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Dear Reader: A Q&A with Jenny Zhang
It’s our second month curating Dear Reader for Ace Hotel New York, and we think we could get used to this! If you’re just now joining us, Dear Reader is a one-night writer’s residency in Manhattan. Each month, Tin House invites a writer to spend the night at Ace, crafting a letter to an imagined audience. The letters can be stories, pleas, or calls to action; reflections or rants—but all of them end up hand-stamped and lettered, laid bedside in each room on a surprise date the next month.
This month’s letter writer is the wise and fearless Jenny Zhang, author of Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus Books), The Selected Jenny Zhang (Emily Books), and the forthcoming Sour Heart (Lenny). Her letter is placed in rooms today, and she caught up with us to talk destiny, her advice for the little mermaid, and writing as an act of translation.
If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
Too many to choose from but at the moment, I wouldn’t mind writing to the little mermaid from the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. I’d tell her to ditch the prince and reunite with her sisters. He’s not worth it. Her family is.
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
I like maps but I fear destinies. I always think I know the fate of my ideas but they sometimes end up in a place I couldn’t have imagined. It’s better to be surprised by your imagination than to be limited by it. That said, I usually have a destination or a starting point in mind, though the way to and from those points are often unpredictable.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
Best to not think about audience if only because writing in a bubble is an extravagant fantasy few writers can afford. Thinking about audience is an act of translation–how do you make your words and your ideas legible and understandable to someone who has never lived your life, thought your thoughts? I’m always glad when someone who lives outside my experience connects to my work. That is how I grew up reading—connecting to experiences outside of my mine—so I hope it can be more ubiquitous than the current English canon suggests.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
Harmony Holiday’s Negro League Baseball.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
Just… being alone. Totally alone without fear of interruption.