Denise Chong

Presentation to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club, March 27, 2019
Summary by 
Robin Stanford

Denise Chong grew up in Prince George, B.C.  She was the first of her family to attend university and chose to major in economics as that was practical and would get her a job. She started writing after a successful career as an economist with the federal government in Ottawa, and Senior Economic Advisor to Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Trudeau was a friend and encouraged her to start writing.

Chong is an award-winning Canadian author and an Officer of the Order of Canada.  She is currently the Writer-in-residence at the U of C.  Chong writes literary non-fiction.

Denise Chong gave a mesmerizing talk to the CWLC about what’s involved when she writes books. She led us from the starting ideas, to the struggle to figure out what the story is really about, to the incredibly in-depth research she does, right up to the book launch and personal rewards from writing.

A collection of family photographs, hidden away in a cedar chest, was the starting idea for her first book, The Concubine’s Children (1994), a memoir about her family.  Another photograph, the famous one from the Vietnam war of a burning girl fleeing a napalm attack, inspired The Girl in the Picture (1999).  Events during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were the starting idea for her third book, Egg on Mao (2009).  The Lives of the Family (2013) stemmed from Chong’s curiosity about the small events that can change life.

The starting idea is followed by the struggle to figure out what the story is about.  Chong spoke of this as “the part that plagues you at night”.  Her preference is to explore contemporary issues in her books, events that are part of the living memory.

The next step for Chong is research, and her descriptions of what she does to research her books were fascinating.  Not only does Chong track down documentary evidence but she says she can’t write the story until she inhabits the character, really getting to know the places they live in.  This meant going under-cover in Vietnam and smuggling out her notes as well as a very risky trip to China.  And lots of interviews, often using interpreters, where Chong pays close attention to body language and what’s not being said.

After writing the book and the endless revisions, comes the promotion.  Most authors now do their own promotion on social media with book tours reserved for best selling authors only.

Chong concluded by reflecting that some questions are never answered, but for her, the personal reward is knowing that the book and story survive as an act of writing.