Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko is the author of The Leavers, a novel which was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction and won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York TimesBuzzFeedO. Magazine, and elsewhere. She has been awarded fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and the MacDowell Colony, among others. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.

“Personal Archives,” an interview with Lisa Ko

This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Phoebe Nguyen. Of the process, she said, “Memory Piece offers a stunning portrait of the intertwined lives and enduring friendship of three women. With exquisite prose, Lisa Ko delivers a radical narrative of hope, love, and profound human insight. Readers are transported into a world that feels both familiar and strikingly original. Memory Piece is not just a novel, but a work of art.” In this interview, Lisa Ko talks about the images in her book, crafting characters, and her relationship with success. 

Superstition Review: Could you elaborate on your creative process for inhabiting the complex minds and emotions of Giselle, Jackie, and Ellen within the narrative of Memory Piece? How did you ensure that each character’s voice remained both authentic and distinctive throughout their intertwining journeys from youth to adulthood? 

Lisa Ko: I wanted each of the sections to maintain a unique style and tone, and that helped hone the narrative voices and keep them distinct. Giselle’s section was written in the style of an artist’s biography, detailing in discrete scenes the development of her artistic practice through the years of her childhood and young adulthood. Jackie’s section was more compressed time-wise, taking place over one year, and written in present tense, in line with the heightened anxiety and drama of working in the early dot-com industry during that time. Ellen’s section took place during an even tighter period of time, over the span of several months, but had a more nostalgic and reflective feel.  

SR: What motivated the shift from third-person narration for Giselle and Jackie to first-person for Ellen while writing this novel?

LK: My intention for the book as a whole was that the structure would mimic the feeling of moving through time over the decades, from a mundane 1980s suburban childhood to the rush of tech optimism at the turn of the century to a “frog in boiling water” effect for the 2040s section, with the realization that decades have passed and you’re in the same house in the same city, but everything around you has irrevocably changed. Arguably, Ellen is the protagonist of the novel, and receiving and remembering memories of the past allows her to find the strength to dream a new future, so it felt fitting to have her section written in the first person.

SR: The concepts behind Giselle’s performance art were fascinating to read. Where did the inspiration behind “MALL PIECE,” “MEMORY PIECE, ” and “DISAPPEARANCE PIECE,” originate?

LK: Giselle’s performance art pieces were inspired by the work of the artist Tehching Hsieh, who is best known for doing year-long art pieces like “Cage Piece” and “Rope Piece” (in which he lives in a cage for a year and spends a year tied to another artist with a rope, respectively), as well as conceptual artists like On Kawara, whose “Today” series of date paintings spanned almost 50 years. I’ve always been drawn to art like this in how it subverts the idea that art work is not “real work” by making the labor, and the passage of time, central to the art itself. I think Giselle’s pieces are also her response to grappling with art making under capitalism—how do you solve the problem of needing time to make art yet also needing money to buy time and needing time to work?  

SR: In a blog post for Literary Hub, you wrote, “Rejection has never been hard for me. It was success that felt challenging.” How do you define success, and in what ways has your relationship with it evolved?

LK: It’s interesting, because before the publication of Memory Piece, I wanted to reflect on what success meant to me—even when we say we want a book to “do well,” what does that actually mean? What I came up with was that I wanted readers to connect with the book and resonate with it, and through the publication process, I wanted to feel joy and connection—with readers, friends, and community—and to find a sense of fulfillment in the practice of novel writing. And I would say that all that has come true! 

SR: I found the photos included in Memory Piece to be captivating, often finding myself returning to them as I progressed through the novel. How did you select the images that appear in the novel? Furthermore, how did you choose the photos available on your website’s “Time Capsule!” section, which offers readers further insight into the environment of Memory Piece?  

LK: I wanted the images that appear in the novel to tell a story on their own and provide clues or breadcrumbs to both the reader and Ellen—as the recipient of the images from Jackie and Giselle—about the trajectory of her life and her work. I thought about what kinds of images I wanted to include—I wanted an image of surveillance, something else representing the garden Ellen ran, another image reflecting the community work days at Sola to remind her of that—and then I either created or sought out photographs that fit those needs.

For the Time Capsule section, I went through my own personal archives and chose images that felt representative of different facets of the past portrayed in the book, such as art, tech, music, NYC, etc.

SR: During your interview with Late Night Lit, you mentioned that you crafted numerous drafts and endings while writing Memory Piece. Could you describe some of these alternative endings that did not make their way into the final draft?

LK: I didn’t necessarily make it all the way to the ending of these alternative versions, but some of the draft versions included one in which Giselle dies young and Jackie reflects back on this years later; one that is narrated from multiple points of view, including Jackie’s colleague Deth; one where Jackie, Ellen, and Giselle form a performance group; and one that involved actual time travel. I also wrote and eventually deleted scenes of Jackie in college, Ellen as a tour guide of “squatter history” in the 2040s, and Giselle living on the West Coast.