Alice Pung is the author of Unpolished Gem (2006), which won the 2007 Australian Newcomer of the Year award in the Australian Book Industry Awards, and Her Father’s Daughter (2011).
She lives in Melbourne.
Why I write
Obviously it’s not possible for us to live more than one life simultaneously, so writing satiates other possibilities. Writing helps me remember that people possess a richness of character that we often overlook in daily life. When you can hold infinity in the palm of your hand (to quote William Blake) you realize how light the everyday seems and can better decide on which details to focus your gaze.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Almost everyday, but no set hours, and often not always for publication. Sometimes I will spend an hour hand-writing a letter to a friend. Other times I might write a few lines in a diary, or a thousand words in one hit. There are also days when I don’t write creatively at all, because I am also a full-time public service lawyer. So if I spend five hours writing reports on minimum wages during my day job, I usually feel like I have exhausted my word quota for the day.
Worst source of distraction?
Excessive self-doubt and too much solitude.
Best source of inspiration?
Self-doubt and solitude in healthy doses. And being open to the world.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Writer’s Block seems like sleeplessness – worrying about it makes it worse and turns sleeplessness into insomnia. Sometimes, a person just runs out of ideas and if you take a break from the writing and not worry too much about it, the well refills itself.
Of course I doubt my own ability a lot of the time, but I have just decided to plough on and do my best. Anything less is wasting time indulging in insecurities and making the lives of others miserable. If I were to lose this sense of mild self-doubt, my writing would never improve.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I have been living in the United States for the past six months and decided to read all the novels of Anne Tyler. They are incredible, since she is now in her seventies, but started writing at 20 and reading her work – which is largely character-based – you can see how it all fits together and yet each book is a stand-alone gem.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I like the books of Mo Yan, especially Red Sorghum. I also like Ha Jin, and have just finished reading A Good Fall.
Best book about China?
Dream of the Red Chamber. I had no idea that this 18th-century book was so salacious and hilarious. A friend in Beijing gave me the book in four volumes for my birthday. Reading it made me feel proud to have come from such a rich literary heritage, and also really challenged my views on the Chinese Diaspora’s 20th-century puritanical and punitive construct of desire.
I met Professor Ge Fei at the Iowa International Writing Program, who joked that writers like D. H Lawrence and Henry Miller seemed like naive teenagers when compared to the great Ming Dynasty writers of eros, who were largely anonymous and unrecognized during their time.
That’s like me asking you to choose your favorite song (overall)! Impossible. Yet I would say that the writers who accompanied me through adolescence were the ones who had the most impact on my life, because I had very little life experience and they showed me the world beyond my four walls.
At the moment, Anne Tyler and Toni Morrison.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, because my cheeriest friend Professor Susan Smulyan recommended it to me recently!
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
How fortunate I was to be published.
Does writing change anything?
Writing has always been a constant in my life. But publication – well, that changes everything and yet it changes nothing. After I was published, I have travelled more of the world than I ever thought possible – from the Alaska to China and all around Australia. My world has opened up in an explosion of color.
And yet, when I come home on weekends, my parents are still working in their store in the suburbs, my mother still can’t read or understand a single thing I have written. Family life goes on as normal. This gives me a healthy balance and reminds me that the fireworks don’t last forever.
The glamor of being a writer and attending festivals is fun and exciting, but what I love most is the monastic existence of creating.