The Lark Episode 13: Weike Wang
We sat down with Professor Weike Wang, a 5 Under 35 honoree of the National Book Foundation, to discuss her new book Chemistry, a luminous coming-of-age novel about a young female scientist who must recalibrate her life when her academic career goes off track.
INTERVIEWER: “The boy asks the girl a question. It is a question of marriage. ‘Ask me again tomorrow,’ she says, and he says, ‘That’s not how this works.’”
These are the opening lines of Chemistry, a debut novel written by Weike Wang which has received a Whiting Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction, among other honors. Joining us today: Weike Wang, a professor in the Creative Writing Program at Penn and a 5 Under 35 honoree of the National Book Foundation. We’ll be discussing the process of fiction writing. So, Professor Wang, thank you so much for joining us.
WEIKE WANG: Of course. It’s my pleasure.
INTERVIEWER: So, reading Chemistry, I felt like throughout there were so many sentences that I was just glad to have in my brain.
WEIKE WANG: [Laughter].
INTERVIEWER: But at the same time I felt like the writing was almost invisible, and I could just see through to the voice and the characters. So I’m wondering how you accomplish that as a writer?
WEIKE WANG: A lot of editing. I talk about this with my students—figuring out what sentences or which paragraphs you really want to highlight and kind of trimming the fat around that so it can stand out . . . making sure nothing is too overwritten . . . and quite a few deletions when I write. I might write a sentence and then delete it and just go to the next sentence. So it’s sort of like the first thought and then the third thought and then maybe the seventh thought, where everything in the middle I don’t always write down, because I think ‘Well, the reader’s just going to get it. They’re going to make that leap with me without me having to write it in.” So I’m always very conscious of something being too written or over-written and I really like to have a very clean slate when I write.
INTERVIEWER: Is that editing process painful?
WEIKE WANG: So painful.
WEIKE WANG: Yeah. I mean, I think all editing processes are painful, but that’s when you really see it come to life. You see your work being polished or trimmed down. A lot of my students . . . and not even students, sort of writing peers . . . believe that their first draft is their best draft, which I think is not true ever. But there’s this sense of virginal genius or some spontaneity . . . I think it’s so old-school that it’s not necessarily even that instructive to teach them that “Oh, if you put it down the first time this is going to be perfect.” It’s sort of figuring out what in the pages work, taking that out, and then adding a little bit more, and then taking it out, and then adding a little bit more. Totally painful. I find revision super hard but very, very worthwhile.
INTERVIEWER: What about just the process of writing itself? Setting it down the first time?
WEIKE WANG: Setting it down the first time can be quite enjoyable. I think you need to give yourself time . . . so sort of giving yourself uninterrupted hours, moving your schedule around so that you have that time to write and read and figure out how you want the story to go. What story you’re trying to tell. I find that when I get into the writing process, it’s very much: “Okay, so today I have the morning. I’m going to try to finish this scene, or I’m going to try to at least set up the next scene.” So I give myself a few goal-oriented tasks. It’s a job. It’s very, very similar to a job. Figure this out, fix this, streamline this part, and then move on.
INTERVIEWER: Do you plan stuff out ahead of time?
WEIKE WANG: No. I should. I think I definitely could benefit from that. I find that I have a general sense of where I’m going to go, so I have a general sense of what probably the last scene is going to be, but I don’t actually know what I’m going to write until I start. Then you put the first sentence down and then you put the second one down and then it kind of lays the groundwork and the story forms itself. So I have a sense that today maybe this scene is going to involve this character and her brother, but I don’t really know what that scene is going to involve until I think about it a little bit more, but that usually only happens when I’m writing. When I’m not writing I’m kind of thinking about, overall, the infrastructure: does the character arc make sense? Does it matter if this part doesn’t quite make sense? Will the reader accept it? And that kind of thing.
INTERVIEWER: In Chemistry the main character doesn’t have a name and you use very few names. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that?
WEIKE WANG: Well . . . it started out . . . you know, it’s first person, so the name didn’t really ever come up, and then since it didn’t come up I just never felt the need to name her. The second book [Wang’s forthcoming novel] is in first person too, but I give her a name, so there’s also that. But with Chemistry the scope, even though a lot happens to her, is very internal. So I felt that I didn’t necessarily want to name everyone around her, because I don’t know if she would even . . . you know, of course she would recognize that Eric is Eric . . . but when she’s thinking it’s like, “Oh, this is my mom.” Or, “This is my best friend.” Or, “This is my teacher.” And I don’t necessarily think she would get so anchored by the name.
Then after a while it just felt very natural for the story. Eric was the only person I named because he was the only person I didn’t feel had a very concrete role in her life, because the relationship breaks up and then . . . so is it the boyfriend, the ex-boyfriend? It just felt like he was constantly in flux. But everything else felt so concrete for her that I didn’t see the need for the name.
INTERVIEWER: I remember hearing you talk about how the process of naming was frightening in a way, because it gives too much power to the name.
WEIKE WANG: Totally. And I think for some of my characters I didn’t even know what I would call them. Names are so loaded with meaning. I’m still trying to figure out ideas behind names and how we name our characters. And I think I just didn’t want to get into that for this book . . . the history behind potentially naming this protagonist.
INTERVIEWER: It seems like a lot of readers have the impulse to connect this book to your life in some way. I’m wondering where you think that impulse comes from?
WEIKE WANG: Well, you know, I chose to write about a STEM-y protagonist and I did STEM. But Hemingway only wrote about writers and F. Scott Fitzgerald so it’s sort of a mute point to say that you write “what you know.” I just think maybe the instinct to connect it to my life is because I tend to write protagonists who are female, who are Asian American, who maybe go into a STEM field, which is very obviously close to my background. But you would never say that every character in Hemingway being sort of like white, a writer, a male, would be him, right? Even though most of the time it probably is him. But this idea of distance is still there for any protagonist.
I just choose to write about protagonists that I don’t necessarily see that often in fiction, or I just feel are missing in fiction. But there is quite a bit of distance between the Chemistry protagonist and me, and also the protagonist of the second book . . . there’s quite a bit of a distance. There’s obviously a commonality because the whole point of stories is to connect, so I’m sure that I pull threads from my own experience and those of people around me and thread that into the novel. That’s totally true. That’s true of any writer. They’re always threading in a little bit of themselves but also a little bit of other people.
And that’s what makes the story fiction, but that’s also what makes it more like real life than real life is. It’s almost a very condensed summary but reimagined . . . a story reimagined on the page. What could happen. What if this happened? And letting the writer’s imagination go with some of the threads but also change them.
INTERVIEWER: Could you speak a little bit more about the idea of more real than real life? Because I find that so interesting.
WEIKE WANG: Oh yeah. There’s some things that I think if I actually wrote down what happened to me in real life it would be so boring and nobody would read it. It wouldn’t be fiction. What fiction can do is fiction can take maybe five or six things that didn’t necessarily link together in real life and link them together in a meaningful way, such that the reader sort of gleans, “Oh, this is the overall picture. This is the overall picture of real life.”
There’s a sense of reality in there that you wouldn’t even get in real life. Fiction has that ability to trick the reader into thinking that this actually happened. And that’s I think sometimes the beauty of it. The question I ask a lot in class is: would you accept this? And then a lot of my students say, “Well, this actually happened.” But that’s not a good enough reason for why I would accept this.
A lot of things happen that if you wrote it in fiction it wouldn’t work. A lot of things don’t happen but if you wrote it in fiction it feels very real, right? Maybe a character’s conversation with another character. Or how a character thinks. And so I think when I go into fiction what I try to do is I try to figure out this character and I try to get to know these people and maybe how they would act in this weird world that I created. But these characters don’t exist and if they were actually in real life I don’t necessarily think they would act that way.
You’re suspending disbelief and yet when you do that the reader actually believes it more. I find that always very interesting in fiction.
INTERVIEWER: So, you mentioned Hemingway earlier . . .
WEIKE WANG: Yes, I really actually like Hemingway a lot. I don’t mean to . . . [laughter] . . . dump on him. I quite like all of his stuff.
INTERVIEWER: Do you feel like his writing style is an influence?
WEIKE WANG: I mean, I don’t know. I didn’t grow up reading the Western Canon in the same way that I think a lot of people did. I didn’t really read Hemingway until I got to college. So, maybe . . . you know, seeing kind of the voices. I really went on a Hemingway kick a few years ago. It wasn’t really something I had grown up with. I didn’t grow up reading Dickens, Jane Austen. I didn’t really grow up reading. So I think what influences my writing has been a very eclectic mix of later influences . . . but sort of just beginning figuring out how to get something down on the page. I just didn’t really have examples.
I mean, now I have a lot of examples, but I’m actually glad I didn’t read some of these writers earlier, because I think they might have had too much influence on me. You know, Hemingway has such a distinctive manner about him when he writes, and I can appreciate that greatly now but also not necessarily be too influenced by it.
INTERVIEWER: So I guess I’m wondering how teaching writing may have influenced your writing?
WEIKE WANG: Yeah, that’s a good question. Teaching writing is fun in that all of my students have really great ideas, and I think that’s a testament to the level of creativity and imagination that they have. I think teaching the actual writing of it is not hard. I think most people can learn writing pretty quickly. It’s easy to teach. It’s just really hard to execute on the student’s behalf.
I think most students know the rules of writing by class four or even class five, but it’s just how do you apply that to your own writing? How do you get something out the door that’s sort of original but also very you? So I find that teaching writing is not so much the job, it’s more teaching the student writers how to read better, how to analyze a piece of work better, and also having these students figure out how they can improve their own writing. Or if writing is even a thing they can see themselves doing.
You know, most people take writing classes in college for fun, right? So it’s supposed to be fun. But there has to be a little bit of rigor in it, and I think it’s interesting to see some students embrace that rigor and some students who really push against it because that, in their mind, is not what writing is.
INTERVIEWER: Something I’m always interested in is I feel like as a reader I can see issues with a narrative so easily, but approaching it as a writer I’m completely stumped.
WEIKE WANG: Yeah. You know one of my teachers in college . . . in grad school . . . told me, “You cannot be afraid to knock down your tower of cards,” which I think is a really great piece of advice. “Kill your darlings” is probably another one. Not necessarily getting so attached to any one sentence or any one scene, and being able to tear it apart and start over. I think that’s something a writer needs to gain: this ability to delete essentially most of your work and build again.
But writing something and then deleting it doesn’t mean you hadn’t improved. You might have needed to write something to get to something else. But that’s something I think you learn later. Because college students . . . they don’t have time, right? They think, “I have to finish this. It’s due tomorrow. I’m not going to delete it.” There’s a sense of artificial deadlines that don’t exist in the real world of art. There’s no deadline, I guess, until you die. Really, whenever you finish your work is when you finish your work.
INTERVIEWER: What was it like studying writing as an undergraduate?
WEIKE WANG: Well, I was a chemistry major. I didn’t go to chemistry for grad school, but I was a chemistry major. I was also pre-med. It was intense. I think what happened was I just didn’t have the luxury of time when I was an undergrad to really spend time on writing, as I do now and sort of during my grad school. I was just so busy with everything else that I didn’t really have time to enjoy taking more writing classes, which I wanted to do. Sometimes I feel bad that writing was secondary to some of my other requirements, which makes sense if you’re at that time convinced that you’re going to do something else.
So, I think I should have . . . I had a great time in college learning writing, and I’m glad I had that experience. I think if I went back to do it again I might have tried to balance it a little bit better with my other work, but I was just so busy. It was impossible to find time to do the work. Now that I have time it’s easier to read something and then go to your own work and then read other books to figure out what kind of literature is being written right now in the contemporary fields, and when I was an undergrad I just didn’t have the space for it.
And frankly, the college I went to was very divided. If you were in humanities you were definitely always in the humanities. You were in the literary magazine. There were probably writing clubs. There were people who just took classes with the same professor semester after semester. I wasn’t able to get into that world just because I had so many other constraints and requirements with my time.
INTERVIEWER: Did you feel like studying chemistry and pre-med contributed to your writing in any way, or was it just a pressure that kept you from writing?
WEIKE WANG: No, I think it taught me a great deal about discipline, and also control, and also just research. Being able to research your work. Being able to stand behind your work, in a way. And not being too self-indulgent. I think sometimes a lot of writers suffer from feeling like their work is so precious or what they write is so beautiful, and trust me, if you go into pre-med or if you go into chemistry that is totally knocked out of you. This idea of being special. I think that is what helped me a great deal with my writing, interrogating why should . . . so many things to read out there . . . why should the reader read this story? And also the option of why should I write if I can do something else?
It kind of made me very critical of my own work, which I think a writer needs. Not just being critical of other people but also being very, very critical with yourself, and figuring out if this is really the thing you want to do, because it’s a huge risk. You know, I had no safety net. So figuring that out is really important to do.
INTERVIEWER: So as a final question, I was wondering what you do when you feel like you can’t write?
WEIKE WANG: When I feel like I can’t write? Well, somebody said: go for a walk. Take a break. Eat something. Okay, so it happens a lot, sort of writing and re-writing. Me being able to write has never been a problem. I’ve always been able to write something. Whether it’s good is a completely different question, but I know the feeling of writing something and not being happy with it. I think you just have to push through. You have to stay the course.
I think that’s what my background taught me. Trust me, nobody who’s pre-med loves it. There’s just stuff that you have to go through that you just have to go through. And that’s what I think allows me to write. I might only publish a hundred pages but I will have written five hundred for those one hundred pages, and probably they all sucked, but you just push through that and then you get back to the real work, because the reader’s never going to know. They’re never going to read the four hundred pages that you threw away. Only you know that. And that makes me nauseous just thinking about it, but that’s just the work.
It’s the same for research. Half the time you put in a hundred hours and maybe one hour of it is good, right? Think about pre-med. I think I probably took biochemistry five times, and when you go to med school your first semester is biochemistry, so there’s always this redoing and re-painting and taking material and reworking it in many different ways, and just being okay with that. That’s the work. Every field has that sort of repetition. It kind of helps me go through the motions and not be completely disgusted with what I write.
Sometimes I need to take a break. I write a short story. So, in between the novel . . . if I have fifty good pages of the novel but I just can’t see the next scene or I can’t see the next route I just have to go and write another story. Or just reading something great can help me a lot, sort of saying, “Okay, this is possible.” Telling myself that this is possible. This is why you’re doing it.
I think when I get very stumped with my writing it’s because I haven’t made the right choice yet for some of the characters, and once I make the right choice it falls into place. When I’m overwhelmed with choices . . . like, “This could be this, this could be this, why didn’t I write that?” . . . I really start to get overwhelmed and grossed-out. But once I can whittle that down to a few things, then it gets a little bit better. The scope of a novel—the scope of anything—is actually quite small, and just as a writer you have to know how much your writing can withstand. How much it can hold, right? Being very conscientious of what you can do right now and what you can’t do is also important.
Sometimes I’m just repulsed by the fact that I’m just not a good enough writer yet. I’m not there yet. But it just takes time to read more, figure out how you want to do this, borrow ideas from other great writers, borrow ideas from teachers, students . . . thinking about ways to improve your own writing kind of gets you through it. So, yeah, I definitely feel this sense of “Ugh” when I write. Most of it is just disappointment in myself that I’m writing this and not maybe something else or I’m just not a good enough writer yet to do this, to give this work justice.
But then it’s just like, forget about it, you’re going to write how you’re going to write right now, and then figure it out from there.
INTERVIEWER: Professor Wang, thank you so much for joining us today.
WEIKE WANG: Yeah, of course!
INTERVIEWER: So, from the Wexler Studio in Kelly Writers House, I’m Daniel Finkel and this has been another episode of The Lark. Thank you so much for listening.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.