Chia-Chia Lin’s debut novel, The Unpassing, is a beautiful, bleak, and breathtaking story of a Taiwanese family in Alaska. As tragedy strikes the nation in the 1980s, their own home is struck by an unexpected death. The middle-child Gavin narrates the turmoil they navigate as Lin expertly crafts emotional passages and through-provoking moment.
It is one of the best novels to have been released so far in 2019. Instead of a normal conversation and interview, I was honored to ask Chia-Chia Lin a series of questions I hope becomes reoccurring, like The New York Times “By the Book.”
Below The Unpassing author answers Debutiful’s “A Life of Books” questionnaire.
Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?
The truth is I would read anything I could get my hands on (maybe with a slight leaning toward Agatha Christie and sci-fi), and I no longer remember most of what I read. Some of the writing was probably quite bad, but that strikes me as irrelevant. I guess that is defining of my childhood, in a way, that rampant consumption. There was no internet (as we know it, anyway) and no instantaneous way to look up a book and see what someone else had said about it. So the encounters all felt very private. I miss that a little.
Would you want any children you have (or will have) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?
My son is still on board books, and I do occasionally buy him books that I think are well-written, or imaginative, but he never goes for those. We have a lot of hand-me-down books, and what he drifts to is wholly inexplicable. Or he will love a book, but only one page in it. Maybe there is a wide-eyed duck on that page that says, “WHAT?” I try to go with it. The drawings might be uninspired, or the sentences weirdly bulky, but the most important thing is that he learns this is an open world for him. There are so few spaces like this in our lives.
Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?
I don’t know if there is anything that flipped this way for me. I hated Ethan Frome. The way we studied it was very formulaic. We had to answer comprehension questions that were meant to push you toward realizations of its greatness, and that might have intensified my feelings. I remember loving Age of Innocence, and I’ll probably read House of Mirth at some point, so I don’t, after all, hate Edith Wharton.
What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?
I loved Antigone in high school. I’m not sure if I still would—I think I’m afraid to re-read it. Same with My Antonia. But maybe I would be pleasantly surprised. I don’t want to foreclose that possibility.
There were also these stories with twists—like “Flowers for Algernon” or “The Lottery”—that were constantly anthologized, and there was a time when I was drawn to that cleverness of storytelling, in which a deft move of plot turned a story on its head. O. Henry-type endings delighted me, too. I remember a short story (though I can’t remember the title or the author) about a cop having a conversation with someone who wanted to jump off a building, and in the end, it was the cop that jumped. I used to love that sort of thing. Now it does not interest me at all.
Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?
I am grateful to Family Life, by Akhil Sharma. The novel has factual similarities to mine, but the person who recommended the book to me did so specifically because A Family Life is told chronologically, and I had been trying to do some complicated things with time jumps and backstories in a very early draft. It was really helpful to me to see how a direct approach, and added clarity, would allow me more leeway in other respects. For example, I realized much later that I could get away with leaving more unsaid because there was less practical confusion, and because there was a more sustained immersion on the part of the reader.
What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?
Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. I don’t have that exact thought (of wishing it were mine) because I know how far away that book is from anything I could ever create. But I do really treasure the book, and I love that re-reading it never makes it more known to me; it retains enough mystery that it keeps calling me back.
What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?
I’m currently reading another debut novel (out this July), Say Say Say, by Lila Savage, that is a breath of fresh air. It’s a novel made wholly of gorgeous insights, and it’s unapologetically interior. I think I will start The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields, soon.
And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
Funny, I hope.