Pik-Shuen Fung on astronaut parents and Ghost Forest

Pik-Shuen Fung, author of Ghost Forest, grew up in Canada in an astronaut family – where a parent stays back in the family’s native country working while the rest move abroad. Those experiences found their way into her debut novel. Prior to releasing Ghost Forest, she receivedfellowships and residencies from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Kundiman, the Millay Colony, and Storyknife.

Fung corresponded with Debutiful to give more insight into her debut experience.

I wanted to start with a little of your history; especially with writing. When did you begin writing in general?

I’ve enjoyed writing for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t start writing seriously until I was in grad school for visual art. At the time, I was searching for my voice as an artist and questioning everything about my practice. Even though I’d painted for almost my entire life, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a painter anymore. So I took a soft sculpture elective and learned that I didn’t like working with my hands that way. I also watched a lot of YouTube videos on basic video editing, and made my first video works on iMovie. Then the summer between my first and second years of grad school, my father passed away. And from this hazy, dreamlike state of grief, I started to write the vignettes that eventually became Ghost Forest.

There’s a story on AAWW.org called “Ghost Forest.” I’m curious about the genesis of the novel. Was it meant to be a novel or was it a short story that kept growing?

Since I wrote the first few vignettes in art school, I didn’t set out to write a book in the beginning. I was thinking about how to show the writing in a visual way, so I recorded myself reading the vignettes aloud and then I used the audio recordings as voiceover for video art. I found the process of writing really satisfying, and I wrote more and more vignettes. I didn’t write in any particular order, but I would print the vignettes out on tiny pieces of paper and rearrange them on my floor at regular intervals. 

When I submitted that story to AAWW, I’d already completed an early version of the novel manuscript. I picked a handful of vignettes from different parts of the manuscript and put them together to form the story.

This book is about astronaut families. Is this an experience you or many people you knew had? Is it still a common practice?

Yes, I grew up in an astronaut family, and I know so many people who did as well. It’s very common.

I mentioned the “Ghost Forest” story from 2016, so I know this idea was around since then. But were there other ideas you thought would be your first novel? Were they similar to what became of Ghost Forest?

I don’t have any earlier novels hidden in my desk drawers or anything, since writing Ghost Forest was why I started writing. I do have a lot of failed paintings though!

The novel itself uses memory and grief throughout to propel the story. Was the structure always like this? What were other ways you tried to tell the story?

The final structure of the novel is really similar to the original structure I had in 2015. The first and last chapters are more or less the same, and several chapters in the middle didn’t change much either. It’s like I already had the skeleton of the book back then, but I took the pieces apart several times to try other configurations. One of the detours I took was to reformat the novel into a series of shorter vignettes linked by asterisks. The reason I took these detours was because I’d submitted the manuscript to tons of small presses and got rejected by all of them. Back then I thought my book would never get published in the way I wanted. After I met my editor at One World, I realized I liked the novel best the way it was in the beginning, so I put it back in its initial order, and then I filled it out in revision. I want to add, though, that I’m glad I took all those detours and that my book took seven years to complete because it helped me understand the project more deeply.

What were some literature and art that inspired you while writing this novel?

I was inspired by Sigrid Nunez’s A Feather on the Breath of God, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and Lydia Davis’s stories. As for art, I looked at a lot of Chinese ink painting online—especially the paintings of Qi Baishi. They have such a lively and spontaneous beauty.

Are there any other pieces of art and literature that you’ve enjoyed since finishing Ghost Forest that you’d like to recommend?

I really enjoyed Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis. And K-Ming Chang’s new chapbook Bone House is amazing. I haven’t gone out to see much art since the pandemic, but I do love the ethereal paintings of Nadia Haji Omar. And I’m excited to see Wong Ping’s exhibition at the New Museum this summer. The first time I saw his animations was at the New Museum Triennial a few years ago, and I felt like my brain exploded.

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