Vagabond Jocelyn Lieu Author/ Wild-West Journalist Interview

Jocelyn Lieu Author/ Wild-West Journalist Interview

Home   Travelogue   Travel Blog Directory   Travel Photos   Travel Questions Forum


Jocelyn Lieu Interview
10/20/2008 - Mission Cafe, Manhattan

Selected transcription:

I had pretty much always wanted to write . . . and by always I mean since around seven [years old] or so, because that is when writing really becomes interesting and fun. But I think it began earlier because I'm a daydreamer, and you dream up stories. So I can't really remember not imagining things. And also not having a difficult time with the spoken word. From the minute that social interaction became important, when I first starting playing with kids, I began to imagine different scenarios:

"Oh, so and so beat me up. If I had said this or if I had said that differently [would it have happened?]." I think that when you are a pre-adolescence . . . that's when verbiage becomes important in social interaction, and that is when the daydreaming really started a lot. But I think when I was around seven I started to stop paying attention a lot in class and began to write poetry.

I learned how to listen with one ear and when I was called on to know the answer.

In elementary school I began to write little stories. I called them novels in this little notebook and I would never finish any of them.

Then I got tired of high school; left early because I had enough credits; and just wandered around locally for about a year.

Went for a year to the New School, which at that point was very wild. .. .resembles a stationary Friends World . . . we were screaming at each other from across the table. There were a lot of crazy young professors who had been outcast from other institutions. From there I went to Yale. . . .I don't know what I was thinking. . . . Got my degree in English from Yale. . . .This was right at the cusps of change of mainstream and Ivy League education and there was a cultural shift. We were still riding the 70's but it was turning into the 80's. What that means is that some of my friends were wild, acid dropping, poetry writing hippies. . . . and some who graduated . . . were wearing ties and dresses and went off into the business world. It was strange to see what happened.

I went on the other path. I went off to New Mexico with my then boyfriend, and we didn't have any money. We lived out of a car. I became a journalist. It was the first job I got, but it was certainly one that I think I wanted.

And you were writing for the Santa Fein?

I was writing for a weekly newspaper called the Rio Grande Sun. The editor was a Southern Colorado white man who had been trained as a journalist with the populous newspapers of the south. He really passed on that training of the populous division:

"The job of the newspaper is to hold the public officials accountable as to how public money was being spent."

Every story was investigative journalism.

He said, "Get the story, the full story. Stop at nothing to get it."

We were an anti-corruption newspaper. It was really astonishing that this small little local newspaper that was publishing out of Espanola, New Mexico won all of these awards and was recognized in Smithsonian magazine.

A lot of the journalist then were characters. It was something of the wild west was still alive in Santa Fe. We moved from job to job, it [journalism] wasn't the sort of ... career that it is now. We'd get tired of working and say, "Fuck this job, lets go down to Mexico for three months." We would do that and then we would come back. . . There were a group of really dedicated journalist who were also people who didn't like bosses saying anything to them, and we would gravitate to the good editors, and the editor had to earn our respect somehow or we would quit. . . . I had two stints at the Sun after quitting or being fired in disgust from one of the other newspapers. So along the way many, many stories

One of the things that I would do when I would quit would be to go to Central America or Mexico or some other cheap place - you could get an adobe house for 100 bucks a month - I would write, I would write fiction or I'd travel or I'd do both. And then my money would run out and I'd get a job. So I think the transition was gradual because it was a very hard-burning job.

If you are going after the news you're working 60 hours a week; you're drinking hard. I think I burned out a little bit, but I took away the feeling that the news was useful. . . . I know more and more of the truth but I can't quite convey it. The news became inadequate to me as an artist. That is how I came to fiction writing. . . . That was the beginning of my writing life.

Do you have any funny stories from when you were a journalist?

Oh god, yes. . . You're a quasi-public figure when you are a journalist. So we would sit at the bars and the people that we would interview may walk by, and we would heckle them. They might join us, or they might cross the street to get away from us. You were definitely kind of a quasi-public figure, and I think we did consume a lot of alcohol. We couldn't be in a bar after 10 o'clock because someone would throw a chair at us.

Did you ever find yourself being a part of the story that you had to report on?

Oh, many, many times. One time I was drinking at a bar in Santa Fe with my brother . . .We were at a bar called the Round House, which was across the street from the New Mexico state capital building. The legislature was in session, and two congressmen became incensed at each other and started to throw furniture at each other, you know, chairs and bottles and such. So of course I took out my notebook, got out my camera, and started taking pictures and interviewing people. So here I am wandering amongst these drunken legislatures and they are sitting there growing increasingly uncomfortable. Soon the bouncer came over and said, "Who is she?" . . . . and my brother said [he was a big man], "She's my sister," and the bouncer backed off.

I did become the news. Many of us did. We were sued, I had my day in court.

[she got secret documents on the Los Alamos National Laboratory, broke the story, and other newspapers picked it up. was told to reveal sources and didn't]

I was all prepared to go to shaking my fists to jail. [case fizzled out]. I was really disappointed, I wanted to go to jail.

At one point I was accused of killing off one of my sources.

You mean physically kill?


[doing story on the inefficiency of the ambulance service . . . corrupt. . . .. cronyisms . . .people died as a result]

The director [of the ambulance service] was quite incensed with me, and refused to give me an interview. So I tracked him down. I heard that he was to be speaking at the local public high school. So I showed up in the auditorium [and when he saw me] he jumped off the stage and came running at me yelling - he was a little nutty too - and he said, [Jocelyn speaks in a funny voice] "You and the Rio Grande Sun are unpatriotic, and you're not this, and you're not that. Where were you at Pearl Harbor?"

And I was like "What?" He gets all red in the face and everyone is looking at me and looking at him and the presentation to the high school stopped then [laughter]. So I starting taking pictures of him and taking notes - I wished I brought my tape recorder - and that night he died of a heart attack. So I became publicly known as the one who kill him.

How did the public generally react to you? Were they supportive or did you ever get run out of town?

A lot of people excoriated the Rio Grande Sun. . . . "It is a gossip rag, they don't have anything good to say about anyone." But one in four adults in Northern Mexico read the paper.

This was a place where politics were alive. People voted. . . . so they interacted with the news. The community was very intact, alive, and interested in its own news.. . . There was a notoriety, but we were definitely part of the village.

Has journalism gone sterile?

Yes. [talks about history of journalism and different types]

I have seen an erosion of the news, for too many reasons to go into now: the corporatization of the media, the lack of independent media. [talks about the power of the internet in journalism] You don't see that type of hard hitting print journalism so much anymore.

I see hope in the new media and the independent media at the same time seeing hard hitting, honest journalism.

How many hours a day do you write for?

It depends. I am either thinking about writing or writing all the time. I have kind of a complicated life, as do most writers. . . [talks about how she has a daughter and teaches at Goddard] I just left a busy, full time teaching job after just realizing, well, it was a mutual parting of ways. We said good-bye to each other, they being more definitive and louder in their goodbye than I was. [from New School] I spent maybe too much time teaching.

I get up everyday and try to write for a half an hour or an hour in the morning, when I am still fresh before I have to get my daughter to school. . . .Depending on what I have planned for that day, it is a full day of writing until I pick her up at six.

Do you always carry a notebook with you?

[takes notebooks out of her purse. one notebook for the book she is working on and a general notebook] What I noticed from years of writing is that these notebooks less and less resemble journals in the way I try to capture my feelings or venting through writing . . .it is really about what is of interest, and what could possibly lead into what I am writing or will write in the future.

Have you read Isaac Babbles war journals? Because you see him sometimes writing notes under fire. He is still writing . . . .under fire and he is still writer. [in 1920's Red Army into Poland]

There is always note taking, always moving towards something. It depends on what I am writing, I will sometimes have a notebook of long hand drafts and sometimes I will compose directly on the computer. The book that I am working on right now wants to be written on the computer. My second book wanted to be written in long hand drafts. The first book was a combination.

Was that Potential Weapons?


What role does things that happen in your life transpire into characters in your books?
Like Abi in Potential Weapons?

Oh! You read my book! Bless you.

Was she based off your life?

Yes and no. I write just enough from life to infuriate my family and friends.

[talks about character and book. this interview is about the art of writing and not really her books...but I asked questions anyway because I want to hear story]

[use fiction to allow her to face conflicts within herself. looked at ku klux klan and cried in Indian. Potential Weapons is an examination of why she cried]

There is an emotional center or core of something that happens in my life and, as an investigative reporter [examines the roots of the personal conflict]

I am upset about something, I don't understand it, I have to examine it, and I pursue it if I sense that it has some larger significance.

So you use the fictional story as a device to show and examine your own feeling, your own inner conflict?

[uses fiction] To explore something I don't know.

"I write if something sticks in my craw," Saia Yamamoto

So if there is something that haunts me . . . I have to examine it, I have to find out about it, I have to know why. It is examining emotion, but it is not for the simple sake of examining emotion. If something sticks in my craw I try to use my writerly instincts - my reporter instincts - to find if it is worthy of examination.

Ha Jin?

Oh yeah, The Man.

I was one of the first book reviewers to discover him. I wrote about his first wonderful short story collection . . .[talks about the times she met him] He blurbed my first book. . . He is one of the finest writers working in English today.

How does being a Chinese American play out in your writing?

My first book it dominated the material. . . . I wrote that book in my thirties reflecting about being in my twenties.

I found myself creating characters that were very autobiographical.

I was very interested in how people mistake each other, mis-read each other, fail to ultimately communicate. . . So it was good to be someone whose looks are ambiguous. When I went to Alaska they thought I was Inuit, when I was in Mexico they thought I was a local woman, when I go to Hawaii I am a local wahini, so my looks give me a passport into other places. Then I open my mouth . . . As a fiction writer I found this interesting to examine.

Do you ever pretend to switch your identity to be a different minority to get a story?

Of course. I never lie, but sometimes I would go into a situation and I wouldn't correct people [who thought that she was from a different ethnic group], so I would lie by omission. So maybe I would be in there in my cowboy boots, and my blue jeans, and my denim and Neal Young shirt, looking like a local in New Mexico, and when people would make an assumption and I wouldn't correct them. [then when she talks people know that she is really not what they assumed she would be] But by that time a degree of trust is made.

Did you ever write about your wild west days of being a journalist in New Mexico?

Just one short story about it. . . . It is interesting that you ask that because I am thinking about going back to that time.

[story about how her old editor went to hear her read in Santa Fe after she published her first book and yelled from the crowd,] "Jocelyn, is it true that you learned everything you know about fiction from the Rio Grande Sun?" And everybody laughed.

[we laughed]

Yes, I wrote a lot of stories but only one made it into print. . . .I did not really try to place the others.

What was the name of that story?


There are a few things [from her time as a journalist in New Mexico] that bother me. I set a couple people to prison. I was really proud of it at the time . . . [people were taking from the FEMA fund] They took money from people who needed their houses rebuilt. So it was bad what they were doing, but at the same time they didn't hurt anyone, they didn't kill anyone, and then they had to serve prison terms. I just felt very bad about that. I feel guilty about that one! So I need to revisit it. Everything else I did then I feel kind of happy about.

Did you ever have to push the bounds of legality to get a story?

I used the law in my behalf. . . . I didn't work against the system ...I exposed corruption, but that is still working within the system. There is an innocent assumption that if you expose corruption that it will be rectified ....but that is no longer the case. I think that Abu Graib shows us that and Guantanimo and other horrible things.

I went behind police barricades routinely, so I trespassed to get a story, certainly. Like I said, I didn't misrepresent myself, but I would cross police lines routinely. . . That was about the worst I ever did in terms of breaking the law.

What are your future plans? Do you think that you will keep working at the university and writing?

Well I am going to keep writing prose. I don't know, sometimes when I am begin writing something I don't know if it will be fiction or non-fiction, so I listen to the works; I let it tell me what it wants to be. If it adheres to, if it wants me to . . . if I feel that if I am to honor the work I will need to pay allegiance to real lived life, its non-fiction. If I pay allegiance to the work itself and listen to what it is trying to tell me beyond the world that it was born of, then it become fiction.

[will continue to write prose and fiction. writing for new book, novellas. will continue teaching]

I like teaching. I like a full time salary, though I am not mad for full time work at this point in my writing career because I want adequate time for my writing. . . . .I have a daughter, so it is a real juggling act. I cannot write past midnight and then get up to make the sandwiches.

Do you talk to yourself in your 'writer's voice.'

Not always, but pretty much often. I think that I am a writer because my interactions with the world are mostly visual and linguistic. ...Did you read Travels with Herodotus, by the way? You have to read it right now! . . . .

I see things and sense them, and apprehend the world visually and verbally. So words are always swirling around in there, I am always thinking about how to describe things . . .

I try to free myself through meditation of language from time to time, or otherwise I'd go mad.

Do you ever sit down to write with no idea of what you are going to write about. Do you ever just let it happen? Or do you always start out with some idea?

I always start out with some idea . . .about something that motivates me. I do a lot of notebook writing in which I am just gathering impressions, and sometimes the impressions gather into a molten hot core and it becomes something.

[talks about new novella she is writing]

Did you write this morning?


What did you write about?

At first I did some journaling, and then I continued working on the second novella of the book . . . After the Fire [book about gentrification in the Lower East Side area. about what happens to three families, three women, when they are burned out of their apartment. One becomes homeless, another moves to Mexico, and one has a riff in her relationship with her lover and moves to Upstate New York]

Are these characters based on real people?

They are based on . . .well, lets do it this way. I am going to get in trouble [for telling me about work before she publishes it. makes a joke that I am not going to publish this. tells story about a story she heard in Mexico about an American woman who would pinch her servant's arm and hurt her whenever she was upset with her] It began from that but it never showed up in the novella. Are you beginning to get a picture of the way I work?

So your characters have the power to interact with you as you are writing them?

They allow me to examine questions of conscience

Do you find yourself talking to them when you are writing?

I sound like a mad woman. I bob and I rock back and forth and I mutter . . .and sometimes I write in public, in cafes - this is a good cafe to write in - and I get my hair up like this [pulls hair back] to get it out of my face, and I am rocking and muttering, I look crazy, like another crazy person.

I will conclude the interview with that.

A tip from one writer to another: always look for the tax write off.

Jocelyn Lieu Interview

New Page 1
Home | About | Privacy | Terms of Service | Disclosure | Media Kit | Contact