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William Pei Shih on ‘Happy Family,’ Flawed Characters, and the Messiness of Life

On the latest episode of Ursa Short Fiction, co-hosts Deesha Philyaw and Dawnie Walton speak with writer William Pei Shih, author of the Ursa original “Happy Family,” a story about a lost childhood, a struggling restaurant, and a bygone era of Chinatown. 

“Your character has to fail in telling their story,” Shih says. “I think that’s one of the beautiful things about fiction. It truly is the messiness of life.”

Shih’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Best American Short Stories 2020, VQR, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and The Southern Review, among many other publications. He spoke with Philyaw and Walton about his approach to writing and developing characters, how “Happy Family” first came to life, and how hearing the audio version changed his storytelling approach.  

About William Pei Shih: 

William Pei Shih

William Pei Shih’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Best American Short Stories 2020, VQR, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Southern Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Boston Review, Crazyhorse, F(r)iction, Catapult, The Asian American Literary Review, The Des Moines Register, The Masters Review, Reed Magazine, Carve Magazine, Hyphen, and more. His stories have been recognized by the John Steinbeck Award in Fiction, the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction, the Raymond Carver Short Story Award, the UK Bridport Prize, The London Magazine Short Story Award, among others. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He has been awarded scholarships and support from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, Kundiman, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and the Ragdale Residency. He has served on the admissions board for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (MFA in Fiction), where he was a recipient of the Dean’s Graduate Fellowship. He currently lives in New York City, and teaches at NYU.

Episode Links and Reading List: 

More Stories from William Pei Shih: 

  • “The Golden Arowana” (The Masters Review), about a precious and rare fish, a young man and his grandmother from China, and the road trip of a lifetime—to Pittsburgh, and what happens when one finds more than they bargained for.
  • “My Son,” (F(r)iction, Spring 2021) a story focusing on father/son cross-generational and cross-cultural struggles and miscommunications. 
  • More stories:

More from Deesha Philyaw and Dawnie Walton: 


William Pei Shih: Your character has to fail in telling their story. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about fiction. It shows it truly is the messiness of life.

Dawnie Walton: Hey everybody, I’m Dawnie Walton.

Deesha Philyaw: And I’m Deesha Philyaw.

Dawnie Walton: And this is the Ursa podcast, where we geek out on all things short fiction. On this podcast, we’ll interview authors, discuss collections and stories we love, and shine a light on new writers and those who never got their due.

Deesha Philyaw: And at Ursa, we’re not just talk, we’re publishers, too. Over at, we’ve created a new home for short fiction from some of today’s most thrilling writers, as well as emerging voices, with stories you can read on your phone and audio stories that you can listen to right here in your favorite podcast app. We’re doing all of this with support from you. Become an Ursa member today by subscribing in Apple Podcasts, or by going to

Dawnie Walton: And speaking of original stories from thrilling writers, we’re so excited today to have William Pei Shih, author of the Ursa original story “Happy Family.” It’s the story of a lost childhood, a struggling restaurant, and a bygone era of Chinatown. You can listen to Happy Family right here in this podcast feed or read at There’s a link in the show notes.

You’ll definitely want to give this story a listen. It’s performed by Aria Song and produced by Alicia Qian, with original music by Jiro Yoshioka, and illustrations by Christina Chung. And a word of warning, this episode will contain spoilers. So if you haven’t read or listened to Happy Family yet, go do that and come back here afterward.

Now a little bit about our guest today. William Pei Shih’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Best American Short Stories 2020, VQR, McSweeney’s, The Southern Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Boston Review, F(r)iction, Catapult, The Asian American Literary Review, The Des Moines Register, The Masters Review, Reed Magazine, Carve Magazine, and Hyphen.

Whew, what a list!

Deesha Philyaw: Right?

Dawnie Walton: Yeah. His stories have been recognized by the John Steinbeck Award in Fiction, the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction, the Raymond Carver Short Story Award, the UK Bridport Prize, The London Magazine Short Story Award, among others. He has been awarded scholarships and support from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, Kundiman, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and the Ragdale Residency. He has served on the admissions board for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received an MFA in Fiction, he was a recipient of the Dean’s Graduate Fellowship. He currently lives in New York City, and teaches at NYU. Will, welcome!

Deesha Philyaw: Welcome.

William Pei Shih: I’m so excited to be here.

Deesha Philyaw: So the first thing I really want to ask is, okay, when is the short story collection coming out? But no pressure…

Dawnie Walton: My body is ready for a William Pei Shih story collection.

William Pei Shih: You know, it’s still in the works. I’ve written more stories than the collection can handle and so still organizing and trying to make it so that it’s cohesive.

Deesha Philyaw: So I guess this is a nice little segue. How did you get started? So take us through, like, you’re now at the point where you have more stories than the collection can hold. How did you get started writing short fiction? And what are some of your earliest memories of creating stories and characters, in your mind?

William Pei Shih: I started out as a music composition major as an undergrad. And I spent so much of my time studying structure and form, and so, much of that carried over as I forayed and moved into writing fiction. I must have started when I was a pre-med student. Just writing fiction felt so subversive. I didn’t have to share it with anyone. I could keep it secret. It felt like practicing the piano. I would write these secret stories. I feel like I’m still writing secret stories today. And then you keep them going.

Dawnie Walton: Well, that’s so interesting to me because I do feel like Happy Family” has sort of a confessional tone to it. It’s like Scarlett, the narrator of that story, is kind of spilling out her own secrets. But I want to back up a little bit because writers like you fascinate me because I’m like, how do you find the time? You’re not only a writer, but you teach chemistry at NYU. And I think you’re teaching, like what? Four classes in chemistry?

William Pei Shih: Yeah, I am. They’re chemistry classes for the pre-med track. So it’s like Gen Chem I, Gen Chem II, Orgo I, Orgo II. Fun stuff for young people.

Dawnie Walton: My brain is bending. I am not a STEM person. 

Deesha Philyaw: I took physics for poets in college. That was it for me.

William Pei Shih: Oh, that’s wonderful.

Deesha Philyaw: Physics for poets, yes.

William Pei Shih: That sounds like a great class. Yeah, it’s hard to find the time.

Deesha Philyaw: Yeah. And you also just happened to be a classically trained musician. No big deal. Like, amazing…using all segments of your brain. And some of my favorite writers, I’m thinking about Chris Adrian, who’s a doctor, and Amy Bloom, who’s a psychotherapist. The fact that they’re also writers is amazing to me.

How do you think about writing versus the other work and artistic expression in your life and how do you fit it in?

William Pei Shih: It’s interesting because when you are thinking about the pace of life, sometimes I think about how it’s just not suitable for fiction, because storytelling is like one extraordinary event after extraordinary event. And so, for fiction, you have to be unsettled in ways that in the other art forms, they work maybe in a different vein. And so, so much of life is about like settling, at least for me. I think about the long subway rides I have to take, or like I read books or I watch YouTube, or I buy like a lottery ticket and I lose and it happens all the time. But fiction is the part where like, someone wins a lottery, and then what happens after that? Do they live up to it? Do they buy a new house, or do they get stoned to death? Or do they simply get stoned?

And so, for me, waking up in the morning can be a very extraordinary event because oftentimes, it’s just hard to go about one’s day. And I think those are areas that fiction can explore that maybe something like music can only be…Maybe it doesn’t explore in the same way.

Dawnie Walton: Well, it’s kind of interesting thinking. I mean, the way you’re describing it, I’m thinking about all the different choices that one makes during the day and how rich that can feel, kind of like riffing in its own way, as a musician, but doing it as a writer—really interesting.

[musical break]

So tell us about the evolution of Scarlett, who is our narrator for “Happy Family” and how the character and her story came to you.

William Pei Shih: So I was thinking about the Chinatown of the 1990s, which is the Chinatown that I grew up in, and for a short amount of time, I worked at a restaurant there. And the Chinatown of the 1990s was still the Chinatown that people had to go to, to get things like groceries or to visit the doctor, or to go to a restaurant.

And then I was thinking about how the Chinatowns across North America had always been isolated from the better parts of society, in especially the major cities. And it’s kind of amazing how resilient the people are and how they’ve survived and kind of reinvented themselves over and over again. And even how Chinatown has reinvented themselves as a city.

And so with “Happy Family,” I wanted to try and see if I could capture some of that; the Chinatown as a kid working in a Chinese restaurant or working in my parents’ fish cake factory. And it was a challenging time. Your parents wanted you to succeed and there was so much pressure to do that. And private schools were out of the question because it was unaffordable. And so you had to apply to specialized high schools like Stuyvesant, and it was seen as the end for you if you didn’t get in. These were parents who put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak, and that was their children. And so, yeah, it was kind of a desperate time.

Deesha Philyaw: And when, in your trajectory, did you first write “Happy Family” and were there multiple iterations of the story?

William Pei Shih: So the characters in “Happy Family” recur in some of my stories. And so, “Happy Family,” I had written as kind of side story for some of the main stories that were going on. I had started writing it when I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I had a draft of it. And I was working on other stories, and so I didn’t revisit the story for a while.

And then when I submitted it for Ursa, it was great. Dawnie saw something special in this story. And then we worked on the story together and the story turned out not to be the story that I intended on writing. It became, I think, something different, and the story that it’s supposed to be. And that’s what happens with revision and with collaboration, and I’m pretty happy with how it came out.

Dawnie Walton: I’m so glad to hear that. And that actually segues nicely to something that I wanted to ask you. So in addition to the edits that you and I did together on the text, we did revise the audio quite a bit as we layered in music and sound, and I’m curious what effect did hearing those versions of the story with the narration and sound on your edits and the changes that you made. Or how did the audio change the way that you thought about the story?

William Pei Shih: It’s true. When I started listening to someone read it back, it started…So I think you recorded like a trailer, or Ursa recorded a trailer for this story. And so when I was listening to Aria read it back, I realized I was writing a bit too much like a writer and I needed to be even more in the character’s head, in order to deliver this properly for someone to perform it.

And when I listened to that, I was just like, “I think I could just get a little closer.” And I ended up revising a large part of it to make that work, especially knowing that there was going to be music and sound effects to it.

Deesha Philyaw: I’m wondering about Scarlett and how she came to you. And I can certainly, you know, as I’m reading the story, I feel like we are so close to her so that the editing that you did there, I think it really paid off because it does feel very close. And I didn’t see any capital W writing there. I really felt like I was right there with Scarlett. Can you talk about how that character came to fruition?

William Pei Shih: So in my last year at Iowa, I was working on a draft of a novel that starred Scarlett. And so I had already been working with this character for a bit. Scarlett is a complicated character and there’s a lot of things that I have happen with her in the novel that really showcases this. And I felt like she was someone who really showed what it was like to be in Chinatown in the 1990s and applying to specialized high schools and working at a Chinese restaurant. In the novel, she’s also working at her parents’ real estate business. And so it does something like, it accelerates youth in a way, like it accelerates maturity. And I was really drawn to someone like that.

Deesha Philyaw: And I was struck by how lonely Scarlett and all of the characters are. They aren’t only unhappy as noted in the beginning of the story, but they’re lonely, even as they persist in being together, being a family, not being alone, as Scarlett notes.

And I was wondering if this heaviness, this loneliness was something that you were intentional about exploring when you were sort of developing the story or did this facet of the characters evolve organically as you were writing this story.

William Pei Shih: Probably a little bit of both. I think like, definitely being a first-generation immigrant, there is an aspect of loneliness that’s always there. There’s always this aspect of kind of being on the outside and looking in and trying to kind of succeed in ways that are almost impossible. And that forces someone to cultivate a loneliness. And it’s true, I think about my relatives, and people in my own family. And there is definitely a contentment there, and it’s like a contentment with being alone and being by themselves. It’s bittersweet to see.

Deesha Philyaw: Yeah.

Dawnie Walton: One of my favorite things about this story is the retrospective narration, because whenever I read something retrospective like this, of course you’re reading about the character in the past, but you’re also kind of putting together a picture of the character in the present. And so I want to kind of get geeky a little bit and go back to Iowa where we talked about this thing all the time, which is point of telling.

I was wondering, in your mind, why is Scarlett telling the story now? And I guess this gets to my curiosity as to where Scarlett is in her life at this moment. And why are these moments prominent for her?

William Pei Shih: So one thing I like about, I think, first person, is that it’s always an unreliable narrator. It’s always somebody who’s like looking back. And one thing that I like about Scarlett is that she messes up in her storytelling, which I think is paralleling the messiness of actual life.

I see Scarlett as being someone who’s kind of achieved a lot of the things she set out to achieve. I think by then, she has gone to medical school and I think towards the end of the story, she’s getting married, her mother is walking her down the aisle. And I think being there and realizing that it’s just not everything that you had hoped for, and trying to reflect back on why that is. I imagine her being there and telling the story with that in mind.

Deesha Philyaw: And I’m thinking of a section about, you know, towards the end of the story with Scarlett saying, “I was wrong. Let me explain.” And we don’t often see that in fiction. And so that reflective quality reminded me of a frame that we see throughout the story, “But that was then.” And that, as you have noted, was a kind of a nod to a changing Chinatown, for example.

But this felt like such a contrast with Scarlett’s interior life, you know: Time passes, Chinatown changes, Scarlett and her mother’s fortune changes. And yet, there’s something that remains the same for her. And I got the sense, like, not in a good way. And I think that something might be how detached Scarlett feels from her mother and perhaps from her husband, who doesn’t get a mention. We hear about her getting married, but we don’t hear about a husband, I don’t think. And then there’s this great line from Po Po who says, “When we are healthy, we can hold grudges.” I love that line. And here, Po Po is referring to Scarlett’s cousin, Victor.

And I’m wondering, do you think Scarlett envies Victor — his freedom to turn his back on their family?

William Pei Shih: Yeah. I mean, I’m sure on some level Scarlett envies that. I’m sure on some level, Scarlett wishes that she had pursued maybe more artistic endeavors. She was someone who definitely wanted to make her parents proud. She had, I think, the death of her father hanging over her. And then she had her very strict stepfather there, trying to make the most of who she should be. But sure, I think there is a huge element of regret, at not trying to pursue all the things that she could have been good at, like music, for example.

Dawnie Walton: So New York City is such a character in this story. And I love these scenes where Scarlett is sort of talking about the little shops where there’s the tchotchkes in the window, and things like that. And it just really, I mean, I came to New York in 2000, so I missed the ‘90s in New York City, but you grew up here. And I’m wondering, what’s the nostalgia you feel that you kind of baked into this story of that era coming of age in New York City?

William Pei Shih: It was definitely a New York City…So I went to high school on 66th Street, it was LaGuardia High School. It’s the performing arts…

Dawnie Walton: With Nicki Minaj, I should mention.

William Pei Shih: She was in my graduating class. And yeah, it was a different world. It was before social media, it was before Facebook, you made plans with someone and you had to show up at that time or else people would get mad at you. It was a different…It was a New York where, like, you were just used to not getting everything immediately. The World Trade Center was there, and my classmates and I, we would go there after school.

It’s a New York that was in some ways harder to be. It just felt a little bit more grittier, a little more dangerous, especially Chinatown. Now, Chinatown is like much more, I mean, it was always kind of touristy, but now, the gentrification and the new generation bringing in restaurants and different stores, everything just seems newer. But the Chinatown back then used to be something much more tied to the first wave of immigrants or the first generation of immigrants who came.

Dawnie Walton: And I’d love to talk for a little bit – you know I love Victor as a character. He is sort of the rebel of the story, and he and Scarlett have a very beautiful kind of bonding moment, I think, when they’re sort of united in looking at the facade that the family is putting on. Scarlett is watching Victor as he kind of reenacts this commercial for the restaurant. It’s one of my favorite parts of the story. Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about how Victor came into this story for you and why? And what were the inspirations for him?

William Pei Shih: I wanted a character that was kind of like the black sheep of the family. And so for this family, the black sheep is someone like Victor who’s maybe not as ambitious academically, who has aspirations of, I think, being in a rock band and making commercials for Chinese restaurants, and I wanted something like this character to show a kind of counterpart to Scarlett.

I felt like Victor brought out different sides of Scarlett, and it was kind of nice to see, and to write about. And Victor is a character that I follow in some of my other stories. Victor definitely fails a lot more than Scarlett. And how he copes with that is something that I enjoy exploring and thinking about. And so I think like just to see their relationship and how they kind of play and interact, that was quite interesting for me to write about.

Deesha Philyaw: Just building on that — I’m often drawn to character names in stories. So can you talk a bit about the significance of Scarlett and Victor?

William Pei Shih: I wanted a name for Scarlett that kind of was not of our generation. And so I wanted something that reflected kind of maybe like 1970s or 1980s Hong Kong, when people were listening to maybe like Richard Clayderman. This kind of era where it was under British rule and people had more of these kind of sensibilities. And so, I gravitated toward a name like Scarlett, whereas for Victor, I wanted a name… I don’t know if I mention his last name here, but he’s part of the Hu Family. And so I named him after Victor Hugo, who I was reading at the time.

Deesha Philyaw: Okay. Because I interpreted it as Victor is the character who wins in “Happy Family.”

Dawnie Walton: Yeah. Deesha, when you asked that question, I was thinking that too because he is the one that seems, you know, although on the surface perhaps to other members in the family, he’s not successful, but I do sort of imagine he’s somewhere living the life that he wants, and not the life that anybody else wants for him.

Deesha Philyaw: That’s right.

Dawnie Walton: And it thrills me to know that there are more stories out there starring Victor and starring Scarlett. And just sort of broadening the conversation out, to short fiction in general, I mean, Will, that list of publications you’ve been featured in is just amazing. And then to be in Best American Short Stories in 2020. Congratulations!

William Pei Shih: Thank you.

Dawnie Walton: And you have, as you mentioned, you have so many stories that you would have to whittle them down for a collection, but I’m wondering, are there recurring themes that you notice in your stories or in your work in general?

William Pei Shih: Yeah, sure. I mean, definitely themes of immigration and family. I think because I’m in academia so much, inequalities in academia. I think themes of sexuality and identity, and I was thinking probably mostly of how people kind of treat each other, and why they treat each other a certain way. And what people tell themselves, and what people tell each other instead. I think about that a lot when I’m trying to start a short story.

Dawnie Walton: Speaking of stories on these themes, tell us about “Enlightenment,” which was the story that was in Best American and first published in VQR.

William Pei Shih: “Enlightenment,” it’s an interesting story because what I noticed is that most people read it as an unrequited love story, which, it is that, but I did want to speak a little bit about who has access and who doesn’t. And when I was writing “Enlightenment,” that was the heart of what the story was for me. It was a difficult story to write. I wrote it in my first year at Iowa, and I was in Ethan Canin’s class. It’s a third person, present tense story, which is not easy for me.

Dawnie Walton: Why is that? Can I ask you just quickly, why is that?

William Pei Shih: Sure. Because sometimes when I’m thinking about third person present tense, you’re kind of telling someone that something is happening at that moment while it’s happening and sometimes, it can come off unconvincing. And so you have to kind of psychologically trick yourself into using this.

Deesha Philyaw: See, now I want to experiment with that. Because I’m working on something that’s first person present tense and that’s hard. But it’s like, third person? Yeah, I’ve got to mental note on that.

Dawnie Walton: I think present tense is just tricky in general because—and I talk with my students a lot about this. I love it because it feels very urgent and immediate, but the irony of it, present tense for me, is that it slows the action down because you have to say everything that’s happening as it’s happening. Does that make sense? I feel like it’s not as flexible in terms of leaping through time as past tense, but it’s a hard balance to strike, yeah, using that present voice.  

Deesha Philyaw: Will, I’m wondering, is there a typical way that a story starts for you or is it different every time? And then also, how do you know when a story’s done?

William Pei Shih: So starting a story is a bit of an abstract process because sometimes I try to idea my way into a story and oftentimes, that doesn’t work. You want to try and be the character first, and then you want to stay as open as possible. I deploy the senses, and then you try to inhabit the axis of that person’s life and their universe.

And then you whittle that down to something that’s oversimplified that I can call something like a narrative. And then you need this narrative to hold kind of like a mirror to the world while it resonates with a bit of truth. And so you have to allow the imagination to do a lot of the work here.

And so if I’m lucky, I’ll come to a point of entry, and I think that this is probably a good place to begin. And sometimes it doesn’t even turn out to be the beginning, which is another difficulty, but it’s a place to kind of enter the vein, so to speak. And so much of it is instinct. I think.

I try to teach my writing students how to start a story, and it’s really difficult. I do think that people have instincts for this, and people are really good at trusting their guts. And once you know how to trust your gut and trust yourself, then the rest is kind of just refinement after refinement.

Dawnie Walton: Yeah. And how do you know when it’s done? Is that a gut thing, too, do you think?

William Pei Shih: You know, conclusions are…Yeah, I guess endings are difficult. If you write a story where the character doesn’t realize the story that they’re actually telling, then you’re kind of like headed towards a conclusion. But that doesn’t always work. So sometimes I really enjoy watching reality shows because you have the character in a confessional and they’re like telling their side of the story.

And I think this is a great way of learning how to write from the point of view of somebody who’s trying to defend themselves, because it’s how they’re telling it. And they give up secrets of themselves that they can’t hide for long. And then you walk away thinking like, “Oh, this character is the type of person to say, ‘Close your legs to married men.’” Like, you shouldn’t… I’m surprised, you know? While they’re trying to say things. And so once the character has failed in trying to tell the story that they’re telling, I think like that’s when I start realizing that it has to come to an end.

Dawnie Walton: That is fascinating.

Deesha Philyaw: I was just going to say, I am imagining an awesome writing prompt, where you take all your characters and you put them in a reality TV situation and have them write —

William Pei Shih: That would be great.

Deesha Philyaw: — their confessionals. You’d learn so much that way.

William Pei Shih: I would love that.

Dawnie Walton: That was actually kind of the thing about writing Opal & Nev, which was written in interview form, was really keeping in mind that characters are trying to present themselves in a certain light.

William Pei Shih: Mm-hmm.

Dawnie Walton: They definitely have their own agendas and developing those characters is definitely understanding what those agendas are. And I definitely agree that, you know, I mean, reality shows are also my guilty pleasure, but I also kind of see them as research because it is so interesting to getting at something about human nature. I love that. You know we could talk about Real Housewives of Potomac all day. Will and I both watched that one.

Deesha Philyaw: And you know what, Dawnie, even your choice of word of agenda, that’s so different than saying, you know, write the character from the character’s perspective of what’s happening. If you tell me that, I’m going to write something. If you tell me to write and make it clear what their agenda is, I’m going to write something even better.

Dawnie Walton: Yeah. It’s like a process of interrogating that character. And I like what you said too, Will, about how you maybe come at the story at first with an idea, but then as you develop the characters, you have to kind of throw that out the window. You know what I mean? Because it’s like, you can’t have the story be like you have a round hole and then suddenly your characters are becoming square pegs. Like, they don’t fit anymore. And so this story has to evolve. It has to change.

William Pei Shih: Yeah. And your character has to fail in telling their story. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about fiction. It shows, like, you know, it truly is the messiness

Deesha Philyaw: And we want to protect them, but then we have no story. So it’s like you have a choice; you can protect the character and have no story, or you can have an amazing story, but things get messy or difficult or painful or devastating for your character.

Dawnie Walton: And I’m curious for you both, as things get messy and as you make these choices that change things for your character, as the writer, I find that to be a very emotional process and sometimes heartbreaking, weirdly. And… even though you know, Deesha, as you said, what you’re writing is good, it’s just different than what you thought and it’s, I don’t know, sometimes I have to kind of take a moment.

Deesha Philyaw: Yeah, I think the better you write your characters, it’s because you’re able to empathize. But then I think the more you empathize with them, the more you’re feeling what they’re feeling. And I’ve definitely been in this situation where I’ve put off that confrontation, I’ve put off that loss because I’m going to feel it too. I mean, if I’m doing my job right, I’m going to feel it, too.

[musical break]

Dawnie Walton: So here’s a little fill in the blank. The hardest part of writing a short story is…

William Pei Shih: Finding time. I think finding the ideal time where everything aligns, you know, you’re at your most conscious or where you can really sit down and write well. I think that that’s been a difficulty for me.

Dawnie Walton: What are sort of the ideal conditions for you? Do you have any rituals that get you into that space?

William Pei Shih: So I think when I was younger, I probably had more rituals. I had to have a certain tea or I had to read something extensive before, just to kind of psychologically get myself ready. But I think just because now time is limited. If I could just have a cafe for two hours, it is a very welcome gift.

Dawnie Walton: I envy you being able to write in a café.

William Pei Shih: Is it hard? Is it too noisy?

Dawnie Walton: It’s too noisy, and I’m very nosy as well, so I’m always sort of like…

William Pei Shih: Hey I’m nosy, too.

Deesha Philyaw: It goes in the story, or if not the story I’m working on, it goes in another story. But I also can write with noise going on around me. I can.

Dawnie Walton: That’s amazing. I envy that. And then, my favorite part of writing a short story is_______..

William Pei Shih: I’d be curious what you both think, but probably the discovery, surprising yourself. That’s something like, as you’re writing, you can only idea yourself to a certain point, and then as you continue to write, there are moments of surprise and discovery that I think I would never have realized had I not started writing this specific story.

Deesha Philyaw: For me, it’s not quite the opposite, but the discovery part, I enjoy it and it feels like play and experimentation and all of that. But it’s torture for me as a planner because I can plan in other aspects of my life, but I don’t have success planning in my writing. So, I draft to discover. So my favorite part is actually going back and revising after I have a draft. So that’s my favorite part. Dawnie, how about you?

Dawnie Walton: For me, I love the moments where I’m laughing. And sometimes it’s not something that’s on-the-nose funny. Although I like to write things that are funny and I like funny voices. But sometimes it’s something that feels very familiar or true, that makes me sort of chuckle to myself. And I love that moment as a reader as well. So Deesha, a lot of your stories in Secret Lives of Church Ladies, the things that I recognized in it. I mean, we talk a lot about the Publix—was it the macaroni salad from Publix?

Deesha Philyaw: Oh, the potato salad. Got to doctor it up!

Dawnie Walton: The potato salad from Publix. Yes. Yes. So I don’t know— Publix isn’t in New York, but this is a Florida grocery chain and they’re sort of like well known for their deli selections. So moments like that, that I recognize and feel deeply from my own experience, for some reason, it triggers a laugh response. So I that’s my favorite part when I hit on something that either feels funny or very, very true.

So interesting. I’m wondering, Will, about your surprising yourself. Can you think of a moment in a story where that happened and can you explain it a little?

William Pei Shih: So I think in “Happy Family,” I think originally in a previous draft, I don’t think I had Scarlett be such an unreliable narrator. I had her just telling the story. And so as I was becoming more and more like the Scarlett who would end up telling the story, the way she questions her point of telling it and the mistake she makes in her point of telling, all of those moments kind of surprised me as I was writing it.

Dawnie Walton: And this is a spoileriffic podcast, so we can talk about specific plot points, but what were sort of the moments where you felt Scarlett moving into unreliability?

William Pei Shih: Yeah, I mean, like Deesha pointed out where Scarlett would say something like, “Let me explain,” or “It didn’t happen.” Or she had this in one of the final drafts, she does this really cool thing that I’ve never done in any of my short stories, where she just ends things on like, four words. And I was like, “That’s such a Scarlett thing to do. Why is she using her SAT words?”

Dawnie Walton: Oh, Scarlett. I will say that she is a character that I really loved and I empathized with a lot. And the moment for me, of course, when you find out that she’s the one that takes the money from the register, I gasped and yet, it felt so true…

Deesha Philyaw: Mm-hmm.

Dawnie Walton: …to the character and to everything that I had learned about her up to that point. And it sort of fell in line with, you know, I also think that there’s a lot of loneliness in this story, but there’s also some bitterness and there’s some fire in Scarlett.

William Pei Shih: Yeah, sure. And that moment, I don’t even think that was in the original draft. It was after you and I tossed it back and forth a couple of times. And then I was just like, “Scarlett, you’ve been keeping this secret from me all this time. We’re going to put it on the page.”

Dawnie Walton: I love it. I love it. I love it.

Deesha Philyaw: So, Will, let’s talk about what you’re reading now or what you’ve read recently. Are there any short story collections that you’re excited about?

William Pei Shih: Yeah. What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah is a brilliant collection. I feel like it touches all the seasons of human emotions, and it’s a story collection that I’ll reread from time to time. And another story collection, or I should say like a song cycle of a collection is Cleanness by Garth Greenwell.

Deesha Philyaw: Mm-hmm.

William Pei Shih: I feel like he’s just such a master of style, and his writing is so perfect on the sentence level. And one more collection that I read recently is Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike. And it’s just these wonderful stories about early motherhood.

Deesha Philyaw: Ooh, I haven’t heard of that one.

William Pei Shih: Yeah, it’s great. And she’s just so witty on the page. And I just love witty writers, writers who can make me laugh.

Dawnie Walton: Thanks so much, William, for coming on.

William Pei Shih: I loved being here.

Dawnie Walton: Ah, it’s such a pleasure, such a pleasure.

Deesha Philyaw: And thanks for your story. It is a treasure.

William Pei Shih: Thank you.

Dawnie Walton: We’re so proud to feature it.

William Pei Shih: Likewise.

Dawnie Walton: And excited for the collection that we know is coming.

Deesha Philyaw: Yes.

Dawnie Walton: Yes. Thank you for joining us today. If you enjoy today’s conversation and want more, become an Ursa Member by subscribing in Apple Podcasts, or by going to You’ll help us produce our original stories and you’ll support our work on this podcast, as we turn you on to our favorite writers and short stories. You can support this podcast by leaving a review and a comment in Apple Podcasts. Until next time…

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