Pingmei Lan’s short story, “Cicadas and the Dead Chairman,” which appeared in Epiphany’s Fall/Winter 2018 issue, has been named a winner of the prestigious PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize. Below is a brief interview with Pingmei, featuring our “Epiphany 10” questions. Read the opening of Pingmei’s prize-winning story here. - the Editors
Epiphany: William Trevor began his adult life as a sculptor and later described his writing as chipping away at a block of marble. Are you a chipper or a builder? In other words, do you chip away at a block of writing, or are you more methodical, building up the block brick by brick?
A little of both. My stories tend to come out with a basic shape but to anyone other than myself it would look like lumps of clay. I would go for walks and come back to chip away at it.
When did you first become serious about writing fiction?
I took my first creative writing class in 2011. The teacher encouraged me to pursue writing more seriously. She asked me to submit my stories to journals like the New Yorker, etc. I did wind up taking more classes and eventually pursued my MFA in 2015. But it took me several more years to submit things to serious journals. It was, and still is, hard to silence the inner critic.
Five books you are reading or thinking about now?
I am currently reading Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, Middlemarch by George Eliot, and Human Hours by Catherine Barnett. I just finished A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley and already I want to go back and read it again. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez was the best book I read last year. I have been meaning to read Normal People by Sally Rooney.
If you had to inhabit a fictional world, what would it be (i.e., the environment of which novel or short story or poem)?
Does the one in Dubliners count? I would visit but try not to stay in the world Margaret Atwood built for Oryx and Crake.
Most interesting day job you've had (from the perspective of a writer)?
I worked as a hostess and waited tables through college. On my first day, I slipped and dumped an entire tray of lunch platters on a customer. He was very kind about it. My boss gave me an impassioned lecture but told me to keep going, which I tried to remember and not take for granted in the days to come.
Novels? Short stories? Which do you prefer to write?
Short stories, definitely. The middle of a novel, or what I call the belly of a book, would confuse me.
One sentence of advice regarding writing?
Keep thinking about your story on walks or while cleaning if you must, just not when you are driving.
Your story titles: usually your first choice?
Not often. I tend to name a piece after I think it is more or less complete.
In a nutshell, what are you working on now?
A collection of short stories.
What's an interview question you've never been asked that you wish had been?
“Besides writing, what other career would you have liked to have had?”
Pingmei Lan grew up in China where she developed a love-hate relationship with crowds, artificial lawn ornaments, and Chinese food for breakfast. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Epiphany, Tahoma Literary Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and others. She has been named a recipient of the 2019 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Currently she lives in San Diego.