Interview with Long Lim / November 2010
In November 2010, Cold Green Tea Press published What We Miss When We Miss: stories and photographs by Long Lim.
What is the relationship between your photographs and your stories?
I like to think they add depth to one another, while maintaining their own space. It's a symbiotic relationship. Since my writing tends towards being terse and sparse, I use the photos as a way to fill in the gaps between the words or thoughts within the narrative. And on the other side of that, the words fill in whatever is lurking outside or within the image. Depending on what you choose to focus on, one sets the tone or mood while the other seeks to enhance those feelings.
I don't intend for them to be literal representations of one another, like how it is in a magazine or newspaper article, even though it comes off that way sometimes. Most of the time, the photos and stories are created independently of each other and it's not until the very end, that I go back and see what works with that and pair things together.
How much autobiographical material do you include in your stories?
There's a heavy amount of autobiographical material in each story. Not necessarily in the events or places but within the feelings of each character. When thinking of characters, especially the ones in which the stories center on, I tend to pull from my own experience. Of course, since I'm also posting these stories, I have to be mindful of who reads. It's become a habit for me to exploit the people I come across or who are around me. It's also a habit I'd like to break out of though as I'm starting to feel confined and repeat themes or ideas too often.
How does location affect your work?
Location is very important. For photographs, location is critical, as is time. The quality of light is much different in Hong Kong or Taiwan compared to Sacramento or San Francisco. This in turn affects the color tones of the photo and so on. I think it works the same way for the stories. Each location becomes its own character and belies a different set of ideas or emotions. Since my characters tend to be displaced already, I like to have real and concrete places to ground everything on.
What is your writing process like?
It used to be that, I had to get everything done in one night or one sitting. First thought best thought right? I can be a very impatient person. For these particular stories, they were all written in a few hours and sat untouched for months, some of them years. Having posted so consistently for so long, my writing process mirrors the nature of my blog: upload, tag and edit, make public, share and then you're done. It's not until recently that I've learned to take my time and really grind through an idea, sit down and give it time to develop. And live a bit more before going back to revise.
The start of a story usually comes from an image I've come across or have been holding on to (a mental image, not a photograph). There's a lot of questions surrounding what we see hear or even think we know, say a woman waiting for the bus at six in the morning on a foggy day. Why is she there? I'm bothered by these kinds of questions. And I try to answer them when I do write.
When do you know when a story is finished?
One of my former poetry professors always pointed out to us that good writing encapsulates the weight of a life. They're words that I always keep in mind because I feel it's true. Whether it's poetry, a novel, flash fiction or short stories, there should be an implied sense that underneath a character or narrative, there's a substantial bedrock of experience; they have lived through the situations they're put in. The writing is get into this, enough so that you're able to reach some kind of realization about who this person is or the world the occupy. In a way, when they get there, it's also a death to their own previous ideas. When I feel that they do, then I feel more comfortable with saying a story is finished but it doesn't happen often. I leave every story with an uneasy feeling that there's still a lot I've left off the table.
How are your new stories different from your older stories?
Compared to my older stories, I think the new stories are less sentimental and nostalgic. In visual terms, they've gone from warmer tones to colder ones. The characters are much less at ease to say what they want to say and I feel there's more tension within them. They're more reserved. I think what they all have in common is a palpable sense of loss they're trying to come to terms with, yet it's not completely clear to them what that is or how they should reach to it. This was an element in the older stories too but there was also much more hope that they'd be able to regain it. Now, it's more vague.
What I like about the older stories was that there was a lot more imagination and color. I think the writing and atmosphere is stronger now, but it's also a lot more dry and gray. Since the stories here are a mix of old and new, it was bit challenging to go through and revise them so that they'd meet somewhere halfway.
Besides photography and writing, what else are you working on?
I'm working on environmental and field recordings. It's an idea that's been fermenting for a while but it wasn't until recently that I've gone out and actually tried it. So in addition to my camera and journal, a hand held recorder now gets towed along. It's a strange feeling at first to record how a place sounds, say like the BART or a crowded shopping mall and then having the ability to play play it back immediately. Unlike photographs or notes which can be subjective, you're literally capturing the space around you. I think we're use to this visually and it happens without us being aware of it since photos and videos have become so easy to make and are everywhere. But, for our sense of sound, when it's isolated, it's a different story. I want to see how I can integrate this with my writing and photographs to add some movement to my work without actual movement. It's fun.