Ling Ma’s Bliss Montage Is Inspired by Her Dreams, Old Notebooks, and Real Housewives
The author of Severance is back, with stories about women inhabiting various states of joy and devastation in a just off-center universe.
Ling Ma’s favorite part of a story is the bliss montage – the sequence in which a character gets a brief moment of ecstasy, before life gets complicated: think Kevin McCallister maxing out his parents’ credit cards upon discovering his parents are gone in Home Alone.
“[The bliss montage] was kind of my springboard into the story,” Ma tells NYLON from her home in Chicago. “It's this sort of joy spree. And I guess for me, those are my favorite parts of learning what stories were, especially when I first came to the states. It's the part that makes me want to write fiction.”
Ma’s debut novel Severance, which was published in 2018, is decidedly not a bliss montage. It was dubbed “the novel for the coronavirus era” in 2020 for its eerily prophetic plot, which centered around a young woman in post-apocalyptic Chicago ravaged by a pandemic from a deadly disease originating in China; masks are in fashion and the protagonist moves into her office when public transportation shuts down so she can keep working throughout it. Ma’s stories in Bliss Montage share a similar, strange familiarity, as she renders realities that are a little too easy to inhabit.
Ma’s characters, who are mostly women, many Chinese American, inhabit various states of joy sprees in a surreal, just off-center universe. In “Tomorrow,” a woman tries to give birth only to be left with the single arm of a baby protruding from her. In “G,” two women take a drug that makes them invisible and run amok in a midtown Sephora. “You can go anywhere, unimpeded by the microaggressions of strangers,” she writes. In “Los Angeles,” a woman lives with her 100 ex-boyfriends and Mr. Moneybags husband who she meets on a website called loweredexpectations.com, and pays for them all to take a Porsche, clown car style, to the Getty Museum.
“On the Husband’s credit card: 101 burgers at Umami Burger, 101 admission tickets to LACMA, 101 golden milks at Moon Juice. We go shopping. We go to Barneys. We go to Koreatown. We go to Urth Caffe to do some light reading,” she writes.
Ma revisited old notebooks to write Bliss Montage, looking at sketches for stories, many of which came from dreams, challenging herself to explore what kept drawing her to them throughout the years, figuring out how to unstick the emotional knots. That’s where the book shines most brilliantly: Ma’s stories are staunchly grounded in psychological reality; the friends, from the same Chinese community, have a lifelong, toxic competitive relationship. “‘Am I lacking in some way?’ I asked. ‘Are you?’ She wouldn’t stop, I thought, until she had totally consumed me. I’d end up in her digestive tract, as she metabolized my best qualities and discarded the rest,” Ma writes.
“Los Angeles” takes a dark turn when we learn one of the boyfriends was physically abusive. “All of my remembering beginning late in the afternoon and lasts late into the night,” Ma writes. “How do I know, Adam once asked before he struck me, if what you feel is real?”
Lines like these are the brushstrokes of Ma’s surrealist painting, the emotional truths that are heartbreaking, joyful, and so very ordinary, even in a world that’s off-center.
What was the experience of writing Bliss Montage versus Severance? I read that you kind of wrote part of Bliss Montage during the first year of the pandemic, when everyone was reading Severance.
I wrote most of Bliss Montage in sort of a short burst over a year, most of it. And with Severance, I guess it was like four years, but it was mostly written in the summers across four years. But a lot of those stories from Bliss came from sketches I'd had. I was trying to write stories that I couldn't really finish. I had all these loose scenes and sketches, so I went back to them during the pandemic. I think because years had passed, I was able to finish them because I had the distance and the perspective to be able to do it in a way that I couldn't the first time around.
“G” I had sketches from years ago. “Returning” was from years ago. I had these initial scenes from years ago, and then I just went back. I clearly was still thinking about them in some ways. I thought, well, if they're still resonating in some way, then I need to try to do it. And I found I was able to, but it was still kind of tough. With every story, I would push it as far as I could, keep writing, writing, and then I'd get to a stopping point, and then I'd get stuck, and then I'd move, rotate to the next story. And then I think four or five stories, I just kept rotating through them that way, writing as much as I can, getting stuck.
When you get stuck, how do you know that it's something that you want to keep going versus abandoning totally?
I just felt like I was close on many of them and I kept thinking about them and I would have these dreams trying to work out the stories. I felt like my brain is still on this or my subconscious is still crunching this, trying to metabolize this. But a lot of it is just that I feel like the whole writing process is about blind faith. Embarking on a novel, that's totally blind faith, because you don't know what is ever going to work out. I feel like at least I felt like I was okay with that.
Are there certain images or premises in your stories that have stuck with you throughout the years?
The whole idea of this woman being abandoned at the airport and returning, that initially came from a dream, but I kind of reworked the whole premise. Just this idea of waiting and not knowing exactly what you're waiting for. I also felt like that very similarly to just that's how it is for women. At least, this traditional narrative is you wait to find the right guy, you wait to get married, you wait to have a kid, all these checkpoints. There's just a lot of waiting in that narrative. You're not really an agent at all, in any way. You're waiting to be chosen or something.
“Embarking on a novel, that's totally blind faith, because you don't know what is ever going to work out. I feel like at least I felt like I was okay with that.”
“Los Angeles,” which is one of my favorite stories in the collection, touches on this idea of a woman waiting. She meets her husband, after all, on loweredexpectations.com. I would love to hear a little bit more about that story.
I think I had this dream. “Los Angeles” and “Yeti Love Making” are the two oldest stories in the book, and I didn't really change them since the time I wrote them. I decided to keep them as they were, imperfections and all, because I felt like they capture this time in my 20s. At the time I was dating a bunch of creative types: musicians and writers. I think the reason I kept dating these creative types is that I was trying to figure out, how do they make it work? How do they make paying the bills and doing their creative pursuits? The answer that I eventually found out over time is nobody makes it work. They never made it work. They were hugely in debt. They were just not eating.
The dream I had was sort of this fantasy that I was married to some rich guy. I also was watching a lot of Real Housewives at this point. We were all living in LA and then all of my exes were living with us and I just thought, “Wow, this is the greatest arts residency ever.” The arts colony aspect kind of fell away and it was more about this woman who is able to live alongside her past, but isn't really able to process her past up to a certain point. And so, I thought that was an interesting premise for me. And I just had the initial first lines, the first paragraph, ending with, “We live in LA.”
I felt I was approaching it from a very jokey manner, but then suddenly it turned serious and there was something very charged here. I remember watching De Palma films from the 80s and really being immersed in that sort of mood and feeling that something bad is going to happen. I took a bit from all of those inspiration sources and they made the story. I wrote it fairly quickly for me. I didn't do a lot of drafts. I really liked writing that story.
One thing I like about your work is that you create these worlds that are fantastical, but grounded too, and matter of fact. How do you strike that balance?
I think for me, as long as it's emotionally grounded, if it's making sense emotionally, I feel like the reader will kind of keep going with you. In terms of just quirky stories, if they seem like they're just randomly happening and it's just kind of quirky just by itself, I can't quite get with it. I think for me, it's just does it feel emotionally grounded? Then you can make the premise as wild as you want. And I think one other thing has to do with the voice. Will the reader buy into the voice? Does his voice sound like an actual person or does it sound really curated? In a way I do feel like the weird and odd premises are ways of working out some sort of emotional knot, are ways of untangling some sort of emotional conflict.
On that note, I’ve read that you're interested in delving more into horror, or at least the psychological elements of horror.
I've been reading horror since I was a kid, just sort of for teenage reads or kid reads, like Fear Street, RL Stein, and Christopher Pike. I kind of dropped it later in life, but I love watching horror films. Something about it speaks to me and I think it has to do with horror being the realm of the psychological. Often, you're trying to find what these ghosts want, or their motivations. It's almost like some psychological case study where you put together the clues and then you realize these are the symptoms. It's usually something straightforward. You're trying to figure out their backstory. I remember those children's books by Betty Ren Wright. She did a bunch of them. She was the one who wrote The Dollhouse Murders. I love those. I feel like maybe Severance was in a way a horror. My approach was more from the horror angle than maybe science fiction. One other note on this is that English is my second language, so I think when I first started learning how to read most of the stories that I was drawn to were in English or in the horror genre, so maybe that's why it sticks with me.
Have you started thinking about your next work?
As far as my next work goes, there was this novel I abandoned before I wrote Severance. It was just kind of really weird. I didn't have the technical skills to pull that off back then. There were some interesting things that I was doing, but I started writing something new. What I realized is I think I am rewriting in some way that abandoned novel because even though all the characters are new and the premise is different, it's actually circling around the same questions. I feel like in a way that abandoned novel is kind of coming back to me. Is it a novel? I'm not entirely sure, but it feels big. It feels like there's a lot of room to move in here. We'll see how it goes.
I would love to hear a little bit about the title of Bliss Montage. It comes from an essay from a cultural commentator about women and morality. How does that idea play into your book?
The “bliss montage” is this edited sequence in a film which shows the main character enjoying himself or herself. In romcoms, there's a lot of bliss montage where the heroine and the love interest are really happy for a spell and they do all these fun things together, and then there's some complication that drops in. My favorite montage or the one I keep talking about is in Home Alone when Kevin McAllister discovers his parents are missing and he has their credit cards and he just has the run of the house and it shows him doing all these crazy things that he's always wanted to do. It's this sort of joy spree. I guess for me, those are my favorite parts of learning what stories were, especially when I first came to the states. That was my favorite part of the story. It's the part that makes me want to write fiction.
The thing that I learned while putting the story collection together is that the bliss montage originates with this genre of film called the “women's film.” They were these sort of morality tales of how women are supposed to comfort themselves, but it would often show the heroine doing something really fun and that taps into her fantasy, before the plot complications arise. I found it so interesting that it originated with what they call the “women's film.” All of my main characters in these stories are women, and I just thought there's something to it. Thinking about the bliss montage, it was kind of my springboard into the story.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.