Books

new england writers at work

Ha Jin doesn’t start until he knows where the story is going

Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe
Author Ha Jin teaches at Boston University. He writes his outlines for novels during the summer when he has more time.

Ha Jin’s second novel, “Waiting,” earned him the National Book Award in 1999. Since then, he has written five more novels, several books of poetry and story collections, and won numerous literary prizes, including the PEN/Faulkner Award twice. His latest novel, “A Map of Betrayal,” came out last month. He lives with his wife in Foxborough.

CHARTING A COURSE: I have a book in my mind before I get started. I work on it constantly. I make an outline; not every paragraph, but the chapters, major scenes, the beginning and end. It’s like you’re taking a trip: You have to know where you’re going, but you need some room for creation. John Irving said that until he knew the last sentence of his novel, he would not start his book. Sometimes when I get to the end, it has to be changed, but I still need a map to get there. Sometimes a book may not work. I’ve had to give up books twice. When [a novel] didn’t work for me, it meant that I hadn’t thought it out.

LONG GESTATION: While it takes me three or four months to write a draft, it takes years to finish a novel. I usually write a draft in the summer when I have plenty of time, so when I teach I can edit and revise. I keep teaching separate from my writing.

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NOURISHING LITERATURE: The bad part [about teaching] is I have to read too much. The good part about teaching is that I teach literature, and that can be nourishing. This semester, I’m teaching a literature course called “The Literature of the Migrant,” like Nabakov, “My Antonia,” “The Grapes of Wrath.” These are great books. I read a lot of books when I write, and I usually read a great author when I’m working on a book. For my latest, I learned a lot from a book by Ruth Jhabvala called “Heat and Dust.” It’s an exquisite novel, technically perfect.

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NOT LOST IN TRANSLATION: Because my wife has been ill for the last four years, I couldn’t immerse myself in [writing] a novel; [“A Map of Betrayal”] was written a while ago, so I could do editing and revisions. Because I couldn’t start a novel project, I’ve been writing quite a few poems in recent years. I thought I would write [rough drafts] in Chinese then rewrite [and finish] them in English. Rewriting is a way to make the language slightly strange and fresh. But once I got into it, I realized that the poems exist in the Chinese language, [so] I finished them in Chinese first. It was a very peaceful experience.

IN MY ROOM: Most of the time, I work at home, but sometimes we have a lot of visitors, so I go to [my office at Boston University]. At home, I have a study. It’s very quiet because we basically live in the countryside. While I was writing [the 2011 novel] “Nanjing Requiem,” I was listening to a lot of Brahms, but most of the time, I want peace and quiet. Other than teaching, I don’t go out very often. I have my own room in the first floor, and my books are in the basement [because] there are too many of them to keep in the study.

A WALK IN THE WOODS: I can compose poetry in my mind so I don’t have to sit in front of a computer at a desk. Sometimes I take a walk and work on a poem. We live on the state forest, and there are a lot of trails — it’s about a thousand acres. Now it’s hunting season, so it’s too dangerous to go out there.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson@ gmail.com.