Rachel Khong: How I Write

"What compels me are the books that can seamlessly balance humor with sadness. I think each sharpens the other."
By Allison Futterman | Published: May 25, 2018


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Rachel Khong

Author Rachel Khong. Photo by Andria Lo

First-time novelist Rachel Khong writes about family, love, and loss in her book Goodbye, Vitamin. Told using the form of diary/journal entries, Goodbye, Vitamin is the story of a young woman on the heels of a breakup, who returns home to help care for her father suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Do not let the seriousness of the topic fool you: Khong’s writing finds humor in unexpected places and is often funny and tender at the same time. Recognized as a 2017 best book of the year by Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, and others, Goodbye, Vitamin is one of those instantly absorbing books you will probably finish in one sitting.

Previously, Khong was executive editor at the acclaimed Lucky Peach magazine, and she has a strong background in nonfiction. This San Francisco resident is big a believer in supporting other creative women. “Recently, I opened a shared workspace for women writers and artists called The Ruby. We host events and classes; we feature the work of women chefs and wine/drinkmakers,” she says.

Currently, Khong is working on her next novel, which she describes as “really different from Goodbye, Vitamin – much longer, spanning more time. There are a lot more characters, and a lot more happens.”

Fiction vs. nonfiction

I wrote fiction before I ever wrote nonfiction. I wrote nonfiction to make a living, and that’s why I wrote for magazines and newspapers, and eventually at Lucky Peach, which was a wonderful experience. But fiction was my first love. I wrote my first short story at age 6, about a goldfish. Nonfiction requires logic and more careful thinking; sometimes I have to remind myself to be less self-conscious when I’m writing fiction. You have to turn off the part of your brain that tells you things don’t make sense or aren’t any good. Whereas that voice can be useful in nonfiction writing.

Choosing a journal format

It wasn’t so much that I chose the format as that I didn’t really know much about how to write a novel! Breaking it up into pieces – these smaller journal entries – made it a less daunting task. I knew that if I could collect enough of these small sections, I’d be able to have a novel-length thing. That’s what I called Goodbye, Vitamin for a long time. I couldn’t call it a novel. I called it my “long thing.”

Finding humor

I’ve never been somebody who is able to be purely serious. I get uncomfortable, I shift in my seat, I have to try to crack jokes when I start to feel uneasy. When it comes to my own reading habits, what compels me are the books that can seamlessly balance humor with sadness. I think each sharpens the other.

Self-editing?

All the time. Sometimes I sat down to write and would wind up with fewer words than I started with. Often that was discouraging, but it’s important to remind yourself that it’s all part of the process, and often writing is deleting and distilling.

Writing routine

I write first thing in the morning, with a single cup of black coffee. Usually I’ll set a timer for one hour and work without internet or distraction. I try to hit a target of at least 1,000 words per day, though sometimes it’s much more and sometimes it’s much less. If I’ve written even a few words, I count it a success. I feel worst on the days I don’t write at all, so I try to avoid that feeling whenever possible.

 

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.