Thursday, June 16, 2011

Author Q&A: J.A. Pak on Writing, Food, Folk Tales, and Bach

J.A. Pak is, among many things, a poet, writer, and author of Act of Creation and Other Stories, a mini-collection of short stories recently made available as an e-book. Her work has been published in Art/Life, Kartika Review, Quarterly West, Split Quarterly, The Smoking Poet, The Subterranean Journal, and others. It has been my pleasure to get to know J.A. a little bit on twitter and read some of her work - I'm so delighted to have her as a guest on the blog today.

J.A., the bio on your website is one of the most fun I have read. It leaves the reader with some key truths about you, but not exactly a "story" in the traditional, chronologically packaged sense... and it left me with as many questions as answers.... for example, when and why did you meet Bill Gates? And please tell us more about being a "genius for a day"-?

I'm so glad you enjoyed the bio. It sort of grew out of that Facebook meme—the one where you had to list twenty things about yourself. My list started to take on a coherent story structure so I decided to use it as a bio.

How did I end up meeting Bill Gates? At the time I was a young newbie reporter at Fortune magazine. One day Bill Gates came to town and there I was, with a small editorial team from the tech dept, listening to a private Q&A. I didn't get a chance to shake his hand but I did get to shake the hand of legendary Steve Ross at a company meeting right before Warner merged with Time Inc. I'd never seen anyone so charismatic! That was my one encounter with Hollywood royalty!

And the genius for a day...Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody and Us, was guest editing at Everyday Genius for a month. Each day he featured a different writer and one day it was me...thus I was a genius for a day!

A sense of playfulness and whimsy can be found throughout your website and in much of your fiction. What were some of the influences and inspirations from life or other writing that have shaped you as a writer?

I've always been attracted to the off-beat and that does make its way into my writing. I think what shaped me as a writer were all the myths and folktales I read and heard as a child. I liked the resonating truths about human experience hidden like seeds inside the simple tales, and that's what I still want to read when I pick up a story, a resonating truth that expands my understanding of life. And, of course, I try to write what I would want to read.

Apropos, I find it very interesting that so many modern women writers begin to write myth-like stories or even rewrite myths and folk tales as they become older. I think as we age, we women writers are going back to the roots of our own reading experience, which also happens to be the roots of storytelling. I've become so fascinated by all this that I'm consciously exploring that technique in a creative nonfiction work I'm currently writing.

The stories chosen for Act of Creation were delightful. They all included food in some way, and they left me rather hungry. You often write or tweet about food (delicious food - soba and curry and pho) and I see that you also write a food blog. What kind of food did you love best growing up and what are your favorite cuisines now? What role does food play in your stories or your writing life?

Thank you! Growing up, I really loved soups and noodles of all kinds. I guess I still do. I'm a bit of a carb monster. I started cooking fairly young because I was a classic latchkey child so I was always making snacks for me and my sisters. And then after college I started cooking as a way of saving money. But, you know, I grew up in a family that loved good food and that's really where the passion for good food began. I like to say that I've never met a cuisine I didn't like. At the moment, I'm really exploring Chinese, even learning Chinese characters so I can read the menus better.

In my stories, I often use food to introduce an aspect of a character or situation. For instance, if you mention that a young American girl loves Turkish delights, that opens up a lot of questions. Is her ancestry Turkish? Or maybe she's traveled to Turkey? Or had neighbors who were Turkish? Or British? Or maybe her parents traveled a lot? Of maybe she read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and got fixated on Turkish delights? I have to admit that that's how I learned about Turkish delights, reading the book—in fact, that's how I learned about a lot of foods. I guess I'm sort of returning the favor!

You write both poetry and fiction, as well as several blogs (writing, food, movies, TV), and you play the piano ... I can practically hear the synapses firing. What kind of writing do you do most/love best? How does your love of music/piano influence your writing, if at all?

The kind of writing I like best is the kind that lets me have a fair degree of freedom, one that lets me explore the subjects that inspire me to write and grow as a writer. Which is why I moved away from journalism. Music, or sounds, has always been a huge influence in my life. When I write, I hear everything in my head and I like each piece to have a certain flow like a piece of music. Strangely, the flow will often lead me to use a word that I don't even know the meaning of. I'll look up the word and it'll turn out that the word fits!

And I find a lot of my novels develop into three parts like a sonata, with the classic allegro, adagio, allegro movements. Or they'll become variations. Like my novella So Easy To Love—that's very much a series of variations on a theme. And I'm not surprised that my first novel is very much like Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat minor, the intro an explosion that ripples into more softer leitmotifs—I grew up totally enamored with that concerto.

The piano, in particular, has changed me as a writer in spectacular ways. About six years ago, I decided on a serious endeavor to learn Bach. For me, learning Bach was extremely painful—I even got headaches. Do you remember that childhood game of rubbing your head one way and rubbing your tummy another all at the same time? Playing Bach is like that only taken into another dimension of complexity. The concentration required is unbelievable. About two years into this Bach insanity, I wrote a story that blew my mind. It was a story that jumped the scale and moved me up from being an apprentice to journeyman. I'm sure I owe all this to playing Bach. You mentioned synapses—I think playing Bach, even as badly as I did, created extraordinary synapses that allowed me to write with a stylistic fluidity I didn't think would ever be possible for me. By the way, Bach and I share the same birthday!

I am completely intrigued... please tell us more about the story.

The Bach-inspired (or induced!) story is my novella Seal Skin, which I'll be releasing as my next e-book. (Read an excerpt from Seal Skin at Fictionaut.)

Thank you so much for a fascinating interview - wishing you the best of luck with your new novella, and looking forward to many more stories!

Many thanks also to the author for a complimentary download of Act of Creation and Other Stories. Act of Creation is available as an e-book on Amazon, the iTunes store, and SmashwordsYou can find J.A. (and read more about her work) on twitter (@JAPak) and on her website.


  1. Another really interesting book and interview here! A quick hello, and thank you for your lovely supportive comments on my blog.

  2. Great interview. She is very talented. Writing fiction, poetry and playing the piano??? WoW. Maybe I need to learn to play some Bach. :-)

  3. Thanks so much for the interview! It was all so much fun, I thought I'd throw in a free Smashwords coupon for Act of Creation & Other Stories. Books, Personally! readers, please use coupon NL39H!

    Happy reading, everyone!

  4. How wonderful! Many thanks, J.A. Deborah, thanks so much for visiting during what I know must be a very hectic time for you. Lena, I felt the same way!

  5. Fabulous interview! Some of my favorite books feature luxurious descriptions of food so I greatly appreciate Pak's affection for food in story!

  6. Thanks, Audra! (if you didn't already, you can try Act of Creation from Smashwords with the free download coupon, code in the comments above - ereader not necessary, I read it in PDF on the laptop!)

  7. Fun interview! I love what she says about using food as a character detail; it's such a big part of our lives and various cultures.

  8. Thanks so much, Marie - so agree, glad you enjoyed the interview. The story collection really is fun, they each include food in some way, but very different in each story.


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