An Interview with Xu Xi

Xu XiXu Xi is the author of seven books of fiction & essays, and editor of three anthologies of Hong Kong literature in English. A Chinese-Indonesian native of Hong Kong, the city was home until her mid-twenties, after which she led a peripatetic existence around Europe, America and Asia. She now inhabits the flight path connecting New York, Hong Kong and New Zealand.
Katie Christie: Is there anything you’d like to say to introduce yourself to our readers?
Xu Xi: Well, I didn’t mean to write so much about Hong Kong, but that’s where I came from and I wound up writing about it. I didn’t mean to become a teacher of creative writing. I fell into it kind of accidentally six years ago at Vermont, but I like it so much that I kept teaching. I got an MFA years ago but it wasn’t so much for teaching, but more because I wanted to write.
KC: So what have you had published so far?
XX:Three novels. Two collections of fiction, one is short stories, the other is a novella and three stories. One collection of stories and essays. And most recently, a collection of personal essays. I was the editor of three anthologies of writings in English about Hong Kong.
KC: And which of those would you call your favorite?
XX: I don’t have a favorite. If I was really forced to pick one that was closest to my heart right now, it would be The Unwalled City, a novel. But my last book, Evanescent Isles, is a book I really like as well, but they’re two different genres, so it’s kind of an apples and oranges thing. So I guess those two right now. But in a way they’re the two most recent, and it’s usually the most recent that’s the favorite, and when my next book comes out in October, it will be my favorite for a while.
KC: So can you tell us about the new novel that’s coming out?
XX: I wrote it through a lot of residencies actually. And it’s about change in a person’s life, a momentous change happens, and suddenly, everything you thought you were responsible for is taken away from you. Then what do you do with your life? The book was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, which is a prize for an unpublished novel, but now it’s going to be published.
Gavin Cross: So you travel a lot. How do you balance writing and teaching? Do you have a system?
XX: Well, I’ve been writing for so long now, that whatever project I’m working on will just get done. Actually teaching is a lot less work, in hours, compared to corporate which could be 80 hour weeks, and I was traveling 60-70 % of the time. My last job was with the Wall Street Journal. I was the circulation direction for the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, but I was traveling all day all the time. But after doing that and still writing and putting out books, I figured I could do this a lot easier, and I can. My teaching job at Vermont is a low residency program and I work by email. Sit in bed in my pajamas with my laptop. That’s great, I like it a lot. And residency is very busy. Like Meacham times ten, you know? Then it’s kind of hard to write. And teaching writing teaches you something about your own writing as well. I do believe that. Every workshop I teach, I learn something from the students in workshop. For years, I was a kind of insomniac. When I was working full time I would often get up at 4 in the morning and write. Weekends. Vacation. I didn’t have a classic social life, but I didn’t miss it, because I enjoy my work. My work is part of my social life. I come to Meacham and I get to hang out with people and talk and have fun.
KC: And so you also have homes in New York, Hong Kong, and New Zealand. How do you juggle that kind of travel?
XX: New Zealand was actually a kind of fluke. I got tired of going to so many residencies. It’s fun, but for three months you have to keep moving your stuff around. I kinda wanted a place that was my own writing retreat to go to. I went to New Zealand and I thought it was a quiet place, and I saw this house that reminded me of the Kerouac house and was really cheap, so I bought it. I haven’t been there in two years. I’ve been in Hong Kong more and collecting rent on the house in New Zealand. I hope to go back in Sept or Oct.
GC: What made you decide to start writing?
XX: I knew kinda young. I was about eleven years old and I woke one morning at 4am and my family lived in a sort of penthouse facing the harbor and I looked out and said “Wow, this is pretty,” and I wrote this essay and said “Hey this is not bad!” And that’s how it started. It’s always just come to me, I’ve never had to ask. You know, I’ve never had writer’s block. I’m rather prolific and I write whole stories at a time. And it’s about knowing what to cut out. I cut out about 80% of my work. Over time you learn which parts matters and which doesn’t.
I didn’t ever think was that I was going to be a writer. That wasn’t the point. You just do this. You eat, live, and write. And one day, I stopped my stamp collecting, I stopped my piano, I stopped my ballet lessons, I gave up tennis as soon as I could because I didn’t like playing it, but I never stopped writing. So, after a while, it was like well I guess this is just sort of you. The moment I said to myself “You are a writer”, that’s when I realized that it was true.Interview by Katie Christie & Gavin Cross (2009)
More information about Xu Xi and her works click here.

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