Speaking With Jennifer K. Chung

Jan 31 2012 Published by under Conversations

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.

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