Rammel Chan considers his short story in our March/April issue [on sale now] his first “big break” in his writing career. He’s already experienced that with his primary gig, acting, which he discusses below, in addition to his writing process, inspirations, and much more.
Don’t miss our podcast of “Tourists“—available for free and narrated by Rammel Chan!
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
RC: In 2017, around the holidays, I was flown to Paris for a small TV job. I had to make the trip three times over the course of a month. I would fly out of Chicago on a Thursday, arrive on a Friday, stay for two days, work Monday and then fly out again Tuesday. I felt very lucky; who wouldn’t want a free trip to Paris to appear on TV? But for some reason, perhaps pushed by the anxiety of having to work quickly with strangers, suffering from near constant jet-lag, and only speaking about seven words of French, I found myself becoming a little crazy. I became deathly paranoid that the Parisians could tell I was a tourist.
I knew I was being stupid. Just about everyone in Paris is a tourist. But for some reason I didn’t want them to know. I tried to blend in as best as I could, to become invisible. I spoke none of my bad French to anyone. I didn’t even speak English. I said nothing. Which I think only made me stick out more. I imagined the French waiters and shopkeepers pointing at me with their perfect French faces and whispering to each other, “He’s an unfriendly tourist, isn’t he?”
Not until the very last night, Christmas Eve’s eve, did I finally make a choice to connect with some people: my American and French coworkers. We sat in the hotel lobby, ordered pizza (like good Americans), drank lots and lots of wine, and talked of all the wonderful things we saw in this terribly wonderful city. And we talked about home. The hotel staff, knowing we all worked in TV, took us into the back and gave us shots of a mean-looking coffee tequila in the kitchen. I laughed a great deal and made some nice friends. It was a very special night.
Flying home, Christmas Eve, meditating inside my hangover, I decided I wanted to write about my great Parisian night. But I also decided I did not want to omit my feelings of paranoia and anxiety. I decided that, someone someday might find themselves with the bizarre feeling of being lonely and paranoid in a great, beautiful, ancient city. How could I let them go through that alone?
AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
RC: It was a little bit of both.
I had been tinkering for years with a story idea of two people falling in love and both being worried that the other will discover that each is indeed an alien.
My experience in Paris was the spark that helped give a setting and a structure to the story.
I have also always wanted to explore the use of Universal Translators. It’s such an important technology in many of the worlds we write about. Paris was perfect for this too. Because of the tourists it’s very multicultural and there’s a great plurality of language.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
RC: I relate to the narrator and really the aliens in general. I am first generation. There is a constant sense of otherness that permeates the experience of being from an immigrant family living in the United States. I feel like I’m always outside looking in.
Recently, I attended the Kundiman conference. It is a life-changing workshop where poets and fiction writers who identify as being Asian get together, write, and commune. It was at the conference that I really felt like I was amongst a people who understood my strange upbringing and unique American perspective. In my day-to-day life I needed an explanation for who I was and where I came from but with them, I discovered I didn’t need that. We had an instant shorthand. It really was a lot like aliens in human dress, discovering they’re from the same planet.
I don’t think that that’s a unique feeling. Members of the queer community, immigrants and refugees, people dealing with similar trauma, heck, even people with the same strange sense of humor—when they find each other, when they learn very suddenly that they are not alone—they become flooded with feelings of love and relief.
AE: What is your process?
RC: I wake very early in the morning, even when I don’t want to. I find a certain level of grogginess is necessary to do any writing. I have to be uninhibited but not obnoxious or self-satisfied, like a drunk. I want to be empty of any self-consciousness or judgment. I am the most like this in the morning when I am just shaking off the dust of my dreams.
So, I start the coffee, feed the cats, and then set down to write.
I try to stay groggy for a while and then after I’ve written for maybe thirty minutes, I’ll go pour the coffee and take little sips. As wakefulness begins to take me, I become slowly focused. The gears begin to move. I’ll stop writing, I’ll reread what I wrote. Maybe I’ll edit. I’ll shift gears and move onto a project that I’m less interested in, a commission or a looming deadline, something that needs an attentive eye and a stern hand.
Finally, as the coffee is down to its last cold drops, I discover that I am usually completely awake. With the waking, I am suddenly very judgmental of the things I’ve written. This is how I know I’m done. Judgmental me is never nearly as helpful as he thinks. When he tries to work, he is almost never productive and only ends up feeling bad about what he works on. So, I stop. But at this point, I’ve written a few pages and I’ve fed the cats and had my coffee and the house is now certainly awake and we can all begin our day.
AE: What do you do to deal with writer’s block?
RC: My mentor is a man named Joe Janes. He is an Emmy Award-winning writer, playwright, and improv comedian. He teaches that writing is a lot like improvisational comedy. When you jump into a scene, sometimes you don’t even know what you’re going to say or do, but if you’re honest and truthful in the moment, something is always going to come out. You’re going to make mistakes, sure, and your choices aren’t always going to be funny or even interesting, but whether a choice works or if it doesn’t, you have to be out there on stage to know. Only when you hesitate, do you fail. In this same way, he always taught me that writer’s block is actually a nonexistent problem. Writer’s block is the choice not to jump into a scene, not to go out on stage.
AE: How did you break into writing?
RC: Before fiction I wrote sketch comedy. Last year I wrote a TV pilot that remains unproduced. I still do a little playwriting. Asimov’s is my first big break in writing. I submitted this story, and Sheila Williams seemed to like it. It was my first submission to any lit magazine ever. I feel very lucky and honored.
AE: What other projects are you currently working?
RC: As of this writing I’m working on a story about a man who is infected by a virus from a parallel universe where all things have sentience and exist simultaneously. The virus is forcing him to write a manifesto.
At the time you are reading this, I’m also most likely working on a play. In March, I begin rehearsals for Cambodian Rock Band, a play by the incomparable Lauren Yee.
Also, I have a small recurring part in a TV show that is coming out in the spring. Nobody tells me anything, so not entirely sure when! I know it’s on CBS though.
AE: What are you reading right now?
RC: For culture, I’m reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck because I didn’t get around to it in high school.
For fun, I’m rereading Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.
For research, I’m reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, but it might as well be for fun, cause it’s funny as hell.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
RC: This is advice I like to give actors but it works pretty well for writers too: You’re going to find yourself frustrated about one thing or another when it comes to your craft. Some people will tell you, double down, get into the dirt with your writing, become more disciplined, take workshops, read everything you can, go to AWP and force yourself to write everyday. I think this is sometimes good advice, but I sometimes think the opposite is too. Sometimes, you gotta do something else for a while.
Have a baby, flip a house, learn to make perfect Beef Wellington, get a job working in construction with people you’d never talk to in your life, take a ballroom dance class and get real good. For me, my best work (in writing and in acting) often gets done when my focus in life is on something else and I’m only making art for my own pleasure and not my ambition. Living a full life will offer you all the material you need to do your best work.
AE: How can readers follow you and your writing?
RC: You can follow me on twitter @rammelYES and on instagram @ohhhh.that.rammel