats along Cook Inlet, which recur throughout the book as a setting. It’s a fascinating, alien landscape; it kind of looks like a beach, but it’s not, because instead of sand, you have silt that’s been carried down the mountains by glaciers. It’s wetter and more dangerous. So, if you ever go to Anchorage and you’re looking at the mudflats, you might have locals come up to you and tell you not to walk on them, because bad things happen. People get stuck there, and die of hypothermia. Multiple people in Anchorage told me that a woman had gotten stuck in the mudflats and after she died, a helicopter came to pull her out—this is in my book, too—but they weren’t able to. It’s become a kind of lore.

I think there’s something about the threat of the landscape—and the way that danger is folded into its immense beauty—that drew me to it.

Owen: How is it that you came to be the person who wrote this beautiful book? Were you a big reader when you were a kid? At what point did you begin thinking about telling stories?

Lin: Yes, I read a lot when I was little. Books brought comfort to me when I was young, and they continue to do so. What else is there in our lives that you can say that about? For more than three decades, there’s been this world that has only made my life richer. I think that’s the way I came to writing. I took my first writing class a long time ago, in college. I’ve been writing for twenty years, which sounds terrible out loud. I should say that I wasn’t always writing well during those years. But perhaps it’s the sheer length of time that I spent trying to write and engage with the world of books that really signaled to me that it was something that I wanted to do, more than any one event in my life, or any one book.

Owen: I know that you, at various times of your life, have studied other disciplines in a pretty serious way. Science, music, the law. Were you attempting to do anything to avoid your fate of becoming a writer? Or were you secretly thinking in the back of your mind all that time that maybe you’d write a book? Were you working on a book at the time?

Lin: I was working on things and I knew that they weren’t good, which is why I kept looking for something else. I cycled through several jobs. You mentioned law—I kept leaving whole careers behind because nothing was really satisfying to me. I kept writing, secretly, and sometimes not so secretly. The writing has kind of carried me from place to place. When I was a lawyer in New York City, it was a rough job, completely draining. I had no time to write, and that was a big reason I left. I found a job on Craigslist that I thought was going to be a 9-5 job, but it started consuming my life, too. That was when I decided to get an MFA, which would give me at least two years to write.

Owen: One of the things that I really love about this book is that, while it’s a piece of realist fiction—everything that happens we understand to really be happening—I think it gestures in various ways to unreality. The landscape itself, for instance—it’s so extreme that it feels almost magical. The woods above the house that this family lives in are described almost as if they were haunted. Could you talk about that in regards to the house and the landscape of Alaska itself? I’m interested in the settings that you created which feel real but also even-more-than-real.

Lin: I think there are two reasons for that feeling, maybe. One is that the narrator is a child. I like books that portray childhood, because I think children see the world differently than adults, but just as interestingly, and I wanted to access that vision, that slight shift away from what’s familiar to us now.

So in the book, there’s a child-narrator, to whom people never really explain things directly. Gavin’s parents never address his sister’s death in a direct way, leaving space for all of this warped interpretation. When the children begin hearing sounds in the attic, for example, what’s happened is that flying squirrels have nested up there. They’re nocturnal, so they make noises at night, but the children interpret these noises as a kind of haunting. At just one suggestion by the oldest sister, they come to believe that there is another family living above them in the darkness. The youngest child comes to believe that his dead sister is living up there. When you’re a child, reality can be stretched in interesting ways.

Owen: It creates a really moving, dramatic irony in the book. To me the haunted house really resonates with their state of grief. When you’re grieving, the world feels weird because it’s not weirder, right? You think, How can life not be more different now? How can we not now be haunted?

Will you talk about the house as a space? It’s such a wild household in so many ways. The quarters that they keep are really close. They don’t have a lot of privacy, the members of this family. In many sections, they’re either choosing to sleep with their beds all pressed together because it’s so cold or because they only have one bed. So even their bodies are pressed against each other. At the same time they’re grieving in this isolated way. How did you go about building that house as a landscape to contain this family?

Alaska is so expansive and so vast, but with that expansiveness can come the feeling of claustrophobia, I think—because you realize just how alone you are.

Lin: I think I knew from the outset that this would be a novel about a family in really close quarters. Alaska is so expansive and so vast, but with that expansiveness can come the feeling of claustrophobia, I think—because you realize just how alone you are. The feeling of claustrophobia is heightened too, maybe, because the family doesn’t leave the house very often, so we get a very intense look at what happens to a family within the confines of this house on the edge of a forest in the middle of Alaska. These many elements—the fact that the family doesn’t have many neighbors, the fact that the house is falling apart, the fact that they rarely leave it—all add up to create a space wherein the members of this family are extremely intimate, and also don’t know each other at all. I’m most interested in that aspect of families, I think—the vast contradiction that these are the people you might know best, but also the people that you might not really know at all.

Owen: Pei-Pei, the older sister, is the one character who begins to pull away and go outside the confines of the house and the family. Did you feel like you needed her to do that for the purposes of filling out her role in the story?

Lin: Any scene where they leave the house is probably a huge relief to the reader. I see that now. At the time of writing, I was very focused on the family, and in fact my editor had to suggest I add more scenes where the characters leave the house, and she’s entirely responsible for one chapter you might be referencing, where we see Pei-Pei out and about in the community. I’m perpetually grateful! Because you can never really see your book as a whole while you’re writing it over the years. It’s hard to step back and see what it is. The book needed breathers. Characters needed to leave the house so that readers could understand the context around the family and where they live. But that wasn’t necessarily on my mind when I was working on the book on my own.

Owen: A similar thing happens whenever someone from outside the family enters the house, which also happens very rarely. These are also very moving moments because we realize how familiar we’ve become with this fraught space as we glimpse it from a slightly different angle.

Lin: I think that perspective is important because, just like with writing a novel, you can’t really see your own house when you’re young and growing up in it. It’s all you know, really. It’s hard to describe what it looks like, since you don’t know which details are unique or shared with other families and homes. There’s a chapter where the father’s business partner, a large white man, comes to the house. He looks really big inside the house, walking around in his boots, practically filling the hallway. In these moments, I hope the reader gets to see the house more clearly.

Owen: Can I ask you about Gavin’s mother? I suspect that for many readers she’ll be the most memorable character in this book. She’s a fierce figure who is by turns menacing and strong, but at other times weak or unable to, or uninterested in, providing things like comfort. She’s unpredictable. I’m interested in how she came about, perhaps as a challenge in building character. Do you remember, as I do, experiencing adults in fickle ways when you were a kid?

Lin: Gavin’s mother is probably the strongest character in the book. She has a lot of personality. Though Gavin is the one narrating the book, if it’s about anyone, it’s probably about his mother. She has an interesting trajectory in the novel. She complains the most, but she also turns out—in this somewhat inhospitable setting—to be the most capable. She forages food, for example. There’s a scene in the book when the family is driving, and the mother makes them pull over on the highway so that she can forage for the wild lilies that grow on the side of the road, and cook them in a soup. I didn’t feel as though I had to build her character, but rather as though her character were pushing the novel forward. I chased her through the scenes of the book.

I always hate it when writers say something like that. The character just came alive all on their own! She just spoke to me! But I do feel it’s a little true of Gavin’s mother. I never felt like I had to deepen or complicate her character. I just had to ask myself what she’d get up to in any situation.

Owen: Another character that I’d like to hear more about is Ruby. Ruby is the youngest daughter in the family, and passes away in the first chapter of the book. I’m interested in Ruby because I love Ruby, and it’s interesting how present she feels in the book after her death. She haunts the book in this incredibly powerful way, but doesn’t appear on the page very much. She’ll appear occasionally in memory, but very rarely. I feel like I have a picture of how she moves, the things she thinks are funny, what her presence is like. It’s all in the negative space that she leaves in the family. Did you have models for that? Maybe other books that work in a similar way? A character who’s not present but who exerts pressure on the book?

Lin: In the first draft that I wrote, actually, she died in the middle of the book—I was working up to her death. She was on the page more; you got to know her, and then she died. Then I decided that’s sort of a cheap thing to do! Because, yes, the reader is going to be sad if a four-year-old child dies in the middle of the book, but that’s not what I wanted. I wasn’t writing just to create that emotion.

So, I cut or rearranged a lot of material, and had her die in the first chapter. The book then became more about what I was actually interested in, which is this family and how they deal with her death, each in their own very specific ways. It was gratifying to see my book take shape in that way. That cutting two or three chapters here and rearranging things there could make it a totally different book—and one that I liked better, whose explorations were more interesting to me.

It was gratifying to see my book take shape in that way. That cutting two or three chapters here and rearranging things there could make it a totally different book—and one that I liked better.

Owen: Thematically the book seems interested in poverty. This family faces, in varying degrees throughout the book, pretty severe poverty and need. This felt different than the ways we usually witness poverty in fiction. Often we get city-based or urban poverty, or else a particular kind of rural poverty. This felt different, partly because the book is set in the far American west, and partly because of its certain oddities and ironies. In the midst of all this need, this family has an absurd abundance of stuff in the house—crates of books and expired vitamins. Is this something that you set out to explore in the book? How did you arrive at its prominence?

Lin: I definitely did not set out to explore poverty. When your book comes out, it’s interesting, and kind of jarring, to hear the ways people describe it. I didn’t think of this family as being really poor necessarily, at least at the outset. They definitely don’t start out well-off but they don’t start out poor, either. They own a house and the father has a job.

Through the events that happen over the course of the book, it’s true, they do eventually become destitute. But what I wanted to explore was not poverty, but the feeling of precariousness. This is a recently immigrated family, and they don’t really have a safety net. This isn’t true for all immigrants, but it’s true of some, that while you may be doing okay for now, if something happens—a child dies, or you’re sued for something, both of which happen in the book—then everything can quickly fall apart, financially as well as emotionally. This family has come to a place where they don’t have any other family members, they don’t have anyone they can rely on, and it just takes this one thing to set off a series of events that has such a large impact on the rest of their lives.

Chia-Chia Lin is a graduate of Harvard College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have appeared in The Paris Review and other journals. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Unpassing is her first novel.

D. Wystan Owen holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction and essays have appeared in A Public Space, The American Scholar, Literary Hub, and The Threepenny Review, where he is Deputy Editor. He is the author of the story collection Other People’s Love Affairs. A citizen dually of the United States and the United Kingdom, he now lives in Northern California.