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Author Ling Ma says she let ‘anxiety lead me’ while writing ‘Bliss Montage’ – Orange County Register

Nobody had a normal pandemic. But Ling Ma’s was weirder than most.

A year and a half before Covid-19 hit the U.S., Ma published her first novel, “Severance.” The book told the story of Candace Chen, a young woman working a dead-end publishing job when a mysterious virus, first observed in China, paralyzes the world. Candace’s employer, like a lot of other businesses, is reluctant to acknowledge the pandemic, preferring to focus on its bottom line.

Sound familiar?

“I can’t say that I’m clairvoyant,” Ma says via telephone from her Chicago home. “I definitely didn’t think I was predicting the future, but I was maybe picking up on things from my experience about how I felt a pandemic would go — which is that capitalism will be prioritized above all.”

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Ma didn’t spend too much time reflecting on her apparent ability to see the future, though. She spent 2020 and beyond working on the stories in “Bliss Montage,” her collection published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Like its predecessor, Ma’s new book is bizarre and entrancing, seeming to cement her reputation as one of the country’s most imaginative authors of fiction.

Appropriately, many of the stories in Ma’s new book started as dreams, which she’d record as sketches and scenes. The lockdown proved to be as good an opportunity as any for her to revisit them.

“Something about being in a bit of a bubble, about having to go into hibernation, I was able to look at those scenes and unfold them,” she says. “I was working on them while pretty alone, pretty isolated, so these stories definitely feel very internal and very personal.”

They’re also wildly original. In “Los Angeles,” a woman shares a large house in Hollywood Hills with her husband, their kids, and 100 of her ex-boyfriends. And in “G,” two friends experiment with a designer drug that turns whoever takes it invisible. Many of the stories, Ma says, came from anxiety, and other emotions that were heightened as the Covid-19 pandemic tightened its grip on the world.

“I tried to have the anxiety lead me,” Ma says. “The challenge was not to let the emotion overtake the story, but still allow it to unfurl the story, and lead it in some way.”

The process wasn’t easy. While writing “Bliss Montage,” she realized that “instead of troubleshooting one set of problems, like with a novel, you’re troubleshooting eight sets of problems.”

“It took a lot of simmering,” she recalls. “I would do multiple drafts, like 15 drafts. I would usually try to push as hard as I could with one story, push it as far as I could, and then get to a point where I had no idea where else to go. And then I would rotate through another story, push it through, and then get stuck. And then usually a solution would come to me in my dreams or something.”

All the while, Ma was continuing to teach creative writing at the University of Chicago and “doomscrolling like everyone else,” as well as fielding questions from people eager to note the similarities between the Covid-19 world and the one Ma had imagined for “Severance.”

“There was just so much attention given to ‘Severance’ at the time that I sort of withdrew further,” she says. “It was definitely a surreal experience, having been the person who wrote it. And probably nobody else had that exact uncanny feeling that I did back then.”

Ma is at work on another novel, one that has its roots in her early career, before she started work on “Severance.” She’s not quite sure yet what form it will take.

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