At last I've coerced the superhuman Doretta Lau into discussing her new story in Room magazine, "Best Practices for Time Travel." When not installing her own appliances, Doretta is a journalist living in Vancouver and Hong Kong. She also writes poetry and fiction; her 2014 story collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? was shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award, longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and was named by The Atlantic as one of the best books of 2014. The title story was a finalist for the Journey Prize. It is outstanding. Its name led me to think it would be dreamy, soft-focus, lyrical. Well, no. Its splintery teenage characters and their jagged Vancouver have stayed with me (see question seven below).
This new story has also burrowed into my mind. Porn, cities, music, race, friendship, time. I wanted to ask much more about it, but confined myself to these questions. Her thoughtful answers, like the story, make me want to whip her into finishing the novel and screenplay she's working on, and to talk with her in person.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for your story? What made you pick "Best Practices for Time Travel"? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
The working title for the story was “Flux Capacitor,” a reference to the technology in Back to the Future. I knew this wasn’t quite right, but Zoey Leigh Peterson read an early draft and mentioned that one of my characters talks about best practices and that perhaps this was the title. She was right.
2. No spoilers, but I will say that the story isn't closed. How did you find the sense of an ending?
I wrote the last line of the story early on, so I then structured the entire narrative to reach that conclusion. In order for a sense of an ending to emerge, the narrator had to experience some sort of emotional change. That’s the only way I know how to end a narrative because I don’t execute plot in a traditional fashion. The journey is across an emotional landscape, rather than a physical one.
3. This story has a backdrop of musical references, from Belle and Sebastian to Grimes. Could you choose one piece to go with the story?
I think I have to go with Taiwanese pop sensation Jay Chou’s “Twilight’s Chapter Seven” the first song from the album Still Fantasy (2006), which is referenced in the story. Chou directed the video and cast himself as Sherlock Holmes—so many levels of awesome.
4. The story is broken into numbered sections. In each, the past interferes with the present in some way--Google mistakenly reverting to the old street name of "Adolf Hitler Platz" in the first, for instance. Could you talk about that?
“What’s past is prologue”—I had to look this up to remember it’s from The Tempest. This isn’t to say that I think of the past as fate, but rather the past informs how we live in the present, how we will live in the future, and teaches us how we can change. I suppose in this story the past is a layer that lends depth and pushes the narrative towards a revelation.
The past has been on my mind a lot lately; I’ve been reading the “Survivors Speak” document from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Findings. It has been humbling to read these first person voices and to really understand the magnitude of how Canada has brutalized First Nations communities. I have been thinking about how as Canadians we’ve been complicit in these abuses and this continued injustice.
5. Racism and sexism soak these characters' lives. They laugh about it, but seem to me on the whole resigned to the system. What do you think?
I used get so angry about racism and sexism, but I’ve learned that this is unproductive. When I was in university I mocked a woman for saying that racism doesn’t exist in Canada; I wish I’d been kind enough to start a real dialogue instead of resorting to verbal pitchforking. For the story, I wanted to create characters who could talk about this kind of suffering without coming from a place of rage.
A friend just sent me an interview with the porn star James Deen where he says, “You can participate in racism without being a racist." Most of the time the people who perpetrate racism and sexism aren’t monsters. Sometimes they’re our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours and they really have no idea that their actions are so damaging. But these little things become malignant if unchecked.
6. One line resonates for me: "Sometimes the only thing you have in common with another person is a language and even that tremendous advantage is not enough." Can you talk about how this works in the story?
I was chatting to a friend on Facebook about his horrific encounters in New York. He’s a journalist from Singapore and his primary language is English, yet he’s had so many people say things to him along the lines of, “You speak such good English!” and “I had no idea you could write so well in English!” Or they just talk to him really slowly, like he’s hearing impaired or has just suffered severe head trauma. It seemed to me such an alienating experience of New York, so different from my own experience there.
After that, I started thinking that sometimes the only thing you have in common with another person is a language. I live in Hong Kong and I often encounter English speakers who seem so alien to me—I have no understanding of who they are and why they’re so bitter and unhappy when they have so much privilege. This line of thinking coincided with the narrative in “Best Practices for Time Travel”, so I decided write that sentence into the story.
7. A subtle element of fantasy creeps in. I'm always interested in the blending of reality with fiction, whether it's putting words in the mouths of historical figures or picturing the impossible. I'm thinking of another story of yours, "How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun," which does something similar with its ending, when a small group of characters paints an enormous wall. I'm interested in your thoughts about this mix.
I have trouble writing straightforward realism. My prose becomes inert and I’m unable to create a sense of wonder. Without the element of time travel, this story would just feature four friends talking to each other during a dinner party. I rely on the fantastical to reshape how we see everyday, ordinary life. What’s there beneath the surface? What magic are we missing because we can’t see past ourselves?
I'm the author of My Name is a Knife, All True Not a Lie In It, and The Old Familiar.