Zee Gorman grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and moved to the United States in 1991. She is the author of The Altethlon Chronicles: The Queen’s Hero and the Ubion Princess.
Why I write
Simply put, I write because I must. There’s this energy inside of me that is ready to burst out. It’s like a beast. Until I let it out and let feast, it won’t let me rest. It is a need, a yearning, and a way to be completely selfish. When I write, I take care of myself. Nothing else matters except for my thoughts and my feelings. It’s funny because I distinctively remember the time when I did not like to write. It was when I was in the last year of my high school. Because my 10 years of education coincided with the 10 years of Cultural Revolution in China, I studied for perhaps only two full years. The rest of time, we were doing all sorts of ‘reforming’ and ‘revolutionary’ stuff. I did not enjoy writing then because I did not know how to. I did not have the skill. I was frustrated because the beast was eating me alive inside and I could not let it out. I survived my Chinese language class, walking away thinking that I could not write. I resorted to art. But it did not quite do the job. I tried music but I couldn’t bear the boredom of practicing on my instrument. It took me 25 years to discover that I am the happiest when I do write. And when I finished my debut novel, I felt I could fly. Writing is the way to be for me.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
No, I don’t really ‘put pen to paper’ everyday so to say. My day job, which I also do enjoy, is quite demanding. So when I get home I am not in the most optimal condition to feed my writing beast. However, I do write in my head and I do have big spurs when I write for hours on end. I would say on average I write about 15 hours a week. When I have a vacation, I write five hours a day. I have even taken ‘writing vacations’ away from work and away from my family. I enjoy those tremendously.
Worst source of distraction?
You won’t believe this but I would have to say ‘food.’ I love to eat and I love to cook. So the only thing that would make me stop writing is either my hunger or my sudden craving. Do you want to know what my favorite food is? No? Why not? Oh this interview is about writing. OK fine. But can I whisper? My favorite meal is composes of a grilled trout (I’m cooking one as we speak) and a bowl of sautéed mustard greens. I told my daughter to learn to make them so she can serve me when I get too old or too ill to cook them myself.
Best source of inspiration?
I will have to say music. I have an iPod and I create playlists for every day of the week. My taste in music ranges from Chinese national music to classical, rock ‘n’ roll and vocaloids. My daughter introduced me to vocaloids. And I mix them up. Normally a person’s favorites got stuck at whatever they listened to as a teenager or in their twenties. I am lucky because my American-born husband introduced me to his music when we were dating. So I was ‘born again’ and have learned to appreciate music other than the ‘eight model plays.’
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Only very occasionally. I doubted myself a few times in the past 20 years. I was friend with a few prominent Chinese novelists in the ’80s. And boy did they make me inadequate! One of such novelists, Li Binkui, simply wrote down a few lines on a piece of paper as he was talking about writing, and I read the lines and instantly went: That is simply magical! I can never write like him!
As to writer’s block, I don’t have that too often. Every few chapters, I may feel what I would call ‘creativity fatigue’ creep up on me and I have to stop. Creating something, be it a story or a picture, draws a lot out of me. So every now and I then I do need ‘productivity breaks.’ Plus there are so many natural breaks in my life: my work, my daughter, my reading, my music, and so on, that by the time I sit down to write, I am usually ready. Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss? I can’t say there’s any. I can always learn something from anybody. I may not be enchanted, but I am never revolted.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Lu Xun, hands down. His sharp perception and his skill in satire were unmatchable. He could so concisely and yet so easily bring such hard-to-discern truth about our culture to life. Every time I read his work, I laugh and cry. I often wonder what he would say about today’s China? What would he see that we collectively fail to see? How would he express it?
Best book about China?
It’s really hard to pick just one book. Also I am biased because I was born and raised in Mainland China. Here are three: The Journey to the West by Wu Cheng En, translated by Anthony Yu; Ah Q by Lu Xun; and A Tiananmen Journal by Feng Congde. These are books about Chinese as a culture and a nation, not as a geographical landmass. I was told that the American culture can be characterized as ‘Work hard; play hard; a sense of humor.’ The Chinese culture can be encapsulated in three words: Loyalty, rebellion and pride: We are fiercely loyal until we have to rebel against the authority we have been loyal to, but we are always proud. Read The Journey to the West and you will see that Monkey King’s struggle is the struggle of the Chinese people, for thousands of years. Read Ah Q and you will see the pride we so blindly hold on to. And then read A Tiananmen Journal and you will see how all of that came into work in this completely factual narration of the Tiananmen Square incident.
At a very personal level, I would have to say Jane Eyre. The story is encapsulating and the language is beautiful. I have read it in both English and Chinese, many times.
Again that is hard to name. I went through different phases in my life and two identities, one as Chinese and one as American. I know my all-time favorite writer in Chinese, but not in English. I was ‘forced’ to read a lot of classical in English literature before my English was even proficient enough to appreciate them. I am sure I have missed a lot. I have not yet read widely after I became more confident with my English. Whatever I say will be colored by my feeling right at that moment. Right at this moment, I give you: Augusten Burroughs. He’s hilarious, period. I mean for somebody like me who does not have a lot of context to understand some of his works like Running with Scissors because I did not grow up here, and for somebody like me who really is just beginning to appreciate the English language, and for somebody like him who really does not have a whole lot of story to tell, he can certainly keep me reading, and reading and laughing until I begin to cry.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
The Lord of the Rings. I read The Hobbit and it is wonderful. I own The Lord of the Rings but somehow I’ve never gotten around to it.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
“It was good… I wish I had kept up with it.” I published my first short story in a women’s magazine in China. That was 25 years ago. I did not do creative writing for many years. I hope I still have enough years ahead of me to get good at it.
How did you get started writing?
I was 11 when my grandma who raised me passed away. I was haunted by dreams of her for the next 10 years. They came and went. But they never really left. I thought of all the little things I remembered about her and suddenly felt that I never really knew her. I was perhaps 23 when I began an emotional journey to try to understand her. After that, I felt a profound sadness for her hard life. I felt an urge to write it down. So I did. A year later I published the short story I wrote, centered on my grandmother. After that, believe it or not, she stopped coming into my dreams. So the superstitious part in me believes, in a very Chinese way, that I had paid the debt I owed to her, through my writing.
Does writing change anything?
Writing changes everything. It changes the writer and it changes the reader. It changes the world. Ever since I began writing and publishing, I have felt a new life in me. My eyes are sharper; my thoughts faster; and my feelings clearer. Writing more than just occupies my spare time in a meaningful way, it morphs my life subtly in a good way. Some say books are dead because people don’t read any more. I disagree. Books will never die. All great ideas have come from books and will continue to come from books. Even if you have not read the book, you must have seen the movie. Even if you have not seen the movie, you must have heard people talking about or reference it. We are consistently morphed and shifted because of things people wrote and things people read.