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Award-Winning Sci-Fi Writer Ken Liu On Labels, Authenticity, and Juggling Two Careers

Ken Liu, technology litigation consultant by day and an award-winning author by night, released "The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories" Tuesday.
"The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories"
The cover of "The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories"Saga Press

By day, Ken Liu is a litigation consultant, providing expert opinions and expert witness testimony in high-tech cases. By night, he is an award-winning author. His 2012 short story “The Paper Menagerie” was the first work of fiction to win all three major science fiction awards (Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards), and his first novel, “The Grace of Kings,” was published last year. Its sequel, “The Wall of Storms,” will be released in October 2016.

Ahead of Tuesday's release of his latest short story collection, “The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories" — which includes his most popular works as well as a new story — Liu spoke with NBC News about storytelling, identity, and his advice for aspiring writers.

How did you choose the stories for this collection? Are they grouped thematically, or was there another method of selection?

That’s a good question. I would say that the stories are all very different in one sense. I don’t really care that much about genre labels. I tend to write across a variety of different genres. I think a lot of writers sometimes for marketing reasons, and also for personal interest, tend to build a strong brand that is very successful around one well-defined genre.

I certainly have been writing stories that are hard science fiction, that are very reminiscent of “Golden Age tales” from the '40s and '50s. I’ve also written stories that are very high fantasy that are the direct opposite of that style. “The Paper Menagerie” is a magic realism tale and there are some magical realist tales in there, and there are also that are reminiscent of a modern Chinese writer like Han Zhu.

If you go in there and expect that all the stories to be like “The Paper Menagerie” in the sense that you expect all magical realism tales that are about families, that is not what you are going to find. However I will also say that all my stories are unified by a certain humanist view of life, and of the universe.

I write speculative fiction, and in my view, speculative fiction is really just a very intense version of the work of literature in general. All fiction and all literature are unified in that they operate by a different mode of rhetoric than persuasion. So when we write an essay or try to write a brief, or a letter to our boss, trying to argue for a point, what we’re doing is engaging in the logic of persuasion. And that’s the bulk of human communication. Fiction is a slightly different mode of communication where the logic of metaphors takes precedence over the logic of persuasion.

Speculative fiction and realist fiction are both about the logic of metaphor. In speculative fiction, the writers and the readers tend to be more welcoming to metaphors that are literalized. In science fiction and fantasy both, I don’t think of them as really about science or magic per se. I think they’re techniques that are used in the story, but the stories are unified by the idea of the logic of metaphors, the literalizing of metaphors. In something like “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” the idea of empathy, of human connection, is literalized in the taking of the test that tells you whether you’re human or not. In “The Paper Menagerie” the love of the mother and her son are literalized in these paper animals that come to life.

"The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories"
The cover of "The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories"Saga Press

What do you think are problems specific to Asian-American writers?

The problems faced by writers of color are analogous to the problems face by women writers. Sylvia Plath is famous for this, but a lot of women poets are very frustrated by the fact that their work can’t seem to be recognized as valuable unless they are willing to put themselves into it in a way that male writers don’t have to. Their work is only valuable as long as they’re treated as autobiographical confessions. And that was the mode I was trying to resist.

So my initial set of works that I wrote were all very careful to not touch anything having to do with my Chinese heritage. I wanted to avoid the possibility of any characters in my book being interpreted as Chinese, or anything I say being interpreted as Chinese, because I wanted to avoid the idea that anything I wrote could be particularized and reduced into a mere autobiography, a mere confession, a mere ethnic color.

"It’s important to learn what kind of writer you are over time. Different people will like different things."

I was going for a very non-Chinese mainstream Western presentation. And that ended up being extremely oppressive because it’s as though you’re trying to talk with one half of your mouth taped shut, or trying to dance with half your body paralyzed. I felt, if I’m avoiding saying things I know about and experiences that are deeply meaningful to me because I’m trying to avoid that type of interpretation, then I’m also letting these people dictate what I can or can’t write, and that’s not the right answer either.

So over time I shifted to a different approach, where I’m very happy, and I’m very happy and active in integrating the so-called Chinese experience into my work, to give Chinese characters real voices, real agency, and real interpretation. But I want to do this in a way that challenges the Western gaze and ideas of what it means to be Chinese, or Chinese-American.

There’s this persistence and harmful stereotype that views Americans of Chinese descent as divided between two cultures. There’s this idea that they’re struggling between the ideas of tradition and modernity, between Chinese and American, that they have to choose and the fact is that’s not the reality of how we live. That’s not how Americans of Chinese descent experience life. Every individual person has her own experience. We’re individuals, and we have our own particularized, cultural performance and cultural negotiation that we have to go through. It’s just reductive and silly and wrong to expect us to act out the fantasies of Western readers who imagine that there’s some sort of titanic conflict between cultures. That’s not my lived experience and that’s not the kind of story I’m interested in telling.

Ken Liu
"I’m very happy and active in integrating the so-called Chinese experience into my work, to give Chinese characters real voices, real agency, and real interpretation," author Ken Liu told NBC News.Courtesy of Ken Liu

What is the story that you are interested in telling?

What’s interesting to me is to think about cultural labels, like "American" and "Chinese," and think about why they are the way are and what they really mean. What I’ve discovered is that a lot of these labels are imposed by outsiders, and they’re not organic, and they have no reality in the experience of people living through them.

There’s a lot of talk about authenticity of the Chinese-American experience, and whether that person presents in an authentic manner. “Authentic” is a label that outsiders impose on you. It’s not something that you have to perform to get a grade. When somebody says, "That restaurant’s really authentic," they’re saying that restaurant adheres to their idea and their fantasy of what being Chinese really means. That has nothing to do with what an organic sense of authenticity of meaning in life really comes from.

I believe that a lot of the ideas that are labeled as "Chinese" have very little to do with actually being Chinese, and a lot of labels that are labeled as "American" have very little to do with actually being American. A lot of my works challenge these ideas. You think an idea is Chinese, but it’s not, it’s universal. You think an idea is American, but it’s not, it’s actually universal. At the same time you think this is universal, but it’s not, it’s unique to a very privileged segment of society. So a lot of my work is about negotiating between privilege and the lack of power between dominant cultural narratives and subversive cultural narratives, between labels outsiders impose and the identities that are organically grown from within the community. A lot of my work tries to negotiate that bridge.

"You simply cannot count on the external validation as the thing to motivate you."

I actually don’t like to identify myself as Chinese American. I don’t like the hyphenated identity at all because I think it reinforces the “person divided in half” narrative, which I think is false. I prefer to refer to myself as an American writer, and if people really want to put a label on it, I say I’m an American of Chinese descent. My Chinese heritage is very important to me, and I think it’s what makes me American, and so my stories are very American stories, but they’re about the full range of what it means to be American.

Some writers like it, and they have empowered themselves by seizing on that hyphen. That’s perfectly fine. Everybody has to do it their own way. For me, the much more interesting narrative is the one about challenging these labels and their implications.

You don’t write full-time. What’s your day job?

I work as a litigation consultant with a large consulting company. My work is providing expert opinions and expert witness testimony in high-tech cases.

I think a lot of writers have the dream of being able to do it full-time, and very few of us are able to do it. I don’t think that’s in the cards for me anytime soon. I’ve got two young kids at home. Writing is awesome, writing is wonderful, but we live in a world that’s governed by commerce and there’s a not a whole lot of that when you’re a writer!

Do you see any parallels between the law and writing?

I do see a lot of parallels in all the professions I’ve practiced. After I graduated from college, I worked as a programmer at Microsoft and at a small startup in Cambridge before I went to law school. I was a programmer before I was a lawyer, and I actually practiced as a corporate lawyer for seven years before switching over to do litigation consulting as an expert. So I was a programmer, then I was a lawyer, and now I’m a technical expert who helps attorneys and clients.

All of these professions are very similar because all of them involve constructing new artifacts out of symbolic structures. There’s a British writer, W. Bryan Arthur, who has thought a lot about technology, and he’s a theorist of technology. And he says the way to think about technology is to treat it as a language. So technologies involve its own vocabulary, its own grammar. An engineer really is very analogous to a poet because an engineer is faced with a new problem, and what he has to do is to work with this repertoire of existing technologies, existing phrases and expressions and tropes within the language of technology. Then what she has to do is to compose them together into a new artifact to solve a new problem in the same way that a poet marshals illusions and metaphors and tropes and existing stock phrases and make them do something new n a new in poem. In the same way a lawyer has to solve novel problems by taking existing legal precedents and legal stock phrases and legal reasoning and puts them together into a new legal structure that will achieve the result that is desired.

Writing fiction is the same way. What we do is to work with these ancient tropes and put them together in a novel way, something that feels new, to give a reader a new emotional experience.

I think of engineering as a very creative profession, and writing fiction a lot of the time is like programming, like engineering, like writing a contract.

How do you do it?

One way is to look at it as inspiring, the other is despair. I don’t know which is better! Practically speaking, what really happens is I have to pick the projects I do really carefully. I don’t have a lot of time to write. The job is really demanding, but also I want to be a good father and a good husband. So when I have very young children at home and my wife is trying to deal with them, I have to pick up my share and spend time with them. And that’s time that has to be carved out and reserved. For writing, there’s very little time left, so I have to be efficient. I have to plan out and say, “Look. There are all these anthologies that are open for submission. I could write for all of them but that’s just not going to happen. So I have to just pick one I could make a really good contribution to and write for that. And for novels, some writers write very fast and can do two, three novels a year. I’m not that kind of writer. I neither have the time nor the speed necessary to do that. I can do one book a year, so it better be a book I want to spend a lot of time and I can devote and live with in the limited time I have. It’s a matter of making choices.

Steve Jobs, when he was alive, would say that Apple is very good at saying no to things. They pick a few things they want to work on, and do them well, but they say no to a lot of things people wish they would do.

There are many any things that are increasing and seem like good ideas but I have to be very careful about picking a few ideas I can devote my attention to and do them well.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

"I believe that a lot of the ideas that are labeled as 'Chinese' have very little to do with actually being Chinese, and a lot of labels that are labeled as 'American' have very little to do with actually being American. A lot of my works challenge these ideas."

The best writing advice I’ve ever heard is from Tobias Buckell, a fellow writer and a friend. He said that the thing about writing is you have to figure out the difference between goals and the things you would like to have happen to you. A lot of the unhappiness we experience as creative types is that we think and set goals for ourselves that are not actually goals at all, but things we would like happen to us.

The difference is goals are things that are entirely within your control. Things you would like to happen to you are not within your control at all, so if you set those things as your goals you’re going to be disappointed because you those are things you can’t even do and strive to make happen to you. For example, a goal would be, “I will use this next year to complete three short stories.” That’s a goal, because sitting there and writing, and setting aside the time to read, to outline, to write, to revise, to edit, those are things you can control. You can decide how to spend your time. But if you decide your goal is “I would like to be professionally published,” or “I would like to sell my novel this year,” that’s not a goal. Getting your story published requires a publisher to accept it, and markets will accept or reject stories for any reason in the world. That’s not within your control. Whether you can sell your novel, or whether it will be a best seller, or win an award.

All these things are nice things that you would like happen to you, but none of them are within your control, and setting these things as your goals will make you very unhappy, because you can’t control them. We tend to do well when we feel like we’re in charge of our own destiny, when we feel we’re in charge of our own lives.

I think it is also true that you also have to know who you are. It’s important to learn what kind of writer you are over time. Different people will like different things. It’s okay for you to write things that are just pleasing yourself, and not chasing the market, because no one really knows where the market is, and chasing that is a loser’s market. Ultimately, you should work on things that are of interest to you and ignore everything else, because everything else is just noise. I had a story that I absolutely loved, and it couldn’t be sold for seven years. Ultimately I did sell it, and I sold it to an anthology that specialized in taking things that had been rejected many times before, so there’s always hope! You simply cannot count on the external validation as the thing to motivate you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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