Leung, who teaches creative writing, stepped away from the present and a world that’s familiar to him to write about a young woman who moves in the 1880s from Kentucky to an unfamiliar world of homesteading and mining in Wyoming.
Take Me Home, his third book, and second novel, came out in October. It’s a story about prejudice, societal expectations and history. Leung will read from it at 4 p.m., Nov. 18, in Chao Auditorium, Ekstrom Library. UofL Today recently talked to him about his writing and about his new book.
UofL Today: Creative people don’t decide what they’re going to do. They, at some point, acknowledge what they are. When did you realize that you are a writer?
Leung: Wow. That’s interesting because there’s a difference between knowing you can write and knowing that you’re a writer. I was that kid in elementary school and beyond where the teacher was always holding my writing up as an example of good writing. The talent I knew that I had, but I think that I understood that I was a writer about midway through my undergraduate career. I was really angry with one of my creative writing professors who was ‘pooh-poohing’ a lot of my work. I, at one point, had this successful piece that went over well with my peers and she again ‘pooh-poohed’ it.
I was so angry. I went back that night and I got her books out and … I was, ‘OK, I’m going to write just like her.’ I was reading her work and I was just pounding out the best I could, replicating the kind of writing that she does. The next class, I came in and didn’t even let her begin class. I just said, ‘Wait a minute. Before we start class, I just want to know. Is this what you want? Is this what you want?!’ I didn’t even give her a moment to respond, I just started reading it. It was like two pages long, and I read it straight through.
I said, ‘Is that what you want?’ She said, ‘Yes,’ and what I understood at that moment was not that she was saying ‘I want you to write like me.’ She was saying that ‘I want you to care and I want you to be angry.’ That’s where writing comes from, from that point of passion. In that moment, I understood, ‘Yeah, I really have that.’ What I had been doing up to that point was entertaining, and for me there was a distinction because I realized I don’t want to be an entertainer.
UofL Today: Let’s talk a little bit about how you write. When you start to write, do you sit down with a story already in your head? Do you know what your characters are going to be? Do you know what’s going to happen to them, or is that something that evolves as you write?
Leung: I think that varies from project to project. For instance, there’s a story in my collection of World Famous Love Acts, — the very first story — called Six ways to jump off a bridge. I was in China with my father and my sister, and we were walking across a very high bridge. I don’t know why I thought, ‘I bet you that in the course of the lifespan of this bridge, people have jumped off of it.’ And as we were walking across it, I thought, ‘I wonder how many ways,’ and ‘There’s probably more than one.’ And then I’m thinking ‘Well, I wonder how many ways that they’ve done that?’ And I’m jotting in my journal and wrote ‘six ways to jump off a bridge?’ to tell myself, ‘Why don’t you come up with six ways,’ not even thinking about a short story. So right there I start off with a title.
The novel Lost Men, I had this story that I’d been working on for just ? ever. It had various titles, but at one point was called Three Rivers of Chinatown and it was set in Los Angeles. I had this idea of this relationship between a father and son. I went down to Chinatown with my little notebook and I wandered around and went to the places I was familiar with from my childhood and took notes and thought how it had changed since I was a little kid and what it was like then. I wrote the story and gave it to a couple of readers of mine — many times. And finally my friend Joe said, ‘Brian. Don’t give me this story again. Part of the problem is that it’s not a short story. It’s a novel.’ So I put that away. Then years passed and I took that same trip that I previously mentioned to China with my father and my sister. My father and my sister are both full Chinese; I’m half. And, not towards any aim of writing anything, but just for myself, I kept a journal the whole time I was in China.
About a year after that trip, it just dawned on me. ‘Oh, this trip is the container for that story I was trying to tell five years ago. Now I see it.’
Then with the current novel, by way of explaining how it changes with the project, I was researching something online and a link came up for the historical event of the massacre of those Chinese coal miners in Wyoming in 1885. Because of my heritage, of course, I was interested in it, and I read what I could online. I sent away for some materials from the American Heritage Center, and they gave me a little dossier about two or three inches thick. I read through that.
I was really interested, and I thought, ‘Maybe someday I’ll write something about that,’ and put it away with different projects in the queue.
Then over the course of a couple of months, I started randomly thinking about that event again. ‘Oh, I really need to write that. That’s not a (short) story, it’s probably a novel.’
UofL Today: You drew from your experiences of having lived in Los Angeles and visited China for parts of your first book. Those landscapes were very familiar to you. There’s no way to be familiar with a landscape from 1885. Talk about the difference.
Leung: Part of what intrigued me about doing this novel was the opportunity to do a few things that would challenge me as a writer. My friends have kind of poked fun of me at times for being happy, cheery, friendly Brian, and then they read my books and they sound a little somber and serious. So I wanted to write a novel that was serious, but that still had a main character that was feisty — at the least — and compelling in that way.
I wanted, too, to interrogate a new space. I guess, finally, the challenge was I wanted to write a book which in some ways could flash back to the, how do I want to say this, the serialized black and white silent films — if you noticed, the chapters are called ‘episodes’ — but still be literary. Maybe even the idea of the dime novel, or something — that western genre — without denying the fact that I am a literary writer.
This project allowed me to pursue all of those ambitions.
UofL Today: You actually went to Wyoming?
Leung: Yeah. I had relatives that lived in Wyoming, and for my 8th grade graduation, my mom bought me a train ticket. I took Amtrak from San Diego to Rock Springs and I stayed there for a month. So it was by coincidence that this novel came up. So I did go back. My friend went with me. He’s a historian. We went into the state archives and then we went into Laramie and went to the American Heritage Center archives, to the university, to the newspaper archives themselves and then to Rock Springs and the county seat there to do some primary research, as well.
Part of that (primary research) was that I just took my tiny rental car when I wasn’t looking at documents and photos and things out into the dirt roads. So much of that is federal land that you have access to. They’re not paved roads, but you can get out there.
UofL Today: You mentioned the feisty character, that’s Addie. How did you develop your characters? Did you pull from actual people in the past that you read about or did you just pull from human characteristics?
Leung: Because the last novel came from the first-person point of view of two male characters, I knew that primarily that I wanted to stretch myself, to do something different. I wanted to work with a strong female character. In my own life, I have three sisters and no brothers. My mom comes from a family in which there are she and four sisters. In some ways, particularly with my aunts, I really thought about the ways that their lives had progressed. Two of my aunts were born on the family farm in Missouri. No hospitals or anything like that. So we come from a really rural background.
The other thing is that I really wanted the reader to enter Wyoming in a fresh way and I needed a character that was going to have a blank slate in terms of being exposed to Chinese, being exposed to that kind of landscape — she comes from Kentucky which is, by comparison, fairly lush. I was thinking of a character that would drop into that space and we could see with some surprise what she discovers there, because everything there is new to her.
And then that also gave me an opportunity to work with a character who — if you speak about her at the beginning — by virtue of being raised the way she was, she’s willing to accept some prejudices. She doesn’t even know what Chinese are, but she hears them and assumes they’re as bad as she’s been told.
That was a really interesting character for me to work with. I wanted to also avoid kind of the trope of this noble character who despite everybody else’s prejudices, she rises above it all. At least she’s coming from a space — and the truth of it is, in that time and place, no matter how ‘progressive’ you were, you were still going to harbor some doubt.
I was trying to explore all those difficulties in the novel.
UofL Today: Is there anything about the book that we haven’t talked about that you would like readers to know?
Leung: I think we kind of covered this before, but I know this is going to sound really light. I think that it’s my sense that there has been a long period for people like me who are academic creative writers — by that I mean I’m an associate professor, I teach creative writing, I study this with the intention of teaching — and so inside of that container, we’ve all for a long time kind of branded ourselves as that word that I used earlier, ‘literary’. That comes with a lot of baggage.
I think that one of the real goals for me in writing this book — and what I hope happens — is that people pick up this book and they actually enjoy reading it. I want them to enjoy reading it. I want them, of course, to appreciate the literary value, but probably for me, at least initially, is that if people have complimentary things to say about it, one of the things that they say is, ‘It was a good read.’ Sometimes I think that we — people with graduate degrees in creative writing — aren’t supposed to desire that. We’re not supposed to want money for our writing and it’s supposed to be, you know, semi-impenetrable, or have some sort of dewy epiphany at the end.