The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing

I had the pleasure of meeting Tara Laskowski last year at Press 53’s annual Wine & Words Fest when she was honored for winning second place in the flash fiction category in the publisher’s Open Awards (and as a finalist in another category). (I was there in my capacity as editor of Prime Number Magazine, published by Press 53.) And now Tara has invited me to participate in The Next Big Thing series, a chain of self-interviews where authors talk about their new/forthcoming collections and projects. So, thanks to Tara for this opportunity.

This series is pretty interesting. If you click on Tara’s name above, you’ll see not only her answers to this list of ten questions, but you’ll see links to the writer who tagged her as well as links to the blogs of all the writers whom Tara has tagged. Down at the bottom of this page I’ll link to the blogs of the writers I’ve tagged. And so on. You can learn a whole lot about a lot of writers by following these links.

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

My novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, was published by Press 53 in October 2012.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Several different places at once, honestly. The idea for the structure came because I was in story-writing mode, having recently finished my first book, In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009) but really wanted to write a novel. The subject matter arose from a recent trip to China during which I visited Nanjing and the site of the 1937-38 Nanking Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking (which plays a symbolic role in the book). That suggested to me my setting in Washington (near Chinatown), where I used to live, and also brought to mind the main character, Zhang Fengqi, an immigrant from Shanghai.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s literary fiction, whatever that means. And it’s a novel. Or short stories. Or both. It’s blue, I know that much.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Although I haven’t given the casting any thought at all until now, I do think this book would make a pretty good movie. And because we don’t see a lot of roles for Asian American actors in this country, I don’t think we’re very familiar with their names. But how about Jet Li to play Zhang Fengqi and Lucy Liu to play his love interest, Jessica Lee. Nathan the novelist could be someone like Kevin Spacey. And another important character is the neighbor Claudia, and I’m thinking Gwynyth Paltrow.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Chinese immigrant Zhang Fengqi, a recent widower and resident of a condo building in a not-quite-gentrified neighborhood of Washington, DC, is searching for a replacement wife and a new mother for his young sons, Simon and Wesley, who weave in and out of the lives of their neighbors conducting their own search for meaning.

Was your book self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither. I made the sale directly to Press 53, a small press that also published my first book. (I am looking for representation for a recently completed novel, though. Just sayin’.)

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Only about a year, but mostly in one amazingly productive month at VCCA.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout comes to mind, because it’s a well-known novel in stories. But there’s also David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan, a collection of linked stories set in an apartment building in New York. The book has also been compared to the classic story cycle, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, but I personally think that’s a stretch.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

In a way it was the concept of a novel in stories that inspired me. I love reading and writing stories but I know that most readers love to read novels although they generally like reading short stories when they do so (mostly by accident). And it was a structure that, once I’d identified the residents of the building, very nearly wrote itself. (To read more about how I identified those other characters, you might be interested in this brief essay I did: Behind Closed Doors.)

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Although the book is made up of a very diverse cast of characters and a variety of voices, it’s really something of a multi-generational family saga. But it’s also a book about creativity and art, as several of the characters are writers or visual artists who use their work to speak for themselves, something that I think artists and writers in particular will understand and relate to.

Once again, I’d like to thank Tara Laskowski for inviting me to participate in this series.

I’ve managed to convince these talented writers to play along, and they’ll be posting their answers next week:

Nonnie Augustine will post on December 19 about One Day Tells its Tale to Another on her blog

Tawnysha Greene will post on December 18 at, where she will talk about her novel, A House Made of Stars, which is about to start making the rounds at publishers.

Phyllis Anne Duncan will post on December 18 at She will talk about her novel A War of Deception.

Marjorie Hudson will post on December 19 at and will talk about her story collection Accidental Birds of the Carolinas.

Kelly Cozy will post on December 17 at and will be discussing her forthcoming novel Ashes.



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