Tom Cho, as well as being an editorial adviser on Peril is also an author in his own right. We caught up with him just before the release of his new book “Look who’s morphing”.
Peril: “Look who’s morphing” has a pretty unique cover – it’s a portrait of you! How does this reflect in the content of the short stories inside?
Tom: Putting myself on the front cover of my own book is a playful move – and a bit audacious. That’s also how the book itself can be seen: as full of play – and with a touch (or maybe more than just a touch) of audacity.
To be more specific, putting myself on the cover of the book calls attention to my presence as the author – which is what the stories do. On one level, this can occur in an autobiographical sense, in which the reader can equate the book’s narrator with me, the author. I think the stories tease the reader with this very possibility. After all, I couldn’t possibly be coy about what a leading title ‘Look Who’s Morphing’ is, given my own personal experiences with transformation. So the reader is invited or even dared to make this autobiographical interpretation (with all its humorous consequences about how the reader might then view me).
But, beyond the autobiographical, the text is full of ‘intrusions’ that remind the reader of my presence. There are these ‘intellectual asides’ in some of the stories, for example. Some might describe these asides as being didactic or even plain indulgent. There’s also a part in the book where the narrator is told that he is the world’s greatest story teller: “They sighed with awe and then they declared me to be the world’s greatest story teller.” That sentence alone is a big tease that invites the reader to believe that I am, in more ways than one, ‘making the story all about me’. So putting myself on the cover continues one kind of play that’s already in the text.
Peril: From memory some of the short stories have elements of pop culture and fetish about them. Those who have followed your work will remember the production of the “Sweet Valley High” zine. How much do trends influence what you write about?
Tom: If we’re talking specifically about the use of popular culture in my book, I don’t think trends played that big a role. In fact, one of my friends likes to joke that I haven’t properly watched TV since the 80s – so I may well not even know what is fashionable any more.
The mix of pop cultural figures and texts that are incorporated in the book is very selective. Part of it was influenced simply by my tastes as a fan (which leads us back to my friend’s suggestion that I haven’t properly watched TV since the 80s…). But, ultimately, the use of pop culture in the book was secondary to my interest in broader themes – perhaps I used pop culture more as a means to get me to particular ‘places’. In that light, a story like “The Bodyguard” is ultimately not really a story about the film “The Bodyguard”. In fact, perhaps the most succinct way to answer your question is: “I wrote a short story that draws upon the film ‘The Bodyguard’.” Given this, I don’t think I could claim to be influenced by what’s fashionable…
Then again, it might be suggested that I’m being ironically anti-fashionable in my use of pop culture. But, really, the book draws upon a pretty broad range of texts that also includes respected films such as ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and even canonical literary texts like Gulliver’s Travels.
So, all in all, I wasn’t very strongly influenced by trends in incorporating pop culture in the book.
Peril: Writing short stories seems to be more fashionable nowadays with the success of Nam Le and Cate Kennedy. Having been a long time short fiction writer does it seem this way to you?
Tom: Someone did recently say to me that Nam Le’s success suggests that a revival of the short story has begun. That’s a pretty big claim and one I wouldn’t feel confident to make myself, even if the success of other individual practitioners was considered too. At any rate, in terms of Australian authors, there are very few writers who have had any recent commercial success as specialists in shorter forms of fiction – in your question, you’ve singled out the two major authors, really. I sometimes jokingly say that writing short stories is to publishing what playing the spoons is to music recording. Despite the many claims that are made about contemporary readers having shorter attention spans and despite the success of individuals such as Nam Le and Cate Kennedy, the novel still dominates as the normative form of prose fiction. This domination occurs not only commercially but often critically too. ‘Shorter’ is still often seen as ‘lesser’. For example, the idea that writing short stories is a beginner’s stepping stone to writing novels – that belief still persists.
Having said all of that, as I already suggested in answering the previous question, I’m probably no great judge of trends. It would be just like me to declare something unfashionable only for it to become very fashionable – and vice versa! (And I have been reading some early glowing reviews of Steven Amsterdam’s “Things we didn’t see coming”, which apparently can be seen as a novel of interlinking stories.)
Tom Cho’s work and the details of upcoming launches and readings can be found at www.tomcho.com.