Susan Blumberg-Kason spent her childhood in suburban Chicago dreaming of the neon street signs and double-decker buses of Hong Kong. As soon as she was old enough, she moved there to study. Her memoir, Good Chinese Wife (Sourcebooks, 2014), recounts her years in a Chinese family as a wife, daughter-in-law, and mother.
Why I write
I started writing as a way of keeping alive my experiences in China and Hong Kong after I returned to the US 14 years ago. Now that I’m over 40, I can see how quickly those events can fade from memory if they are not recorded!
What sort of writing habits do you keep?
I have three kids, two of whom are barely out of diapers. I’m fortunate that those two go to sleep early. So my writing time is limited to the evenings, when I can get in a solid four to five hours. I don’t write every day unless I’m on deadline. When I was writing my memoir, I aimed for 1,200 words a night.
Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
I write on a leather, living room chair with a laptop. My husband bought me a laptop when I started working on my memoir. If it weren’t for that laptop, I would have been stuck alone in the cold basement where we keep our desktop computer. After spending most of my twenties in Hong Kong, I don’t require — or even want — a silent work environment.
How often do you get writers’ block and how do you overcome it?
Because I write after a long day of chauffeuring my kids, volunteering at their schools, planning Girl Scout meetings, and the like, I feel like I don’t have time to develop writers’ block. And since I enjoy the revision process, I would rather just crank out a first draft and then get down to serious work with revisions.
Worst source of distraction and best source of inspiration?
The Internet (email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it) can pose a huge distraction if I’m not on a tight deadline (in which case I can focus pretty well). My best source of inspiration is reading fabulous books.
Do you ever doubt your own ability as a writer?
Of course! When you spend four years querying agents, it’s normal to doubt more than one’s writing ability! After I signed with my amazing agent, Carrie Pestritto, I went through three rounds of submissions before signing with my publisher last year. That was also a skin-thickener. But in a weird way, the rejection letters during those first two rounds of submission gave me the encouragement to carry on. I would actually re-read those rejection letters to cheer myself up. Now I turn to my offer letter!
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
My paternal grandmother first gave me the idea decades ago. I came of age before the advent of email, so I used to be a consummate letter writer. My grandma always said she loved receiving my letters and that I should be a writer. Several years ago my aunt sent me a hundred letters my grandma had saved before her death seven years ago. Many of those letters are from when I lived in Hong Kong in the 1990s. There was even a postcard from my first trip to China back in 1988.
How did you get started writing?
I was a graduate student in Hong Kong just before the handover. The professors in my department (government and public administration) back then were mostly from Taiwan. Some asked me to proofread their papers before they submitted them for publication. After I graduated and wanted to stay in Hong Kong to work, the only job I could get in 1996 was an editorial position at another university, thanks to the editing experience I obtained in graduate school.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I should have been an English major!
Does writing change anything?
It provides a harmless escape.
Contemporary writer in any medium you always read?
Eileen Chang. When I wrote about being inspired by books, I was thinking of Eileen Chang.
Martin Booth’s Gweilo is the definitive Old Hong Kong memoir. If it weren’t for this book, Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong would be my favorite. I’m a sucker for anything Hong Kong, especially books set there in the 1950s and ’60s. My mom and her family first traveled to Hong Kong in the early 1960s, so I’m obsessed with that time and place.
Best book about China?
It’s been two decades since I’ve read it, but I loved China Wakes and often gave copies of it as gifts in the early 1990s. The book came out after I had visited China a few times and had already spent a year in Hong Kong. It reaffirmed what I had witnessed in China, but was also revelatory in many other ways (i.e. that Mao had done more harm than good. That of course seems like a given now, but I remember when it wasn’t so clear-cut!).
Favorite Chinese author?
Apart from Eileen Chang, my favorite Chinese author is Li Yiyun. Although she is also an American author, Li Yiyun constantly reminds me why I love Chinese literature.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
As a memoirist, I should have read Eat, Pray, Love by now.
What are you working on and when is it out?
In a few weeks, I will complete the final proofread of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, my memoir that will be published by Sourcebooks this July. This book tells the story of my five-year marriage to a man from central China, and how I went into it full of hope and optimism because I had studied Chinese history and could speak Mandarin. But things didn’t work out as expected!
Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014