Canadian writer and FLARE contributor Durga Chew-Bose has just published her first book Too Much and Not the Mood ($25, Harper Collins). But rather than telling you how her narrative style weaves memories together with quotable prose in a way that feels like you’re stepping into her wandering mind, I’ll just let Lena Dunham do this intro.
“Our generation has no one else like Durga Chew-Bose: a cultural critic who isn’t afraid to get personal, a romantic nostalgic with a lemony twist who applies her brilliance to life as it is currently lived,” writes Dunham on the back of the book jacket. “It’s a profound and glorious relief to encounter this book.”
Chew-Bose’s collection of essays totals 221 pages, but it feels like each word has been carefully selected—so much so that we reached out to the author to find out just what was going through her mind when she put pen to paper.
How was writing a book different than writing for online?
It’s a different experience to be with something for an extended period of time before you have your audience. You’re kind of alone with your work and your ideas. Of course, you’re working with an editor but there isn’t that immediate impact and reaction from readers, so that was definitely a change. It was also just a really great opportunity to not feel like my writing needed to be pegged to anything relevant or have it responding to anything current. That was pretty freeing.
Because the stories aren’t pegged to any particular event, did you go in knowing what you wanted to write or did it evolve as you went—what was your process like?
I had ideas and stories from my childhood that I definitely thought one day I might use or that I might put somewhere. I didn’t know necessarily that it was going to be in this book, but I definitely knew that I wanted to write about my family. I think I knew more what I didn’t want to do than what I wanted to achieve with it. I wanted to write a book where the essay wasn’t devoted to one topic and there wasn’t one canopy topic. In fact, I really tried to avoid that. That’s probably why it shoots into many different parts of my brain and my heart and it seems sometimes like a series of tangents, but I think there are overall themes that get repeated.
In the book you get quite personal, writing about both your family and many of your friends. Did you research those stories and go back and speak to the people that were there?
I decided this wasn’t going to be a family history or a memoir in that way. That just doesn’t interest me in writing in general, that type of level of accuracy and getting caught up in that instead of capturing the mood and the feelings associated with a situation. I did confer with my parents a little bit, particularly for the content about my grandparents because I wanted to be more careful with that. But for the most part, I very much treated my memories as something I could mine and elaborate on, irrespective on if I had it exactly how it was.
Is that why some of your friends are described but not named?
It wasn’t like I can mention this person but not that one. It wasn’t that deliberate. It was just a question of rhythm or sometimes it’s just more of a challenge for me as a writer to find a way to describe someone without just giving them a name. Maybe that means capturing them in the moment or what they stood for in that time. It was less intentional in that way—more like it seemed better to describe someone maybe in terms of a period in my life instead of what their name is.
In the book, there’s a few instances where you let us into your writing process. Why did you want to share that with the reader?
It was part of what I wanted this book to be, which was not just about ideas or stories but sort of this inside out version of writing. I wanted the process of getting it out to run alongside the telling of my life. So much of writing is working through it, not in the sense of working through my feelings but finding a way to puzzle together my thoughts. It’s always appealed to me to step out of narrative and focus on the actual act of writing. I think it’s so tangled with every other aspect of your life when you’re a writer.
Lena Dunham read some of the essays in this book early on and gave you a glowing quote on the back of the book jacket. What is the best piece of advice she’s given you as a writer?
She’s definitely one of the first people I told [about the book] when the opportunity presented itself. I felt like I was being launched into this no man’s land so she was someone I contacted to relay the good news, because she’s a good friend that would also have good advice for the next step I should take.
What did you learn about yourself through writing this book?
I learned really practical things, which right now feel just as important as the deep emotional things. I learned about what I can take on and what I can’t. I learned that I could achieve a lot more than I originally thought—like writing a 90-page essay. Through the writing process, I also learned to find whatever internal flame is inside of you and making sure it doesn’t blow out; to stay true to your voice through the entire process. I think one of my biggest takeaways was that I really had to remain true to that flame and make sure that I didn’t get caught up in wondering what people might think or how they might get bored.
There’s also a personal essay mini-renaissance happening, it feels so silly even saying that, but because of that I felt like I was really part of something. It’s so funny how when you feel like you’re part of something, it’s the quickest way to lose yourself. So questions like How do I keep this mine? and How do I use my voice? were on my mind.
A lot of this book deals with cultural identity. Given the current climate in the U.S. and the discussions around race and identity that we’re having on a seemingly daily basis, have your feelings about your cultural identity shifted in any way since writing it?
Not really. It’s not like I woke up and realized who I am or where I come from. I’ve always been very aware about that and where my family is from and what my concerns are. It’s not very new to me.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, which was lovely. I’m now reading Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye by Andrew Robinson because I’m writing something about Ray’s films, so that’s straight-up research. I’m also reading a collection of Lillian Ross’s work from The New Yorker. I love republished pieces that are bound differently, it’s like you change the context and it’s just a little treat to have.
Read Durga Chew-Bose’s work for FLARE:
Meet The Montreal Babes Behind Indie Art Mag The Editorial
Breaking Bad: Vanessa Hudgens on Her Career Transformation
Hanging With Tavi Gevinson, Clinique’s Newest Spokes-Face