In Conversation With Works of Science Fiction
Ted Chiang in 2011. Photograph by Arturo Villarrubia via Flickr (cc)
From The Believer:
THE BELIEVER: I was wondering if you might be willing to speak more biographically. You haven’t to date written about race or Asian American identity or Asian American culture—not that one has to, of course. In interviews, too, you’ve been reticent in engaging on that. And yet, as someone who has a very similar family background—parents from Taiwan, librarian mother, father in the sciences, sister in medicine—I am curious about your perspective. But it also feels like I’m prying.
TED CHIANG: Well, OK, do you want to ask, like, “How did my parents feel about me going into a creative field?” Is that what you’re working your way toward?
BLVR: That, and also how they feel now. From personal experience, I can say that my parents weren’t immediately amenable to my deciding that I would study literature. And I suppose a larger thing is that, coming from a marginalized or underrepresented background, there aren’t a lot of role models for people to see. You can feel alone when you’re working at it by yourself. So when there are folks like yourself who are able to really succeed, I think it’s interesting to hear the stories of how they did it.
TC: I would say my career path wasn’t as likely to raise objections with my parents because I have always been a science nerd. When I was a kid, my intention was to become a physicist. That was a perfectly respectable career choice for the son of an engineer. I figured I would be a fiction writer on the side, and that, I think, is perfectly acceptable to Asian parents. They were supportive of my fiction writing as a hobby, and that was what I thought of it as.
In college I switched from physics to computer science; I got a degree in computer science and went to work in the industry. But again, that’s a perfectly reasonable career path as far as Asian parents are concerned. If I had announced that I was going to get a degree in art history or something like that, there probably would’ve been some resistance. But that’s not what happened. At no point did I ever say to them or think to myself, Oh yeah, I’m gonna make a living writing fiction.
BLVR: I’m curious to know how much you feel your parents understand, appreciate, or accept your work now.
TC: I guess it depends on exactly what you mean by that, because on one level you could be asking, Do they read my work and understand it and enjoy it? On another level, you could be asking, Have they accepted that I write fiction as a part of my identity?
BLVR: Both, I guess.
TC: OK, so, well, my mom just passed away a few months ago. But I think she read my work. I wouldn’t say she understood it, but she was supportive of my pursuits. My father, he doesn’t really read fiction, so I don’t think he has read my work, but he is also supportive of me pursuing fiction writing. But, again, my day job for most of my life has been perfectly respectable. My expectation was always that I would write fiction on the side, and that remains my expectation. I write short stories at very long intervals. That is no way to make a living as a writer. I would never say to anyone that writing occasional short stories at long intervals is a good way to make a living. When I talk to writing students, I quote a friend of mine, Andy Duncan, who said: “You can make a life as a writer without making a living as a writer.”
BLVR: How do the students usually respond when you tell them that?
TC: I think the reaction varies, because science fiction is a more commercial genre. There are a lot more people in science fiction whose goal is to make a living from writing fiction by publishing one or more novels a year. And people who enter science fiction generally receive more messaging about fiction writing as a sole source of income than, say, people entering mainstream fiction. The messaging there is different: get an MFA, teach; it’s understood that your teaching position supports your career as a writer. For writers entering science fiction, that’s not really a thing yet. We’re maybe getting there, but the messaging they receive is mostly: Be very prolific.