Fish and Ships:
An Interview with Traci Chee

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

Traci Chee began her writing career in fourth grade, writing and illustrating and experimenting with characters and story-building games. Today, Traci Chee is a middle school teacher, as well as a freelance writer. She holds a degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Thieves Jargon, Abjective, Able Muse, The Big Stupid Review and Toasted Cheese. When she isn’t teaching, Traci Chee may be spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge, mentally mapping her stories and crafting characters as she sits in traffic. She likes fish and ships. (Maybe bridges, too.)

Toasted Cheese: What were you like as a kid?

Traci Chee: My family would tell you that I was bossy as a kid. Tyrannically bossy. They would be right. But I’d also like to think that I was already a burgeoning storyteller. My two best friends and I had a series of three or four games that we would cycle through every couple months or so: Lemmings, that awesome nineties video game in which you try to save as many lemmings as possible but inevitably sacrifice some to stompers and chompers and being blown up; Stuffed Animals and My Little Ponies, which were pretty much what they sound like; and Dogs.

This is how Dogs went: Two of us got to be the dogs, wandering around on all fours, wagging imaginary tails, and begging for treats. The remaining person had to play all the human roles, including the cruel, capricious pet store owner, the kind new owner who buys the dogs, and the boarding school trainer, who now that I think about it was pretty much the same character as the pet store owner but with a whip.

The story was always the same: Pet store owner is mean. Dogs are sad. Kind new owner adopts one dog, then the other a day later. Dogs misbehave. Kind new owner gets fed up and takes dogs to boarding school to be trained. Drive to boarding school is the best part because you pretend the road is really windy and there’s a lot of leaning crazily and bouncing around on imaginary bumps. Boarding school trainer is mean. Dogs misbehave and try to get the best of the trainer. As far as I can remember, we never got to the end of the story because then it would be dinnertime and we’d stop the game to go eat. Yes, it was formulaic, but it became this shared storytelling experience between the three of us, knitting us together, even after months of being apart.

TC: You and your young friends were creating scripts—one might even say that you were child playwrights. When did you make that leap from playing stories to actually writing them?

Chee: I made my first conscious decision to make writing a huge part of my life when I was in high school. I had been playing a lot of video games, all role-playing games with a big focus on story, and I had gotten into writing fan fiction, taking someone else’s characters and expanding or retelling their stories in a way that seemed right, at least to me. However, I quickly realized that fan fiction was too confining—I wanted my own characters, my own world—so I quickly expanded into writing original fiction… and some pretty terrible poetry.

However, when I look back a little farther, I realize that I’ve been writing, seriously writing, with revision and editing and everything, since I was in fourth grade. My best friend and I had this old computer program called Storybook Weaver—released on floppy disk for Mac!—that allowed us to write and illustrate these sprawling stories. Our first effort was about a dragon who rescues a princess using a bomb shaped like a chili pepper, and our second was this epic never-finished story called “The Haunted Castle,” which featured every single one of our classmates as either monsters of the castle or as victims of it. We spent hours mapping out the castle, developing the characters, and plotting each event. Because we kept adding new characters, we had to keep revising the beginning, and we never really got anywhere past the middle of the story. Still, I feel like that was my first introduction to storytelling, and it really stuck with me.

TC: Who are your favorite authors and books?

Chee: My favorite authors are the ones who surprise and delight me with their work, ones that show me wonderful things I never knew existed, or ones that show me things I always knew existed but never had the right words for. Books like this include: Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, and poetry. So much of poetry does this.

I also like books that are about books. They are curious, powerful objects that can do many things with many media, and I’m interested in the way that the form of the book (electronic, print, codex, fan, etc.) shapes the format of the book (margins, font, font size, etc.) and the content of the book (characters, plot, themes, motifs, etc.). Books like this include: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and a lot of work by Jorge Luis Borges crosses both of these categories.

TC: In your short story collection, Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs, there are many themes and motifs, some repeating such as water and music. Where do your ideas come from?

Chee: Music has always been a huge part of my life. On long road trips, my mom used to play “Classical Kids” in the car. It was this series that told stories based on the lives and works of famous composers like Beethoven and Bach, introducing classical music to kids in this really engaging way. I begged her to let me take piano lessons when I was little, and with a bit of help from my grandmother, she bought a piano and I started lessons with a piano teacher who lived down the street. Playing the piano is hard! There were so many times when I didn’t want to practice, didn’t feel like I was getting any better, and wanted to quit. But my mom didn’t let me, and I’m so glad, because I stuck with the piano well into high school, and did a little flute, guitar, and choir along the way. Music is such a wonderful, universal way of communicating. Sometimes I feel like it picks up just as we lose the words to express ourselves, which is why I try to work it into my writing, hoping that some of the tones and rhythms will help to capture a story or character or theme.

TC: Yes! Music is so evocative in expressing unspoken emotions and feelings. And song lyrics can also fill in those spaces. Some of the stories in your collection have this added layer.

Chee: A lot of the stories in Consonant Sounds were actually inspired by songs—and not fancy-shmancy classical songs either. If you take a look at the back of the book, there’s a big list of music that has influenced the writing of the stories. While I was working, I would be listening to one of these songs and I would find inside it the kernel of a story: a character, a scene, an emotion. Then I’d put the song on repeat and write and write and write until the character or scene or emotion had become this fully independent creature, with just hints of the music inside it. Sometimes the song is obvious, as with “To Keep Me Awake and Alive,” in which the narrator recites “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel in a desperate attempt to convince himself that he is still alive. Sometimes it isn’t so obvious, like with “The Fisherman,” in which I tried to capture some of that sense of melancholy, and small everyday things, and breathing, of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.”

TC: Also, for this reader, your stories had a heightened sense of being in “the moment.” Was this a craft effect that you created purposefully or did it happen in an organic way, spontaneously?

Chee: One of my favorite things about writing is that readers will notice themes, motifs, and arcs that you never—quite—intended, but that are somehow so perfect and so fitting for what you were trying to accomplish. I hadn’t intentionally tried to create a sense of “being in the moment” in these stories, but I love that it feels that way. Some BIG IDEAS in the collection revolve around dealing with death, searching for God, and being in love—sometimes two of them at once! For me, these tend to be “in the moment” sorts of actions: that blind grasping after the death of someone you love, that feeling of smallness-yet-total connectedness you might get at church, or in a concert hall, that sucker punch of young, stupid love. There’s not a lot of dwelling on the past or fretting about the future in moments like that; it’s more about that feeling of being right here, right now, experiencing this.

TC: What is your writing process like? Do you aim for a set amount of words each day? Do you have a special time or space to write? Do you belong to a writing group?

Chee: Have you ever read an interview where a super-established real writer gets this question, and s/he says something like, “Oh, I write eight hours every day on an antique typewriter that used to belong to my great-grandfather.” Or: “Oh, I write in a studio with a bulletin board on which I post all of the ideas that will for sure become award-winning pieces of literature.” I wish I could give you an answer like this.

The embarrassing truth is that my process is very fluid. I think this developed out of necessity. When I was in college, my writing options changed almost daily. Sometimes I’d write in my dorm room. Sometimes in a coffee shop. Sometimes outside on the grass. Those days, I listened to music. These days, only occasionally. Sometimes I need to type. Sometimes I need to write longhand. Sometimes I need to draw. Other times—and these are really frustrating—I can’t write a word—well, not one worth keeping—because the ideas and characters are still developing in my mind, still slowly taking on form and shape and color.

The trick to this process, I think, is learning to listen to myself. This means learning the difference between the times when I’m feeling lazy and the times when I really do need a while to ruminate over a scene. This means pushing myself to keep typing, even when my hands are cramping and my wrists ache, because the characters are taking a story where it needs to go. This means that some days—especially those really exhausting ones during the school year, when I’m so burnt out from planning and teaching and grading—the only “writing” I get done is mentally developing a character’s history while sitting in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.

TC: I like that image of you on the Golden Gate writing your stories.

Chee: I can’t advocate this process for everyone, because it feels very fickle and sometimes makes me feel a little like I’m just posing as a “Real Writer.” But I think it’s important to figure out how you work best, and go with that for as long as it keeps working. I suspect that my process will continue to change as I come to different points in my life. Maybe one day, when I’m ready to settle down in one place, I’ll have a settled-down process to match, one in which I sit at a desk for five hours every morning and three each afternoon. But for now, this is what works for me.

TC: So, what are you working on now?

Chee: Currently, I’m working on what I can best describe as a young adult literary fantasy novel. Unsurprisingly, it features fish, ships, and a girl with the only book in her entire world.

TC: What an interesting premise. I also like the idea of the novel being literary as well as a fantasy story. I look forward to reading it one day. But in the meantime, I have a burning question: Will you please tell us why you like fish and ships?

Chee: It sounds cool, right?

TC: Curiously cool.

Chee: For some reason fish keep showing up in my work without invitation. A goldfish appeared in “The Flying Fish and the Frying Fish,” then another in “Philematophilia.” Then Jeff, the main character of “Fish Songs,” decided that turning into a fish was the only way for him to cope with the loneliness of being human. Bear fought a shark in “No Place.” I didn’t plan any of this out beforehand, but I’ve realized that fish, and ships, and the ocean are all wonderfully rich metaphors. There’s freedom, and joy, and anger, and wildness, and that feeling of being very, very small but very, very connected to something vast and unfathomable.

Honestly, though, I get terrible, terrible seasickness. My family and I once went whale watching in the Monterey Bay, California—it was just a bay, not even the open ocean—and I was so headachy and nauseous by the end of the first hour that the best I could do when we found the humpback whales was video it for later and try not to throw up. I wonder if maybe my very incompatibility with the sea makes it appear in my work, as if by writing about it I’m trying to understand it, or to bring it into myself—an impossibility in real life.

TC: You mentioned earlier that you are a middle school teacher, how have your colleagues and students responded to your success?

Chee: I told my students at the beginning of the school year that I was also a writer. I don’t think they really believed me until fairly recently, within the last month or so, when one of them Googled me and found out I take up the majority of the first eleven pages of the search. Apparently, one of them posted this Facebook status: “that awkward moment when you realize your English teacher is famous.” Which I’m pretty sure prompted a bunch of other students to Google me, too. Within a day, students were coming up to me saying, “Ms. Chee, you have a Twitter account!?” and, “Ms. Chee, Imma follow you on Twitter!” Naturally, my response to all of this was to tweet about it.

tweet

Then it really exploded because someone took a screen cap and put it on Instagram, and they are all little Instagram fiends, so at that point pretty much the entire middle school knew and it became a running joke. Except I’m always serious about studying vocabulary.

TC: Funny! What other advice can you give aspiring authors, young and old?

Chee: I was trying to think of what advice would have sounded relevant and witty to my younger self—you know, maybe go for a metaphor or something cool—but I think writing, for me, comes down to two things, and while they’re not particularly clever, they are what gets me through.

First, hone your craft. For me, this means taking classes and studying with people who are better writers than me and getting criticized—harshly and justifiably—and criticizing back. This means looking at the shape of a book, looking at the shape of a sentence, or listening to the sound of a single word. This means reading books about writing and books about books and books that I would never read again and books that I will always read again.

I think the point is to never be satisfied, and to know that your writing could always be better, sharper, clearer, and to keep grasping after that. Or maybe the point is to always be learning something new about the way words can be put together. I don’t think everyone needs to take classes to hone their craft, but I do think that sharpening your writing until it cuts the paper is something we should all be after. Getting so fine an edge that it’s difficult to say whether it’s beautiful or devastating.

TC: And the second piece of advice?

Chee: The second piece of advice is obvious: Write. I mean, I guess it’s built into the first, but after all the learning and the striving and the refining, it really comes down to just doing it. Putting that pen on paper. Banging out that sentence on your keyboard. Write because you want to. Write because you have to. Write because the stories are a current of electricity running throughout your body and even when you aren’t working on them, they are always there, humming in the back of your mind, waiting in your forearms and fingertips. Write when it’s easy, and especially write when it’s hard. Write when people say that no one reads anymore. Write when people say that the publishing industry is dying. Write when you don’t get published. Write when you do get published. Write when your internal editor is looking over your shoulder and telling you that everything you do is cliché and overwrought. Write about the things that are inside of you, that are desperately trying to find their words.

TC: Those are great reasons to write. Yet, has there ever been at time when you didn’t write—maybe even avoided writing for any reason?

Chee: I make so many excuses every day, every hour, not to write. “I’m hungry. I’m tired. I’m burnt out.” Sometimes I believe the excuses, and I don’t write. This is because writing is hard, and watching TV and checking Facebook and eating are much, much easier. But I write because the writing is inside me and if I don’t write then I become a grumpy, shriveled up shell of a person. Writing fills me up. Writing makes me whole.

TC: How can readers discover more about you and your work?

Chee: Hooray! This one’s easy.

Blog: HELLO MY NAME IS TRACI and this is my blog
Twitter: @tracichee
Facebook: Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs

Final Poll Results