Lisa Ko on her Newest Novel
Lisa Ko shares her thoughts on her newest novel, The Leavers.
Lisa Ko's awesome debut novel The Leavers has rocked the world. Her book is the story of a young Chinese American man coming to terms with his white adoptive parents, leading him on a search of his past and the mother who abandoned him in New York City during his childhood. It is also so much more than that, too. Americans of Asian descent can relate to a forgotten or erased personal and political history limned in The Leavers.
You can believe The Leavers has made an impact. The book was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award, and landed on all the important year-end best lists. If you missed the launch, the paperback was out in April.
Giant Robot Media was lucky enough to catch up with Ko recently in a diner, the natural habitat of someone raised in New Jersey.
By Ed Lin
Giant Robot: So, The Leavers, how many years did it take to write?
Lisa Ko: I started writing in the fall of 2009 and now it'sit came out in the spring of 2017, so seven and a half years until the publication datefrom the first draft until the pub date.
GR: This is not your first attempt at writing a novel?
LK: I've writtenI wrote some poorly disguised autobiographical novels when I was a kid in like sixth grade. I don't know if we should count that. But before I started writing The Leavers, I started a collection of short stories for a number of years and never finished. Kind of my first adult try.
GR: The inspiration was a New York Times story?
LK: That's sort of what kicked it off, an article about an undocumented Chinese immigrant who'd been in a detention center for two years, and she was found by accident because she happened to have the same name of the ex-wife of a serial killer. They were looking for this ex-wife but found this other woman with the same name who it turned out had an even more -compelling story to write about. They ended up profiling her and they talked about how she had a son who was taken away from her and adopted by a Canadian couple. The article actually helped her get asylum, but there are so many other cases that were really similar, women who had their kids adopted.
GR: Let's talk about synesthesia a little bit. Is that something you have?
LK: No, but I've always kinda wanted it. It seems really cool. I have friends who have it and I've always been really interested in it because I grew up playing music from a really young age. I played piano like any good Chinese American kid. I'm interested in music as a language and to associate that language with a certain sounds. You could hear a car horn and be like, "That's E-flat," or even, "That's deep red."
GR: Have you ever been in a band?
LK: When I was in junior-higheighth grade I was in a band that covered a Dead Milkmen song.
GR: "Bitchin' Camaro"?
LK: No, "Punk Rock Girl," at a high-school dance. That was mMy one and only claim to fame.
GR: You know they're back together, but I don't think Rodney Anonymous isn't a part of it.
LK: So there's like a Filipino guy...
GR: They found him on YouTube!
LK: A He sounds just like Rodney Anonymousperfect Dead Milkman imitator!
GR: What was the inspiration for the Deming character?
LK: I started writing the book based on the Mom Polly character for a while but I was always interested in what happened to the kids in all these stories, for the kids to know that their parents wanted to keep them but not able to take them if they got deported or detained. What it was like to be caught in the tug of war between the adopted family and their biological family of originparents. I kind of always knew that Deming, the kid character, would be a prominent part of the novel.
GR: We were living on the east side of Manhattan's Chinatown from 2000 to 2004, that's a Fukienese area. When Fukienese had kids, the kids were immediately sent to China to be with grandparents. When the kids came back to the U.S. they would act with so much entitlement the parents couldn't handle it.
LK: Because they've been spoiled by the grandparents. "Why are you telling me what to do?"
GR: How did you create that world in the Bronx with Deming, the kids in their own world with the adults out working?
LK: Part of it was remembering what it was like being a 10-year-old myself and having my parents working. I grew up in the suburbs so it was different from the Bronx. But, you know, kids are kind of the same wherever they are. When you're 12 years old and left on your own, watching TV all day or getting in trouble with your friends. Part of it was from that and also imagining what it was like for boys.
GR: Was Hendrix your first musical experience, too?
LK: No, but I wanted to give Deming some musical gift from his adoptive parents. Something that he would really like, something would make sense for him. Something from the demographic of the parents, who are into classic rock. I could see Deming getting into the sounds.
GR: It would instill in him some desire to become "that guitar guy."
GR: Hendrix's rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner" kinda twists what it means to be an American.
LK: I feel that in a way Hendrix is this mythical figure, a black guy working in what was then a very white rock scene, that parallels Deming's feeling of being on the outside while in this new community.
GR: I was horrified to see your Facebook post that you were chucking out all these CDs.
LK: Yeah, I know, I got some shit for that. I haven't listened to them for a really long time. I don't have a CD player. I don't have a CD player in my laptop! I have no way to play them but I've been carting them around since 2002. I haven't bought a new CD since 2002, it's all been digital. I couldn't justify bringing all those CDs to a new apartment now that we're moving. It made me really sad, but I'm keeping a select 30 CDs. And I do have all my 45s and all my cassette tapes, hundreds and hundreds of mixtape cassettes that I will never give up. They're in my parents' house in the suburbs. Whenever I talk to my mom and she's like, "When are you going to come home and get rid of those tapes?" I'm like, "Don't touch those tapes, Mom!"
GR: Do you still have a cassette deck?
GR: Do you have a turntable?
LK: No! Do you have a cassette deck?
GR: Yes, I'm slowly digitizing all these shows I recorded going back to college--Nirvana, Soundgarden. You're someone who's been to a lot of shows, as well.
LK: Did you fill out that "10 concerts you've seen" meme on Facebook?
GR: I couldn't bring myself to do it. What was the most memorable show you've seen?
LK: Oh my God, that's a really hard question, Ed.
GR: I love how it's a very music-oriented book.
LK: Thanks for picking up on that.
GR: It talks about math rock. I saw this band recently and it was two guys on synth machines who looked like half of a math team that liked their parents' Yes records too much. I will say that there is one really awesome Yes album, Close to the Edge.
LK: I don't mind Yes. I actually like Yes. Maybe that's something my character wouldn't say.
GR: But in truth, he really does love Yes.
LK: Yeah, but feeling like he has to be cool and not like Yes.
GR: What was the first show you went to?
LK: INXS in 1988. The Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey. Or was it the Continental? It's changed names so many times. I saw a bunch of shows there in junior high. The Pixies, the Cure.
GR: Did you see the New Order and Sugarcubes show there?
LK: I didn't, sadly, but I have had the t-shirt, given to me by a friend who went.
GR: Did you go to college in the city?
LK: No, I went to Wesleyan in Connecticut. I remember the Sun Ra Arkestra played there. I did see Fugazi in college. I saw Superchunk too many many times. I haven't gone to many shows recently. now that I've entered middle age. I saw Stevie Wonder pretty recently, he was amazing. He did his entire Songs in the Key of Life album and played for like three hours.
GR: That may be the most memorable show for you, then.
LK: They're all memorable in different ways. Stadium shows versus tiny clubs.
GR: For the record, you do have to give your losing-your-phone story.
LK: Sure. I submitted my manuscript for the PEN/Bellwether Prize, which was established and funded by Barbara Kingsolver. And I totally forgot about it because I thought there was no chance I was going to win. Six months later, I found out I was a finalist. I was actually on vacation, down in the Bahamas with my boyfriend for a week, and couldn't check my email or voicemail, because there was no reception. I ended up leaving my phone in the place we were staying. I came back to Brooklyn, finally checked my email and found all these messages from Barbara Kingsolver saying like, "We've been trying to call you for days, please call ASAP, it's about the PEN/Bellwether Prize." I was really out of it, jetlagged. I'd been up for a really long time. I was like, is she just calling to tell me I didn't win? What's going on? Then I called her and she told me that I'd won. I was totally shell-shocked. And I did get my phone back, eventually, a month later. When I got it and turned it on, I found like four voice messages from Barbara Kingsolver and they were all in increasing order of panic. Barbara Kingsolver thought I was standing her up, and I would never do that!
GR: In general, people are not out of touch, anymore.
LK: Yeah, sadly! We could all stand to be out of touch a little more.
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Ed Lin, a native New Yorker of Taiwanese and Chinese descent, is the first author to win three Asian American Literary Awards and is an all-around standup kinda guy. His books include Waylaid, and a trilogy set in New York’s Chinatown in the 70s: This Is a Bust, Snakes Can’t Run and One Red Bastard. Ghost Month, published by Soho Crime in July 2014, is a Taipei-based mystery, and Incensed, published October 2016, continues that series.
Ed resides in Brooklyn and has been a long-time contributor to Giant Robot.