Where did the idea for Cadenzas come from? What inspired you to write it? And how long did it take?

Four years ago at the age of 79 and aware of how much background work my previous novels have demanded, I was pretty sure that this one, Cadenzas, would be my last novel. Add to that my recollection of what the Palestinian writer Edward Said thought, that the last novel an author writes is usually the one that they’ve always wanted to write, I thought this was it, this was most likely going to be my last one.

Alex Kuo reading at bookshop
Alex Kuo (Courtesy Garcia Street Books)

I spent several months thinking about it, raising questions about what is a novel, what is its long history, flipping through some historically significant books such as Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes), and The Story of the Stone (Cao Xueqin), placing some dozen novelists within this pressing retrospective, such as the Brontë sisters, James Joyce, Gustav Flaubert, Chekov, Jorge Borges, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Jane Austen, and Luisa Valenzuela, and examining the market share of current American readers of novels, with romance fiction at the highest level of sales, followed by, in order, inspirational, science-fiction, mystery, and at the bottom, the newly bookstore-categorized literary fiction that is bought mostly during the holiday gift-giving season and not ever read at a deadening small fraction approaching zero of the leading category. In other words, novels that fall into this category do not do well in the present American cultural market, and most of their authors have to find day jobs in order to support themselves and continue their writing.

In looking back at my previous novels, it was clear that the domain of my fiction in both subject matter and the way it is presented, most of it did not fit into any of these sales categories, in neither content nor technique (such as the handling of chronology, use of dialogue, who is telling the story). So in affirming Edward Said’s assessment of the author’s last novel, I decided it going to confront some basic tenets of a novel’s conventional characteristics: I was going to do away with both character and plot. When I described it to my novelist friend John Keeble, he looked back at me and asked seriously, “What’s left?”

What I finally decided upon, since as a novel and a work of fiction, it has to have some kind of form to assimilate discourse of a word following another word and following another word, but not a narrative of what happened and then what happened and then what happened. And that form turned into an imagined dialogue between the language of words and the language of music, wrapped around J.S Bach’s long keyboard composition The Goldberg Variations as a model, with its Aria followed by 30 variations and concluding with a complete repetition of the Aria. If anything, in Cadenzas, Aria comes closest to being a character.


Who do you see as the audience for Cadenzas? With whom do you see it resonating most? And what are you hoping they take from it?   

A tricky question here, for which the answer requires at least two parts.

In the process of writing the drafts, I was fully attentive to the anticipation that this novel’s basic form makes it very difficult for almost all readers to find coherence, especially those who majored in English because they thought it would be easy. In fact, what I was trying to accomplish in this work of fiction is to go against the grain (thank you, William Carlos Williams, my first writing teacher), to challenge the form, to go out there and stand in line and try to conjugate form with content. To destroy the current literality of the novel’s parameters, to move into another dimension. No plot; no character. Almost like language in poetry. Almost like music: no words, nothing in print, not even one hand clapping.

To make the traditional reader most uncomfortable and ready to throw the book across the room.

And with all those expectations, I thought that one category of people who would be natural in understanding Cadenzas, it would be performing musicians.

Most of all, this novel was written for those who are attentive to our common linguistic language and are careful in following how these words in this order conspire to describe an imagined variant of art form on the page as they change their meaning ever so slightly from moment to moment, and in this way this novel would become a cadenza to turn our lives away from the waste of our daily white noise, if only for a moment, as it did for me in writing it. This is the most I can hope for.


What do you hope readers take from your body of work as a whole?

I started writing in the mid ’50s, almost 70 years ago. As much as I can remember, almost all of my work—novels, short stories, poems, essays—required extensive background work. I would begin by choosing a subject that would interest me, and then it would be followed by intensive investigative work. The novel The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze’s background work took nine years, including research grants from the United Nations Artists Program and the Idaho Commission on the Arts to travel to the Three Gorges and Grand Coulee dam sites to gather background information on hydrology and the environmental impact of these two high dams.

Personally, the knowledge acquired from this work has helped me better understand almost my entire adult life spent in the neighborhood of the hundreds of dams in the Columbia River drainage in the Pacific Northwest and in their ecological, cultural, political and economical impact of these dams—especially the nine high ones on the Columbia River—on the lives of the people who are fortunate enough to call it home, sometimes accidentally.

It is my hope that my readers will acquire the approximate knowledge that I have gained from putting together the essential materials for this work. In the final equation, it would not be inaccurate for someone to say that I write for myself.


What’s the significance of the design and choice to present a double-sided work that’s the same either way you begin it? And was it difficult to get the publisher on board with it?

I’ve always fantasized that the physical freedom of reading a book allows a person to start and end reading a book at any page, as well as mixing the order of the pages and reading it backwards and forwards. In this case, however, I did stop at punishing the reader, the publisher, and the various proof readers by not insisting that the second version of the novel as a work of fiction would have the exact same words, but printed in reverse order.

Actually, the publisher loved the double-sided format. In fact, she’s the one who came up with the description double-sided.


Cadenzas is the culmination of eight decades of research and writing, teaching and thought. Is it your last novel?

From the time I decided how I wanted to write Cadenzas until its launch in November 2021, I had thought this would be it, the last, as I had mentioned in my answer to the first question. But truthfully, I’ve been having some weird thoughts lately.


What are you working on now?

Some essays since completing the novel. Most recently, a very long piece on wildfires appeared in the special climate issue of the Massachusetts Review (LXII/4, Winter-2021). I expect to continue writing similar pieces focusing on my links to this interior Northwest environment in the last 70 years.


What’s the trouble with memoir?

Too many people writing and publishing who do not know how to write a sentence and have nothing important to say about their lives.


What’s the trouble with journalism?

Like my answer to the last question, I do not want to spend my life wasting time reading their mostly worthless work. Their news reports seem to be fixated on describing the contrived, theatrical drama accompanying news events, particularly political events, and ignoring the basic issues surrounding them. I should, however, mention that there are quite a few writers whose work I respect and admire, such as Masha Gessen, Tim Snyder, David Halberstam, and Anne Applebaum.


Who are your favorite writers of fiction?

Not necessarily in this order: William Faulkner, Margaret Atwood (short fiction), Annie Proulx, Luis Valenzuela, Yu Hua, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, plus many, many others, often in translation, such as Lu Xun.


What are your top 10 recommendations for books that you think everyone should read before they die?

  • The Divine Comedy by Dante
  • Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Silko
  • Native Son by Richard Wright
  • Murder in the Dark by Margaret Atwood
  • The Castle by Franz Kafka
  • Foul Matter by Martha Grimes
  • The Rebel by Albert Camus
  • Any book by Jorge Borges
  • Close Range by Annie Proulx
  • Cry the Beloved by Alan Patton
  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • If this is a Man the Truce by Primo Levi


Where is your favorite place to write? What sort of room or mood or music or time of day works best for you?

Who cares! A person’s writing schedule and habits go with the individual and evolve through time, invariably determined by one negotiating one’s priorities and life styles. I’ve always been curious why this abominable and useless question has acquired a such mythical status in interviews, as if the answers can trick a wannabe writer into become a working and successful writer, like wannabe painters going from one artist home tour to another.


Which of your novels was most difficult to write?

Unquestionably, the novel shanghai.shanghai.shanghai, because of its handling of the time line that follows the principle of the Mobius loop, where things can circle back to itself, preempting the linear chronology of time. For instance, the main couple do not know each other, has met each other, is about to be married, is already married. We are not entirely sure what time it is, as time moves forward and backward without any help from the author.


What is your best advice to young aspiring writers?

Assuming this writer is a serious writer and not a genre or memoir writer or dilettante, but a writer of literary fiction that’s read by almost no one in this country: “Shoot them now, while they’re happy.” Dorothy Parker said this in an interview nearly a century ago.


More about Kuo and his work

Review of Cadenzas

From the archives: Alex Kuo wins American Book Award

From the archives: Review of Mao’s Kisses

From the archives: Triple Shanghai

From the archives: Alex Kuo reads from shanghai.shanghai.shanghai.

From the archives: Review of The Man who Dammed the Yangtze

From the archives: Review of A Chinaman’s Chance

From the archives: Review of White Jade and Other Stories

From the archives: Review of Panda Diaries

From the archives: Excerpt of The Peking Cowboy