Born in Taipei in 1972, Terrence Cheng immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was barely one year old. Although he had grown up hearing stories from his parents, he never thought much about his family's life in China until his grandparents died. Cheng's maternal grandmother was a senator in the Chinese Nationalist Party. His grandfather fought the Japanese on the Mainland during WWII, sustaining wounds that left him scarred for life. In 1949, as Mao came to power, they fled Beijing for Taiwan.
Cheng was 17 years old at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacres. He recalls watching the demonstrations on American television and being transfixed by the lone figure of a young man who stepped in front of the tanks in a courageous act of defiance. At the last minute, the man was pulled aside by onlookers, disappearing into the crowd as mysteriously as he had appeared. The image haunted Cheng, who for the first time felt a connection to China and a true appreciation of the sacrifices his own family had made to assure his safety and comfort in the United States.
Cheng never forgot the "Unknown Rebel," as the anonymous dissident of Tiananmen Square came to be known. And in his 2002 debut novel, Sons of Heaven, he gave him a face, a name, and a powerful story. Hailed by Publishers Weekly as "a rare find," by the San Francisco Chronicle as "a superb first novel," and by the Miami Herald as "stylistically and thematically daring," the book struck a chord with readers everywhere.
In 2007, Cheng released Deep in the Mountains, a young adult novel in the Watson Guptill Art Encounters series that interweaves the lives of a young New York graffiti artist and famous Chinese painter Zhu Oizhan. He has also published a story in the crime fiction anthology Bronx Noir. A recipient of the James Michener Fellowship and a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cheng teaches creative writing at Lehman College in New York City.
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Some interesting anecdotes from our interview with Cheng:
"My first two jobs out of college were at a local health club, and then at a taekwondo school. In both situations I became a manager and had plenty of time on my hands, so I would sit in my office and write and edit whenever I could. I spent plenty of company time and money and resources printing, copying, mailing my stories to literary magazines (and subsequently getting rejected). Then, at the taekwondo school, I was offered my own franchise. At which point I realized I had to make a choice -- sell memberships the rest of my life, or go to graduate school and try to be a writer?"
"While applying to and eventually selecting the 'right' M.F.A. program: every program that wanted my GRE score (which was pitiful) I got into; every school that did not want my GRE score, I was rejected by. It came down to Johns Hopkins and the University of Miami. I was offered a partial scholarship by Hopkins, and a full ride to Miami. The director at Miami gave me the hard sell and I was like, 'I don't know. Let me think about it.' So he called my mother and gave her the hard sell (so sneaky!) -- then my mother gave me the hard sell, part two, and reminded me that I had no money. So I went to Miami."
"I got the offer to write Deep in the Mountains after the editor read my wedding announcement in The New York Times. So if my wife hadn't agreed to marry me, and our announcement hadn't appeared in the paper, then I would never have gotten the chance to write this book. So, as usual, all the credit belongs to my wife."
"I guess if there's a point to any of this, it is: Life works in funny ways. If you try to plan everything, the gods will certainly smash your puny plan."
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In the summer of 2007, Terrence Cheng took some time out to answer our questions about his favorite books, authors, and life as a writer.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, for the dramatic yet subtle potency, the beauty of the language and images, the raw emotions, and the questioning of the human condition. And the intricate yet seamless craft of the narrative -- it's amazing. It's about war to a degree, but really it's a book about choices and decisions that we all face. It is also a book that speaks to the value of truth, and the art and craft of writing itself. It is and always will be one of my favorite books of all time.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien -- As noted above.
Proof by David Auburn -- An amazing play -- the voice and conflict of the characters, so compelling and real; but still quirky and intriguing in a completely original way. Great on stage, great off the page -- entertaining, yet moving.
Libra by Don DeLillo: A book that does things in such a completely unique and original way on every level-- narrative style, tone, sensibility, language, pace, drilling into minds and emotions, and ultimately more questions. It is a masterwork of historical fiction and research that reads like a thriller and comes as close to answering the question "Who shot Kennedy" as you are ever going to get. But it's not just who shot Kennedy -- it's how, it's why, which may be even more essential.
Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow -- A book that makes its world and characters come alive so viscerally with each line, each image and moment. Its historical context is also very compelling and beautifully interwoven throughout the book. Classic Doctorow blurring the lines between fiction and reality, history and the fantastic.
The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Dantitcat -- The prose is magnificent, the use of history and language, setting, imagery. It makes the characters and the world they inhabit so plush, so real. Emotionally and viscerally true. Will give readers a glimpse into a culture, time, and historical event that is little known and seldom discussed in the West.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy -- The beauty of the prose, the nature and cadence and imagery of McCarthy's language -- remarkable. I'd also throw in The Crossing, Blood Meridian, and The Road as McCarthy favorites.
To Live by Yu Hua -- A Chinese historical fiction that spans the 20th century, from the Chinese civil war to the Great Leap Forward, to the Cultural Revolution, the book appears on the surface, in both style and tone, to be simple, but it is far from it. The tragedy and complexity of the plot and the spirit of the characters is so powerful and moving.
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara -- Amazing historical fiction that gets you into the minds of all the key characters of the Civil War. It's another book that goes beyond history and war because it's a story about life and death, decisions, consequences.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison -- Possibly one of the greatest novels ever written, by anyone, ever.
A few books on craft: Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet, Backwards and Forwards by David Ball, The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo, and Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. I use these books in my creative writing classes. I don't like "how-to" books for writers, but these books are more like a compendium of life lessons and philosophical jousting that is necessary for a writer to develop his or her own sensibilities.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?To Live, directed by Zhang Yimou, starring Gong Li. It's a great take on the novel (noted above) that sucks the drama off the page of the novel and brings it to life in all its tragedy and struggle and joy. Historically accurate, shot beautifully, well acted -- great colors and vibrancy. Dramatic and gut-wrenching.
Glengarry Glen Ross, written by David Mamet. Probably a better play than it is a movie, but still spectacular performances by a ridiculous all-star cast. I think a lot of people are drawn to the movie's brutal dog-eat-dog machismo, but it is also a very sad and tragic drama in a classic sense.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I need silence when I'm writing -- no music, no nothing.
In general, my iPod is a nightmarish jumble, the details too dangerous and sad to be released to the public.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I would probably be reading Herman Hesse, or Moby Dick, or James Joyce or Tolstoy or other books and writers that I should have read when I was in college and graduate school that I still feel guilty for never having read. The list is too long, and that's why I'm not in a book club.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I don't like to give or get books as gifts. I feel that books (fiction, nonfiction, coffee table, picture books, pop-up books, whatever) are very personal and intimate possessions that are most valuable and most appreciated when chosen for oneself. I can't count the number of books I've received as gifts through the years that I've smiled and nodded at upon receipt, but inside I'm thinking, "What the hell?" So I don't give books as gifts.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write early in the morning, wake up around 6 a.m. My brain is clearest then, no clutter from the day.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I'm hardly an "overnight success," if a "success" at all. I teach, I write, I live a good life. Without getting all existential and weird, I'll simply say that even today I tell myself what I've been telling myself for the past fifteen years: keep writing, keep reading, and keep improving. Stay open and flexible, but stay true to what you are doing. The only thing you have any control over is the writing itself -- whether or not you do it, for starters; and then whether or not you have what it takes to continue improving upon it.
Writing well, and being a writer, is a long-term commitment. Sons of Heaven took me five years to finish, from concept to research, to multiple drafts, and then publication. Deep in the Mountains took two years. The Japanese war crimes novel has also taken me about five years, and what happens to that book, or any other I'm working on or thinking about, remains to be seen.
I still get rejections of all kinds -- they are all horrifying for their own reasons. But rejection is part of the life of a writer, so if you can't take rejection and learn to use it as motivation, then you shouldn't be writing.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't write with the intent of impressing anyone. Write to fulfill that thing inside you that makes you want to write. Sometimes it's not a matter of you selecting your subject matter, as much as it is you recognizing what it is you should be writing about. Then do it to the best of your abilities.
Don't write to show how smart you are, or to try to prove something. Write to discover -- that is how art is born. If you want to prove a point, write a speech or an essay. Write an op-ed and send it to your local paper.
Once you are at the point where you are trying to find an agent or publisher, always be professional. Believe in the power and meaning of a traditional cover letter. Don't try to be quirky, goofy, intriguing, interesting, original, etc., so you will "stand out." Gimmicks barely get you noticed, and will never get you published. Unless you are already a celebrity, chances are an agent or publisher doesn't care about who you are unless your work is good. So be yourself, and let the work speak for itself. If it's good, and if you are committed to finding the right home for it, things will happen.
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