I don’t know if the great American short story writer Bernard Malamud is a literary figure in danger of suffering neglect or not. But I would like to believe that, if he were still among us to defend his reputation, Malamud would find an ally in Vincent Chu, whose debut collection, Like A Champion, was published earlier this year by 7.13 Books.
Chu is a more consistently affable storyteller than Malamud (the latter could sometimes get too infatuated with his own glumness), but it would be a mistake to categorize his aesthetic as sunny. Like Malamud, Chu has his own painterly touch. He knows how to blend the luminous and the drab, when to outline and when to ornament, and how to portray complex psychological states with just a few well-placed strokes. Like Malamud, Chu is also not afraid to let his characters be (in Jimin Han’s words) “misguided,” whether they’re sabotaging themselves by giving in to their most petty jealousies or scanning shelves of memorabilia and telling themselves each unsold item is still worth something.
So, you could approach Like A Champion as an illustration (panorama?) of what it means to survive the first-world absurdities that have become a global pandemic here in the first two decades of the 21st Century. You could even debate whether or not Chu’s characters are, in fact, immigrants: individuals spiritually displaced by rapid, convulsive cultural change, or by their own inability to give up on the values they’ve inherited from their former selves. But first, be encouraged to read Like A Champion because it’s a book full of charm and unassuming ingenuity, and because it’s good to be reminded of what emotional clarity feels like. In other words, to be unabashedly, utterly happy — or sad, or afraid, or content — for as long as the feeling lasts.
The following questions and answers were exchanged between July and August of 2018.
1) What, in your imagination, constitutes heroism?
I think heroism in a lot of ways comes down to doing things you don’t want to do, for reasons that don’t make much sense from any practical or survival standpoint. As in doing things a robot not yet programmed with compassion or kindness would never do. I wanted the characters in Like a Champion to have this kind of everyday, overlooked heroism. Few of us will save someone from a burning building or sinking ship, but going out of your way to be kind, taking the high road, buying someone a drink when they need one, all of those things can be heroic. And bonus points for being heroic when there won’t be any recognition for it.
2) Ever since Gertrude Stein wrote of Oakland that “there is no there there,” the city’s literary presence has been flattened (reduced?) to a punchline. How important was it for you to write about Oakland in these stories?
Place was important to these stories, but not in an explicit way. I was born in Oakland and grew up in Alameda, the city right next door, so a lot of my characters and their world-views have a certain East Bay or larger Bay Area quality to them, I hope. But I rarely insert a city name or real place into a story. I wrote most of these while living in Germany, so that contrast to my hometown also affected the stories. One example of this, and one of the few stories that does explicitly mention place, is “Squirrels,” a story about basketball and race and diversity in the Bay Area, and I don’t think I could have written it so precisely without being in Germany, seeing my hometown from a distance. By the way, I really look forward to reading There There by Tommy Orange.
3) How has having your first book published changed — or not changed — your life?
My life has changed most in that I feel incredibly grateful and happy for the opportunity to have a larger network of people read my work, and in some cases even tell me what they think about it. That whole process has really reinforced my belief that I want to continue writing and continue getting better at this whole crazy thing. The ways it has not changed my life are in all the absurd fantasy-based ways you can imagine, as in no one has ever recognized me on the street, no movie studio has reached out about a seven-figure deal, no obsessed fans have sent me lavish gifts, and I’m definitely not on any national bestsellers lists. Not that I ever wanted those things, but going in to it you’re not sure what might happen once your book is published. I can gladly report that my life has remained mostly the same, I’m just perhaps a little happier having this book published than not published.
4) Many of these stories focus on members of a class neither under- nor middle-, but clearly not moneyed, powerful, “high.” “Working-class” (a loaded term these days) doesn’t quite describe them, nor are they bohemians in the classic sense. How do you see your characters fitting into their own socioeconomic realities? If these characters are capable of change, is social mobility as it’s traditionally been defined and mythologized in the U.S. possible for them?
Socioeconomic status is of course such a deep-rooted, unavoidable part of someone’s identity, it is certainly an important detail to get right for a character. Like a Champion focuses on underdogs so, as you said, the characters in these stories tend to not be upper-class. Also, since I’m not a coal miner or drifter, my characters tend to be closer to the corporate America kind of working-class, which just happens to be more relatable to my own experiences. I think character change can definitely include actual social mobility, or just growth around one’s relationship to social mobility, whether that’s simply removing the mythology surrounding it as you mentioned, or being able to find happiness because of, or in spite of, socioeconomic realities.
5) In your opinion, what qualities are most essential to making prose beautiful?
It sounds cliché, but honesty is an important quality. There’s a lot of posturing that can happen in writing, and I think the reader can pick up on it and that’s when they might roll their eyes or think, I’m just not believing this. I don’t mean plot, I mean the feeling, the voice, the whole package, is just not convincing. Honest prose to me is the most beautiful, in whatever form that takes shape for a particular writer, and old work that I’ve read and have cringed the most is usually prose where I’m posturing.
6) My favorite story in the collection is probably “Gory Special.” It’s sharply observed and written with a deep, affectionate (but not sentimental) understanding of how friendships are often the most difficult relationships in our lives. The story also has moves. If you had to pick favorites from your own collection, which was your favorite to write, and which is your favorite to sit back and read? Why?
That’s very cool to hear, thank you so much. My favorite story changes from time to time, and some of these stories I wrote a long time ago and have gotten to read a lot, while others I wrote within a year of publication and they still feel a little more fresh, unknown. But I guess my favorites as of now to sit back and read are “Fred from Finance,” “Squirrels,” “Overseas Club” and “Recent Conversations.”
7) Pop culture plays a prominent role in Like A Champion, especially in the title story. But you handle that material quite adroitly, and the references never feel gratuitous — like fan service, or an attempt to win the allegiance of readers who identify with specific subcultures. Could you talk a little about the pleasures and pitfalls of incorporating IRL pop culture into your own created worlds?
I love pop culture and stories where pop culture exists within those universes. I think it adds so much color and realism, and if you manage to do it right, an extra layer of enjoyment. The wrestling story, “Gory Special,” was a chance to really dive deep into one particular culture, but the trick, as you mentioned, is not to use it gratuitously and to make sure the story works even if someone doesn’t know the references. I read High Fidelity at an influential age and that story obviously intertwines pop culture masterfully. Also growing up on Seinfeld, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, those storytellers sort of invented the modern use of pop culture in stories.
8) Who or what are your storytelling influences, canonically literary or otherwise?
Related to your pop culture question, I always consumed a lot of different content, I obsessed over movies and TV as much as books, so I think those all influenced my literary style. As far as direct literary influences, in my younger years I read a lot of Hemingway, then Bukowski, Vonnegut, George Saunders, David Sedaris. Recently, I read Lara Williams’ story collection A Selfie as Big as the Ritz and loved it, was immediately inspired by it.
9) Like A Champion is an extremely well-sequenced collection. There’s a sense of progression here, but nothing’s linear. Moreover, reverberant spaces abound. E.g., the different yet still epistolary forms of “Recent Conversations” and “Be Sweet and Loving,” stories separated by over 100 pages. How did this book come to be a book, and what principles guided you in making a coherent readerly experience out of these disparate pieces?
Sequencing the collection really felt like putting together an album, and my favorite albums are ones where each song feels refreshing, like oh wow, okay we’re going there. Still having a sense of progression but without ever feeling predictable or like you’d already covered that ground. In an attempt to achieve that, I kept in mind things like tone, themes, length, settings, levels of positivity and negativity, and so on. I wrote these stories over a span of 5 years, and from the beginning I tried to keep a collection in mind, as in these stories should all fit into a general universe where certain truths about life all exist there. Once that universe was sort of established, the sky was the limit. Also, luckily my tastes tend to be pretty targeted so I never had the challenge of having to fit my vampire cowboy story into the collection (though I wish I could write with such range!).
10) What’s next for you? What are you working on right now?
I’ve started a novel. More or less. I don’t know, how many words count as “working on a novel”? I love the concept and it’s something I really want to write, but I’ve never written something so long, so let’s see. I hear of so many authors spending 8, 10 years on a novel. I guess I’m okay with that. The only concern of course is that all the pop culture references will be outdated when it comes out.
Vincent Chu was born in Oakland, California. His fiction has appeared in PANK Magazine, East Bay Review, Pithead Chapel, Fjords Review, Cooper Street, Stockholm Review, Chicago Literati, Forth Magazine, The Collapsar, WhiskeyPaper and elsewhere. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Like a Champion is his debut collection. He wrote most of the stories in Cologne, Germany. He lives in San Francisco and can be found online at @herrchu.