An Uncontrollable Sweet Tooth: A Conversation with Siel Ju

Of the thousands of submissions I’ve read as an editor for Juked, one of my happiest discoveries came from Siel Ju in 2014. The piece she sent us was “The Supplies,” one of the stories that comprise her fantastic novel-in-stories, Cake Time (Red Hen Press, 2017). Stylish, strange, measured, and tense, I remember devouring the piece, wondering what turn the protagonist might take and, all the while, relishing the pace and sentence-level dynamics of the prose. I became an instant fan of Siel, a writer who, Kirkus calls in a recent starred review of the collection, “brave and unapologetically bold.” Siel Ju was generous enough to not only join me in conversation via email, but also provided Juked a second excerpt which we’re proud and grateful to share with readers. —Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer: I want to start by asking you about the title of the collection, Cake Time. For me, it evokes this anticipation of indulgence and decadence. It’s pure appetite. How did you choose this as the title of the collection? Did you consider others?

Siel Ju: I love how you put it: “this anticipation of indulgence and decadence.” I definitely wanted the title to hint at that—a sense of sweet, girly desire and delight—that contrasts somewhat with the darker tone of the book. But I think cake can also bring up a lot of other, darker feelings for many people, especially those with an uncontrollable sweet tooth: guilt, fear, self-loathing, and the like—this sense of being unable to stop oneself from partaking in something that’s likely to lead to regret. Basically, I think cake brings up a lot of emotions, some pleasurable and cheerful, some disturbing and dirty. And I wanted the book to do something similar.

AF: Cake Time is a novel-in-stories. Did you set out to write these interconnected pieces or did you find yourself revisiting the same characters, similar scenarios?

SJ: At the beginning, I really just had a dozen or so totally separate stories. But at a certain point, I realized that if I was ever going to get a collection published, I needed stories that tied together in some way. So I read the stories over and saw that a half dozen of them had—not the same protagonist exactly, but similar enough protagonists that I could revise the stories to make them a single person. I did that—then I wrote more stories to fill in the gaps.

In many ways, the novel-in-stories form was a pragmatic one for the literary marketplace, but the decision to tie things together became a constraint that challenged me and made me grow as a writer.

AF: Los Angeles—its neighborhoods, beaches, parking spots, culture—serves as more than a setting. To me, its very personality emanates from the collection and it’s hard for me to imagine these stories taking place anywhere else. Could you speak to the role that place features in your work? Is it something you explore consciously or does it happen organically?

SJ: Well, part of why the stories are set in contemporary L.A. is because I didn’t feel I had the research time nor the writing chops to, say, write a historical novel, or a novel set in a place I knew nothing about! I wrote these stories at a time when I was feeling a lot of time pressure—partly because I was working full time, and partly because, you know, I was getting older every day (still am!) and I really, really wanted to get a first book out.

But I do think L.A. plays a big role—the vastness of the city combined with the car culture really does make people interact differently here, I believe. There’s a lot less randomly running into people the way one does in, say, NYC. So there can be an added preciousness to relationships that do develop—but at the same time, a casual impermanence and distance to them that encourages (or at least allows) callousness and irresponsibility.

It’s good and bad. There’s a great sense of freedom here that I love.

AF: I’m struck by the way you write with honesty and precision about the body. From the first story, “How Not to Have an Abortion,” to sexual encounters throughout the collection to the narrator’s observing models’ bodies in “Sutures” near the close of the book, the body feels like an opportunity: for pleasure, loneliness, judgement, tenderness, disappointment. Could you talk a little bit about this? Are there challenges in writing about the body and sex, both of which you do so well?

SJ: Thank you! I think it’s often difficult to live in L.A., especially as a young woman, and not notice or think about bodies on a regular basis. There are so many beautiful people here! I’ve had at least a half dozen friends move away from L.A., citing the constant, relentless pressure to look a certain way as being one of the major reasons.

Then again, a lot of this isn’t L.A.-specific. I think the body and its appetites is where girls are often taught to focus on while growing up because that is a primary way they’re judged—as well as the first place they’re able to exercise some individual control (e.g. refusing to eat certain foods, gaining or losing weight).

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this . . . I don’t find it particularly challenging to write about the body and sex; my struggle with writing usually has to do with structure and plot.

AF: To talk about craft for a minute: your style is, to me, both taut and evocative. You balance crispness (especially in dialogue) with these shimmering moments on the sentence level where a detail or a simile startles the reader. What does the drafting/editing process look like to you? Are you thinking about language as you go?

SJ: Thank you! I do tend to focus on the sentence level as I write. I actually wish I wrote differently—writing looser first drafts, getting an overall structure fleshed out, then focusing on the sentence level. If I could do that, I would save myself a lot of time! As it is, I seem not to be able to help crafting each sentence as I go, which means many, many pages of pretty writing get nixed when I make bigger, structural changes.

AF: In stories like “Glow” and “The Supplies”—the latter of which we were lucky enough to publish in Juked—the narrator’s job plays an important (and surprising) role in the piece. This shows up elsewhere in the book: how what we do to earn a living doesn’t always reflect who we are. I wondered if this was something you were actively investigating in these stories. Also, in your own life, what role does work occupy as it relates to your writing fiction? Does work inform it? Or are they totally separate things for you?

SJ: Well, I think many people fantasize about being better versions of themselves—the people we might be given tweaks in our past or present. What we do for a living ends up being a big part of that—I think many fiction writers would like, for example, to be the kind of fiction writer who’s independently wealthy from (or at least making a livable off of) her writing, as difficult as that is these days. And because we take on jobs to make money when we’d rather be writing fiction or doing other things, we feel what we’re doing doesn’t reflect who we truly are . . .

AF: I’m always curious about influences. From whose work do you take inspiration? Were you reading anyone in particular as you wrote Cake Time?

SJ: I read a lot of short story collections by women as I was putting Cake Time together, because I needed to learn how a collection was put together. Mary Gaitskill and Alicia Erian especially come to mind.

AF: What were some of the challenges you encountered when writing this book?

SJ: Time management, energy sustenance, balance, self-doubt, confusion, despair. The usual writerly stuff!

AF: What are you working on now?

SJ: I’m working on a novel about a young girl who follows her high school crush down to USC and begins a strange, bewildering affair.

Thanks for talking, Siel. Good luck with the novel! Read an excerpt in Juked.  

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