The Author Spotlight Series shines a light on writers creating heartfelt and original work across genres, giving them an opportunity to talk about their books and why they do what they do.
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“Corinna Chong’s short fiction has appeared in magazines including Grain, Room, and Riddle Fence. She won the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize for “Kids in Kindergarten.” Corinna’s first novel, Belinda’s Rings, was published by NeWest Press in 2013. She lives in Kelowna, BC, where she is an English and Fine Arts Professor at Okanagan College.”
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
As far back as I can remember! I think I fell in love with reading as soon as I learned to read, and my interest in writing evolved naturally from that. As a kid, I was so wonder-struck by Roald Dahl’s books that I read and re-read them dozens of times each, buoyed by the idea that one day I might be able to pass that feeling on to others.
Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
Not exactly. But I still have a writing journal from the first grade that contains many of my early attempts at stories, including this one:
Once upon a time in dinosaur land a man was killing a dinosaur and her baby. then she RoRooRed and saved herself and her baby! the end.
How did you develop your skills?
Reading, studying, and reading some more. I was a voracious reader as a kid, but that fell off for me when I hit the angsty teen years. Then in twelfth grade English I rediscovered my love of reading and writing and decided to pursue an English degree. When I got to university, I was lucky enough to study creative writing under some incredible mentors, who not only taught me about craft, but also introduced me to new books and writers that I continue to look to for guidance.
Who are some of your biggest literary influences? Do you have a favourite book/author?
I think my writing is most inherently influenced by great Canadian short story writers like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Margaret Laurence, whose work I marveled over when I first began studying the craft of writing. Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill are also favourites of mine; when I look back on reading Self-Help and Bad Behaviour as a young adult, I remember feeling like I’d gained access to a raw and illicit new universe that seemed to break all the storytelling conventions I took as givens. More recently, Maggie Nelson’s books, particularly Jane: A Murder and The Argonauts, as well as Jenny Offill’s Weather, have given me similar world-shifting experiences that have steered me toward the kind of writer I hope to become.
How would you describe your work?
Dark, imagistic, and ambiguous. I think these are the tendencies that I can’t seem to escape no matter what premise, plotline, or characters I’m working with. I am also a sucker for weird extended metaphors. What excites me most when I’m writing is playing with language, conflict, and character dynamics to build layers, so that the story can be felt and interpreted in many different and complicated ways.
What’s your writing process like?
Horribly inconsistent. Despite my attempts to be disciplined about meeting a daily or weekly word count or setting clear writing goals for myself, I find that my productivity comes in waves. Part of this is because teaching is my day job, and I find it impossible to make creative and emotional space in my brain for writing when I’m immersed in course prep, grading, and guiding students with their own writing. Most of the work I do on my own projects happens in the spring and summer when I’m not teaching. I am, regrettably, a perfectionist, and to work against my anxiety over getting every sentence write the first time (which, of course, never happens), I usually write initial chunks by hand in my journal, which allows me to surrender to the messiness of drafting. Then, once I have a chunk that I think is working fairly well, I transcribe it into an MS Word doc, revising and editing as I go, which I find to be one of the most rewarding parts of the process: putting pretty sentences down in crisp, typed letters onto a clean, white page! I approach both story writing and novel writing this way—messy, handwritten chunks that get cleaned up and plonked into the narrative one by one. Then, once I feel like I’ve got all the material in the document, I begin revising more globally, cutting, rearranging, adding, and further tweaking sentences.
I have yet to find a particular routine or writing place that sparks me. Usually, I write in my home office in silence (I find music too distracting), with an arsenal of coffee, tea, and snacks at the ready.
Tell us about your most recent book.
The Whole Animal is a collection of stories I’ve written over the last fifteen years. Many of these stories began as craft experiments, in which I sought to build a story from a single sentence, or juxtapose two images or ideas that seemed wildly different and find a way to bring them together. In this way, they became their own animals, often evolving in directions that I didn’t anticipate. I think The Whole Animal is an apt title given the running themes of bodies as alienated or separate from the self and therefore animalistic, but also for its connection to the process of writing and the way it makes seemingly living “animals” of language, and how, rather unintentionally, these stories all seem to work together as a “whole” entity as they explore a set of common themes.
What are you working on now/next?
I’m in the final stages of revising my second novel. It’s called Bad Land, and it’s set in the Canadian badlands of Drumheller, Alberta, famed for its vast troves of dinosaur fossils. (It occurs to me now that this might be a subconscious reprise of the “Once upon a time in dinosaur land” story from my childhood…) The story centres on Regina, an isolated, socially awkward, middle-aged woman who works at a kitschy local dinosaur museum. When her brother shows up unannounced after seven years of estrangement with his six-year-old daughter in tow, Regina must unpack the mysterious circumstances that have brought him back while she attempts to build a relationship with her strange and unpredictable young niece. To sum up the highlights: Animatronic dinosaurs, creepy little kid, terrible secret, and road trip across the Canadian Rockies!