An Interview With Clara Chow, Author Of Modern Myths
How are you settling in in Iowa City? What about home do you miss the most?
Iowa City's great. It's a university town, with many things revolving around University of Iowa. International Writing Program writers are affiliates of UIowa so we get perks like free movies, concerts, theatre performances and events, 500 books to check out from the library, etc. So focusing on writing is proving to be challenging. But I'm working on many new projects at the moment. The hard part is finishing all of them, but I will try!
I miss my kids and my husband, the most. But they are real troopers, my menfolk, getting by and the kids are super independent, so I am so proud of them. Occasionally, I miss congee or prawn noodles, but there is a place near me here that does awesome Lu Rou Fan (braised pork rice) so that helps. And I miss speaking Singlish, of course.
As someone who is interested in classical myths, I was very excited to read Modern Myths and making the relevant connections! For some reason, the book reminds me of John Barth’s Chimera where mythical characters such as Perseus and Bellerophon struggle to come to terms with growing old. Could you share with us how you got the idea to write Modern Myths?
Ah! We had to read Chimera as undergraduates and most of us did not get it very much at the time, I am sorry to say. But I must revisit it. I have always liked Greek myths, for their ideas of transformation and also the very human emotions and behaviour of the less-than-perfect god's, so I just found that I kept taking them out of their traditional story containers and putting them in new situations. It started with Medea and then Orpheus, and soon I had a whole bunch of these stories, at which point I decided to put together the collection.
Were you at any point concerned that readers would not be able to relate to the mythical characters or that the idea of mythical heroes in our midst would be too far-fetched? Personally, I felt that the stories were believable even in instances where I didn’t manage to identify which mythical character it was.
You are absolutely right about that. The aim was to make sure the stories worked on their own, even if the reader was not a fan of Greek myths. Just that these characters are palimpsests and come with thousands of years of their own drama, so it's fun if you knew the gossip, but okay if you don't.
So, no, I was never worried.
Could you tell us about the structure of the book? Some reviewers have likened the process of reading Modern Myths to playing a cassette tape with Sides A (Immortals) and B (Mortals). If you had to pick a side, which one would you choose?
Side B came during the editing process with Ruth Tang. I think I sort of said, waiiit! I have all these other stories, what do I do with them? And she felt it was better to just focus on the gods. But it occurred to me that all of us are mythical in our own ways, even if we aren't gods. So the ordinary folk in Side B deals with the reality and the myths and fictions that are fed to us in daily life. The myth of racial equality, for instance. Or gender. Or that marriage is happily ever after.
Along those lines, could you also tell us who your favourite character is and why? Mine is Prometheus, the char siew seller. He seems like a solid, dependable kind of guy!
I like all of them. I am super non-judgmental that way. But, yes, Prometheus is a cool Hunkle. You would want to eat from his stall.
Could you share a bit more about your journey from journalism to writing fiction? Did you ever see this happening? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers out there?
I always felt like I didn't quite know what I was doing as a journalist - every fresh assignment you had to start from scratch. Do your research, find your interviewees. So I thought, hey, I read literature at university, I know how to do that. Why don't I do that instead. And then I became a full-time writer and realised I will always not quite know what I am doing - every new short story or book you start from scratch with a blank page, and worse, no interviewee, brief or editor. So, really, I am as new at this as the next person.
When I started, Yeow Kai Chai gave me a three-hour pep talk, and to every question I had, he said: "Just finish it." That's the best and only advice you will need.
Lastly, if you could be reborn as a mythical character, which would you choose? My choice would be Poseidon since I love the sea!
This is a tough one. Do mythical characters need to be born like human beings, all grisly and gory and covered in mucus and blood? If so, it would be awesome to be a unicorn, just to experience the mechanics of a horned creature coming out of its mother. Otherwise, Athena, because she sprang from Zeus' head. That sounds rather fun, too - like, literally, my parent's skull spat me out. Isn't that a good metaphor for the act of writing - your brain child?