In Stay True (Doubleday, Sept.), New Yorker staff writer Hsu recounts his experience growing up in 1990s California as the son of Taiwanese immigrants, and the personal reckoning that came after the death of a close friend.
As you’ve mentioned, Stay True was a book 24 years in the making. Does the final product resemble the vision that you started with?
In 1998 I was a 21-year-old just writing to make sense of things. My friends and I all just sought distraction in our own ways, and my form of distraction was writing. When I really started writing things down back in college, I was just trying to process these feelings of sadness and grief. But I don’t think I understood back then that part of the process of reckoning is also just being able to hold on to the good stuff, too.
Playing back your friendship with Ken, who died while you both were still in college, must have been tough. But was the writing process more cathartic in the long run?
Yeah, absolutely. Those early days were kind of painful because you just sort of reflect on what could’ve been, but after a while, once I figured out the book had to take in the happiness and the joy of the friendship as well as the sadness, it became incredibly cathartic. It went from “remember this terrible moment” to recalling things that were just so funny, moments of just typically dumb college fun.
You made zines throughout your adolescence and early adulthood and are currently at work on a new series of zines about music and life. What drew you to that medium as a form of creative expression?
So much of my imagination was defined by the magazines I read, the music I listened to, the things that I was consuming. And I was really intoxicated by the notion of “alternative culture.” I had met people who made zines, and it seemed like a pretty low-risk way of putting yourself out there and feeling that you were a part of the scene, part of this community. While writing the book, I dug out all my old ones and realized just how idealistic and how limited our worldviews were, because it was limited to what you could access. And I think, after finishing the book, and also with the pandemic, it just reminded me of the joy in making things, so that’s why I started making this series of zines.
In past interviews you’ve spoken about how music plays into your writing process, and how your musical proclivity influences your ability to craft a sentence. Is rhythm something you actively consider while writing or is it something more unconscious?
I am very conscious of rhythm, but I don’t really know what the platonic ideal of rhythm is. At the sentence level I think of rhythm as the combination of long and short sentences, but structure is where I’m definitely influenced by music, and I think part of it is really just having these little bits of misdirection that, like a riff, comes back. I think that’s really influenced by music a lot.