“Leave behind what you know: A Conversation with Alexandra Chang on Tomb Sweeping” – curated by Wendy Chen

Tomb Sweeping (Ecco, 2023) is the debut short story collection by Alexandra Chang, author of the spellbinding novel Days of Distraction (Ecco, 2020). The collection offers up a rich world to the reader, allowing glimpses into the lives of, for example, a college student in an interracial relationship with a graduate student, a housewife turned gambling den hostess, a young professional who spies on her parents through various cameras, and many others. The unflinching sharpness of the language and the poignancy of the stories lingered within me long after I had finished the collection. I had the great pleasure of asking Chang a few questions on what it was like to put together this incredible collection.

Alexandra Chang is the author of Days of Distraction and Tomb Sweeping. She currently lives in Ventura County, California.

Wendy Chen: Your collection begins with “Unknown by Unknown,” a story about housesitter who confronts the mysteries of where she is at in her life—in terms of both time and place, and ends on “Other People,” a story that touches on mistaken identity and memory. There’s a wonderful emotional arc across the whole collection that is satisfying to experience as a reader. In considering this overarching arc across your collection, how did you decide on the order of your stories?

Alexandra Chang: I tried organizing the collection several different ways, including chronologically (from oldest story to newest, by when I wrote each) and thematically (e.g. family, friendship, work, self). Neither of those felt quite right when I saw the stories lined up.

I appreciate you saying there’s an arc from start to finish, because the ordering I finalized was determined by what to begin with and what to end on. I wanted a first story that introduces a reader to the collection, while also disorienting/reorienting the reader to the atmosphere of the stories. It’s like a mental reset in a way. Leave behind what you know and enter the stories with fresh eyes—that’s part of why I chose “Unknown by Unknown” as the opener, which then leads to “Li Fan” (which opens with further disorientation). “Other People” has a structure that tunnels in and out of multiple perspectives, much like a reader has done through the entirety of the collection. It’s like a little challenge at the end, which is also hopefully this final satisfaction.

Filling in the rest was more intuitive than anything else. Thinking about how one story’s end might juxtapose with or enhance another story’s beginning. Thinking about what resonances there were between stories, and also wanting variation, so that it doesn’t feel too repetitive (in a negative way).

WC: What story was the hardest to revise? What was the revision process like for that story?

AC: “Cure for Life” or “Other People.” The former because I completely rewrote it at one point from a different character’s perspective, so it was like writing a new story. And “Other People” because it used to be almost two times as long and required a lot of cutting. I’m usually a writer who starts shorter, then expands. Going long, then having to cut back a story, was definitely tougher for me.

WC: “Li Fan” is the shortest story in the collection at less than 3 pages long and, most remarkably, goes backwards in time. The effect of the compression and the reversal in time builds to an incredibly poignant ending—which is also the beginning of the story. What was the process of writing this story like?

AC: Painful! If you asked which story’s first draft was hardest to write, it would be this one. I wrote it backwards, the way it’s read. I’ve been asked a lot if I wrote it chronologically and then just reorganized it, but I don’t think it would have really worked successfully that way. Or it would have needed a lot more revision. Initially, I wrote a few sentences and almost gave up on the story. It felt very unnatural to consider how each sentence follows the next, while making sure each moved backwards in time. My mind had to move simultaneously in two directions and it was tiring. When I picked the story back up, I just decided to persist. It got a little bit easier sentence by sentence, training myself to think in this way, but as you can see, I could only sustain it for a few pages.

WC: “To Get Rich is Glorious” tells the story of a woman who finds her spark for life again. What is most striking is the way you’ve told her story through compressed flashes and moments in time. As in “Li Fan,” the ways in which you play with portrayal of time in order to heighten emotion and tension is masterful. Did you write the story in these flashes from the beginning, or did they emerge out of the editorial process?

AC: I wrote it in titled vignettes from the beginning, using white space to skip a lot of time, and as you mention, compress a lot of FuFu’s life into a short story. I knew that FuFu would end up in prison, but the question was, how? And it became more and more important to me, as I was thinking about this “how,” that I show the various forces at play as far back as her birth that might lead her down this path.

WC: Were there any stories you ended up taking out of the collection? As a writer, how do you make those decisions?

AC: Yes, I took out several. I decided partly with the help of outside readers, like my editor, agent, and writer friends, and partly based on my gut reaction to each story. Mainly, if I had this feeling a story wasn’t good enough or if it felt too far from what I wanted readers to associate with the collection, I took it out.

WC: Voice and perspective are so deftly presented in each of your stories. Part of the magic of this collection is how intimately your readers get to know each of your characters, particularly through witnessing intensely private and uncomfortable moments in their lives. How do you decide on point of view for your stories—whether, say, to write in first or third point of view?

AC: Most of the time, I’ll write in first person if I’m starting from their voice, and it has a particular sound, cadence, or quirk to it that I’m attached to. For example, “Phenotype” had to be in first person for this reason—Judith’s voice was the original source of the story. Oftentimes, first person is the most withholding perspective for a story. A character isn’t likely to reveal a lot about themselves from the get go if they’re narrating the story, but if you’re using an omniscient or an indirect interior perspective (both written in third person), there is a way to both be inside and outside of the character. “To Get Rich Is Glorious” is a story that absolutely could not be written in first person, because there is so much of this external/omniscient commentary and perspective roving going on. I think any perspective can create intimacy between reader and character. There are just different methods and tools for creating that intimacy depending on the perspective.

WC: In addition to writing short stories, you are also a novelist. Are there ways you approach writing short stories differently from a novel?

AC: I approach stories with a lot less anxiety and fear, and a lot more willingness to play around. I’ve also only written one novel, so I’m not sure that I have much of an approach at all. The writing of the first novel was very haphazard. I had to trick myself and tell myself it was a story for a long time, to somehow reduce the stakes of the project. Not that short stories are inherently low stakes, but it’s easier for me to experiment and try new things in stories given their length. If it doesn’t work out, toss it and try again. With novels, it’s daunting to think about spending so much more time on a project that could fail in some way.

WC: “Me and My Algo” is one of the most sinister (and compelling!) stories I encountered in your collection. There is such captivating propulsion in each of the sentences that sweeps readers to the very end—an end that feels painfully true to the reality of the algorithmic world we inhabit. I’d love to learn  what the spark for this story was for you.

AC: I was working at a communications agency and we had a client who always shortened “algorithm” to “algo.” I’d never heard that before. In every meeting, this person is saying, “our algo does this…” and “our algo is really special…” and “our algo is unlike any other…” He talked about this algorithm in a very loving, and kind of creepy, way. It was fascinating and was the spark for this story about a person’s at first loving, then toxic, relationship to their algo.

WC: What writers or texts were you reading while writing this collection?

AC: Too many to name. Since these stories span nine years of my writing life, a huge number of the writers and texts influenced me in ways known and unknown. Some who directly influenced these stories, and who I had more consciously in mind when writing: Lucia Berlin, Maile Meloy, Lydia Davis, Anjali Sachdeva, Deb Olin Unferth, Stephen Dixon, Lan Samantha Chang, Yiyun Li, Joy Williams, James Baldwin, Shirley Jackson, Grace Paley… there are more I’m missing, for sure.

WC: Who are some writers and/or texts you are most excited about at this moment?

AC: Hilary Leichter, Ed Park, Cleo Qian, Alexander Sammartino, and you, Wendy Chen.

WC: What projects are you working on next?

AC: I’m working on another novel. No further comment. (I don’t really know what it is.)

Wendy Chen is the author of the novel Their Divine Fires (out May 7, 2024 from Algonquin Books) and the poetry collection Unearthings (Tavern Books). Her translations of Song-dynasty woman writer Li Qingzhao are forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2025 in a collection titled The Magpie at Night.