EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Ken Liu Talks About Humanistic Fiction and More
Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He lives near Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife, artist Lisa Tang Liu. They’re collaborating on their first novel.
Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you get into speculative fiction?
Ken Liu: Thanks, Charles. Glad to be doing this.
As long as I can remember, I’ve liked reading and writing fiction. I’d like to think that over the years I got better at writing. I also happen to think all fiction is speculative, and so that’s how I ended up here.
CT: In your Scapezine interview, you mentioned you’re no good with genre boundaries. With that being the case, how would you describe your writing?
KL: I try to write the kind of stories that I like to read. If I had to put a label on it, I’d call it humanistic fiction with a particular interest in how technology and science affect the way we think about ourselves.
CT: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How about a translator?
KL: The writing just kind of happened (see question 1).
As for doing translations, that started after my stories began to be translated into Chinese. It was interesting to see what aspects of my stories were preserved in translation, and what aspects felt different. I became so fascinated by the process that I wanted to try it myself. And since I was reading many wonderful works by Chinese writers that weren’t available in English, I thought I’d help introduce them to English readers.
CT: When it comes to fiction, you’ve written in a variety of formats: flash fiction, short story, novelette, novella–and I hear you’re even attempting to write a novel. Is there a particular length that you favor? How do you decide how long a story is going to be?
KL: I’m still figuring out what length I’m most comfortable with at this point, so you’ll have to ask me again in a few years. So far I’ve found that stories have a way of letting me know how long they want to be. You can’t force it.
CT: You’ve also collaborated with Shelly Li on some stories. How did this partnership begin? What’s your collaboration process like?
KL: I emailed Shelly after reading and liking her story, “Soul Mate.” We got to know each other better and discovered that we think a lot alike in many ways. We thought it might be fun to try to write a story together (as it has indeed turned out to be).
Typically, we’d begin by tossing an idea back and forth a few times until we developed it to the point where we both felt good about it. The actual drafting that follows would depend on the structure of the story. For example, one of the stories we collaborated on, “Saving Face,” was structured as a series of monologues by two characters. It was easy in that case to have each of us take up a separate voice. After the first draft, we would take turns revising it, discussing the changes between drafts. And when we were both happy with the result, we’d declare it finished.
CT: What’s the appeal of poetry for you?
KL: I like poetry because I think of it as way to tell a story without telling a story. And it allows you to focus on the music of language without always deferring to the importance of sense.
CT: How did you get into translating? Do you read a lot of Chinese science fiction and fantasy?
KL: See answer to question 3 above. I try to read as much Chinese fiction as I can, but that’s a miniscule amount compared to how much is out there.
CT: What’s the translation process like? How do you decide which story to translate?
KL: I translate only stories that I love and believe in. But even so, I have to say no to some stories because they only work in the original language. Some works of great beauty and literary worth are so embedded in the cultural milieu that a translation effort would require translating and explaining a large chunk of the culture.
For me, translating a story is a lot like composing an original story, except that you have much less freedom — but it doesn’t mean that you can be lazy or less creative. I try to adhere to the principles of fidelity, aptness, and beauty so that a translation is faithful to the original meaning, fit in expression, and graceful in echoing the original voice. That last part is the most difficult, and requires me to absorb the writer’s voice so that it replaces my own and then render that new voice in English. After I finish a translation, I have to take a break for a few days to get out of the voice again.
Since I only translate stories that I admire and believe in, I end up learning a lot about the craft of fiction. Nothing like translating a story to get you to see how a story is put together.
I also prefer to be able to consult the original author during translation. Sometimes I feel that a change or adjustment in the story would allow the story to work better in English, and I like to have the chance to discuss such change with the author and secure their approval.
CT: Your fiction has also been translated into Chinese (as well as other languages). Have you considered doing the translation into Chinese yourself?
KL: Someday, maybe. But for now, I do not think I have the skill. To be able to appreciate the beauty of a work of literature in another language—enough to translate it well—requires one level of proficiency, but to create a work of some literary merit in that language requires a lifetime of practice. As I believe translation is a specific type of creation, I would have to practice for many years before I can get to that level.
KL: Ha, I should ask you how you manage all the things you do!
In truth I haven’t done much. I haven’t even completed a novel yet. I need to learn to be a lot more efficient.
CT: In terms of getting published, there’s a gap between your productivity in 2004 compared to recent years, which resulted in a huge volume of output. Why the gap? What was happening to your life at the time?
KL: In 2004 I completed law school and entered practice. The profession requires a great deal of mental energy and dedication of time. To put it simply: I just didn’t have the mental space for other things. But things got a lot better in the last few years.
CT: What’s the biggest challenge in writing that you currently face?
KL: The biggest challenge is learning how to write a novel. I should ask Shelly Li for more tips.
CT: What are you reading now?
KL: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, by Kenji Kuroda and Kazuo Maekawa, 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, by Sonia Arrison, The iOS 5 Developer’s Cookbook, by Erica Sadun, the current issues of Clarkesworld and F&SF.
CT: What projects are you currently working on?
KL: My wife Lisa Tang Liu and I are collaborating on our first novel (the draft is almost done). And I’m outlining another one, but I keep on procrastinating by writing short stories or doing translations. Also, we’re planning another mobile app for kids.
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