by Lisa Peet
When Jack Livings took the 2015 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for his debut short story collection The Dog, the judges stated:
Livings’s precise, measured sentences draw on an intensity of knowledge which makes a glass factory in Beijing as familiar as any American office, a feat which speaks of long experience and careful research, but also, and more importantly, of a deep curiosity about the vagaries and vanities of human nature, the brutish demands of collective endeavor and the austerity of freedom, and the strange occasions for compassion in societies where corruption and betrayal are the norm. The Dog reminds the reader that fiction need not be autobiographical in order to be honest; it is an investigation, an act of empathy and imagination which brings the world to life.”
The Dog was also named a Best Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement, and Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times Book Review called it one of her ten favorite books of 2014. Livings’s stories have appeared in A Public Space, The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, Tin House, The New Delta Review, Guernica, Best American Short Stories, and have been awarded two Pushcart Prizes.
Bloom: What is it about China that struck you—and stayed with you—enough to write a series of stories about it?
JL: I had just turned twenty when I got to Beijing in 1994. I didn’t speak the language very well, couldn’t read a street sign, and didn’t understand the culture. It shocked my system in the best possible way. It was an interesting time to be there because economic reforms had started to take hold, but the country wasn’t booming yet. Here and there were blue glass skyscrapers going up right next to one-room huts where a family would cook its meals on an open fire just outside the door. The McDonald’s in Beijing was still considered exotic, a place to take a date. At night we’d go to clubs that were playing music you’d hear on the radio in the U.S., and there would be a group of Thai kids over here who had Ferraris in the garage back in Bangkok, and over here would be some American Marines from the embassy, and over here were a bunch of Chinese rockers with long hair and ripped up jeans. My suitemate back at the college was the head of the Communist Youth League on campus. Lots of interesting people around.
Bloom: You were there when you were in college, so these stories obviously had a long percolation period. How soon after you left the country did you start writing about it? Do you feel like the process/work itself has changed the longer you’ve been away?
JL: I started the first story about seven years after I got back. The process of writing the stories sped up the more I wrote simply because, early on, I was doing lots of research that helped me build the fictional world. Once I had a mental roadmap, I relaxed a bit and trusted my instincts instead of running to a reference book every five minutes.
Bloom: Was there any temptation to go further back in time in the China stories, explore what you could bring to a story of pre-People’s Republic era (or what the hell, dynastic) China?
JL: Not really, but only because I don’t have a deep knowledge base when it comes to the habits of feudal or dynastic Chinese. To get started, I need an instinctive sense of what a character might do in a certain situation, and that comes from serious study, of which I haven’t done much on those eras. What great times to write about, though—the Warring States period, all the courtly intrigue! Maybe someday. I was writing about a China that was familiar to me—it’s a construction, of course, the world of this book, but I have strong sense memories from my time in Beijing, and those were the guideposts for these stories.
Bloom: There’s a general feeling of ominousness and menace throughout, even when the stories are also very funny. Did you feel that when you were there, or is it a reaction that’s come out through the writing process afterward? Do you feel that tension is particular to China, or to any place where one walks in as a total foreigner? Or… to any place, period?
JL: I didn’t personally feel a sense of menace when I was in China, but I saw Chinese in situations that were unpleasant, to say the least, and when I sit down to work, the stories that interest me are those in which people’s lives hang in the balance. I don’t mean someone has to be dangling from a balcony by his toes, but the emotional stakes need to be serious. To be honest, I want to reward the reader for his or her time. I want the reader to feel propelled through the story, and I want her to feel that her expectations of what’s going to happen have been confounded. Stories can be instruments that compel us to reflect on our own lives. I don’t know if my stories succeed in that sense, but that’s what I’m trying for.
Bloom: Have the book or any of the stories been translated or published in China?
JL: They haven’t been published in Chinese, and only this month have books gone on sale in Singapore and Hong Kong (in English). I don’t know that they could be published in mainland China because the subject matter in some of the stories doesn’t cast a kind light on the government. I’ve met and heard from Americans who’ve lived in China, and a few mainland Chinese who somehow got copies of the American edition, and they’ve been positive about the book, which is gratifying.
Bloom: What other place could you imagine writing extensively about?
JL: I could probably say some things about the South. I grew up in South Carolina and for a long time have been grappling with how to deal with that place’s history, which is my history and my family’s history. I want to write about it, but I want to be up to the task. I think I need to be a better writer, and one with more time to devote to the story, so I’m waiting.
Bloom: As a fellow journo/editor who also writes my own stuff, I’m curious about your take on the wall between the two kinds of writing. Is there some permeability, and if so, in which direction?
JL: I’ve worked with journalists for more than a decade now—though never as a reporter—and early on I learned a tremendous amount about compression and clarity from them. I also learned an important lesson about the dangers of compression. There’s a process of shaving away details to make a news story short enough to fit the space it’s been assigned, and with every detail that’s cut, a little bit of nuance is lost. I worked at a magazine that went out of business in part because it became dependent on this type of miasmic story that had been wrung dry of nuance or real insight, and that focused my attention on the role of details in fiction. Nothing good comes from generalizations. Sometimes I think that good writing is nothing more than the right details in the right places.
Bloom: And here’s a possibly unanswerable question: Do you feel that the relationship between the two kinds of work has changed now that you’ve received so much validation for The Dog and it’s not just something you do “on the side” (I realize you’ve had many stories published in reputable literary journals over the years, but is there something different to having a book that’s been reviewed positively in major outlets, that’s won a major prize?)
JL: That’s a good question, but I have to answer it with an inversion: I’ve always felt that my day job is what I do on the side to support my fiction habit. I like my day job, and the people I work with have been supportive of the book. The validation has mostly taken the form of a feeling that I haven’t been wasting my time all these years working on a little book of stories. I do wish I had more time to write, but then I think, just get out of bed earlier. There’s your time.
Bloom: Did you bring any of your own editorial experience to “Mountain of Swords, Sea of Fire”?
JL: Absolutely. That magazine where I once worked didn’t go out of business all at once—there were rounds of layoffs first, and I watched some venerable reporters and editors get shown the door because they were experienced, which meant they were expensive. At the same time, I was happy to see some of them go. Journalists tend to be pretty ambitious, and sometimes that ambition can evolve into a particularly nasty strain of egotism and self-righteousness. In some ways, “Mountain of Swords…” was how I sorted through my mixed feelings about those days at the end of the magazine’s life, as well as my own self-righteousness.
Bloom: Did you envision The Dog as a series of stories set in China as you were putting the collection together, or were there other stories set elsewhere that you eventually took out?
JL: In its first incarnation, the book was half Chinese stories, half American stories, which I put together because I thought there should be some familiar landscapes to help readers along—I also couldn’t imagine anyone accepting an American writing fiction about China. I gave it to my agent and she said, “You’ve got to be kidding. No one’s going to want this mongrel collection. Go write more Chinese stories!” I argued with her about it, but acquiesced, of course. The thing was, I had plenty of Chinese stories I’d wanted to write, so off I went, secretly happy that I would get to do the book I’d convinced myself no one would want.
Bloom: And the usual suspects: What work influenced you/informed your writing? What have you loved?
JL: I love James Salter, and Tobias Wolff’s work has been a powerful force. Then there are individual books—Experience by Martin Amis is one that floored me when I first read it about ten years ago. The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. Rabbit, Run. I see a pattern, which is men writing about men, which makes sense to me. I didn’t see my father much when I was a kid, and my entire life I’ve been trying to figure out how to be a man.
Bloom: What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel set in New York. I lived here until I was four and am doing some time-travelling back to the late ’70s.
Bloom: What are you reading?
JL: At the moment I’m rereading Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It’s deeply enjoyable research for the novel. I looked at Infinite Jest the other day, just to get my own work kickstarted, and the next thing I knew I was 15 pages in, so I might reread that one next. It’s a wonderful book. But maybe Anne Enright’s The Green Road first.
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s feature piece on Jack Livings.