Chatting with Vivian Chou
Vivian shares her ideal napping environment, slipstream as an under-recognized subgenre, writing outside comfort zones, managing emotions when writing impactful topics, and medical journals for inspiration.
Vivian Chou has published work in riddlebird, Fusion Fragment, and The Bookends Review. She is a second-generation Chinese-American and lives with her family and a genetically engineered GloFish.
Vivian is the author of the story “FAQ List for Planetary Purification” from Radon Issue 6.
Q: “FAQ List for Planetary Purification” is short yet full of details about the world’s post-extinction event. How much time do you put into worldbuilding before writing a new story?
I wish I were self-aware enough of what is in my brain to plot my stories and methodically world-build, instead of pantsing them. Generally, I start with vibes and go from there to uncover my subconscious story ideas. For “FAQ List,” I had an idea of cleaning up planet Earth, and my mind immediately went to a post-apocalyptic scenario. I wanted to write a flash piece, so the FAQ format lent itself to the AI realty company presenting a list of recommendations.
Q: Does your passion & education in music affect the way you approach writing science fiction?
That’s a great question. I often think of writing like practicing piano. Learning a new piece or writing a story from scratch is daunting, but chipping away at it every day, an hour or two at a time, will result in progress, however small. Music taught me discipline, which I was able to apply to many things: medical school, exercise, and writing. Last year, I followed Ray Bradbury’s advice and wrote a story (roughly) every week for about six months before I burnt out and felt the pull of long form. There are several stories that haven’t made it off of my hard drive, but he was right: it is impossible to write fifty-two (or twenty-six) bad stories.
Q: What aspect of literary experimentation do you enjoy the most?
I love going outside of my comfort zone, exploring sci-fi and fantasy, starting with a vibe and putting it into a crazy story. It’s fun to experiment with genres I have no real business writing about—for example, I’m no expert on high fantasy or hard sci-fi but I enjoy putting robots and talking creatures in modern settings. As a pantser, it’s jarring what weird things fall out of my brain, and I try to inject humor into it too.
Q: Do you feel that slipstream is an under-recognized subgenre of speculative fiction?
Yes! For me, it is the most accessible. I have a hard time with both hard sci-fi and sword and sorcery fantasy. I enjoy stories in the regular world where something is a bit “off.” I love portals and magical animals, or robots and any sort of speculative creature. I’ve had a difficult time placing some of my work because it’s not hard sci-fi or traditional fantasy, and it often contains dark humor and/or satire. Several of my stories have found homes in literary magazines, which has been surprising to me. I thought my stories would be too weird for general consumption. But maybe the editors or general public recognize real life is weirder than fiction.
Q: What draws you into enjoying stories with dystopian dread interwoven in their narrative?
Some find dystopian worlds disheartening, but I find them necessary. Everybody loves an underdog for a main character, and there’s so much relatable material to draw from: late-stage capitalism, greed, mental health issues. We need these stories to give us hope or make sense of our own worlds so we can strive for something better or at least start the conversation on improving our lot.
Q: Writing impactful pieces can be difficult, especially when you can relate to the topics. How do you manage the emotional impact on yourself during the writing process?
That is an interesting question. I guess I’m never really moved by my own work while writing it, but I haven’t had trauma that I had to re-live like some authors do. The process is more of an expression of my discontent, frustration, or sadness. Some of my favorite books or stories put me in the mind of a writer or main character in a wholly different class/era/body/culture and I hope I can do the same for some readers.
Q: What was your experience writing a children's book in 2013 focused around allergies?
I’m impressed you found the book, Joey Panda and His Food Allergies Save the Day: A Children's Book! My work partner and I wrote a book for children with food allergies to encourage them to carry their EpiPens at all times. We’d read too many tragic articles of children either not having their epinephrine with them or being afraid to use it—and wanted to reach the younger population with this message. We found a great illustrator and self-published on Amazon. It was a fun process and satisfying to see in print.
Q: Do you find yourself reading top medical and scientific journals for story inspiration?
I follow my field’s journals (Allergy and Immunology) to stay up to date for my patients, but I try to steer clear of straight medical topics in my stories. Like most of the writing community, writing for me is an escape from my day job. Inevitably, though, doctors and medical conditions bleed into in my stories because of my profession. At the end of 2019, I wrote half a novel about a virus weaponized by a pharmaceutical company, and then COVID hit and I quickly abandoned the project. That said, they do say “write what you know.” Chekhov mined his experience as a doctor into a razor-sharp understanding of the human condition, and Crichton turned his knowledge into thrillers. For now, I’m writing about talking fish, ghosts in Chinatown, and AI realty companies. We’ll see where it goes!
Q: As a fan of naps, what is your ideal napping environment?
Big comfy blanket and couch, book in hand, and tea, preferably after having exercised.
Q: What do you hope to achieve in the coming year with your writing?
I hope to continue to improve my short story skills and am working on trunk book number three. My dream is to write a book I can be proud of, so maybe this third book will see the light of day. Here’s hoping!