I found LA based writer Siel Ju’s novel Cake Time: a novel-in-stories during a trip to LA in December 2017, and I was hooked. I easily fell into the rhythm of the book’s structure and style, and Siel’s use of language: witty and sharp. The next logical step for me, of course, was to use Google to find out more about her. I immediately learned that she is obsessed with smoothie bowls. This is by her own admission. There are tons of brightly colored pictures plastered to her social media accounts—smoothies artfully posed next to current books she is reading. Food, books, and an eye for color: all of my favorite things.
Siel has a talent for making strange combinations work. She has an innate ability to capture the drama and humor of everyday life. These types of intersections unfold in Cake Time where Siel explores the connections and disconnections found in the intimacy. Cake Time explores themes of consent, exploitation, and power dynamics between men and women. Classic themes, but Siel writes for a digital world and illustrates the way boundaries are blurred and crossed in a modern world.
Siel received a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Southern California. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks Praise for Might Club and Feelings are Chemicals in Transit. Her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Confrontation, and Denver Quarterly. Her debut novel Cake Time won the Red Hen Press Fiction Award in 2015.
In March 2018, I had the opportunity to interview Siel Ju via email. The following is our conversation. It has been edited for clarity.
Kori Kessler: Your novel Cake Time won the Red Hen Press Fiction Award in 2015. What’s it like to be an emerging writer and win an award like that? What advice do you have for other women who are emerging writers?
Siel Ju: I was so surprised when I got the call from Kate Gale at Red Hen that Cake Time had won the award that I almost hung up on her! For a few days I felt like a happy disbelief—that a book of mine was finally going to come out into the world. Which is to say: Cake Time—both the individual stories in the book and the complete manuscript—went through a lot of rejections before it won the award. So my advice to other women would be to take rejection lightly and keep going.
KK: Your website is brilliant: quirky and individual. Your voice seems to be present on every webpage. Do you find branding to be essential to a writer in 2018? Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to set up their own sites and create their own brands?
SJ: Thank you! I do think having an online presence helps you find an audience if you’re a writer today. On a practical level, it makes it a lot easier for people to find you and reach out to you, for opportunities big and small. I think just the fact that you can tell from my website that I often give readings makes reading and event organizers more likely to reach out to me more often. A regular blog and newsletter helps keep me on people’s minds too.
There are feelings and emotions that are very specific to certain moments in life—the feelings you have as a teenage girl are pretty different from the ones you have as a woman in her thirties, etc.That said, social media and blogging and personal branding can be huge time sucks. And some writers really hate spending time on it. And others—There are friends of mine with writerly ambitions who are very prolific Tweeters and Facebookers but not very prolific at all in terms of producing the creative work they say actually matters to them.
So I would say it’s a good idea to have at least a rudimentary website that lets people find and contact you, but beyond that do just what you enjoy and don’t spend more time on this stuff than you do on writing what really matters to you. There’s not much point in working on your author profile if you’re not actually writing.
KK: As a writer, how has your process changed over the years? When drafting Cake Time how much did the novel and the protagonist change?
SJ: I don’t know that my writing process changed that much while I was writing Cake Time, but it’s changed somewhat since then. With Cake Time, I was really writing short stories—stories short enough that I could kind of hold all the pieces in my head and move them around in my mind without worrying about outlines and such. Now, I’m working on a novel that’s not a novel-in-stories—and I find that I do actually need to do a lot of planning, creating a structure to follow before I start what I consider the real writing part of the novel writing.
Otherwise I end up writing a whole lot of drivel that doesn’t actually go anywhere…. This is just me though. There are plenty of novelists who write sans outline.
KK: In Cake Time, readers follow an unnamed narrator as she dives into one bad relationship after another. The anonymity of the narrator and her experiences in dating gives her an “everywoman” feeling, like she could be any one of us. What drew you to center the experience of dating?
SJ: I can’t remember which book of Andre Breton’s I’m thinking of here, but in one of them, he pictures all his ex-lovers sitting in a row, across from a row of his former selves. Or at least that’s how I remember what he wrote. In any case I think in many ways our memories of past relationships are really memories of our past selves, selves that did and said things or acted and reacted in ways that can seem bizarre and illogical and confounding to our present selves. And romantic relationships—most of which tend to have a relatively clear beginning and an end (vs. friendships or familial relationships that go on for long periods of time with lots of permutations), and are serial in nature (most people have multiple friends but usually just one romantic partner at a time)—can be an interesting way of looking at the phases of our lives, the ways we and our wants and desires and motivations have changed or haven’t.
That said I’m not sure what I just said is what I was really thinking about when I was writing Cake Time. Even now, I don’t really think of the stories as being about a series of relationships—I think rather of phases of a girl/woman’s life. There are feelings and emotions that are very specific to certain moments in life—the feelings you have as a teenage girl are pretty different from the ones you have as a woman in her thirties, etc.—and I wanted to distill some of those feelings and emotions in discrete moments for Cake Time‘s protagonist.
KK: The structure of Cake Time is a novel-in-stories. Readers follow the same narrator through a series of encounters written as short stories. What inspired this structure?
SJ: The structure kind of came out of a lack of overall planning. Basically, I was just writing random short stories, with no sense of a bigger plan beyond that I wanted to publish a book of short stories. Then I started reading short story collections and realized that I really needed to have some sort of overarching thing that held the stories together as a collection if my goal was to publish a book. So, at that point I went through the stories I had and saw that a handful of them could be revised to have the same protagonist in different points in her life. After that, I wrote more stories to fill in the gaps and give an overall arc to the collection.
KK: A general rule of thumb is to resolve a novel, but leave a short story open ended. How does this affect writing a novel in short stories?
SJ: There’s a rule?! This is news to me.
KK: How do you write characters outside of your own experience? For example, Alek, Christian, Jeff, Matt or any of the other men who the narrator dates or hooks up with in Cake Time?
SJ: Well, Cake Time is all written from a female character’s point of view, so I didn’t have to worry so much about getting into the heads of the male characters. But I have worried more about the issue of sounding authentic when writing from a male character’s point of view for other stories I’ve written. I don’t know—I think men and women do have a lot of differences—but also have a lot of similarities…. Human needs and desires are human needs and desires.
KK: LA becomes the backdrop for the novel, but more than that, it’s almost another messy, flawed character. What kind of role does LA play in your writing? Why did you set the scene of most of the stories in LA? What kind of effect does LA have on the stories as opposed to misadventures in a more rural town?
SJ: Honestly, I think I often choose LA as a setting because I don’t want to spend a lot of time doing research about other settings—I have very little time to dedicate to writing as it is, so I don’t want to spend that time googling things. And maybe more than that, I do like to experience places I write about—yet I’m also reluctant to move anywhere for a significant period of time or to write “tourist” stories, you know, those protagonist visits a new place as an American tourist or as a writer at a writing conference / retreat / college speaker type stories and has interesting thoughts about the place and some odd adventures type stories….
Despite all the social media networks today, I think it’s still tough for people to figure out what events are happening, what workshops are available, what little communities exist, especially if you’re just starting out as a writer….I think it would be cool to write a historical novel—I loved Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, for example—but when it comes down to it, I love reading those types of books a lot more than I’m truly driven to write them.
KK: You wrote A Guide to Literary Los Angeles: Find Your Writing Community in a Sprawling City. What made you realize the need for a literary guide to the city? What makes LA’s literary scene different than other literary scenes across America?
SJ: The short answer to that is that I knew a lot of writer friends and acquaintances organizing cool events and struggling to find a bigger, more diverse (as in not always the same dozen or two people) audience for them—and I sensed there were a lot of writers who wished they could be part of a literary community but didn’t know where to start. So I wanted to create something that connected those two groups. Despite all the social media networks today, I think it’s still tough for people to figure out what events are happening, what workshops are available, what little communities exist, especially if you’re just starting out as a writer….
KK: You interview fellow authors yourself. What do you gain from interviewing different authors?
SJ: It’s a cool chance to talk about a book I admire with the author herself. Plus, as I writer I feel like writing is intimately tied to living—like our ways of writing are ways of living, if that makes sense. So I guess through the interviews, I’m trying to better figure out how to write—and how to live—for myself.
KK: What are you working on now?
SJ: I’m working on a novel about a woman who leaves her orderly life in the Midwest, moves to LA, starts dancing, and learns to let life get messy—too messy. Trouble ensues.
KK: Which non-writing related aspect of your life influences your writing the most?
SJ: Right now, I guess the salsa dancing aspect, since that’s a big topic in the novel I’m writing.
KK: Is there anything you feel like I should have asked you that I didn’t?
SJ: No. And thank you!