The Sweetest Debut: Vanessa Hua on Walking Barefoot and Her Brian Boitano Obsession

Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Rona Jaffe award winner Vanessa Hua was a longtime journalist whose investigations brought about some serious change in California. Her new collection Deceit and Other Possibilities is a debut, but she has more work on the way. Ballantine Books will publish two novels: the Rona Jaffe award-winning A River of Stars and The Sea Places. Hua is also busy as a mom of twins, which she wrote about for the New York Times, here. She spoke to Flavorwire about getting inspiration from different vistas and her cultural obsessions then and now.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book? 

Better Luck Tomorrow meets Fresh Off the Boat. Model minorities behaving badly.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

“Immigration and identity.”

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I wrote the first story in the collection in 2000, and the last one in 2014. Over the years I entered the book into story collection contests, revising and revising each time it was rejected. In 2015, I won the Willow Books Grand Prize in Literature for Prose.

Name a book you’ve read more than two times.

I’ve read Junot Diaz’s Drown dozens of times, blown away by the stories which are evocative and devastating.

When I was working on an early draft of a novel, I studied Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with the Pearl Earring and Middlesex line by line, scene by scene – trying to figure out how the authors pulled off certain aspects, say, the relationship between a teenager and a powerful man, or past and present timelines.

What I read, the music I listen to, everything I experience one way or another, shows up in my work — even if the influence isn’t apparent, sometimes not even to me.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

My husband and I watched Mad Men and Downtown Abbey all the way to the end, even when episodes became repetitive or self-indulgent. We also enjoyed Love – I used to live in Los Angeles, at the Oakwood Apartments, the soulless furnished building where the main character Gus lives, and where child actors come each year for pilot season. The sign on the security gate says “Smile, it’s show time.”

Another one we loved is Aziz Ansari’s Masters of None, and we’ve just started into Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Finding Dory with my twin boys. It was the first time I’d been to a kid’s movie with kids, and though I  worried they’d be noisy and fidgety, I soon discovered everyone else was just as disruptive.

Before that, I saw Spotlight, which I found inspiring, especially as a former newspaper journalist.  With kids, it’s hard to justify paying for the babysitter and the movie, and I also find myself getting impatient, sitting still for two hours or more. I’d rather watch at home, where I can multi-task, sort laundry or fiddle on my iPad.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind? 

I listen to ambient electronic music: Tycho, Ulrich Schnauss, Bonobo, Boards of Canada, Air. Lyrics can be distracting, but sometimes I get into a nostalgic mood and listen to favorites from college, They Might Be Giants, Indigo Girls, or Erasure.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

Somewhere by the water and woods. Last spring, I was fortunate to go on a writing residency at Hedgebrook, located on Whidbey Island outside of Seattle. I’d write all day, and then go for a run to the beach where I waded and collected shells and driftwood. Barefoot walking awakens the kid in you, stirring your imagination. If I’m tied in knots about a narrative dilemma, going out for a run or swim helps me sort it out.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer headshot_small_vh— it was one of the professions that a kid could comprehend, like a firefighter, astronaut, teacher, or veterinarian. I didn’t grow out of it.

Do you prefer writing at a desk, bed or couch?

Typically, I write at home at a desk, overlooking an oak-studded hill busy with deer, wild turkeys, and housecats. It’s a familiar landscape and a familiar desk. I grew up in this house that my father designed. After he passed away, we moved back to join my mother.

I also belong to the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, a workspace for writers and journalists. It’s a strong, supportive community, where we can commiserate and celebrate.

Are you more of a morning writing or late-night writing type?

My hours of power are in the late morning. But I also hit my stride in late afternoon, just before the babysitter leaves – a holdover from my time in daily journalism. There’s nothing like a deadline to get me focused.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

With short stories, I write a complete messy draft before I trade with critique partners or show to my writing group. With my novel, I submitted chunks to my writing group (which I’ve been with since 2000) and I make some revisions along the way, but my main focus is finishing the draft. After I can see the arc of it, I make more revisions—many more!

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I’m a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. I’m also a freelance journalist, and I write for corporate clients, occasionally teach and edit books, work as a writing coach, and seek out grants and fellowships. And I’m married to a non-writer with a sensible job and a steady income. Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to sign a two-book deal with Ballantine, which gives me more time for my fiction.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above? 

I wrote this book over a long period of time, starting when I was working as a daily journalist, and writing fiction in the mornings or on weekends; in graduate school when I had to juggle teaching and classes; and now as the mother of twins and facing the weekly deadlines of my column at the San Francisco Chronicle.

I rely on to-do lists that I draw up at the end of each day. It forces me to reflect on what I’ve accomplished, what I need to tackle next, and to break down problems into component parts. Not just “revise” but “revise based on writing group notes” or “revise – focus on the setting and the senses.”

If I’m commuting or going for a run, I listen to my work-in-progress on a pdf-to-voice app. That way, I can immerse myself even I’m not at my desk.

We have a great babysitter, giving me time to write, and my husband also steps up when I need to meet deadlines. Twice when I had to go away for work trips, my brother flew in to provide back-up care. I feel fortunate to have a great support system, but it’s a daily struggle to keep work and family in balance.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

When I was twelve years old, I was obsessed with Brian Boitano and Brian Orser – the Battle of the Brians of the 1988 Calgary Olympics. I watched my VHS tape of the competition over and over again. I wrote a letter to the local newspaper’s Sports Department, asking them to forward my fan mail. Having worked at that very newspaper later on, I know the reporters must have had a good chuckle before tossing my letter into the trash.

I was convinced that I still had a chance to launch a skating career and started taking lessons at Berkeley Iceland (where Brian Boitano trained.)

I thought Brian Orser was cuter, but Brian Boitano stirred my American pride, plus he was from the Bay Area, like me. There was talk of him appearing on the sitcom Perfect Strangers as a cousin of Balki Bartakamous, the Greek sheepherder. Eventually, he had his own cooking show –“What Would Brian Boitano Make?”—and was a guest character on “South Park.”

Come to think of it, he had quite a post-skating pop culture career – at least in the days before Dancing with the Stars and other reality television.

For my fanfic, though: I’ll choose a lesser known pop star, at least in the United States. In my collection, I wrote a story inspired by Edison Chen, who was born in Canada and became a huge Hong Kong celebrity – and then had to go into hiding in the United States when photos of him having sex with every starlet in town got leaked.

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

Here’s a few lines from the story, “Line, Please,” from a scene where the Edison-inspired character is getting a discount Chinese foot massage in suburbs where he grew up.

She begins to knead her knuckles into the soles of my feet, strong but unskilled, each let-up sweet after a burst of pain.

“Some men’s feet are ugly,” she says. “Toenails black, falling off, calluses thick enough to strike a match on.”

Not mine, regularly waxed and nails buffed. I direct her to the hollow area under my ankle that corresponds to reproduction and pleasure. In her hesitation, I sense she knows what the spot represents. She touches lightly, a dandelion on the wind, and all at once my confidence returns. I take her hand in mine and dig my thumbs into her palm. Her hands are small, a child’s, and the skin is rough. I pull her towards me. Someone might see, anyone walking by, but I want to risk getting caught.

Her lips, slicked with cherry lip gloss, land on my chin, and her eyes are open and startled. Her first kiss? I recoil. Anything more, anything from me, would set her spinning far off course.