THE WRITING LIFE ... Tom CHO
LOOK WHO’S MORPHING
TOM CHO is a 34-year-old Melburnian artist who writes short fiction and performs them onstage. His book, Look Who’s Morphing (Giramondo, 2009), is a collection of stories was shortlisted for the 2009 The Age Fiction Book of the Year recently. TAN MAY LEE spoke to Cho over a series of emails in May 2009.
Your book cover is so bright green it might glow in the dark. This looks like Giramondo’s most colourful book cover! Why so? How did the idea come about?
The idea to put myself on the cover was mine. I wanted to have a fun cover that extended some of the teasing and play in the book. Basically, putting myself on the cover plays with the idea that, in writing the book, I have—in multiple senses of this phrase—“made it all about me”. The cover extends the idea that as the author I have ‘intruded’ upon the text for my own purposes—for example, that I have imposed my desires upon the text in writing some of the fantasies that are depicted in the stories.
I was also aware that authors rarely appear on the front cover of their books unless they are famous. So I thought it would be fun to challenge that convention, too. I approached Owen Leong, an artist I know, to do the cover. We jointly came up with the basic concept. Owen had made use of liquid on skin in some of his previous work, and this was something I wanted him to draw upon again. In doing the cover, he was quite interested in the rockabilly look, particularly photos of Harajuku rockers. He chose all the colours. He wanted to use a green background because the ‘green screen’ is often used in visual effects and computer-generated imagery to transform reality into illusion. I was initially concerned that the green would be too bright and dominating, but now I see that he made absolutely the right choice and I’m glad that I trusted his judgement.
Let’s talk about the publishing process. Since this book is part of your PhD thesis at Deakin University, is your editor someone from the university?
Although my book manuscript forms the creative component of my PhD, the book and PhD are separate projects. For example, Giramondo was already interested in the manuscript before I decided to undertake a PhD. However, quite early in the process of doing my PhD, I knew that I wanted to bring someone with specific expertise in fiction into my PhD supervisory team. So as it turned out, Ivor Indyk, who is the publisher at Giramondo and also a Professor at University of Western Sydney, became an external research supervisor for my PhD.
Within the context of the PhD, editing responsibility for the creative work was ultimately shared between Ivor Indyk and Robin Freeman, who was also one of my supervisors. Robin has an extensive background in editing (primarily nonfiction). In fact, I first knew of her when she was an editor at HarperCollins. So I was very fortunate to have access to the combined expertise of Ivor and Robin.
Once again, though, the publishing process with Giramondo was quite separate from my PhD. In fact, even before I submitted my thesis, the book had already been printed and been in bookshops for a couple of weeks.
Were you trying to capture the quirky side of life in your stories?
Well, I probably wouldn’t articulate it quite like that, although my fiction is sometimes described as ‘quirky’. The book is an investigation of the theme of identity. Identity is underpinned by all kinds of assumptions and forms of logic that I find very rich material to play with. For example, the theme lends itself quite well to linguistic play and undermining narratorial expectations. I think this produces the ‘quirky’ effect of my fiction—that it draws out and amplifies existing absurdities relating to the theme of identity.
Can unpredictability be predictable?
Well, unpredictability is ultimately evaluated by the reader; so, in terms of the unpredictability of my own work, I wonder what my readers would have to say. In writing the book, I did enjoy exploring many different ways of teasing and surprising the reader—and I sought to be inventive in doing this. However, unpredictability wasn’t a goal in itself. At any rate, unpredictability and predictability are mutually dependent. For example, in order for me to undermine narratorial expectations, I had to draw upon those very expectations. The first story in my book is called ‘Dirty Dancing’ and it loosely follows the storyline of the film Dirty Dancing. Part of its power to surprise is in how it both follows and deviates from the film and its conventions. So, ultimately, unpredictability and predictability are somewhat entwined.
Are your stories a reflection of your personality?
They probably are—and yet I wouldn’t put much faith in the idea of fiction as a straightforward reflection of anything. This certainly seems the case with my work, in which distortions—distortions of logic and of language—are prominent.
Why did you choose to write short fiction? Most people say that short stories are harder to sell than novels. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s interesting that you should ask that, because during the writing of my book, the pieces began to get longer. This largely explains the variation within the book in terms of the length of pieces. The shortest piece, ‘A Counting Rhyme,’ is exactly 100 words, and the longest piece, ‘Cock Rock’ (which also is the book’s finale), is a little under 9,000 words. The increase in the length of my work really made me question how distinct a genre the short story actually is. Brevity is ultimately a relativistic property. There is also no consensus on a minimum or maximum length for a short story—so the parameters of shortness are arbitrary, too.
Of course, within the systems and institutions that I as a writer engage with—such as publishing—there is such a thing as a ‘short story.’ And you’re right in saying that, at least among larger publishers, it is a commonly-held belief that short story collections are more difficult to sell than novels. However, the commercial success of a book is subject to so many different factors that I am sceptical of pinning things down to purely a question of form.
What does a PhD in Professional Writing involve? How does it expand on an MA in Creative Writing?
A PhD is allocated a longer project timeframe and requires a longer thesis than a Master’s. So the scope of a PhD project is bigger. In Australia, a PhD by research that is in a creative discipline has two parts: a creative component and a theoretical component (which is sometimes called an exegesis). In terms of my own PhD, my creative component is my collection of fictions, Look Who’s Morphing. My exegesis analyses an issue that affected the creative process of developing my collection. So my PhD thesis comprised these two documents.
What got you fascinated with Sweet Valley High? They might be blonde and tan, but they lived in an era of no mobile phones, no iPods, no internet ...
I think I was drawn to the characters of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield—the fact that they were twins but were so different. Jess was portrayed as a ‘bad girl’ and Liz as a ‘good girl’—and I’ve always been delighted and intrigued by that dichotomy. But perhaps I’m over-analysing it. Ultimately, the Sweet Valley High series was a fun read that was full of plots that I really enjoyed—for example, Jessica entering the Miss Teenage Sweet Valley contest, Jessica and her friend Lila becoming roadies for a rock band, etc. Also, like Liz, I grew up wanting to be a writer—it’s just that my writing is very different from what I’ve read of Liz’s writing.
What or who else do you read?
In the last few years, I haven’t had much time for leisure reading due to my PhD. But some of the texts I have enjoyed reading are the Sweet Valley High books, the comic prose of Woody Allen, the fictions of Donald Barthelme, zines and comics of all different kinds, friends’ blogs and many other texts on the Web. I submitted my PhD thesis recently so, as of late, I have had some time to do more leisure reading. I’ve started reading Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight in the hope that it’s the new Sweet Valley High. I also have a book on Hinduism that I want to read, too. So you can see that I have pretty varied tastes as a reader.
Please share with us your experiences at Deakin University.
I had already spent about four years working on my manuscript when I decided to incorporate it into a PhD. I had interest in my manuscript from Giramondo and a strong record of publication of pieces from the manuscript—and yet I realised that I had to do a PhD. One reason why I decided to do the PhD was that the book’s theme of identity was large, mysterious and daunting to me. I was also incorporating a lot of popular cultural references into the book but with a very unclear sense of what role this incorporation had in terms of the whole project. So I primarily did my PhD for the knowledge. I wasn’t very interested in an academic career and I certainly didn’t do it for the title. I wanted to immerse myself in some theoretical writings and learn from them. I wanted to illuminate and influence the directions of my creative work.
The PhD certainly improved my creative work. I have also become a better reader and writer—not only of creative works but also theoretical writings (if that distinction between theoretical and creative works can even be reliably upheld). Ironically, identity is still a mysterious subject for me, but I have a deeper appreciation and awareness of its mysteries.
Overall, my PhD went fairly smoothly, partly due to having good and stable supervision. Once Ivor Indyk was appointed as an external research supervisor, my supervisory team remained unchanged. All of my supervisors have been very helpful and supportive of my research throughout my degree.
What is this about your track record for writing successful funding proposals? How did you discover this strategy, and how many grants and funding have you been awarded?
I’ve received around 13 grants of some type (e.g. project funding, fellowships, etc.) for my own artistic projects. Not all of these projects have involved my practice as a writer; some have been for my work as a producer of artistic projects. I have also written many successful proposals for arts organisations. In relation to my track record for organisations, it’s probably more meaningful to measure it in terms of the different types of funding programs that I’ve had success with—because I’ve had repeat successes with some of the same programs over the years. According to my records, I’ve written successful organisational applications for at least 18 different types of funding programs.
I first began writing funding applications for my own writing practice in the late 1990s. In working for arts organisations, I soon found that it was very useful to have skills not only in producing projects but in writing proposals. Eventually, I began to move away from programming and producing projects for organisations, and into writing proposals for them. A lot of people detest writing funding applications but, for some mysterious reason, I have a ‘funding fetish’.
Just how influential do you think popular culture is?
In my book, I never sought to depict popular culture as an all-dominating force that is imposed upon a passive audience of dupes. In the very act of writing my book, I refute this anyway: I think that my book is testament to how we can creatively (and playfully) engage with popular culture. At the same time, while my own personal engagement with popular culture has resulted in a lot of enjoyment (for example, reading the Sweet Valley High books), it has at times been a bittersweet experience. The experiences and desires rendered in popular cultural texts can be painfully incongruent with my own experiences and desires. But then, I think the range of emotional responses that we can have to popular culture is one of its most compelling aspects. We can react to popular cultural texts with pleasure, distaste, reverence, disgust, guilt, pain, etc.—and quite often many of these reactions simultaneously. I tried to make something of this fact in my book.
Do you see yourself as an extension of popular cultural figures?
I thought I was a popular cultural figure.
What’s your background? Tell us a bit more about yourself.
Here’s a little collage of phrases to contemplate. In no particular order: private-schooled but Sweet Valley High-educated; Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games; Tom/boy; Bachelor of Arts (Professional Writing) graduate and Honour’s degree dropout; Tom of Melbourne/Tom of Finland; pop music and cock rock; comic writing and comic books.
What is it like being Asian in Australia?
The presence of Asians in Australia is certainly not new. It’s often been viewed in terms of various waves of migration—particularly the influxes of Chinese migrants during the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s and Vietnamese migrants after the Vietnam War. But I’m not a migrant—I was born in Australia. I didn’t have to experience the difficulties of learning English, for example. At the same time, sometimes people nonetheless assume that I am a migrant—that I’m someone from some other place.
It is probably best that I answer this question in terms of my own particular experiences. As a child, I was initially surprised by the attention that my ethnic background evoked and the instances of racism—sometimes quite explicit, often more implicit—that I experienced. The evaluations and judgments that I experienced seemed so arbitrary and absurd to me, even as a child—the idea, for example, that my eyes would be considered ‘slanted’ and, by extension, a reflection of my inferiority. Perhaps these early experiences laid the foundations for me to write a book that (playfully) challenges such absurdities and false logic. Having said that, the book doesn’t especially bring issues of ethnicity into the foreground—well, no more than any other facet of identity. In a similar vein, my ethnic background isn’t isolated from other facets of my self—rather than isolation, there has always been a lot of interplay.
If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be pursuing another career path that I had contemplated towards the end of secondary school: working in fine art and design. I’ve had rock star fantasies though.
This year’s theme for the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival is Compassion and Solidarity. What does it mean to you?
The writer Audrey Lorde once said: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Lorde herself was black, a lesbian, a poet, a mother, a feminist, and much more. Her observation makes a lot of sense to me because, as I mentioned earlier, there has been an inevitable interplay between the various facets of my self. As a result, I have always been interested in issues such as how racism and sexism interrelate. This is a tension I’ve attempted to negotiate in my book, too—that tension between paying attention to specific concerns while also seeking to see the interconnectedness of things.
Striving to see the interconnectedness of things seems crucial to fostering compassion and solidarity. Artistically and personally, this is very important to me: that I not only see the interconnectedness of issues in terms of my own life and identity, but am able to translate this into compassion and solidarity for others.
Have you been to Ubud before?
No, I’m afraid not. I’m really looking forward to it!
What are you looking forward to experiencing at the festival?
Being exposed to different literary practices and traditions, meeting new artists, and, more generally, experiencing the flavour and atmosphere of the festival, which I’ve heard many good things about. I have a feeling that the festival is going to be really good for me as an artist and I really want to immerse myself in what it offers. That’s a great feeling to take to the festival.
Reproduced from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine