Interview with Yiyun Li, 2006 PEN/Hemingway Award Winner

Wayne Catan, Brophy College Preparatory

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 ArmsThe Nick Adams StoriesThe Sun Also RisesA 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!


Wayne Catan, Brophy College Preparatory 11/05/2018

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Author's Last Name, Author's First Name. "Title of Post."  THR Blog, The Hemingway Foundation and Society, Date blog was published, Link to blog entry (omit http:// or https://).