Jenny Zhang is a wise and fearless writer, her astute observations the product of a free-ranging and sensitive mind. Jenny is the author of Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus Books), The Selected Jenny Zhang (Emily Books) and the forthcoming Sour Heart (Lenny). Sometime in the last month, she stayed with us at Ace Hotel New York and wrote a letter for Dear Reader, our writers-in-residence program curated by Tin House. The letter will be laid bedside in rooms today, and we caught up with her to talk about maps, destiny and being alone.
If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
Too many to choose from but at the moment, I wouldn’t mind writing to the little mermaid from the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. I’d tell her to ditch the prince and reunite with her sisters. He’s not worth it. Her family is.
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
I like maps but I fear destinies. I always think I know the fate of my ideas but they sometimes end up in a place I couldn’t have imagined. It’s better to be surprised by your imagination than to be limited by it. That said, I usually have a destination or a starting point in mind, though the way to and from those points are often unpredictable.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
Best to not think about audience if only because writing in a bubble is an extravagant fantasy few writers can afford. Thinking about audience is an act of translation — how do you make your words and your ideas legible and understandable to someone who has never lived your life, thought your thoughts? I’m always glad when someone who lives outside my experience connects to my work. That is how I grew up reading — connecting to experiences outside of my mine — so I hope it can be more ubiquitous than the current English canon suggests.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
Harmony Holiday’s Negro League Baseball.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
Just… being alone. Totally alone without fear of interruption.
This interview is a collaboration with Tin House. Read it again — as well as other bits of literary ephemera — over at Tin House’s blog.
CHAZELLE Do you feel like you have to convert skeptics as much [on stage]?
MIRANDA Not so much convert the skeptics, but it is certainly true that when you’ve got a camera and the subject is this close, there’s a bigger threshold you have to cross to break into song.
CHAZELLE Yeah. It’s because people assume the camera is telling you the truth.
MIRANDA I had an interesting thing with Hamilton. We start with heightened language — this heightened hip-hop speech. And there was a version of Act 1 of Hamilton where we’d have songs and then we would break into scenes and there’d be like, “Hey, I’ll see you at the dinner” dialogue. We realized it didn’t work with Hamilton because when you have an opening number that is this intense, heightened speech, to go back to, “Oh, I’m going to have some water,” you can’t drop the ball.
FAVREAU But what was so cool about that is, when I saw Hamilton with my daughter, I was like, “This is like Shakespeare.” We look at Shakespeare now like it’s classic and it’s old-fashioned, but at the time, the iambic pentameter, blank verse, all that was very current, and I would say the equivalent of the poetry of your show. And they were telling stories about characters that were hundreds of years old then.
FAVREAU So there’s a way to bring the audience in. Whether you knew the stories or not, you were going to get entertained. I thought it was a really good idiom for our time, whether it was conscious or otherwise. [Hamilton] draws you in, there’s always a beat going, and there’s an engine driving through the whole piece. And I went in there being a little skeptical, as you always are when somebody says how awesome something is.
GLOVER Everything now is like, “This is the best thing!”
RAE It’s a rush to be able to say, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen, and if you don’t agree, you’re an idiot and everybody get on board.” And there’s such a pressure to live up to that. I don’t ever want that for my own work. No matter what it is, I don’t want everyone to be on board or everyone to exclaim that it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen. The goal is to make people feel and to make people talk about it. But there’s such a hype culture right now.
GLOVER You can only be like, “This is the worst” or “This is [the best]” because there’s no room for discussion.
GLOVER I just did a concert and there were no phones allowed, and people enjoy it differently.
MIRANDA Theater is one of the last bastions of that.
CHAZELLE Yeah, it’s true.
MIRANDA I work in the art form where you’re in the room with the people who are performing, and that’s something you can’t replace. Especially talking about online stuff, I think we curate our reality so much. We block that friend on Facebook who is talking about politics constantly or putting up videos you’re not ready to see at 9 in the morning. But in the theater, you’re all watching the same thing.
FAVREAU And going from obscurity to being drilled down by the limelight, how did that affect things?
MIRANDA It happened in stages. First, YouTube weirdly is tied into Hamilton too because I performed at the White House.
FAVREAU For Obama, yeah.
MIRANDA 2009. I had only written the opening song.
RAE That’s crazy.
MIRANDA And so that went online. And then this is where good luck comes into it because it didn’t look like a C-SPAN event. HBO filmed the night because they were filming their poets who had performed. So the footage of it looks like a movie. It took me six years to write the show, but I had a bunch of social studies teachers who were ready. They were like, “I’ve been showing this one clip to my kids for six years.” Like, “There’s a whole show coming?” So I knew we’d get school groups. It’s the rest of it that was really overwhelming. And doing the show is what kept me sane. We’re more like chefs when we’re actors onstage. We’ve got to make it from scratch that night.
FAVREAU The night I went, that was a particularly good night, you said.
MIRANDA That was a really great crowd. You went the night Bernie Sanders was there. And it was at the peak of his campaign.
FAVREAU I’m glad I can’t look back at a copy of that. Whereas when you look at something that’s filmed, you could always go back to that movie.
MIRANDA We ran six months off-Broadway and everyone is experiencing the thing in real time and they don’t know what they’re coming in for. And when the cast album [came out], you get the whole show. It’s the entire plot of the show.
FAVREAU And everybody knew it.
MIRANDA We shifted from, “I’m experiencing this” to, “This is Rocky Horror, I know all the words and I want to sing along in the front row.”
CHAZELLE But you must have had to bury yourself for a while just to create Hamilton. Did you feel like the outside world was going, “What the hell are you doing?”
MIRANDA Everyone goes through this, whether you’re even in the arts or not. What are the things you do to support your family and keep going while you’re doubling down on the passion project? I was on a TV show [Do No Harm] that made the record of the lowest-rated debut in the history of NBC.
RAE Oh yeah.
MIRANDA But I took that job because they told me they were going to kill me off at the end of the first season, and it shot in Philly, not L.A., so I could stay home. I was No. 5 on the call sheet. It was a lot of great theater actors, like Phylicia Rashad and Steve Pasquale and Mike Esper.
CHAZELLE I’ve got to watch this now.
MIRANDA It was notorious because it had one of the worst advertising [campaigns], it was like a Jekyll-and-Hyde doctor plot. And it was a guy who had his hands and there was a face on his hands.
GLOVER Oh yeah. I remember those posters.
MIRANDA Paul F. Tompkins used to call him Dr. Facehands because the sign was up all over L.A. But to me, that was my Hamilton residency. I was making a living, I was only working two days a week, and I was going to historical Philly where I would go do research on Hamilton. I wrote “Satisfied” in my trailer. So everyone, you balance those things out. […]
Jean-Michel Basquiat and Madonna photographed by Stephen Torton, 1982.
Madonna and Basquiat dated for a while, but his heroin addiction ended up pulling them apart. “He was an amazing man and deeply talented. I loved him,” she said. “When I broke up with him, he made me give all [his paintings] back to him. And then he painted over them black.” She regrets giving the art back, but felt pressured to do so since it was something he had created. (The Howard Stern Show, March 2015)
Madonna: “Basquiat was my boyfriend for a while, and I remember getting up in the middle of the night and he wouldn’t be in bed lying next to me; he’d be standing, painting, at four in the morning, this close to the canvas, in a trance. I was blown away by that, that he worked when he felt moved. And they gave jobs to everyone. Keith would meet kids on the street and ask them to come stretch his canvases for him. Basquiat had every B-boy and every graffiti artist in his loft. He was constantly giving everything away. I think they felt guilty that they became successful and were surrounded by people who were penniless, so they shared what they had. They were incredibly generous people, and that rubbed off on me. You stay inspired that way. I could never work in a recording studio where you have this lovely view and a beach and the waves are crashing. For me, it’s all about being in a tiny room with little windows. It’s almost like you have to be in a prison. And you can create beauty when you’re in that sort of deprived environment, which is a re-creation of your formative years.”
“I remember having conversations with Keith [Haring] and with Basquiat about the importance of your art being accessible to people,“ she recalled. “That was their big thing—it should be available to everyone. It was so important for Keith to be able to draw on subways and walls. And Basquiat used to say to me, ‘You’re so lucky that you make music, because music comes out of radios everywhere.’ He thought that what I did was more pop, more connected to pop culture than what he did. Little did he know that his art would become pop culture. But it’s not like we really had discussions about the meaning of art. I remember hearing them talk about those things.”
Once again, I’m low on interviewees. Since I don’t have the time to constantly post calls every single time I’m running low, I’m hoping to use this post as a kind of a reminder:
ASEXUAL ARTISTS IS OPEN FOR INTERVIEWS YEAR-ROUND!
I’m always looking for artists who are on the spectrum to interview. Any and all kinds of artists are welcome.
This is including but not limited to:
WRITERS: all genres and forms are welcome (novelists, short stories, poetry, flash fiction, etc). It doesn’t matter if you’re unpublished, just starting out, a student, a hobbyist, or established. Traditionally published, self-published, small press, etc. You’re all welcome and you all have something to offer.
VISUAL ARTISTS: Self explanatory, any kind of visual art you can imagine (photography, painting, sketching, drawing, sculpture, installation, etc.).
FANARTISTS: Another self-explanatory category. Cosplay, visual, fanfiction, etc. Whatever you do in your fandom (any and all fandoms welcome), you’re an artist.
FILMMAKERS: YouTubers, directors, cinematographers, anything that has to do with making films (short, features, documentaries, etc).
PERFORMANCE ARTS: actors, theater arts, singers, mimes, any sort of performers.
DANCERS: Any kind of dance style you can imagine is welcome here (ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, burlesque, belly-dancing, ballroom, etc.)
MUSICIANS: playing instruments, composing, singing, anything involving music
CULINARY: maybe your medium of choice is food. If so, you’re welcome here.
CRAFTS: any sort of craft you can think of (sewing, knitting, crocheting, candle making, jewelry making, etc.)
All levels of artists are welcome: whether you’re a student or a professional, just starting out or already established. If you create, you have something to offer and therefore I want to interview you :)
If you’re still unsure whether or not your art qualifies (there’s a 97.9% chance it will), and your question isn’t answered in the F.A.Q., please contact me at email@example.com
If you want to be interviewed, please email me at the same address (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This site continues because I get requests for interviews. If the interviews run out, this site will remain as a resource :) Updates will continue as long as there are aces out there willing to be interviewed.