Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Meng Jin who is the debut author of Little Gods. A Kundiman Fellow, she is a graduate of Harvard University and Hunter College. She currently lives in San Francisco.

Welcome, Meng. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Meng Jin: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I’m so excited to discuss Little Gods, which was beautifully written. From the very first page, I just was drawn in immediately by your writing style and the things you were telling and the way that you told it. I’m delighted to get to talk to you about it.

Meng: Thank you so much for reading the book at all and also for those kind words.

Zibby: We were just talking about covers. I also happen to love your book cover, not that you judge a book by its cover. But it’s a pretty awesome cover. Do you love it?

Meng: I love the cover as well, yeah. I was so thrilled when I saw it.

Zibby: Just to describe what I’m talking about, Little Gods — how do I even describe this? It’s red with a little dark purple and some scattered gold dots. Go google it or something. When you’re buying it, you can see the title. Anyway, Little Gods, it’s a great cover, very captivating and very reflective of the interest that the book will take you away with as you read it.

Meng: One of my friends said that the dots invoked mathematics, which I could kind of see. I like thinking about that.

Zibby: Interesting. I like it. First of all, tell us what Little Gods is about.

Meng: Little Gods is a story about migrations, migrations through time, place, and class. It is centered around a Chinese woman physicist named Su Lan. This is not a spoiler because it happens pretty early in the book, but she’s dead when the book begins, more or less. The story is told through the fragmented gazes of other people in her life. They don’t quite add up to a whole picture. For me, the book is also about the ways in which we are known and unknown to others and to ourselves.

Zibby: What inspired you to write this book?

Meng: What inspired me to write this book? So many things. The seed of the idea, which was in the opening scene, came to me maybe six years ago. That was the idea of a child being born on the night of June 4th, 1989 in Beijing and her father disappearing that night. Very much like the reader, I didn’t know what had happened to this child, who she was, and who her father was, and why he had left. I spent some years trying to figure that out through many abandoned drafts. Then the book really came together for me when I realized that Su Lan was going to be this intentional absence in the narrative and that the narrative would revolve around her.

Zibby: Very cool. I remember this whole Tiananmen Square incident and being in school and stopping the class the next day to all discuss the events. I know you have a family connection to this event too. I read that your father told you that when you were five years old — you tell the story.

Meng: I’ve always been really interested in Chinese history, but the reason this event sort of stuck in my mind and wouldn’t leave me alone was because I was born in the spring of 1989, not on June 4th.

Zibby: You’re so young.

Meng: What a lot of people don’t know about these protests is that the massacre happened on that night, but the protest lasted for months. That was what was so remarkable about it, was that Tiananmen Square was being occupied since late April. I was born in spring of that year. I remember as a child, my father telling me that if it hadn’t been for me being an infant and requiring his care, he would’ve been in Beijing protesting with the students. I must have always been slightly inclined to storytelling because that great story stuck in my mind. I began to imagine that my birth had saved his life. This inciting incident in my book is sort of like a reimaging of that and if my father had been a different person, if he had gone.

Zibby: Wow. I’m glad that he stayed home and we get to have this conversation today and that the world has worked out. There was so much of a math, science, physics influence in this book, obviously. Is this what you studied? Tell me your personal connection to this.

Meng: I studied physics when I started college. I wanted to be a physics major, but I abandoned it pretty quickly because I realized that I was more interested in the conceptual elements of physics than in doing problem sets every week for my classes. Also, the physics classes were in really ugly classrooms. The humanities classes were in beautiful classrooms, so I started gravitating towards the humanities when I was in college. I still love physics. While I was writing this book, I was reading a lot of these popular science books written by physicists like A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and also Carlo Rovelli’s two recent books on physics, among others. What I really loved about those books was how beautiful the language was, actually, and how beautiful the concepts were. I was so moved by things like relativity. I knew that my character was a woman scientist. I didn’t really know what kind of scientist she was yet. I decided to try making her a physicist because I was so interested by these ideas. Once I did that, the physics ideas and the metaphorical potentials that they opened up just seemed to jive really well with the other themes in the book like loss and grief and time, of course.

Zibby: I love how much passion Su Lan had for physics. The way that you described it, that she couldn’t wait to back to it even after she — well, I don’t want to give anything away, but that it was something so deep in her soul and that really just set her soul aflame to just get back in it and do it some more. Do you feel like that, A, about physics; B, about writing; C, neither; D, both?

Meng: The correct answer is B. The reason I didn’t end up going into physics was because I didn’t feel that way about physics. I loved it. I thought certain concepts were beautiful, but I was like, I feel like I would be better at physics if I had this burning desire to finish my problem sets every week. I definitely feel that way about writing. It’s a very astute question because those parts where I write about Su Lan’s passion for physics, I’m definitely translating some of my own experience as a writer.

Zibby: It’s hard to capture that without feeling it about something, right? It’s hard to imagine that somebody feels that excited if you don’t actually feel excited about something.

Meng: Yeah. I actually rewrote a lot of that section in the beginning, right after Tiananmen Square when she’s sort of depressed and can’t do anything and then gets back into physics, after the 2016 election. I had an experience with my novel after the 2016 election in which I was just very disillusioned with art and wondered why we were making art at all. Why would someone read a book when we should all just be on the streets? Part of finding and feeling like myself again was reminding myself why literature was important to me.

Zibby: I know you had been working on this for quite some time. After the election, did it renew the energy you had in this project? Did you clear the decks? Tell me more about the process of when you were writing this. Did you just say, “Now I’m giving up on this. I’ve lost all hope. But now I’ve come back to it. Now I’m in it with a vengeance because blah, blah, blah”?

Meng: Definitely. I definitely had a little bit of that kind of experience. I read a lot of Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and James Baldwin for spirit guides. There’s an Audre Lorde quote about self-care and how survival is an act of resistance. That definitely was on my mind when I found my way back into the book.

Zibby: Give me a visual of how you wrote this book. Were you at your desk? Were you in coffee shops? I like to know how people write.

Meng: The visual is very disgusting. It’s me without brushing my teeth or washing my face sitting at my desk getting up and putting on whatever clothes are nearby. When I was deep in the book, I just woke up and sat at my desk and wrote until my partner came home. There’s actually this Ada Limón poem that’s called “Love Poem with Apologies for My Appearance,” in which she talks about the same forest green hoodie and the pistachio shells and the clementine peels. That’s very much my process. I think the day I found that poem, I actually had given up on eating proper food and was just eating a big bag on Costco pistachios.

Zibby: Any other go-to foods?

Meng: I eat a lot of different foods, but while I’m deep in a writing project, I’m just like, oh, let me eat something that doesn’t take any time, so a lot of snacks.

Zibby: I don’t usually ask that question. Thank you for the pistachios. That’s interesting. I don’t know why, I feel like when I can visualize an author and what they’re doing, somehow it informs the book in some way, but maybe not. I really liked the scene where the neighbor whose name is escaping me right now — what is the name? Zhu Wen?

Meng: Yeah, Zhu Wen.

Zibby: She does not want to leave her apartment. The Chinese developers are banging down the door, increasing their offers to get her to move. Her husband has passed away a while ago and had been blind and then died and is visiting her as a spirit. She feels like, if I move, how will this spirit ever find me? which is such an interesting thing in and of itself because the idea of believing in a spirit to begin with is already a lot of leaps of the imagination. I don’t know, maybe spirits know when you move. Who knows? Anyway, she didn’t feel that way. She had a whole altar. She was set in her ways and refused to move in that moment for that reason. Tell me a little more about that and if you’ve had experience yourself with those types of — you described it in such a visual way. I feel like you almost could’ve put a photograph of the altar in the book because I can see it so well in my mind.

Meng: Oh, of ?

Zibby: Yeah.

Meng: I unfortunately have not had any encounters with the spirit world myself.

Zibby: I mean the actual altar, even. I didn’t think about this. I should’ve asked that. That’s actually more interesting. I mean like, have you seen altars like that in people’s homes?

Meng: Yeah, altars for the dead are very common in Chinese homes. In any of my family homes, it’s very simple usually, not as intense as the one that I describe in the book. It’s usually a photograph of the deceased with a little pot for incense and maybe some fruit and/or flowers. They’re very common in Chinese homes. I did see an altar that inspired the altar in the book which was just so hodgepodge. There were political figures among Buddhas. This was some distant family member’s home. I remember distinctly that they also had a picture of the Virgin Mary. The reasoning was that they had family in America, us, and that they needed to pray to American gods so that they would bless their American family, which I thought was very sweet but also very indicative of contemporary China. The Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist. I do think that China, there’s a real spiritual vacuum in contemporary China. A lot of it is being occupied by capitalism. Also, that altar that I saw seemed like such a great representation of how individuals will make their own ways to fill that spiritual vacuum in creative and interesting and sort of tender ways.

Zibby: That’s nice. A lot of the book has to do with mother-daughter relationships, trying to reconceptualize your mother as a whole person, what is this person really like, and filling out the blanks in a way. I was interested, does this come from a need for you to learn more about your own mother? What’s your relationship like with your mom? Sorry for prying, but did it come from that? Did it come from maybe a relationship between a mom and a grandmother, or relationship you’d seen, or did you just make the whole thing up?

Meng: I’ve always just been fascinated by mother-daughter relationships. I think they’re such rich ground for fiction and for stories because women and girls are really interesting. I think that part of what drove me to write about mother-daughter relationships in this book was a desire to portray a more complex portrait of motherhood just because I think in our society there’s a very narrow vision of what proper motherhood should look like. As a result, a lot of mothers feel a lot of shame, especially working moms or moms who don’t fit that image of that nurturing, loving mom who’s packing lunches for her kids. Su Han, certainly, is not a mother like that. I mentioned The Florida Project because there’s this beautiful mother-daughter portrait in that movie. It’s a single mom raising a daughter in an Orlando motel. They’re very poor. She, on paper, is a terrible mother, leaves her daughter alone for most of the day to her own, you know, whatever she wants to do in the hotel parking lot. She’s always cursing in front of her child, wearing very revealing clothes. At one point, she even does some sex work while her daughter is in the bathroom.

Zibby: Wow, now I feel like such a good mom. Thank you for that.

Meng: The thing is, when you see that movie, the portrait of that relationship, you can also see how respectful and loving that relationship is and how even though this child doesn’t have the conditions that on paper seem like are necessary for a good childhood, there’s a lot of joy in her childhood still, a lot of joy and love and light. When the state intervenes to deem that the mother is not fit to take care of her child, I as a viewer felt heartbroken for that family and that separation. In my book, I wanted to also write about a mother who on paper might look like a bad mother, but to complicate that and present another image of what motherhood might look like.

Zibby: I saw a movie somewhat similar to that a long time. I feel like it was Susan Sarandon and I want to say it was a young Natalie Portman. They lived in motels and kept getting evicted everywhere. I’m going to look it up and send it to you.

Meng: Totally, I’d love to see it.

Zibby: That’s another, just two of them, single mom, complicated situation. It reminds me of that. We can swap our movie recommendations. I’ll send you my Netflix queue or whatever. Your mom, though, do you want to talk about that? Would you prefer not to?

Meng: I don’t really have permission from her. I feel like it’s her life. What if she hears this and is upset about the way I portrayed her?

Zibby: Totally. My mom would probably be upset. We’ll leave our moms out of this. Good to know. What is coming next for you after this beautiful book?

Meng: I’m working on a second novel. I don’t like to talk about it too much because it can dissipate the energy and desire to write when you talk about it. If I bottle in all my feelings about my second book, it’ll come out on the page better. So I’m writing a second book. I’m also working on short stories. There’s a short story that’s very close to my heart and hard to write that I’m spinning around in the back of my head.

Zibby: I can’t wait for that one. Do you outline? What’s your process like when you have a — it sounds like you don’t. I’m going to take a guess. It sounds like all of this lives in your head and you mix it all up with all of this energy and it comes out beautifully. Do you do any outlining? Do you have a general sense when you start of where you’re going or the ending? Are you more character driven? How did you craft it?

Meng: This book —

Zibby: — This book was about the absence of — anyway.

Meng: This book, I did so many different things because I started writing it before I knew how to write anything. Part of writing this book was also figuring out who I was as a writer and how I wrote. I did a lot of outlining and drafting in the beginning. By the end, I figured out that I was more of an intuitive writer. By the last drafts, I actually started the drafts on a blank page and would just write without feeling beholden to the former drafts because I felt like the story would come out more organically that way and elegantly, I hope.

Zibby: Did you learn it all by trial and error? Did you take classes? Did you have people reading your book? All of it?

Meng: Everything, whatever works. Part of writing this book was figuring out that if I have a sense of where a story is going and where it’s starting — especially for me, it’s important to have a sense of how it’s going to feel. The way the words move on the page or the way the sentences move, if I can start hearing that in my head, then I know, okay, now I can start writing.

Zibby: Interesting. There is something almost musical about it, the way your sentences are. I’m not going to describe it well. It’s very lyrical, I guess. I don’t know, maybe. I’ll throw that word out there.

Meng: Thank you. That’s very kind.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Meng: Read anything you can get your hands on. I did an MFA. I’ve taken a bunch of creative writing workshops. Definitely, I’ve learned more from other books, books that I love and go back to and try to figure out how they’re working and doing something, trying to copy that. Read anything you can get your hands on. Find out what you love. Also, don’t be afraid to do the thing that’s failing. If it’s failing, it’s probably because it’s harder to do and more interesting.

Zibby: How do you pull yourself off the ground after you finish a draft and then you decide, “You know what? I’m throwing this out and starting again”? What is it that gives you the drive to just try again? Is it the passion for the writing? What made you not give up on this book? Maybe ten thousand other people who started a book like this then didn’t finish it. I always wonder that.

Meng: I think that the story didn’t let me go until I figured out how to tell it right, if that makes sense. By the final drafts, I did feel like I’d been released.

Zibby: Like it’s a problem you were trying to solve? You kept trying to figure out the answer.

Meng: Right. Yeah, or like untie a knot or get rid of some cloud in my head.

Zibby: It’s less drive and determination and more just getting an annoying knot out of the way?

Meng: Yeah. For me, when I’m writing well, it’s so pleasurable. There’s nothing better, so also that.

Zibby: That’s nice. It sounds like you picked the right job then.

Meng: Yes.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for sharing your story and for writing this beautiful novel.

Meng: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Zibby: You’re welcome.