WIPs Conversation: Carmen Lau on her work in progress

Carmen LauCarmen Lau’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gigantic, Fairy Tale Review, The Collagist, Wigleaf, NANO Fiction, Matchbook and other journals. Her short story collection, The Girl Wakes, will be published by Alternating Current in 2016. She received her MA from UC Davis.
Twitter: @artemisathene


Carmen, in “The Great Queen of Wonderhaven,” a young girl suddenly falls through the figurative “rabbit hole” and becomes Wonderhaven’s queen after blowing out her birthday candles. Like Alice, she lives in a surreal world and is often overwhelmed by what she encounters, but in this case it’s sometimes by news and events of the “real world” as told to the Queen by her mother and her cynical cousin Laurie. How do you see fairy tales in the context of literature and storytelling, and do you have particular favorites that perhaps influence you own work?

I’ve always been taken by the symbolic possibilities of using fairy tale elements in storytelling. There’s something pre-rational about fairy tales; they come from and address the places within ourselves that defy “reason.” They are primal and spiritual at once, expressing the dichotomies within the human mind in vivid, sometimes colorful, sometimes brutal images.

Reading the works of Kate Bernheimer and Angela Carter especially was an awakening for me. I read J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan for the first time at a relatively late age and was amazed by it. That book is for the child within grownups. It made me cry like a baby.

The philosophically bent Laurie claims Wonderhaven is Hell, or, “It could be we are not in a Hell proper but a sort of ante-Hell or a post-Hell, a Purgatory if you might. My instinct tells me that one of us is unreal, a projection of the other’s repressed guilt. Once the one who is real recognizes what the nature of that guilt is, she will become free. She will no longer have to be in this horrible place.” For readers, are the untethered aspects of Wonderhaven open to interpretation or is there a particular sense of place or idea/concept they should grasp?

My idea of Wonderhaven is that it is the place of wonder and innocence, always somehow present yet never kept. It means something different for each character. It’s in a way entirely subjective. I like the idea of an entirely subjective world. In literature, there are highly structured and “realistic” fantasy worlds and there are more nebulous ones like Wonderland and Neverland, which are almost like or could be interpreted as dreams. Part of why I started writing Wonderhaven was because I was intrigued by the question of what would happen if such a dream world intersected with reality. I was thinking about the ideal of the dream world, and ideals in general. I think Barrie dealt with the subject of “growing up” and realistic love incredibly well in Peter Pan. In Wonderhaven I’m intrigued by dichotomies and how those can result in violence, opposition and attraction.

In the other chapters, the world known in this part as Wonderhaven is called and known as something different by other Queens, though the key elements of it remain the same (animals with no memory, the role of the Queen as Witness). I’m trying to explore how this world – and the very idea of magic, innocence, the existence of worlds beyond this “real” bloody one – is experienced differently by different personalities. Innocence is a tough thing to grapple with, in our world.

Along with the Queen, her mother and cousin Laurie are the main characters in the excerpt. Do subsequent chapters bring others into prominent roles in the novel?

I wrote subsequent sections featuring the mother, Laurie, the houri, and Laurie’s father, but some hundred pages in I realized that was not the direction I should go in. So the other parts now are about other Queens, not the characters shown in Wonderhaven. I feel Laurie, the Great Queen’s mother and all those have served their purpose, and as much as I’ve gotten attached (especially to Laurie!), bringing them back would be redundant.

This excerpt features beautiful prose throughout, and several chapters also begin with poetic stanzas that serve the broader narrative. Do you write a lot of poetry? Do you like writing in hybrid and experimental forms?

I’m actually not confident in writing poetry. I’ve taken a few poetry workshops, but my tendency is to get sucked into narrative. I don’t feel like I “get” poetry enough to even attempt writing it. I’m uncomfortable with not having a narrative, I guess. I had a lot of fun writing Wonderhaven because I try to think of artwork and how that would translate into prose. A lot of the prose and poetic stanzas in The Great Queen of Wonderhaven was inspired by a visit to an exhibit on Mughal artwork. It struck wonder in me.

Also, reading the likes of William Gass, Gary Lutz, Kate Bernheimer (can you tell I’m a fangirl?), Marguerite Young and others makes me believe there’s a lot of space for “poetry” in “fiction.” Beauty is beauty.

I wouldn’t regard my writing as especially experimental in the context of Experimental Literature. My writing is pretty traditional in terms of story structure and form. I do like the flash fiction form and longer works composed of flash chapters, but by now that’s no longer considered a New Thing. However, I do approach every project as essentially an experiment for myself.

How is your novel manuscript coming along? Have you or will you be showing Wonderhaven to agents or publishers anytime soon?

The Great Queen of Wonderhaven will be part of a story collection to be published in 2016 by Alternating Current Press, as it was intended to be a self-contained novella at first. I’m not sure how long it’ll take for me to finish “exploring” the entirety of Wonderhaven and its Queens. Then there is editing to consider. I want to be ambitious and say I’ll have a draft done by the end of this year, but knowing how slow I am, I’m not sure. Right now I have one of the other Queens’ sections done, and it’s disproportionate in length to Wonderhaven – it’s almost 40,000 words long – so I’m not sure how to reconcile that. I’ve started on the third Queen’s section, which I’d like to incorporate visual art into, and I have a good idea of where it’s going but not how long it’ll be. So, a lot of work to be done still!

I don’t know how marketable the final product will be. I probably won’t approach “big” publishers with it. My hope is that it will fill minds like mine – maybe transport, maybe disturb. My dream is to write books that are like boxes of strange treasures. That’s what I aim for. I hope I succeed.

What other creative projects have you got going these days?

I’ve been writing some stories based on or inspired by my hometown in Central California.

Thanks, Carmen. Is there anything else you’d like to share with or explain to readers?

I’m working in a field where there aren’t many people who like to write. I’d like to make more space-case writer friends. I’m awkward and terrible at starting friendships. I’ve tried on Twitter. If anyone reading this is looking to discuss writing, etc., please drop me a line at carmenshanghai@gmail.com.


Read “The Great Queen of Wonderhaven,” an excerpt from The Girl Wakes, Carmen’s story collection coming in 2016 from Alternating Current Press