Being Invested in the Success of Others - 10 Questions with Writer Laura Chow Reeve, Recipient of the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers
"Butterfly in the sky. I can go twice as high..." If you're of a certain age group, the chances are high that you're already singing the lines that follow those words - as well as affectionately reminiscing about the television series for which those words served as the opening line to the theme song. That show was PBS's "Reading Rainbow," hosted by LeVar Burton.
From 1983 until 2006, "Reading Rainbow" served as an educational and entertaining production that encouraged children to read. The show provided elementary level discussions around themes, and book recommendations were made by children who participated in the program. Imagine how you would feel if you were one of the countless children turned on to books and reading through the series and years later you heard LeVar Burton reading YOUR work on a publicly published platform. That's the story of writer Laura Chow Reeve.
Reeve received her Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing, graduating Magna Cum Laude, from Bryn Mawr College, a women's liberal arts college located in a suburb of Philadelphia. While pursuing her undergraduate degree, Reeve worked as the Editor at a regional literary magazine. Reeve then attended University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where in 2016 she received her Master's Degree in Asian American Studies.
2017 has been a significant year for Reeve. The year has brought some life changes, such as moving from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, as well as national recognition for her work. In addition to being featured on an episode of "LeVar Burton Reads," Reeve was one of 12 writers to be published by PEN America in the anthology "PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017" published by Catapult, a publisher whose focus is to nurture emerging talent. She was also the recipient of the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.
Reeve believes that the arts can serve as a medium to advance issues surrounding social justice, equity, and community bonds. She currently serves as a member of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance's Board of Directors, an organization she first became involved with in 2012. Girls Rock Camp Alliance is an international 501(c)3 whose shared mission is to empower girls and women using the tools of music education to foster self-esteem and confidence. There are 90+ active Girls Rock camps throughout the world, including Girls Rock Jacksonville.
10 Questions with Laura Chow Reeve
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
I think I’m still figuring that out myself. As of right now, I mostly try to write and read as much as I can. I’m enjoying figuring it out as I go along.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic endeavors?
Writing, especially out of an academic program, has confirmed that I am a persistent person, maybe even a stubborn person. I’ve learned how to be vulnerable through my writing.
How do you define success in what you do?
I want to think about success as more collective than individual. Success is making space for other writers and artists and building a world where people have the resources to create what they need. I will feel successful when I see others succeeding and winning, and I feel a really genuine joy and celebration of them and their work and they feel it for me too. It will look like abundance rather than scarcity.
Do you write more by logic or intuition and what comes first character or theme?
Definitely intuition. I do not plan out my stories. Sometimes I have an idea of how a story will end or what it is building up to, but not always.
What does it mean to you to have your work recognized at a national level and how do you continue this momentum moving into 2018?
It’s definitely exciting, and I feel very grateful. I’m glad that folks have access to my work and that I was able to share my writing with new people through PEN, Catapult, and LeVar Burton’s podcast. Moving into 2018, I’m trying to not put too much pressure on myself. I don’t want to go into next year thinking I have to somehow “top” what I did this past year. I’m just excited to keep working, hustling, and writing stories that feel honest and urgent.
How has constructive criticism assisted your development as a writer and what channels or networks do you explore to garner feedback on your work?
Constructive criticism and feedback have been essential to my development as a writer. I know people often think of writing as a solitary endeavor, and it definitely can be, but community is also super essential to being a writer. My published work has had so many other eyes on it, and so many people helped each draft get better and better. Especially as a queer person of color, it has felt essential for me to build community with folks who share those experiences.
In 2016 I went to the Voices of Our Nation (VONA) workshop, a writers workshop specifically for people of color, and it was so transformative. I continue to keep in touch with people I met in that workshop. We continue to share our work and give each other feedback. I feel invested in their success and their growth as writers. It has felt so good to feel like I have folks who have my back, who see me, and who understand what I’m trying to do.
Like most people of a certain age group, I'm certain that LeVar Burton played an immeasurable role in facilitating a relationship between yourself and books. Can you describe how it felt to hear him narrate your short story "1,000-Year-Old Ghosts" in his podcast "LeVar Burton Reads" and how did this opportunity come to fruition?
I was very emotional when I first heard LeVar Burton say my name and talk about my work. He did such an amazing job, and he treated my work with so much respect and care. It felt surreal to hear someone else read my story out loud, and I was so immersed in his interpretation of the story that it felt new to me.
How is writing a novel different than writing short stories and is writing an energizing or exhausting practice for you?
I’ve primarily written short stories. I do have the very beginning of a novel, but because it is such a large project that involves a good amount of historical research, I haven’t done a lot of the actual writing yet. I think I’ve been a little more timid in my approach to this novel. I feel less sure of myself, but I don’t think it will always feel that way.
Writing is definitely an energizing practice for me. Sure, there are moments when I’m tired, anxious, or stressed, but the practice itself has never made me feel exhausted.
You moved to Jacksonville last year and are currently working on short stories about Florida. What brought you to Jacksonville and what inspires you to write about this region? Additionally, do you feel that there are connections between life in Florida and the genre of magical surrealism?
I moved here to be with my partner. We had been dating long-distance for a little over a year, and I had visited Jacksonville before and really fell in love with Florida. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so inspired by a place before, and I’m excited about the ways Florida has become a character in some of my newer work.
I think there is something magical about Florida, something super haunting about it. Being in the South, and being a state that is often the butt of a joke, I have felt the power that this place and its people have. While it can be a difficult place to live in, especially for certain communities and people, it feels like there is resistance in its soil.
I think I feel that most when I’m in Florida nature, when I’m building connections and community with other Florida queers and POC. For me, that is what makes Florida a great setting and character in writing that might be considered magical realist or surrealist. There is something otherworldly about Florida, and I feel really honored to have witnessed the ways people create and build here.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow the city’s creative economy?
I want to see those most impacted by systemic oppression to be centered. I want to hear and see artists of color, queer and trans artists, disabled artists, immigrant artists, artists who aren’t from middle and upper class backgrounds, women; I want to see non-normative work and creative practices celebrated. And, maybe most of all, I want to see those artists and creators getting paid for their work and their labor.