Listen to this article
Yiyun Li was raised in Beijing, China. After studying science she emigrated to the US and took a masters in immunology before turning to writing. Her debut collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award and the California Book Award. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and two sons, and teaches creative writing at the University of California, Davis.
Who is your perfect reader?
I have two friends whom I consider as my perfect readers. One is an editor; she reads everything I write and is very sharp to detect any laziness or vagueness in my thinking. The other friend doesn’t read much of contemporary writers; she spends her time reading John Donne and Jane Austen, so I always trust her mind, which has a timeless quality.
What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?
I was reading Kierkegaard while waiting to pick up my children. This is what he said of marriage: “Take a young man, ardent as an Arabian horse, let him marry, he is lost. First of all the woman is proud, then she is weak, then she faints, then he faints, then the whole family faints.” I laughed so hard I wished someone were in the car with me.
What is your daily writing routine?
I get up at 5:50am and write for 40 minutes before preparing breakfast for my children. After they go to school, I work for two to three hours before having to move on to less interesting chores and emails.
Who are your literary influences?
William Trevor is my biggest influence. Others include Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, VS Pritchett and the Russians – Chekhov, Tolstoy and Turgenev.
Where do you write best?
At the dinner table, where I live most of my life: reading, writing, drinking tea, eating and daydreaming.
What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
While I was working on Kinder Than Solitude, I did some research on poisoning. I accidentally left a file open on the computer, which was about five kids being poisoned on Christmas eve by a package of candies. It was an article from the early 1900s, and only much later did my son tell me (he was seven at the time) that he had read it and found it very frightening.
What music helps you write?
I wrote my first book [A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, 2006] listening to U2’s The Joshua Tree, my second book [The Vagrants, 2009] to Chinese and Soviet propaganda songs, and my third book [Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, 2011] to Mahler’s first and third symphonies. Then I stopped listening to music while writing because my taste in music is too inconsistent.
When are you happiest?
When I spend two hours trying to fix one sentence and eventually get every word right, and the sentence says exactly what I want it to say.
Do you keep a diary?
Yes, I do. It was recently stolen and I had to pay a ransom for it – it was a funny story in the end but a horror story while I was in it!
Can you remember the first novel you read?
Tolstoy’s Resurrection – the Chinese translation was serialised in a newspaper when I was nine. I was so taken by it that I was very sad when they didn’t print the second half in the paper.
Yiyun Li’s latest novel, ‘Kinder Than Solitude’, is published by Fourth Estate/Random House