A Conversation With Gina Chung

by | Aug 19, 2023 | Interviews, The Attic

Swetha Amit and Gina Chung

Swetha Amit interviews Gina Chung about her novel Sea Change (Vintage , 2023).


Swetha Amit: What inspired the idea to write Sea Change? How long did it take you to write this novel?

Gina Chung: It started as a response to a writing prompt given to me in one of my classes in my MFA program. I began writing about a character named Dolores, who was turning blue. Then I started asking questions about who Dolores was. I thought maybe she was an octopus and then delved into further questions about the story’s narrator. That’s how the character of Ro came to life. It wasn’t originally a novel. I wrote short stories then, and my writing group said this could be a novel since there were several questions that could take some time to unravel. It started sometime in early 2020. The rough draft was done in three months while trying to complete my MFA thesis. The revision took longer.

 

SA: What made you choose to tell the story using the first person from the point of view of Ro-your protagonist?

GC: I loved using the first person, especially for a story about someone trying to figure out the mysteries of her own life. It started in the first person. I did go back and forth. Some of the earlier parts of the book were written in a close third. The third person allows you to zoom in and out of other characters. However, I decided it was Ro’s story, and by zooming in and out of her character, I was losing access to her point of view. So, I decided to stick with the first person. This helped me get into the skin of her character and understand how she would react to several situations.

 

SA: The structure in Sea Change is nonlinear and lends itself well to the protagonist’s memory. Did you initially plan to write your novel in this manner?

GC: Once I decided to write this as a novel, I spent enough time with the characters and the other characters in their lives. I began to map out the arc of the story. I had an idea about how the ending would be. But because I was daunted about writing a novel, I decided to have outlines and bullet points for every chapter. It was going to be alternating between the past and the present. One book that inspired me to use this structure was Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett.

 

SA: Sea Change explores an exciting relationship between a girl and an octopus. How would you describe your relationship with animals/ nature? How has it influenced you as a writer?

GC: Like many writers, I was a bookish, introverted child. I grew up near a park in the suburbs of New Jersey. So, I spent much time in this world of trees, ducks, geese, and squirrels on my bike. I appreciated the solitude and solace; it was a blessing during covid. I did grow up with fish and had a little aquarium. I love animals as they are fascinating. They have this ability to be honest, which keeps me grounded. It also reminds me that we are also a part of animals. And to me, that is very humbling.

 

SA: Sea change captures the world of Ro and other simultaneous worlds like the ocean and space. What kind of research was involved while writing about the ocean and space?

GC: I tried to extensively research octopuses’ behavior during captivity with humans. This involved reading online and watching YouTube videos. Because it was a lockdown era, I couldn’t visit aquariums and interview people there. I found videos that described what life was like working in aquariums. It helped me understand what kind of people would be drawn to working here. I only researched a little about space, as the novel doesn’t go too far into that territory. I just let my imagination wild. It was fun to think about space travel, living on Mars, and how there would be Instagram profiles of people going on this expedition.

 

SA: There are moments of levity where you introduce humor even while Ro is experiencing challenging times in her life. How did you manage this delicate balance between humor and vulnerability?

GC: Humor is one of the writer’s most essential tools. If you have a character going through difficult times and they deflect from it by using humor, it tells you a lot about that character. Humor also involves surprising the reader. I like doing that as it keeps me surprised and engaged on the page while writing. The best kind of humor is always vulnerable because it’s a way of putting yourself out there to connect with another person. Humor as a writer is a way of connecting with the reader.

 

SA: Your book has an exciting line where Ro talks about her job and working in an aquarium. She says how important it is to pay attention and how it enables her to understand what animals need. Does paying attention benefit you as a writer?

GC: Paying attention is one of the most important things we can do as a writer. I derive much inspiration by paying attention and noticing exciting and weird things. Often when I am stuck on a piece of writing, I take a break from writing and go out into the world. It’s about keeping your cup filled. Sometimes I just get inspired by overhearing random gossip from strangers.

 

SA: Your book covers universal themes like loneliness, isolation, and family relationships. Did you consciously decide upon the themes while penning down this story?

GC: Regarding Ro, I wanted to write a character that experienced isolation and loneliness. The same thing I experienced while growing up as an Asian-American kid in a very white town. I remember feeling so alien and invisible all the time. I wanted to write about a character grappling with those things. I also wrote this book for a younger version of myself that often felt so unseen and disconnected. Because I want other people who have gone through similar things to realize that they aren’t alone. Feeling lonely is a universal experience. I hope readers who read this book find comfort in that.

 

SA: Who are the authors/books that have influenced you as a writer?

GC: Besides Mostly Dead Things by Kristin Arnette, Chemistry by Weike Wang is also one of my favorites. It’s a coming-of-age story about an unusual character who sees the world through the lens of science, but there’s this warm emotional core at the heart of the novel. Writers and Lovers by Lily King made me connect to the character-a woman in her 30s aspiring to become a writer. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy is another book I loved. It deals with the complexity and tenderness of a mother-daughter relationship. I found the author’s ability to defamiliarize the world to the reader enthralling.

About The Author

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This is my updated bio. Swetha is an Indian author based in California and a recent MFA graduate from the University of San Francisco. She has published works across genres in 60-plus journals, including Atticus Review, Maudlin House, Flash Fiction Magazine, Masters Review, and others (https://swethaamit.com). She has received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations and is an alumnus of Tin House and Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, 2022 and 2023.



Books by Swetha Amit