Robert Yune will lead Indy WordLab on Monday, August 4, at Indy Reads Books. He was born in Seoul, South Korea. As a Navy brat, he moved 11 times by the age of 18. He writes mostly about animals and people trying to escape from perilous situations.
Yune’s fiction has been published in The Kenyon Review, Avery, and The Los Angeles Review, among others. His novel Eighty Days of Sunlight is forthcoming from Thought Catalog Books. In 2009, he received a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Yune currently lives in Pittsburgh.
1. When did you begin writing? What’s your favorite part of writing? Most challenging?
I started writing seriously in college, but it’s something I’ve been doing since childhood. When I was seven or eight, I’d make elaborate one-person role-playing games with markers, dice, and computer paper (the kind with perforated holes that you removed in strips).
My favorite part of writing is closing the gap between the perfect, crystalline story that appears in my mind and the disappointing, messy version that appears on the page. Writing is a frustrating pursuit, but I’ve come close a few times, and it’s neat to be that close to perfection.
The most challenging part of writing is sitting down and doing it. I remember a story about MFA students cleaning out Richard Yates’ apartment. In the end, all he had left was $1.37, an ashtray, a mattress, and a typewriter. Dude got a lot of outstanding writing published, but at what cost? The trick is living a full life and somehow managing to avoid enough distractions to accomplish something that’s worthwhile artistically.
2. Tell me about some of your favorite books/collections/anthologies/journals. What do you gravitate toward?
I’m writing a YA novel right now, so I’m gravitating towards that genre. I recently finished re-reading The Giver, which was an interesting experience. I’m currently reading Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. It’s an interesting book, and it does some neat stuff with POV.
As for journals, I think Tin House publishes the nation’s best short stories. I’m also a fan of Zoetrope: All-Story and The Kenyon Review. I try to subscribe to new journals. My latest obsession is Nano Fiction. Really primo stuff.
3. Do you find yourself revisiting certain themes or ideas or character types when you write? If so, why do you think this happens?
Not consciously, but sometimes it does happen. For example, I’m adopted, and I’ve noticed that a number of my stories are about inheritance or people adapting to unexpected roles. I don’t set out to consciously write about personal stuff, but writing is largely a subconscious act, and stuff leaks out.
I purposely try not to write specific character types or follow any patterns. As an artist, I want to challenge and surprise myself. Once I’ve mastered something (a point of view, for example), I try to move onto another craft aspect that I’m not good at. Fortunately, there’s so much I need to work on!
4. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received, writing-focused or otherwise?
Ann Patchett once told me, “Do yourself a favor and write chronologically. At least for the first draft.”
5. What was it like growing up as a Navy brat? Do you think moving around a lot influenced your writing at all?
It’s good in the sense that, if you’re like me, you get to see a lot of the world. I’ve lived in Japan, Italy, and seen most of the United States. That’s an opportunity not many people get.
The downside is that when you move a lot, you learn not to get attached to anything, or anyone. Also, moving from place to place led to a scattered sort of mindstate (in me, at least). It’s harder to remember things because you don’t have the solid foundation of spending more than four years in a single location. You don’t grow up with the same core group of friends.
6. How do you define fiction and what it can do?
Hmm. That’s a tough one. Fiction creates worlds that follow rules that the author creates. What can it do? I think fiction can provide comfort; because it can explore psychology and experience, it has the power to convince people that they’re not alone. I also think fiction, in a more realist vein, can help show the world as it is, as opposed to how it looks at its most entertaining. Fiction can chronicle our era and, at its best, it holds up a mirror to the world. And that’s important, whether people like it or not.
7. You teach at the University of Pittsburgh and have taught at Chatham University. Has teaching writing developed your own writing skills or work ethic?
Teaching challenges me to practice what I preach. This goes for big things (sitting at my desk and putting words on the page) and smaller craft-related techniques (delete adverbs, make sure to describe your characters physically!).
Teaching is helpful because I mostly teach intro-level fiction courses, which emphasize the basics. And honestly, I think most advanced writers get to the point where they forget basic craft techniques (economy of language, showing instead of telling, engaging the reader’s senses).
8. Who are some of your favorite writers/poets?
Haruki Murakami, because his work is so outlandish (and yet somehow human as well). Dan Chaon, because his world is eerie and unsettling. Amy Hempel, because she’s able to create entire universes in just a few words. Maxine Hong Kingston, for the sense of awe she’s able to instill in the reader.
As for poetry, I can’t get enough Larry Levis. He’s an outstanding storyteller. And Donald Hall—so angry! I’ve been enjoying Bradley Paul’s collection The Animals are All Gathering and Erica Berhheim’s The Mimic Sea. Etheridge Knight.
9. What are the goals you set when you write?
It depends. I’ve always thought of writing as exploration. So, my goals are often to explore an idea or experience through storytelling. For example, I got in a minor car accident a few years ago. I was at a weird intersection (one of many) in Bloomfield, and I just didn’t see the other car. But afterwards, what I recalled most about the accident was the sickening feeling of inevitability just before impact. I became obsessed with that feeling and wrote about it in a few stories: “Wrens,” which was about a police officer dealing with a stolen stop sign; “Cast Down Your Burdens,” which is about extinction; and “Bleach,” which is about a woman slowly realizing something horrible. After I’d explored that feeling enough, I got it out of my system and moved onto something else.
With my latest novel, I’ve been trying to capture what it was like to live in post-Great Recession malaise. I suppose that’s the “chronicling” I was talking about before. Sounds like fun, I know. That’s the atmosphere, though. The plot is hopefully more interesting.
10. Anything else you’d like to add?
The world we live in is crazy. I remember watching Jurassic Park in the theaters back in ’93. Twenty years later, when I went to see the re-release in 3D, scientists were developing the Revive & Restore program to bring extinct species back to nature. I mean, they’re pretty much on track to bring back the passenger pigeon and woolly mammoth. The sheer speed of it all—it’s exhilarating and also terrifying. Everyone should be more amazed and terrified. That’s all.
Indy Wordlab is a monthly reading series/open writing workshop. A local writer reads their work, takes questions, and offers a writing experiment, Attendees take 30-40 minutes to write on the prompt, and then reconvene in small groups to share their work. Learn more here, here, and here.