Scott Krave: Throughout the book there are recurrences of mythological images and retellings of those stories. You "have tangled the fairy tales [you] write with [your] life." What drew you in that direction?
Lily Hoang: I understand the world through fairy tales. I often say that I spend 50% of my life toiling and 50% of my life marveling. My ability to marvel is also my devotion to the marvelous, to the fairy tale. It only makes sense, then, that my non-fiction essays fold fairy tale and myth as a lens to understand the real—whatever the real even means because it’s a term that fully eludes me.
SK: Our society's scientists threaten rats with drowning, tempt them with addiction, gage their loneliness. Where do you see the line, if there is one at all, between instinct and social conditioning? What is it about rats and the tests they undergo that speaks to you so much?
LH: Quite honestly, my interest in rats had to do with the necessity of talking about rats for the Year of the Rat. Rats and psychology experiments weren’t part of the first incarnation of this essay at all though. I completely rethought the essay when I was given the opportunity to revise the book. The original essay was called “On Captivity and Rats,” and it had much more to do with imprisonment (of people, not rats). When I re-titled and re-conceptualized the essay as “On the Rat Race,” I naturally thought of rats and experiments. I wanted to talk about rats in maze boxes, and through research (and an obscene amount of research, too, I might add), I found many more apt experiments for the essay, such as the Morris water maze. And I say this in “On Scale,” but when I re-connected with my college obsession Jacob, who’s now a forensic neuropsychologist, I wanted to impress him with my rat knowledge, but then he taught me so much more about how rats are used with addiction research, which served as perfect foil to my nephew’s heroin addiction. So whereas it wasn’t coincidence, per se, it was maybe more fate—not in a religious way, more of in the inevitable way of magic stories. Perhaps, then, I am obliquely answering instinct v. social conditioning and saying social condition began the process with “On Captivity and Rats” and instinct took me to “On the Rat Race,” to the sorrow and loneliness of addiction and loneliness.
SK: Many portions of the book are temporally fluid, moving from point to point with little regard for linearity of narrative. What about this stylistic choice helped you to create your desired mood?
LH: It’s funny because I get permutations on this question all the time, and I always think of it as a process question so I’ll answer it in those terms (I hope you don’t mind). I wrote the book how I did because it’s the only way I know how to write. My brain moves in little pieces that connect via unpredictable routes to make a greater whole. A question I often frames my style as a whole that is broken into pieces and scattered around—almost as if haphazardly or accidentally re-ordered—but the essays come out as you read them. Every piece is intentional, insofar as that’s the way the essay comes to form in my brain. It’s the only way I know how to understand things.
SK: What are you working on next?
LH: I’m currently revising—re-writing—a novel I’ve been writing for the past decade. It’s based on a true story of a woman who rolled over her four children with the bulk of her 250 pound body as punishment and revenge on her husband for fighting with her. The novel attempts to force you to empathize with the serial killer—it humanizes her to an almost painful limit—only to slap you in the face with her undeniable monstrosity.
Lily Hoang is the author of five books, including A Bestiary (winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s inaugural Essay Collection Competition) and Changing (recipient of a PEN Open Books Award). With Joshua Marie Wilkinson, she edited the anthology The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility and the Avant-Garde. She is Director of the MFA program at New Mexico State University and serves as an Editor at Puerto del Sol and for Jaded Ibis Press.