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Te-Ping Chen on the Land of Oz, Writing as a Secret Self, and the Stray Wonderings that Inspire Her Stories

by Brendan Dowling on February 4, 2021

Each of the stories in Te-Ping Chen’s phenomenal debut collection, Land of Big Numbers, plunge the reader into the often fantastical lives of her memorable characters. With wit, grace, and compassion, Chen brings each character fully to life, from a lovestruck flower vender who accidentally comes into possession of an expensive fountain pen to an erudite theme park ride designer who recounts his feud with his neighbor’s ex-boyfriend. Chen, who also works as a journalist for The Wall Street Journal, approaches each story with keen attention to the complex inner workings of both her characters’ lives and the societies in which they reside. Critics have raved over Land of Big Numbers, and it has been named a Best Book of February by The Washington Post, O MagazineHarper’s Bazaar, Buzzfeed, and The Millions. Esquire said, “Each haunting, exquisitely crafted story poses powerful questions about freedom, disillusion, and cultural thought, firmly establishing Chen as an emerging visionary to watch,” while O Magazine praised, “The masterful short fiction in this debut collection from a lauded journalist alchemizes her flair for reportage and a novelist’s gift of intimate grandiosity, portraying modern China and its denizens as a people in transition.” Brendan Dowling spoke with Chen via telephone on January, 20th, 2021. Author photo: Lucas Foglia.

Your stories cover such a breadth of topic and tone, I was curious who were the writers who were influential to you growing up and as a writer?

Growing up, I loved fantasy books, so for me it was the whole Oz series, the fourteen books. In thinking about how to name the book, there was almost an echo of The Land of Oz, a storybook-ish quality to the title that the collection also evokes. When I was young, I loved books like L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Emily of the New Moon. I also think of books like the Betsy-Tacy series, Harriet the Spy. I grew up reading a lot of books in which the protagonist was an outcast or a little bit alone in some ways, but writing for them was like a secret superpower. I feel like I latched on to that when I was really young, as someone who often felt very alone and lonely. That was a canvas for me when I was small, a combination of fantasy and Harriet the Spy, those sorts of heroines. Particularly with the writing of this collection, some of the touchstones were short story writers like Jumpa Lahiri, Carmen Maria Machado, Lesley Nneka Arimah, and George Saunders— people who really broke open my idea of what a story should be and how to tell it. There are some of those mobius elements in the collection, but also that element of play that I really love that comes through in some of those writers’ works.

How has your background as a journalist shaped your approach to writing fiction?

I became a journalist for many reasons, but one of which was I’m someone who loves to write but never thought fiction writing was a possible path for me to pursue. Fiction writing was something I continued to do privately on the side, really all my life, and I just never talked about it until this book was on the way to being published. It coexisted as almost a secret self.

In terms of how it’s shaped [my fiction writing], I think there’s a way of observing the world and attention to detail that just gets really steeped into you being a journalist. One of the things that I loved so much in writing the stories was the attention to detail, trying to find those very specific gestures or moments that can be so revealing, that as a journalist you spend a lot of time trying to find. In other ways too, being a journalist has shaped the writing of this particular book because so much of what I was writing about in Land of Big Numbers—so much of what I was able to see and observe and the people I was able to meet and some of the experiences I was able to access—was very much through the role of a journalist and traveling the country.

Your stories immerse us into the specifics of the day-to-day lives of people that often go overlooked. What is your research process to gather these details?

The research process was really just me living in the country. I first lived there in 2006 as a student. I’ve spent a lot of time going back and forth between the country and the U.S., most recently as a reporter with the Journal. That formed the backbone of these stories and in many ways, little elements of those experiences, starting from back in 2006, are sprinkled through the text. Especially in the very specific, visual, textural details—those are pulled from my own sensory memory of different places and experiences I’ve had. In terms of the characters, they’re all fictional of course, but certainly a number of the stories were evoked by stuff that was in the news. “Lulu,” for example, that piece of a young, online, vocal activist is one that I encountered repeatedly in my time in China and wrote about and found heartbreaking. Though that character isn’t based on one particular incident, it’s sadly one I encountered in my own work. In meeting and talking to families of people like Lulu—not necessarily people who had done directly as she had, but people who had set themselves a higher path and had this high-minded idealism—that was just extraordinary to see. Just to think about what that meant for them personally as well as their family. That really was the genesis of that story. “Flying Machine,” the story of an elderly farmer who built an airplane, was very much inspired by headlines when I was living in China. It was a headline I kept seeing in local media—these stories of rural farmer inventor types. Sometimes they might be building giant transformers; or other times, robots; and on several occasions, airplanes. It completely captured my imagination. I was never able to go and [report on it]—it’s not really a news story that you could do for a newspaper—but I always wanted to know more about who are these people? What is the story here? I love getting to unspool the narrative and imagining the backstory.

A number of stories have a genesis in moments like that, where I would run into something  that I overheard or a news headline. “Land of Big Numbers,” for example, stemmed from a conversation I overheard when I was traveling. I was in a small restaurant and my husband I were eavesdropping on a couple of men who were talking about this case of a government bureaucrat who was embezzling from the government and using the money to invest, but he kept putting the money back every quarter. It was something again that seized my curiosity and imagination.

What is your starting point for a story? Is it through character or location?

It could be either. Often I was writing these stories first thing in the morning. I would just start typing and really have no idea of what might come out. Sometimes it was a character’s voice, and it would just be a process of continuing to write until it became clear who this person is. For example, “On the Street Where You Live,” that was very much a story that evolved in that way. I had a particular voice in my head and then needed to figure out who this gentleman was, why he was in prison, and what he was narrating. A lot of the stories had their origins in almost a question or a stray wondering. “Gubeikou Spirit,” for example, the closing story of the book, I remember very clearly sitting in the subway in Beijing at one point, coming and going from some old government press conference, looking around this fluorescent lit cabin of strangers and thinking, “What would happen if we were all stuck in one place? If the train stopped, what alliances would form? How would the situation devolve? What would happen?” That was the idea that sent me down the road of “Gubeikou Spirit.” For me, a lot of the pleasure of writing the stories was taking a little fragment or an idea and then just pursuing it and the fun of seeing what would happen next.

The first person narrators of your stories are so strong and specific. Can you talk about what goes in to deciding whether to tell a story from the first or third person?

That’s a hard question because I don’t think I worried about it. (laughs) I want to have a really articulate answer for you, but the truth is I just start writing, and sometimes they’re in third person and sometimes they’re in first, and in some cases, like in the case of “New Fruit,” it’s a more choral narration. I know some authors, in the revision process, will switch back and forth between first and third person and experiment, but I didn’t do that. The stories happened the way that they did. In a case like “Lulu,” the narration made sense to me. Having that first person eye in that story was something very specific I wanted to explore and I knew where it was going. In that case, I was really interested in exploring what it would be like being a family member seeing someone you love sent on this path that you see as at once both admirable and so destructive.

In writing this collection I was conscious of wanting to experiment and play. I’ve always loved short stories, but I hadn’t really written them before, so I was conscious of trying to challenge myself to take on different perspectives and write in different ways. That was where a lot of the fun lay too, trying to adopt different perspectives. Sometimes more of that more realist, almost a journalist’s eye, and at other points, right in the head of somebody who sees things in such a skewed fashion and is a very “voicey” particular kind of narrator. In as much as there was deliberation, it was in that desire to conjure contrasts and have that sense of different textures and voices playing off each other.

As you get deeper into the book, you get the sense of the stories almost being in conversation with one another. Can you talk about what went into organizing the order of your stories in your collection?

I think there are some stories in the collection that are more magical realist or surreal in style, and some that are a more loosely transparent telling of a character. I was conscious of wanting to create this sense of journey, of different sorts of styles and places and people. Some of the stories are set in more rural situations, and others are jazzier takes on people or places. I wanted to have that feeling of momentum and different styles, of speeding up and slowing down, trying to create that sense of tempo and flow. Sometimes more intimate, quieter portraits and others that are bigger and louder and much more about society writ large.

With the ending story in particular, I was very conscious of wanting to end on a feeling of uplift. That story strikes me as one of the pieces in the book that’s most allegorical. It felt especially important to me, because at the end, one character ends up seeing the world very differently from the rest of her peers. That was, to me, an important moment and one that I wanted to end the book on, just that feeling of uplift.

And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?

Oh, we could just talk entirely about this. (laughs) Public libraries were my home. As a family, we had library memberships in three different cities. That was what we did as a family, we went to public libraries. All of my memories are sitting on the floor, reading for hours, checking out the maximum number of books, which I think at the one library that we went to most often was fourteen. It completely shaped my understanding of the world. The books that I encountered were my dearest companions, I learned so much from them. I’m just so grateful. When my sisters and I were young we used to talk about wanting to be librarians when we grew up. They seemed like the gatekeepers to this magical world of books and knowledge that you could access through these amazing buildings that you could just walk into, take any book off the shelf, spend hours there, and no one was going to kick you out. It was just this magic gorgeous experience. I remember we coveted those stamps—that wonderful moment when they took the stamp from the pad and would stamp the book and it was yours for two weeks. It just seemed like the most thrilling moment to be a part of, when you could take the book and walk out with it. They’ve been such a great part of my life.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.