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The Economies of Language
by Brian Fawcett

EVELYN LAU is the author of three books: the best-selling Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (HarperCollins, 1989), an account of her experiences as a Vancouver street kid in the mid- 1980s, and two volumes of poetry, You Are Not Who You Claim (Porcepic, 1990) and Oedipal Dreams (Beach Holme, 1992), which was shortlisted for last year's Governor General's Award. Brian Fawcett spoke with Evelyn Lau by phone.

BiC: How did you come to be a writer?

Evelyn Lau: There are two different stories about that, both of them true. In one, I'm six years old and in grade one, and already an incorrigible bookworm. I was sitting in my classroom, looking at my book, and I felt as if -this is so embarrassing - I got so much pleasure out of reading that I should give other people pleasure with something I'd written. That was where I started. The other story is that I got to be a writer by writing, just like everyone else.

BiC: So, how's it going so far?

Lau: Do you mean have I given people pleasure? I don't know if I've given people that much pleasure, yet. (laughs)

BiC: I guess what I mean is, do you still feel the same way about writing as you did in that grade one classroom?

Lau: Oh, God, no. I'm at a very transitional stage with my writing, and I go through all sorts of feelings about it. For a while, it really was that innocent six-year-old trying to give people pleasure. Then it became an act of rebellion against my parents, who wouldn't let me write at home. After they actually forbade me to write while I was in the house and living with them, I thought about writing the way most kids think of breaking curfew or going out to the mall. Then, when I was out on the street, writing became catharsis. Diary of a Runaway really was a diary, an outpouring of pain and angst and anger. Now, over the last several years, things have come to a point where I'm treating writing as a craft, and I tend to think of it mostly in terms of technique. With Diary of a Runaway I was just sort of blurting out things. Now I'm looking at structure and shape. It's my job, and I want to be good at it. Writing has a very different context and feet to it this way.

BiC: Which writers and/or books have influenced you as a writer?

Lau: Initially?

BiC: Well, yes, then, but also now. We were all influenced by Fun with Dick and Jane, so you don't have to mention that kind of book.

Lau: This will sound horrible, but the first books that influenced me were Harlequin romances and Ray Bradbury novels. Not science fiction in general, just Bradbury. I was nine or 10, in grade five. I liked the Harlequins because the language was so lush. In my own writing at that time I attached four or five adjectives to every noun. Then my English teachers got to me, and made me cut it out.

BiC: That's good. It would be awful if you'd turned into a Harlequin writer.

Lau: But then I'd be like Barbara Cartland, walking tiny dogs in a vast green valley, with my castle in the background.

BiC: That's fine if you're 70. Not at 20.

Lau: Oh, I don't know about that.

BiC: What writers are influencing you now?

Lau: John Updike and Martin Amis. With poetry, people like Donald Hall and John Ashbery. There's a lot of middle-aged white guys here, I notice. And I like Salman Rushdie.

BiC: Rushdie's prose is very lush. So your weakness for purple prose seems to have stayed with you - with improvements, of course.

Lau: I like Rushdie because I think he's funny. He and Rohinton Mistry. Another reason I enjoy them, along with the fact that they're also sad and compelling, is that I identify with the family life that's portrayed in them. When I read Chinese writers I don't -or can't - allow myself to feel it to the same degree. I also like the New Yorker. That influences what I'd like to write quite a lot.

BiC: Which writers would you like to write like?

Lau: I think I'd like to write like Updike. One of the things I've been preoccupied with - in a different way, of course is what goes on in the heads of white, middle-aged, middleclass guys.

BiC: This is your way of exploring the world.

Lau: I guess so. Thus far in my life, anyway. I mean, I know myself as well as one can at this point, and I don't have much interest in politics yet, or "the world." I guess I'm most interested in people's emotional states. And the emotional states of a middleaged man are the ones I identify most with - outside of my own. Donald Hall writes about things like having affairs, moral struggles, fear of loss, and growing old. I know that barren feeling.

BiC: That's a very brave thing to want to do, given what you've come out of.

Lau: Well, I'm torn between compassion and contempt, and wanting to understand. And there's a lot of ground in between where they're all mixed up. That ground interests me a lot.

BiC: What made you choose poetry, of all things, after Runaway?

Lau: You mean why did I go from writing a best seller to writing poetry that nobody reads? So I can improve my skills (laughs) for that "Great Novel" up ahead. No, really. I started off with poetry, when I was 13 or 14, publishing in literary magazines in the States, and in magazines like Prism. International and Waves in Canada. When I was 12 years old, I lied to my parents about where I was going, and went to the public library. I went to the reference section and found Writer's Market, and transcribed every bloody market in the literary section by hand, with things like the editors' names, and what they were looking for, et cetera. Then I'd stick my poems in envelopes and send them out.

BiC: Do you understand that most parents would kill to have a kid who does things like that? Most kids are in the mall shoplifting, and you're in the library, copying things from reference books.

Lau: Well, I tell people about this, and they never believe me. But when I ran away, at 14, that was the most important stuff I took with me.

BiC: You left home so you could publish poetry? Wow!

Lau: Well, I'm more interested in going to the mall now (laughs).... Anyway, the two books I published after Diary of a Runaway are a continuation of what I started out to do, and Diary was the thing that came along and interrupted my life. But now I would be happier writing novels than poetry - if I could.

BiC: Why aren't you writing novels?

Lau: Because I'm not ready to. I'm very sure of that. I've explored parts of my life with the first book, and then with the two books of poetry. In a way they're preparation. I'm learning a lot about language, and economy of language. What scares me is that with poetry I've learned to distil what I want to say in a short space. I'm now confronted with the problem of how to expand these single emotions I've captured into 300 pages.

BiC: You're of Chinese descent. How much of that culture remains an influence, and in what ways?

Lau: I used to feel that it didn't have any influence. Until recently I tended to associate Chinese culture only with my specific set of circumstances and with my own parents. Outside of that I haven't explored very far. When I read people like Rushdie, though, or Mistry, or even Maxine HongKingston, I feel a connection with their writing, with their humour and their pathos.

BiC: Is that something you've come to recently?

Lau: Yes and no. I read Rushdie's Shame when I was 16, and loved it. But it wasn't until I read Such a Long Journey that it really hit home why I liked it so much. Mistry's book stirred up so many things for me. For weeks after I finished it, for instance, I had dreams about my own family. On the other hand, people have given me books by Chinese poets, and they didn't make any sense to me.

BiC: It sounds to me like the attraction doesn't have as much to do with any self-conscious interest in Asian culture so much as it does with being of Asian descent and being alienated from both cultural frames. Those writers present, almost, a third alternative.

Lau: Well, I was born in Canada, you know. I think it's really the interiority of those books that interests me. I'm interested in the way they present interior life.

BiC: Okay, let's go on. You appear, in some ways, to be following the route to artistic maturity that writers did a generation ago. What's wrong with the "Shampoo" procedures of your own generation? This is a way of asking why you're interested in all these older guys, instead of people like Douglas Coupland and the new rock 'n' roll literature.

Lau: I read all that stuff, actually, and it's okay. But I have the same problem with that as I do with Canadian literature. I meet the writer, and then I can't divorce the writer from the writing.

BiC: Yeah. You seem to like what is far away from you and slightly exotic.

Lau: Well, you always tend to think whatever is distant is also better, in a twisted sort of way. And really, I don't have any friends my own age, and I have no real concept of popular culture because I grew up completely outside of that. After I left home, my life was sort of overrun by it for a while, but that wasn't a very friendly experience. Middle-class life may sound boring to most people, but to me it's completely exotic. People tend to treat me as the one living an exotic life. But to me, it's the other way around. Middle-class life is what I'm shut out from. So there's a kind of hunger there.

BiC: What are you planning to do with the next 10 years? Or, put another way, what do you think you'll have to write in order to get people to stop thinking of you as a "young writer" and/or a curiosity?

Lau: I think I have to write a novel or a collection of stories that's about something completely different from anything I've done. It scares me to think that I'll have to write a novel that's outside of my own experience before people will take me seriously. I think a lot of people didn't expect me to be in this for the long haul, and some of them are surprised that I am. But that's something I only have to prove to myself. In a funny way I'm far less sure of my writing than I was five years ago. I'm getting a sense of what good writing is, and how good it can be. And at the same time I have moments of writhing terror where I don't think I can do it. When I was 16 1 thought I was really good.

BiC: Do you ever have moments when you're disappointed with the kind of horizons that being a writer presents you with?

Lau: When I was 16 1 was just hoping my parents would be proud of me. I wanted them to recognize that I had talent and ability, and love me for it. Now that I've kind of gotten over that....

BiC: Wanna bet? I've never met anyone who doesn't want their parents to love them and be proud of them.

Lau: Well, I've taught myself not to care, and I care about other things now. In a way I've generalized that need to be cared about to other members of the writing community, and to the reading public. I never had the sense that I was going to become really rich and famous, so that isn't a disappointment.

BiC: Have you found any competent adults in the writing community?

Lau: No (laughs). But I do think that people mean well, most of the time. When Al Purdy tried to insult me recently by telling me that at 211 was still a child, I didn't take it as an insult. I want to be a child at times, maybe because I missed that part of life.

BiC: What are you working on now?

Lau: A collection of short stories, called Fresh Girls. It'll be published by HarperCollins in the fall.

BiC: What's on the horizon beyond that?

Lau: Another collection of poetry, I think. We'll see. I'm trying to publish more outside of Canada. So far, my books have only been published in this country, and a lot of the interest has been prurient. I want to change that.


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