Yiyun Li, 2006 PEN/Hemingway Winner for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Q: You grew up in Beijing, China, and immigrated to the United States in 1996. How did this transition play into your writing career?
A: I would not have been a writer without this move. I came to American for graduate school, and my goal was to get a Ph.D. in immunology and become a medical researcher.
Q: After you received B.S. from Peking University you earned a master’s degree in immunology from the University of Iowa. Then, you earned an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop? What made you change the trajectory of your education?
A: I was a good scientist, but I fell in love with writing in English, so I gave up my science career. I wanted to do something I loved.
Q: Was there anyone at Iowa who guided you during the nascent stage of your writing career?
A: Several teachers at Iowa made me the writer I am today: Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth McCracken, and especially my mentor, James Alan McPherson.
Q: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is about Chinese and Chinese-American characters exploring immigration. You meld history, mythology, and culture into the stories that comprise your debut. How many stories are autobiographical?
A: None of them is autobiographical.
Q: How do you find time to write since you are a full-time professor in Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing?
A: Time is always there if one wants to find. During the school year I don’t write a lot, perhaps a couple hours a day.
Q: Do you have a favorite Ernest Hemingway story or book?
A: Many: A Farewell to Arms, The Nick Adams Stories, The Sun Also Rises, A Moveable Feast,The Old Man and the Sea. I am an avid reader of Hemingway’s work.
Q: Do you remember where you were when you received the news about winning the PEN/Hemingway Award?
A: Yes. It was a very strange week. My younger son, who was a little over one year old then, had some scary seizures and was hospitalized for a couple days. And when we returned home I got a phone call about my winning the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Q: Are you working on any new projects at the moment?
A: I’m working on a novel and finishing a collection of stories.
Q: How can your readers and new readers keep abreast of your latest projects and tours?
A: Well, I should be better at this, but since I am not on social media and I am bad at keeping my website updated, I don’t know if I am so good at that!