Interviewed by Sarah Starr Murphy

Read Jinwoo Chong’s fiction piece, Low Orbit

Sarah: “Low Orbit” is great title for this piece partially because it’s not the most obvious choice. It gives primacy to the imaginary, sustaining world the brothers create together. How’d you get to this title? 

Jinwoo: This story went through a great many drafts before arriving at the final, and in basically all of them, the make-believe game Tommy and his brother play together was absent. It occurred to me, as the story got progressively darker, that something was needed to give credible and realistic comfort to those two characters. They’re kids, after all; it felt right to show them being kids, despite the very grown-up circumstances they often find themselves in. In another way, the story is about Keats’ attempts to shield his brother from the greater horrors of their lives. He succeeds, sometimes, but more often than not fails. The make-believe games are a two-fold symbol for me: indicative firstly of how deeply the brother’s care for each other, and secondly of how futile their attempts to stay shielded ultimately are, by the story’s end. It made the most sense to name the story after the lynchpin of Tommy and Keats’ relationship.

Keats is sporadically responsible but mostly just a scared kid acting tough. On my first read, I focused on the toll that the events took on Tommy, but on rereading I started to worry much more about Keats. He’s been epically failed by every adult in his life, an all too common experience. How will he to ever find his way to adulthood? Do you see him escaping Zero’s fate? 

My love for Keats as a person was the main reason behind narrating the story from Tommy’s point of view. Keeping us out of Keats’ genuine feelings and thoughts throughout, viewing his actions through child’s perspective, seemed for me to create a wonderful kind of obscurity that lets us idealize him, certainly more than the reality. I hope most people have a figure in their lives like this, a force of purity and goodness that may or may not be exaggerated, but is what we need to endure the pains of life. The cost of this decision, you’re right, forces us to worry a lot more about Keats. I spent a lot of time over the ending of the story, and felt uneasy for several drafts about leaving them in this kind of limbo. In one version, Tommy dies, in another, Keats dies. I saved them both, I think, to assure myself that because they have each other, there is no reason to believe they don’t find a way out of this life. It is as likely as any other outcome. Throughout the story, Tommy is the one thing preventing Keats from doing things like running away, falling in with more dangerous crowds, seriously challenging Zero’s authority in a way that could end in violence. Because he and Tommy are left together by the story’s end, it gives me hope. We don’t talk much about the weight some stories have on their authors. It was the only outcome I could think of that serviced the story and didn’t make me spiral into sadness.

Zero neither fully loveable nor completely abominable. He “fucking love[s]” these kids. He’s trying, in his own way, to step up. How did you go about creating his character, crafting an honest portrait without turning readers off altogether? Did he take a lot of revision to get right, or did he just pop up fully formed on the page?

I spent the most time tweaking ‘the father’ character, as he didn’t have a name for a long time. As I remember, earlier versions of this story felt too staged, too much like a Law & Order episode, because Zero was far too malevolent. I centered the original character around an innate jealousy of the brothers and their relationship, as well as their relationship to their mother, and to their Aunt Tilly (two characters who were severely cut down in subsequent drafts). It wasn’t realistic enough for me. I worked the hardest on generating sympathy for Zero because I needed a reason why Tommy and Keats don’t just try to leave, or why a social worker wouldn’t relocate the boys as soon as possible. Over time, Zero’s original resentment curdled into a kind of desperate longing for acceptance that was more sad than angry. I’ve always viewed the sequence in which Zero takes Tommy for dessert as a clue that maybe Zero knew what was going to happen to him at the end of the story. It’s the same reason he holds Tommy’s face and says, “You’re so afraid of me.” While he loves his sons, he knows, deeply, that he’ll never be enough for them, so a part of his brain is always saying despite his best intentions: why try? This felt a hundred times more real than a villain.

The moment the daggers arrive, we know they’ll bring trouble. The prejudiced suburban teen customers, the reference to Zero’s father and his table legs – it’s all funny and painful. Zero is not dealing in stolen DVDs or knock-off handbags; the family’s socio-economic struggle is always going to be complicated by race. It’s possible to read this scene as Zero modeling a form of resilience. What do you think the boys learn from all of this?

I go back and forth on race in my work. This is complicated by the fact that, for the most part, I come from quite an Americanized family. I’ve tried to write stories where the characters of color engage freely and proudly with their race but it often felt forced to me, because it’s not exactly the way that I engage with my own race. Perhaps I’m not such a ‘fiction’ writer after all. Tommy, Keats, and Zero have this warped view of their race for this reason. I find myself laughing at popular books and movies written by white people of, say, 15 years ago, where there’s one Asian character, or one black character, and so on, that appears to be this idealized and harmonious representation of their entire minority group. We, of course, know, it’s never that simple. I see resilience in the way Zero has taught the boys to, for lack of a better term, play the game, to buy into the exoticism of Asian people for their own personal gain. This comes from a genuine life experience. My mother has always embraced a unique response to racist people and interactions, which is to start pointing and gesturing, speaking rapid-fire Korean, and pretending not to understand English. It’s massively effective at shutting people up, and hilarious, and in its own way, a form of resilience. 

What are you reading at the moment? Or, what was the last book you read that you really loved?

Apartment, by Teddy Wayne, caught my eye because it’s a novel set inside the Columbia MFA program, where I am right now. I resonated strongly with its pervading themes of self-deception, self-doubt, and self-hatred that afflict most individuals upon paying large sums of money for a creative writing degree. But ultimately riveting, powerful, and human. Also, Charles Yu’s story about a sentient office printer in the latest Ploughshares, edited by Celeste Ng.

Thanks so much for doing this interview and congratulations!