Elena Bowes spoke to Lan Samantha Chang about The Family Chao, a gripping, hilarious and original tale about a tyrannical father Leo Chao and his three obedient American-born sons, siblings who become prime suspects in their despotic father’s murder. This tale of Chinese immigrants in small-town Wisconsin, owners of the restaurant The Fine Chao, explores the American Dream turned nightmare. Inspired by The Brothers Karamazov, The Family Chao explores assimilation,inter-racial relationships, family loyalty, ambition, identity and love. It’s a layered, rich, compelling story where the honest, sometimes brutal, sometimes tender, always engaging dialogue leaps off the page and stays with you. You’ll never look at a Chinese restaurant the same way.
You are the first female and first Asian American to be the director of the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. How did you juggle that job with writing this epic family saga? Do you sleep much?
If I could change one thing about myself, I would decrease the amount of sleep I require. I’m envious of people who only need six hours of sleep a night in order to thrive. Ideally, I need eight hours. During the twelve years while writing The Family Chao, I struggled to direct the Iowa program, be with my family, and finish this book; and I would never have done it without my husband. In the last five years of writing the novel, I went almost twice a year to writing residencies such as Yaddo, MacDowell, Hedgebrook, and Ragdale, in order to have time to read and write. My husband took care of our daughter whenever I was gone. I think they developed a special relationship in part because I spent time away writing, and I’m grateful they did.
Did being the director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop influence your writing style?
There is something extraordinarily inspiring about being around people who are at an emerging stage in their artistic lives—a stage when writing is being discovered and every creative problem to be surmounted must be tackled from an angle that is entirely fresh. Many tremendously gifted students are at that time in their development. Through working with them, I was inspired to see my novel as new. I think my style evolved enormously as a result.
You mention in an interview that you are writing not about the immigrant experience, but the post immigrant experience, “the idea that you are seen as one thing, and you feel another thing.” Can you expand on this?
My family has been in the United States for sixty years. My sisters and I, although we grew up as outsiders, with Chinese family histories and bicultural identities, are now also deeply American. And yet, because of our appearance, we are seen by many as newly arrived immigrants. This long-term experience can be confounding and is rarely written about.
Is reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov a prerequisite for appreciating The Family Chao, or as locals in the midwestern town of Haven call the three sons after the tyrannical father’s death, ‘The Brothers Karamahjong’?
The Family Chao was written to be consumed independently from its Dostoevskian inspiration; and yet, if you’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, you may enjoy ways in which The Family Chao has departed from the older novel. The female characters, for example, are very different.
I found the tyrannical father Leo Chao to be as funny as he was horrible, like when he tells his son James, a heartfelt, pre-med virgin that “we came to America to colonise the place for ourselves. That means spreading seed. Equal opportunity for fucking.” I am guessing that you chuckled as you typed. What were the most fun parts of writing this book?
Yes—the tyrannical patriarch, Leo Chao, stepped right onto the page both horrible and funny. I enjoyed writing about Leo, and I also enjoyed developing his sons’ lives, especially their loves lives: the women they (do, don’t, and pretend not to) love and are (officially or unofficially) dating.
And the least fun?
Well, this novel has a murder and a trial. The trial was probably my biggest challenge. Lawyers run in the family (my paternal grandfather, my oldest sister, and one of my brothers-in-law are attorneys), but I was never logical in that way, and I had to try to imagine a complete trial in order to complete the book. I talked to my brother-in-law, a litigator, and he sent me the transcript of a murder trial he worked on as a pro bono case. There were fascinating characters—one of the female witnesses was larger-than-life, shocking and hilarious, and you could see it in the transcript—but the trial was terribly long and seemed to be designed to be relayed in as narratively boring a manner as possible. Ultimately, I had to avoid following the transcript and come up with a new voice to tell the story of the trial.
Do you have any tips on writing fast-paced dialogue for aspiring novelists?
The Irish novelist, Elizabeth Bowen, said that dialogue is what people do to one another. Dialogue is action; action is characterization; characterization is essential to good storytelling.
I read in an article that while you once preached the doctrine of Strunk and White – that exclamations points are to be avoided – The Family Chao contains 419 of them! What happened?
To make a long story short, I was taught as a young writer not to use exclamation points, and I realized as an older writer that sometimes it’s necessary to break rules. Some immigrant families live lives of quiet desperation, but the Chao family lived a life of noisy desperation. In order to capture the liveliness of this particular family, and this novel, I had to let them shout.
If you had to give one piece of advice to an emerging writer, what would it be?
I think my one piece of advice would be to write about what truly matters to you, and to be as truthful as possible in doing it.
I’m getting ready to promote the paperback for The Family Chao and to start a new year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’ve just begun the long process (for me) of finding a new creative project. We shall see.
Thank you so much- I loved your book, one of the more colourful, imaginative stories I’ve read in a while.