As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, John Lanchester (Reality and Other Stories) and Te-Ping Chen (Land of Big Numbers: Stories) discussed their new collections of short stories which grapple with questions of interpersonal connection, technology, ambition, and distraction, through a mixture of witty literary fiction, magical realism, and cultural criticism. Moderated by Courtney Maum.
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Thanks to our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop.
“Lanchester conjures a sad shadow world all the more scary for being a mirror image of our own. These entertainments are brisk, vinegar-sharp satires that horrify and amuse in equal measure; an alarming reality check.”—The Guardian
“Book by book, John Lanchester proves himself one of our necessary writers, equal in wit, good nature, and fundamental sanity to whatever insane thing the new century throws at us.”—Garth Risk Hallberg, author of City on Fire
“A stirring and brilliant collection of stories probing the contradictions and beauties of modern China, Te-Ping Chen’s debut is both love letter and sharp social criticism. Through scenes firmly planted in reality as well as tales of the bizarre and magical, Chen reveals portraits lovingly rendered with insight from her years as a reporter with the Wall Street Journal.”—Elle
“Remarkable… Unfolds across the modern Chinese diaspora, pinballing between acutely observed realism and tragicomic magical realism… Each haunting, exquisitely crafted story poses powerful questions about freedom, disillusion, and cultural thought, firmly establishing Chen as an emerging visionary to watch.”—Esquire
SARAH LAWSON: Welcome to “The Art of the Short Story,” a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.
Thanks to our community partners for this event, The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative and the Muse Writers Center. We also greatly appreciate the support of all Festival sponsors, donors, and community partners. Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers:
John Lanchester, author of Reality and Other Stories, is also author of the novels The Debt to Pleasure, Capital, and The Wall, and a regular contributor to the London Review of Books and The New Yorker. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages, and his books have won numerous awards, including the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the Hawthornden Prize, and the E. M. Forster Award.
Te-Ping Chen, author of Land of Big Numbers: Stories, has worked, published in, or forthcoming from The New Yorker, Granta, Guernica, Tin House, and The Atlantic. A reporter with The Wall Street Journal, she was previously a correspondent for the paper in Beijing and Hong Kong.
And our moderator, Courtney Maum, author of Before and After the Book Deal, is also author of the novels Costalegre, Touch, and I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You.
Thank you all for joining us today. Courtney, take it away.
COURTNEY MAUM: Thank you so much, Sarah, for that introduction, and thank you to the Festival for hosting us. Before we kick things off tonight, I did want to take a moment to just take a little pause and hold a little space for the horrific killings in Atlanta and to acknowledge the pain, stress, anger, and confusion that this has added for many people on top of an incredibly challenging year inside of an incredibly challenging decade.
And then I wanted to acknowledge also the power of art and literature to connect people and to allow people to get to know others that they might not meet, to understand cultures that they might not get a chance to know intimately. So I couldn’t be happier to be speaking with these two incredibly authors today. And when we do these conversations, the moderator says buy their books. But I implore you tonight that these two collections, Land of Big Numbers and Reality and Other Stories—the whole world exists in these two collections. There’s so much. We’re not going to touch upon even a small percentage of it tonight. But please do buy their books and follow them online and whatnot. But we’re so happy to have you here.
So to kick things off, anyone here who has tried to pitch their writing or pitch an article or write an artist statement knows that it is much, much harder to write about our writing and to summarize our writing than to sit down and write. But we’re going to try to do that tonight anyway. Out of respect for the people who haven’t had a chance yet to read these two collections, I was hoping that in your own words, John and Te-Ping, if you could tell us a little bit about what your collections are about, if you’ve figured it out. Because I know sometimes even after the fact we’re not 100 percent sure what our books are about. But Te-Ping, would you like to start? Tell us a little bit about what Land of Big Numbers is about.
TE-PING CHEN: Sure, yeah. Thank you so much for having me here. It’s really exciting to get to share on this book. So Land of Big Numbers is a collection of short stories which I wrote when I was living in Beijing as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. So they’re fiction but very much rooted in my years there both as a reporter and also just as someone who spent a lot of time in the country traveling and meeting everyone from human rights lawyers to striving college students to rural inventors, some of whom you’ll meet in this book. The book is full of men and women and love and robots who exist purely to make noodles and men in the countryside who try and build their own airplanes from scratch, even though they’re farmers who have never flown before. All kinds of stories that are wondrous and surprising and full of the kind of spirit that I just was so struck by in my years living in China. And I hope especially in this moment when, you know, so many of us feel stuck in place, that the book can offer both—as Courtney put it so well—a sense of empathy and getting to see stories that are often difficult to access. And as well, the book contains a lot of delicious food. And, yeah, I think something again that many of us are missing. The pleasures of getting to travel and experience the world maybe more viscerally. So, yeah, I hope it offers all that. And thank you again for the chance to share.
COURTNEY MAUM: Thank you. So that was an excellent summary, and it really does remind one that the cheapest and safest way to travel right now is via your independent bookstore and pick up actually short story collections because you get to many different places quicker than you would with a novel, right?
What about you, John? How would you summarize the incredible stories in Reality?
JOHN LANCHESTER: Well, thanks for asking. I suppose they’re not quite ghost stories. They’re not quite spooky stories. There’s a rather wonderful German word, umheimlich. It means unhomely. It has a connotation of something you think you’re going to recognize, and then you look more closely at it, and you realize it’s not what you thought. Freud was fascinated with the word umheimlich. He used this image of seeing someone that you think is your mother, and then you look more closely, and you realize it isn’t.
COURTNEY MAUM: How terrifying.
JOHN LANCHESTER: Very, very scary, yeah. The specific thing of like but not like. And it crept up on me. I wrote one story which was sort of a fairly classic English ghost story set in a country house. And then a few months went past, and I wrote another story about an academic ending up downloading an audiobook in a graveyard, and the audiobook starts acting in a sort of unnatural, haunted way. And then I think I wrote the third one, another story with a sort of spooky alternate reality premise. At that point, I realized I was sort of halfway to being a collection. So I didn’t sit down in cold blood to write it. It just sort of crept up on me. And I was about halfway through when my wife said to me, “You realize all these stories having technology and mobile phones in them.”
“Of course. It’s on purpose, obviously.” Then I went away and thought about it and thought, yeah, actually that’s right. They do. And realized this had sort of crept up on me. It’s strange what the unconscious does. It definitely has a theme around technology and the uncanny and the ghost in the machine—the spirit behind the kind of wiring and plumbing. And it sort of coalesced around that.
COURTNEY MAUM: I love that. You all really have to get the book for the audiobook story. It’s terrifying but seems possible. So we’re very lucky tonight because both of our authors agreed to do something pretty fun. Seeing that tonight’s panel is called “The Art of the Short Story,” we were discussing how regardless of genre or length—whether it’s a short story, a novel, a memoir, what have you—the art of the short story is really about the art of revising the short story. And rather than have our authors read tonight a passage that I hope you will get to experience because you’re going to listen to me and buy these incredible books, I was hoping that each of them could read something that didn’t make it into the book for one reason or another. And we can talk a little bit about—or I can’t—I will listen to why it didn’t make it in. So if we stick with this order—Te-Ping, would you mind going first?
TE-PING CHEN: Yeah, absolutely. So not only is it a part of the story that didn’t wind up, it’s also under a different title. So I’m looking with an email that I sent my husband with the story as I’d written in. The very first iteration, when it was called “Seasons of Light.” It subsequently became titled “Shanghai Murmur.” And I’ll just begin. So this is from the start—what would’ve been the start of the story.
The signs appeared without notice one morning. Nothing formal; just pieces of paper that read, “Not open to sightseers.” They’d been stapled to the wooden siding and stuck with wide strips of blue tape to the walls. And for a while, no one seemed sure who’d put them up there. Xiaolei supposed it had started with the art students. They’d begun turning up last fall, armed with sketch pads and charcoal. She’d liked watching them as they sat rendering the brick archways and carved wooden frescos in miniature, casting them in black and white and silvery lead. Up until the day that one of them had brought a camera and started taking pictures of the building. Shots of the laundry lines, its shadowy interior. None of the residents had seemed to mind either. But someone had pointed the boy out to some of the squatters, and word had spread. Xiaolei had watched as they’d run him off the grounds, first making him open up his camera and hand over the film, curled in his palm like a snail.
She didn’t feel sorry for the boy, but she would’ve liked to see his photographs. It was the most extraordinary building Xiaolei had ever seen. Tall windows rounded at the top, and one sweeping staircase and a bas relief out front, featuring a cacophony of grapes, gargoyles, and at the center a sphinx. The residents all said the building was French. Its gray brick façade was badly weathered but its lines still unmistakable, the roof line a syncopated series of small turrets and curved flourishes, including one that culminated in a bell sconce shaped like a gourd, though the bell had long since vanished.
Years later, Xiaolei would return to the city and find out that it was more likely Italian, commissioned and built by a banker around a half century ago. The banker had evidently abandoned it after his wife in Europe decided she didn’t want to move to Shanghai. After all, there was a war on. The banker had shelved his architectural visions and gone home to join her.
At the moment, it stood delicately rotting from the inside, where much of its structure had been torn up and replaced with white-washed partitions of uneven height that in places only rose up about seven feet high in the air. The halls were heaped with red plastic and white grocery bags tied up with trash, looking like slightly deflated balloons, around which shiny-shelled cockroaches scuttled. The thin coating of oil and grime on the walls was part dirt, part human.
In the morning, you could hear birdsong. Xiaolei heard it from her second-floor partition through a tall casement divided roughly down the middle by her plywood wall, a window she shared with her neighbor. He preferred keeping it open on all hours and insisted on hoisting the curtain, a thick prickly linen, sticky to the touch with age, just after dawn.
A retiree who’d worked at a pharmaceutical company before being fired when her mind started to prematurely soften, she had the critical bargaining chip on her side—the curtain rod. Xiaolei didn’t mind the open air but wished that they could agree to compromise on certain hours for the curtain, or that she could figure out a way to rig one up just for her side. For now, she settled by tying a shirt over her face when she was invariably woken up in the morning by the light, which streamed in bright and pure and directly into her eyes.
COURTNEY MAUM: Thank you so much for sharing. So that, again, for people who have not read the beginning to the story that became “Shanghai Murmur,” that’s quite, quite different. I’ll read you the first sentence of the published story, published under the title “Shanghai Murmur”: The man who lived upstairs had died, and it had taken the other tenants days to notice. A much different beginning. Can you talk us through a little bit about the permutations here specifically with what you just read and your sort of decision points up to the new opening that is now published in the book?
TE-PING CHEN: Yeah, so that story—I had started writing it as I find I would start many of my short stories: just with an image or an impression and not knowing exactly where it was going. And in that case, I was writing quite clearly about a building that I passed often near my home. And it always struck me. It was sort of this decrepit yet once-beautiful building. I always wondered about its inhabitants. It seemed to be occupied by sort of squatters. And so I started writing about a woman who lived in one of these sorts of partitioned rooms within this building. She was a young woman. I knew that. And I knew that she loved beauty, and she was sensible to the charm of the place where she lived but also living in squalor. Evidently, in Shanghai.
So as I wrote, I began in the way that you heard just now—sort of evoking the building. And the very next paragraph, which I didn’t read, but then we understand that a man in her building has died. And it was really only after I’d finished the story and obviously sent it to my husband in this email draft that I just read, and going back over and reading it, and realizing that what had led me to the story originally, which was just my feeling of fascination with this building and the delight that I took in getting to evoke it because it really was such a striking piece of architecture and strangeness we found in a city like Beijing, where I was living at the time. Where, again, most of the architecture is like—it’s a gray kind of monolith of a city, much of it. And to find this old piece of architecture, again, strangely occupied by seeming squatters, was just so fascinating to me. And I loved getting to write about it.
But as soon as I read through again, it was very clear this had nothing to do with the story. The story begins with the dead man. So I had to lose all—I mean, the building, the entire starting point of that story, ended up getting cut entirely. Though, of course, what was left was Xiaolei, this woman, who was living at the bottom of society in a city that held a lot of beauty and had once held much more.
COURTNEY MAUM: Thank you so much for sharing that. People’s intimate processes are never—I’m so fascinated by them. And it sounds like at least the way you came to this particular story reminds me of how I get to stories, which are published stories, which is by deleting the first 11 percent. Because it’s sort of like in the olden times when we get together with friends. Sometimes it takes us a little while to hit our steam when we’re telling a story at a dinner party, right? And people are looking at you like—your spouse, if you have one, is like, “Honey, get to the point.” It takes us a while because we have to separate out what we find interesting from, unfortunately or fortunately, what our readers will find interesting.
And while the beauty of the building and the intrigue of the building—the reader is like who cares who lives inside it? What about John? Let’s hear what you have to share. Thank you so much for sharing.
JOHN LANCHESTER: Just on that note, I think that’s absolutely right. The simplest and crudest and often best advice about writing is that famous phrase: slaughter your darlings. It’s often the thing you’re most in love with is the thing that doesn’t quite work. It takes a long time—in fact, I was going to say it takes a long time to get used to that. But actually you never do. It’s always agony. But there is that strange part of the process, that your very favorite bit at the beginning is very, very often the thing you reluctantly end up chucking out at the end.
COURTNEY MAUM: Or book titles. I find that happens a lot. You think you have the absolute perfect title for a short story, title for a novel, and then the minute you hand it over to a gatekeeper, there’s lots of reasons why it’s a terrible title. Or they think it is. And that’s always hard.
JOHN LANCHESTER: Or when you tell them the title, and they say, “What?”
COURTNEY MAUM: Well let’s have a listen, John. What do you have to share with us?
JOHN LANCHESTER: A story called “The Children’s Wish,” which isn’t in the book for reasons which I’ll explain in a minute. It’s about a pair of sisters living in a house.
So close, so thick we seem—my sister and me. Everybody says so. It must have helped that we had our own separate wing at home. That makes it sound much grander than it was, makes it sound like it was mansion or a palace or a castle. But to us, it just seemed a big house. But part of it stuck out to one side, and once my sister and I were old enough to mind ourselves, that’s where we stayed, where we slept, where we played, where we spent our days. We’d only come over to the big part of the house for meals, and perhaps that’s where everyone got the impression that we were off in our separate world.
Of course, our parents were off in a separate world too, upstairs in the big house, their huge bedroom surrounded by all the other huge bedrooms. Downstairs was where the living happened—the kitchen and the dining room and the sitting rooms and the hallway. Those were the places we’d see other people because that’s where guests came. And they did come downstairs in the big house, where the public part of our family life used to happen.
My sister and I used to talk about going over there and finding that there were no grownups left or that the house had burned down. One of our regular fantasies was that we’d go over at suppertime and there’d be food on the table, but there’d be no people. In fact, no people left anywhere else in the world. Just us. It was a scary thought, but we both knew also that it was secretly very exciting. No people left in the world except the two of us. Games and jokes in our language, in our world, expanded to be the whole world with nothing us. As I say, it makes me sad to think back to how it was between my sister and me. I can’t remember if it was already changing before the fire.
COURTNEY MAUM: All right. Well, John, you’ll have to tell us. Because I’m on the edge of my seat, dying to know what happens to these children. So that sounds like a great story. So why was it put on the chopping block?
JOHN LANCHESTER: Everything burns down, and it’s just the two of them left, and the sister becomes more and more scary. She keeps coming over and whispering things in her sister’s ear that other people can’t quite hear. And the last line of the story is—there’s people coming and company. It’s the first time they have a group of friends over. Or not friends—acquaintances—over to the house. And she just comes over and whispers in her ear, “I have a very long needle.”
COURTNEY MAUM: Oh, lord.
JOHN LANCHESTER: But it didn’t work. Today, from your suggestion, was the first time I read it since I finished it about eighteen months ago. A bit more. And my wife—I think, Te-Ping, you’re obviously the same, emailing it to your husband. My wife reads my stuff first. And she just said it doesn’t fit. And she’s a writer too, so we can speak in sort of writer shorthand.
COURTNEY MAUM: And she was speaking in terms of it not fitting in the rest of the collection you’d written enough?
JOHN LANCHESTER: Yeah, I’d written all the other stories in it. There’s a funny thing about editorial input. The only kind that’s really useful is things you’ve been thinking about yourself. If it sort of completely comes from left field, it can easily be that thing about this is an apple, and I’d rather have an orange, you know?
COURTNEY MAUM: Yes. We’ve all been there.
JOHN LANCHESTER: It might be right, but it kind of doesn’t—but things you’ve been going on the one hand, on the other hand. And I had slightly been thinking I wonder if this belongs in a different book. And she instantly and firmly said, no, it doesn’t fit, and so I put it to one side. That’s the thing that does happen with books. You have things that work in their own terms but just don’t belong. I’ve had that happen to characters in novels. You have a character who seems vivid and things like that to you but has sort of wandered in from a different book. And that’s basically the case with this story. It’s wandered in from another book.
COURTNEY MAUM: I think that’s a very interesting and specific preoccupation for short story collections. Deciding what belongs and what doesn’t. Did you have any stories, Te-Ping, that you either started or finished that didn’t make the cut? Or characters that started to push themselves in and weren’t welcome?
TE-PING CHEN: Yeah, I should say I’ve always loved short stories, but Land of Big Numbers was my first time trying to figure out how to write short stories. So I’d been working on a novel and then I had sort of been stuck, and writing these short stories was in many ways my way of just kind of figuring out how to write about the world that I was in and feeling like it sort of gave me really a new lease of life with the material.
So for me, the ones that fell out were not so much thematically out of place. Just I didn’t think they were quite good enough. But there were some that I really wanted to work. One which especially now in this moment I’m sorry that it didn’t work. It’s one that was called “China Syndrome.” It was about a very highly contagious skin disease that sweeps the globe, and it shuts down economies. Yeah, it sends the world into kind of this social tailspin and everything. We see sort of effects not too dissimilar from some that we’ve seen this year. But that was one that seemed almost too—tonally it was engaged with China, which the collection of course very much is. But I think tonally it was a little bit too much. It was like a little too cheeky, almost, and not really engaging with the same sorts of themes. But that was one that I was sorry that I couldn’t quite make it work. Maybe I’ll revisit it someday.
COURTNEY MAUM: It’s funny, right? It is a little bit like failed short stories or manuscripts of any length—they are relationships that we couldn’t get to work out. But in theory, they don’t die really. Our urge to resuscitate them might. But it is a privilege, I think, of our craft that we can pick these relationships up many, many years, sometimes decades down the road, and say, you know what, Mr. Ex-Boyfriend Story, I’m going to try to make it work with you.
Well thank you so much for both of you sharing that intimate slaughtered work, as John says. So I was doing the cyber stalking of both of you, and for John, I came upon a positive review of his by a reader on the evil A-m-a-z-o-n, where you should not buy your books. Please buy them from independent bookstores. But the reviewer—again, it was a five-star review. Very positive, as all reviews are of John’s book because it’s a great book. This person had written that reality is the most frightening place. You know, this is feeling awfully true, that reality is a really terrifying place. Both of you are writing fiction about reality in different ways. I wonder if you could give sort of open-ended comments on this review that reality is the most frightening place. Let’s start with John. What do you think of that?
JOHN LANCHESTER: One of the weird things about writing is—and it’s a thing that’s almost impossible to explain. I mean, I’ve worked in publishing before, and I can’t explain why it takes more than a year for a book to come out. I mean, it just is bizarre and incomprehensible. But there is this colossal doubt. And the cultural moment in which a book actually arrives is hugely disconnected from the one in your head. I think perhaps it’s an apocryphal thing, but I have a mental image of a place where people do this cave diving. Sorry, cliff diving, with the kind of vertiginous drop, and this sort of sucking inlet at the bottom. And it’s so steep and so high and the waves coming so abruptly that at the point they jump of there’s no water. They have to time it. And the water comes in, and they land in the water.
COURTNEY MAUM: Oh, come on. That’s a pretty apt image of marketing trends.
JOHN LANCHESTER: Exactly. That’s what it’s like having a book out. You just don’t know. And some of the time the water comes in. And let’s be honest. Some of the time it doesn’t.
COURTNEY MAUM: Often, yeah.
JOHN LANCHESTER: So the kind of profound unsettlingness of this moment and particularly the weirdness of contact without contact that we’re actually engaged in at the moment—you know, talking about that word umheimlich, uncanny. There is something uncanny about the amount of presence without presence we’re having and this sort of disconnected—you know, I can go out for a walk. It’s nighttime here. I can go for a walk around. And these streets are not like they normally are, you know, eleven thirty in the night in the middle of town. It’s so deeply altered reality. I’m sure we’re all experiencing versions of that. But it couldn’t have been less like the landscape that was around when I was writing the stories. Everything was ticking along normally. And this sort of jolting, disconnected otherness of the current moment is just something that wasn’t there when I was writing the book.
COURTNEY MAUM: This idea of reality and non-reality—I want to try and tie it to another question I had for both of you, but starting with Te-Ping. How did you get at reality with the different tools available to you as a writer? You use absurdist humor quite a bit in your stories. So I wonder, especially as a journalist, if you could talk a little bit about how you tackled reality and non-reality in these stories?
TE-PING CHEN: Yeah, it’s funny. Hearing you describe reality is—just how frightening reality can be. I’m thinking of one story in the book, the one that closes it, which tells a story. It’s one of the ones that is more absurdist and surreal. It’s a story of a group of commuters who end up trapped in a Beijing subway tunnel deep underground for months and denied official permission to leave for a really bureaucratic reason. And on the surface, there’s nothing really frightening that happens except that they are so much at the whim of the government. And we see so quickly how their lives change and become so much outside their control. And they have to essentially rethink their identities while living underground. And they form a society. We see bonds come together and fray. I’m thinking of it especially because it’s, again, not one that—it doesn’t have ghosts in it.
But it is very much about kind of the terrors of the human spirit and just how frightening it is that we as individuals and as a collective can be so adaptable over time. We see in the story people, again, start to become really comfortable with these new strictures that the government has put on them. And it evolves in different ways. I won’t give away the ending. But it’s something that a number of readers have observed to me. It’s very reminiscent of the current moment that we’re in of the pandemic, when again, so many of us are feeling so trapped and trapped in place.
It’s something that I think, for me, writing—you were asking about journalism and fiction. For me, the ability to use some of the tools of magic realism and surrealism like in the story—placing these characters in this situation—is in many ways to try and get at some of the truth about what it’s like in some ways to live in a society where your choices are so radically constrained. To explore it in a way that you couldn’t in journalism. The story is intended to be sort of the stark fairy tale, almost like a claustrophobic experience when somebody is reading it, I think.
But also it’s one that I think the lens of fiction really allows you to ask the reader to engage in and think, if I was one of these people living in this circumstance, how would I respond? Would I want to break out? How would I do it? And I think to really assess and reassess what it means to be human and to be living in a society where things are distorted or broken in ways that feel outside your control and how do we respond. That’s a question that, for me, was really at the heart of a lot of these stories. Whether with this one or the story that opens the collection, which tells the story of a pair of twins, one who becomes a professional video gamer, and his sister, who becomes a sort of online dissident and activist.
Those are the sorts of characters that I very much did write about in a journalistic context, right? Those are the sorts of stories that you often, as a foreign correspondent in China, do write about. But I think the lens of fiction, just allowing readers to not just meet a character at the end of their journey when they’ve already embarked upon this path of activism, in the case of the opening story “Lulu,” but also to understand the family context, to see the interplay of these deep relationships. Like no one character—in a new story, you might encounter one character. And yet you unspool who they are—their families, their siblings, their parents, and you start to see a whole world. And I think that’s something that fiction is just really able to capture in a way that is of course much harder to do through a narrow lens of print.
COURTNEY MAUM: And you did. You captured it so beautifully.
JOHN LANCHESTER: I agree with that. Can I add one—
COURTNEY MAUM: Please do.
JOHN LANCHESTER: I think sometimes you have a thing that—because I write fiction and nonfiction too. And sometimes if you describe something—you’re interested in something in the world. And I’ve been following technology and been writing about it for a long time. You can have this story that you aren’t able to tell just by writing about the externals, by saying what happened. There’s another landscape to it. And I became aware—as I said, I was about halfway through this book before I realized what it was about. And I read that part of it was that I’d written and read quite a lot about the kind of sociology and the politics and the economics of technology and of how we all connect with each other like we’re connecting with each other now. But I’ve come to think that there is sort of another side that’s being left out: its effect on ourselves and how we not just interact with each other but actually interact with ourselves. How we perceive ourselves. How we’re wired. Kind of our self-image, our inner being.
That’s one of the things you can do in fiction. You can go down and in, into the self, in a way that other forms of writing don’t really let you do in quite the same way. There’s a whole other set of things you can open up in fictional forms.
COURTNEY MAUM: So both of your answers sort of dovetail on another question/comment that I had. I had looked at an interview that Te-Ping did with her publisher, which is posted online, in which she raised an interesting point. A preoccupation. What is it like to grow comfortable and even thrive in a repressive system? And it’s funny because I read that on—it was about Te-Ping’s work. But I thought, gosh, this really makes me think of so many of the stories in reality. So, John, you shared that at first you didn’t quite see the overarching preoccupation with some of this digital technology, but then your wife pointed it out.
Let’s talk a little bit more. Is digital technology a repressive system? Or is it more it’s the humans who are using it wrong? Let’s talk about the sort of discovery of what’s happening to the self in your collection.
JOHN LANCHESTER: It definitely has the potential to be repressive, as Te-Ping can tell you at greater length than I can. I grew up in Hong Kong and was there during the protests in 2019. And the potential for complete state control through technology is a story that unfortunately we’re only at the beginning of, I fear. But I think—I mean, Zadie Smith wrote a wonderful thing in the New York Review about having done—and she did an MA as a graduate student at Harvard. She did her first degree at Cambridge. And then went back a few years later to teach. And in her view, the students—the undergraduates—had actually changed in that time. The thing that had changed them was Facebook. And that people presented themselves in a different way. They had a different sense of selfhood. And I’m really interested in that. It’s a thing I notice.
My kids are younger than you guys, I think. Mine are twenty-two and eighteen. Twenty-three now, actually, and eighteen. And it’s quite striking that even in that microgenerational, five-year gap, they use technology differently. And they sort of expect different things from it, and they’re sort of suspicious of different things. The twenty-three-year-old is, you know, they use Facebook for a bit, and then they stop—that generation. And my eighteen-year-old would be more likely to be the first man on Mars than to use Facebook. Facebook is for old people. Twitter is for really old people. And their sort of sense of what’s ironic and the kind of velocity of their engagement with things really shifts quite profoundly.
I definitely think there’s a sense of how we describe ourselves to ourselves that is being shifted by technology, sometimes in ways that are quite toxic. For a long time, people talked about Instagram as the most benign form of social media because it was just looking at puppies and sunsets. And actually, in fact, I think quite possibly it’s the most toxic of all of them because it’s the one that can quite easily be all about your self-image. So I think there are really quite profound shifts happening in that thing about describing your own reality. As you say, the crucial thing is to yourself. That’s where the real high-stakes thing happens.
COURTNEY MAUM: I think that’s fascinating—to think about how the presentation of self has changed. Because I do find in my social circles or social circles of yore, when I used to socialize, people do sort of present themselves as a vitamin pack with an ingredient label or something. They just have bullet points sort of on their chest that you’re just supposed to absorb because, in theory, you’ve already been exposed to their social media.
It’s hard to—I want to say nowadays—but in pre-pandemic times, if you ran into a friend you hadn’t seen very often, they’d say, “Oh, how was Florida?” But you haven’t introduced the fact that you went to Florida. They saw it on your Instagram.
I knew that this would happen because I wanted to talk to both of you all night. But for John it’s very late, and for Te-Ping she has another event. So I want to fit in one more question, which is a little more specific to Te-Ping, about upward mobility. As I was reading your collection, I found moments where you used imagery and metaphor about upward mobility in such masterful ways. So I think about the story that ended up becoming titled “Shanghai Murmur,” where there is—I don’t want to give anything away—a Montblanc fountain pen that comes in to completely upend a young woman’s trajectory. So Montblanc, if you know the fountain pen brand, it’s a luxury pen. But beyond just being a luxury pen, the logo for Montblanc is a pinnacle. It’s a mountain. It’s the highest of the high. And then you have—wait, I don’t want to misspeak—“Gubeikou Spirit.” I apologize if I pronounced that incorrectly. Where you have a rural farmer who, even though all of his neighbors are making fun of him, he decides to try and build an airplane. So perhaps this is more of a compliment than a question, but I wonder—I don’t know—does this sort of masterful imagery just come out of you naturally? Or how do you do it? Can we talk about upward mobility a little bit in Land of Big Numbers?
TE-PING CHEN: Yeah, it’s funny. First of all, thank you. That’s really enormously kind of you to say. And you’ve identified two of the characters who are dearest to my heart out of that collection. And it’s really because I think they embody so much—I mean, it’s a spirit of course that you encounter in China but also one that reminds me a lot of a very American spirit too. This sense of possibility, of looking upwards—the upward gaze—and seeing how you can transform your own life. It’s just such a beautiful and potent thing. And I think too just of these characters who see the world and its possibilities. And the possibilities of beauty that await them too, which is something—it makes me, with this whole wonderful festival about books, like the whole fictional impulse and desire to read. And so much is seeking that sense of engagement with possibility and opening yourself up to different worlds, just as Xiaolei does when she sets out from her small village to make it to Shanghai or Cao Cao when he sees beyond his own circumstances and he desires to build the most extraordinary thing, an airplane. It’s that desire that just animates—I mean, it’s like the base of everything, right? It’s our hunger for other people and understanding for other people. It’s a really extraordinary trait and, I think of course, one that you see magnified in China often just because of the scale of change and disruption that really lends itself to these extraordinary stories and narratives, some of which are captured in this book. But, yeah, I think it really was something that—in a book that of course is threaded with allegory and some politics and darkness as well, but I think at the core of it really that thread of fire is just the ability to have that upward gaze and see what is possible and to set out to try and make it. I think that’s something so beautiful that I wanted to pay tribute to.
COURTNEY MAUM: You did it really, really well. So thank you for that wonderful answer. So we have arrived already at 7:45. So before I read my scripted outro, which until recently I thought was an ootro, I don’t know why, I just want to remind everyone—Te-Ping just gave a beautiful summary of the emotions and sort of atmosphere you get in her book. The possibility for connection and the hunger for other people. And John’s stories—you can’t believe the people and the situations that you’ll meet in his book. Demonic selfie sticks, father-in-laws who keep calling the daughter-in-law from beyond the grave. I mean, absolute nightmare scenarios. I sometimes feel like I’m that scenario myself. But both collections really do speak to I think loneliness and the impetus of all humans to avoid loneliness. And so I really do hope that you’ll pick up the collections and support their past and future work so that we can all stay in conversation together.
I’m going to read my printed outro now. Thank you, Te-Ping and John. Thank you, everyone watching with us in all your different modes and modalities. Please consider—you know, a lot of this I already accomplished. So please check out other events in the all-virtual, very accessible, super affordable 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. And I want everyone to have a beautiful day, evening, night. For John, we wish you sweet dreams because it’s quite late. Te-Ping, good luck with your next event and all of your future work. And thank you so much, both of you, for being so candid and generous and sharing slaughtered work with us. It was a real pleasure. Thank you for being with us.
TE-PING CHEN: Thank you for having us.
JOHN LANCHESTER: Thanks.
COURTNEY MAUM: Goodbye, everyone.