Raised in New England, Kaitlin Solimine has considered China a second home for almost two decades. While at Harvard, she was a Harvard-Yenching scholar and wrote and edited Let’s Go: China. She was a U.S. Department of State Fulbright Fellow in China and the Donald E. Axinn Scholar in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. An excerpt from her first novel, Empire of Glass, won the 2012 Dzanc Books/Disquiet International Literary Program award. Her writing has been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Two Thirds North, The Hairpin, The World of Chinese Magazine, and The Places We’ve Been.
Why I write
Because I can’t imagine doing anything but.
What sort of writing habits do you keep?
As writing is the one thing keeping me closer to sane, I try to write every day in one form or another (be it working on my novel, non-fiction writing, journalism, blogging, or otherwise). When I’m on a steady fiction kick and my schedule permits, I try to write for at least two to three hours, usually first thing in the morning. If I’m in a generative phase (i.e. an early draft) I aim for 1,000 words a day, but in revision, I try to tackle a chapter a week.
Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
Currently I’m writing from the Southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica, so I’m lucky to sit at a table overlooking one of the most lush jungle and ocean vistas in the world. Occasionally, I venture into the nearest town of Dominical to work at Café Delicias or Moca Café.
Worst source of distraction and best source of inspiration?
Unequivocally my worst source of distraction is Facebook. Although occasionally research itself can become an unnecessary distraction, the rabbit’s hole of Google searches. That said, I’m fortunate to have poor Internet access these days so writing is fairly distraction free (aside from nearby howler monkeys). My best source of inspiration is found in the works of my favorite writers: Han Shan, Chuang Tzu, Fernando Pessoa, Haruki Murukami, Joan Dideon, Gao Xingjian, Rachel Carlson, Milan Kundera, Galileo Galilei, Albert Einstein, Wang Shuo, Joseph Conrad, Annie Dillard, Pico Iyer, Gary Snyder, Tomas Tranströmer. There is also nothing better than getting as far away from humanity or as close to it as possible — nature and its opposite, the city.
How often do you get writers’ block and how do you overcome it?
It’s seldom I stare at an empty page — my cure for writers’ block is always to just get one word down and the next and then the next. Even if it’s mindless dribble, this exercise always helps. And when all else fails, I read and read and read until the rhythm of a sentence, and then a paragraph, and then a page spur me to write my own words.
Do you ever doubt your own ability as a writer?
Every. Single. Day. Ira Glass has a well-traveled quote about how at the beginning of every creative person’s career there’s an inevitable gap between what one wants to create and what one actually creates. This is because, as he says, “your creative taste… is killer.” And I always remember that when I read my writing and hate it. But I don’t know if I wholly agree with Glass’s prognosis: I strongly believe words are a very imperfect mechanism at truth, and I know that nothing I write can ever perfectly describe what I’m trying to say. Tagore wrote: “The water in a vessel is sparkling; the water in the sea is dark. The small truth has words that are clear; the great truth has great silence.” In other words, I should shut up now.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I don’t ever recall making a distinct decision to become a writer, but I was always weaving my way through different written forms—ethnography, travel writing (for the travel guide Let’s Go China), and business writing in various ventures — until I found a story I needed to tell. That story became a novel and that novel became the last five years of my life.
How did you get started writing?
I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Fulbright creative grant to China in 2006-2007 to research the premise for my first novel. Were it not for a committee of academics and writers who judged my creative writing sample worthy of the grant, I’m not sure I would’ve believed in my capabilities, or the necessity to tell this particular story.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Okay, now there’s that.
Does writing change anything?
Writing is a way to feel less alone in a world that can feel so inexplicable and overwhelming. Gao Xing Jian says, “the feeling of loneliness is unique to humans.” But this is only because by examining the exterior world we are inherently examining our own self and seeing it as separate. So I see writing as bridging that gap. Maybe we forget about our ‘self’ for a little bit and inhabit another’s self. But I might take Gao Xingjian to bat regarding the idea that only humans experience loneliness. I’ve seen those grumpy cat MEMEs (damn you, Facebook) and he certainly looks like he understands loneliness.
Contemporary writer you always read?
Favorite Chinese writer?
The poet Han Shan.
Favorite China book?
Soul Mountain. And the complete works of Chuang Tzu.
Tough decision: Kundera’s Immortality, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mann’s Magic Mountain, Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. I should read less male writers. I’m embarrassed by this list.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
The Good Earth. I keep trying and failing.
What are you working on and when is it out?
I’m knee-deep in my third major revisionary rewrite of my first novel, Empire of Glass. I’m hoping I’ll be finished in coming months and can turn to my next long fiction project, a novel that combines the philosophies of Taoism with modern day American prep school culture.
Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2013