Jessica Hagedorn

By Melissa R. Sipin & Bel Poblador

Photo: David Shankbone

Photo: David Shankbone

Jessica Hagedorn was born and raised in the Philippines and came to the United States in her early teens. Her novels include Toxicology, Dream Jungle, The Gangster Of Love, and Dogeaters, winner of the American Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Award. Hagedorn is also the author of Danger And Beauty, a collection of poetry and prose, and the editor of three anthologies: Manila Noir, Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction and Charlie Chan Is Dead 2: At Home In The World.
Honors and prizes include a Lucille Lortel Playwrights’ Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fiction Fellowship, a Kesselring Prize Honorable Mention for Dogeaters, an NEA-TCG Playwriting Residency Fellowship, as well as fellowships from the Sundance Playwrights’ Lab and the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab.
Hagedorn has taught in the Graduate Playwriting Program at the Yale School Of Drama, and in the MFA Creative Writing Program at NYU and Columbia University. She is the Parsons Family University Professor of Creative Writing and the Director of the MFA Writing Program at LIU Brooklyn.

When something haunts you... what's your writing process?

My process is slightly different from book to book. Sometimes a story is inspired by a single fascinating character (Dream Jungle), or a particular time and place like Manila in the 1950s and 1970s (Dogeaters) or New York City in 2008 (Toxicology). Sometimes the inspiration comes from big ideas like “the rock n’roll life” + not your typical immigrant narrative = The Gangster Of Love! Research is always involved, to make sure details, language and atmosphere feel right. Then comes the hard work of a writer, which is the writing itself. One sentence leads to another and then another… You try to maintain focus and discipline, writing for as long as you can, everyday until you’re done with a draft. Then you go back and start revising and the mysterious creative process begins all over again. Each time you begin, you hopefully go deeper into your story and your characters and end up surprising yourself.

You've said that all your characters have a little bit of you. How do you write their voices?

By saying that all my characters have a little bit of me in them, I mean that I try to be invested and empathetic in all my characters—whether they are principal or secondary, deeply flawed and not very “nice.” If you’re in tune with your story then the characters do come at you organically. There isn’t an order to how they might appear.

Does your art ever subsume you? What's your tactics of self-care?

Rephrase the questions. By “subsume”, do you mean does my work ever obsess or consume me? I would hope so. And as far as “self-care” goes—what exactly do you mean by that?

You’ve written “historical” novels and “domestic” novels, can you give any insight about the process of writing the two, the differences? Do you value one over another? Or are they the two sides of one coin, meaning one cannot exist without the other?

I don’t set out to write “historical” or “domestic” novels. I just write novels, period. 

Orhan Pamuk said in his Art of Fiction interview in The Paris Review, “Literature is made of good and bad, demons and angels, and more and more [critics] are only worried about my demons.” In Danger and Beauty, you write, "I scorned myself, and it was only later, after I had left the Philippines to settle in the country of my oppressor, that I learned to confront my demons and reinvent my own history." How do we conquer the struggle between our demons and our art?

The struggle is part of the creative process; it’s a big part of what can make the artist and his/her work so powerful, thrilling, and revelatory. I would never want to conquer it.

Above cover artwork provided by author