Transcript: Nicole Chung and Becky Chambers

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 3 Episode 9.

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JENN

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today, Nicole Chung recommends Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers and Becky Chambers recommends Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin.

JENN

Nicole Chung’s essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, the Times Magazine, GQ, Longreads, Shondaland, BuzzFeed, and Hazlitt, among others. She is the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast. Her memoir All You Can Ever Know tells of her search for the people who gave her up for adoption, which coincided with the birth of her own child.

NICOLE CHUNG

My name is Nicole Chung and Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers is my recommended.

So it takes place at Schusberry College, Oxford. Sort of a fictional college made up for the purposes of the novel. And it’s built as a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery. Lord Peter was Dorothy L. Sayers’ famous consulting detective character but at least in the edition I have, Lord Peter really isn’t even on the case until like I wanna say more than two thirds of the way through the book. This particular book is really focused on Harriet Vein, who is a mystery writer and also the woman that Lord Peter has been in love with for years at this point, ever since he proved her innocence when she, herself was on trial for murder.

So they’ve got this loaded history. Harriet is an alum of Oxford and is back there to investigate this series of terrible poison pen letters that are being written by someone anonymously sort of terrorizing this women’s college. So from a purely criminal standpoint, I don’t think it’s Sayers’ darkest or trickiest mystery. I think the misogyny behind the notes and the threats that various women int college receive, I think about how menacing and how familiar that probably would be to a lot of women actually.

So Harriet is there to investigate, eventually Lord Peter is brought in. So it is from that point, a somewhat straightforward mystery where they’re trying to figure out who is doing this. It’s also really kind of an intellectual romance novel and a very frank look at the lives and particularly the working lives of women at the college.

Sometimes I joke, this is one of those books that made me a feminist which, it like obviously putting it way too simply, it wasn’t any one thing but I grew up in this household where honestly like the word ‘feminist’ was most often employed as like a joke or an insult and yet, right there in my mom’s bookshelf, which was always stuffed with paperback mystery novels, because my mother also loves the genre, there was this novel. And it was all about the lives and work and desires of women. I think didn’t really start to think more about some of the themes of women’s work and whether or not a truly equal partnership is possible and things that you might lose or be afraid of losing at least, when you get married.

These were really mature themes that I probably wasn’t fully ready to contemplate as a teen, which is why I think re encountering the book when I was in my 20s had such an impact.

I think obviously because it is a book in the mystery genre, that is primarily what I was comparing it to at the time. And to me, it just felt very different. The mystery, as good as it is, is almost secondary to this story. It is such a deeply personal inward looking type of book. And it really is focused on Harriet as a whole human being. What her interests and desires are. I love how just honest and very forthright she is about everything, but particularly about how much she loves her writing career and how she makes no apology for it, even when some people suggest that it’s vulgar or that she should be doing something else with her life. She basically says at one point, “I’m good at it, and I need to earn a living and I enjoy it and that’s really kind of all that matters.”

I wasn’t expecting to read these long reflections about working relationships and kind of what the risks are for women. I guess maybe even more at the time since this book took place in another era, but even today kind of what the risks are, what the cost of intimacy can be, not just for women but for anyone.

I believe Dorothy Sayers attended Somerville College in Oxford and I only really started looking into her, I would say like later in my late 20s, early 30s. I don’t want to assume too much about the autobiographical nature of any fiction writer’s work, but I can just imagine there was a reason that she set this at a college that was maybe very much like the college that she attended. And maybe some of the times when Harriet’s talking about her career like how much it matters to her, I would imagine these perhaps were conversations or defenses that Dorothy herself had to make.

I’m actually really excited because I used to edit for the Toast and our resident historian there, Moe Molton who wrote a number of really wonderful pieces for us, Moe is actually writing a book about Dorothy L. Sayers. So I’m really looking forward to sort of having some of my work done for me I guess in terms of learning about Dorothy and really picking up this book and digging into her life because I truly don’t know too much more about her personally, but I would like to.

There is a really wonderful scene, I mean I guess what I think of as sort of the definitive scene from this book is when Peter and Harriet, they go punting on the river together and it starts out with them sort of having this appointment to talk about the case and Peter’s going to look at Harriet’s case notes that she’s been keeping since he hasn’t been there investigating with her, and they’re going to talk about it. She has basically asked for his help looking into the poison pen letters and trying to figure out who the culprit is.

There is this loaded moment where Peter catches Harriet looking at him like studying him. Nothing physical happens, but it’s just like I think one of the sexiest moments in literature and then he happens to catch her staring and she feels suddenly flushed and found out, and then a couple minutes later, they’re right back to the case and just discussing it again as partners and intellectual equals and that was kind of a fascinating tension to me.

Tt this point, they have strong feelings for one another and they’ve known one another for a very long time, but for Harriet, this is sort of like a new stage in their relationship. He’s been all in for a while and she’s just starting to come around. And figure out what that means and she’s still very afraid of taking the leap. But I appreciated even in the midst of all this romantic tension, they’re still able to talk and converse and really dissect the case and keep their minds on the task at hand. It just shows like the different ways that they work together and that even though a relationship can be like a frightening change, I think we sometimes fear losing pieces of ourselves in these intense relationships and Harriet certainly does in the book.

You can see that it’s still possible for them to be on equal footing and to not just be together romantically but sort of work together professionally.

So I love Harriet for her complexity I know she can be difficult at times and I appreciate that too.

she’s a survivor. She has this fierce will, she stakes this claim to her own career and her own life, and her own happiness and doesn’t apologize for like going after these things that she needs. Doesn’t apologize for her ambition. Again, I think reading that as a young person with a lot of my own doubts and anxieties meant a great deal to me.

I love the cozy mystery genre. I guess I got it from my mother but I grew up reading so many of the English mystery novels that she loved. I’ve read like every Agatha Christie several times, but this book is a little bit different. It’s even, as I mentioned, really different I think from some of her other mysteries. It’s not always a comfortable read. Like every time I revisit it I think I wind up sort of pondering a little bit more a particular problem or like philosophical question Harriet has about herself and I’ve returned to it at different ages and gotten very different things from it.

Interestingly, I don’t know if my mother likes it very much. I got it from her shelf. So I think one year, I gave her like the complete Sayers collection and she was like surprised and yeah, for all the mysteries that she’s read, I don’t actually think Sayers was one of her favorites but I mean, she’s definitely mine.

JENN

Thanks again to Nicole Chung for joining us and recommending Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. Her memoir All You Can Ever Know, published by Catapult, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at nicole_soojung.

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JENN

Becky Chambers is the author of the science fiction novels The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, among others. She’s currently at work on a solarpunk novella series, with the first book planned for 2020.

BECKY CHAMBERS

My name is Becky Chambers, and Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin is my recommended.

“Changing Planes” is a collection of short stories by Le Guin, and they are all tied together by the same conceit, which is there is this mental method called Sita Dulip’s Method, which enables you to shift between planes of reality. So simply by directing your thoughts elsewhere, you can travel to other worlds and meet other species and encounter societies radically different from our own.

The book feels in a lot of ways like a travel log because there’s nothing with a big chewy plot. There’s no thing we’re searching for through all of it. It’s just these wonderful stories about the places that the narrator travels to.

I found this book in the most perfectly appropriate way possible, which was that I bought it in an airport bookstore.

What makes it so perfect is that the tongue in cheek bit of the premise is that airports are the perfect place to put Sita Dulip’s Method into practice because they’re so boring, and there’s something about this mental process that is bolstered by being bored, being uncomfortable, having absolutely nothing to do and getting into this trance of waiting. So the fact that I bought it in an airport and read it for the first time in an airport, the rest of it on a plane, was so perfect. It was so incredibly on point, and it really added to my enjoyment of the book the first time around.

There are two stories that I have a particular fondness for, and talking about them now, they actually seem like weird choices because my overall feeling toward this book is so cozy and warm. This book, for me, is the equivalent of a hug, a literary hug, but the two that I thought of first as favorites are actually pretty dark.

The first is called “The Ire of the Veski,” and the Veski are this race of beings whose primary emotion is anger. I don’t mean that in the sort of way you might think in science fiction where you think of Klingons or something like that who are aggressive and violent. They have those tendencies as well, but really what they feel is just rage, just this raw rage toward life and the universe and everything. There’s a bit in there about describing their funerary customs and how the way they react to a loved one dying is not through sadness or feeling bittersweet about it. It is to curse that person.

There was just something about that idea, in the way she writes it.

There’s another story called “The Island of the Immortals,” and I can’t talk about it too much without spoiling the twist, because I do encourage folks to go read it, but there’s this island that is reported to have immortal beings living on it. In very typical Le Guin fashion, this, of course, comes with a catch. So it’s in some ways a gruesome story, but also one that’s rather brilliant.

This was not my first experience with Le Guin. I was introduced to her in high school. I would have been 15 or 16, and “The Left Hand of Darkness” was the first book of hers that I read. It was transformative for me. I often credit that book with being the reason why I write science fiction, not just why I’m a fan of it, because I already was by that point, but she’s the one who really opened my eyes to the possibility of what story telling in the genre could be.

So when I saw a book of hers that I hadn’t read in a bookstore, I bought it immediately. I didn’t need to look at the back. I didn’t care what it was about. If her name was on the cover, that was good enough for me.

I think the thing that made this one particularly special was that the through line through all of it, this narrative conceit that we have one narrator that is telling all these stories about the places she’s been. Even though each story is in its way contained, it still all feels linked. And yet, there’s no plot. There’s no MacGuffin. There’s no climax, denouement … I don’t mean in the arc of the book as a whole. I mean within the stories themselves. They’re often just these descriptions of places and the people that live there.

What we’re taught in story telling is everything’s got to have this three act structure, and you’ve got to have stakes, and you’ve got to have conflict, and you’ve got to have this and that and the other, and she doesn’t in all of these. There is conflict and there are stakes, but they’re not why you read it, and it struck me at the time how often I kept coming back to this book, even though it broke all the rules that I had been told about how a book is supposed to work, what it is that makes a book compelling, because it wasn’t stakes and conflict that kept bringing me back. It was just these beautiful descriptions of these places. It was almost more like going through a photography book or a museum than sitting down and reading something.

Le Guin was a huge influence on my writing, and “Changing Planes” I would point to as one of the two big ones, “The Left Hand of Darkness” being the other, that really changed the way I thought about writing. In one respect, “Changing Planes” does a really great job of creating aliens that feel alien. I don’t know of any author, past or present, who could write that as well as Le Guin did. She had this uncanny knack for making cultures and mindsets and mythologies that you could almost grasp, but that was just outside of your human ability to fully wrap your brain around it. “Changing Planes” is a great example of that because there are cultures in here that are very strange and very difficult to understand and that are never properly understood. Even by the end of the story, you’re still there scratching your head and maybe feeling a little uncomfortable or a little lost or confused, and I think that sums up what meeting an alien would actually be like.

When I write aliens, I try very hard to challenge my human assumptions and to think outside the box and to not be afraid of getting a little weird or making things that aren’t easy to understand. I’m obviously nowhere near the level she was in that respect, but her work encourages me to always keep pushing those boundaries.

The other aspect of this book that I really owe a lot to is the fact that it had this funky structure and didn’t have a plot as the driving force. When I first started writing “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet,” I almost gave up on it a number of times because I didn’t think it was a real book. I’m putting real book in air quotes here … because it didn’t have three acts and a MacGuffin and a plot and planets exploding and all of these things. I didn’t think anybody would be interested in reading this book that was really just this slice of life about these people and the places they go to.

Whenever I started to get into that, I would remind myself of “Changing Planes,” and I would say, “Okay. Well, but here’s this book that you loved that didn’t have any of those things either, and you’ve read it time after time after time.” I read it so many times and kept coming back to it and loved every read. So if you loved that book despite its lack of those things, there’s a decent chance that somebody may at least want to read yours, even if it doesn’t have that stuff. Happily, I was right, but I never would have had the courage to do that if I hadn’t read this book.

During my 20s, I had a lot of travel, and “Changing Planes” was … I always had it in my bag, just as a sort of security blanket, even if I didn’t necessarily read it on the plane. I usually did, but even if I didn’t, just knowing it was there, it was this comfort during what she … in the book itself describes as an unpleasant time.

If you need a literary vacation, if you need a break, this is a book that will very easily take you away from here.

JENN

Thanks again to Becky Chambers for joining us and recommending Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin. You can find Record of a Spaceborn Few, published by Harper Voyager, wherever books are sold. You can learn more about her at otherscribbles.net.

JENN
Next week on Recommended, one author talks about the serendipity of finding the right book at the right moment:

UNNAMED GUEST

Books have to spark with you at a certain point in your life. A lot of times you don’t like a book not because it’s bad but because it’s just not the right book for you in that exact moment. And this was the right book for me at that exact moment. It was exactly the right book.

JENN

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