I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The debut novelist on writing a novel that reimagines an otherworldly Western with a new focus on gender and immigration.
In C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold (Riverhead), the fables of the gold-rich American Western are re-told through the lens of an immigrant family. We join two siblings, one female and one gender-fluid, shortly after their father dies. The children carry their decomposing father’s body in a trunk through the hills, looking for a perfect burial site. Zhang’s novel is built upon the body - not only that of the dead father, but also of the sensual, of the senses. Chapters are titled by elements: Salt, Gold, Plum, Blood, Meat, Mud, Blood. Zhang’s sentences possess a rhythm that riffs on the great male masters of the novel, adapted to become wholly her own. When Zhang describes “the startling brown flower” of the father’s decaying ribcage, you’d be forgiven for thinking the phrase was written by Cormac McCarthy. Imagine the American West as a gender-bending collage: Reconstructed, reimagined, and reclaimed. Zhang’s West is both home and not home, both ours and not ours, both gold and not gold, a place between borders, genders, and the American Dream.
— Sarah Rose Etter
Sarah Rose Etter I was really struck by the richness of the language in How Much of These Hills Is Gold, and the complexity of the world you created. How did this novel come to life for you?
C Pam Zhang I woke up one day with this first line in my head. That’s usually how my short stories start. So, I sat down to write the short story, and it turned out I wrote the first chapter. I got that first chapter out fairly quickly, then I put it aside for months because, God knows, no one wants to write a novel.
SRE No, no they do not!
CPZ It’s such an arduous, back-breaking task to write a novel.
SRE It’s lunacy to write a novel.
CPZ It is. But that first chapter really haunted me. Those characters were still alive to me. So finally, after months of all this percolating, my mind had crystallised the entire arc of the book. I finally sat down and the novel came out in this big rush.
SRE Isn’t it the craziest feeling when it pours out like that?
CPZ Yes, certain parts of the book are like that. But to me, the weirdest thing about writing a novel is that you cannot hold the entire novel in your mind at once. It’s impossible. A novel is bigger than you, and it is hopefully smarter than you.
SRE Writing a novel feels like you’re creating a puzzle by yourself that you then must also solve by yourself.
CPZ Every novel also arrives with its own set of constraints. There was definitely a point where I did feel a bit trapped by the form I had chosen for the novel. After a certain point, it’s like: “Well, this is the shape of the puzzle I bought, and I’ve just got to finish it now.”
SRE Another thing that hit me was how isolating it is. It is such an intense, personal process to write a novel. You’re alone and it’s just you with this strangely shaped puzzle. Then you ask other people to come look at it and tell you what they think.
CPZ You really have to go all in. And then what if someone looks at your puzzle and says, “This isn’t even a puzzle, this is a raccoon!” (laughs)
SRE (laughs) “This is just a wild, feral animal you’ve trapped in a cage…get it away from me!” Did you spend a lot of time mapping out the structure for this novel?
CPZ I knew the book should have four sections and where it started and where it ended, along with the major milestones. But I never committed any of that to paper. After I finished the first draft, I did try an outline. But every single time, I just threw the whole outline away because it didn’t make sense any more.
SRE Can you tell me more about that? Because I’m the opposite. I’m so precious. I never want to throw anything away.
CPZ (laughs) I’m used to throwing things away. I spent three or four years laboring over a different novel, which will now never see the light of day. I was so obsessed with making the sentences beautiful in that first novel that it became emotionally hollow - it died, it became a beautiful corpse. My new strategy towards novel writing is that the most important thing to commit to paper in a first draft is that feeling of aliveness and weirdness. The first draft can be ugly, broken, and fucked-up, but it must be alive. As long as the first draft isn’t dead, I can fix it.
SRE That’s such a liberating way to look at it. I always compare it to childbirth. When you have a baby, it’s covered in blood, and viscera and it’s screaming. Then, the doctor cleans it up and cuts the umbilical cord, and you’re handed this cute baby, you see the face for the first time. The first draft is the new infant, the editing is the doctor cleaning up the mess.
CPZ I relate to that because…babies can be really ugly. (laughs)
SRE In terms of editing, I want to know more about your sentences, which also seem to operate with their own logic and rules of language.
CPZ Editing is another game of constraints. The weird syntax of the book arose because from the outset, I wanted to avoid using pronouns. One of the main characters, Sam, has a gender presentation that is unaccepted, and so Lucy, Sam’s sister, is uncertain as to whether to refer to Sam as “he” or “she.” That uncertainty is reflected in the syntax of the book. It was another instance where the novel showed its rules to me, and I followed where it led.
SRE There’s something about this book that is so rich and lush, even the way the chapters are named after things like Plum and Salt. What drew you to those chapter titles?
CPZ The chapter titles only came to me several drafts in. I was in that stage of editing where I felt like the novel was getting baggy, and I needed to make it feel sharp again. I gave each chapter a loose thematic title that helped give shape. But then I realized the novel wanted to explore how trauma and similar themes echo through this family across generations. The same set of chapter titles is used in each section of the book, except for the third. The chapter titles point to the repetitiveness of the tragedy and trauma the family experiences.
SRE Those thematic titles do create a certain logic that feels so specific to this novel.
CPZ It’s also just really fun, right? Like, to your puzzle metaphor: It’s much more satisfying at a craft level to ask: How can I use plum again, but in a different way than I used it before?
SRE When you say that the draft was baggy, and then you had to make it tight again — was that a situation where the first draft was larger and then it shrunk down? A compression?
CPZ It was 80,000 words initially, and then it ballooned a lot in the editing stages where I was trying to tie threads of logic together, and then I forced it back down again. So the final size of the book is a little smaller than when I first began.
SRE That’s always kind of amazing to me, the way the novel gets bigger and smaller, almost as if it were a living organism.
CPZ Something my editor said that I really carried with me: “You, as the writer, have to know more about your book than you necessarily commit to the page.” That just speaks to you, as a writer, needing to have greater authority and command of your novel than the reader does. That sense of authority comes through, even if it’s not explicitly written down.
SRE I always think of it like a film camera. In a movie, you can only see the part of the scene that the camera is trained on, but there’s always so much more beyond the edges of the screen.
CPZ Exactly! I was just reading that Bong Joon-ho did something similar. In Parasite, the poor family at the heart of the movie lives in a particular home. And throughout the movie, you see flashes of that neighborhood, but never anything more than a brief glimpse. But apparently, Ho created characters and backstories for every home on the street, even though the camera never enters those homes.
SRE That’s insane.
CPZ It’s insane, and it’s amazing. But you can feel that. Even though you don’t enter the homes, you do understand that that’s a fully fleshed-out neighborhood.
SRE Since you brought up gender, which plays such a role in your book, I was wondering how these characters came to you, and what gave you the signal that there needed to be this kind of gender presentation and examination of gender? Gender is so woven in with capitalism in this novel because men are inherently worth more and so presenting as a man for one character, Sam, earns more.
CPZ I did want to interrogate the presentation of gender and the “worth” of femininity. That was always the central question to this book. I’ve spent a lot of time considering this false narrative that certain terrible men cling to, which is that despite the obvious fact that there is a pay gap and many gender inequalities that put women at a disadvantage, certain men will complain that “women have it better” because they get more attention, or they get a drink bought for them, or a door held open. There are several characters in my novel that play with gender presentation and power and pose this question: If you’re left with only a very few tools, how can you use them in the best of ways? And the exploration of gender - what it means to be a man or a woman and how that impacts wealth and value - is certainly a crux of the book.
SRE For both characters, their desire for things or place is so influenced by their gender and how they’re perceived in the world, and their soft skills versus when you adopt this kind of masculinity. It felt so contemporary even though the time the book is set in was Gold Rush-era. What was the importance of time and place in this novel for you?
CPZ This novel has been—and rightfully so—labeled as an historical novel, or a Western. That label makes you think of a very specific time period. But I didn’t have a time or place in mind. I wanted to create a mythic landscape that felt timeless, while hearkening back to stories that are so ingrained in the American West and its mythology that the story floats in a place that’s outside of time.
SRE You’re really remixing the West with a new focus on gender and immigration. I was thinking of you as a collage artist.
CPZ I really like your use of the word “collage.” It’s a great way to explain the texture of the book, and also how lineage feels to the two children in the novel. As a child of immigrants, you get only tiny, piecemeal bits of culture, and they’re filtered through a few specific people, often your parents. You often don’t realize until later, as I did, that what you think of as one country’s culture is actually just your parents’ very specific culture. So it’s often warped, and weird, and specific to them. I did want to demonstrate in this novel that there are family secrets floating around, that there’s this disconnection from the culture the parents have left behind. There’s also this disconnection from the culture of this place that the two children are living in that makes their lives feel very much like a collage.
SRE Can you tell me a little bit more about that? How did being the child of immigrants impact this work?
CPZ The family in the novel are the first immigrants of their kind to be in this new land, so they have to create their own mythology, their own culture, and that can be a very lonely thing. An immigrant’s lot in life is ultimately really, really lonely. You end up in this very in-between place where you are neither of the place you left behind nor quite accepted in the place you’re choosing to inhabit. And I personally had that experience, meeting other kids who lived in immigrant families, who—and they may not have been Chinese as I am—but had that sense of dislocation and confusion.
SRE That’s such a good callout. And I was thinking, too, about when we talk about the in-between places, we’re both writers who have full time jobs in tech. How do you fit fiction into your full-time work? How that might change or influence what you end up writing about?
CPZ We’re definitely floating between two different worlds, huh?
SRE Another type of Gold Rush, right?
CPZ Exactly. The modern Gold Rush. My family came to California in the midst of the dot-com Gold Rush, which was another era of people looking for wealth and fortune in California. I balance having a full-time job and writing by compartmentalizing. I like my job and I like the people who work there. But the biggest breakthrough for me has been realizing that I don’t need to give all of myself emotionally to my job. My writing and my art are what emotionally feed me, and in those parts of my life I want to endeavor to be vulnerable and open and honest and searching. I used to want to be completely myself at work, pour myself into it, and it just hurts, because a job is its own weird sort of culture that sets up its own sort of goals and standards for what is valued. It only ever hurt me to try to make those two mix, and now I understand they shouldn’t mix and that’s OK. It is OK as an artist to have a job that you use to fund your art. The notion that artists have to be “pure” is a very classist one, because the only people who would get to be pure in that way are people who come from wealth already.
SRE It does take time, and it’s actually something that came with age for me, to realize there could be this division between what I do as a day job and where my art is made.
CPZ Do you feel any tension in that division for yourself?
SRE Some days, I have this longing to just sit down and write when I know I have to go to work. I do feel pulled that way. We kind of have this advice handed down to us from the great male writers: “Just put your ass in the chair every day and write.” But I do wonder now, with the way that capitalism works, and with the number of jobs and hours we’re all working, how all possible is that? How does having a full-time job impact your writing routine?
CPZ How Much of These Hills is Gold was largely written in a year I took off from working tech jobs. I was able to put my butt in a chair for many hours for many days in a row. More importantly, I could have a brain that was not distracted by anything else, even when I wasn’t writing. I’m currently in the midst of writing new work, and that one is not succeeding in the same way. I work on for a couple of hours every day before I go into the job. At some point, I’ll have to take a longer span of time to try to hold the new work in my head at once.
SRE I did have one more world-building question about How Much of These Hills Is Gold. What were you listening to while you wrote it?
CPZ I was listening to a three-hour clip of thunderstorm sounds.
SRE What drew you to that?
CPZ Any songs with lyrics were too distracting, because they got in the way of the rhythm of the language. Almost anything with rhythm and shape was too distracting.I needed epicness and crashing sounds and largeness, so I just listened to thunderstorm sounds on repeat. The sound of hundreds and hundreds of thunderstorms was the soundtrack for this novel.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold is available for purchase here.
Sarah Rose Etter is the author of Tongue Party, a short fiction collection, and The Book of X (Two Dollar Radio), her debut novel. The Book of X was selected as a Best Book of 2019 by Buzzfeed, Thrillist, and Vulture, and was long-listed for 2020 The Believer Book Award. Her fiction, interviews, and essays have appeared in Gulf Coast, Guernica, VICE, The Cut, Electric Literature, and more. You can find out more at www.sarahroseetter.com.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee