“I am Coming to Live in Your Mouth” is one of several horror pieces you’ve written over the years. What is it about the genre that fascinates you, and is there anything that sets this story apart from the others you’ve written?
I honestly never think about genre when I sit down to write. I’ve loved ghost and horror stories since before I could read, I think, because of the imagery, the way they pick and gnaw at primal emotions, the way they cross cultural and temporal boundaries. But mostly it just seems that when I’m doing my best and most provocative work, horror is what I’m writing.
This story is one of the very few I’ve written that was inspired by another writer—or, in this case, another writer’s dreams. The fabulous Norm Partridge told me once about a work dream he’d been having about a figure who emerged from an elevator late at night, crossed to Norm’s desk, and said, “I am coming to live in your mouth, because you never have anything to say.” Norm said he was way too scared of the phrase to use it. So I asked if I could steal it. This story is what happened when I started playing with those words.
It’s often a matter of some controversy for an author to write from a cultural and ethnic perspective that is different from his or her own. What was it like to write from the point-of-view of a Japanese woman? Do you have any advice for other authors looking to write about a character who’s different from them in some way?
To me, unless you’re writing autobiography—and even then, because memoir, obviously, is mostly memory—you are always writing through a perspective that is different from your own. That’s an underestimated part of a writer’s job: not just to imagine someone else’s point-of-view, but to inhabit it. When I’m writing about someone far from me—culturally, chronologically, racially, whatever—I’m usually doing that because of someone or something I’ve encountered and explored already. I do a bit of research and try to check myself, sure. But then I try not to worry too much about it, to write the story I’m writing, and do that truthfully and carefully and well. Ironically, I’ve found that appropriation happens most frequently when people worry too much about each other’s differences, not too little.
As your story progresses, a parallel between the husband’s tumor and Death, the figure, becomes apparent. Was this a choice you made deliberately, or did the symbolism occur organically as you wrote the piece?
I’d have to say it happened organically, because I try to avoid one-to-one symbols, or at least to avoid planning them. This story, in particular, plays on and derives its impact from ambiguity. I think there are a lot of different ways to read this one, right down to the ending, which some readers have told me is a surprisingly gentle, even mutedly happy one. Sometimes I think they’re right.
You’ve written not only short stories, but four novels as well. Do you find one form more difficult or rewarding than the other? Is your written process for a novel different from your short story process?
My process seems to be different for every single piece I write. I wish I had a formula I could count on. Sometimes, I have to outline completely. Sometimes, I have to avoid outlining or knowing anything about where I’m headed. Sometimes, I need dozens of drafts, and sometimes pieces come out all but whole the first time. By nature, I’m fond of control, and so my biggest challenge, every single day, is to sit down and let go and allow whatever it is I’m writing to dictate its own terms. If I try to wrestle, I’m going to lose.
What projects are you working on currently?
I am in the process of finishing Good Girls, the sequel to my 2012 novel Motherless Child, which is receiving a major press update and reissue from Tor in May. There will be a final novel in that series after that. I’m also, almost, two-thirds of the way through a new story collection, and I always seem to have at least two stories in process on any given day.
Spread the word!