BOOK’D: KIRSTIN CHEN

I became familiar with author Kirstin Chen late last year when I encountered her new novel on one of my many amazon perusals. Bury What We Cannot Take (released yesterday!) also featured in my ‘16 Books to Look Out For In 2018‘ list. I recently finished reading her debut novel, (which I highly recommend!) Soy Sauce For Beginners and I just love her style of writing.

In this interview, Kirstin talks about reading as a child in Singapore, shares her reading philosophy, her peculiar form of reading amnesia and how this amnesia is sometimes an asset. She also shares how she knows a book is good and the book by a Nigerian author she wishes more people knew about. I enjoyed reading this and since we have similar reading tastes, it was a real feast for me! I know you’ll enjoy this too.


1. What are you currently reading? Do you usually read more than one book at a time?

CHEMISTRY by Weike Wang—and I’m really loving it so far. Just one book at a time for me, though I’m usually also reading the latest issue of THE NEW YORKER.

2. Have you always been a reader? What is the first book you remember ever reading?

Yes, always. As a young child growing up in Singapore, I was constantly trying to wheedle my nanny into reading me one more book at bedtime. I think she drew the line at 5 picture books. The first book I remember reading might have been CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, or SUPERFUDGE.

As a young child growing up in Singapore, I was constantly trying to wheedle my nanny into reading me one more book at bedtime. I think she drew the line at 5 picture books. - @kirstin_chen Click To Tweet

3. What drew you into reading/why do you read?

When I was a child, I read to be immersed in another world or in another life. My older brother recently reminded me of how I used to read really, really quickly, and when I was done, he’d ask me what the book was about, and I could never remember! To a certain extent, I still read that way today, and often have trouble recalling the plot of a book I just read and loved. My theory is that when I’m reading something truly enthralling, the emotional side of my brain somehow overpowers the rational side. (Side note: I read in FRANTUMAGLIA that Elena Ferrante reads the same way I do, and now I don’t feel so embarrassed about it anymore.)

4. What is your philosophy on reading? (for example, some people have to finish every book they start)

Read whatever appeals to you. Avoid novels over 500 pages long. Abandon a book if you find yourself skimming pages for the second time. (To be clear, I veer from these guidelines when necessary, for instance with Alexander Chee’s QUEEN OF THE NIGHT—576 glorious pages—and with ANNA KARENINA—skimmed quite a bit, very glad I finished it.)

Read whatever appeals to you. Avoid novels over 500 pages long. Abandon a book if you find yourself skimming pages for the second time. - @kirstin_chen Click To Tweet

5. How often do you read? And how do you fit it into your day?

I read every night before I go to bed. I read during the day if I have very bad writer’s block, but I try not to let my reading time cut into my writing time.

6. Where do you like to read? Where’s the weirdest place you’ve ever read a book?

On the couch, in bed, on planes, anywhere, really, as long as it’s quiet. I can’t handle any kind of background music or noise.

Author Kirstin Chen on BOOK'D

7. What makes a good book, in your opinion?

Here’s an anecdote: From the age of about four until I graduated college, I was a classical singer. My junior year of high school I attended the Tanglewood Young Artist Program and took a master class with a famous voice teacher. The teacher was telling us what he looked for in a singer, and I remember him saying at the very end, “If someone’s singing gives me chills on the back of my neck, I trust that feeling and know the singer is good.” His words really stuck with me. Of course I appreciate a virtuosic sentence as much as the next reader, but if a book gives me chills, it’s good.

...if a book gives me chills, it’s good. Click To Tweet

8. Who are your favorite authors to read?

Mary Gaitskill, Ha Jin, Yiyun Li, Elena Ferrante.

9. What is a book or who is an author you wish more people knew about/read?

I DO NOT COME TO YOU BY CHANCE, by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, which I discovered in Dara Horn’s “A Year in Reading” post on THE MILLIONS back in 2013. (It was her pick for a book she wished more people had read.)

10. E-book, audiobook or paper? How do you feel about making notes/highlighting books?

E-books for travel, paper for all other times. I never mark up my books, probably because I’m too busy getting immersed in the stories to reach for a pen.

I never mark up my books, probably because I’m too busy getting immersed in the stories to reach for a pen. Click To Tweet

11. Fiction vs Non-fiction?

Almost always fiction.

Author Kirstin Chen on BOOK'D

12. What happens to you when you read a good book? (at the beginning, during and after the experience?)

See #7.

13. Do you reread books? Why?

Only when I’m trying to solve a particular problem in my own work.

14. What book do you wish you could experience again for the first time?

You know, I don’t really have this problem because I’m so terrible at remembering the plots of books I’ve read. More and more I’m starting to see my amnesia as an asset.

15. What was the last great book you read?

I just finished the ARC of an outstanding debut novel called THE MAP OF SALT AND STARS by Syrian-American author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar.

16. What book(s) are you embarrassed to have read? What books are you embarrassed to still not have read?

Although I am generally highly self-conscious, I am pretty thick-skinned when it comes to matters of taste. I stand by my book choices.

Author Kirstin Chen

Although I am generally highly self-conscious, I am pretty thick-skinned when it comes to matters of taste. I stand by my book choices. - @kirstin_chen Click To Tweet

17. How do you feel about ‘classic’ literature?

Some of it I love, some of it I don’t love, and the rest I haven’t read and have no interest in reading.

18. How do you feel about book clubs?

I’d never had any desire to join a book club UNTIL some dear friends of mine put together a karaoke book club of Asian-American women writers. It is as wonderful as it sounds.

19. What book(s) have remarkably changed your perspective on a given subject or life in general and how?

BAD BEHAVIOR by Mary Gaitskill, which I read in college, was the book that made me want to be a writer. It was probably one of the first times I’d read contemporary literature in school and it was definitely the first time I’d ever read anything so thrillingly ferocious.

BAD BEHAVIOR by Mary Gaitskill, which I read in college, was the book that made me want to be a writer. - @kirstin_chen Click To Tweet

20. How do you choose books to read?

From friends’ recommendations and The Times Book Review.

21. What books are currently on your to-be-read list?

Author Kirstin Chen on BOOK'D

THE IMMORTALISTS by Chloe Benjamin, LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng, LES ANIMAUX by Christian Keifer (I happened upon the French edition in a bookstore in Paris), and SOUR HEART by Jenny Zhang.


Author Kirstin Chen Kirstin Chen is the author of the novels Bury What We Cannot Take, named a Most Anticipated Book of 2018 by Electric LiteratureThe MillionsBook Bub, and The Rumpus, and Soy Sauce for Beginners. She was the fall 2017 NTU-NAC National Writer in Residence in Singapore, and has received awards from the Steinbeck Fellows Program, Sewanee, Hedgebrook, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. Her short stories have appeared in ZyzzyvaHobartPank, and the Best New Singaporean Short Stories, among others. Born and raised in Singapore, she currently resides in San Francisco, where she is working on a novel about the counterfeit handbag trade.

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Book’d is a weekly bookish interview series seeking to foster conversation on books and reading. Other authors interviewed on BOOK’D include Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisted author Ayobami Adebayo