In “The Unpassing,” Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumna Chia-Chia Lin takes us to Alaska in the mid-1980s and introduces us to a family coming to grips with a personal tragedy in the days and months following the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The novel is narrated by Gavin, a 10-year-old boy struggling to understand all that is happening, and perhaps suffering from survivor’s guilt after contracting meningitis that subsequently killed his little sister.
In this e-interview, Lin discusses the origin of the book, the intersection of public and private disasters, and her time at the Writers’ Workshop.
Q: What was the initial spark for “The Unpassing?” What led to the creation of this family and their story — and to positioning Gavin as the narrator of it?
A: When I began this novel, I knew very little about it. I’m the kind of writer who feels her way along. What I knew was that there would be a family in a precarious situation, and the story would be told by a child. The age of the narrator fluctuated a bit as I wrote, but I settled on 10 years, as well as a middle child role, because I wanted him to be completely reliant on the adults in his life and yet feel some responsibility for others. It’s a strange age — we’re not yet on firm footing. We sense so much, and yet people tell us so little, and that rift opens up space for different kinds of realities.
This novel was shaped by my longtime preoccupations: family, alienation, south central Alaska. I selfishly wanted to revisit the landscape around Anchorage — I’ve spent time there in the past and tried to write about different regions in Alaska before — but it wasn’t until I had finished this book, with its hundreds of pages of immersion in the setting, that I felt I’d finally quieted that impulse. Of course, if you asked me what, exactly, I had wanted to say about south central Alaska, I wouldn’t be able to tell you at all. But viewing it through the eyes of the narrator — a child, an outsider, someone attuned to his sensory experience — was important to me.
Q: The Challenger explosion is such a seminal event for so many people (I, for example, was in junior high when it happened and remember hearing the news at school), but I can’t think of too many novels that it figures in — either as central event or thematic element. What drew you to it and how do you think of the relationship between this public event vs. the more private tragedies of your characters’ lives from a storytelling point of view?
A: This family, and particularly the father, is captivated by the notion of space exploration. I wanted to set the book in the mid- or late-’80s, and I glanced through a few timelines when trying to decide on a year. Of course, the Challenger explosion popped out at me. I thought, well, why not try to write how this impacts their lives? You’re right, it’s such a huge event, both in history and in our imaginations, and for that reason I doubted I would keep it in the final draft of the book. This notion — that I was just playing around — gave me the boldness to try another thing I’d never otherwise try: a coincidence of timing, with two tragedies (one public, one private) that are revealed at the same time.
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Public disasters have a public aftermath. I’ve always been fascinated by plane crashes, and I’ve been known to read accident reports. I’m intrigued by how these teams of people try, to the best of their scientific ability, to piece together the causes of the disaster; often the reports point to very specific, tiny things — the Pitot tubes freezing over, or the failure of a rubber ring. With disasters in our personal lives, we may have the same need for dissection and answers, but that need remains largely unfulfilled.
Q: The shaping of an individual identity strikes me as an important theme in the book. Who are we to others? Who are we to ourselves? How do those things fit together and how do we build, maintain, undermine the relationships in our lives? Assuming this strikes you as a fair analysis, would you say those sorts of questions were in your mind as you wrote the book? What themes or ideas animate the story from your perspective?
A: Yes, I was especially interested in the tension between the family unit and the individual. Part of the struggle of childhood, I think, is coming to understand yourself as an individual, as someone separate from the constant, all-consuming presence of your family members. In this novel, each family member is trying so hard to move on from the same event, and part of the reason they keep getting stuck is that they each have to find a completely different path forward. And this struggle has resonances in the larger world, as the family is simultaneously adapting to a new country and to a landscape rife with both rewards and threats. Each member does so with different levels of success and sacrifice, and so they define themselves as individuals against the outside world as well.
Q: Tell me about your time in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. How did it shape your writing or the way you think about craft and the like?
A: It was undeniably good for my writing, being surrounded by such talented writers and readers. No one reads or engages with literature in quite the same way, and being exposed to that kind of variety really expanded my understanding of what we can try as writers, as well as the richness that readers can bring to a work, if allowed. Specifically, my own writing journey involved learning to leave more unsaid. But another person might very well have had the opposite journey — learning to add to their writing rather than subtract. I also feel like I really lucked out with timing; I made several friends who not only shaped my writing and reading during those two years, but who will continue to do so in the future, and I treasure them immensely.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I hesitate to say too much, mostly because I’ve written so little of it that it could become anything — or nothing. At the time I sold my book, I also had a baby, and the demands from these two things (seeing the book to completion, keeping my son alive) have left little room for immersion in new work. But I’m hopeful that I will find time soon. In my next work, I’d like to take more risks in style. I think its preoccupations will be very different. I hope the book will be funny but not slight. I’m currently putting together a reading list of such books — ones that sustain humor but also hit you in the gut. I’m taking recommendations.