THE BELIEVER: You’ve talked about how novels like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, and the works of Kafka influenced the writing of your novel, Severance. Were there short stories that inspired the writing of your new story collection, Bliss Montage?
LING MA: The novella Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, which has a surreal premise but is emotionally very anchored, was an influence. It’s about a frog-man and a housewife having an affair. It’s so absurd, and yet I cried so hard reading that book. It felt so heavy. I like rewatching Miranda July’s film The Future because I always forget how that movie unfolds. It makes these leaps that I would never have seen coming. It allows the emotion to unfurl the story, which is something I kept thinking about while working on the stories in Bliss Montage. I’d usually work on one story, get stuck at a certain point, work on another, push it as far as I could get, and basically rotate through the stories.
THE BELIEVER: Many of the characters in your stories are in their late twenties or early thirties. As you say, they kind of exist on the periphery of their own experiences. What about that age appeals to you as a fiction writer?
LING MA: For me, that was the age when I had to make a lot of decisions about myself. In your late twenties, you either actualize what you want or you let the world define you. That sounds like it’s from a graduation speech or something. Anyway, I think those are the years you become an adult and decide what kind of life you want to lead. In my late twenties, I was working and living in Chicago. I would take really long walks at night around the neighborhood, and those walks gave me a lot of ideas of things to write about. It was also the age when I was the most alone.
THE BELIEVER: Peking duck is featured in Severance, and one story in Bliss Montage is titled “Peking Duck.” In that story, the dish is described as “an image of near iconography” for the narrator. What is your relationship with the dish?
LING MA: The only time I remember eating it was in London, on a work trip. At first, I felt a little self-conscious about calling that story “Peking Duck,” because it’s an Oriental-seeming title, you know? It starts off like every other Chinese immigrant story. But I realized the title needs to be “Peking Duck.” There’s just such an Oriental vibe about that dish that I was interested in unpacking as a symbol in that story. Growing up in the US, I often heard that dish mentioned in recountings of US history, like with Nixon going to China and eating Peking duck. For some reason, it’s associated with US presidents. It’s almost like that dish is used for East-West diplomacy in some odd way.
THE BELIEVER: How do you write? Do you draft things by hand first?
LING MA: I do write a lot of things by hand first. The ideal writing day, which doesn’t happen as much anymore, is: In the morning you have your coffee, you write by hand, you try to inhabit the scene. What’s important about writing by hand is you slow yourself down. Also, it’s usually my first time trying to scratch out a scene. All I’m doing is observing the details, trying to envision the setting, certain dialogues. Then in the afternoon, you input all of that into the laptop, editing and adding more details as you go along. Essentially, what this process forces you to do is inhabit a scene multiple times, in order to give it new layers of detail. I feel like a story improves the more times that you can inhabit a scene. It’s like going underwater—you have to keep going underwater multiple times before you can get everything you need. A lot of beginning writers get discouraged because they feel they’re not imaginative enough. But I think that’s just your first time inhabiting a scene. You have to submerge yourself multiple times to get all the details and snippets of dialogue. You can’t just go once and then think that’s all you can do. You’ve got to do it so many times.
THE BELIEVER: You’ve written about working as a fact-checker at Playboy. I’m curious about the mechanics of that job. Can you say more about it and what kinds of pieces you worked on?
LING MA: It was all over the place. At the time, they still did these long investigative articles, many of which were about the Mob or drug smuggling. The longer investigative pieces took a couple of weeks to get through. Some of it was just reading interview transcripts, and some of it was calling up sources that the reporter had spoken with, and working with the legal department to make sure there wouldn’t be any liability issues. Sometimes I called up the Playmate of the Month and asked, “Is The Little Mermaid your favorite movie?” They always liked The Little Mermaid for some reason. Maybe that was a generational thing. It was an interesting place to work. I also helped edit the forum section at the back of the book. We got some great pieces from Jaron Lanier and others. I was there for close to three years. I have some mixed feelings about that job, but I have to say I worked with some really talented editors and writers. Also, I had a boss who did not mind that I wrote fiction at work. I started Severance during my last days at the Playboy office.
THE BELIEVER: One trend I’ve been hearing a lot about lately is quiet quitting, which you may be familiar with. A software developer on TikTok described it like this: “You’re not outright quitting your job but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond.” Candace, in Severance, almost represents the reverse phenomenon. She’s “quiet working” and goes into the office regularly, even when everyone else has stopped doing so. Do you have any thoughts about this phenomenon?
LING MA: I just read about it like a week or two ago. It sounds a lot like compartmentalizing. As someone who worked in offices, I would always attempt to compartmentalize and would constantly fail. There’s a John Cheever quote that goes something like “He felt like he was a spy in the suburbs.” Cheever’s whole topic is suburban lives in Westchester County, and his task was to be like a spy or an observer so he could write about it all. But what he found was that the spy became the subject. I think about that quote all the time. Working at places like Playboy, you begin by observing but eventually get sucked in. It’s very hard to compartmentalize and keep a distinction between yourself and the roles that you’re paid for.
THE BELIEVER: Do you often read criticism of your work?
LING MA: I do skim it sometimes. When Severance was initially published, I was much more into keeping up with reviews. But it’s like staring directly into the sun. You’ll screw up your vision in some way. What I’ve learned is that the reviews or criticism where someone really sees your work, even if they’re critical, are very rare. I don’t feel like I’m missing out.
BLVR: Have you seen the Apple TV show Severance?
LM: I have not.
BLVR: The premise of the show is that employees who work at a company called Lumon agree to have a chip implanted in their brains to separate their domestic and work selves—what the show calls “outies” and “innies.” It’s a dark satire of corporate life.
LM: I want to watch it. People assume that I would get mad about how the TV show has the same name as my novel, but I borrowed the title from a Mad Men episode called “Severance.”
THE BELIEVER: In your novel, Severance, Shen Fever erupts around the time of the Occupy Wall Street protests. A lot of reviewers have commented on the implicit critique of capitalism and consumer culture in the book. Why did you choose to set it around 2011?
LING MA: [The year] 2011 was nearly the present-day then. I started the novel in 2012, the first draft was finished in 2016, and it was published in 2018. The year that I finished the first draft was also the year of Trump’s election. Once that happened, I thought Severance was a bit outdated. What I mean by that is: if the novel was supposed to observe the absurdity of working in America, of global capitalism and the supply chains, the absurdity in American life just ratcheted up twentyfold after 2016. As a fiction writer, you’re always wary of writing stories that are too on the nose. After Trump, the level of absurdity that a reader will accept in fiction is different from before Trump. Like we’re in a new era of absurdity now, and the scenario sketched out in Severance reflects the old absurdity, which is much more muted by comparison. It would have been different if I had written it maybe even a year later.