Wall Street Journal reporter Te-Ping Chen was nervous about going public with her side project — and in a very high-profile way.
“When I learned that the story was going to be published, it was so exciting and it was also just like, oh god — now everyone’s gonna know that I write fiction,” says Chen of publishing her first short story, “Lulu,” in the hallowed pages of The New Yorker in 2019 (and on April Fool’s Day, nonetheless). “I was really terrified about the story coming out. I’ve written fiction privately for a really long time, and it wasn’t something I ever talked about.”
That’s since changed. Two years later, Chen has released her debut collection of stories, “Land of Big Numbers.” The stories offer an intimate and nuanced survey of modern Chinese culture and people, set both in China and Stateside. Political and social tension pulses throughout; in “Lulu,” the title story, twin siblings take very different paths: the sister becomes a political activist while her brother, the narrator, becomes a professional gamer.
The first story Chen wrote for the collection (which was also the first one she’d written), “Shanghai Murmur,” appears midway through the book. Several years ago, Chen was struggling to revise a novel she’d written, and one day while commuting home from the WSJ’s Beijing bureau, that title — “Shanghai Murmur” — popped into her head. She decided to write a story based on the phrase, tapping into her own experiences working in a flower shop as a teenager in San Francisco.
“I would find myself wondering a lot about these people [buying flowers] and their stories, and it struck me as an inherently dramatic stage…constructing new arrangements and making things beautiful and behind it all, there’s the rotting stems and the physical labor,” she says. “Once I had that image of a young woman in my mind, of someone who was watching her customers and cognizant of the world that they inhabited, the rest of it unfolded very naturally.”
After that initial story, Chen decided to write nine more, for a collection of 10. “Once I started to write short fiction, I didn’t want anything to be mapped out or plotted for me,” she says, adding that the form offered her a reprieve from navigating the structure of a novel. “I really liked the feeling of lightness to the form — the ability to feel, the ability to play. I loved getting to feel as though you could write a sentence or introduce a line or a person, and it would suddenly change the entire complexion of the piece,” Chen adds. “And surprise you and sometimes reveal new meaning that you didn’t realize was there.”
The stories are in many ways a tribute to the people she’s met, both as a Fulbright scholar in China and more recently working as a reporter in Beijing. The description of the brother’s dormitory in “Lulu,” and the late-night computer usage — “evoking a sense of living surrounded by electronic crickets,” she says — was directly inspired by her own living situation while she was a Fulbright fellow in 2010 and 2011.
“I think for people, China evokes the sense of the gargantuan and the very abstract,” says Chen of the collection’s title, “Land of Big Numbers.” The author riffs on that idea by exploring the specific internality of various characters, and showing a country in rapid change. The stories also reflect a trait Chen observed in many of the people she encountered while in China — “A real sense of outsized ambition coupled with a tremendous sense of pragmatism,” she says.
Chen has started to work on a new novel, having moved on from the manuscript that led her to writing short fiction several years ago. And despite her growing success in the literary world, she has no plans to leave journalism behind. Currently based in Philadelphia, Chen covers work and work culture. Some people like going to the gym after work; her hobby is fiction writing.
“I’m someone who can become really interior directed and focused,” she says. “It’s really easy for me to sink very deeply into fiction and wanting to read and get lost in my own head sometimes. I think journalism has always been a really good counterweight to that, keeping me more tethered.”
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