Each day since Covid-19 forced Americans indoors, the writers Yiyun Li and Edmund White have booted up Skype at five o’clock in the evening to engage in a two-person book club. White, whom Li calls “a very good performer,” reads passages of the books aloud, and the two compare their marginalia, often finding that they have underlined the same passages. Good writers, after all, must first be great readers.
Li, 49, is certainly a great reader, having now led a number of literary-minded netizens through multiple collective read-throughs of War & Peace and one of Moby-Dick. The readings were hosted by the publisher and literary magazine The Public Space; Li is a contributing editor at the magazine, and the group published her companion volume to War & Peacetitled Tolstoy Together, last year. (Li reads each of these books once a year herself, she says, online book club or no.)
Her forthcoming book, September’s The Book of Goose (her ninth, and first with Farrar, Straus and Giroux after a decade and a half with Random House), also found inspiration from her reading. This time the source was not a masterwork of world literature, but, rather, criticism on an arcane subject: midcentury novels by French children.
“I read all sorts of old things,” Li says over Zoom, seated in front of a tiled fireplace, a little white dog curled up behind her, in her living room in New Jersey, where she’s a professor of creative writing at Princeton University . Among the old things she reads are the works of the Irish British fiction writer Elizabeth Bowen, which Li and White devoured in their book club. In the process, Li came across Bowen’s reviews of a handful of books by four French teenagers. (Such books became, briefly, a trend in France following Françoise Sagan’s 1954 debut, Bonjour Tristessewhich was published when she was 19.)
One 14-year-old whose work Bowen reviewed, Berthe Grimault, particularly intrigued Li. There was little Li could find about Grimault, aside from the fact that she hailed from the western countryside. Eventually, she came across “one little piece of information about how she was sent to an English finishing school after she published the book, where the headmistress discovered that she could not write—that she was illiterate.” The wunderkind, it turned out, was actually a charlatan.
But to Li, she was something more: an inspiration. “We novelists,” she says, “like those things that you cannot grasp.” That fraudulent young writer’s story brought forth from Li the tale of Agnès Moreau, a poor girl growing up in the countryside of western France after World War II. Tendon The Book of Goose, the adult Moreau recounts the story of her youth, and how her mischievous childhood friend Fabienne, taking advantage of their claustrophobic closeness, pressures Agnès into playing a series of imaginative childhood “games,” which might more appropriately be called hijinks. Soon, Agnès is pushed into putting her name to books Fabienne dreamed up and dictated to her; when they’re published, Agnès becomes, for a time, one of France’s best-known authors, and her life is turned upside down—although she hadn’t, in fact, quite written the books for which she was praised.
In spite of the ruse, Agnès really can write. She is, in fact, practically an aphorism machine. In an early chapter, after Agnès, older and married and living in America, learns of Fabienne’s recent death, she writes, “No, it is not Fabienne’s ghost that has licked the nib of my pen clean, or opened the notebook to this fresh page, but sometimes one person’s death is another person’s parole paper. I may not have gained full freedom, but I am free enough.”
Li’s own pen is so deft that the reader might be forgiven for overlooking how central the interrogation of the writing process is to The Book of Goose. It’s not until near its end that the novel becomes, self-evidently, a künstlerroman, tracing Agnès’s evolution from an impressionable girl hoping to please a domineering friend into the writer of The Book of Goose itself.
Agnès’s development into a real writer, Li says, happened almost by accident, a product of Li’s own authorial intuition. “When I was writing the first draft, I was very much in Agnes’s head—I was probing as she was probing,” Li explains. “And one of the earlier readers of the first draft said, ‘Oh, I really liked this, because this also tells us how a writer writes a book.’ And I thought, Oh, I turned! It’s true. It’s about the process. Even if she was not a great writer, she still published those books.”
Li, on the other hand, is obviously a great writer. After emigrating from China to the United States in 1996, she earned her MS in immunology at the University of Iowa, then quickly abandoned the sciences for the arts, going on to receive her MFA in fiction and creative nonfiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2005. That same year, she published her debut story collection with Random House, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, after signing a $200,000, two-book contract; she would go on to be named a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow and win multiple PEN awards, among other honors.
“I’ve known Yiyun for a very long time, and I remember that she was up to something pretty extraordinary in those early short stories,” says Mitzi Angel, president and publisher of FSG and Li’s editor. (Angel acquired Li’s first book in the UK while working at HarperCollins UK’s Fourth Estate imprint.) “There was a unique sensibility at work, and she was doing something with language that was very interesting, because she was writing in a precise English that somehow seemed to borrow something that was hard to put one’s finger on from the Chinese language. This book is quite a departure for her in some ways, because it’s set in France and in England, and it’s a historical novel, you might say—although I hesitate to say that because it’s not pastiche, which a lot of historical novels are, and because there’s such a vision at work that it doesn’t feel like a historical novel.”
While the book is a departure in some sense, it is also reflective of an ongoing shift in Li’s career. Her first four books, published between 2005 and 2014, are centered on the lives of Chinese citizens and the turmoil they endured in the Communist China of Li’s youth. Her two most recent two novels, 2019’s Where Reasons End and 2020’s Must I Godo not.
In between came 2017’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Li’s sole work of nonfiction. In it, Li examines her difficult relationship with her mother and her struggles with mental health, even as she asks why a writer would ever write autobiographically.
“I wouldn’t say I will never write about China again,” Li says. “But I like to think of the biography as sort of accidental: it just happens. I have this biography, but that doesn’t have to specify what kind of topics I write about—although as authors, we do feel pressure to write something aligning with our biographies. Which is such a boring thing to ask of a writer.”
Instead, of herself, Li asks for, if not perfection, at least something like it. She is her own most rigorous reader, and, consequently, her toughest editor: The Book of Goose is roughly 350 pages, but the original draft, Li says, was twice as long. “I cut probably 200 pages from the first draft, and then I cut more and rewrote 100 pages—there were just too many things I wanted to put in. But in the end, you have to exercise your discipline. My first draft for each novel is always very long, and if I can cut 200 pages from it, I’m always very happy.”
These days, Li thinks less about the craft of writing. As she puts it, “the characters don’t ever think about craft,” and “by aligning my feelings and visions with theirs, I think I’ve stopped thinking about it.” She demurs when told how brilliant her turns of phrase have turned out, attributing the prose’s power to the characters, to their own secret language—the language of the isolated countryside, and of childhood friends whose closeness borders on obsession.
“They don’t read literature,” Li says. “But on the other hand, they’re not influenced by anything they read. It’s their language—they have to make up their language to describe things: ‘Can I grow happiness in the bird’s nest?’ ‘Can I grow happiness in the water?’ I don’t think educated people would think about such things.”
This trait is shared by Agnès and Fabienne, but it’s patently non-autobiographical coming from an annual reader of Melville and Tolstoy. Now that her novel set in France is finished, Li is still immersed in the country, or at least its people: she’s been reading a biography of Honoré de Balzac. (“He’s an odd bird,” she says.) For Li, as a writer, the creative process always begins in others’ books. “What to read next? That’s a good question. Balzac?”
A version of this article appeared in the 08/08/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: The Reader’s Writer