Lisa Ko, an award-winning novelist, kicked off a week of teaching IU students with a reading at the Indiana Memorial Union. Young writers filled the room and waited for the opportunity to ask her a question.
“My advice for anybody is to keep returning to what energized you in the first place about wanting to be a writer,” Ko said “What’s the story you can tell that no one else can?”
Ko’s first and only novel, “The Leavers,” often feels like a story no one else could have wrote. Its nuanced blending of Chinese and American culture sent tremors through the literary community after winning the PEN/Hemingway Prize for Socially Engaging Fiction.
The book was born out of a short story and a folder of news articles about illegal immigrant mothers being deported out of America and returning to China without their naturally-born children.
“All literature is political in its own way. Something I had to work toward in the writing process was how to ground the story, not necessarily in the issues, but in the characters themselves,” Ko said.
A full and crowded room gave Ko a round of applause, her first Hoosier welcome. She read two short passages from her novel before moving on to a casual question-and-answer session.
A student asked her about the work that never gets published, “the ones that failed,” as he called them. Ko laughed.
“I have probably thousands of folders of unfinished work on my computer,” Ko said. “Failed is the wrong way to say it. It’s more like on hiatus.”
Among the many students at the reading was Ronald Fehrenbach, a senior game design major. A migraine forced him to miss classes all day, but not the reading.
“I’m really interested in her process of writing a story that managed to win a national competition, since I hope to publish a book someday, too,” Fehrenbach said. “The other reason I’m here is for extra credit. But I wouldn’t come with a migraine just for extra credit.”
Ko said she was excited to be in Bloomington because of the things you can’t find in New York, like wide sidewalks, trees and the vast number of stars in the night sky. She will be spending this week at the University instructing graduate M.F.A students in a masterclass.
She said she looks forward to working with ambitious writers.
“I feel like we all have something to teach each other,” Ko said. “It’s always just a really informative experience for me to talk to any writer, regardless of where they are in their process.”
While she admits writing methods and schedules are just as subjective as the art they create, she likes to write in the mornings, so it’s out of the way.
For organizing, she’s an advocate for sticky notes. She doesn’t write every day but thinks every writer should find what works best for them. She believes a lot of the hard work comes in revision and a willingness to let the story and characters write themselves.
“We have to give ourselves permission to realize it’s a process of discovery and that part of the work is through just having to write your way towards what the story wants to be,” Ko said.
As she plans her next book and endeavor, she keeps one thing in mind.
“I want to tell the best story I can,” Ko said. “The story I want to tell, in the best way I can.”