“‘Strange,’ muttered Mannheim behind him. ‘You think you’ve seen it all, and then something comes along and shatters all your pre-established notions.'” ~ from Queen of Spades by Michael Shou-Yung Shum
The gamble. In one way or another, you are always playing the odds. As soon as the traffic light turns yellow, you quickly gauge your distance and press on. If you’re a writer, you send a story out a hundred times with the conviction that soon one acceptance will override all those rejections. Or, if you’re me in the late eighties and trying to procure the attentions of a handsome young man, you debate whether or not to pick up the phone by flipping a quarter. Heads you call, tails you don’t. And even while you lose with each flip, you don’t give up, the phone an object of incessant mockery. So you push at chance: 3 out of 5, 5 out of 7, 10 out of 15. Ignoring the loss, you call anyway, the flick of your thumb just an exercise in show.
The casino. A different kind of gamble but a game all the same, and a scenario that we assume we can predict: a shadowed room, a row of seated bodies hypnotized and staring into the lights of slot machines or the faces of the cards.
But in Queen of Spades, Michael Shou-Yung Shum’s debut novel (Forest Avenue Press, 2017), with its story set in Seattle and the fictional Royal Casino, we discover a different side of the experience and a new understanding of the inner workings of the people, the players, the place.
A story told from the perspectives of the dealers and those closest to the game of chance, Queen of Spades unveils a little of the casino magic, only to tease us with more. We are quickly caught up in the tales of a quiet and focused Arturo Chan, a bold and speculative and desperate Chimsky, Barbara on the straight and narrow (and then not), the elusive Countess, and more.
I’m thrilled to host Michael Shou-Yung Shum to talk about his debut novel. And, there’s a giveaway: a copy of his book for one lucky reader (courtesy of Forest Avenue Press)! Check out recent praise about Queen of Spades here (including notes from the Library Journal, which recognizes the book’s “high seriousness and humor”). Then, ENTER the giveaway by Tuesday, October 31st.
Now, welcome Michael Shou-Yung Shum!
Christi Craig (CC): Queen of Spades is your debut novel, so we assume that this is a work of fiction. But in the first chapter, you write that this story is a retelling of events shared with you by the protagonist Arturo Chan, whose memories you “distilled through fictional conventions of timing and characterization” (immediately evoking in readers a sense of curiosity and mystery). As you began piecing this story together, did you pull from an amalgamation of true characters encountered in your own experiences at the tables, or as a collage of events imagined while immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of the casino en masse?
Michael Shou-Yung Shum (MSS): One of my goals in writing the novel was to enchant the experience of gambling, a topic that is often disenchanted when it comes to fiction (think gritty tales of realism that describe down on their luck protagonists getting more and more in the hole…). I wanted to do the opposite with my novel, which is to invest aspects of real-life experience with, as you say, curiosity and mystery—to “enchant” those experiences, in other words. So yes, I did pull from real-life people I’ve come across—for example, the Countess is a very stylized and enchanted version of a “regular” who used to come to the casino where I worked every day, an old woman who sat at the poker table coughing up a lung and glaring at the other players. Her name was Barbara, by the way, so the character of Barbara was a kind of reimagining of this player when she was young, in the 1980s.
CC: In considering the characters of your novel, are you more like Jean-Paul Dumonde, who insists a pattern exists in everything and the goal is to uncover it and pursue it? Or are you more like Chan, who perceives and at heart believes in the “odd sense of the connectedness of things. . . . the contingency of moments, of events, and of people” (a pattern to be sure, but one controlled entirely by unpredictable forces)?
MSS: I think I am a bit of all my characters! I definitely have a deliberate, methodical side and also a side that craves mystery and the unknowability of things—in other words, I both want to know and discover, and also not know and experience. I actually think Chan and Dumonde are more similar than they are different, which may be one reason they get along both so poorly and so well.
CC: Your novel is based on Pushkin’s short story, “Queen of Spades.” As someone with a PhD in Psychology and one in English (amazing!), what role do fables play in the world of someone who views life through the lens of human behavior and man’s love of literature?
MSS: If you study fables, common forms and figures will emerge that will tell you a great deal about the interplay between culture and the development of the human psyche. I do like questioning where our stories come from, and where they can go.
CC: What are you reading these days?
MSS: I keep a tall, ever-changing pile of books on the bottom shelf of my nightstand. Some of them currently are:
- Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
- Bergen, How To Become A Ventriloquist
- de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun
- Banks, Settlement Nurse
- Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulu and Other Weird Stories
- Watterson, Ventriloquisms
CC: You and your wife, Jaclyn Watterson, are both authors (Congratulations to her on her debut collection of stories, Ventriloquisms!). In a house of two writers, I imagine there are plenty of discussions on story and craft. The question is…do you ever debate the quality of a good pen? And is it ball point, gel, or fountain?
MSS: Jackie and I do work closely, although on paper, our writing appears quite different. We both love a good gel-point pen, but we mostly use pencils.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Michael Shou-Yung Shum eventually found himself dealing poker in a dead-end casino in Lake Stevens, Washington. Two doctorates bookend this strange turn of events: the first in Psychology from Northwestern, and the second in English from the University of Tennessee. Along the way, Michael spent a dozen years in Chicago, touring the country as a rave DJ, and three years in Corvallis, Oregon, where he received his MFA in Fiction Writing. He currently resides in Astoria, Queens, with Jaclyn Watterson and three cats. Queen of Spades is his first novel. Visit his website for more on his book and other published works.
Don’t forget! Enter the book giveaway for a chance to win a copy of Queen of Spades.