Sunday, May 31, 2015

“Somerville writer Lan Samantha Chang to become Iowa Writers Workshop director.”

****  The summer is a time to look back at my archives and pull up some interesting interviews I have conducted over the years. Lan Samantha Chang is the head of the Iowa Writers Workshop, but before that she taught at Harvard and lived in Somerville. Here is an interview I conducted with her in the offices of The Somerville Times, when we were based in Davis Square.

Lan Samantha Change


“Somerville writer Lan Samantha Chang to become Iowa Writers Workshop director.”

I remember leafing through the “other” paper, “The New York Times,” when I came across a story that reported a Somerville writer by the name of Lan Samantha Chang was appointed to head the noted Iowa Writers Workshop, at the University of Iowa. Chang, 40, is a resident of Davis Square, a lecturer at Harvard University, as well as a well-regarded short-story writer and novelist. Her own work often deals with the Chinese immigrant experience, and the problems assimilation into American society presents.

Chang, who first took writing courses at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and later attended the workshop in Iowa, will be replacing Frank Conroy as director. The Iowa Writers Workshop is probably the most prestigious in the country, and has trained writers like: T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley and others of that pedigree. I spoke with Ms. Chang in the offices of The Somerville Times in the heart of Davis Square.

Doug Holder: Were you surprised that you were selected to be director?

Lan Samantha Chang: I certainly did not go into the process expecting to get the job. There were so many qualified people. The finalists were all quite good. I did know going into it that I care enormously about the program; having been a fairly recent graduate.

DH: Is 40 a young age to head this workshop?

LSC: I think it is. I’m not sure who was the youngest. I know 40 is relatively young. I think Frank Conroy began when he was fifty.

DH: How do you find the Somerville writing community?

LSC: A lot of writers live in Somerville. It is very rich. Elizabeth McCracken lived here for years and years. At this moment James Wood and Claire Messud live in Somerville. There is a sense of community here. There is a sense of laissez-faire that every writer needs in order to feel productive. In Somerville I don’t get the feeling that I am being bugged. I can walk down the streets of Davis Square and nobody will bother me. In that way it is like a big city. I have many friends who live around here, so I feel at home. I live right down the street from a bowling alley and for some reason it is a real pleasure to know that many people go there on a regular basis.

My sister visited last summer and we stopped in the Square for ice cream. There was a festival going on. Tons of people were in Davis Square; they were relaxed and having a good time. Everyone seemed alert, smart and happy. My sister said:" I can see why you want to live here.” It’s similar to Iowa City. It’s a relaxed, literary community.

DH: You were the managing editor of the Yale Daily News. I know that Hemingway, Crane, and others started out as journalists. Do you think this is valuable experience for a budding writer?

LSC: One great thing about being a journalist is that it makes you aware that much of the struggle of writing is sitting down and producing words. That can be comforting and enlightening to a beginning writer.

DH: There was a documentary out recently titled “The Stone Reader,” that concerned an Iowa Writers Workshop graduate, who wrote a great first book, had a breakdown, and disappeared. How hard is it to be a writer? How hard is it to be a writer in America?

LSC: You know what I thought the movie revealed? It is the amount of heart it takes to write a really serious book, and how it can drain a person. I don’t think people realize this. I think people think writers sit around and words flow out of them in some sort of inspired process.

DH: It is felt by some people that in Europe the government supports the artists to a greater extent than the States. What’s your take on this?

LSC: Government could do a lot more. The government underestimates the importance of the arts in our society.

DSH: Detractors of writing programs often say it produces technically proficient, but uninspired writers. How do you answer that?

LSC: Going for my MFA was the best thing I ever did. I came into Iowa and I was immersed into this rich and inspired literary culture. I learned enormous amounts about writing and reading. I had wonderful peers, many of whom are still my readers. I was given time-- seemingly endless time, in which to think and dream about what I wanted to do. It was really great.

It’s easy to criticize any sincere endeavor. Writers give up their lives for two years to devote themselves to art.

DH: Any favorite Somerville writers.

TSC: Steve Almond. I think he is great actually. I saw him read at the “New England Art Institute.” Poet Peter Richards, and D.A. Powell, are others who I admire.

Doug Holder

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