SB: Your short story collection, World Famous Love Acts, was published by Sarabande in 2004; you’ve published two novels since then. You’ve been very busy the past few years, how have you balanced (or juggled) writing, educating, and directing, all while appearing as a member of the levelheaded literati?
BL: I’ve nothing sage to say here, just that it’s my practice not to make promises I can’t keep, and to focus on what’s practically possible. That is, I couldn’t say that I’ll finish a novel by the end of this month, but it’s not so hard to say, if I write just a bit every day, I’ll have a novel draft in a year. I can’t say to my students I’ll get your story comments back to you tomorrow, but I can plan to read two a day, so it’s possible to get them all back in ten days. And, importantly, I make sure to tell myself that it’s okay not to do “X” in favor of spending quality time with friends, family, and primarily, my partner. I’m over-extended to be certain, but my pragmatic bent keeps me sane.
You’ve also found time to serve Louisville’s literary community through Lousville Literary Arts, where you’re the Treasurer. How does this environment vary from an academic community?
The purpose of LLA is to bring readers and writers together and we recognize that those folks aren’t necessarily affiliated with Academia. In fact, looking at our annual Writer’s Block Festival, you see that our city is filled with folks from all walks of life interested in literary pursuits; there’s a great deal of cross-pollination. A difference might be that creative writing related to Academia focuses more on literary writing than popular and/or commercial writing. For community events, it’s more likely to find pure genre writing, like fantasy or sci-fi. Though, as I say that, I’m reminded of all the fine literary genre work my students are writing at UofL.
I’ve read that your greatest inspiration comes through promotion and discussion of your contemporaries’ work. You recommend assisting other writers first, as it will prove beneficial in the long run. Is this a selfless act or “scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours?”
I’m pretty consistent on this point, and it’s something I teach in my classes. There’s nothing cynical in the premise at all. I believe writers should be in service to other writers as a co-equal responsibility to their own work. That can manifest itself any number of ways; maybe it means taking an afternoon to read and comment on a friend’s poetry, or subscribing to two or three literary magazines. If you’re a writer with the goal to have an audience, I think you have an ethical obligation to be a “consumer” as well, because if we writers aren’t our own reliable, core audiences, how can we expect the attention of those we hope to invite into the conversation?
You displayed great strides in your most recent novel, Take Me Home, which is both “literary” and terrifically entertaining. Is it possible to bridge the distance between academic and commercial or mainstream writers?
I politely reject the distinction because I’m not certain what term we need here. It’s like we’re holding onto an idea that isn’t applicable. In my department, there are two fiction writers and two poets, and all of us in one way or another have addressed popular genre and/or downright play in our work. This seems largely the case these days but the news hasn’t gotten out.
But let’s go back to terminology: one person’s mainstream is another person’s popular is another person’s commercial is another person’s literary, and all that is subject to the vagaries of time. Any of these might come from an academic mind, and often do. However, I think Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon had it about right when they overtly spoke to the literary world of fiction and asked what happened to story telling? Did everything have to sound like an Updike or Carver story? That said, I love the honesty of Judith Krantz, who said in an interview that she wasn’t harboring some little literary volume under her pillow at home. That’s not what she wrote.
We need to do a better job of making distinctions between interesting writing and lazy writing. Those are the terms I’d use. There are some recent vampire novels that contain lazy writing and some that contain interesting writing. It’s not about the vampires, it’s about the sentences.
By the way, I just counted. I bought just seven books of poetry last year. Shame on me.
Entertainment Weekly Editor’s Choice
Winner of a Lambda Literary Award
Sweeping and fearless, World Famous Love Acts overrides stereotypes of race, age, gender, and sexuality. In this remarkable debut collection, Brian Leung creates a diverse landscape of distinctive characters. Among them, a 4’ 10” hyperblonde Asian adult-film actress in Los Angeles, an archeologist working in China with her sun-scarred skin, a Midwestern screenwriter trying to “burn off” his accent, and a man with AIDS waiting to go home to die.