Interviewed by Amelia Loulli

Read Nancy Au’s nonfiction piece, When Bones Grow


Amelia: One of the things that I loved about When Bones Grow is its rhythmic, lyrical style, which manages in its gentleness to give power to the heavy subject matter of the piece. Is that sort of style typical for you as a writer, or do you find that it changes depending on what you’re writing about?

Nancy: Thank you so much for your gorgeous editorial changes and suggestions that truly helped this piece evolve and grow! The style of each of my stories change depending on the subject matter I am exploring. When I originally wrote this piece, it was the first time that I’d written about my parents’ deaths, and I churned out eight single-spaced pages! So I used my favorite writing exercise, William S. Burroughs’ cut-up method, and cut the pages in half, shuffled them, and taped the mixed-up pieces together. A motif emerged: bones. So, I researched bones, their physiology, how they live inside of us. I then reworked the piece until there was a tone, a particular staccato rhythm, and a sense of an arc to my narrative. The style of this piece arose out of my desire to engage with the events surrounding my parents’ deaths in a way that felt tangible, where I could literally hold my grief in my hands, rip it apart, and then piece it back together.

Would you say that you’ve found confidence in your writerly voice?

Gosh! I am still nervous every time I submit a piece for a workshop. I feel nervous even after a piece is published! But, overall, what keeps me writing, submitting, sharing, and experimenting with and exploring my writerly voice, is the tremendous community of writers and friends and family and editors (like you!) and students who surround me, and support me at every turn. I feel that my writerly voice shifts constantly based on where I am in my life, what I’ve learned, and who I’ve just read.

What would you say are the best ways for a writer to identify their voice?

I try to read as much as I can. And, at San Francisco State University, I’ve tried to take as many different poetry, playwriting, and traditional fiction classes that I can. I try to experiment with different writing styles and genres as a way to stretch my voice.

Are there any writers that have particularly inspired you in your development as a writer?

Carson Beker, Peg Alford Pursell, Nona Caspers, Carolina De Robertis, Michelle Carter, Toni Mirosevich, Barbara Tomash, Anne Galjour, and Andrew Joron are the most inspiring teachers I’ve ever known. Other writers (who I haven’t met personally, but whose books I read over and over), include: YiYun Li, Amy Hempel, Alison Bechdel, John Chu, Jhumpa Lahiri, Shirley Jackson, Miranda July, Claudia Rankine, Flannery O’Connor, Sherman Alexie, Ken Liu, Bernhard Schlink, Kaye Gibbons, Maya Angelou, Leslie Jamison….and and and…

Can you talk a little about your decision to write Bones in the second person, and if that is something you’ve done before?

I hadn’t tried writing in second person before, and my first draft vacillated between first and second person. In the end, second person felt emboldening and cathartic to write in. And now I think about how this particular point of view maybe highlights that there is no singular blueprint for how to deal with the shock, with that blinding white abyss of uncertainty and confusion that accompanies losing a loved one.

What inspires you to write? And particularly—what inspires you to write non-fiction? Is there generally an element of catharsis involved for you?

I’m a very awkward person in real life. I blush, I sweat, I tremble, I laugh a lot and at inconvenient times. But in my writing, I can write about bodies, sex, grief, anger, and uninhibited joy. I love that in writing, I can shape the world in the way that I want, without having to contend with others’ reactions or facial expressions. In writing non-fiction, I love that I can take my time with a difficult memory, I can sit back, take a breath, put my notebook down, go for a walk, and then return to my words. For me, the catharsis is a result of making a memory tangible, to (as I mentioned earlier) be able to reorder, shape, mold my memories in a way that feels most empowering, full, and enriching.