“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 knew more and more of the truth but I couldn’t quite convey it. The news became [...]
“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 knew more and more of the truth but I couldn’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.” -Jocelyn Lieu on becoming an author
NEW YORK CITY, New York- She strode through the doors of the Mission Cafe in the Lower East Side of New York City like an un-gated racing horse: she was full of spunk, confidence, and smiles. Her name was Jocelyn Lieu, the author of Potential Weapons, What Isn’t There, and other great works of fiction. She recognized me immediately and flashed me a huge smile followed up by an even bigger hello.
I was sitting in the back of the cafe with my interview regalia fully set up: a reporter’s notebook, a tape recorder, pens and pencils, a huge mug of steaming coffee, and bottles of beer sat upon the table, ever ready to do their part in recording the story of this creative author and wild-west journalist.
Jocelyn walked up to me quickly and shook my hand with a start. “I assume that you are Wade,” she rhetorically questioned as she ordered some kind of weird drink and sat down next to me. She carried herself with a cheerful presence, and I was nearly taken aback by her charm.
I had previously only known Jocelyn through her books, internet photos, and the bits of information that I strained out of the anthropologist, Kathleen Modrowski, who served as our mutual contact. Jocelyn had a Chinese father and a white mother, and therefore had long, straw straight black hair, tan skin, East Asian eyes, and smile that could not contain her mouthfuls of joyful laughter. She appeared pretty culturally ambiguous, and would have looked at home amongst the indigenous people of Mexico, Alaska, China, or even Hawaii.
After making a few jokes into my tape recorder to break the ice, we jumped intothe interview smoothly.
The Becoming of a Writer:
“I want to know about your life as a writer, how you began writing, and how you became successful,” I told her.
Jocelyn smiled and began speaking without pause or delay.
“I had pretty much always wanted to write,” she said, “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. . . In elementary school I began to write little stories. I called them novels . . . and I would never finish any of them.” We laughed at this and Jocelyn went right into talking about how she completed her high school course early and then began her wanderings and, in time, university studies.
“I went for a year to the New School, which at that point was very wild [and] resembled a stationary Friends World. We [the students] 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, [but] I 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 others] were wearing ties and dresses and went off into the business world. It was strange to see what happened.”
Upon graduating from Yale, Jocelyn took to the Road and ended up in New Mexico. “I went on the other path,” she explained, “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.”
Now in New Mexico and working for the Rio Grande Sun, Jocelyn began to etch out a life for herself writing newspaper pieces, tramping through the southwestern desert, and fighting corruption:
“The editor [of the Rio Grande Sun] 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. He said, ‘Get the story, the full story. Stop at nothing to get it.'”
“Every story was investigative journalism,” Jocelyn continued, “We were an anti-corruption newspaper.”
“A lot of the journalist then were characters. 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 was 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.”
“You’re a quasi-public figure when you are a journalist,” Jocelyn Lieu continued, “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.”
These stories about being a wild-west journalist, running for the border, fighting with editors, digging deep into stories, exposing corruption, and being, in a very real sense, a free-running outlaw, stimulated my imagination. Jocelyn’s story was very much one that I wished to tell, although the world of on-the-table journalism that I have been exposed to seemed to be a far away from that life that she described.
“Has journalism gone sterile?” I asked bluntly.
“Yes,” Jocelyn replied, “I have seen an erosion of the news for too many reasons to go into now: the corporatizing of the media, the lack of independent media. You don’t see that type of hard hitting print journalism so much anymore.”
Transition to an Author:
“If you are going after the news, you’re working 60 hours a week, you’re drinking hard,” Jocelyn spoke these with exasperated hand and facial gestures, “I think I burned out a little bit. But I took away the feeling that the news was useful . . . [but] 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.”
“One of the things that I would do when I would quit [a newspaper job] would be to go to Central America or Mexico or some other cheap place [where] 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 [between being a journalist and a fiction author] was gradual because it [journalism] was a very hard-burning job.”
Jocelyn’s stories of populous journalism, of traveling on the written word, and living and dying by the pen danced upon my imagination. Writing again seemed exciting to me as I listened to her speak, and the world of sterile copy-editing, unimaginative editors, and the rest of the confines of modern journalism seemed far, far away.
Jocelyn showed me the other concept of journalism that I was looking for.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
Next post: Nazis, Communism, and Wine in Moravia
Previous post: Hitchhiking Around the World