'All Is Forgotten' For Love Of Poetry

Roma, Bernard and Miranda are some kind of triangle. But is it a lover's triangle? A three-part relationship of rivals? Or do any of them love anything other than the poetry which seethes in their souls? Host Scott Simon talks with author Lan Samantha Change about her new novel, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Roman, Bernard and Miranda are some kind of triangle. But is it a lover's triangle exactly or a three-part relationship of rivals? Or do any of them love anything other than the poetry which seethes in their souls? Lan Samantha Chang, whose previous book was "Hunger and Inheritance," directs the esteemed Iowa Writer's Workshop in Iowa City. Her new novel seems to be set in a Midwest writing program. And it's called "All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost." Lan Samantha Chang joins us from WSUI in Iowa City, Iowa.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. LAN SAMANTHA CHANG (Author, "All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost"): I'm delighted to be here.

SIMON: So is Bonneville, this Midwestern college town where this novel is set, Iowa City?

Ms. CHANG: No. It's most definitely not Iowa City.

SIMON: But is it the Iowa City Writers Workshop you're talking about?

Ms. CHANG: No. I was trying very hard not to write about the Iowa Writers Workshop. I failed, however. Everybody thinks that this story is set at the workshop.

SIMON: Well, so when I tell our audience that Miranda is a brilliant poet and a teacher, but while her poetry can be subtle, her teaching technique can be -she can be blunt and cruel as a teacher - instead of asking you where did Miranda come from, I'll just say, OK, who is it? Which one of your colleagues is this woman Miranda?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHANG: I can't say that none of the things Miranda has said are things that I haven't picked up along the way. I think of her as belonging to a different generation of teachers than the generation I belong to. A generation I look back at with some nostalgia. People who really shot from the hip. They viewed the workshop as an opportunity for people to be weeded out.

I think that Flannery O'Connor is the writer who said - when asked if universities didn't stifle writers, young writers, she said something like they haven't stifled enough of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHANG: And Miranda's problem, I think, as a teacher is that she feels compelled toward honesty at all times. And if she doesn't find a work promising she will say that with no hesitation.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Roman, because he is as dedicated to being the greatest poet in the world as Ted Williams was to being the best hitter in the world.

Ms. CHANG: The comparison between Roman and Ted Williams is apt, because Roman is very sure of his gifts, very confident.

SIMON: Roman seems secure that people will recognize him as the greatest poet in the world. And Bernard, he's looking for his one great reader.

Ms. CHANG: Bernard is a very idealistic writer, in many ways the opposite of Roman. He's not writing because he wants recognition from the outer world. He's writing because he wants to make a beautiful work of art. And he's willing to sacrifice almost everything in order to create that art.

SIMON: Can you make any generalizations about writing students? Would you dare to?

Ms. CHANG: I have noticed that many writing students come to a classroom with the hope of being sort of picked out by some great writer in a position of authority who will then sort of choose them as the next anointed writer of their generation and lift them away from their peers.

But what I have found is the most productive way for a writer to come into a classroom is to look with interest at one's peers, understanding that the peers are the generation that is theirs and that the teacher's generation is sort of floating away and that it's more important to watch the teacher and see how the teacher lives life as a writer than it is to have the teacher recognize them.

SIMON: Of course you're writing about three poets here. Are poets a special case above and beyond?

Ms. CHANG: I feel that poets are particularly interesting. I wrote the book about poets because it seems to me that poets go into their art knowing that they will never be able to make a living at it. I don't know a single poet who sits down to write a poem and thinks maybe someday this poem will be optioned by James Franco for his next film.

I think that poets, because they think about their art above money, in so many cases are dramatically more interesting to write about than fiction writers.

SIMON: Recognizing that this is not the Iowa Writers Workshop or Iowa City, was it still fun to write some little vignettes about what university life can be like?

Ms. CHANG: Oh, absolutely. I had so much pleasure writing the scenes in the classroom. The project actually was a secret project of mine. And I think that's one of the reasons that I was able to write it at all.

SIMON: This novel, really?

Ms. CHANG: Yes. I was supposed to be working on something else. Most of my other work has Asian American characters in it. And I had written a proposal for a Guggenheim fellowship that was about an Asian American family in the Midwest. And...

SIMON: You won a Guggenheim fellowship, didn't you?

Ms. CHANG: I did. The proposal was called...

SIMON: Are you holding out on the Guggenheim people?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHANG: Well, it was called "All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost" and it was about this other family. But when it came down to me writing my project, I didn't want to do it. And I started this instead. And I thought I'll just write this for my own pleasure. And eventually it grew and grew and grew into a book.

SIMON: Well, it's none of my business...

Ms. CHANG: And now...

SIMON: ...but do the Guggenheim people want their novel, darn it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHANG: I suppose. I mean, they're very...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHANG: ...they're lovely. You know, they accept what I've produced. And I could still write that novel at some point. I guess if I do I'll thank them in the acknowledgement.

SIMON: I guess I have never heard of a novelist winding up with his or her thumbs broken and someone saying...

Ms. CHANG: That's right.

SIMON: ...that's from the Guggenheim committee.

Ms. CHANG: That's right, that's right.

SIMON: Can you tell us what your next secret project is?

Ms. CHANG: I think my next secret project is to pretend that I'm not myself and to write a book. At this point I feel that I've sort of taken on a position, being director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, that's a little bit stifling, so I'm going to pretend I'm somebody else while I'm writing this next project, which is a secret.

SIMON: I mean, you're not talking about taking somebody else's name to write a romance novel?

Ms. CHANG: Oh no, no. I just want to write a book from somebody else's identity, as if it's my first book.

SIMON: Miss Chang, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Ms. CHANG: It's been a real pleasure.

SIMON: Lan Samantha Chang speaking with us from Iowa City, where she is director of the Iowa Writers Workshop - but keep that a secret. Her new novel...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...her new novel is "All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost."

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