Skip to Main Content
Header image

Pik-Shuen Fung on the surprising path to Ghost Forest

By Kobo • June 23, 2022Author Interviews

Pik-Shuen Fung’s novel Ghost Forest is the winner of the 2022 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Literary Fiction.

Ghost Forest includes themes of grief and parental loss specifically—were you conscious of this book speaking to these themes that have been coming up a lot in literary fiction in recent years, or was your focus on your personal relationship to those feelings?

It came from a personal, internal space. I started writing it while I was grieving.

I was in grad school for visual art at the time. I didn’t intend to write a book. I started writing these short vignettes and recording myself reading them on my phone, which I used as voice-over for short video segments showing fragments of Chinese ink paintings from the Yuan Dynasty.

As I wrote more and more, I found I didn’t want to think about the video elements anymore. I focused on the writing and accumulated more and more of these vignettes, which after I reordered them many times eventually became this book.

So it came from my own grief, and my thinking about sound and silence. As I was expanding it I wanted to incorporate a lot of space because that felt like how grief feels. Though it’s a universal experience, we experience it differently and in private. I didn’t want to write about the interiority of the experience. I wanted to be sure there was space for the reader to bring their own emotions and experiences into the reading.

Given your training as an artist in a variety of media and the book being originally conceived as the audio component of a video project, was it obvious from the start that you’d narrate the audiobook?

I was really keen to narrate it myself from the start. I wrote to the executive producer of audiobooks at my publisher and told them I’d really love to narrate this, but I totally understand if they don’t think I’m the right person for this—I sent a clip of me reading a few chapters, like an audition.

So very quickly after that we scheduled two full days for me to record in the studio. I had never read aloud for that long, from ten in the morning until five. I watched YouTube videos about vocal exercises and brought two thermoses of honey-lemon-ginger tea. I tried so hard to be prepared.

I wanted the sound of the audiobook to feel really intimate, and not dramatic. I imagined it feeling soft and natural. So the engineer worked out mic settings and placement that would allow me to speak really softly, which took until about lunch time on the first day. The director told me to order lunch into the studio and I’ll always remember what I ordered: salmon and kale. After lunch I discovered that to get the intimate sound I was going for, the mics were now dialed in to be so sensitive that as my stomach digested each morsel of salmon and kale, the engineer was hearing it in their headphones. For the rest of the day we had to pause and go around the rumblings of my stomach. [laughs]

The chapters of the book feel like they could be poems. Was this there a time that this was ever going to be a book of poems?

I love poetry and admire poets, but I wasn’t thinking about poetry. Because I didn’t study literature, I didn’t come at this project thinking about producing poems. It was really about visual art and sound.

I’m always so flattered when people describe the book as poetic, but I don’t feel I have the type of training or relationship to those traditions to say I’m a writer of poetry.

A lot of reviews of Ghost Forest mention at some point how “slim” it is as a novel. And now as you describe the process of writing it, where you discarded an entire visual element to let it become a novel, I’m wondering about other chapters that may have gotten discarded. Is the novel I read just a tiny slice of a much larger literary work?

There are so many chapters that got cut along the way! [laughs]

In the beginning it was very compact, but as I set out to find a publisher I was advised that it had to be much longer. So I expanded it to nearly double its present length. But then after I found my publisher I cut it down a lot. It’s been expanded and condensed many times.

How much of the book survived all of those expansions and trimmings? Is there a core set of pieces that made it through the that process or did the whole novel turn over through revision?

I think most of the chapters I wrote at the beginning made it through to the book readers have now. When I was trying to make it longer I realized again and again in different ways that I was mostly writing chapters that weren’t necessary.

Are there any pieces that you did write in the attempt to expand it that did make it through?

Yes. In the beginning it was much more focused on the storyline of the father and the narrator grieving. But as I worked through revisions I realized it was also a book about love and joy and there was humour and playfulness and I focused on bringing those elements in towards the end of the revision process. I felt they made the book feel fuller and more nuanced.

Do you as a reader gravitate to short, spare books like Ghost Forest? Or do you prefer things like 900-page sagas?

It depends on my mood. Sometimes with a really long book I feel so immersed for such a long time I feel like I’ve been in another universe. That’s such a satisfying feeling, to stay with characters for so long. But other times I’m in the mood to just finish a whole novel in a day. Especially when I’m travelling I like to read short novels. There’s a time and place for both.

I think readers would love to read more about these characters, especially since we get these little glancing views at the decisions they made in their lives that would be fascinating to explore. Do you see yourself writing more about this family? Do you even want to write another novel?

It’s hard to say since my process is so intuitive. I write from an emotional place, and I follow my instinct to reorder things as the work grows. It feels more liberating to write a lot and look back and see what shape makes sense. ◼

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung

How do you grieve, if your family doesn't talk about feelings?

This is the question the unnamed protagonist of Ghost Forest considers after her father dies. One of the many Hong Kong "astronaut" fathers, he stayed in Hong Kong to work, while the rest of the family immigrated to Vancouver before the 1997 Handover, when the British returned sovereignty over Hong Kong to China.

As she revisits memories of her father throughout the years, she struggles with unresolved questions and misunderstandings. Turning to her mother and grandmother for answers, she discovers her own life refracted brightly in theirs.

View Audiobook    View eBook

Follow us at @kobobooks on Instagram

If you would like to be the first to know about bookish blogs, please subscribe. We promise to provided only relevant articles.