This interview is the fifth in our "Meet the Denizens" series, featuring the masthead of Dishsoap Quarterly. For May, Sophie, one of our editor-in-chiefs, conducted this interview. May is the lead nonfiction editor.
Sophie: Tell us some basics about yourself: where are you from, what are your hobbies, etc.
May: I’m from New York City, though I lived in the suburbs of New Jersey for ten years. I love doing crosswords, and outside of writing, I’m really into computer science. I write a lot about my relationship to language and culture as a multiracial person, and I’m a big fan of binge-watching Chinese dramas with my mom—they provide a surprising amount of writing material!
Sophie: Why do you enjoy writing and what inspired you to start doing so? Is there a particular emotion that it evokes?
May: I was really into reading as a kid, but I didn’t write a ton until this past year. I attend a very STEM-oriented school, but I’ve always enjoyed the arts, so I turned to writing last fall as a form of creative release. I think I turn to writing first and foremost out of necessity—it’s only after I feel that I’ve sufficiently communicated a concept or idea or emotion that I can look back at my writing and feel satisfied with it.
Sophie: Why do you especially enjoy creative nonfiction?
May: I originally started with creative nonfiction because it seemed like the most comfortable genre to me—it didn’t require thinking of a plot or utilizing line breaks. But the more I explore creative nonfiction, the more enamored with it I am. There’s so much potential in how you can retell stories of your own life (or those of others, though my own essays tend to center my personal narrative). It offers so many chances to experiment with language and form and perspective to tell a true story in the truest way possible.
Sophie: Who are your favorite writers? How do you think they’ve influenced your writing?
May: Reading Sally Rooney’s writing has been so helpful for me—even though she’s a fiction writer, I’ve learned a lot from the way she completely disobeys the principle of “show, don’t tell.” She’s really good at describing emotions or thought processes in a surprisingly accurate way; her writing is a lot more honest towards the human psyche than readers tend to expect, and I’ve definitely been trying to adopt this same honesty in my own writing. Jenny Zhang is really good at this too; she writes about family and culture in a really honest way, and that’s something I strive towards as well.
Sophie: Are there any specific works that you draw inspiration from?
May: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong has definitely been one of my main sources of inspiration—he combines genres so well with his language, and I’ve been attempting to do the same in both my prose poetry and lyric essays. Additionally, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror made me think a lot about feminism and Internet culture, and while she takes a relatively journalistic stance on these ideas, the way she very naturally blends research with her writing is really admirable.
Sophie: How has your earlier work informed the work you’re currently creating?
May: I think a lot of my earlier work came from writing for other people, whether that was for competitions or what I thought the literary world rewarded. In my work now, I actively try to push against that. In particular, I’m interested in how authenticity in storytelling can change over time—I’ve been trying to retell the events I recount in my early work through a new lens. In this sense, creative nonfiction is a perpetual project; time provides myriad new perspectives on the past.
Sophie: What is your writing process like? How long do you typically spend on a project? What ideas do you find yourself constantly drawn to?
May: I force myself to sit down and write for at least an hour every Sunday morning, but a lot of that is just expanding on ideas that I come up with over a week. I really like taking minor details and events and applying them to broader phenomena; it feels like a great starting point that can then broaden into a wider lens. The amount of time I spend on a project really depends—most of the time, I do a lot of my writing in one spurt, and then I wait a few days to edit it or continue it.
Sophie: Can you share some of your thoughts on the literary community? Have you created work in response to other artists? If so, what do you think the importance of this communication is?
May: I’ve met a lot of really wonderful and talented teen writers through the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship, the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and a Discord server for young writers. I think that in the competition-dominated sphere of teen writing institutions, it can be really easy to assume that writing is a solitary act, but I’ve found that this has absolutely not been the case. So many of the teen writers whose work I’ve deeply admired from the sidelines have turned out to be such kind and down-to-earth people, and I’ve learned a lot from them.
Sophie: How do you think editing and writing are correlated? What does it take to be a “good” editor, and what do you specifically look for in a piece?
May: To me, editing is really about putting yourself in the writer’s shoes while also putting yourself in the reader’s. My greatest concern in writing is always authenticity—I want the stories I read to feel honest and raw rather than coy. I think a “good” creative nonfiction editor can discern authenticity and look at a piece objectively, since that can be difficult when personal experiences are documented. As an editor, any sort of risk-taking, whether that’s with form or especially innovative language, really appeals to me, but that risk-taking needs to reinforce the content in some way. I’d much prefer a piece in a traditional form that’s well-written than one that’s experimental for the sake of being experimental. Beautiful language is always a plus as well.
Sophie: What are your favorite literary magazines and artistic experiences?
May: Brevity is doing really cool work with essays and forms, which I’m very inspired by. I also love Sine Theta’s commitment to telling stories from the Sino diaspora without writing for the white gaze. That’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about a lot—I really enjoy literary magazines that subvert expectations from the literary norm, especially since so many institutions in the teen writing world tend to reward self-tokenization, whether consciously or subconsciously. Hobart Pulp is also great—I love their section “Rejected Modern Love Essays,” though I have a soft spot for the original Modern Love essays from the New York Times as well.
Sophie: What projects are you currently working on? What things or ideas do you see yourself exploring in the future?
May: As a mentee in the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, I’ve been writing a lot of creative nonfiction that experiments with form to offer a new mode of storytelling. I’m currently working on an essay about expectations that the literary world holds for the work of people of color and women—I’m trying to grapple with writing about my identity without falling into the trap of self-tokenization. Additionally, I’m beginning to include more research in my writing—the juxtaposition of the objective and subjective can produce really interesting results.
Sophie: What advice do you have to offer young writers that are just starting out in the literary world?
May: Don’t worry about getting it right—get it written! I really wish I had started writing earlier without worrying about whether or not I was writing “correctly,” because there’s no one way to write well; there are merely different forms of storytelling. Also, reach out to writers you admire; the vast majority of people are incredibly kind, and it’s always nice to have friends in the literary world.