Former Open City fellow Eveline Chao answers ten questions about her writing life.
September 1, 2022
“Writing is easy,” Pulitzer Prize–winning sportswriter Red Smith once said. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open your veins, and bleed.” Putting pen to paper (or fingers to a keyboard) is never a simple task, even for seasoned writers. Even our Margins and Open City Fellows—and there’s quite a handful of them—can attest to that. Many of them, though, have gone on to write and report for mainstream publications and publish books. In this series, we reached out to our former fellows and asked them to give us a glimpse of their writing lives and to share some tips on how they navigate this creative process called writing.
Eveline Chao wrote about the Chinatowns of New York City during her fellowship with Open City in 2013–2014. In “Gifting Confucius,” the fifteen-foot statue of the Chinese sage in Manhattan’s Chinatown led her to write about the divergent and changing perceptions among Chinese towards the philosopher. While in a market on Main Street in Flushing, she chanced upon live turtles, crabs, lobsters, and frogs on sale and wrote about the Buddhist practice of setting animals free, and how some organizations are solving its possible harmful effect on native NYC wildlife in “Karma on the Half Shell.” Eveline also sat down and chatted with a long-time Flushing resident whose family is one of the earliest Chinese American families in the neighborhood and talked about her family’s history in “Pearls of Wisdom.”
1. What’s on your nightstand?
Probably the same things as any other writer’s—books, water, mouthguard, etc. The one thing that’s probably different is a lacrosse ball, for massaging a persistent knot in my back. It used to be a tennis ball, but as I’ve become increasingly decrepit with the inexorable march of time I’ve graduated to a lacrosse ball, which falls on the floor and rolls across the room while I sleep, so that every morning starts with an Easter egg hunt for the most indispensable object in my life.
2. Coffee or tea? Why?
Tea because I can’t handle the coffee anxiety. But I love coffee and envy anyone who can drink it without feeling like the world is about to end.
3. If you had a superpower, what would it be? Why? And what would you do?
I wish I didn’t need sleep and could double or triple the number of books I read!
4. Any book you’re reading now? Any podcasts you’re listening to now?
I’m in a book club with AAWW’s very own Hannah Bae, and we’re currently reading The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara. It’s great!
5. When do you write best—morning, afternoon, or at night?
I am in a forever state of aspiring to be one of these people that gets up at 5 a.m. and knocks out a few hours of writing before everyone else has even gotten up. But the real, deep-down me feels most awake and productive at, like, 8 p.m. and would love to be up until 3 a.m. doodling around every night. Since I support myself by freelance writing and editing full-time, I need to keep normal-ish office hours to interact with clients and such, so I suppress the real me and land somewhere in the middle. So for now, I probably get my best writing done between 9 a.m. and lunchtime.
6. Do you have a writing ritual?
Get up, make tea, drink tea, decide I need to go to the bathroom, decide I need to suddenly clean the apartment, sit at desk, decide I need more tea, go to the bathroom, notice that my closet needs reorganizing, make tea, repeat ad infinitum.
7. Do you have any tips for interviewing people?
During my Open City fellowship, we got to do an interview workshop with Sarah Kramer, who taught an “Art of the Interview” class at the CUNY J-school. At the time, I had trouble with knowing how and when to interrupt, ask follow-up questions, or just say I’m confused and need clarification, without feeling rude. (I also felt that Asian-ish cultural thing about it being rude to interrupt or even speak too directly to anyone who’s older than me or in a position of authority . . . though that’s not so much of an issue now that I’m older.)
Sarah explained that when you’re interviewing people, you’re the one in charge and they’re waiting for direction from you. Having that explicitly explained to me—that the other person is actually waiting for me to steer things (and potentially, will keep rambling without stopping until I do so)—was incredibly helpful.
8. How do you deal with writer’s block?
Go for a walk or do something unrelated—but ideally, something physical that allows me to zone out. When I’m feeling too lazy for a walk, I’ll wash the dishes or do some other low-effort housework. It feels like outsourcing the work to my unconscious mind, and usually, by the time I get back to my desk I’ll have enough worked out in my head to keep writing. That said, I’ve mainly been doing journalistic writing the past few years, where, at least for me, it’s easier to just sit and get it done without agonizing for too long. When I’m doing more purely creative writing though, all bets are off.
9. What’s your favorite bookstore or library? Tell us why it’s your favorite.
I haven’t set foot in there since I was a teen, but all my memories of my hometown library in the small town of Cambridge, Maryland, are bathed in hazy, nostalgic golden light. It was a place where my young immigrant mom was welcome to hang out for hours, for free, with kids in tow. She would look at magazines and cut out coupons from grocery circulars while my sister and I sat on the floor reading books. Funnily this hasn’t translated into me liking to work from libraries—I get restless pretty fast—but I love walking into libraries in NYC and seeing the other people who’ve been studying or reading or just aimlessly hanging out there for hours.
10. What’s your fondest memory of being an AAWW fellow?
During my fellowship, we were assigned to give neighborhood tours for each other. Having to organize a tour of Chinatown for the other fellows was stressful, but I loved getting to go on the tours that the others organized. Tanaïs led a tour of Richmond Hill, Queens, and took us to a really cool flea market in a former RKO Keith movie theater—this grand, historic space filled with folding tables and folks selling vases and tchotchkes and everyday items. I am easily persuaded by compliments and fast-talking salespeople and got talked into buying two rings that I never wear, but I have them on my dresser and remember that day fondly every time I look at them. I also got to tag along the following year on Nadia Misir’s tour of the same neighborhood and enjoyed rolling up to a puja shop playing country music and learning that country western music is big in Guyana, which she wrote about here: “Guyana ♥ Country.”
Other stories in The Writing Life series:
“Just Listen, Really Listen” By Roja Heydarpour
“No Other Way to Be a Writer Except to Be Alone in a Room” by Anelise Chen
That Which You Are Afraid to Write, Write It” by huiying b. chan
“Cut Down the Quotes . . . Include Only Gemlike Phrases” by E. Tammy Kim
“I Am Still Developing as a Writer” by Hannah Bae
“Write a Sentence—Any Sentence—No Matter How Bad It Is” by Astha Rajvanshi
“Intuition Is My Main Tool” by Chaya Babu
“Writer’s Block? What’s That?” by Humera Afridi