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Ling Ma on Bliss Montage, her new book of short stories

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You turn the pages of "Bliss Montage," Ling Ma's new book of short stories, and find the world you thought you knew shaken up and rearranged. A woman lives in a Los Angeles house that's stocked with 100 of her former boyfriends. There's a recreational drug called "G" that makes people invisible, which seems fun at first, but winds up concealing other problems. A Yeti not only comes to life but splashes on Old Spice and lights up American Spirit cigarettes. Not what you'd expect from a figure from Himalayan folklore, now is it? "Bliss Montage" is a collection of short stories told with what's become her signature sting of wit and satire by Ling Ma, author of the highly acclaimed novel "Severance." And she joins us now.

Thank you so much for being with us.

LING MA: Thank you, Scott, for having me.

SIMON: Do you want readers to make connections between these stories or take them in separately?

MA: I think there is a sort of emotional sensibility connecting all of these stories, but they are quite disparate. They're mostly about relationships. And I wrote most of these stories while in hibernation during the first year of the pandemic.

SIMON: Well, tell us about that.

MA: Many of these stories started off as sketches that I had in my files just for years and years. The problem was that they were - felt very emotional to me, but the emotions would kind of volcanically gush forth and then overtake the story and just scar it completely.

SIMON: Wow.

MA: And I found that during the pandemic, I at least had sort of the critical distance of time to look at them in a more detached manner.

SIMON: I want to give people some idea of your distinct style.

MA: Sure.

SIMON: So if I could ask you to read a section from the story "G," the drug that makes people invisible. Two old friends, last night together before one moves away - they take it together and range around Manhattan's Upper West Side.

MA: (Reading) We would touch strangers discreetly, feathering down their cowlicks. We would eavesdrop on conversations, interjecting dialogue. We would float objects in the air, distorting others' fields of reality. In more destructive moods, we would just flat-out damage property, fling apparel out of Urban Outfitters. We never felt guilty, as long as it was a chain. We would follow people home, go up in their elevators and into their apartments. That last thing, I like to do alone. I could feel Bonnie's hand reaching for mine. If you're taking "G" with someone, it's a good idea to hold hands so that you know where the other person is, if only to tether each other to the earth. Tonight, the sensation was headier than I'd remembered. I needed to be anchored.

SIMON: Wow. Makes me think that we long to float, but we also - we long to belong somewhere, I guess.

MA: I think my entry point into that story was trying to imagine the physical sensation of invisibility. But, you know, it's about two Chinese American girls, and they're quite, I think, competitive with each other. But I think there must be some kind of relief in this sort of form of self-erasure. I was trying to assign a kind of physical sensation to self-erasure and have that be almost pleasurable, you know?

SIMON: This comes out of your own experience?

MA: Well, I will say that everything comes out of my own experience one way or another. And that particular friendship, I suppose, with its rivalries among, like, Chinese American diaspora - I definitely understand what that's like. But I'd add that I once worked at Playboy. Part of...

SIMON: Oh, believe you me, I had that written down. I was going to ask you about that. You were a fact-checker for Playboy. I didn't know they were so scrupulous.

MA: I was fact-checker.

SIMON: But go ahead. Yes, yes.

MA: I was a fact-checker. And I did other things, like write what we call girl copy - captions for, you know, nude pictorials and such. And writing those captions, I think I learned how to inhabit the - what I call the pervy-uncle gaze.

SIMON: Oh, my word. I've got to tell you, this interview's taking an extraordinary turn I didn't count on. Tell us about - if you dare - about the pervy-uncle gaze.

MA: Well, I'm a little limited in that form.

SIMON: All right.

MA: But I think I know how to inhabit that gaze. And I guess I just wanted to create the story about the relief of not being looked at, especially sometimes as Asian American women and that sense of being fetishized. But, of course, the drug later on in the story takes a darker turn.

SIMON: Yeah. I have to ask you about the Yeti. What brings a Yeti to Chicago?

MA: Well, at the time, I had gone through a breakup. And I just thought, I need some sort of transformative experience that can maybe speed up this, you know, heartbreak process. And so I - it was the fun of trying to find these physical descriptions of what Yeti sex or whatever would be like. What exactly does that mean? And so I was thinking, well, it's about this woman who is with this archetype of extreme - of, like, extreme masculinity. And what exactly is that? I thought a lot about masculinity while, you know, working at a men's magazine. What exactly does that mean?

SIMON: I'll bet.

MA: And it's a self-governing, autonomous body that does not require anything. And I started thinking about the myth of the Yeti, of Sasquatch and those types of, you know, humanoid figures that we have in society.

SIMON: What do you think you do in your stories to have characters that are at once recognizable, but then to thrust into this antic world that is not exactly science fiction but fantastic?

MA: Yeah. I do like the word fantastical. I do feel like the stories hold a mirror up. Maybe it's a bit of a funhouse mirror. But a funhouse mirror still shows you aspects of yourself that you don't notice. And so I'm going to continue along this path, particularly within the horror realm, which I think is the realm of the psychological. I think I'm going to do some more work in that.

SIMON: I can't wait.

MA: Thank you.

SIMON: Ling Ma - her new book of stories, "Bliss Montage."

Thank you so much for being with us.

MA: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.