Q&A: Writing the Truth with Allison Hong Merrill

Allison Hong Merrill is an award-winning author in both Chinese and English. Her essays won Grand Prize in the 2019 MAST People of Earth writing contest, first place in the 2019 Segullah Journal writing contest, third place in the 2015 Storymakers Conference First Chapter Contest, Honorable Mention in the 79th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Contest in the Memoir/Personal Essay category. Her forthcoming memoir is titled “Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops to Batman.” She was born and raised in Taiwan and immigrated to the U.S. at age twenty-two.

Q. First of all, can I just say…I have enjoyed getting to know you through Storymakers Conference and on Facebook.

A. Me too. I love having you for a friend. You’ve been an inspiration to me.

Q. I know you are a very talented woman, so I will ask you some questions about awards and such for the benefit of our readers. You recently won some writing and photography contests. I am thinking of the one specifically about your mom and the washroom.

A. Yes.  I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but that essay is one of my favorites that I’ve written.

Q. I was just about to say, “Don’t be modest.” It’s okay to share our successes, I believe. Why is it your favorite?

A. It’s my favorite because it is the most painful piece to write. My mother wasn’t exactly the nurturing type. She and my father divorced when I was fourteen, and then she moved out. My memory of her is limited. The nightly washing ritual is one of the few things I remember vividly. The washing was the closest I had ever been to her, physically.

Q. Can you tell me the title?

A. The title of that essay is “The Child’s Palace.”

Q. Ah, yes. I love that the title means something in the Chinese culture.

A. Yes, I love the title too. It’s interesting that when I think of the title in Chinese, I see an illustration of a human uterus. But when I see the title in English, I imagine a secret garden type of paradise.

Q. What was the contest and how did you end up entering it?

A. It’s the MAST People of Earth contest. I heard of it about a week after the contest had ended. So I emailed the contest coordinator and asked if he would consider accepting a late entry. He said yes. So I submitted it that same day.

Q. Wow, that is crazy. Good for you. Let’s talk a bit more about that essay since we are on that subject. Had you written it before that day? Or did you write it that same day? What went into crafting that piece?

A. I started drafting that essay in the summer of 2017, in one of the workshops in my MFA program, actually. At the time, my professor asked us to write a one page essay using sensory details. I immediately thought of hot and cold, fire and water. And then from there I saw, with my mind’s eye, my mother washing me at night.

Q. That gave me chills. So visual!

A. It was painful for me to finish that rough draft. I didn’t turn in the assignment for the workshop friends to critique, because I spent more time crying in my dorm room than actually writing that essay.

Q. Yes, I can imagine it would have been difficult. But therapeutic, too.

A. A year later, after I’d graduated from graduate school, I pulled it out of the old file and started to write a little bit a day. I eventually finished the entire piece about two months later.

Q. Tell me more about your MFA experience. Why did you choose to get into that program and what did/do you hope to achieve?

A. Oh, funny you should ask.

Q. Ha, why is that?

A. So, I attended the Storymakers Conference in 2015. The keynote speaker that year was Martine Leavitt. She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program. In her keynote speech she mentioned that VCFA is the Harvard of Writing. As soon as I heard that, I knew I wanted to go there.

Only a month before the Storymakers Conference 2015, an agent found me (I know, it’s a long story). Anyway, we worked together to pitch my memoir to the Big Five. My book was rejected by them all. One of the rejection letters was from Ann Godoff (she’s a big shot in the publishing industry). She loved my story but hated my writing. She said I really needed to learn how to write better. So, a month after receiving that rejection letter, I heard Martine Levitt’s speech, and decided I needed to go to VCFA. I went home that day from the conference and applied.

Q. Okay, now you have me intrigued. How does an agent “find” a memoir author?

A. So, the same conference in 2015. (2015 is a magical year in my writing career, apparently) I signed up for a manuscript consultation at the conference, and was required to submit the first 20 pages of my manuscript to the agent (Mark Gottlieb from Trident Media Group). He read those 20 pages and called me to ask if he could represent me. He didn’t read my full manuscript.

Q. Whoa Nelly. That is fab. If you could sum up what you learned in that program to improve your craft as a writer, what would it be?

A. I write Creative Nonfiction, so the most important thing about writing that I learned in the writing program is to always tell the truth. But no one needs to spend $50,000 to go to an MFA program to learn that. The real life lesson I learned in the program is to practice the art of detachment from outcomes.

Q. Detachment from outcomes means…? (You didn’t know you had to give me a mini-MFA today.)

A. So, the art of detachment from outcomes means, as a writer, I do my best when it comes to writing. Give it my all. And then, when I finish writing a piece of essay or a book, I turn it over to the world, to the universe, and it’s no longer my project. I need to, therefore, detach my emotions from the outcomes. If the project turns out to be a great success, that’s great. I’ve done my best. If the book turns out to be a failure, it’s okay. I’ve done my best. That way, whether or not I win a contest, my mood remains the same, calm.

Q. Ah, okay. I know a lot of people are interested in reading your memoir, me included. I think it’s fantastic that you are getting so much interest from agents and trad publishing. Have you considered going indie to get it out there?

A. Yes, definitely. I just don’t know how to go on that route yet. I will have to do some research.

Q. Let’s talk a bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how do you think did it shape your life as a writer?

A. I was born and raised in a remote fishing village in Taiwan, on the east coast. I include as much Chinese culture in my writing as possible. Because when I was little and started to learn English, I loved a book that taught me about how Westerners do things differently than me. One disadvantage is that English is a foreign language to me, and so it’s challenging for me to get the grammar right when I write.

Q. But that is what editors are for, right?

A. Yeah, a good editor makes a huge difference.

Q. Your life sounds like a movie! Voiceover: “I was born and raised in a remote fishing village in Taiwan, on the east coast.” On my bucket list someday is to go to China and photograph a fisherman at first light, with his lanterns. Am I imagining that correctly?

A. Oh my gosh, stop it! YOU are being way too poetic for me now, I don’t even know how to handle it. “Photograph a fisherman at first light, with his lanterns.” WOW! You’re too awesome for me.

Q. Ha ha, I hope the reality matches my expectations. Or exceed.

A. Definitely exceed.

Q. How old were you when you came to America?

A. I was 22. It was four months after my mission.

Q. But you knew English before then? Ah, you served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints where?

A. I came with a student visa. Arrived in Houston on July 4th, 1995. Got married on July 14th, 1995.

Q. Wha–! Ten days.

A. I thought I knew English before I came to the U.S. I was a German major back in Taiwan. English was a required four-year course. But then when I got here, everyone spoke something else. Not English. Hahaha. Yes, I served a mission in the Taiwan Taichung Mission from 1994-1995.

Q. Omigosh, that is just too amazing. A German major. And you and your hubby must have had quite the whirlwind romance. Er, wait. Let me guess…you and he were pen pals pining for each other. (You better set me straight here.) (Romance novelist, you know.)

A. Yeah, that marriage was a mistake. But it gave me a great book to write about. My ex-husband turned me into a starter wife. We were only married for 16 months. One November evening I went back to our apartment and everything was gone. He was gone. That’s the opening scene of my memoir “Ninety-Nine fire Hoops.”

Q. “…turned me into a starter wife.” Meaning?

A. You know how some people call their very first home a starter home? My ex turned me into a starter wife. A temporary wife. A cheap one. The same concept as a starter home that no one would ever live in there forever.

Q. Ah, I get it. Well. That is a powerful opening.

A. Oh, my current husband is romantic and funny. He, as a character, takes up the last 1/10 of the memoir and I make sure to end the book with a bang.

Q. Ha ha, good for him. And you. You have a beautiful family.

A. Thank you so much. I feel the same about your family.

Q. Have you written fiction? You have so much material.

A. Y . . . e . . . s . . . Fiction writing is so hard, though.

Q. Why is that?

A. Because I lack imagination. My brain is wired to store facts and memories. I always admire fiction writers for the book ideas they come up with.

Q. I will let you in on my experience. When I was in my 30s, I tried to write fiction…

A. Yes, I’m intrigued.

Q. …but couldn’t get past fictionalizing all my real experiences in college. So I wrote all of my college experiences. And after that, with my memories safe, I felt like I could write about other things. Still while honoring the truth of my experiences.

I think it is okay to mine your experiences for your fiction. That is what turns them into powerful stories!

A.Thanks so much for sharing your experience. You’re a fantastic writer, and a successful one, too. I’m so glad you share your stories with the world. So who is your favorite writer? Or rather, what is the one book you always recommend to others?

Q. Ah, thanks. My favorite writer…I would have to say…I grew up on Daphne du Maurier, who is the master of romantic suspense. I also loved Louisa May Alcott (team Jo!) and Mary Stewart. Gone with the Wind, too. Always with a touch of romance. And you?

A. Wow, you read wonderful books. I love Dani Shapiro. Her latest memoir “Inheritance” is an absolute masterpiece.

Q. I will have to check her out. Also, your stories are amazing. Keep on writing, nonfiction or fiction. I have to ask you about the life story award you got in Taiwan.

A. Yeah, that contest started in November 2009. The submission call was extended worldwide. The judging system worked like this: For five months, each month on the 1st, the contest organization would announce the contestants who made that round of judging. So in the first month there were thousands of names. And then in the second months there were hundreds. In the fifth month, there was three names left. I was one of them. The grand Prize. It was intense. I’ve never entered any other writing contest that intense since. But it goes to show how competitive the Chinese really are.

Q. That is amazing! I can only imagine the suspense. And so you wrote your life story. How old were you then?

A. I was 36.

Q. And the contest was in Chinese?

A. Yes, it was in Chinese. It was so much easier for me to write in Chinese. Not anymore, though. It’s actually become the other way around.

Q. Was the life story the basis for your memoir?

A. No, it’s a different story. About a taxi driver. I made all the readers cry with that story and I loved it. Hahahaha!

Q. A taxi driver tearjerker!!! I want to read it. Omigosh, I did not ask you a single thing about modeling, and I meant to! Can you please just tell me how you got into that and how that meshes with being an author?

A.  I was discovered by a modeling scout when I was a BYU student (in 1997). I walked out of the Harold B. Lee library and a guy asked me to go for an audition. That was the start. But it didn’t last long. I met my husband and got married and had kids and got fat and ugly and I couldn’t be a model anymore. Until 2010 when one of my articles was published in the Ensign magazine and the editor asked me for an author’s photo. I sent him a snapshot. He said it was too grainy and that he would send a photography team to my house to take pictures of me for the magazine article. They came. We worked for about three hours. About four months later I was shocked to see my picture on the front page of lds.org. Ever since then, the church has been calling me to model when they need me.

I’ve also been very lucky in that some other modeling scouts have reached out to me, asking me to work with their agencies. I don’t model as much now that I’m focusing more on my writing. I can’t multi-task.

A. What a wonderful story!! Thanks so much Allison. I have loved chatting with you. Can you tell me how readers can find your writing? Do you have a website, or….?

A. Yes. I have a website. I have a picture of you on my website, too. Yay!

Q. Yes, I saw that. Our cute one from Storymakers 2018.

Find Allison and her writing at www.allisonhongmerrill.com.

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