Speaking With Jennifer K. Chung

Jennifer K. Chung graciously agreed to an interview with me to discuss a number of topics related to her writing and beyond. While writing is important to her, I am certain you will be impressed with the range of activities and interests that keep her very busy. Much like her novel, her wit and sense of humour is prevalent throughout. I hope you will find her responses as interesting as I have.

JO: What were some of the main reasons you chose to enter the 3 Day Novel contest?

JKC: I’ve found that I write best under pressure, and I can’t think of anything more high-pressure than writing a novel in a weekend. (Maybe writing a novel on a word processor rigged up to a runaway bus full of puppies and children that will explode if I don’t write at least 1,667 words per hour, in a weekend.) If nothing else, I’d hoped to get a good story out of it — actually, two good stories, one for the experience and one for the novel. Of course, I liked the idea of winning, too, but that wasn’t the main reason I entered.

JO: Can you describe for me, the intensity of writing a novel in 72 hours?

JKC: For me, it felt a lot like college, staying up late to finish problem sets or study for exams. I’m a natural procrastinator, so I have a lot of experience with this feeling… it’s an uncomfortable mix of anxiety and dread, always being aware of the deadline, feeling like you’d already run out of time and slogging through it anyway, hoping you’ll produce something worth submitting. I spent the entire weekend always knowing exactly how many hours were left until the next midnight, and I felt exhilarated and relieved when I finished the story.

JO: Humour is prominent throughout your novel. What are some of the challenges of integrating humour into your work?

JKC: I think it’s easy to fall into cliché, so I try to ask myself: Is this authentic, or am I just repeating something I’ve heard? With my friends, my banter tends towards self-deprecating and ridiculous, so that’s the voice I use in my writing. I’m still working on it, of course.

JO: Had you done a lot of preparation for the 3 Day Novel contest? If so, what had you done?

JKC: Hardly any. I knew I wanted to write about chicken teriyaki because it’s so prominent in Seattle and I thought it could make a quirky story. I also had a title that made me giggle when I thought of it, but when I started the weekend, I didn’t know if I was going to write a nice slice-of-life story about a family that ran a teriyaki restaurant (with a different title and no supernatural elements), or a campy story about the Flying Dutchman running a teriyaki food truck. I’m glad I figured out how to write the latter.

JO: Jennifer, how has your ‘everyday’ career influenced your writing?

JKC: I’m an engineer, raised by engineers in an engineering family. That has really influenced my worldview, and, as with many things, I approach writing like engineering. The first draft is black magic; I start writing, and a story (hopefully) comes out. I’m more systematic about the second, third, fourth draft – I treat the whole of the story as a system and figure out where the system’s broken. As with engineering, I use peer review feedback (critique groups and readers) to identify weaknesses and blind spots. Once I’ve identified problems, I can start problem-solving, fixing inconsistent character motivations, making sure plot points are being set up sufficiently, developing alternate scenes, etc. I described my editing process as “debugging the manuscript” to some creative writing grad students once, and they seemed to like that phrase.

JO: Your bio indicates a very broad range of interests Jennifer. What are some of your favourite activities outside of writing and your career?

JKC: At the moment, my main outside activity is music. I’ve had music for almost my entire life; I started group piano lessons before my fourth birthday and I’ve really enjoyed playing piano as a classical soloist, in small classical ensembles and large orchestras, accompanying vocalists and other instrumentalists, as a rehearsal pianist for musicals, in the pit. I also had the great experience of playing keyboard with an amazing group of musicians in a metal band (Red Queen Theory) for two years. Sadly, the band has been on indefinite hiatus since September, and I’m now trying to find other personal and group music-making opportunities. My current project is to get an old Brahms rhapsody from high school back to performance quality. I visited Italy over the holidays, and seeing all the Renaissance art made me realize that although I’m somewhat competent with musical arts, I’m very weak with visual – and I want to fix that. So, I also made a resolution to try a few visual arts this year, see if I can find something that sticks. My new stained glass class starts next week!

JO: Which authors and what books have most influenced your writing?

JKC: I really enjoy Jane Austen, Roger Zelazny, and Isaac Asimov. My humor is probably influenced by Douglas Adams.

JO: Would you tell us what are you reading at the moment?

JKC: I’ve been reading non-fiction recently. The last two books I read were Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick’s book about North Korea) and Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, and on my nightstand right now, I have a video game book (Extra Lives by Tom Bissell) and a psychologist’s memoir about her own mental illness (An Unquiet Mind by Kay E. Jamison). On the fiction side, I’m also working through NESFA’s awesome six-volume Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny.

JO: Would you care to share some of your writing current projects with us?

JKC: I’m working on a few short stories that I hope will go somewhere, mostly in the speculative fiction genre. I’m also trying to get through the second draft of a young adult novel about robots set in the Pacific Northwest.

JO: It has to be asked. Jennifer, what is the best chicken teriyaki you have ever eaten?

JKC: I’ve been vegetarian for almost 14 years, so it’s been awhile since I’ve actually had chicken teriyaki. However, I have a meat-eating friend who swears by Sapporo Teriyaki in Redmond, WA. I think he goes there at least once a week.

If You Go Into the Woods Today…

My next review will be of Trent University Archivist Jodi Aoki’s Revisiting “Our Forest Home”: The Immigrant Letters of Frances Stewart. These letters span over 75 years and represent the immigrant experience of one of the first ‘pioneer’ women in the Peterborough area. Jodi has also agreed to doing an interview with me. Look for the review and interview in the coming weeks.

Terroryaki! More than Whets the Appetite

Terroryaki!

By Jennifer K. Chung

3-Day Books 2011, 130 pp. $14.95 CDN/USD

Reviewed by: James Onusko

In just 72 hours, Jennifer Chung has written a short book that many aspiring and established authors would be proud to claim. Featuring a playfulness with characters, pirate tales, plot, and a pace that borders on the frenetic, readers will be taken on a roller coaster ride of emotions from wonderment to reflection to exhilaration.

Jennifer is a Taiwanese-American who in addition to writing is a pianist and software engineer. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she now lives in Seattle. Surprisingly, she has some ‘spare’ time in which she plays keyboard in a goth metal band and studies the Japanese martial art of Naginata. Terroryaki! is her debut novel.

The 3-Day Novel Contest has been run every Labour Day weekend since the late 1970s. The 2012 competition will be the thirty-fifth annual event and boasts contestants from around the world. In just 72 hours, writers are asked to produce a novel with nothing prepared beyond some basic ideas and a brief outline. The average submission is 100 typed pages in length – truly prodigious output over a long weekend.

Chung’s story features Daisy, an underachieving yet kind soul, and her sister Samantha (Sam), a successful and ambitious lawyer. Much of the story is driven forward by the upcoming wedding of Sam and her fiancée Patrick in Seattle. Additionally, early in the novel, Daisy becomes ‘haunted’ by an irresistible teriyaki mobile food truck that serves the best teriyaki chicken in the Seattle area that Daisy has ever tasted. Patrick also becomes obsessed with the food. The truck seems to appear out of nowhere, at times, and the proprietor/chef is charismatic, intriguing, and slightly creepy. Sprinkled throughout the novel are Daisy’s great blog entries that rate the Seattle-area eateries that feature teriyaki and she is employed at a local restaurant as well. Helping to keep the wedding preparations on the rails and trying to figure out this mysterious truck and its owner, keep Daisy busy throughout the lightning-quick novel.

In this excerpt Sam and Daisy have agreed to get pedicures so they can gather more information about the mysterious teriyaki truck and owner, but things do not go as planned:

I rushed over to them. The older woman was still muttering about the sorry state of Sam’s skin as she continued to paint Sam’s thrashing foot. From behind, I grabbed the woman around her waist and pulled her back.

For someone so small, she was heavy. Sam’s toenails were covered in polish. So were Sam’s toes, Sam’s feet, the cuffs of Sam’s jeans… Sam grunted and got herself out of the chair.

The truck was still outside. We all turned to watch as Madison from the ice cream shop handed a punch card and a wad of cash to Goth Teriyaki Truck Man. He stamped the punch card and returned her change, then handed her a large plastic bag. She flipped her hair, then walked away.

“I’m so sorry. Please forgive my employee.”

 I twisted to look behind me. A matronly woman had appeared next to a side door. She rushed over to us. I felt Sam’s woman relax, and I let her go.

The matron spoke angrily to Sam’s woman, then motioned to the door. Quickly, the other woman ran to the door and left, shutting it behind her.

“I am the owner,” the matron said. “Please forgive my technician. Sometimes, she is too dedicated to her work.”

“This is the worst nail salon I have ever visited,” Sam said. Her eyes flashed, and she glared at the owner. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t sue you and your employee for assault right now.”

“I’m so sorry.” The new woman ran to the register. “Please, take these gift certificates. Good for two free full nail services, any time you want. Also, tonight is no charge.”

“You better believe tonight is no charge,” Sam shot back. She grabbed her purse from the dentist’s chair. “Daisy, we’re leaving now.”

Our nails were still wet. We picked up our shoes and ran outside.

The truck was gone.

There is not a lot to quibble with in Chung’s novel and without question I have an inherent soft spot for the winning books in this contest. Undertaking, let alone winning this event, is courageous. However, the ending is more abrupt than what I would have liked and it read relatively hollow considering the great build-up to that point. I would be nearly certain that this reflects the tight parameters of the contest more than Chung’s obvious writing skills. I would have liked Chung to have explored Daisy’s character more fully, even if it was at the expense of another character, such as Patrick. Finally, and this is likely selfishness more than anything, another blog entry or two from Daisy would have been great. While there were many strengths, these reviews were easily the highlights of the book for me.

These drawbacks were minor and did not diminish the overall quality of the novel to a great extent. Chung’s writing is lively and displays keen wit, a great sense of humour and a flair for the dramatic. I hope that this debut novel signals that there is much more to come from her. Terroryaki! is suitable for readers from their early teens and on, and can be read in two or three hours. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys writing that explores those ‘universal’ themes of love, family, and loyalty with poignancy, sensitivity and humour.

*A copy of Terroryaki! was sent to me to read and review. It was not purchased.