In the following interview, Iron Horse Associate Editor Mark L. Keats talks with Yiyun Li about her essay, which orignally appeared in A Public Space is now anthologized in The Best American Essays of 2014.
IHLR: One of the things I enjoyed about your essay “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” is, despite this natural forward momentum, given the numbers and sense of time, its (and your willingness) to stop and reflect, to challenge yourself past, present, and future, but also force us, the reader, to reflect as well. In our nonfiction course this semester, we were asked us to consider shapes and threads. The shape, for me, was something rather intangible and amorphous: time. But, it also suggested specifically one day, one twenty four cycle of personal reflection and how we demarcate time. In section 16., you write, “I had this notion, when I first started it, that this essay would be a way to test—to assay—thoughts about time.” How did you ultimately decide on this shape?
LI: I started the project, as stated in section 16, to explore time: past and present and future, before and after. The shape of the essay came later, which is answered two questions down.
IHLR: You cover a lot of ground in this short essay. That is, you write about life and death, friends and parents, college and work… If I might ask, what prompted this essay? Was it some form of memory that tugged at you?
LI: I didn’t have any specific starting point but for time, and later my agent called it an essay to look at one’s life at mid-point: mid-life, mid-career, and reflections on the past and future. And I think because there is not a specific theme I want to really stick to, it is liberating.
IHLR: There is something fragmentary about breaking up a short piece like this into 24 segments or bits. Are those bits supposed to mimic the thoughts you have over the course of an entire day? Additionally, I am curious: did you write, then organize the pieces in the way they are published? That is, how organic of a process was writing this piece?
LI: I didn’t have a plan to have different sections nor make them 24 sections to correspond with a day. A few drafts into the essay, when many of the ideas were accumulated but not well organized, Brigid Hughes, the editor at A Public Space (which published the essay) asked me to consider organizing the ideas around 24 hours a day. I was resistant at first, as I thought that would have to have different time period, for instance, 6am, 5pm, etc, but she told me just to have 24 sections. Lo and behold, when I decided on that structure, the essay came out rather fast.
IHLR: You’re very well known for your fiction. How is writing nonfiction different for you? Is it at all a similar process as writing fiction, or something else entirely? Could you explain your process some, how you confront this genre?
LI: I like to imagine that fiction is what I do when I know what I am doing, nonfiction is what I do when I don’t know what I am doing. My nonfiction takes many more drafts and longer time to finish, and the first draft and the final draft can be about drastically different topics. This, I think, is because writing different drafts is the only way to get to my thoughts and assay what is interesting and what is not, what is important and what is not. With fiction, when I have my characters in my head, my life is to follow them around—to eavesdrop on them, to stalk them, in a way—so in some way it has a better map than nonfiction. Or the characters lead me.
IHLR: I always love to hear what people are reading these days because I often find a new writer to read that I was unaware of. Are there any essayists you are particularly fond of, that, perhaps, my class should investigate? Any writers in general we should be aware of?
LI: Two essayists I read all the time, though both are far from new, are Montaigne and V. S. Pritchett. I like Stefan Zweig’s nonfiction too, more than his fiction.
IHLR: What are you currently reading, or looking forward to reading soon
LI: My reading is a bit random, as always: Moby-Dick (I read it once year during the first half of the year; War and Peace for the second half of year), Turgenev’s novels and stories, Seneca’s letters, a Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga.
IHLR: Are you working on anything at the moment, specifically nonfiction, that we should be looking out for?
LI: A story collection and an essay collection.