In February 2014, Lang Leav graced the Philippines with her presence in a series of poetry events around Manila. Her book, Love and Misadventure is the first poetry book to be a top-seller at Fully Booked, which explains how well-attended all of Lang’s events were. Here on the blog, we present a video interview we did with Lang Leav, followed by the complete transcript of our discussion:
Fully Booked: Let’s start in the very beginning.
Lang Leav: Okay.
Where were you born and how have your childhood and your environment, your parents, kind of brought you to this place in your life?
I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand when my parents were fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime. I remember my childhood… we immigrated to Australia and I remember my childhood as a really happy one ’cause I spent lots of it reading books and I think it’s my love of books that has—you know, writing and stories—that has sort of taken me through many sorts of detours and many different creative adventures from fashion to art and creating handmade limited edition books to eventually becoming an author. But I feel like this is where I was always meant to end up and as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be an author. So… living my dream at the moment.
Are you the kind of person who just feels like you’ve got to ‘get it out’? Because you’re involved in the handmade stuff and you draw and fashion designing… cause most people are just ‘I do one thing’ and you’re kind of a jack-of-all-trades…
Haha yes! I think i’ve always just been pulled in different directions. It’s just what, kind of, takes my interest. I guess I don’t have the greatest attention span which, you know, has worked to my advantage surprisingly, because I would always get in trouble for that with my parents. But I think it has worked to my advantage because I think, every step of the way, everything that I’ve done has really prepared me for what’s going on now.
And right now this is… I’m in this sort of crazy position where I’m so fortunate to have such a huge support network. And I don’t think I would been properly prepared if I had just been thrust into this without going through some of the experiences that I’ve been through or the years—you know with my fashion label, winning awards and being in the media spotlight for a time. And then doing the art. Because art shows are kinda like book signings in a way. You get to meet your fans and you sign things and what have you. So I think everything has prepared me; so my short attention span, wanting to do lots of different things… yeah it’s worked in my favor and I’m really pleased with how everything has worked out.
With Love and Misadventure and poetry, you’ve experienced quite a bit of success, would you agree?
What has failure been like to you and where have you experienced it? And—’cause you were saying that everything kind of ‘prepared’ you—how has that kind of become part of your journey?
I think the life of the creative is a very, very difficult one. I think that there were many times when I did feel like I failed and I did want to give up. I think every creative person on that journey goes through that. I think I’ve just been lucky in a way that I’ve always been able to continue on creating and I’ve always been in a position where I could. I know not that many people are that lucky. And it wasn’t easy. I’ve basically lived like a student all my life. I’ve never had much, and I’ve learned to sort of live with not much. I think that’s a really great sort of grounding process; and if I’d achieved success—well this kind of success anyway—at an early age, I think I would have coped with it not as well. Cause I think all the things I’ve been through have been really great mechanisms, almost like a tool box that’s filled up over time. And now I can kind of stay grounded with all this success that’s coming my way at the moment.
And yeah, just really enjoy it and make the most of it. Basically just enjoy the ride. But yeah it has been… they say it takes 10 years to be an overnight success, and that’s what I’ve lived, basically.
Love and Misadventure is a collection of work you’ve done over time, it being your first book. Now that you’re writing the second one, do you ever get nervous about ‘sophomore slump’? You had all that time to write the first book and now the second book, you have a lot less time. How do you deal with that?
Yeah, it’s interesting because I had the luxury of basically many years of writing. And I think the best editor is time. Time allows you to have that perspective, to look back and say ‘Oh, actually that wasn’t written the best way it could’ve been’. You can go in and edit it. As you grow as a writer as well, that takes time.
The thing about me is I have always been scared about putting my work out; but at the same time I’ve done it. I’ve just sort of pushed my work out. You know it’s very, very scary to do but as long as you keep doing that, whatever happens, you just have to cope with it. When it happens, there’s no use worrying. So with the launch of my next book I’m just absolutely, like, really excited about it. I think that’s what I’m focusing on, all the positivity. I’m just really excited to working with the design of it, the look of it… I’m not thinking about, you know, ‘Oh God, I’m so afraid that people are gonna hate it! It’s not gonna do as well as Love and Misadventure!’
I think the artist or the creative in me is just really excited about this new project that I’m creating. And that’s what my life has always been, a series of creative projects. It’s like a cycle.
Are we looking at more romance?
Yes. The new book will be in the same vein as Love and Misadventure. So if you loved Love and Misadventure, I’m sure you’ll love Lullabies as well. It’ll have more in it. The prose will be more substantial. There’s a couple of short stories in there. Yeah I think it’s a more substantial piece in terms of the length and scope.
You’re publishing it as well?
Yeah, I’m gonna talk to my publishers. I’m putting the finishing touches to the book at the moment and then I will be talking to my publishers and we’ll take it from there.
You’re saying that time is the best editor, but you also have a very strong online presence–Tumblr and your blog. I’m sure in the comments people are editing you and giving their opinions and stuff. How does that interaction with the community and with the fans that follow you affect it: the art, the creation of the poetry itself? Has interaction been good or bad? What has that experience been like, working so closely with your audience?
I think it’s been the most wonderful experience. A while ago I opened up my Tumblr so that I take poetry requests. So people would send their requests in and I knew what people wanted. It was challenging writing from someone else’s shoes but it was actually a lot of fun as well. In a way I think a lot of my material is like a collaborative piece of work with all these thousands of people. Because a lot of people sending in those requests had similar kind of requests that they wanted such as like the ‘friendzone’ thing. It was a really big, overwhelming subject. So that’s why I wrote ‘Just Friends’, in response to that. And because of social media I can actually put fresh work out there and get people’s feedback. It’s really great just hearing the feedback. Some people say, ‘Oh, well maybe you can try writing it like this…’ And I take on board everything, all the comments. I think anything that makes a piece of work stronger is a good thing.
In Fully Booked, one of our themes throughout the year is ‘the romance of the printed page’. And it seems like this is something that’s been a part of your life, and it’s quite evident. You have your handmade books and your blog—it’s not just text, it’s pictures of pages. Why did you choose to do it that way and what do you think the role of the printed page has been in your life?
I really love things that are really tactile. With my handmade books, they’re like ridiculously tactile. I love using ribbons and layers of fabric and embossing techniques. I love exploring and playing with those techniques and I think the thing about having the pages is the texture of paper—there’s something really beautiful about it. Because I just bought a Kindle recently, for the first time. What I love about it is that it’s so lightweight, you can just kind of lie down and just—you know—without having to hold a big book up.
But I do really miss just the act of flipping through the pages. I don’t think anything beats just the feel of paper, the smell of books. Books are an art piece all their own. They’re absolutely beautiful. They’re almost like sculptures. In a way they’re almost alive, living and breathing and there are stories in there. It’s such a beautiful thing, and something I’ve always been in love with.
Your poetry is very relevant to modern day and how people are currently experiencing their lives. A lot of heralded poetry tries to take itself a bit too seriously. What do you think the role of the poet is in society today? Is it growing in relevance? Is it a flame that needs to be fanned? Do you think it’s nice that it’s not as popular as it used to be?
I think that there’s been a real disconnect with poetry in recent times, I think because a lot of poems, like you said, it takes itself a little bit too seriously, it’s very esoteric, quite difficult for a lot of people to get their heads around. And there’s a lot of emphasis on structure, and sound—and I really admire poets who write in that style, and it’s a beautiful art form in itself. But for me, I’m more drawn to poets like Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. And they write in a very simplistic way. They have this really amazing skill of taking very complex emotions, very intricate concepts, and writing it in a way that’s very simplistic. It’s not something that’s like a puzzle you have to solve. It’s really potent in its immediacy, and that’s what I’m trying to emulate.
And I think that’s the reason why—speaking to a lot of people here that said it’s the first time that Fully Booked has had a poetry book as the number one best selling book—and I think when you go to some bookstores, there isn’t even a poetry section. And a lot of people who write to me say, ‘I don’t even read poetry, I don’t even actually read books, but your poetry really gets to me.’ And I think anything that draws a younger audience into reading, into appreciating poetry and perhaps even looking at other contemporary poets or classical poetry, I think anything that does that has its own merit and is something that should be encouraged.
Do you ever feel the pressure that you would like to be perceived in a certain way?
I don’t really think too much about all that; I think I just write from my heart. And I believe there is a purity in that. There are a lot of poets that I admire and I think personally for me, I like poetry that speaks to the soul, that’s immediate, that’s not too pretentious, not trying to be something.
‘Cause I think sometimes, when poetry goes that way, some of the emotions or the feelings can get a little bit lost and it becomes really difficult; whereas, I like to write in a way that establishes a direct connection to the person. And whoever you are, whatever nationality, whatever age you are, it’s got a very universal quality that you can actually bring into your own life. Like I was saying to someone earlier, with novels you sort of fall in love with the protagonist, because you sort of journey with them throughout the book and you have this sort of connection with them. But I think with poetry, you are, you can become, the reader becomes the protagonist. They can project themselves into the book and make it personal to them. And that’s the feedback that I’ve been getting; it’s just universal themes, a lot of the things people have actually… have been there.
Do you ever feel the challenge of taking on less universal messages?
No. I really think it’s important to me to be able to communicate a message very succinctly. Because I don’t want to lose my audience, I don’t want to lose that connection. This is a style I really love, and it’s not just in my own writing, I’ve always been drawn to authors who write in a more simplistic style. I think there is a real intelligence to writing in that way.
Have you ever written songs?
Yeah, I’ve recently started posting, I call them ‘singing poems’. I’ve just been creating them for a long time. They’re really just short pieces like my poetry. I obviously can’t play any musical instruments, so I haven’t set music to them, but I’ll just use my voice as the instrument. I’ll just sing little pieces sometimes, and I’ll post them on Tumblr, and they’ve actually gone really well.
It’s really funny with poetry reading. When I was on my way home with the girls yesterday, from Fully Booked… I had to do my talk yesterday and I did my poetry readings… and I was joking about how people have a radio voice and a normal voice. And with me, I’ve got my normal voice and my poetry voice. When I’m doing my reading, I enter a different headspace. It’s really hard to describe it. I get into a different headspace. My voice sounds different, it’s like I’m a different person talking.
What’s important to you?
For me, I think family is really important. I’ve got a wonderful family. I’ve got great people. I think that’s the most important thing in life. And time. Just having time to spend with the people I love. That’s the only thing that matters to me. I don’t care about cars and shoes and things like that. I think that’s all silly stuff. I think I’m happy with very little. Because of my artistic journey, I think I’ve learned to live with very little, and I think that’s not going to change for me.
The role of drama in your life: A lot of artists create out of pain. Do you think normalcy sets in, [and consequently that] perhaps art could suffer, and the creative in you would try to maybe seek out controversy?
I’m going out with an artist and writer, so there isn’t really a dull moment. It’s quite fiery, our relationship. But it’s great because we work really well together, and our skills compliment each other. And I’m really fortunate to have found someone who kind of gets what it’s like being an artist, who’s forgiving, and at the same time, he feels fortunate to have met someone who is the same. We have the same values, and we basically want to spend our lives just chilling out, you know doing creative work. That’s just the dream. That’s all we want.
How long have you been doing poetry in particular, and art in general?
My mum always says when I was a little girl, I always had a pair of scissors in my hand or a pen or something. I was always making something. I think I was pretty much born with that compulsion to create. I started writing poetry mainly when I got into my teens. You know when my friends and I started being interested in boys, and we were going through emotions and things. I think a lot of teenage girls write poetry. I just never stopped!
It’s really funny because I had a classmate just message me on Facebook last night, and she said, ‘It’s so great to see the books going so well. And I actually just found one of your notebooks from high school. You were always so creative, always making something, or writing…’ And that was really cool. So it’s always been there; it’s always been a part of my life.
I think there was like a time, a long period when I wasn’t writing. I think I didn’t feel much like myself. I think there was a spark or something, and I started writing again, and once I started, I was just writing really prolifically. I’d moved back home with my parents, and I think I spent almost up to a year just writing poem after poem. And after that I always said to myself, ‘You’ve got to remember your words, because that’s where your power lies, your words.’
…To inspire other people to write, and to remember who they are through their words, I think that’s a really beautiful thing. And if I can achieve that in just one person, I think that’s wonderful.