I’m typing this on the Peter Pan bus, en route to Logan Airport after a sojourn on Martha’s Vineyard. While there, I read, to a lovely audience at the West Tisbury Library, an excerpt from The Saltwater Twin that chronicles my failed attempt at becoming a cheerleader and my lifelong quest for genuine good cheer. There were other storytellers, and there was coconut cake and prosecco. Also, I got to visit with my friend Jennifer Tseng who is a poet, a librarian at the West Tisbury Library and now a novelist to boot. I reviewed her debut novel, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness last month on The Island Review. I thought I’d like to interview her about the novel and her writing process…so without further ado, I give you Jennifer!
You’ve published two books of poetry. How would you say being a poet influenced you as a novelist?
On the one hand, I do a lot of the same things in fiction as I do in poetry. In both, the work is image-driven, concerned with time, beauty, death, lost time, lost beauty. On the other hand, I move from one form to another in order to accomplish something. Often unconsciously, I turn to fiction when I want to enact an ending and I turn to poetry when I want to enact eternity. Writing fiction is a way to kill something and writing poetry is a way to make it live. I write fiction to turn the page and poetry never to leave it. Both are equally miraculous and fundamental to me.
What was the spark that kindled Mayumi?
The book was like a dream I had—it’s difficult to identify the many things that prompted me to make it. Certainly, I wrote Mayumi to escape my first novel Woo, the imagined story of my (late) father’s life.
My goal was to write something smaller. Something fun, something I could finish. I set out to write a 100-page novella with four sections of 25 pages each using the materials at hand: the island, the four seasons, things I could see out my window, things I remembered.
I’d recently read Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt about a young (seemingly straight) woman recently graduated from college, working a dreary job in the doll division of a department store, whose life turns upside down when a glamorous older woman comes in to buy a doll for her daughter. Sexual obsession ensues & the pair takes off on the road trip that became Nabokov’s model for Lolita. I fell in love with Highsmith’s basic premise: worker in a mundane setting, stranger walks in & everything changes.
Being a librarian, coming up with the mundane setting was easy enough (aren’t most libraries at once mundane and ripe for adventure???) and the rest came in ways I never would have expected.
What was the hardest part of writing the novel?
I’ve never had so much fun writing anything before. The difficult part was coping with people’s responses to the work before the book was published. There were a few important people in my life who suspected the story was true and were, even after I reassured them it was fiction, concerned about the impact it would have.
What surprised you about the process or the story?
In the beginning I thought Mayumi would be about a respectable citizen’s fall from grace, public scrutiny, and moral crisis. And while moral crisis does play a part in the book, as I wrote I was swept away by other things: desire, pleasure, motherhood, friendship, the passage of time, memory, isolation, connection, and island life.
Before, my writing practice had always been very solitary. Writing Mayumi was an exhilarating & surprisingly collective experience. Soon after I started writing it, my four-year-old daughter asked if she could be a character and this may sound crazy but I couldn’t say no. So Mayumi changed from a single, childless woman into a married mother in about five minutes.
And then there were the librarians. I would come to work and ask the ladies questions: How do people meet people on this island? If two people were going to have a secret affair where would they rendezvous? If the main character was to sleep with a seventeen-year-old would you hold it against her? The librarians answers to my questions changed the course of the book.
The librarians taught me that more townspeople than I ever could have imagined were committing transgressions on a daily basis, that on any given day the town absorbs innumerable secrets. While I think this phenomenon may be true of most small towns, I think it’s especially true on an island. As Mayumi explains, “…in a storm one feels as if the entire island is a ship and we are all of us together at sea on some perilous but temporary journey.” On a small island one has this sense in all weather, that we must take care to preserve the peace be-cause there is nowhere else to go. When the boat rocks, we all feel it. If the ship capsizes we all go down.
What began as an escape from my first novel, an escape from grief, became a lively, ongoing engagement with the island of Martha’s Vineyard and its inhabitants. Without intending to I wrote a love song to the place and its people and I grew increasingly attached to both in the process.
What is your writing process like? When/where do you write?
Almost no writer who reads this will want to write fiction the way I do. My process is very much that of a poet writing a novel in that I work at the sentence level. It’s the only way (thus far) that interests me. Single sentences interest me. I can work on a single sentence all day and feel very excited. A word or a sentence seizes me and I succumb to it or it leaves crumbs on the forest floor and I follow them. Regardless of form I write in a kind of darkness. I don’t know where I’m going until I arrive.
As for the when of it, I am one of those dreaded early risers who gets up at 4:30am to write. (Having a child will do this to you, if life hasn’t already.) I prefer to write in the morning on into the day. Although I don’t recommend it, when I really get going I skip lunch and then peter out around 2pm. The first half of the day is best for me. In the evenings (and even in the late afternoons) I’m useless.
Mayumi alludes to many novels. Are any of them favorites of yours? What novels do you love?
Absolutely. Of the novels Mayumi mentions in the book I especially love The Lover by Duras, The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, Wings of the Dove by Henry James, and Lolita by Nabokov. (Did you know you are the person who introduced Lolita to me? Thank you! That book has been very important to me.) Novels I love that aren’t mentioned are of course too numerous to name in total but a few favorites are Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk, Trieste by Daša Drndić, A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez, Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, Anniejohn by Jamaica Kincaid, Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine, Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel, Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, History by Elsa Morante, The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy, and The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble.
Finally, you’ve mentioned some readers have referred to Mayumi as a cougar. How do you feel about that characterization and the term?
A librarian, upon hearing me encapsulate the book said, “Ooh, I didn’t know you were a cougar!” I will skip over her conflation of my character with my person to my own very ignorant response, “What’s a cougar?” I wasn’t familiar with the term. Talk about living on an island! So my librarian friend quickly schooled me and I’ve been having fun with the term ever since. Perhaps I don’t fathom the full critical response required of me here but I like to think of Mayumi as my contribution to Thinking Women’s Cougar Lit, as a Thinking Woman’s Cougar Tale. And yes there’s no equivalent for a man who likes his ladies young but I appropriate the term jokingly. It amuses me. Mayumi in fact, is not a “cougar.” She has no predilection for younger men. Her young lover is an anomaly. What amuses me even more is that I have become a go-to for cougar-related things. People love to recommend to me books and films featuring older women getting with younger men. I’m okay with that! It is both absurd and a lot of fun.
Thank you, Jennifer! Happy summer everyone, and happy reading!