Orianne Dutka

I decided that the first person the be interviewed for the ‘a chat with’ collection would be Orianne Dutka, American, met at the farewell party of our common friends Taylor and Camille last November. This is because I found her story particularly interesting and inspiring.

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Orianne, a beautiful and graceful young woman, accepted to share her story on Chiara’s Coffee Table and we agreed to meet on a cold Saturday morning .

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I was so excited before my first interview ever!

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Our meeting took place at Initial, cozy cafe’ & boutique on 三里屯路 (SanLiTun Lu) – my favourite spot to meet friends for an informal chat.

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Over a strawberry milkshake (Orianne) and a camomile tea (myself), she started telling her story, which really sounds like the story of a dream come true.

Here is (more or less) how the interview went.

Orianne, even if I hate to be putting labels, how should I introduce you? Orianne the lawyer, or Orianne the writer?

I am a novel writer who spent the first six years of my professional career practicing as a lawyer. In September 2013, I made the decision to listen to my heart, which had been telling me for some time that my true passion was in writing.

What did you feel when they officially called you a writer for the first time? From the moment you realized you were not happy as a lawyer, how long did it take before you quit your job and started working full time at your novel?

I fell in love with the written word as a small child. I read constantly- in school, in the car, in the bathtub, and under the covers when I was supposed to be in bed. Reading was an enchanting experience for me, and a way of discovering new worlds and frolicking in the playground of my imagination. It was only natural that I would turn to writing myself. Over the years, I came to enjoy writing short stories, poetry, pieces for school newspapers, academic papers, and legal articles. I started writing the novel I am currently editing almost a decade ago, and in total, I have spent cumulatively about three-four years working on it. I put it away for many years without touching it because of the demands of my schooling and legal career. I have written and re-written it several times, and am currently in the process of incorporating the changes a literary agent in the U.S. gave me in hopes of selling the book.

My big realization that I wanted to become a writer occurred in April 2011. At that point, I was in my fourth year of working as a lawyer. I had not looked at my novel in several years, but had missed writing and having a creative outlet, and so I had recently started writing short stories. I was in Philadelphia attending a roundtable discussion about careers and professional development, and I had been invited to give a talk about a short story I had written and the creative process that went into it. The organizers of the event presented me as a “writer.” It was the first time in my professional career that I had been introduced not as a lawyer, but as a writer. In that moment, when I heard my name and the word “writer” all in the same breath, I was struck with this immediate sensation that it felt very right. I was not unhappy as a lawyer, but I did not feel like I was truly at home in that profession. I realized that it is in writing that I am able to be utterly myself, and that I feel a sense of joy that nothing else brings to me. Nonetheless, it was scary to even think about leaving the profession to which I had committed. It took until September 2013 for me to take that leap of faith and become a full-time writer.

Let’s talk about the novel you’re writing. What’s the title? Where does the inspiration come from?

The current title is “Raging Against the Spring,” but the titles of books often change between the writing and publishing stages, so it may have a different title when it comes out. The title may also vary in translated versions.

The original inspiration for my novel came from my mother. She was born in 1948 in Hong Kong before it attained its status as an Asian tiger. Like many impoverished families in Hong Kong, my family lived in a tenement building with poor sanitation. Disease was rampant, and at five years old, my mother contracted bone tuberculosis. As a result, she lost parts of her right hip and both legs. From the ages of five through 14, she underwent seven operations, and had to recuperate in a full-body cast for up to a year following each surgery. She was constantly told that she was worthless and that she would not live to adulthood. Despite these challenges, my mother has always had tremendous spirit and is the strongest person I know. Not only did she survive, but she also received a doctorate degree from an Ivy League university and she has gone on to have a rich life and career.

My mother let me use her story as the foundation of the novel. Nonetheless, I decided that I did not want to write her biography. Although I have the most profound respect for biographers, from the beginning of the process, I felt that writing a biography would limit me in this particular project. Writing fiction felt like the best way for me to incorporate my imagination, to engage in the history of the time period, to invent characters, to give the characters their own voices, and to give the work more of a life of its own. In the end, although the novel started out telling the story of a character I named Nina, who represented my mother, I ended up spreading the focus to a number of characters. Nina also has her own personality and there are many aspects of her storyline that are not consistent with my mother’s experiences, so I do not see her as identical to my mother at this point.

What is the novel about?

My novel follows four generations of a family in China and Hong Kong from the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 to the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. I tell the stories of the lowest-ranked concubine of a warlord who starts a sewing empire in the 1920s; an unappreciated daughter who discovers that she is a lesbian and enters a convent in the 1950s; a creative writing professor in the 1990s who examines her childhood battle with tuberculosis; and several others. I follow the historical events that occurred between 1912-1940 in China and 1940-1997 in Hong Kong, but there are also some fantastical elements as well, such as a witch doctor who makes a successful love potion and the ghost of a fisherman who sporadically visits one of the main characters.

Which advice would you give to someone who is too afraid to quit their stable job to pursue a dream? 

Taking a leap of faith and following your dreams is something that we all romanticize, but we rarely talk about how to go about doing it. Taking that leap is by nature a scary undertaking. It will probably feel like there is a lot to lose and the uncertainty can be terrifying. Therefore, it is important to do your homework and figure out whether going for it is indeed a good idea for you at this time. There are three steps in this process. The first is to figure out whether you have the requisite talent or vision necessary to succeed in your chosen undertaking. The second is to consider your particular circumstances. The third is to prepare yourself psychologically.

In determining whether you have the requisite talent or vision, it helps to talk to people who work in the field you wish to enter and to listen to their feedback. In my case, I showed my writing to literary agents, writers, writing professors, and English professors. The responses I got generally helped to confirm that I was not going after a goal that was entirely unrealistic.

You will then need to examine whether your life circumstances are such that you can pursue your dream. In my case, I do not have children for whom I need to provide right now, I do not have debts I need to pay off, I do not have a mortgage on a house, and I have the savings to provide for myself for at least a little while.

The psychological component is the most abstract, and it will be different for everyone. For me, it was important to address the issue of failure. I asked myself what it would mean to fail. This was the most frightening and anxiety-inducing aspect of going for my dream. In order to get myself past this hurdle, I had to reframe for myself what it meant to fail. I have decided not to equate not getting my novel published with failure. Instead, I have redefined failure as not trying at all, and am focusing on what my 90 year-old self would feel if I did not try to become a writer. I also emphasized what I stood to gain by trying. I asked myself about the lessons I could learn, contemplated the joy and fulfillment I would feel in trying, and thought about the journey of writing itself as the reward. Now that I have made the decision, I make sure to use language with myself that helps me to believe in my choice whole-heartedly. For example, I talk about WHEN my book will be published, not if it will be. I also do my best to be patient with myself and not to be too harsh when I have an off day. Of course, this is easier said than done! Finally, I am very fortunate to have an incredible network of friends who believe in the choice I have made and who have given me tremendous support, love, and encouragement throughout this process.

Do you have a to-read list for Chiara’s Coffee Table community?

This is in no way a definitive list of any sort, but includes some of the many books that inspire me.

  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  2. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
  3. Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill
  4. Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood
  5. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
  6. The Crazed by Ha Jin
  7. Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton
  8. Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García
  9. Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002 by Salman Rushdie
  10. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Before leaving, Orianne decided to share with me something very personal: every year on her birthday, she writes a list of lessons that she has learned, one for each year of her life. This is one of the 33 she wrote last year:

Untitled-1Orianne and I decided we would keep in touch, and that she would let me know when her book is ready for the big public. Stay tuned!

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For the interview with Ori I was delighted to wear:

Wool dress: Zara

Brooch: Max Mara

 

Pictures were taken with a Leica C-Lux 2

The beautiful portraits of Ori were taken by her friend Natasha Zykova. More about her work here.

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