Discussing Baldies and Dystopia with Author Peter Tieryas Liu
In Peter Tieryas Liu’s debut novel, Bald New World, the world declines into a dystopia that leaves everyone mysteriously bald. We’ve previously mentioned Liu as one of our 3 Asian American Authors on the Rise and recently got the chance to interview him via email about his new novel.
Below, we learn about the inspirations behind the novel, why Liu chose baldness out of all possible epidemics, and his thoughts about Asian American characters in literature.
Can you briefly tell us what Bald New World is about to the potential readers out there?
Bald New World asks the question: what if everyone in the world lost their hair? Taking place between China and the United States, it delves into the lives of two eccentric filmmakers who choose to explore the existential angst of their balding world through cinema.
That’s the general synopsis. For me, it’s a very personal narrative with its questions about family, identity, and the cycles we find sometimes ourselves stuck in, along with our endeavors to escape them.
What was the inspiration behind BNW? And of all apocalyptic events, why balding?
I actually didn’t want it to be apocalyptic. I wanted a global event that changed people and use that as a backdrop to spur a new series of events. In Bald New World, the loss of hair doesn’t signify an end. People adapt and move on with surprising ease. I remember being shocked to hear that in the year 999, people were convinced it was the end of the world and there was a huge panic. Same thing happened in 1999. The millennium passed, nothing dramatic happened, and people went on with their lives.
I meet a lot of people who are obsessed with “the end of the world” and I think it’s in part because it provides purpose and meaning, even if in a morbid and dark way. That’s why a lot of apocalyptic works have so much appeal, particularly one of the very oldest ones to survive, Revelations, which can be a more powerful message than “love one another.” I don’t think there is such a thing as the end of the world (at least for a couple billion years). There’s only the end of humanity. I visited a village in Xi’an that was over six thousand years old. They had a whole culture, art, and language that are completely lost. What were they like? We will probably never know.
As for balding, it’s the ultimate symbol of vanity – something that we, as humans, don’t actually need. And yet, depending on what kind of hair of you have or even hat you wear, you’d, consciously or subconsciously, judge someone differently. The lack of hair becomes the ultimate expression of the illusions we create in our attempts at creating identity – and that on a global scale was a very appealing theme to explore throughout the canvas of the book.
With numerous dystopian books in the market already, did you have any concerns about setting your novel in a dystopian world? What drew you to that genre in the first place?
That’s an interesting question because Bald New World originally began as my attempt not to do dystopia. There are elements of this book that are exaggerations of contemporary life (the complete commodification of daily life, lack of gun control, and celebrity worship being the three most extreme), but if you call the world of Bald New World dystopian, you’d be calling our current world dystopian too. Which would be a whole different discussion in itself, (laughs).
As for genre, I really didn’t think of any genre when I wrote. I just knew I had a story I wanted to tell. Some of those old dystopian books are some of my favorites though, so I did pay tributes to many of them with references scattered throughout the book.
What were the easiest and hardest parts about writing your debut novel?
This is my debut novel in terms of publication, but I have a graveyard of books that are calling out to me. Every book is hard in its own way. The hardest part about this was because it was so personal and I’ve been terrified about what people will think. In my first collection, I wrote a sort of tongue-in-cheek quasi-philosophical statement: “Doubt is the only reliable source of creativity.” I had a lot of doubts about Bald New World, (laughs).
The easiest was that because it was so personal, the writing just flowed out of me, and a huge part of my job was cutting away the excess.
Apart from the actual craft of writing, the hardest part, as always, is marketing. Fortunately, Perfect Edge Books has an amazing crew at the helm. Maria Barry is my publicist and she is extremely supportive and thoughtful. My editor at PEB, Phil Jourdan, is a champion of indie lit, as well as just an amazing writer. I appreciate his candor and am extremely grateful to him, as Bald New World wouldn’t exist without him. If I started listing all the people who supported me and the creation of this book, I would go on forever. So while it’s been hard, having so many amazing people support the work has been a blessing. It’s tough to find a publisher that really takes care of you. I’ve been lucky to work with Perfect Edge Books.
There are already many positive reviews about BNW. It was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the “Best Science Fiction Books of 2014” and Buzzfeed named it as one of “15 Highly Anticipated Books From (Mostly) Small Presses.” How are you handling all the praise and criticism when the book hasn’t even been officially released yet?
I’ve been stunned by the reviews the book has been getting. I mean, I had hoped people would enjoy it, but the attention it’s gotten has been mind-blowing. I’m shocked when people write to me and tell me that the book is one of their favorites. As for criticism, it’s surprisingly been minimal. I’m waiting for the torrent of negativity once the book actually releases, (laughs). Seriously though, I am grateful to anyone who takes the time read my book.
Your main characters are Asian, specifically Chinese, and the setting takes place throughout China and a futuristic Los Angeles. What compelled you to make those narrative decisions?
I’ve been asked this question a lot, and I’ll be honest in that when I first heard it, I was surprised because it’s not something I thought about when I began writing. I’m Asian American so, of course, my characters are Asian American. There wasn’t anything in particular that compelled me (sorry if my answer is anti-climactic).
As for the geography, I’ve spent a lot of time in both China and America over the past few years and have loved both. I’ve found it fascinating that in the contrasts and juxtapositions, both illuminate one another. I learn new things about America while staying in China and vice versa. Trying to convey those differences and similarities became part of the joy and challenge of Bald New World.
The American Dream is a recurring theme in your novel. Can you tell us why you chose that particular theme to explore in your writing?
The idea that anyone, regardless of background, can make something of themselves is extremely powerful. I came from a poor background so if that meritocracy didn’t exist, I would have been screwed, (laughs). When I look back on my life, I think a lot about the kindness of strangers who helped me when they didn’t have to. The gratitude I felt expresses itself a lot in my writing, both my love of the idea and my hope that it doesn’t die – that we fight for it because it’s one of the greatest aspects of America.
What are your thoughts about having more protagonists of Asian descent in publishing?
There are tons of books with protagonists of Asian descent – just not translated into English. I think if there’s a market for them, more will naturally come. I also think having quality protagonists of Asian descent rather than a quantitative abundance is important. Specifically for the Western audience, I think what’s most important is just having good characters regardless of race, especially as the world becomes more cosmopolitan. That’s one of my favorite aspects of cities like Shanghai, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Beijing – how international they feel with people from all over the world gathered together.
Do you have any advice to the aspiring Asian American writers out there?
My advice to any aspiring writer aside from the clichés – you know, read a lot, write a lot try different types of writing – is to go out and experience life and enjoy the writing. Relish it, have fun. Don’t be in too much of a rush to publish. Focus rather on finding a story you’re very passionate about. I see a lot of writers get bogged down by the whole publishing process – which is, admittedly, very arduous – to the point where they’re bitter, even upset about it. That’s very understandable. I have a ridiculous amount of rejections, years where nothing was getting accepted, but those times can also hone and help develop your craft. If you persist long enough, keep on evolving as a writer, your work will find a home.
I also think it’s really important to practice with shorter pieces and get them accepted into literary magazines. One or two top-tier magazines is huge. Aside from the tremendous pride of being able to see your work sold at places like B&N, working with an editor is an invaluable experience. Will it take time? Yes, unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets accepted almost immediately. But don’t cheat yourself of some of the most incredible experiences a writer can have.
Where can people find you or your works?
I blog over at tieryas.wordpress.com and am on Twitter under the handle @TieryasXu. As for Bald New World, you can find it at Amazon and B&N (the first two weeks of release, the ebook will be just 0.99 cents). Ping me if you want to talk about a world full of baldies.
– Interview conducted by Lauren Lola, May 19, 2014.