We’re attempting to unravel the tangled web of literary influence by talking with the great writers of today about the writers of yesterday who influenced them. This month, we spoke with two writers whose work has explored the aggregate nature of personal and collective fate, both of whom chose to discuss authors who were master interrogators of the individual/social dualism inherent to their particular time and place. Jinwoo Chong (Flux) talks about the tragically delayed triumph of John Okada’s No-No Boy. Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Candy House) dives into the “architectural soundness” of Edith Wharton.

Jinwoo Chong on John Okada

Okada’s descriptions of 1940s Seattle are incredibly teleportative. It all feels very real and lived in.

I completely agree. It comes alive for me in the dialogue. Especially when I think about Freddie, the deadbeat friend of Ichiro’s, and the way he talks. It's kind of like a Greaser, and while it's familiar to me as someone alive now, it's also kind of alien in a way that I think is interesting and indicative of the time. Also, the way his parents speak is interesting because they make it apparent how it's a melding of cultures, whether they're speaking in translated Japanese or broken English.

The rough-around-the-edges world that Okada writes fits right alongside the Beats, who were his contemporaries, but he was never associated with them. Wasn’t he always something of a literary loner?

The story of John Okada makes me very sad, for that reason. His was a life of total isolation from this world that he wanted to be a part of. I think his experience as a writer was probably his same experience growing up as a Japanese American person during that time. We know he was not a “no-no” boy. He served in the army and was what white American people wanted him to be more than Ichiro or the other characters in the novel, but he was kind of alone in a lot of those things.

His characters shatter the Asian stereotypes of the time.

I really admire that about him. That’s probably why the book wasn't very successful. It wasn't what people wanted it to be and what felt familiar to people who were reading it. And that's part of the tragedy—and the miracle of how the book was rediscovered, just in some random shop. We're lucky to have it.

The book was published by Charles Tuttle, which was not an American publisher, and it went without notice. It was worse than panned by critics. Nobody cared about it. And Okada worked on a second novel but died before that could ever become a thing. Years went by, and in the seventies somebody found No-No Boy in a bookshop and resurfaced it. That would have been, like, 20 years after it had been published.

The edition of No-No Boy that I have has an afterward that talks about tracking down John Okada's widow who was surprised to hear that anybody had read the book, and who confessed later that she had burned his second novel because—she had her reasons. There was, I'm sure, a lot of disappointment over his rejection by the literary public, grief over his death, all of those things. And that's what makes it so sad—that John Okada and everybody that knew him died thinking he was an utter failure at this, and now that his work is so influential to so many people. I guess there is justice in that, but it's also quite tragic. He never knew the impact that it had on people.

The ending of No-No Boy has that same sense of dual-fated frustration to it.

The ending is one of the strangest, weirdest, happiest, and saddest things that I've read. In some ways it's very unfulfilling. We end up with so many questions. There's so much precarity and fear over what's gonna happen to this character that we spend so much time with and that you come to really care about, but in a couple of lines he makes it both hopeful but also kind a realization of the uncertainty of the future.

You can have fulfillment without there being actual narrative fulfillment. You can still be satisfied by this ending while also having had things taken away from you or questions that linger. If you feel at the end that you're okay with it, then the questions are okay to leave open. My favorite part of this novel is the ending.

Jennifer Egan on Edith Wharton

Wharton has so many books that it’s hard to know where to begin, so I boned up on The Age of Innocence.

She has three great books, in my opinion, and they work really well together. They're all set in New York: The Age of Innocence, The Custom of the Country, and The House of Mirth. She also has a few so-so books and a couple of stinkers, honestly, so her oeuvre is really uneven. But it's sort of amazing how The House of Mirth—which was her first great book—came about, because she basically got slotted in with a really harsh deadline because someone else had dropped out of the lineup at Scribner, and so she was under this tremendous pressure, and it wrested from her such an incredible masterpiece.

What about her writing do you find most striking?

I think if I had to pick one thing that makes her such a role model for me, it's that she does so many things well on the level of the sentence. There's so much complexity and intelligence, and often humor. She is so funny.

She has a kind of humorous appreciation for her own caricatures.

It's true. She verges on the edge of caricature sometimes, and there is a kind of affection to the portraits. The Age of Innocence is a historical novel set in the 1870s of Wharton's youth but it was published in the 1920s, into a world that is entirely different from the one she's depicting. Mrs. Manson Mingott is a woman who is an eminence, a typical grand dame of this world, but she and the whole world are long gone, and so there's kind of collective nostalgia, affection, but also mockery. And that's Wharton's hallmark: on the level of the sentence, she does fantastic work with characterization. She gets the fact that people are basically contradictory, that we are not quote unquote “consistent characters.” And I would even go so far as to say that the defining qualities of each of us probably have to do with our contradictions—the ways in which our qualities don't add up. She's great at that.

But she also is always dealing with huge issues. The House of Mirth—which is one of my favorite novels; probably the first work of Literature, capital L, that I read on my own—is about the tyranny of an economy in which women had very little agency, but one source of power that they had was physical beauty. In order to really capitalize on that, one had to marry within a certain timeframe to a certain kind of person or one slipped through the cracks. That's the story she tells, and it's so devastating.

Her work often feels deceptively superficial at first, but as you read it becomes increasingly multi-dimensional.

It’s interesting, because if you think about what other books were being published at the same time as The Age of Innocence, in a way she was old-fashioned. Ulysses was published the same year. Modernism was in full throttle. You don't feel that in her, except to the degree that I think there is an awareness of the fact that perception creates reality—that we make the world with our perception of it, and in a way that's sort of what is revealed about Newland Archer. When we start to realize that the people around him know far more about what's going on in his mind and around him than he does. He feels like this kind of mastermind, but it's his perception creating a reality that is not that is not accurate. And I think, in a way, that is a kind of modernist observation—the notion that reality is subjective.

I've tried to emulate that multi-dimensional quality of her prose: the fact that it's smart and vivid from the level of the sentence to the level of the whole. It’s so hard to do that. And the result is, since fiction basically is an act of compression, to try to pack as much of the variety of life and perception as possible into a relatively small space—she does that, and the result is power. To somehow wring power out of the prose on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, and the novel. To have that architectural soundness that begins with the very smallest building blocks while holding herself to the highest standards in terms of what happens on the level of the paragraph, the chapter, the book, and the whole.

Here's another thing. I love the fact that there's so much humor woven through it—the golden threads of humor that are always there on the level of the sentence. Even in a book like The House of Mirth, which is in no way comic, there's comedy all along. I really admire the ability for a book to hold more than one tone. Again, the compression is about doing opposite things at the same time. That's what really gives something power. And that's something I think about a lot. How can something be nonsense and make perfect sense? How can something be funny and terrible? It’s always better if you're doing more than one thing. That's where power comes from.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.

Read More Writers Talking Writers

Chuck Palahniuk on Ira Levin and Claire Dederer on Laurie Colwin

Karl Ove Knausgård on Jorge Luis Borges and Olga Ravn on Doris Lessing

Valeria Luiselli on Juan Rulfo and Mauro Javier Cárdenas on Leonora Carrington

Roxane Gay on Marguerite Duras and Kaveh Akbar on Amos Tutuola

Emily St. John Mandel on Irène Némirovsky and Sarah Rose Etter on Tove Ditlevson