'A Concoction of Bitterness and Sweetness': An Interview with Ling Ma, By Jennifer Mills

Photo by Liliane Calfee

A decade after the 2008 financial crisis, the economic order that created it is still stumbling around, dead inside, leaving a trail of worsening inequality and ecosystem collapse. Some theorists call this era zombie capitalism. If that’s apt, then Ling Ma’s Severance is a novel for our times.

Following the young office worker Candace Chen as she dutifully goes through the motions of her middle-class job, holding to her migrant aspirations while the world that made sense of them falls apart around her, this story moves between post-apocalypse, existentialist office satire, critique of global capitalism, and bildungsroman, without ever losing its emotional core. It’s a cracking read, deeply moving and at times hilarious.

Ling was generous enough to chat with me over email about the book’s gestation, economics, bullshit jobs, the pleasure of ruining New York, and the will to get free.

What motivated you to begin writing Severance and was it the same thing that motivated you to finish it?

That’s a great question. The company I worked for was downsizing. I was going to be laid off. At first I was writing an apocalyptic short story for the fun of it. I did not know it was a novel. As it progressed however, I felt there was an undercurrent of anger to the story, and I tried to trace that anger back to the source — it was coming from the office, from work. I felt that this story was meant to be a meditation on work, and from there, everything else came: issues of global capitalism, consumerism, immigration.

In finishing the novel, I was very much focused on rounding out Candace Chen as a character. I suppose I began with the ideas first, then as I increasingly got to know Candace, I wanted to present her as fully as I could. The process of writing this book surprised me.


I want to come back to work in a moment, because it is at the core of this book. I think you succeeded with Candace – she feels real and ordinary, very human, and given the circumstances she’s in, this is quite an accomplishment.

Severance drops us into a post-apocalyptic setting in which a plague has wiped out most of the population. But your humour is there from the outset; the situation seems absurd rather than tragic. Why did you choose a medical catastrophe? Was it important to you that it was something gradual, something that “passes as ordinary"?

The two emotions that kicked off Severance, for me, are joy and anger. I’ve heard that the secret to the Coca-Cola formulation is high doses of bitterness and sweetness. Essentially, you take two diametrically opposed elements and double down on that. I was thinking about that, about joy and anger blasting at high volumes, especially in the beginning of the novel. It just creates such a strange combination.

As for the “gradual” apocalypse, I think perhaps we are more motivated to keep the status quo than to change things up. Also, as I watched the downsizing procedures at my company, I understood that they were attempting to downsize by attrition, by seeding discouragement to stay, by gradually changing its policies so employees would be motivated to leave. Perhaps the apocalypse could also proceed by attrition…

Why is this novel set in the recent past, instead of the near future?

From the outset, I knew this novel had to be dated, considering the influx of brand names, but also because New York changes so quickly, with all of its rising rents and developments. Some of the places named in Severance now no longer exist.

I can’t fully explain why 2011, but I believe part of it had to do with Occupy Wall Street taking place that year. I think about people taking over public spaces where they shouldn’t be, they don’t belong. And children’s stories in which the child protagonists hide out in public spaces like museums. In a way, Candace gets to occupy all of New York, which is a place she shouldn’t have been towards the end.

I loved that Occupy was in there! For Candace there’s an ambivalence about New York. As structures collapse around her, her experience of the place is almost liberating – the fantasy of exploring the ruins. There is nostalgia for what is lost, even as it’s being lost, but there’s also an almost physical need – she has this binding attachment to the city, and leaving it means abandoning something essential to her idea of herself. New York’s a hard place to live and yet it sells this dream of itself as a place of opportunity, especially for artists and writers. Is that just a compelling mirage?

I think the stereotype of New York supercedes what New York has actually become. Brooklyn is a marketing term. And Manhattan looks like a cautionary tale of what happens when capitalism runs unchecked. I’m not an economist, but anyone can tell you that New York is an exorbitantly expensive place to live, the insane property values, etcetera. I heard someone describe this novel as an anti-valentine to New York, and that sounds about right. But even if it is an anti-valentine, there is love there. I think this novel is still in love with New York in the way you think about your first love. Some of the most pleasurable scenes to write were the last days Candace spends in New York as the city slowly crumples and decays.

The fantasy of it all falling apart is an interesting phenomenon. You mention the Marchand and Meffre images of Detroit in Severance, the Polidori photos of Pripyat and Chernobyl. I was really interested in unpicking ‘ruin porn’ when I was writing Dyschronia. The last couple of times I visited the States, in 2014 and 2015, I was shocked by an impression of worsening inequality, by how little it seemed most people had recovered from the financial crisis of 2008-9. To me, the bank bailouts were a turning point. The rise of Trump has felt like a direct consequence, as though neoliberalism is taking off its friendly democratic costume, revealing an authoritarian form.

It often seems that the only way to imagine ourselves out of this mess is to imagine the world in ruins. Is that why the apocalypse is so hot right now?

It’s difficult for me to see this book with the critical distance that a cultural critic might. But thinking back to the joy of writing an apocalyptic narrative, my one insight is that perhaps the apocalypse is not about ruins, that it is more about liberation — as you allude to. It is something of a relief to see that systems can be broken down. And that we have the freedom to start anew. Whether that freedom actually yields something that does not fall into the same patterns as before is the crucial question. But maybe that’s not what we think about right away. We’re just thinking about the party.

There’s a “good migrant” in Candace’s head—she works hard to bury her own creative dreams and be good at her job, finding pleasure in it although it appears to be pointless and unsatisfying. Reading Severance, I was reminded of a time in my twenties when I was working in a call centre. I was up on the roof at break and thought to myself that if I jumped off that roof, I wouldn’t have to finish my shift (it was such a tempting idea that I went downstairs and quit). I also thought of David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs and of course The Office. You make the link between Candace’s individual experience and this broader system of global capitalism that demands her complicity and loyalty. Is that something you had to break from in order to write the book?

I think, at some point in my twenties, I might’ve walked out of an internship and never come back. To the best of my recollection, no one even noticed—which is pretty great!

One of my goals with this novel was simply to show global capitalism on the ground floor, to show what it feels like on an individual scale. But I don’t think it’s possible to break from capitalism. That is the world we live in. And I don’t think writers should try to separate themselves from the world. We should all take jobs as stockbrokers, real estate agents, accountants—not just because that’s how a lot of people live. In order to address the problem or even figure out what the problem is, we should spend time within the system, we should understand how the mechanics work. We should understand what it’s like to hold down a soul-sucking position, the personal stakes and fears associated with that—but also, what it’s like to be seduced by a job that you don’t believe in, that has moral ambiguities.

Yeah, I haven’t had a day job since I was thirty but there was certainly a lot of material in the 15 years of working before that. There’s a tension for me between being a professional writer – it’s a point of pride to survive on my wits—and the nature of it as an art form. I’m interested in the way that creative labour is valued in society, partly against capitalism and partly inside it. We are trained to work for productivity and material wealth, but literature also has other measures of success, like reciprocity and relationship-building.

Is writing a job for you now, or art, or can it be both?

That’s an interesting question. For most of my life, my fiction never derived much income. I told myself that this was better because there is no pressure for my writing to please anyone else, less pressure to aim for false targets. These days, however, my fiction draws at least some monetary sum. Having been on both sides, the best possible understanding is that this system is completely arbitrary. And that money and value are not the same thing.

Whatever the case, I have always set writing up in my life as a job. No matter what, writing is work. It feels like work to me, but this work eventually gives way to something else.

One final question—what are you reading?

Currently on my nightstand: Laura Adamczyk's story collection Hardly Children. I am struck by her beguiling prose style! I've also been reading more poetry, so: Dorothea Lasky's poetry collection Rome, along with Hajara Quinn's collection Coolth. Last but not least, I keep circling around Volume 6 of My Struggle, and then I keep darting away.

Ling Ma was born in Sanming, China, and grew up in Utah, Nebraska and Kansas. She attended the University of Chicago and received an MFA from Cornell University. Prior to graduate school she worked as a journalist and an editor. Her writing has appeared in Granta, VICE, Playboy, Chicago Reader, Ninth Letter and other publications. A chapter of Severance received the 2015 Graywolf SLS Prize. Severance has been shortlisted for the 2018 Kirkus Prize.

Jennifer Mills is the fiction editor at Overland. Her latest novel is Dyschronia.

Read The Lifted Brow Review of Books review of Severance by Claire Cao, 'An Apocalyptic Sensibility.'