Ling Ma is a pandemic prophet. When the author’s critically acclaimed debut, Severance — a wry crossover between office satire and mass-infection dystopia — came out in 2018, Ma never anticipated the second wave of attention it would get a year later when dystopia became reality. She started Severance while working as a Playboy fact-checker in 2012, drafting it over several summers and taking inspiration from her string of thankless office jobs. By comparison, she wrote most of her new short-story collection, Bliss Montage, in creative bursts during the pandemic, crafting speculative premises out of her most anxiety-laced dreams. “Severance feels a little bit cooler and more reptilian to me,” Ma tells me. “This book is a lot warmer and more mammal-like.”
Surrealism is never a gimmick in Bliss Montage; instead, it seeps nonchalantly into ordinary life: a woman and her husband live in a mansion with her hundred ex-boyfriends; a woman sleeps with a yeti; another falls pregnant and vacations to Miami with a virile baby arm hanging out of her. Ma underpins the fantastical with complicated emotional relationships, like the frenemy-ship between two Chinese American girls who take invisibility drugs in “G.” Even in the collection’s two realist stories, characters attempt the unthinkable and the impossible: The narrator of “Oranges” follows an abusive ex around after spotting him in a grocery store, and in “Peking Duck,” a woman tries to capture her immigrant mother’s voice for an M.F.A. story — a voice Ma suggests might be fundamentally out of reach to the second-generation (and 1.5-generation, like Ma herself) kids writing those works.
Bliss Montage, available September 13, gets its title from historian Jeanine Basinger, who coined the term in her 1993 book, A Woman’s View, as a way to describe a cinematic interlude of women’s pleasure. Basinger writes, “The leading lady can be seen laughing her head off, dressed in fabulous clothes, racing across the water in a speedboat, her yachtsman lover at her side … [it] is a small piece of action, her marginal territory of joy.” Ma tells me how the montage, now a mainstay of rom-coms, was once a critical part of the outdated woman’s-morality-tale genre: “It’s, like, if a woman has an affair, she’ll fall off a cliff later. Something like that.” In these eight stories, Ma investigates the crossovers of anxiety and pleasure, perching her characters on a cliff at the edge of joy and exploring what would happen if they were allowed to stretch their legs there for a while.
Severance came out in 2018; in it, an infection without a cure slowly overtakes the population. How did it feel to become a pandemic prophet?
At times I felt I was dreaming. I was surprised by some of the ways the book resonated with what was going on. I thought the coincidence about sickness coming from China was overblown. But more significantly, the resonances about work, especially during the Great Resignation struck me.
This is your first story collection. How did your creative process change between writing a novel and writing short stories?
Except for “Yeti Lovemaking” and “Los Angeles,” I wrote these stories during the pandemic. During that time, I pared down my life and routines, so writing was very simple. I would get up and do two shifts a day for almost a year — just waking up and going to the back room of the apartment. I wrote Severance over the course of four years, so Bliss Montage feels to me more of a concentrated, more intense burst.
You’ve spoken about how many of the stories came from your dreams. Can you speak more about your process?
Many of the stories did come from dreams, at least the initial premise. You can’t just transcribe a dream; they tend not to follow narrative logic. So I’d take an element from my dreams, usually the element that caused me the most anxiety, and inhabited it. With many of these stories, I had scraps or scenes down that languished for years, and I needed some critical distance to understand how to write the stories or what they even were. During the pandemic, there was something about being so removed from my normal life, friends, and family; it was like being suspended in a vacuum. As a writer, you need that detachment to see a story clearly.
What types of dreams inspire you to write stories?
“Returning,” about a woman trapped in an airport while her husband might have left her there while taking her documents and passports, was a premise inspired by a dream. I was thinking a lot about how the heteronormative narrative for women involves a lot of waiting: waiting to be married, to have kids. I had that dream around the time I was getting married. For “Tomorrow,” I had a dream that I was pregnant, and during a routine prenatal visit, the doctor tells me, “Today’s your due date. You have to push.” So I push. An arm pops out, and the doctor says, “Oh, there’s been a clerical error. Your due date isn’t for months.” So this arm is sticking out of me; I remember the sensation of walking around and sitting down very carefully, trying not to upset anything. I made the baby arm into a story that touches on the anxieties of the incompetence of doctors and the U.S. health-care system and what it would be like to have a kid in this world. The writing process felt straightforward, and the way the sentences sounded and the specific mood — all of that came from the dream, even if it wasn’t an exact replica.
I love that she goes to Miami with the baby arm hanging out of her.
I was in Miami in February 2020 to give a reading. We were reading the Times report about COVID in China, and it seemed certain it would make landfall. What was odd was the denial that it wasn’t going to spread. It was a very strange time. And Miami was strange, in the sense that Miami’s going to be underwater one day, and maybe we’re going to have a pandemic? It was a very odd time. My trip to Miami was completely overcast; it wasn’t Miami-like at all. The idea of being someplace festive but also having this specter of doom hanging over you.
That’s a good description of places in Florida in general.
It’s very applicable.
The stories are girded by a sense of Surrealism — street drugs that make users invisible, husbands who speak in dollar signs, burial rituals in fictional countries — but also by very real, often fraught relationships. I’m thinking of the toxic friendship in “G” or the relationship between the narrator and her abusive ex, Adam, in “Oranges.” How do you strike a balance between realism and Surrealism?
I felt like the stories could be as real or outlandish as they wanted, but I also had to transcend the gimmick. A story called “Yeti Lovemaking” is inherently gimmicky, but I thought I could transcend it if the stories felt emotionally anchored and rooted in realism. It’s the same with Severance: We start out with a surreal gimmick — girl working through a zombie apocalypse — but the emotionality and voice make it feel like a piece of realism. That was my approach with most of these stories. I started out as a writer working on more traditional forms of realism, but it didn’t feel exciting. Introducing speculative elements often forces some of the questions you’re thinking about more quickly than otherwise. “Oranges” is a story pairing with “Los Angeles.” Both are about abuse, but “Oranges” is straight-up realism. I was trying to circle around some of the same topics and questions by using these different methods, but I do feel more comfortable in the speculative approach.
In “Office Hours,” students in the main character’s seminar debate what fantasy is and allows — one student calls it an escape; another suggests that it’s a privilege, a way to duck out of real life. Did you find the Surrealist elements were freeing in any way?
I’ve been thinking about that myself. My entry point into most of these narratives is fantasy and pleasure. So for a story like “Los Angeles,” the fantasy is never actually having to break up with any of your exes. There’s a strange wish fulfillment there. In a story like “G,” that fantasy to me is how pleasurable it would be, as a woman, to be invisible sometimes — maybe how freeing it could be to be unseen or un-assessed. I started thinking about trying to plan the physical sensation of invisibility and sort of how buoyant that may feel.
The friendship in “G” is so complicated. There’s love, envy, desire, care. How did you cultivate it? Have you had similar relationships in your own life?
I don’t know if I tried to make it accurate to my personal friendship, but I did have a friend who every time we saw each other, we’d always get high. I was also thinking about how growing up in Chinese American communities felt very competitive. Parents put their kids in competition. It was always “This person went to Harvard”; “This person went to Stanford”; “This person did so well at their piano recital.” I wanted to take that sense of competition and apply it beyond academics, to body issues between these two young and pretty Chinese American girls. I wanted to show their rivalry, but also their affection, and talk about issues of assimilation because one girl immigrated to the U.S. at an older age. I always knew I was going to write a story involving them spending one night in New York together, a Before Sunrise situation, but for the longest time I didn’t know what was going to happen. It wasn’t until I realized that they’re going to take this fantastical drug that it clicked. I deleted scenes of them going to parties and seeing friends and kept it on those two: two girls, totally invisible, enjoying their night — up to a point. I thought about how they might roam around New York. Though it’s sad, they mostly stay on the Upper West Side, so it’s not that enjoyable.
At least they go to Sephora.
Every time I go out, there’s always a Sephora. And I always end up in the Sephora somehow.
What are the challenges of capturing a female friendship?
I don’t know if I totally captured it. That might be one of the most complicated relationships in the book. With my friend, I always wondered, Why do we drug ourselves when we’re together? Anyway, apparently there’s tons of recordings of me when I was high. Maybe one day those will come out and that will be a more accurate portrayal of friendship. There’s hours of us having conversations.
What was the most difficult story to write and why?
“Oranges.” There’s this moment in the story in which the narrator has an epiphany about why her ex, an abuser, did what he did, years later in retrospect. I thought the story was moving toward that epiphany. But in the process, I learned it didn’t absolve anything for the narrator. Even though she has this sudden intellectual understanding about this man, and this compulsion to impulsively disclose what he did online and to his current girlfriend and exes, understanding his character is not necessarily catharsis. It doesn’t bring closure. That was surprising to me.
As someone who went through the M.F.A. program, I love the way you write the workshop in “Peking Duck.” Does this reveal anything about your real experiences at Cornell’s M.F.A. program?
No, but I have, in general, had toxic workshops; usually the question is about who has the right to write about a given topic. I’ve also had really good, constructive workshops. It’s a question of good chemistry in the end. In this story, I wanted to show two Asian American writers in a workshop dealing with this burden of representation. They’re both frustrated by it. And one character kind of takes it out on the other in some ways, which felt true to my experiences.
Also in “Peking Duck,” the narrator reworks and reworks the same story about her immigrant mother. Can she ever get it right?
The question of who has the right to write a story is a question between second-generation immigrant writers and their parents. It’s usually the second generation, who are more Americanized, who tell the immigrant narrative. I wanted this story to serve as a placeholder, to raise doubt how accurately that generation can portray their parents’ experience in English and often facing a western audience. The last section is meant to be ambiguous: Is it the main character writing her mother’s experience? Is it the mother’s rendition of her experience? After Severance was published, people just assumed that a lot of Candace Chen’s background was mine and that the portrayals of the parents also were from my personal experience. I felt uncomfortable that people thought I was portraying my mother. In this story, I was thinking of how she doesn’t really get to set the record with a work of writing. I wanted to create a space to cast doubt.