Today I’m talking to Sonya Chung, founder of Bloom, a new site that highlights the work of authors making their publishing debuts after the age of forty. I met Sonya fifteen years ago at the University of Washington’s MFA in fiction writing program.
Sonya is the author of the novel Long for This World (Scribner 2010). Her stories, reviews, & essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Crab Orchard Review, Tin House, Sonora Review, FiveChapters, BOMB Magazine, and the anthology The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, among others. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Fellowship & Residency, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She is a staff writer at The Millions and Associate Editor of The Common. Sonya also currently teaches fiction writing at Columbia University.
Theo Pauline Nestor: How did you get the idea for Bloom?
Sonya Chung: A couple of years ago, when there was a lot of coverage in the literary media of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list, I found myself growing both anxious and irritated. For most of my life, I was considered precocious—I skipped a grade, went to boarding school at a young age, was one of the youngest in my graduate program, married young. But then, when I was 30, everything changed: my marriage ended, and I was starting over. It was then that I began writing seriously, and started on a novel at 31, which I finished when I was 35. By the time Long for This World was published, I was 37, and I was somewhat startled to find that, according to a number of awards and other fellowships, I was no longer “young.” It really shocked me, because I felt young, in every way, and yet I’d been put into a category of “old,” or at least “older.” I also knew that I was a slow writer, and that my next book would take me several years; and I didn’t like feeling rushed, I knew that my best work would take the time it took.
So I decided to take some of that anxiety and irritation and channel it into something productive; that was when the monthly “Post-40 Bloomers” series at The Millions, where I’d been (and still am) a staff writer, was born. I wanted to explore, and discover, and share models for various pacing and paths in the writing life. Bloom is/has been a natural outgrowth of that series.
TPN: Do you think there’s pressure on writers to publish younger than 40? I know I used to be negatively affected when I was in my twenties and thirties by images of “Brat Pack” writers who enjoyed publishing success before their hair began thinning.
SC: Yes, I do. Where does it come from? I suppose some of it is more generally cultural, i.e. American culture is, I think, obsessed with youth. Some of it comes from these high-profile awards for hot young writers. Some of it comes from this romanticized illusion that the creative life is/can be/should be linear, a fast shot to stardom, art being too often conflated with celebrity. (In my opinion, recognition is a result, not a goal, of the authentic artistic process.) But the truth of it is that the majority of writers take a lot of time to write their best work, that detours happen, and sometimes those detours can be very fruitful (whether they happen willingly or not).
Our list of authors-to-feature at Bloom grows daily; it’s been exciting to realize that I no longer really have to go hunting for models, they’re everywhere. It’s also significant to note that we’re limiting our focus (for now) to authors who published their first book-length works at 40 or older; there is also a much larger group of authors who published younger, but with little acclaim or recognition, and who didn’t really bloom until much later.
So I am hoping that Bloom might help relieve some of that pressure for younger writers, to publish fast and young. I don’t think we’ve quite figured out how to do this, but I want readers to know that Bloom is for young writers as much as it is for older writers.
TPN: What advantages do you think a writer publishing for the first time “later in life” possesses?
SC: That’s a great question, and one that we are asking our featured authors in interviews. Peter Ferry said, “Well, a little bit like falling in love or running a marathon or making a million later in life: all the richer because you’d come to believe it was never going to happen.” Deborah Eisenberg has said that she wasn’t really “ready” for the limelight when she was younger. Peter Hensher, who was one of Granta‘s best young British novelists in 2003, at the age of 37, said that the recognition made his publishing career “a bit easier overseas,” but also: “Novel writing isn’t necessarily something that young people are very good at. I was 29 when I published my first novel, but I wish I’d waited.” In other words, one advantage of taking your time is that your first novel will be much better. I have a colleague at Columbia who says to his students, “Young people shouldn’t write novels.”
TPN: Did you personally feel pressure to publish at a young age? Did you feel like publication came later for you than you would’ve liked and if so, how do you feel about that now?
SC: To quote another author featured at Bloom, Scott Sparling, “None of this felt late to me, you understand. It felt perfectly right.” For me, writing a novel—actually finishing a book-length work of fiction that I was proud of—was a huge, impossible goal. This has to do with my background, i.e. I don’t come from an artistically-oriented world, so becoming a writer was a very farfetched thing for me, like becoming an astronaut or a lion-tamer. Writing the book was a miracle; then having it agented and published was almost unbelievable. Now, having a vocation as a writer, working as a teacher and editor—I take none of this for granted. So “early” and “late” are kind of beside the point.
Like Scott, I became aware of “late” as an external framework created by literary “authorities” (hence the cheeky tagline at Bloom—“Late” according to whom?—and why we don’t use the term “late bloomers.”) And of course it trickles down. I remember when my book came out, and a former professor from my graduate program invited me to visit his workshop: here I was, supposed to be a kind of poster child for the students—You, too, can publish a novel!—and later on, one of the students divulged to me that the murmurings among them included, “Twelve years from the time she graduated? What took her so long?” I thought that was pretty funny.
TPN: What are some examples of writers who’ve bloomed for the first time in their forties or later?
SC:Check out our list of upcoming featured authors
And we’re actually already scheduled into April, with many more on our ever-growing list of possible authors to feature. Some authors who are not listed at the site but who we plan to feature: Edward P. Jones, Bapsi Sidhwa, Norman Rush, Tillie Olsen, Josh Rolnick, Mary Jo Bang, Annie Proulx.
TPN: How can people excited about Bloom get involved?
SC: We have some concrete ways listed on our website.
I’ve also received a lot of emails from later-life bloomers who want to share and promote their own journeys/successes. Right now, we’re pretty limited in terms of being able to feature everyone who wants to be featured; we’re curating, like any literary publication, based on work we’re passionate about. But to all those folks who’ve been writing in, I would say stay tuned, and please be patient with us, because as we grow, and as we build our staff and are able to do more, we’re hoping to develop ways of highlighting, featuring, and connecting all these talented people doing the good work.
I never really thought about my age as a writer. Frankly, I never envisioned myself as a writer, at all. When my mother died (I was nearly 60 at the time), I didn’t want her quips, keepsakes and stories to die with her so I set about cataloging her life. My career was winding down and my emotions were on the rise so I carved out time each day to sift through the letters, address books, matchbooks, bills and other ephemera Pearl left behind. It helped me relive the glory days.