The Sweet Flag welcomes Alan Chin, author of Island Song to share some tidbits of his life and writing with us.
Thank you so much for being here today, Alan. Here is the blurb for Island Song from your website:
"According to the tenets of Buddhism, life is suffering, and suffering arises inexorably from desire. In my meditative novel, Island Song, the interplay between craving and pain creates the thematic backbone of this story in one man's journey from desire, to anguish, to a metamorphoses. Like most South-Sea romance stories, Island Song envelops all that is unique to Hawaii, the distinctive people, the fertile land, the mythical history. Yet it stands alone by the way it reveals a rare and dignified portrait of a gay couple struggling to satisfy love within an environment that rages against them."
Jeanne: When and where did your interest in Zen philosophy begin? What was it about Zen that called to you?
Alan: I became interested in Zen back in the ‘80s while living in San Francisco and hanging out with drug-happy people who were searching for spiritual meaning in their lives. I didn’t take it too seriously until the early ‘90s, when I gave up the drugs and began to study and practice Zen philosophy in earnest.
What attracts me to Zen is that it’s not about worshiping any kind of “God” or following a list of “thou shalt nots”. It’s about living a pain-free life. The Buddha didn’t profess to believe in a God, or even a spiritual world after death, and he didn’t consider himself a deity. The Buddha’s first law was that life is painful. The rest of his “laws” and his path is devoted to bringing a person to a place where they can live life without the pain that spawns from greed, envy, hatred and a host of other human emotions. It’s about being in balance with nature, with yourself, with the universe. And of all the different forms of Buddhism, Zen seems, to me anyway, to be the most straightforward approach.
Jeanne: In reading your website biography, you wrote that you wanted to incorporate poetry into your stories. I'm curious about this aspect of your writing. Could you elaborate a bit and perhaps share an instance of this? And, also along these lines, do you write poetry?
Alan: I’ve always admired poets, how they coin a world of meaning, imagery and beauty in a few simple lines. I try to do that with my prose, but it usually comes across as florid description, sometimes pretty good description, but I confess it falls short of being categorized as poetry. I wrote poetry a dozen years ago, but not since I started writing novels. Truth be told, I’m a pretty poor excuse for a poet (that’s not false modesty. If you read my poetry you would agree). I will spare you by not including any examples here.
Jeanne: I am envious of anyone who can travel freely. Of the places you've visited what place was the most exotic; the most fun; the one you've returned to the most often?
Alan: The most exotic was Bhutan, a rather small Himalayan country sandwiched between Tibet and Nepal. It is the last Kingdom where the Government is run by Buddhist priests. In an attempt to hold on to their traditions, they only let 2,500 visitors into the country per year. Each tourist pays $200 dollars per day just to be there above the cost of hotel and food. The country has one airport, and only two planes fly in and out of it. There were no paved roads until 1995. It is like stepping back in time a thousand years. It’s how I think Tibet was before being invaded, first by the Chinese and then by tourism. The landscape is spectacular mountains surrounding golden wheat fields in deep valleys. The people are simple, devout, and loving.
The most fun was going on safari in East Africa. Going out over the African landscape to study the million different animals in their habitat was thrilling. I’ve been so close to a male lion I could have reached up and grabbed his ear. And I got close enough to a Black Rhino that I did touch his horn. I was in a tree house when a giraffe walked up, stuck its foot-long tongue out at me, and then butted my head, knocking me down. I had no idea why he didn’t like me. Maybe he simply didn’t like writers?
The place I’ve returned to most often is Thailand. I love it there. In fact, I just got back from a four and a half month trip to SE Asia, and three of those months were spent in Thailand. I love the hill country in the north around Chang Mai and the Golden Triangle, the beaches on the islands in the south, and also the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. Thailand has everything: great spicy food, warm people, hot sunny beaches, and it’s dirt cheap. My husband and I can stay at a three star hotel for $25.00 per day and eat for less than $10.00 per day. You can’t beat that.
Jeanne: You mention that you're working on a "gays-in-professional-sports story about a gay coach and a straight teenager trying to make it on the straight dominated professional tennis tour." Can you share a bit more about this story? I think the character mix is exceptionally interesting.
Alan: The back story is two tennis professionals who were drummed out of the professional men’s tour because they were lovers and were outed. Years later they are both still lovers and living in San Francisco; one works as a tennis pro at a posh golf and tennis country club, the other is an alcoholic that give private tennis lessons to gay men. They’re both a bit miserable because they can no longer compete with the big boys. Then one of them is approached by a teenaged tennis prodigy and his overbearing, homophobic father. The teenager has a great game but is too mentally fragile to be able to make it on the men’s tour. But what will happen when an openly gay coach decides to buck the homophobic, straight-male dominated sport of professional tennis a second time to teach this boy how to compete? It will surprise you, and hopefully make you examine your own life, your goals, and what you’re willing to do to achieve those goals.
Jeanne: You've been with your partner for over twelve years -- longer than many "straight" relationships. When I interviewed Dorien Grey, one of his wishes was "that more writers...especially straight writers...[would] incorporate stable, monogamous gay relationships into their books." Do you think having such a stable relationship has enhanced your writing? And, for this hopeless romantic, could you share how the two of you met?
Alan: We’ve been together nearly sixteen wonderful years. Durning that time, Herman has been my foundation. I write, and he takes care of everything else in my life. I could not have finished even one novel without his support. Writing for me is hard, it takes all my energy. He takes care of all those little mundane hurdles that life keeps tossing at us, so that I have the time and space to devote myself to my writing. I often feel that both our names should appear on the covers of my books.
How we met? We had the same series at the San Francisco Opera, every Tuesday night. The first opera of the 1994 season I saw him from across the crowded room, and couldn’t breathe for a moment, to the point I became dizzy. He noticed me staring, hell everyone in the room noticed me staring… We didn’t speak that night, or the next week or the next. We just kept staring at each other. You see, he was always in the company of two other men and I assumed he was in a relationship with one of them. It was during the last opera of the ’94 season, the last intermission, our last chance to make contact, and I saw him marching across the room directly to me. I held my breath as he walked up, handed me his card and said, “If you’d like to have coffee sometime, give me a call.” I called the next day. We had dinner two nights later.
Jeanne: Last question. What one thing would your readers be surprised to know about you?
Alan: I’m a romantic softy. The day after gay marriage became legal in California, we marched down to the Civic Center and became the first male/male couple to be married in Marin County, California. I’m very proud of that. Not so much proud of being the first couple, but of being in the front ranks of that movement, and being able to make that social statement about our relationship. And I can tell you that even after living with Herman for over fifteen years, I got choked up while repeating the vows. It was a very emotional experience.
The other thing I’d like to share is that people can find out more about my writing at my website http://AlanChin.net and my writer’s blog http://AlanChinWriter.blogspot.com You can also read about Herman and my travels at http://HermanAndAlan.blogspot.com
Thank you for the opportunity to share with you and the people who visit your blog.
Thank you, Alan. I loved having you visit. Next time, please bring the photo album. :~D