We Might See Ourselves: An Interview with James Yeh
James Yeh, a writer, editor, journalist, and teacher based in Brooklyn, is a native of South Carolina. His fiction has been published in McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Drift, Dissent, Taste Magazine, NOON, Puerto del Sol, Apogee, IMPOSE, BOMB, and Tin House. His reporting and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Believer, Columbia Journalism Review, and VICE. He’s earned a BA from Clemson University, an MFA from Columbia University, and he’s been an emerging writers fellow at the Center for Fiction, a writer-in-residence at the Hub City Writers Project, and a visiting writer at the Black Mountain Institute.
Yeh works as the nonfiction advisor in Columbia University’s Undergraduate Creative Writing Program. Formerly, he was the deputy editor at McSweeney’s Quarterly, reviews editor at The Believer, culture editor at VICE, and a founding editor of Gigantic.
We met over Zoom in August to discuss Yeh’s way of making a life as a writer.
Kevin Cummins: Your talk at the June 2023 Antioch residency, with its great title—“The Incredible Self-Cleaning Oven, or Making a Life as a Writer”—delighted me. I loved this sentence that you spoke: “Making a living as a writer is not an easy thing to do, but making a life as a writer is possible.”
James Yeh: I’m glad that resonated with you. Making a living as a writer is not easy, but it’s possible. Workshop can be challenging. To learn about writing, you have to open yourself up to so much vulnerability. Not only with what you’re writing, but simply being a writer at your desk who wants to have people take your things seriously. The thing I don’t want anyone to feel, after interacting with me, is discouraged. Even if their work doesn’t speak to me. If they’re a writer, who am I to say? Find someone who is empowering to your work, and who gets it. Because there are so many other people. So many other great writers to read, and so many books to encounter.
KC: In McSweeney’s 70, an issue you edited, in Edward Gauvin’s “Conspirators’ Notes”, an experimental story noted on its author’s website as “a récit I like to call the intellectual autobiography of a pen name,’” T. C. Boyle stands up at a conference on short fiction in the late 1980s and says to his fellow Iowa Writers Workshop alum Raymond Carver, “Not all of us do it your way, Ray, and there’s got to be room for that.”
If there’s more than one way to write fiction, is there more than one way to parse narrative literature into creative nonfiction and fiction?
JY: Yeah, that Gauvin story is exactly the one – when you mentioned creative nonfiction and fiction and the line between it – that one immediately sprang to my mind. I’m tempted to do two things right here. Maybe I should talk about what speaks to me about great literature, and the other is to think of writers who have said some smart things about it. I remember reading an interview with Sheila Heti talking about Motherhood, which I think is such a great, inventive book. It’s classified as a novel, but it began as a lot of interviews that she did with friends and others about the topic of motherhood. It changed forms as she worked on it. She talks about finding more space in its being a novel than in its being a nonfiction work.
Fiction can have more space. But it’s also a question of the right distance to find between the author and the work. Sometimes you want more distance, and sometimes you want less.
It depends on what you want the work to do, and where it can find its most effective form. I’ll encounter student writing in a nonfiction class, and sometimes I’ll say, “Hey, this might be something to consider writing as a third-person piece of fiction.” Fiction can have more space. But it’s also a question of the right distance to find between the author and the work. Sometimes you want more distance, and sometimes you want less. And we’re also considering an ideal world, of course, where commercial considerations aren’t at play.
KC: One thing I like about Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is her use of chance as a structural tool in making the work. Throughout the book, as if conjuring her muse, the protagonist throws coins in a makeshift version of the I-Ching. She flips three coins and reads the results like she’s talking to a crystal ball. She sets up a structure to let herself off the hook and gives the coins the role of muse.
You’re interested in place, I’ve noticed, in your writing and the work you curate as an editor. In your writing, the sense of belonging that you’ve had in the places that you’ve lived differs relative to the histories of those places. I never knew about Benjamin Tillman or Manse Jolly until I read your essay about South Carolina’s history of white supremacist violence, an essay you wrote in 2015 after an anti-Black mass shooting in a Charleston church. I’m a white man who grew up in New York state. When I lived in Charleston for four weeks in a boarding house west of the Ashley River as a 25-year-old teacher, I remember how much I felt like a Yankee and a white man. You wouldn’t be a Yankee there.
JY: No. [laughs]
KC: And you wouldn’t be a white man there.
KC: How does place collide with identity to set up questions of belonging?
JY: When you were talking, Alejandro Zambra and Percival Everett came to mind, two writers I’ve either worked with or spent time with, interviewing and writing about. Both of them talk about belonging and place really interestingly. In his essay, “Free Topic,” Zambra talks about how all literature might really be about belonging. When people ask me where I’m from, or what South Carolina is like, my response depends on who I’m talking to. Like, another Asian person who I just met? A white person from South Carolina? It’s that whole idea of code switching. If we were face-to-face, I think I would say something a little more delicate. If I were talking to a Black friend from South Carolina, that would also be different. With someone who’s from the South, or anyone who’s from a marginalized background, probably what I would do is laugh and just look at them. We’d probably just bypass all that stuff. Because it’s like, do we really need to enumerate all this?
My response is different to different people. I don’t know if that speaks to any particular insight on my own part, other than maybe some kind of instinct toward avoiding discomfort. Which is maybe a Southern thing. You know, I spent the first 22 years of my life there. But I didn’t choose it. That was a chance operation. My parents chose it. But I didn’t choose my parents either. We’re always mishmashes of chance and choice.
Books could be this place where we might see ourselves. It might not be someone who looks exactly like us. But we might see some spark of feeling, shared joy, shared pain, shared comedy.
And, back to Heti. Motherhood doesn’t feel grounded in place in the same way, but it’s grounded in form and theme and this really big question that she’s asking throughout the whole book: Should I have a child? It’s tied to gender and societal questions. But, at one point, where she’s flipping the coins, she acknowledges—you know, even though chance is dictating it, she can keep choosing, if she wants to flip more coins, to get the answer that she wants.
So many writers and readers, wherever we’re from, one thing I think we can come together on, is that books are a place for us, and that literature is a place for us. That’s what I try to encourage in the classroom, certainly, is to help writers to find places of belonging. Because that’s what books have been for me. I first became a writer, really, when I fell in love with writing and the idea of becoming a writer, while in South Carolina during a fiction class taught by a Yankee from Idaho named Keith Lee Morris, who’s beloved there. He’s still there, and we’ve since become friends. Books could be this place where we might see ourselves. It might not be someone who looks exactly like us. But we might see some spark of feeling, shared joy, shared pain, shared comedy. It’s like that idea that James Baldwin talks about: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
Reading and books and literature as sites of belonging in space. The writers I feel closest to conjure a space for belonging, even if they might not intend it.
KC: Who is a writer you felt close to when you were young, before you left South Carolina?
JY: Well, it’s a space I’ve moved on from, but it was a line by Sherman Alexie. I know there’s been a reckoning with his work, or with his behavior, let’s say, but there’s a line from a short story in his debut collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, where the narrator talks about how he was “one of those Indians who was supposed to make it, to rise above the rest of the reservation like a fucking eagle or something,” and there’s such a combination of anger and piercing humor about that line. It’s engaging with these ideas of expectation, these ideas of belonging. These ideas of what society would think. I could easily, as a 19-year-old Asian kid in South Carolina, transpose that into getting into law school, or becoming a doctor or whatever, to fly off from upstate South Carolina like a fucking dragon or something.
KC: A dozen years ago, I took some ninth-grade students to hear Sherman Alexie read in Albuquerque, where 600 people packed, standing room only, into a university auditorium. No literary reading I’d ever seen felt as much like a standup comedy show. Alexie was lionized then, and enough of New Mexico’s ample Indigenous population showed up to laugh with him that Alexie said he felt like he was playing for the home crowd. Thanks for saying how his writing touched you. And thanks for talking about how literature offers us a place to find belonging.
You’ve published profiles and interviews with many writers: Percival Everett, Carmen Maria Machado, and Robin Wall Kimmerer among them. How did you become a writer who interviews writers? And how does it feed your own writing practice?
JY: Part of it is encountering a writer whose work excites you in some way. But, on a more boring, unromantic, logistical level, it is something about access and opportunity. For instance, with Robin Wall Kimmerer, someone asked me to do it. I hadn’t been familiar with her work. An editor at The Guardian reached out to me after I was recommended by another writer, Lauren Oyler. With Percival Everett, I received a galley of his novel So Much Blue in, I think, 2017. When I got laid off from my job at Vice, I had more time on my hands. I was living in the Las Vegas desert, working part-time as an editor at The Believer, and I fell in love with the book, and I wrote to Graywolf to say, “Hey, keep me posted. I loved this book. Thank you for sending it to me.” So they kept sending me things. And when I heard about Telephone in its early, press-release stage, I proceeded to write editors who I thought might be interested and might be able to provide the sort of resources so that I could spend some time with the work.
There’s a line I love by Eileen Myles, from The Importance of Being Iceland, where they write: “On a trip you have these guides, and there’s something intuitive about knowing whose advice to take.” I think of interviewing writers a bit like that: finding the right guides for where you want to go. And I think intuition, at least in this case, is actually something we can cultivate. There are writers who I’m excited to spend time with. It’s nourishing. It’s sustaining. Writing is a lonely path. Interviewing is a nice way you can get paid to read, meet a writer whose work you might admire, and go a little deeper in thinking and talking about their work. Like in The Catcher in the Rye, how Holden Caulfield says his favorite books are the ones where he feels like he wants to call the writer up afterward to talk to them. I’ve always liked that idea. Or like Frank O’Hara’s “Personism”: to have a poem that’s like between two people, like in a conversation. Interviews are a nice way I’ve found to spend time with a trustworthy guide in a pleasurable land.
KC: On your Twitter feed, you retweeted a photo of a typewritten letter Don DeLillo wrote as a response to David Foster Wallace, where DeLillo writes about precision in writing and the joy he feels using a manual typewriter. Different writers have a sense of attachment to different practices. Could you talk about your attachment to practices, as a writer?
JY: I’m too attached and too particular. It’s something I grapple with. For instance, I have right next to me, this little notebook, a Moleskine. I’m very particular about it. I followed a guide. This friend of mine, Ben Mauk, is one of the most thorough writers I’ve ever worked with as an editor. He was happy, in a Substack post, to go in depth about journaling and journal keeping, and the tools he uses. So I thought I would try it as an experiment. Three years later, I’ve filled dozens of these notebooks. I go through these now, like once a week. Most of it’s trash. But I find it empowering. It’s nice to hear someone like Ben, whose work I admire, say 90 percent of his journal is garbage. It’s not like every line is gold. He’s happy if 10 percent is not just complete trash. And I found that liberating to hear.
In writing, it’s so easy to put pressure on yourself, to produce, to be efficient, to make it timeless. And those things can be limiting, anxiety-inducing obstacles that keep us from doing something.
KC: In your seminar, you talked about your practice of keeping a notebook, and the value of taking the pressure off yourself. If I’m just writing in my notebook, there’s no pressure. If I’m just revising, there’s no pressure. You can trick yourself into feeling less pressure about the preciousness of the practice.
JY: I was quoting a friend who took a class with Geronimo Johnson, who said, “When I’m writing the first draft I tell myself that’s the easiest part, because it doesn’t have to be good. And when I’m revising I tell myself that’s the easiest part, because it’s already on the page.” That seems about right to me. In writing, it’s so easy to put pressure on yourself, to produce, to be efficient, to make it timeless. And those things can be limiting, anxiety-inducing obstacles that keep us from doing something. In Percival Everett’s Telephone, there’s an epigraph from Kierkegaard that says, “Do it, or do not do it. You will regret both.” There’s not just one perfect path or decision. Both ways are going to be fraught.
I remember when the nonfiction writer Chloé Cooper Jones did a talk at Columbia, a student said to her, “I’m a perfectionist. How do you know when a work is done?” And Chloé said she realized she could either make the “perfect” piece or she could have the life of an artist. She realized making only perfect pieces would maybe get in the way of having a life as an artist.
Kevin J. Cummins earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Born in Queens and raised in western New York, he has taught in Brooklyn, San Francisco, the Caribbean, and Albuquerque. He almost never tweets @kevinjcummins.