Letitia L. Moffitt was born and raised in Hawaii. She received a doctoral degree in English and Creative Writing from Binghamton University in New York, and currently teaches creative writing as an associate professor at Eastern Illinois University. Her work—fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction—has been published in literary journals including PANK, HTMLGiant, Black Warrior Review, Aux Arc Review, Jabberwock Review, Coe Review, The MacGuffin, and Dos Passos Review. Sidewalk Dancing, her novel in stories, is forthcoming from Atticus Books.
Sidewalk Dancing is a novel in stories – autobiographical stories - that your mentor Maxine Hong Kingston encouraged you to write. In what ways did your writing style, or voice, or approach change as a result of her encouragement? What were the biggest challenges in writing about your own life in a fictional way? How difficult was it to find the right balance between fact and fiction?
I remember Maxine telling the class once that she knew so little about her father than when she started writing China Men, she had to use her imagination a lot in crafting his character, even though the book is considered nonfiction. One of the things I learned from her is that “fiction” or “nonfiction” designations don’t really matter all that much. It isn’t as though fiction is “less true” than nonfiction, or that nonfiction is less “imaginative” than fiction. Writing is both truth and imagination. Once I understood that, I felt free to write about these people and events in my life because it didn’t matter if I “got it right” or not. What I didn’t know factually I could imagine, and through imagination I hope I did get at some truth.
Your story “Only Say True” opens with a funny and provocative challenge to the legacy of Amy Tan’s widely beloved The Joy Luck Club. Grace insists that her daughter Miranda should aspire to write like Tan, and the story evolves into a poignant exploration of Grace’s isolation in America, and of the similarities and differences between mother & daughter. Who were the writers who resonated most for you, or who influenced your own writing? What was the significance of The Joy Luck Club for you, for your own mother? How has Amy Tan’s success affected other writers - has it helped pave the way for new voices, or crowded out opportunity?
For the record, I really do like Joy Luck Club. No, really, I do! But yeah, my mother really did want me to write a best-seller, and it kind of irked the heck out of me. I kept trying to tell her I can’t just decide to write a best-seller; I write what I write. In that way I don’t know whether Amy Tan’s success or any famous writers’ success helps or hurts the rest of us because that aspect of writing isn’t about craft but business. I’ve gotten ideas, inspiration, and insights from best-sellers appearing in airport newsstands and from the works of unknown authors published at rinky-dink presses. Maybe everything I read influences me somehow. That doesn’t mean I’m going to write like the person I read, only that it makes me see writing in yet another new way.
I recently read an interview with the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, who also writes about the intersection of culture and generations. She reflected “It’s interesting to be a mother to children who have a sense of home, especially since I’m a person without that.” While largely set in Hawaii, your stories also take place in China, in New York, and in Ireland, and the three members of the McGee family are at once at home in the starfish-shaped house in Hawaii while each also identifying strongly with other, far-away places, as if they are holding multiple homes in their hearts. What does a sense of home mean to you, and how did it come to be important theme in your work?
Wow, that is a tough (but terrific) question! I guess “a sense of home” has always been one of the huge themes in literature. It’s important to me personally because I can relate to Lahiri’s words about not having a sense of home. Everyone in my family is a wanderer; we’re constantly uprooting and moving, and maybe the only “home” we have is in our own heads. There are people who discover early in life that they never feel like they quite fit in anywhere, and they make that part of their identity; they believe that to be themselves, to know themselves, they always have to be at odds with their environment, always the outsider. And yet they—we, I—still have that same essential longing that most everyone else does for safety, comfort, familiarity. I suppose I’ll grapple with this forever in my life and in my writing.
There are many forces at work within your stories – generations, culture, and personality - each exerting their own tension on the characters in complicated ways. I found the relationship between George and Grace especially fascinating – George, the father, is an idealist and dreamer raised on the mainland and trying valiantly to find acceptance among Hawaiians; Grace, the mother, an immigrant from China whose circumstances demand hard work and fierce pragmatism. Add a sulky teenager to the mix, and it becomes very complex - yet you manage to capture the tensions perfectly and balance all the perspectives. Which of the three characters was your favorite to write, and the hardest to write, and why?
Grace was the most challenging; George was the most fun. George was just a fun character; there’s a whimsy about him that I enjoyed trying to capture. Grace was tough. I’m still not sure I did what I wanted to do with her. In both cases I think the reason I felt this way about these characters wasn’t age or culture but personality. George is reasonably self-aware, and that made it easier to get in his head. Grace is a mystery perhaps even to herself.
Your stories are written with a wonderfully clear and consistent voice, but a few have a distinctly edgier tone – “Living Dead,” “Incognito,” and especially the suspenseful opening story, “Knives.” These stories seem to give outlet to some of the emotions that are kept below the surface in many of the others. Would you talk a little about your overall process and approach to Sidewalk Dancing – did you set out to write with a vision of the whole already in mind, or did your stories come together into a novel over time? How did these three stories in particular come to be, and how do you see them with relationship to the others?
I had a few short stories written about these characters—I think “Only Say True” might have been the first, followed by “The Boat”—and I wanted to turn them into a novel. However, I had a very difficult time creating an overall story arc; their lives just kept turning into individual stories that were connected only in the sense that they dealt with the unfolding lives of this family. Finally I decided not to keep trying to force it to be a conventional novel and instead wrote it as separate stories. “Living Dead” and “Incognito” were written with a Miranda-like character in mind, though I didn’t necessarily think of the narrator as being Miranda herself at the time I wrote them. “Knives” is kind of strange—I started by wanting to make this a story about Miranda and then I realized it worked a lot better if I wrote it about Grace! I had to change the original story a lot, of course, but it’s interesting that “Knives” and “Living Dead” ended up having something of the same sort of vibe to them given that one is about Grace and the other Miranda.
Finally, what advice would you give to writers who are still working on finding their writer's "voice"?
Experiment. Read different writers, try different forms of writing and different subjects, think about different points of view. All writers, I think, are constantly finding their voice anew. It’s a process that keeps going, always.
Many thanks to the author for taking the time to answer questions about Sidewalk Dancing, her wonderful novel in stories forthcoming from Atticus Books, and to the publisher for a complimentary review copy. You can read my review of Sidewalk Dancing here.