Literary Hub

Esmé Weijun Wang on Karaoke, Work Ethic, and Returning to Fiction

esme weijun wang collected schizophrenias

Esmé Weijun Wang and I have been friends for a decade: we’re in the same long-running writing group, and she lives a ten-minute walk away. We’ve karaoked, swapped skincare tips and face masks, downed bourbon, complained, despaired, and rejoiced together more times than I can count. In addition, I’ve had the great luck of reading quite a bit of her writing over the years, both in draft and published form.

So, when I started reading The Collected Schizophrenias, her first nonfiction book, I had many reasons to suspect I was going to like it. But I didn’t just like it. I loved it. I was, and am, ecstatic about it. It’s a collection of essays centered on her experiences of mental illness, and it’s wise, bold, extraordinarily nuanced, and inarguably brilliant. I can’t wait for the rest of you to read it.

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R.O. Kwon: You’ve talked about identifying primarily as a fiction writer, and not as an essayist or any other kind of writer, and now, with The Collected Schizophrenias about to publish, I wonder if you still feel this way? If so, what is it about fiction that you’re particularly drawn to; if not, what changed?

Esmé Weijun Wang: I do still feel this way, actually! I’ve commented that I don’t expect to write another nonfiction book ever again—I know better than to say “never,” but I can’t picture it at this juncture. I’d never intended to write nonfiction to begin with. This essay collection almost never happened; once I finished with the final edits, and I knew that it was off to the printers, I was so relieved to think that I could finally start working on fiction in earnest again.

And I love reading nonfiction—I should make that clear. It’s a genre that I very much admire. I just feel very much like a novelist, or a short story writer, more than anything else. I’m drawn to the mysterious world of creating my own mysterious worlds. I don’t necessarily always want to hew to fact.

ROK: Yes! I sometimes think that, for me, with my own writing, facts can get in the way of truth. You’re also a talented photographer and painter—how do these visual disciplines inform your writing, if at all? 

EWW: Those things are, for me, a fun way to take a break from writing. Writing is exhausting in a particular way, and photography and painting use a different part of my brain. But it’s funny for me to remember a time when my peers, even in college, knew me primarily as a visual artist. 

Some writers had a time when they identified as poets; I had a time when I identified as an artist, and that may be why I’m particularly interested in the physicality of my characters when I write fiction—I can see how they move, and that’s something that I try to render on the page. 

ROK: From what I saw of The Collected Schizophrenias coming together, you started with an essay here, an essay there—at which point did it begin to occur to you that this was going to be a book, or did you always know?

EWW: Once I had enough essays about the same topic that I could imagine it becoming a book—that’s when I thought it could become one. But it truly wouldn’t have come to be if it hadn’t been for the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize; I’d asked my agent at the time again and again if they would be interested in representing an essay collection about schizophrenia, and the answer was always no, so I tried my hand at the Prize. If Graywolf hadn’t taken it, that would’ve been it; the book would’ve died on the vine. So I’m very, very glad that they did. 

I just feel very much like a novelist, or a short story writer, more than anything else.

ROK: Can we talk about ambition? I’ve been thinking lately about ambition for the work itself—for the words forming on the page—versus ambition related to what happens with the work once it’s out in the world, and how these are distinct if not necessarily entirely unrelated drives. You once told me that a mutual friend of ours called you one of the most ambitious people he knows. How do you think about being ambitious with your writing? 

EWW: Oh my gosh, I’d totally forgotten about that friend and what they’d said. That’s true that they’d said that. My relationship with ambition is complicated, and you’re right that it’s so different to have ambition for the work itself, versus ambition for what happens with the work once it’s out in the world. I don’t love this about myself, but a lot of my ambition is driven by a form of recognition; it’s also true, though, that I want the work itself to be impeccable, and for it to be up to my own standards. And I’ve also been questioning, lately, whether ambition is even a “good” characteristic to begin with, or if it’s just another outcome of a capitalist society, such as having a strong work ethic. But for now, it’s still a part of me. It still drives me, and I like that it’s a part of me. 

ROK: Do you ever find that these different kinds of ambition are in competition with each other, or even harmful to each other? (Sometimes I think yes, absolutely, and I unrealistically wish I could be a monk or stylite, isolated somewhere, not caring what anyone thinks; sometimes, I think maybe not.)

EWW: Yes, completely—I do think that they’re often harmful to each other. If I let myself think too much about the outside world and the recognition that I want to receive, it gets in the way of the work in a truly nasty way, and I think it’s only gotten worse since I started publishing. Now that some people know who I am, and my work has actually been read, I know what to hope for. So I try my hardest not to think about any of that when I’m actually writing, which is fortunately something that I’m still able to do; I can still get lost in the writing.

My therapist once described healing to me as a spiral, rather than a linear process.

ROK: About work ethic: I think so often of the piece you first published in Elle in 2016, “I’m Chronically Ill and Afraid of Being Lazy.” It’s moving and powerful and just so good. In your conclusion, you say, “Though it might be better to realize my worth outside of productivity, I continue to live in a society that praises the art of getting things done over all else—including wellness and rest—and these are values I can’t seem to shake. Perhaps the solution is to view what I am doing through a different lens.” I love that. I wonder if, since then, that different lens has become more available to you?

EWW: That essay is, I think, one of the most popular things I’ve ever written, which is humbling to me. I do think I’m a bit more able to be gentle with myself, and yet this is a daily struggle. My therapist once described healing to me as a spiral, rather than a linear process—you go around and around, hitting the same points, but going ever outward. I think that’s what I’m doing with finding a different lens for my own worth. 

ROK: Is there any particular reader you keep in mind as you write?

EWW: No. I use the same people as readers, including you—because of our writing group—but I don’t keep anyone in mind when I write. I try to interest myself when I write, if anyone.

ROK: Our wonderful writing group came together while we were in college, though I didn’t meet you all or join the group until after college. How did you start getting involved with the group?

EWW: I met Karan Mahajan first, right after I transferred to Stanford. We had coffee, and then he invited me to a party he and Nick Casey, who’s a brilliant journalist, were throwing. I met Tony Tulathimutte at that party, and then I was introduced to Jenny Zhang, Anna North, Vauhini Vara, and Alice Sola Kim, among others. So those were some of the first writing group members I met—and, as you know, all of those people are still writing, and all of them have done amazing things with their writing. I’m incredibly fortunate that I met so many writers, and that they welcomed me into their group—that group has since become bicoastal, with you and me as some of the West Coasters.

ROK: What are you working on now?

EWW: I’m working on a novel that seemingly wants to continue in the immigrant Gothic tradition of my first novel, but that is far more contemporary, and perhaps far more of a psychological thriller. There’s a murder and a lodge and political and interpersonal trauma. We’ll see how it goes. 

ROK: What do you turn to if and when you feel stuck with your work, whether it’s with your new novel or with other writing? 

EWW: To go back to something we were talking about earlier, I often turn to visual art: photography, drawing, or painting are all things that are satisfying to me. I’ve also recently rediscovered bedroom dancing, which I know you’re also a fan of. 

ROK: You’re a fantastic karaoker—what singing tips might you have for people newer to karaoke?

EWW: Enthusiasm makes up for everything else. Go out there and sing your heart out. 

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