Jessie Chaffee: We share a legacy in the City College MFA Program and I vividly remember reading (and loving) early excerpts from The Leavers in Global City Review-founder Linsey Abrams’s narrative structure class. How much did the book change between those early drafts and now? Was the story always split between Deming and Polly—each one relating their own narratives—and how did you make the decision to tell the story in that way?
Lisa Ko: First of all, I’m so happy to be doing this interview with you, Jessie! I remember reading and loving your early chapters from Florence in Ecstasy in that class we took my first semester at CCNY. It’s been an honor to be able to follow your book’s journey since then. So, thank you.
The Leavers has changed so much since those early drafts. I started out by writing it solely as Polly’s story, starting from the day she gets separated from Deming. But I soon realized that something was missing. Writing it from her perspective from that particular moment felt a little claustrophobic, and confined the story of the novel to “How will Polly get out of this bad situation?” Not only did I want to find out more about Polly’s past, but I also wanted to know what it was like for Deming after his mother leaves and he ends up moving to upstate New York and living with a new family. After experimenting with different points of view and starting points, it became clear that the most interesting way to tell the story was to alternate between the two characters, creating tension through that structure.
JC: The idea of one’s legacy is central in the novel. For both Deming and Polly, the question of who they were, who they are, who they might be is a constant. In one of my favorite moments, Deming observes, “So many things could be growing inside him, inside every person. He carried Mama and Leon, Michael and Vivian, the city. Reduced to a series of hairs, a ball of fingernail clippings and one stray tooth. A collection of secret tumors.” Can you speak a bit about how you thought about the idea of legacy as it relates to one’s identity?
LK: That’s a great insight. One of things I was exploring in the novel was the legacy of leaving and being left. It’s interesting, because when I hear the word “legacy” I think of the term as being generally weighted as positive, an inheritance of something of value. But it can also relate to inheritances of different kinds—a legacy of trauma, for instance. For Deming and Polly, as they move between different places, they’re both consistently searching for a sense of home, a physical as well as an emotional sense of belonging. That search is informed by the legacies of home that they carry with them, be it the legacy of a shared culture and belonging (familial, regional, ethnic, national) or the legacy of alienation.
JC: This is also a novel in which legacies go missing or are made invisible, and while The Leavers is a work of fiction, Polly’s abrupt disappearance speaks to the many disappearances in the US as people are incarcerated, deported, or forced into an existence in which anonymity is the only way to survive. As writers, it can be tricky to negotiate capturing lived realities with authenticity but without sensationalizing them, and I think you handled it beautifully. How did you navigate that line and what types of research did you do to bring those stories to the page?
LK: Because I was writing about characters that did not share my own experiences, I felt a deep responsibility to do their stories justice. That meant reading stories of people who had had these particular experiences, traveling to places like Polly’s hometown, and conducting interviews with everyone from foster parents and transracial adoptees to online poker players and musicians with synesthesia. Equally important was the internal research that I had to do: interrogating why I wanted to write about these characters, what my intentions were, and what were my stakes in writing this novel. It was this internal research that ultimately led to the novel’s focus and creating fuller characters, rather than wanting to prove something to the reader.
JC: One of the things that makes Polly a compelling and complicated character is her will to reinvent herself. She says, “I liked how close the past felt, how possible it might be to make up a new history . . . I could become anyone, living anywhere.” How did you find the character of Polly and how did she change (or not) over the course of writing the book?
LK: The character of Polly was initially inspired by a New York Times article I’d read in 2009 about an undocumented Chinese immigrant who had been detained in a Florida immigration prison for nearly two years, and was forcibly separated from her young son, who was then adopted by a Canadian couple. I began writing the book from the point of view of a woman whose circumstances were similar to this real-life woman, but inevitably had to build her character beyond the facts presented in the news story. I started by thinking about the kind of person who would migrate to a new country as young woman, on her own, to a city where she knew no one and couldn’t speak the language. She’d have to have courage, resilience, and independence, even a sense of adventure and stubbornness. Figuring out Polly’s back story helped her character shift from someone who had things simply happen to her in earlier drafts to a character who made decisions based on her own fears and desires.
JC: I love the way that language operates in the novel. Deming feels language disappearing, uses language to rebel, and recognizes that language can become a stranger and make him a stranger. In some ways, the language that remains the most constant for Deming is music, which saturates the book. From an early age, he sees colors and meaning and life in the sounds of the city. Did you always know that music was going to be such an important part of the story?
LK: I didn’t set out to write about music as a part of the book, but it came fairly early on. I shared a scene where Deming first arrives in Ridgeborough with a writing group, and the response was that I needed to give his character some added depth—in this early scene, he was traumatized by the sudden disappearance of his mother and this move to a new home, but it felt too one dimensional, too despairing. Music has always been important to me—it was a way for me to a build an identity as a young person, and I was once a failed musician myself—so I decided to give Deming music as a kind of superpower, something that belonged to him that he could carry with him, and a way to complicate his relationship with his adoptive parents and new town.
JC: We’re both longtime New Yorkers, and one of the many things I appreciated about The Leavers is your vibrant and nuanced depiction of the city. I’m wondering how the city has influenced your writing and also how the city might have changed for you as you were writing the novel.
LK: I do think of the novel as a kind of love story to New York City. It’s a place where Deming especially finds the home he’s always been looking for. Part of that feels familiar to me—I grew up in suburban New Jersey and have lived in other cities as an adult, but always return to New York because it’s the place where I feel most myself. I wanted to explore that kind of belonging through Deming’s character. His adoptive parents, the Wilkinsons, view “his culture” as being Chinese-from-China—a very static interpretation of culture—but in reality he’s a New Yorker.
JC: What is the literary legacy of this book? What other books were you reading that helped to shape it? Who do you consider to be your literary ancestors?
LK: So many legacies! Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah; Danzy Senna’s Caucasia; Jessica Hagedorn’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For; Wong Kar-wai movies; anthems, basslines, and choruses.