At Cambridge Common Writers, we are immensely proud of our community members. In response to the recent increase in violence and hate speech directed towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we want to highlight the accomplishments of our Asian American and Pacific Islander alums. Our Spotlight series continues in celebration of AAPI Heritage Month — come get to know these very talented alums and learn about their writing lives.
LELAND CHEUK — FICTION, JUNE ’08
A MacDowell and Hawthornden Castle Fellow, Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN (2019). Cheuk’s work has been covered in Buzzfeed, The Paris Review, VICE, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere, and has appeared in publications such as NPR, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, among other outlets. He is the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk.
Why do you write and what do you like to write about the most?
I think I’ve been writing so long, I can’t remember why I started. Thematically, I just try to write about what’s important to me at the time. And when a book is done and out in the world, I don’t do too much looking back. I more or less close the door on that part of my life for good. In my earlier work, I wrote a lot about dysfunctional Chinese American families. I don’t expect to return to that territory in future work.
My work is evolving into the hybrid speculative/surreal/comedic realm of late a la George Saunders. Top of mind right now are wealth and racial inequality and climate change, the mess of a world we’ve created for future generations, and how we grownups cope with that weight and the reality that the better world we wanted to create as young people hasn’t materialized. Is that too depressing? I swear I make it funny and entertaining!
Do you have any writing routines or traditions to help inspire creativity?
I’m a morning writer. It’s the first thing I do after coffee. I’m not a writer who needs a lot of inspirational statements or rituals to be creative. The ritual is putting my butt in the seat every morning.
What is one book you wish you had written?
Tough one! So many great books. But if I had to choose one, I’d probably say A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami. As a young writer, I found the book’s surreality inspiring aesthetically. The protagonist being an Asian everyman was also something I hadn’t read before in a popular book in America at the time.
What is something that tends to get in the way of your writing and how do you overcome it?
Writerly impatience. Like any other writer, I want my next book to be on store shelves tomorrow. But the book is going to take as long as it’s going to take. It has its own timeline. And then the publishing part has its whole other timeline. As I get older, I’m learning to let go of that impatience more and more, which I think results in better writing and a more balanced life.
Which parts of the Lesley MFA program do you miss, now that you’re writing on your own time?
I miss the residencies. I miss having pints at Cambridge Common with my fellow students! I miss the camaraderie and the faculty. So many good memories of the cold winter session and then the sweltering summer session.
If you could get coffee with any writer (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
Haruki Murakami or Martin Amis. Their work made me want to start writing. Of course, as you get older, you have to shed your idols and become your own writer, but I’d like to pick their brain on what got them started.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that doesn’t have to do with writing.
I’m a big Boston Celtics fan. That’s another reason I miss the Lesley MFA program, because it gave me a reason to be in town and go to TD Garden to see the C’s.
What are you working on now?
I just sent a manuscript for a speculative, satirical story collection to my agent, so we’ll see if that can find a home at some point. Like I mentioned, books have their own timeline. I’m getting better at not losing sleep over the publishing process.
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