A prolific and multifaceted writer, Karl Taro Greenfeld possesses a portfolio of startling variety, including two memoirs, two nonfiction books, a bevy of published short stories, and a host of articles in weekly national publications. The intimidating number of respected publishers, literary reviews, and magazines in this list contrasts sharply with the unaffected man in a brown T-shirt and flannel button-down that offers me bottled water while I sit in the late afternoon sun pouring through the blinds of his plain back-room office. Making conversation as I take a recorder out of my bag, he talks about supporting his family, a wife and two daughters, as a working writer.
There's no question that Greenfeld works at being a writer. Rather than presenting tidily-understood whole, his work is a thoughtful exploration of the eclectic things that have touched Greenfeld's life. He made his first major splash in the writing world with the publication of Speed Tribes in 1995, a narrative with an inside perspective on Japan's motorcycle culture of the time. This was followed by a memoir about his post-college years in Asia and then by China Syndrome, a nonfiction piece that follows the SARS outbreak of 2003. His journalistic work appears routinely in TIME magazine, and most recently, his fiction received recognition when his short story “NowTrends” was included in the Best American Short Stories 2009 collection. “NowTrends” follows a Chinese reporter as he travels to another city in China to interview a rising starlet. He has an envelope of “lucky money” tucked into his jacket, should he sense that she and her agent desire payment for the privilege of running the story. In the same city, the reporter stumbles across an old college friend that has fallen into trouble with the government. The paperback edition of Boy Alone, Greenfeld's memoir of childhood as experienced with a profoundly autistic brother, will be released April 27.
APA: I'd like to start by talking about "NowTrends," which is featured in the Best American Short Stories 2009 collection. You mentioned in your author's note that the starlet character was inspired by actress Shu Qi. In what ways?
KTG: I don't think it was based on her. I've never met her. That's just the face I saw when I was trying to come up with a Chinese actress. Sometimes when you're writing stories, you have a face that you saw, or somebody that you saw, and you use that as a model. Sometimes I use as a character someone I've just seen for a minute, just seen on the street or something. Those people can be some of the best characters, because you don't want to know too much about someone if they're going to be in a story; otherwise, you can never get away from who that real person is. The story doesn't come to life in the same way. It's very hard to attribute to them all the characteristics that you want in a fictional character.
APA: You've said that "NowTrends" was inspired by your experiences on the Chinese journalism scene when starting Sports Illustrated: China. What influenced your decision to make the narrator a local Chinese man instead of someone more like you, who was on the outside looking in?
KTG: Actually, I was very reluctant to do a narrator who was also a magazine writer. I mean, on one hand, that's an easy character for me to do because I know that person very well and I knew the Chinese magazines pretty well at that point in time. But I usually don't like writing writers. I wanted to have this guy who is living in this ethical quandary all the time but is able to function quite well within it. I like that kind of dilemma: when someone is in a situation that requires them to compromise and then trying to show how they live with that hypocrisy, or don't live with it. That's why I thought that would be the right sort of character for that kind of story.
It's a pretty basic "the stranger in town" type of story, but then there's the B story of the friend. That's what gives the story some kind of heart. You see that the friend is the guy who couldn't make all the compromises. He's the guy who's just as bright, just as smart, from the same university class, and all that, but the friend is someone who couldn't live in the system. That, and there's the "who pays who" idea that I mentioned in the author's note. I would often be confused in some of these transactions: who is paying who? Are they going to pay us, or are we going to pay them? I think that question arises as much from my own stupidity as from any economic uncertainty on the part of the parties involved. The story aimed to understand people living in those kinds of compromising environments.
APA: Both of your parents are writers. How has family background influenced your progression or decisions as a writer?
KTG: My dad was a huge influence in terms of what I think about writing, what has to be in a story, what has to be in a book. He’s still a huge influence. At the same time, I think it was also because as a kid, the only thing I was ever really praised for was writing. So, rightly or wrongly, I began to think, “This is what I’m good at.” Maybe that was because it was what my father knew. He didn’t know math, and I wasn’t a great athlete, so when I wrote something well, he would make me feel really good. When I wrote something bad, he made me feel terrible. As a kid, it was most of my highs and lows -- to the point that if the writing was really good, it almost excused weeks of bad behavior. He would forgive any transgression if I wrote a good story.
I remember when I was 22 or so, I showed him something I’d written, and he said, “Well, maybe you’re one of those people who will be a reader and not a writer.” So, if something was good, he would tell me. If something was bad he would say things like that, which almost undermined my whole structure of personality. The upshot of that is that he’s honest. I don’t think a lot of parents are very honest about their children to their children. That being said, it doesn’t necessarily translate into anyone else’s opinion. If he tells me something is good, it doesn’t mean anyone else is going to think so, and it took me a few years to figure that out. Oh, well my dad likes something -- that doesn’t mean anyone else is going to give a shit about it. It just means he likes it, really he likes it. He has been right if he tells me something’s not very good. That’s normally true, which has been helpful.
APA: You do come from a bi-cultural home, but you seem to show particular interest in experiencing many different places. What is behind your desire to live and work in places around the world?
KTG: I think it was something from when I was young. One of the reasons I became interested in journalism was because of the idea that you could go different places. Journalism is just always one of the best ways to do that. You meet people. I was always curious about Japan, and I had gone there as a kid, but as soon as I was old enough to go back there to live, I did. There’s obvious things there -- aren't most people curious about going back to where they were born or where their ancestors are from? Once I was there, I became curious about the rest of Asia, which I guess is just a geographical extension. Then I also began thinking, as long as I’m here, I might as well try to figure out how to write about it. So that sort of began my career.
At the time, Japan loomed larger in American consciousness. Japan was viewed then as the great threat. It’s a quaint notion now that there was once an idea of Japan taking over America. They seem absolutely adorable compared to the Chinese taking over America. [laughs] That was the other reason I think I went there: I’m half Japanese, I was born there, and it’s this country that’s viewed as this great power. You do see that now with China, you see a lot of writers going to China and working in China, and a lot of good books coming out of China.
APA: As you’ve said in other interviews, the writing process isn’t easy. What are the specific challenges you find writing fiction versus your journalism work? Are they different processes for you?
KTG: Well, yes. Procedurally, there’s a big difference. For journalism, before you can write anything, you have to go do the reporting and then pull your story together from that. You can sit down and start writing a short story with what you have in your head. Especially now, because of the internet, if there is some part of your story that you need -- for example, how does the Japanese legal system work in the 1940s? -- you can get some information about it, which is astonishing. You don’t have to be as learned.
The fundamental procedural difference is the reporting, and the reporting is hard work. There’s a reason a magazine will pay you $15,000 for a story for nonfiction journalism versus a literary journal paying $500 for a story, and you could argue that the thousands of dollars difference can be attributed to the many weeks you have to spend trying to get someone to talk to you. If you’re supposed to do a profile of Kobe Bryant, it’s going to be hard just to talk to him. Then, there’s the time you spend flying with the basketball team from city to city -- not with really with them, since they’re on a private plane and you’re sitting in coach going from Atlanta to Houston to Phoenix. In other words, you have the same crappy schedule as an NBA team, but without any of the luxuries. You could say the money you’re getting paid is because of all that work, whereas the writing part of it is just the same. As for the procedure of reporting, now, I’m a little older, so I know what I want or what I need. I don’t get as nervous. I used to really over-report things -- just spend days and days and days hanging around someone, to the point that it was awkward because I didn’t know what to say to them anymore. Now I realize that if I can spend a day with someone, I’ll get enough for a profile out of it.
The other difference is, when I’m doing a magazine article sometimes I can really crank out a lot of words. I’ve written whole cover stories for TIME in a night. You can do that with journalism. I don’t think you can do that with fiction. I find with the fiction that if I write more than a thousand words a day, I’m writing way too much. Really, for the short stories, the best thing is for me to write five hundred words a day. Otherwise, I’m making the story too long and I’m putting in things that don’t need to be there.
APA: Was creative nonfiction a bridge to writing fiction?
KTG: No one's ever actually told me what creative nonfiction is. I didn't start hearing that expression until around ten years ago. I think it may have been a term brought into vogue by academics or professors or people who were looking for a subject to teach. I think it just means new journalism or literary journalism -- plus memoir thrown in as part of the category. I think over the last twenty years or so, the standards for journalism and nonfiction have become more and more strict. We've had all these scandals, and all these incidents in which things turned out to be fake -- some to a greater or lesser degree. It's not because people were more dishonest, or more inclined to break the rules. It simply became easier to catch people. Every legal record is online, so it is no longer possible to make things up. [laughs]
What you'll notice over that twenty year period is that -- and this is theory, I don't know for sure -- now you don't have the same kind of great nonfiction writing appearing. I mean, you have some, like Philip Gourevitch and his Rwanda book, but that was more than ten years ago. For me, especially with my earlier books, they were fictionalized nonfiction. I was taking a lot of liberties with characters. I openly said that I was using composite characters. I was using fiction techniques to tell what I believed were real stories. Basically, Speed Tribes came from me knowing a lot of people in Tokyo who would tell me these stories about what they'd done, and I didn't go out and check those stories. I wrote them the way they were told to me because I thought they were great stories. You can't do that anymore. If you do, it's seen as a violation. I realized if I just wanted to write great stories, or write real narrative stories, I would have to start writing fiction, and that's what I did. I didn't write fiction "in earnest," so to speak, until about five years ago. I began doing it because I enjoyed telling stories, but I felt hemmed in by journalism.
APA: How so?
KTG: If you go back a hundred years, there was almost no difference between nonfiction and fiction. Now we live in a time when you can't cheat anymore. I realized that my journalism was going to have to be strictly by the numbers, and I couldn't do stuff that I did when I was young, like composite characters, because that wasn't allowed anymore. Now that creative energy is going into fiction. The specific incident that got me to write fiction happened when The Paris Review published an excerpt of my nonfiction book China Syndrome. I was talking to the editor, Philip Gourevitch, about what things he had to look for the most diligently, and he told me that they were having a hard time finding good fiction that didn't feel as if it had been workshopped to death in an MFA program. Being the resourceful sort of freelance magazine writer that I am, I went and just wrote a short story, which I sent to them. They took it, so I was very lucky. That's still the only story I've ever written that was never rejected. It was the first one I'd written and, it got published in The Paris Review, which was a big deal to me. I was thinking, 'Oh, this is easy.' [laughs] But as I said, never have I had any other story that hasn't been rejected multiple times. That's the only one that sailed in.
I was lucky that it was the first time I had really written a short story for submission. I began to see that as something that I had to do was because nonfiction has become more limited. Everyone knows the internet is killing journalism, or at least changing journalism in a way that most people feel is for the worse. [However,] I've never really heard anyone discuss the way the internet is killing journalism by making journalists more nervous and defensive. Because if they're going to get in trouble for every misstep, everyone will become more hidebound and cautious. You could argue that good journalism happens from getting the story right, but it also comes from occasionally being a little reckless and going out on a limb. Just thinking, "I'm eighty percent sure on this one," and then sometimes a great story comes out. I often wonder if you went back and looked at a lot of what we consider the great nonfiction works -- Thomas Woolf, and so forth -- how much of that would be publishable today in that form, or would there be all sorts of people coming forward and complaining, "That's not really how it happened." You really wonder about that nowadays, whether the nonfiction of the past would stand the test anymore. I think we live in a different time, and I've had to adapt to it. That's what has gotten me into writing more fiction.
APA: I've read a few different pieces in which you discuss the issue of memory, and how people's recollection of the same event can conflict. How did that effect you as you wrote your memoir, Boy Alone?
KTG: My father [Josh Greenfeld] had written three books, A Child Called Noah [also about Greenfeld's autistic brother Noah] being the most famous of them. Because of that, chronologically I was on really solid ground. If I thought, well, where were we in 1972? I could figure out where we were. [As for] what I was feeling at different places along the way, really it's a matter of what I remember from that time. I have to impose that on the chronology. I was reading Mary Carr in a Paris Review interview saying, "All the dialogue is fake." No one can claim to remember dialogue from six years old; it's just not possible. You do the best you can and put it in quotes and do so in such a way that it's true to the spirit of what you believe happened, but how is that any more true than just making something up? I don't know. I'm asking. I have no idea.
I think when you're writing it, you have a feeling of, "Okay, I feel this is right, this is what happened," but that doesn't mean that the things you're leaving out are allowing what you've left in to add up to a [better] image. There are all kinds of issues like that, because in Boy Alone I intentionally have a huge fictional section. The book is sort of built around a fictional trick. I cop to it; it's part of the book. That was in part to play with that idea -- truth and falsehood. As you're reading the book, for about eighty pages, you're going along assuming it's still the story, and then I say, "Well, that part wasn't true." It's the part of the book that follows the more predictable, happy ending. Probably, if I was a more commercial author or if I wanted my book to sell better, I would've left the happy ending and not later admitted that it was fake.
[chuckles] People want a happy ending. I’ve consistently disappointed with that. Memoir is a weird form, and I know some people insist it’s the truth, but then there’s the James Fry situation, where obviously there were substantial falsehoods. I suspect the reality of most books is much more in the middle than people want to admit -- that every memoirist has a little bit of James Fry in them. If you’re writing something, you want it to be entertaining; you want the reader to keep reading. Therefore, you’re going to leave stuff out; you’re going to push these four days together into one day. You have to. Otherwise, who are you serving? You have to serve the reader. So, I think there's a little bit of “cooking it” in most memoirs.
What’s happened now, because of the internet, is you can’t do it anymore. We’re all sticking to the rules. Magazines have kind of gotten more boring because of it. I was looking at all these old magazines my friend bought on eBay, and there’s this magazine called Asia Magazine, which was around in the 1920s. It was a magazine with unbelievably long stories and really lavish photographs about Asia. The stories were everything from “the future of the automobile in China” to “my adventure with the headhunters of Borneo,” right? Some of it was so boring, you know it had to be more or less true, and some of it was so fantastical that who knows? I think those “my adventures with the headhunters of Borneo” stories are no longer there. I think that’s one of the reasons that magazines are not as fun as they used to be. Maybe there’s a greater good there, though, if everyone’s playing by the rules and the public is being better served.
APA: You mentioned that your first story sailed right through to being published at the Paris Review -- what have your experiences been since then trying to publish in literary reviews? What is the most difficult part of that?
KTG: Well, in a way I was lucky. I was pretty used to rejection by the time I began doing that, because I had been writing journalism and nonfiction for years and years. Rejection is just part of it, so I had a little bit of a shell already. All that said, rejection still hurts. I remember the first time I had a story killed. Details killed an article of mine years and years ago, one of the first assignments I’d had, and it was a big deal to me because they were paying me $4,000 or $5,000 for this piece, but then they killed it. I remember I was crushed for [around] a month. Now, when a magazine rejects a story of mine, I’m probably down for ten or fifteen minutes. But the inverse of that is that when things go well, you’re not as high as you were. I remember it used to be that if someone took a story of mine I’d be in a great mood for a week. Now, it’s just that day, maybe.
It’s growing up and growing older and becoming more measured about these things.Ultimately, it’s probably the hardest thing about being a writer, realizing how much rejection you’re going to have to take. It’s probably what winnows people out. If you really can’t stand rejection, you should become an editor. I was an editor -- it’s a lot easier. I think a lot of editors often are writers who just didn’t have the stomach for rejection. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just a certain ego that allows you to take rejection without taking it to heart. It’s like, I used to have this friend that whenever we went to a bar, no matter how many women shot him down, it just didn’t stop him. There are certain people like that. It’s like it didn’t happen. Those are the kind of guys that end up meeting the most women, obviously, because no matter how many reject them, it just goes right by them. In a way, a writer has to be like that. You just don’t let it bother you.
APA: Well, to wrap up, as someone who has gained experience on the job and not through formal education, what things that you’ve learned in your career have helped you the most?
KTG: The one thing I always say is all writing makes you a better writer. There are a lot of MFA students who have never written a piece of journalism, and sort of look down on it. I think there are journalists who have never written a piece of fiction. There are people who refuse to try this, or try that. It’s all writing -- it all makes you think a different way about writing. What you learn writing stories for TIME magazine really helps you when you write fiction, too. Less so now, but TIME used to place a premium on the efficient compression of information, which serves you very well in fiction. I don’t think I would have ever learned it if I were just writing fiction, because very often the stuff in the story that makes it bigger than life -- “life plus” -- is stuff that’s in exposition. Very often it’s how you explain what’s motivating people, and you learn to do that in journalism. It’s hard to learn in fiction. Some people do [learn it that way], but I had to learn in journalism. More and more now, you have people who are over here writing fiction, and you have journalists over here -- maybe a couple of the journalists are writing spy novels or something -- but there is almost nobody who’s doing both the regular magazine writing and short stories. I don’t know anybody.
APA: Except yourself.
KTG: Right. I mean, we have sort of ghetto-ized these fields, in some ways to everyone’s detriment, because you learn a lot when you do other forms. When you write a screenplay, you learn a lot about structuring a story. I understand why people just want to write short stories or just want to write novels, because that’s what they’re good at, but sometimes it’s good to be pushed outside your comfort zone a little bit and try new things. That, and then the other big piece of advice I would give is: write scenes. In a weird way, it’s your job, as the writer, to find the scene, to try to convince the person, if it is a celebrity, to go out on the porch for a while or something, just to get another setting by physically moving people around. It has to come down to writing scenes. With short stories it’s the same thing. I don’t think there’s any one way to get anywhere, but very often that’s the best way to figure out how to tell a story.