Vincent Chu was born in Oakland, California. His fiction has appeared in PANK Magazine, East Bay Review, Pithead Chapel, Fjords Review, Cooper Street, Stockholm Review, Chicago Literati, Forth Magazine, WhiskeyPaper and elsewhere. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications Best of the Net. Like a Champion is his debut collection. He lives in San Francisco and can be found online at www.vincentchuwriter.com and @herrchu.
Nathan Knapp is the former editor-in-chief of The Collapsar. He was born in Talihina, Oklahoma.
Interviewer’s note: This interview took place via email from the end of last year to the beginning of this one.
NK: So, in the story of yours we published back in 2014, “The Longhorns,” there's a paragraph that goes like this:
Now when I say all Asian, I mean starting five plus the bench. And specifically, the Chinese kind of Asian. If the city could afford to put last names on shirts, our team would save on letters. We got a Cheng, Chan, Cheung, Chin and Cho. I’m serious, no joke. There’s Chris Cheng, Kevin Chan, Steve Cheung, Mike Chin and Jason Cho. Our middle school yearbook has five pages of “Ch.” The Black kids on Chipman have great last names like Washington, James, Banks and, well, Chipman. Hell, they got a player named Hardaway. No fooling around. Hardaway. Unbelievable.
It reads almost like stand-up comedy. Do you count any comedians amongst your influences?
VC: I’m definitely a fan of stand-up comedy, so that’s a great compliment. I didn’t intentionally think of stand-up when writing this story, but you’re right, it kind of reads like it. I can always watch Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Chapelle, the usual suspects. Like how comedic actors often transition into becoming great dramatic actors, I think many comedic writers would make great fiction writers. A lot of the stories in Like a Champion feature characters that have long internal monologues, and comedians of course are some of the best at that.
NK: The main thing I remember I about coming across your story was how joyful it was. That seems like a rarity, in fiction, to me. Did you set out with something like that in mind?
VC: I love the idea of a competitor, in any context, just getting totally beat, and recognizing it but continuing to quietly chug along. That kind of maturity and self-awareness is especially interesting for a kid. Suddenly, getting beat in a basketball game can become joyful, satisfying, almost Zen-like. Plus, for anyone who played organized sports growing up, or even now as an adult, you’re usually too preoccupied with yourself, your own performance. The memories that stand out after are not necessarily the team wins or losses, but the individual moments of perceived victory, even if they're incredibly small or petty or not even in touch with reality.
NK: As a fan I definitely know that feeling of the weird, almost perverse joy that comes from losing (my favorite sport to watch is college football, and my team, Oklahoma State, is a part of the one of the most lopsided rivalries in all of CFB, with something like .200 all-time winning percentage against their in-state rival, OU). Sometimes I think something about watching all of my favorite sports teams (the Seattle Mariners would be my other team) be defined by failure somehow conditioned me to write, since writing is pretty much constant failure--the first draft isn't good enough so there is a second, third, fourth, twelfth, thirteenth, then you just throw away the story, etc... I see now this isn't really a question. Or maybe I could make it into a question: what kind of failure did you go through in writing these stories, or in bringing them together into Like a Champion?
VC: Yeah, so true, writing is pretty much constant failure. Anyone who has submitted a story or poem knows it takes so much rejection before acceptance. Numbers wise, I’m not sure there’s much else in life that deals out that much rejection, not a normal job, not school, not dating, maybe just being a certain sports fan like you said. With Like a Champion, I went through the usual failures, getting stories rejected, throwing away stories, getting the collection rejected, a general dread of “this is all going to be a failure,” but nothing too serious. Anyway, failure is of course much more interesting than success. All of the characters in Like a Champion fail a lot, and they don’t always overcome their failures at the end of their stories.
NK: So, this is an appallingly broad question, but one which I always wonder about, so feel free to answer it however you will--what are your ultimate ambitions as a writer? As in, what goals do you have for yourself?
VC: I’d like to see how far I can take my writing, while still having fun with it. I guess that means feeling like I realized my potential as a writer when it’s all said and done, wherever that natural limit is. Getting to write more books and having people enjoy those books would be wonderful—I really couldn’t ask for more than that.
NK: What is the writer's (particularly the fiction writer's) responsibility to the truth, whatever that may be?
VC: I think perhaps writers have a responsibility to their own truth. If they’re not delivering on that, it’s kind of like, what’s the point of it all? If writers aren’t presenting their stories to the world from their own place of truth, we should maybe give in and let AI write our literature.
NK: This is tricky, because it's almost impossible to think through, but what do you feel is the writer's responsibility to the current moment—I'm thinking of the current tidal wave of things on both wings of the political spectrum in our wider culture, i.e. Trump, Weinstein, #metoo, etc.—if any?
VC: I’ve never been an intentionally political writer, and I don’t think writers have a responsibility to write about current events or social themes, but that said, it’s hard for these times not to influence a writer’s work in some shape or form. I have stories that one could consider touch on the Me Too movement and Trump, but in organic, sort of non-deliberate ways that are natural to the characters in the story. When it comes down to it, some people want Tupac lyrics, some people want Biggie lyrics, and both make the world a better place.
NK: This is a two-parter. What writer made you want to be a writer (and why)? And what writer or writers makes you continue to believe in the art of writing itself (and why)?
VC: I used to read Michael Crichton and John Grisham books in elementary school, and I remember thinking then that I wanted to be a writer, even though I had no idea what I was reading. There are so many writers that make me continue to believe in the art of writing, from contemporary writers to other indie authors. I often read short stories in online magazines that just blow my mind and make me immediately want to sit down to write and get better myself. Currently, I’m bringing myself up to speed on Murakami, better late than never I guess, and it's very inspiring. Writers like that make you reevaluate what you thought was possible as a writer.