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10 Questions for Jeannie Tseng

"The mouse pup moves in anguish but its screams are ultrasonic, heard only by its mother. The fingers and toes are clearly defined--each one finishing in a delicate nail. Round, black eyeballs are visible underneath translucent eyelids: it's a miniature alien nestling in the palm of her hand. Ziggy drops the pup onto the cold, stainless steel countertop and stretches out the tiny body against the ruler. This newborn mouse--only four days old--flails its stunted limbs, unaware of its greater destiny."
--from "Data Driven" which appears in the Spring 2017 issue (Volume 58, Issue 1).

Tell us about one of the first pieces you’ve written

One of the first stories I wrote was “The Red Bicycle”.  I felt compelled to write it after I visited Rwanda and the DR Congo a few years ago; the aftermath of their civil wars still reverberates strongly but in unexpected ways.  
    The story is set in present day Rwanda, where more than two decades after the genocide, the victims and perpetrators of war crimes are forced to live and work together.  I wanted to explore how neighbors, even family members, could betray each other in the most horrific manner and then be forced to cooperate in one community, all because it’s mandated by the government.  

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?

I admire so many writers!  It’s very hard to narrow down a list, but works by Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Loorie Moore, E.L. Doctorow and Amy Hempel have stayed with me long after I’ve finished reading them.  Andrea Barrett holds a special place because she portrays the complex, opaque world of science in her stories; she humanizes scientists, makes their struggle accessible and real.

What other professions have you worked in?

I have a graduate degree in Immunology and did a stint as a researcher in basic science.  After working at a lab bench all day, I longed for more human contact, so I left research to teach high school science in New York City for many years.  All along, I wanted to write full time and at a certain point, I knew that if I didn’t do it, I’d waddle off this earth unfulfilled.  So, I did a complete turnaround and got my MFA in Fiction, teaching creative writing to undergraduates along the way.

What did you want to be when you were young?

My parents and I immigrated to Canada when I was a baby.  As the child of Chinese immigrants, there were really only two career options available to me growing up: doctor or doctor.  Wait, did I say there were options?  In my heart, even as a young child, I knew that teaching and writing made me happiest.

What inspired you to write this piece?

Even though I ultimately left science as a profession, it’s how I’ve been trained in terms of how to think, to analyze and to seek answers to seemingly impossible questions.  Perseverance and sacrifice are required to succeed, so it can be tempting to lionize scientists, think of them as almost otherworldly.  I wanted to portray scientists as real people, subject to the same yearnings and moral failings as others. I hope that through “Data Driven”, readers understand that for scientists, the motivations can be complicated, the work onerous, and the outcomes, more often than not, unhappy.  

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?

I’m an immigrant twice over – once to Canada as an infant, and then to the United States as a young adult.  Of all the places I’ve lived, New York City stands out as the one great social experiment that actually works: people of different religions, ethnicities and income levels, bumping against each other at the grocery store, squeezing into the subway until you smell the hair of the person standing in front of you.  Basically, millions of people sharing the same tight space but somehow making it work.  It’s not always with a smile, mind you, but there’s a level of respect we give each other just by knowing we survive the same struggles every day.  I’d like to believe that the electric energy of New York imbues everything that I write.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?

I don’t listen to music when I write – it’s too dangerous.  I pay attention to a song’s lyrics and they override the voices of my characters; it’s already hard enough to hear them amongst the clamor inside my head.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?

Before I sit down at my computer, I always read a page or two by a writer that I admire.  Somehow, the cadence and rhythm of someone else’s voice helps me channel my own.  Right now, I’m reading Etgar Keret – he’s a brilliant writer, so funny and unexpected.

What are you working on currently?

It’s a novel of historical fiction, inspired by the only British woman in history to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences.  It’s a multigenerational story, moving between three women in the same family, struggling with issues specific to their historical time and place.  I’ve always been intrigued by how choices made by one generation can have unexpected consequences on succeeding ones--and it’s not always the momentous decisions that have the greatest impact. I’m inspired to explore the expectations that fall on women--directly or indirectly--as the arc of the women’s movement advances.

What are you reading right now?

I’m guilty of starting an alarming number of books before I finish others.  Right now, I’ve got Moonglow by Michael Chabon, The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret, Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life, I Write to You in Your Life and Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff all on the go at once.  It’s a lot of books to read, but a lovely problem to have: every night, I pick what I’m going to read depending on my mood. 

Jeannie Tseng earned her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, where she was a Teaching Fellow. She also holds an M.Sc. in Immunology from the University of Chicago and taught high school biology. She now lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. She is working on her first novel.


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