Few debut novels have caused more of a splash in recent years than Ling Ma’s Severance (Text Publishing) which dominated best-of-2018 lists around the world. At once a bone-dry satire of late capitalism and tender story of family and the immigrant experience, Severance follows Candace Chen, a millennial office worker so devoted to her routine that she continues going to the office even as New York succumbs to the zombie-like Shen Fever.
KYD’s Alan Vaarwerk spoke to Ling Ma from her home in Chicago.
KYD: I read in another interview that you began Severance as a post-apocalyptic short story, which kind of expanded out into a novel. Can you tell me a little bit about how the work developed – did you finish the short story and find there were still things you wanted to explore, or was it more a situation where you started writing and weren’t able to stop?
Ling Ma: I think it was maybe the latter. Every apocalyptic fiction is so cliche I suppose, but I just thought it would be a nice exercise to do, to have fun with. But it was clear as I was writing it that there was a lot of anger to the short story, and I realised that the anger, a lot of it could be traced back to work, and to the sort of daily tedium of working at a company, an office job. And then further beyond that, that anger could also be traced to the global supply chain and capitalist systems. So I just tried to keep following that. Anger seemed to be the dominant sort of emotion as I was writing this story, or the story was very angry, but it was also very gleeful at the same time. So that was a very interesting juxtaposition, and it kept me interested in the story, to keep working on it. But before long it seemed to be much longer than anything else.
I really love the way that you talk about work in the novel, and there really is that juxtaposition between anger and glee, as you put it. It seems so ridiculous, but there’s also an understanding there – for someone like Candace there is an undeniable comfort in knowing your place in a system, even if the system is a farce. Is that duality something you have carried over from your own life and work into your book? Or is it something you were more wanting to explore in the abstract?
I have definitely held a series of office jobs after college, I worked in widely diverse fields, perhaps due to my short attention span. But typically I did typical 9-to-5 type of work, troubleshooting, managing logistics, researching, those types of things. I think when you are a young person, in your 20s or something, I think you can afford to question the system more, and perhaps you can afford to question what exactly it is that you are doing more. Then when you are older and perhaps more entrenched, and you have your retirement funds piled up… I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t make generalisations, but for me it was often a case of, what is the endpoint here? Of course if you are the type of person that asks that of every job, of course you are not going to stay long…
You end up being a kind of Jonathan, don’t you – Candace’s boyfriend, who has a bad experience with layoffs and then embraces a freelance lifestyle – with a principled stance of not being tied down to anything but also not really any stability.
Yeah. I think Jonathan has checked out of the system entirely – or he wants to be, he says that he is – because he’s not going to work for any place with questionable values, which is pretty much every place. For the most part, I think Spectra [Candace’s workplace] as a company is pretty common. I think it is more the rule rather than the exception.
What I liked about the way you positioned Jonathan and Candace and their different positions, was that you had sympathy for both perspectives.
I think Candace and Jonathan both share a similar perspective, I think they can both agree that Candace’s job exploits cheap foreign labour and contributes to an unsustainable global supply chain. But what Candace decides to do and how Jonathan decides to react to that are very different. So I see them as two characters who share the same perspective – but for Candace, she is maybe more cynical, and she says that’s the world, that’s every company, that’s everywhere. But Jonathan is like, well, you don’t have to engage with it. And Candace cannot see how you wouldn’t engage with it. And I think many of my friends have had that conversation – usually one or the other is Candace or Jonathan. I have been both Candace and Jonathan at various points, you know. So I think I tried to capture that ongoing argument.
‘The story was very angry, but it was also very gleeful at the same time.’
When you were writing the book, were there other post-apocalyptic books or texts that inspired you as you were writing, or broader genre tropes you were wanting to play with?
The post-apocalyptic zombie narratives, they weren’t from other books, they were more from popular mass culture, like TV shows or movies, like the Romero films and The Walking Dead. I actually don’t read too much apocalyptic fiction.
Is it something that you write a lot of, do you see yourself as a post-apocalyptic writer?
I never wrote any post-apocalyptic fiction until this novel! I think the post-apocalyptic part just seemed to fit, it was so suitable to the themes of the novel. The fact that it was the end of the world, and the fact that they were manufacturing Bibles, it just seemed to fit, although when I first started it as a post-apocalyptic short story, to me it was just like as a writer, and perhaps as an office drone who does not really have much power, I wanted the power of destroying things in fiction – the sort of visceral enjoyment of destroying New York.
Which is such a trope in itself, I guess, of the disaster narrative – it must be satisfying to put your own spin on that.
It really was very satisfying, yeah. But on the other hand, I felt that as I was destroying New York, I actually found it to be a very sensuous kind of destruction, I found myself enjoying that process.
That sensuousness or intimacy kind of ties in with the way Candace thinks about moving in and inhabiting a place as well – as she says, ‘to live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems,’ and the satisfaction of being a cog in the machine like that, even as gradually the cogs stop working.
I was thinking a lot about children’s fiction – often there is a trope where a child runs away and is on their own, and they are able to occupy some sort of space that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to occupy. Like for instance, there is a novel called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler that has the child protagonist occupying the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and she spends a night overnight there.
‘As an office drone who does not really have much power, I wanted the power of destroying things in fiction.’
And I was thinking of that in relation also to Occupy Wall Street, when it first started in Zuccotti Park, where there were bodies taking up space in the park, where they were not supposed to be. And I thought about that, I linked all of that to Candace occupying New York in its last days. If you are, you know, coming of age in the early-mid 2000s in New York, and it is already this moneyed environment, for someone like Candace and maybe a lot of her friends, they already feel like they don’t have access to most of the city anyway.
I wanted to talk about the book’s alternate history 2011 setting. Looking back now, it seems like that was kind of a turning point in terms of our ability, in the cultural imagination at least, to start talking about climate change, and even alternatives to capitalism we are talking about now in 2019. What was it about this particular period – close to but not quite the present day – that you wanted to explore?
It’s pretty simple, because I first started writing it in 2012. The office I worked at underwent mass layoffs, and it was something that everyone had seen coming, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when it happened, but I just remember sort of keeping track of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and thinking about how most of my colleagues were going to lose their jobs – and some of them had been there for 30 years, almost their entire careers.
It also felt around 2011, at least from my personal experience, was when I started noticing extreme weather. I was in Chicago at the time, and there was a huge blizzard, they called it Snowmageddon, and I remember living through that. And it doesn’t take a lot to phase Chicagoans, but it brought entire cars to a standstill, it brought traffic to a standstill, there was so much snow that buses could no longer keep going, and so a lot of passengers would stay overnight on the buses until 2am, 3am, until someone would pull them out. And on the one hand it’s catastrophic, but on the other hand there is this childlike glee almost, the same reaction if you are a child and it was a snow day or something. Suddenly when your routine or your schedule is disrupted, there is a glee that comes from that. So I wanted to tap into that energy somehow, and then after 2011 of course there was Hurricane Sandy, and other things that were happening. This was around the time that I really started noticing, I guess, although it was probably happening before that as well.
It seems like such a long time ago now – I was writing a flashback scene set in 2006, and one of the assistant editors on the book told me, ‘there was no iPhone then’. And I really had to double check – oh, right, there has been so much change in technology, so I had to change it to the Canon Elph digital cameras that people owned… (Laughs)
I also wanted to ask you about Bob, the self-appointed leader of the group of survivors Candace travels with. He’s a fascinating character, simultaneously this sort of pathetic guy but also just incredibly menacing as well. It’s interesting to me because his whole idea of leadership and power comes through a pop culture lens – he believes he can lead because he has watched the most movies or played the most Warcraft. Was this a way of playing with some of the genre influences you mentioned before?
I definitely used the Romero films as sort of a reference, considering that one of those films (Dawn of the Dead) takes place in a mall. I think you can’t really write zombie fiction without referencing Romero, or having that be a reference in some way. As for Bob, it was more that I thought of someone who was in middle management, who wanted to climb higher – and I find at least in work situations, in office environments, the people who are the most menacing types, and the most power hungry types, also tend to be the most mundane. I had a tough time with Bob, I have known Bobs in some form in my life.
‘The people who are the most menacing types, and the most power hungry types, also tend to be the most mundane.’
I did think about that band of survivors as kind of almost like its own office in a way, because they are just there to basically work. I wanted to capture that sense of how you spend a lot of time with people but you aren’t really close or intimate to them, you simply work alongside them. And maybe you are on friendly terms with some rather than others, but you don’t actually know them that well, and sometimes you can never quite be yourself around them.
One of your events at Sydney Writers Festival is called ‘An Irrevocable Condition’, after the James Baldwin quote – ‘Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition’ – which goes to the idea of carrying your identity and your past around with you. Candace grapples with that idea throughout the book as well, as an immigrant from China, about building a home and a life, but her only remaining family are back in Fuzhou, who she barely knows. Can you tell me about how this idea, of carrying your home around with you as you go, affected the way you wrote the book?
Many readers have noted that maybe one of the reasons Candace doesn’t become fevered is because she has no home, and there is nothing I guess to trigger the fever. That’s one theory that some readers have. The thing about Candace – this is very specific to her time – is that she was born and grew up in China during the 80s. Around the 80s, she left for the States. But China during the 80s was just beginning its economic boom. This is when Deng Xiaoping introduced the Special Economic Zones, which made parts of China like Shenzhen much more friendly to foreign business, and basically because Shenzhen was designated a Special Economic Zone, it transformed overnight from a fishing village into this huge manufacturing hub for the world, basically. And with that economic boom in China, basically everything became westernised, so much of the way the cities look, the way they feel. So even if Candace were to return back to Fuzhou, or back to her home in China, it wouldn’t be like going home anymore. Because the country underwent so much change. You can’t actually go to a specific location anymore to access home.
I think in a sense that’s a universal thing, your hometown is never the same as it was when you were a kid – but this is a much more visible manifestation of that.
Yeah, and you can make the case of New York as well, as a city that undergoes massive change and gentrification, and you can probably say that for a lot of places under different circumstances. But I tried to capture some of the feeling of being in Fuzhou, and some of the feeling of being in New York in a very specific time. I just tried to capture a mood.
The book plays with the idea of nostalgia in really interesting ways – on the one hand, it’s kind of a trap, the way Shen Fever takes hold or is triggered in nostalgic environments, but it’s also a crutch that characters use to cope with the post-apocalyptic landscape.
I think I was trying to play more with routines, and the idea of just having the same routine every day. And there is a tedium to that, but at the same time there is also a sort of gravity, and maybe also a pleasure to it. I guess it all comes down to the question of, why does Candace Chen keep going to work, even when it is so clear that the world is ending? And it just seems like it is almost the easier thing to do in times of catastrophe – even in times of non-catastrophe, it is easier to keep doing the same things.
It is nice to have a job to do.
It is certainly nice to have a job. And I have always wanted to be the kind of person who could work at a job longer than three years, but I think for me personally I hit a certain point where I can see myself working the same job and seeing the same people year after year, and there is something really terrifying about that.
‘The idea of just having the same routine every day – there is a tedium to that, but at the same time there is also a sort of gravity, and maybe also a pleasure to it.’
I think it is almost as if you are confronting your own mortality, that idea of limited circumscribed routine. I think that this idea of routines, and how do you make a life, it’s something that I think about all the time, actually. Because as someone who has moved around a lot and someone who has held different jobs, I think about it all the time, because I think constancy is something that’s enviable, and is good, but I can’t seem to do it (Laughs). But there is some kind of virtue in that constancy – but that’s something maybe I can unpack or think about further.
What are you reading at the moment?
I am rereading something, which is Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth, it’s a New Editions copy, I remember reading it when it first came out in 2006, and something about it called me back. The last book I read that really stayed with me was Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, which is a memoir about the author’s mother. It is a very slim book, but I thought it was just really riveting in many ways. Almost unbearably emotional.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.