Interview With Boen Wang
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: In “Notes on Cycling,” we appreciated the skill with which you weaved the topics of religion, homophobia, and isolation into your audio essay. How did you decide which topics to focus on?
Boen Wang: The piece is a crystallization of the summer between my junior and senior years of college, where I experienced simultaneous losses of life direction/religion/friendship. It sounds a bit overdramatic, but I guess everything feels overdramatic when you’re twenty-one.
I’d given up on engineering and switched to English earlier in the year and was taking summer classes at Penn State. I’d also been having more and more doubts about the Christian faith I was raised in, especially with regards to the anti-LGBTQ rights position that all the churches I attended seem to take. And due to intense self-loathing that I didn’t know how to process as a twenty-one-year-old, I broke up with my best friend in probably the most hurtful way possible.
So it’s an assortment of different topics/themes, but the unexpected, unifying throughline was the used bike I bought on Craigslist and rode around on all summer.
RR: The soundscapes in “Notes on Cycling” really caught our attention. How did you settle on the voice acting and the sound effects you incorporated?
BW: My partner Grace Gilbert provided voice acting. They’re an incredibly talented poet/essayist/visual artist/fellow Pitt grad, and they were featured and interviewed in The Rappahannock Review last year.
Concerning sound design, the first and most important rule I set for myself was to not use any bicycle noises. I’m not a professional sound designer or engineer by any means, but the one thing I know is that you should generally avoid literal sounds (e.g. when your narration says there’s a knock on the door, don’t use a door knock sound).
I listened to this interview with Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, and his main piece of advice was to think abstractly—try to find a sound that isn’t the actual sound, but captures the feeling/tone of what you’re describing. So I used sounds that for me represented that hazy, in-betweenness of spending summer break in a college town: wind clipping, cicadas chirping, a clock ticking away. And I also love using a creepy text-to-speech reader, so I had to include that.
RR: We’ve noticed you have multiple pieces with the same title, can you tell us more about this project?
BW: This story originated as an essay I wrote for an undergrad nonfiction workshop back in 2016 (the first writing workshop I ever took) taught by current UT Austin professor Jo Hsu. I think the assignment was to write a lyric essay, which as far as I knew meant something that was fragmented/weird/unresolved. I kicked the essay around to different publications over the years, and in 2020 the Pittsburgh-based journal Fourth River published it online.
Around that time I was also taking a graduate audio storytelling course from Pitt professor Erin Anderson. One of the class assignments was to make an audio imitation of one of the stories we listened to; I had latched onto Scott Carrier’s “The Dry Wall” (prob one of my favorite audio stories of all time), where Carrier experiences a life crisis and builds a very metaphorical dry wall while going about his everyday life. This essay seemed similar in both theme and content, so I adapted it for audio.
So yeah, this story is a class assignment twice over.
RR: We see that you’ve recently graduated from the M.F.A. program at the University of Pittsburgh. What part of the program helped you develop the most as a writer?
BW: Professor Anderson was definitely the person at Pitt who helped me develop the most as a writer/audio storyteller. I’d come into my M.F.A. intending to write longform journalism, but that audio class she taught in spring 2020 was what inspired me to switch to audio. Erin also ended up being my thesis advisor (and let me submit a five-episode podcast series as my thesis).
The thing about the Pitt M.F.A. is that in addition to offering the three standard writing tracks (fiction/nonfiction/poetry), there’s a secret audio track that Erin pretty much runs. People from Pitt who worked under her have gone on to win awards and work at places like NPR and the podcast production company Pineapple Street Media. So if you’re interested in studying/making audio, you might want to check out Pitt. It’s also fully funded unlike something like the Salt Institute.
Oh also, at Pitt I met my partner/love of my life Grace, so that’s pretty cool.
RR: We love how your website is surprisingly minimalistic. How did you decide on presenting your persona as a writer in that way?
BW: Well, boenwang.com was already taken (although now it seems to redirect to a nonexistent github page for “the boen project,” which I’d love to participate in). And I thought it’d be funny/dumb to use boen.cool instead. Concerning the minimalism (helvetica bb) and my “persona as a writer,” I dunno. I guess I didn’t want an elaborate author page, just get all the relevant info on there and that’s that. For what it’s worth I used Cargo, which seems a bit simpler than Squarespace or WordPress.
Boen Wang’s work appears in Issue 10.1 here.