“Make American Loitering Great Again” – A Conversation with Leland Cheuk

Leland Cheuk is a big part of the Flapperhouse family: he has performed at three of our readings, and contributed three excellent flash fictions to our Summer 2017 issue (including “Vote For Arnie,” which we posted last week). He has also contributed work to fine publications like Salon, Catapult, Kenyon Review, and Prairie Schooner, and has written wonderful books like LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS and THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG. Leland recently exchanged emails with our managing editor Joseph P. O’Brien about his writing, as well as generation gaps, the universal appeal of Haruki Murakami, and the potential economic necessity of polyamory.

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JO’B: You’ve said that the flash fictions you contributed to our latest issue are part of a “concept album” you’re working on…what can you tell us about the concept of this work-in-progress?

LC: I’m trying to write a novel in mostly flash fictions that features an ensemble of feral characters in a feral, near-future America. I’m becoming more interested in absurdity and surreality and I think shorter fiction is generally a better way to explore these aesthetics. It’s an effort on my part to shed some of the things that we writers learn in MFA programs—like the worship of naturalism, social realism, and character development/epiphanies. I just want to be doing something totally new with each book. 

JO’B: Your flash fiction “Vote for Arnie” suggests a world in which people can go back in time and correct history’s biggest mistakes. If you had one such opportunity, what would you want to fix? What positive results would you hope to achieve, and what negative repercussions would you fear might occur? 

LC: Great question! I’d come back to kill John Connor. No, I think I’d go back and advise the President to devise a more equanimous response to 9/11. That’s really been the biggest game-changing choice is my adult life. Think of all the lives saved, the military spending that could have been repurposed if we hadn’t gone into the Middle East. Maybe there’s no ISIS. Of course, we’d probably have found another war to get into. Fifteen years is a long time for America to be without war—we’re addicts.

JO’B: If you were to run for President in 2020 (in a world without time-travel, of course), what would be your platform? If you won, what would be your first executive order, and your first official tweet in office?

LC: I’d probably run on a similar platform as Jon Gnarr, that comic that became mayor of Reykjavik. I’d want to Make American Loitering Great Again #malga and make Dazed and Confused required grade-school viewing. I’d commission Oliver Stone to make a sequel to Wall Street named Main Street, in which I would make the Gordon Gekko speech, except the word “greed” would be replaced by “dumb.” Dumb is good, dumb is right, dumb works.

JO’B: You have a real flair for writing very sharp (sometimes speculative) satire, as well as stories with rich, emotional character arcs. Do you find that the satirical angles come more easily to you than the emotional ones? Or vice versa? Or do both seem to come more or less equally easy or difficult for you?

 LC: The satirical angles come first to me. Like I’ve been working on this story called “GraceBook,” a social media platform for the dead. It was just an idea at first, but then on some level, I feel forced to give the reader some sort of emotional resonance or payoff. If it were totally up to me, I’d probably just have a story be pure satire or absurdity where you’re not supposed to care about the characters at all. But we’re all used to reading stories in a certain way, unfortunately. And ultimately, you do want to reach out and touch people with your work. It’s a bit like vegetarianism. Most people want to eat meat.

JO’B: Your work as a whole– like in your novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong and your story collection Letters From Dinosaurs— tends to deal with the theme of older versus younger generations, the struggle of the outdated traditions of the past and the progress of the present to adapt to each other. Why do you think these particular themes are of such interest to you? And do you ever think about what common traditions & behaviors of our own generation might face resistance from future generations?

LC: Yeah, I do think a lot about time’s passage and the inevitable changing of generations. I’ve lived it, really. My parents wanted me to be a certain type of person I couldn’t be. I’m not much into criticism of millennials. I feel like there’s a certain universality to the struggles of those in their 20s and 30s. The tools are just different, but the challenge of trying to find one’s way in the world is the same. That said, I think as inequality increases and climate change becomes a larger and more omnipresent issue, I fear younger generations might accept a powerlessness toward changing the world on a large scale that’s unique to our times. Conversely, I think they’ll do small things better. I feel like younger people are becoming better, more selfless parents. They’re more engaged in their immediate communities. When I dream of the future, I see crazy things like inequality becoming so bad that polyamory and polygamy becomes an economic necessity.

JO’B: I noticed you’ve been re-reading (and re-enjoying) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Haruki Murakami is one of my absolute favorites– I’ve read all his books (the ones translated into English, at least), and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of a select few novels I’ve read more than once. So of course I have to ask: What about Murakami’s work resonates with you? And do you find that it influences your own writing in any way?

LC: I’m a big Murakami guy—especially his early work. His recent work, I’m not such a fan of. I recently had dinner with a friend and her younger sister who’s in her twenties was interested in writing and said Murakami was her favorite writer and Hard-Boiled Wonderland was her favorite book, also my personal favorite. I love his embrace of the everyman and our universal struggle to make sense of our existence beneath what we see. Murakami’s characters are always finding new worlds in elevators and alleys and wells. That’s ultimately what I want to be doing in my fiction. So much of today’s popular literature is about, with apologies to Knausgaard, “my struggle.” I’m an X-hyphen-Y-hyphen-Z-hyphen writer with a struggle that’s specific to X, Y, and Z that those who are X, Y, and Z can relate to. Murakami is about our struggle. Here’s an unspectacular Japanese guy who, with simple language and a complex imagination, touches me as a Chinese American, you as a white American, and a young woman in her twenties who lives in India.

JO’B: You recently founded a press called 7.13 Books, with a mission of publishing literary gems that might fall through the cracks in a time where opportunities for emerging novelists seem to be narrowing. What have been some of the most rewarding parts of this endeavor? And the most frustrating?

LC: The most rewarding part is seeing an author take flight. We’ve had good things happen with our first two titles. Famous author blurbs, trade reviews, a fair number of bookstore events. The truth is: any author—famous or not—can have the experience of being read, of going on a book tour, of being reviewed, of being on an anticipated forthcoming list. I’m happy when I get to see an author experience that. The most frustrating part is probably the day-to-day management of expectations with authors. It’s hard to say no to them as much as we do. One thing I realized as an author is how little I knew about publishing and distribution and what goes into making a book. All you want as a writer is to write your manuscript and then hand it off to someone to get it published. But the truth is: the more a writer knows about how a book is made, how it’s distributed, how a bookstore or library finds out about a book, how much it costs the publisher and the bookstore to stock a book or have an event, how book coverage actually happens, how many books you’re likely to sell, the better off the writer will be—psychologically and artistically. Almost every author I talk to wishes their publisher did more. But the vast majority of an author’s dissatisfaction with a publisher has to do with writers not knowing enough about how a book goes to market.

JO’B: Overall, do you feel hopeful about the future? Pessimistic? Ambivalent?

LC: Pessimistic for the world. Optimistic about my place in it. I’m extremely lucky. Lucky to be alive and lucky to have a purpose in life I care deeply about. All else is noise.

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