Q&A with Jonny Sun
Jonny Sun is someone I followed on Twitter for a while and I really appreciate his work and observations about life. Jonny’s latest book, Goodbye, again, gave me so much joy this spring. It’s a balm for the soul. Here is my interview with Jonny about relationships, mental health, writing, plants, and more!!
For more about Jonny, check out his website.
Congratulations on your new book, Goodbye, again! How are you feeling right now with your book out this April and the start of some heavy-duty book promotion? What are you being mindful of as things ramp up quickly with interviews (like this one) and events?
Thank you for your congratulations!! I’m feeling mainly just really excited about the book being in the world, and excited that people are finding it and connecting with it. I am now at the end of the big 4-5 week period of the book release, and I am very tired. It’s a strange thing to work on making a thing and then to also to work on letting people know that you made something – those feel like two very different modes of energy and focus. For interviews and events, I am finding a lot of energy and excitement from talking with people and getting to share some time with someone – it is draining but also exciting. I’ve been lucky (and have pushed for this from the start, so it’s luck and intention) that all my book talks, and so many of the interviews I am doing, are with people who I know and who I look up to and like and respect — and so it’s really been a way to spend time with people I like. The book talks are particularly exciting because I have gotten to talk and catch up with so many friends and it’s been really nice to get to do that. I think the big thing I was and am mindful of is that the energy from doing these talks and this month of book release stuff is that – while it’s very exciting – my energy is definitely finite. And I’m trying to make time to mainly focus on book stuff and try to hold off on all the other avenues of work and deadlines I have. Most of my days during the book release cycle very been very quiet, then punctuated with a very exciting and emotionally-focused hour of time for a book talk or an interview, and then recovery for the next ones, and I feel lucky that I’m in a position to advocate for myself and to try to deal with my personal guilt in asking to push some deadlines back and to make that space – I know that is a privilege that is unfortunately not common enough!
Plants, and your illustrations of them, are extremely important in Goodbye, Again. What can humans learn from plants based on your experiences and observations, especially in the midst of the pandemic when the notion of time has changed for many?
I really turned to plants during the pandemic as a way to mark the slow and steady passage of time. So much of the pandemic has felt like a form of purgatory, but focusing on the growth and care of my plants has reminded me that time is actually passing, and things are changing. In the book, I used plants as a way to talk about bigger themes and ideas by focusing on small, minute changes and shifts in my plants. I have always been excited about the idea of focusing on small, everyday things as a way to connect with bigger, more intangible ideas, and the practice of focusing on what’s already around me has helped me be more connected to being present and being observant and being more thoughtful and engaged in my own life. I also like that in taking care of plants, I am no longer just myself, but I also understand my role as being somebody who exists for something else – that it is a very helpful way to de-center myself in how I inhabit the world.
You write a lot about friendships and maintaining connections in person or online and how listening is an act of care and love. Like the plants in your life, how do you nurture your relationships with friends and family?
I try to be there as much as I can, and I have also been aware, more and more, that relationships and friendships do take time and energy and focus and intention. They are not passive, and there is a level of active engagement that is required of them, and I am trying to create more space in my life so that my energy can go to the people I care about instead of anything else. I think knowing and acknowledging that these relationships take active focus and time is helpful for me because it helps me be more conscious of where I am giving my energy to and where to focus my priorities on. When I realized that my relationships with other people are not a default, it helped me understand that few things take more priority than my friendships and relationships with the people I love.
For me, a bulk of my writing starts with daydreaming or not being conscious of the end product such as an essay or manuscript. Goodbye, again is a collection of thoughts, stories, recipes, illustrations, and more. What was it like organizing all of these elements and collaborating with your editors?
I am the same way! This book started out as just an unsorted folder of notes on my notes app, and existed for years just as this log or archive of thoughts I had gotten down, in no order at all. When Elissa had suggested this should be my next book, I thought a lot about how to make these thoughts and notes legible to other people, and spend a lot of time thinking about how to organize these pieces so the ones in the book would all relate to each other and circle a few key themes and ideas, and would develop in a way that reflected an emotional journey or arc. My editors (Stephanie Hitchcock, and then Mary Gaule) were a great deal of help because they could see the book outside of myself, and were instrumental in how I understood how other people would read and parse the book – they helped me get that emotional cohesion and arc right by helping me figure out what makes sense to someone reading the pieces — I had so much time with the pieces at that point that sometimes I forgot what it would be like encountering them for the first time as a reader.
I appreciated your interrogation of productivity which is in my opinion rooted in ableism, racism, and capitalism. How do you approach your own needs and wants with the external pressures that society expects of everyone?
I truly don’t know!! I really made sure not to try to present any “answers” in the book, but tried instead to look more deeply and specifically at the complexity of tangled emotions and anxieties and thoughts that develop and manifest as someone who is trapped within a toxic culture of productivity. I think one of the most difficult things to do as someone living under this culture is to make time for things that don’t “produce value” for this culture because those are things that this culture makes us feel guilty about. And it is not any solution to simply reject this culture because we are trapped so deeply in this capitalistic society that we are forced into this culture of work and production in order to survive. So I don’t know. I’m sorry if that is not a satisfying answer but I think I am also realizing that articulating this frustration of being trapped in this, and connecting with other people who also feel these things, is a good thing because it helps me understand just how broken and inhumane and unethical our culture and our attitudes around work really are. And doing so with other people I hope will build more and more momentum and weight to some sort of change.
I’ve seen a lot of garbage advice on Twitter that makes writers feel compelled to write a certain number of pages everyday or have a routine in order to be a ‘productive and disciplined’ writer which is something I despise. What practices fuel you as a writer and artist?
I really despise those forms of “advice” too!! They just make me feel guilty and make me feel like I’m doing something wrong, and I feel like all of this also is indicative of a culture that values work above all else. Writing *shouldn’t* be about efficiency and optimization – that does not create space for exploration and thought and consideration. I think the most helpful practice for me is to try to unlearn those pressures. That I already feel like a fraud no matter what I do, and that I don’t need *more* things that will make me feel like I’m doing things wrong. All that does is make me focus less on the writing itself and more on worrying *about* the writing which is just deeply unhelpful and mentally harmful to me.
Bojack Horseman is one of my favorite shows because of many things: puns, animals, savagery towards Hollywood, and serious explorations of mental health, trauma, and substance use. I remember a scene where a character used the word ‘ableist’ and I flat out squealed. The one episode when Bojack goes underwater and entire scenes are completely without dialogue felt like a scene that may resonate deeply with many Deaf and non-speaking people which was a beautiful way to tell a story. What was it like for you to work with other writers on the show in creating such complex characters that did not mock or stigmatize mental illness?
I came on board as a writer for the sixth season, and as a huge fan of the show, I totally share the same admiration for what they’ve done! For a lot of the first few weeks of my time in the room, it felt like a totally surreal experience – like I was pitching fan fiction for one of my favorite shows. The entire BoJack team is so incredible and thoughtful and kind and smart and critical, and I was overjoyed to be a part of the room. The writers really showed me that you can be pointed and sharp and sardonic and critical in your satire and writing, while ALSO being kind and generous and empathetic and big-hearted, and in fact I believe that both those things go hand in hand. When you really genuinely and deeply care about things, you are able to be pointed in how you can address the things that harm what you care about. That caring and empathy from the writers is why the characters are treated with complexity and caring and empathy too — everyone in the room was so aware of how stories and tropes and biases can get things so wrong, and so for subjects like mental health and mental illness, we really wanted to make sure the stories we told were complex and compassionate about those subjects. I think that comes from that combination of being very caring and being very critical too.
In your book you mentioned that you were anxious as a young person and I believe there are so many kids and young adults who experience anxiety and depression who are told to just ‘pray it away,’ work through it, or that it’s ‘all in their head.’ Knowing what you know now, what would you say to young Jonny and youth who are struggling right now?
The stigma is so hard to fight!! And unfortunately, there is so much stigmatization around mental health. I would say that these feelings are not things that only you feel and that they do not make you weird and that you are not alone in feeling these ways. They are not imaginary and they are absolutely real, and because they are real, they are things you can get help with. You are not strange, and you are not the only one feeling this, and the more you try to ignore or suppress it, the more it can make you feel worse. I spent so much of my life thinking two contradictory thoughts that both felt true to me: 1) that I was alone in my feels of depression and anxiety and so I shouldn’t talk to anyone about them, and 2) that I wasn’t special at all and everyone had these feelings and they were able to deal with them without asking for help so why should I? Both of these are the result of the stigmatization of mental health, and these thoughts made me feel like I needed to go through these experiences alone, which really made it harder for me.
When I started being more open about my mental health, and acknowledging that anxiety and depression were both things that not only I was going through alone, but also things that not everyone experienced, it helped me understand they were specific things that had names and that could be addressed and that I could get help with from people who study these things and that I could talk to other people about who were going through similar things. And that the entirety of the way we are able to understand mental health is from people sharing and talking about their experiences. And I just felt freer and more at peace and more empowered and more fully seen once I started being more open about it and finding other people to talk to and share experiences with.
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