Bryan, you have a hugely impressive list of publications to your name! Is there one which you’re especially proud of? If so, why?
Thank you, Rebecca! Most of the time, when it comes to individual pieces, there’s a reason why I’ve selected a particular poem for that journal. Like most writers, I was really happy to see my first full-length book come out.
On the Other Side of the Eye came out 5 years ago this year, and it marked a turning point for me that eventually led to me becoming an NEA Fellow in Literature, and more recently, a cultural Olympian during the 2012 Summer Games in London. Considering that at the time my book was published there wasn’t much of a market for Midwestern Lao American adoptee speculative poetry, it was really a rewarding feeling to see it received so well.
Why did you first decide to start writing? Is there something – or maybe someone – in particular which inspires you to write? What would you say is most likely to distract you from writing?
I can be my own worst enemy when it comes to writing, getting distracted easily. It’s much like the paradox of the fool and the sage at the crossroads. The fool gets stuck because he doesn’t know which way to go. The sage gets stuck because they can discern a good outcome whichever route they choose. There are ideas that really bring out a writer’s passion, but productive writers have to know when to let some of them go in order to realize many other interesting works.
I first began writing in grade school. This was largely a natural outcome of enjoying storytelling, but then realizing, I could tell stories, too. And increasingly, I saw that at the time, I might not be able to write as well as the master storytellers, but they once had to start from the same spot I was standing on. And if they could learn the art, so could I.
It also became increasingly clear to me that even though there are nearly half-a-million Laotians resettled in the US after the Secret War ended in 1975, there’s less than forty books out there in our own words, on our own terms. So, I gain a lot of strength and motivation from that.
Could you tell us about your ‘typical’ writing session? Do you have any quirks or habits? Are you more likely to hand write your work or type it?
I’m a mixed methods man. I’m a very fast typist and extremely accurate even with my eyes closed. But there’s also many a time that a poem, a short story starts out as a set of notes on 3 x 5 index cards, cocktail napkins, what have you. I find I don’t often write things out by hand on regular sized sheets of paper. For some reason I rarely go back to anything I write on those.
I typically don’t recommend writing in your house. You run into too many things that will distract you. An urge to clean. Errands to run, bills to pay. Gremlins to shoo from the kitchen. Too much of a sense of the familiar and the safe. As a horror writer, that can be a BIG liability to your process. My best writing doesn’t come at a fixed time, but depends on environmental conditions. Like having lots of coffee nearby.
Are there any other writers who you really admire? Is there a book or story which you wish you’d written? What was the last thing you read and would you recommend it?
I tend to be fond of the old school writers. Obviously H.P. Lovecraft, Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Clark Ashton Smith. Most books and stories I don’t tend to wish I’d written, except when it comes to graphic novels and comic books. In those cases, I most wish I’d had a chance to helm a few of my favorite comic book series before they’d been run into the ground. For example, most of the work that followed Larry Hama’s run on G.I. Joe, or the flailing Suicide Squad series from DC. Among films, I’d have loved to have taken on the script for Cemetary Man, which was a fine film from premise to cast and crew before it lost its way around the 2nd act.
Lately, I’ve been working my way through Thai writer S.P. Somtow’s Moon Dance, a 1989 novel examining clans of werewolves from Europe meeting shapeshifting Native Americans in the 1800s. It had been hailed as the Gone With the Wind of werewolf stories and thought it deserved a peek. There’s a lot of dialogue that’s a little painful that an editor should have flagged. But I find it instructive and interesting to consider how far we’ve come and how the tropes and idioms changed in the last 20 years.
I’m also re-reading Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, which I do recommend to any speculative poet who’s interested in how a good novel-length series of speculative poems might be carried out.
Finally, do you have any hints and tips for other aspiring writers?
As a poet, I found the best advice to offer to other poets is more one-on-one. But in general, I like to advise you to be true to your own voice. You don’t need to sound like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, because we already have them. As an audience, we’re interested in what YOU have to say. At the same time, even as you value your own voice, you should always be challenging it constantly, and don’t hesitate to push it downstairs in a flaming cardboard box towards the haunted fireworks factory, if it’s starting to bore you. It would do the same to you, if you’d just turn your back.