FLARE conducted an interview via Skype with Ira Sukrungruang, associate professor of English at the University of South Florida. He has published several works, most notably Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy and In Thailand It Is Night. Despite some minor technical issues, FLARE was able to have a fantastic conversation with the Chicago native and learn a great deal about his background, processes, and writing philosophy.
Ira: How are you?
FLARE: Good, how are you?
Ira: Wait – can you see me? Let me see if I can do something about that […] Can you see me now?
FLARE: Yeah! There you are!
Ira: Awesome. So this is going to be an interview – what, recorded? To be published in the magazine? Or…
FLARE: Well, we couldn’t figure out how to record it, so we’re doing an audio recording right now. And if that quality is good, we might upload just the audio or we might type it out and put it on the website.
Ira: Okay! Well I have to stop and tell you that at some point, someone is going to call and tell me to go pick up my lunch [FLARE laughing] so that I might have to run downstairs real quick. Okay, cool.
FLARE: Alright, so, just for starters, tell us about yourself.
Ira: I’m Ira Sukrungruang, I teach at the University of South Florida. I have two books, Talk Thai: A Memoir about growing up in Chicago and In Thailand It Is Night, a poetry collection. I have a new book coming out in the fall called South Side Buddhist, which is really an odd kind of oxymoron – growing up in the South Side of Chicago, which is kind of a working class world, and juxtaposing that with being a Buddhist…kind of an interesting little mix. So that’s coming out in the fall. I also teach in the low-residency MFA program in Hong Kong – City University of Hong Kong – and I edit Sweet: A Literary Confection.
FLARE: Wow! So when do you teach in Hong Kong? How does that schedule work out?
Ira: So I spend about ten days in Hong Kong every summer and it’s called “low residency,” so basically it’s a pretty intense ten days where I’m teaching a workshop classroom with students from about nine to nine: just attending lectures, attending classes. And then throughout the rest of the semester, I’m paired with three students and they have to turn in packets of work every two or three weeks, and then I talk via Skype or email just to give them [support]. Pretty much it’s on them to give me the work on time, but I set up the deadlines and everything.
FLARE: Okay. Let’s see – how did you get started? Getting published, or how you ended up getting the teaching positions…where did your success start?
Ira: Well, when I was at Southern Illinois University, I took a six-year plan to graduate because I went from major to major, and then I found creative writing, which was really amazing. But even then, I started teaching at a high school for a year and I found out that I wasn’t writing when I was teaching high school. When you teach high school, it’s a completely – you’re life gets absorbed by the students. You think about them all the time. And at that time, I was really writing and enjoying writing and I was working with people at Southern Illinois University who edited The Crab Orchard Review, which is one of the best magazines, I think, in the country. And the people there, Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble, were so instrumental in just saying, “You know, maybe you should go get an MFA and see where that goes” and I really listened to them and decided to go to Ohio State to get my MFA. Everything kind of just fell into place, you know, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been publishing a lot and that got me a university job. If you are thinking about going into a university job, or anything in academia, the first thing that people will tell you is that you have to publish! It’s a field that demands that you constantly publish. So, I taught in upstate New York for six years and then finally I left that job and came to Florida. And it’s been great!
FLARE: So what’s your current writing process like? Do you set time aside, or do you just do it when you can…?
Ira: Every project has its own process, I think, so I’ll tell you when I was writing Talk Thai, basically I wrote the whole book in three months from, like, twelve midnight to four in the morning. [FLARE laughing] I just kind of locked myself up in the basement when I was living up in New York and just wrote, every night at night. The poetry book I wrote – I wrote the individual poems whenever I could, and so they didn’t really have a set place. I think [when I started] looking at poetry as a collection…it really took about two or three weeks of sitting down with them to see how they fit together. And I just did that whenever I had some time. Right now, because of the school year and because of all the things I have to do here at USF, I find niches of time. Like it doesn’t have to be an hour, it can be ten minutes, fifteen minutes. And in those ten or fifteen minutes, I make sure I write. So it’s more like a sprint than a marathon, right? And so a lot of time for me, it’s just finding these little niches of time to do something. My next book, the new book I’m working on right now is a memoir about being a monk in Thailand, so actually I’m waiting to go back to Asia and to do a lot of that work, because most of the time I just need to be there, see Asia, and be saturated in Thailand to really fully write about it.
FLARE: So the memoir about being a monk – how was that experience? I mean, you can’t give too much away –
Ira: No, no, I mean – the experience was fantastic; it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I went into it wanting to know more about Buddhism, and I came out of it, even though I did learn a lot, with more questions. And I think that’s the driving force of the book, these questions that I still have for it, and the “weirdnesses” that I find in any kind of religion. There’s a lot of strangeness in religion [laughing]. So I have a really intimate look at Buddhism from a guy who considers himself the worst Buddhist in the world [FLARE laughing]. So that’s really what the POV, point of view of the book, is about.
To be continued…