"When I'm writing I don't think about whether the story is going to be happy or unhappy. That is how I see that particular kind of relationship working out. The logical conclusion, to me. And so, it isn't happy. But I don't know if that'll change. I suppose none of my stories have ever had happy endings. Sometimes ambiguous endings. But I don't set out to write an unhappy story or a happy story."
When the camera comes out, it's like a curtain drops. Gone is the engaging woman-child that I've feel I've come to know a little bit over the two-odd hours we've been talking. She has been replaced with the pouting artiste. Is it a pose or just protectiveness? I'm not sure. I only know that it prevents me from sharing her smile with you. And I'm a little sad about that: Evelyn Lau has a wonderful smile.
Lau has a lot to smile about. A difficult beginning has provided generous fodder in a career that thrives on challenges. Lau's first book, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, was published in 1989 and was based on the then-fledgling-writer's experiences as a teenage prostitute. Subsequent volumes have often been based on the writer's less-than-savory first hand glimpses of the human experience.
As incomparable as Lau's real-life experiences have been, hard knocks alone do not a writer make. Lau's prose is arresting. She thinks of herself as a poet, and not without reason. Three of her book-length works have been volumes of poetry: You Are Not Who You Claim, Oedipal Dreams and In the House of Slaves. Her latest work, Choose Me is comprised of seven short stories. While Choose Me delves into the complexities of human relationships, there are a couple of threads that run through the stories. All seven of the central female characters in Choose Me are involved with older -- and mostly married or similarly entangled -- men. Choose Me is disturbing, often dark but in all ways beautifully rendered. This most recent work indicates the maturation of Lau's already resonant voice.
Now 28, Lau is the author of seven book-length works. She lives and works in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Linda Richards: Choose Me. The title intrigues me.
Evelyn Lau: My agent was actually the one that came up with the title. I think when you're working on short stories or poetry you're working on each piece individually and you don't see the entire collection. You don't see really the shape of it or how it builds. So when I submitted it, I just submitted it under the title of one of the stories, which was a fairly weak title for the collection, but I said I was open to suggestion.
My agent read it and first she said I should call it "Geezers." And then she said, if you won't take that we'll call it Choose Me . And I liked that. I think her interpretation of it was that a lot of the stories were about women who were longing to be chosen in their relationships. I think for me the title works a little bit differently in that it's also about the choices people have made that they have to live with. It's also about what happens after people sort of take that turn in the road.
Making your bed and sleeping in it?
I think so.
You're writing is so beautiful and so clear. And the pictures were so vivid to me. But it's not a happy book.
I think most of my books aren't. Sometimes that surprises me because when I work on the individual stories that story may have an aura of unhappiness about it and there's a kind of intensity to my story. I sometimes don't take into account how those stories add up and give a real overall impression of unhappiness. I don't know how to address that. I hope it's not off-putting in any way.
You don't have to address that, really. But the intensity certainly comes through. But some of these are not happy people, really. The resolutions are -- to me, and it's presumptuous of me... and it's lovely for me to be able to talk to you about it and you can say, "Well, what do you mean?" -- but it's easy for people to read things into your work, I think. Things that are perhaps not there at all.
I love that though. Sometimes I go and give talks at colleges and universities and the professors have dragged all of their students down to listen and the students will have been studying my work. And they've been forced to analyze it. Particularly the poetry. Line by line. Image by image. And they come up with the most bizarre and sometimes really brilliant analysis which I -- as the author -- not only never intended, I never even conceived intellectually. I sort of think that's wonderful. It's essentially for the reader to decide, not for the author to impose.
It says more about the analyzer, perhaps, than the analyzed?
Yes. And I think that's usually a good thing. I'm quite happy to pretend I'm smarter than I am as a result of other people's analysis. [Laughs] I've always striven for a sort of unflinching look at people and the way that they behave. And the pretension in some of those stories around relationships. And the attachment in some people's relationships and how easily that can be broken. That's not a really happy territory to be exploring in the first place.
Is that what Choose Me is about? It seemed to me that a lot of the stories were around falling out of love.
It's hard for me to see it that way because I haven't been able to read it as a collection from cover to cover. I still see the stories as being very distinct in my mind. So I don't know how they all add up in a book. Really. But I suppose there is a lot of disenchantment in the stories.
Disenchantment and the resolution is, "Damn! What was I doing?"
Just like life.
Did you work on the stories individually in kind of the same period? Or...?
The early drafts of the first two stories were probably written about five or six years ago and it's taken me that long -- and many successive drafts -- to find how I actually wanted to write them. Particularly the second story, "The Outing." I wrote that story in so many different ways. I tried to write it as a poem with a similar plot in mind. And it took me a long time to find a way to write that story that I was really happy with. So, those are the two stories that were started a long time ago and had to go through a lot of drafts. The others were all written over the last two years.
The last one as well? That one seems almost novella-like to me.
It was a novella originally. In editing we cut it back dramatically. So it ended up being a long short story, essentially. But whereas the other stories are really focused and very intense, the last story has a bit more of a sprawl to it, I think. As a result of having being originally at least twice the length it is now.
Do you think that sometimes people bring some baggage with them when they come to your work? Do they bring some preconceptions of who you they might think you are as a writer because of your background?
I think it changes as I get older. If people look at you and you don't look like a runaway, then they treat you a certain way. In my case, time has passed. But I think, unfortunately, that seems to be a little hook for some people. It's an easy, kind of interesting little angle that is sort of brought up. I think less so in Vancouver because I've been here for a long time and I'm around a lot and I think people sort of know me as I am. Whereas perhaps places where I haven't been around as much, it's a little bit more of a novelty. And it's not particularly interesting. To me least of all. And my new work doesn't really reflect upon that past much at all.
I think if my writing focused a lot on that part of my life then that would legitimately be more of a current issue. But because it doesn't, it sort of feels like... well... it was just a long time ago.
You feel like you get respected for who you are. Respect for your work and not slighted because of your past? You get your props?
I think so.
The central female characters in Choose Me all have some commonalties. Do you see yourself in any of them?
Someone said to me -- I don't know if it's Freudian -- that apparently all of the characters in your dreams are you. I don't know how that plays out, because you dream about your friends and people that you know, so how can they be you? But I guess, in some way, the way that you dream them represents how you see yourself, or some such thing. They're all representations of yourself. Mirrors. Or sometimes what you wish you were. I think that, to some degree, that must be true in our writing as well. That our characters are, in some ways, all a reflection of ourselves. I think that's very different than saying that something is directly autobiographical.
But -- yeah -- you're creating these things. So somehow they all live inside of you.
I wonder if that's true of people who write about serial killers.
I really wouldn't know. I think I would make a division between people who write literary fiction and those who write more commercial fiction. I have friends who write commercial fiction and when I read their books I have a very difficult time reading it as fiction. Even though, to everyone else, it would look like absolutely nothing but fiction. Because it's cast within a science fiction novel, or a mystery novel or a romance novel or something. But, indeed, I see so much of their lives -- and the lives of the people around them -- in their work that it makes you wonder if such a thing as fiction exists.
In Choose Me you've done a lovely job of building a sense of time and place while rarely mentioning either.
I don't know why I've hardly ever used locations in my work. I mean, actually named locations. I don't know why. I think it's because I like that ambiguity. Because if I actually said, "False Creek," people would bring that with them.
Did you put yourself through school?
You're wonderfully articulate. Obviously intelligent. Beautiful, clear writing. But not school?
Nope. All self -taught. In my teens I took some one-day writers' workshops and things like that. But I've never gone properly back to school.
Are the students you lecture to surprised at that?
I was the writer in residence at UBC [University of British Columbia] about a year and a half ago, so I was working with students in the creative writing department. It was good. I really enjoyed that. I suppose in the past year or so I've thought a lot more about going back to school. But it's very difficult for me. I don't fare well in that type of structure. The last time I tried to go back to school I was in my teens and I couldn't. I just couldn't. I'd last for a day and walk out. I'm not sure that's changed much.
I can't see that you'd need to. Or that there's anything for you to gain.
I do. I mean, I wouldn't go into writing. I'd want to go into an entirely different... not even a different field. I guess ideally I'd like to take some courses in things that I know nothing about. Without thinking about working towards a degree or anything like that. But it wouldn't be writing.
So what do you want to do when you grow up? [Laughs]
Well, I've been thinking about that a little bit in the past year. I don't know. I'm just at a point in my life where a lot of different things could happen in the next few years.
I've been a writer for a long time now. That's been my identity: my work. And I wonder sometimes if that will change. I've wondered that more in the past year than I have at any time in my life. It would be very difficult for me to do anything else. Because my whole life, since I was a child, has been so intently focused on writing. Beyond anything else. So it would be difficult to venture out of it.
And maybe even learning about other stuff would be about writing anyway.
Well, exactly. Every time I catch myself thinking, I want to do this or that, I sometimes think that the intention behind that is so that I can use it in my writing later on. So it's always there. It doesn't go away.
Are you working on anything?
I'm working on a collection of essays right now. I'm still in the mapping out phase. I feel very tentative. Still in my head.
Any novels in the works?
No, no, no. Much to my agent's and my publisher's dismay. I've never been interested in novels. Other Women was a novel but it was really more of a novella. And, in fact, it began as a collection of short stories. As a writer, I've just never been the least bit attracted to the novel and I don't know if that will change 10 years from now, but certainly not within the next few years.
Why do you think that is?
I think every writer has a particular style and a particular way of looking at the world. And mine comes from writing poetry and comes from having that sort of tight focus. Stories are a similar fit, because you're looking at a point in people's lives. You're focusing in on a moment in people's lives. Whereas a novel has much greater sprawl and thought which doesn't attract me at all. That's not the way that I think. And it's also not the way that I look at the world around me.
So more vignettes?
Yes. Very much so.
Who are you? Are you a short story writer? Are you a poet?
I used to think I was a poet masquerading as a prose writer. [Laughs] Now I'm not so sure. Over the past few years I would have called myself more of a short story writer than anything. I'm still writing poetry, but not as consistently as I was in my early 20s. Now, of course, now that I'm starting to work on this essay collection, the essay form is really exciting me. I think you are what you're working on at the time. But I think that, altogether, my heart is with the stories and poetry.
Is it personal essays you're working on? Or journalistic essays?
It'll be a bit of both. But largely personal essays. It's hard for me to talk about them right now.
So what about this "Geezers" thing?
My agent was teasing with that title.
No, but it is kind of a theme in Choose Me .
The older men in the stories? I don't think I was as conscious of that when I was working on the individual stories.
You were sort of surprised after when you saw the stories all together?
When people pointed it out. Because I still don't see it that way. It's not as evident to me as it would be to others.
The stories together aren't intended to be thematic?
They focus on relationships. And largely on marriages from some perspective. And marriage is a subject I've been fascinated by for years.
Tell me about that.
Marriage brings up a lot of issues of character and of loyalty and emotion. For me it's quite a rich territory. So it's one that I feel very much drawn to.
A lot of these characters don't know too much about loyalty, though.
But that says something as well. They don't understand it.
Are you a cynic?
Not particularly. In some ways I'm quite idealistic.
I get that from you sitting across from me. But the stories struck me -- and cynical sounds ugly, and I don't mean that -- but cynical came to my mind when I read the book.
Well, I think there's a kind of disappointment from a lot of the relationships that I've seen. And I come at relationships from quite a different angle than most people because of what I've seen of marriage through prostitution and through my life. So that kind of bleaker vision is reflected in the stories.
Not cynicism. Because, to me, cynicism implies a kind of hardness. A callousness. I think my characters are more disappointed than they are cynical.
I want to see a more hopeful collection. I want to see happier endings. Not in these stories, Evelyn. Because these are perfect as they are. But I would love to see happy. Do you do happy?
You know, when I'm writing I don't think about whether the story is going to be happy or unhappy. That is how I see that particular kind of relationship working out. The logical conclusion, to me. And so, it isn't happy. But I don't know if that'll change. I suppose none of my stories have ever had happy endings. Sometimes ambiguous endings. But I don't set out to write an unhappy story or a happy story. | October 1999