Writers’ Program instructor and former student Alison Singh Gee has made a career writing for People, In Style, and the Los Angeles Times, won Amnesty International’s Feature Writing Award for a cover story she wrote on child prostitution in Southeast Asia, and in February published her debut memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing, which has garnered rave reviews. Library Journal called it “a unique and uplifting read that’s as much about traveling to India as it is about finding happiness” and National Geographic Traveler named it a Book of the Month. So what are the secrets to her success? We chatted with Alison recently to find out.
Writers’ Program: What made you choose this subject matter? Why do you think your story rings true for so many readers?
Alison Singh Gee: My Hong Kong-India memoir is about my discovery that my Indian-journalist fiancé grew up in a turn-of-the-century palace outside Old Delhi. When I started mining the idea of being married to the heir of this grand (and moldy) manor in the wheat fields, I realized that I had always been obsessed with houses. It was something I had inherited from my head-in-the-clouds father. He managed to save enough to buy our dream house–a two-story tract home in the San Fernando Valley–but then had to sell it when he became bi-polar and delusional and had to quit working. It was the loss of that dream house that sent me searching all over the world for a place to call home.
WP: The memoir format seems a particular challenge because, not only are you telling a deeply personal story, you have to keep the reader engaged for 300 or so pages! How did you go about structuring Where the Peacocks Sing?
ASG: Memoir writing is about finding a life story’s dramatic narrative arc, its lines of tension, and ideas, revelation and meaning that readers can learn from and relate to. I had to move beyond the pleasing exotic vignettes of time spent wandering Chinese villages and Indian palaces (i.e. beautiful but flat story), and find the painful and fraught lines of tension: Would Alison ever find home? Would she finally find the love she so desperately sought? Would the class and cultural divide between her and her Indian fiancé prove too much to overcome? Once I discovered my core story, the one that propelled the narrative and kept readers turning the pages, my book came to life.
WP: How has your Writers’ Program experience—both as student and teacher—informed and help shape your writing career?
ASG: Writers’ Program classes gave me everything as a writer–approach, structure, camaraderie, connection, contacts. I first heard of the Program when I was working in Hong Kong as a journalist. One of my close journalist friends was working on his first novel and was taking an online fiction class at the Writers’ Program. When I moved home to Los Angeles in 2000, I worked at People magazine as a staff writer by day, and headed straight over to Westwood at night, to classes taught by Bruce Bauman, Samantha Dunn, Jennie Nash and Maureen Murdock. Being part of the Writers’ Program was essential to bringing my story to life and setting me on the path to becoming an author.
WP: Do you have any advice for aspiring memoirists? What’s the best way to get started?
ASG: Really, I suggest signing up for a Writers’ Program class, and giving yourself over to those 10 weeks of instruction. Or find a writing group that can support you and take you forward.
WP: Who inspires you in your writing? Do you have any go-to authors when you need inspiration?
ASG: I read constantly, at least two hours a night. And because I am writing memoir, I am on a steady diet of memoir. My next book, Cooking for the Maharani: Four Continents, Six Iconic Chefs and One Tall Glass of Revenge, is a sequel of sorts to Where the Peacocks Sing. Instead of looking at my life story through the prism of houses, I am now exploring my life via my memories of and experiences with food and cooking. Thus, I have self-curated a stack of fabulous food memoirs: Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunee, On the Noodle Road by Jen Lin-Liu, anything by Anthony Bourdain.
Alison is teaching The Art of Creative Nonfiction in winter quarter. The winter catalog will be available on November 4th.
Katy Flaherty is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (Onsite).