An Interview with Sung J. Woo & Dina Brodsky

After all of the pieces for an issue of Slice have been edited, we send them over to our art director, Jennifer K. Beal Davis, who then strikes up a dialogue between art and prose. Jennifer and associate art director Matt Davis have a knack for selecting artwork that invites the reader to look at a story, an essay, or a poem in an unexpected way.

When writer Sung J. Woo mentioned that he’d written some stories that were inspired by Dina Brodsky’s paintings, we were immediately intrigued. What if we could capture an even more deliberate conversation between writer and artist?

We published “Desert Places,” which is posted below, in Issue 19 of Slice. What follows is an interview between Sung and Dina about their collaborative creative process.


“Demolition Spyhole”

What bothered her most was not that he lied to her, but that he’d lied to himself. Why she took such offense at self-deception she did not know, but oh, this scalding anger inside her! She picked up a sliver of broken molding, its point as sharp as an arrowhead, and flung it against the half-open wooden door, spinning it end over end. She’d meant for it to smash against the surface, but her aim was off, and it sailed out into the hall, sliding harmlessly into a pile of discarded drywall.

Why couldn’t he say what was so obviously in his heart? They were such simple words, so basic that they almost superseded the need for language. But they had to be said, didn’t they? Of course, because that was the only way she could be claimed, and she wanted to be.

It was Friday, morning. Gray clouds in the sky resembled a bunched bedsheet, pushed haphazardly by a waking god. She stared at the building across the street, what must’ve been a factory of some kind. It was abandoned, too, like this place. People used to work here, hundreds. Maybe one day they would return. But for now, she was alone.


She pushed at the door, and it opened.

It was half past four, the empty space between lunch and dinner, a time that didn’t exist in the life of this establishment. There was no one at the bar, not even the barkeep.

She grabbed the back of a tall chair from the bar, the wood cold to her touch. She pulled it out, the feet scraping against the floor. She sat at the corner and watched the late afternoon sun bleed through the red curtains hanging over the windows.

I know you.

Those were the words he’d said to her, in a place not unlike this one, on the other side of the country, her city, her home. She’d thought it was a line. It was. And it wasn’t. He did know her, almost instantly—how much she had needed him, his faith. About her, about how she fit into his world.

She wished to slip inside him. She wanted to be surrounded, enveloped, drowned. Pushed down, then down again until the air became a memory and her desire accreted slowly and jaggedly, like an uncertain crystal.

Her hands were clenched into fists. She squeezed hard, then harder.


In her dream she was running down a long corridor. She was chasing and was being chased—by what or whom, she did not know. She woke with her heart triphammering and her forehead dewed with sweat.

It was so dark that it felt like everywhere and nowhere. But as her dream shed away from her, reality reentered her consciousness. She was in her hotel room. She had a flight at dawn. She was done sleeping.

As her eyes adjusted to the blackness, she discovered light where before there had been none. A green dot glowed above her, the smoke detector. The drawn blackout curtain of her window was fringed with blue, the seeping of dawn. The blinking red LED from her smartphone was like a warning beacon. A text.

Come home.

A command, or a plead, or neither.

Two days ago, he’d asked her why she was going, and no answer could satisfy him. Her journey had been an inevitability; she was merely a soldier in service of time and fate. And now that it was over, she knew her future like she knew her past.

What was funny, though, was that her present—right now—was a mystery.

“35000 ft”

The game was called SimCity. Her brother had played it on their father’s computer, and it was a monochromatic experience, the bird’s-eye view of the land laid out in black and white. The point of the game was to build a city from scratch, lay down roads and buildings, a power plant to give electricity to the masses, a police station to keep the peace.

She was too young to play the game herself, not that she’d wanted to. She was content to watch her big brother at it, his brows furrowed as he figured out how to keep the city growing, moving and clicking the white mouse corded to the computer with measured precision, a skill that would later lend itself to his profession as a graphic artist.

After working on his city for weeks, he got to a point where there was no more land to develop. Every square of this fantasy real estate had been turned into a house, a hospital, a park.

You won, she told him.

He clicked on an option on the menu of the game, and disasters popped up everywhere. Fire, flood, a skyscraper-tall monster that brought ruin to his city.

Now, he said. Now we see what we’re made of.

An Interview with Sung. J Woo and Dina Brodsky, by Celia Johnson

What drew you to one another’s work?


For me, it started back around 2012.  I saw one of Dina’s pieces, a small painting titled “50 Years,” in a gallery. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was part of her series that she calls “One More Shelter,” when Dina set many of her works in this disintegrating and decrepit house of disrepair. The work is of an East Indian couple, the woman in a beautiful sari, the man in a bright white shirt, but what really got me was how they were sitting, together but facing almost away from each other. And even more mysterious was that we couldn’t see their faces, because Dina painted them from their backsides.  History, love, tension, it’s all right there! Nothing I write here could do justice to the painting itself, so please, take a look:
Dina did not know anything about me until I gave her my first novel, Everything Asian, so most likely, she was drawn to my work because I sort of foisted it on her. Dina was kind enough to actually read it (and my other novel, too).


Sung saw some of my work in a gallery, and came to my studio because one of my paintings resonated with him. He brought along a copy of his first novel, which I liked, and later gave me his second, which I was immediately hooked on, and spent half of the night reading. I have always been a terrible writer, but a passionate reader, and was deeply honored when Sung suggested we collaborate. 

Would you describe your creative process?


Butt to the chair — that is pretty much my creative process. I’m a full believer in Chuck Close’s method of working. In case some readers aren’t familiar with him, he’s a portrait painter, huge, photorealistic works, though later in life he’s become more abstract. Anyway, he talks about working incrementally, breaking down a painting into grids, component parts. “Today I did what I did yesterday, and tomorrow I’ll do what I do today.  There are no good days or bad days.” I feel the same way about writing — today I string together a few sentences, and eventually I’ll have a chapter. I try not to get too down on the slow pace of my progress. It helps to call on the brilliant people who have come before me, like Isak Dinesen, whose quote I have taped above my desk: “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.”


Sung described it better than I ever could. I am not certain we have ever discussed this, but I believe our process is very similar. Most of my ideas come during periods of entirely unstructured time – the solo cycling trips that served as the base for “Cycling Guide to Lilliput” were my inspiration for the series I would work on for the rest of the year. There is a brief period of experimentation, to try to figure out the format I want the paintings to have, and after that, it is a matter of doing the patience, and doing approximately the same thing every day until the project begins to take shape. I am currently reading Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which Sung suggested to me after I decided on that as the title for my next series – (mine was inspired by a line by Neruda), and her description of the creative process strongly resonated with me – to take things, “bird by bird”, to break them down into small steps, and then complete them.

How did you work together to produce this project?


The answer is deceptively simple: I asked, and Dina said yes. Frankly, I was amazed, because if I put myself in her shoes, I’m not sure I would’ve agreed. Because if I were the painter, I’d think the painting means something very specific to me. So to have a fiction writer come in and just make up whatever the heck he wants? I don’t know. Doesn’t the writer almost have a moral obligation to write about the painting truthfully? But then again, is there a higher truth than the one that comes unfettered from the imagination of the writer? I think I’m developing a headache…
All I can say is thank you to Dina for her generosity to share her work with me in this very special, very personal way.


The collaboration was Sung’s idea – he sent me a mini-story that was based on one of my miniature paintings. I think at that point we had only met once, so most of what he knew of me came from looking at the paintings, but his story felt almost like it could be one of my diary entries. It was fictional, yet eerily accurate in the way it captured a feeling I had experienced. When he suggested we do more, I was thrilled. For me, painting was always the way to express myself, but I had always read a lot, and envied the way that writers could create an entire universe with words. Sung’s writing did with words what I was trying to do with paint, and told the stories that I wanted to tell, but didn’t have the words to do so.

Did you discover anything unexpected in the interplay between text and images?


Every story I write is unexpected.  I wrote the first one, “Demolition Spyhole #1,” in Paris, where I bought the painting (yes, I have the real one in my possession!). There was something so sad about this view and the surrounding debris, the hopeless erosion of it all; it felt like a breakup. It took another year until I thought to continue the series, and then the rest happened quickly. Every time I go up on a plane and look down, I think of the game SimCity, so I was very glad my obsession fit so nicely here.
I think I also find these works by Dina so compelling to write about because they are circular in shape. It’s like I’m a voyeur.  I’m not supposed to be here, but here I am…I almost can’t help but to write about it.


Every time Sung sent a new story, I was amazed at his ability to look inside my head (or at least that’s what it felt like). I was always caught off guard by how close his stories were to bits of my personal reality, while being completely fictional

With the current state of politics, one can’t help but wonder what 2017 holds for the arts. As artists, do you have any particular hopes or fears for the year ahead? Do you see your roles as artists shifting in any way, too?


I’ve never been a political writer, or for that matter, a particularly political person.  My primary purpose for writing has always been to take the reader away from the real world and into mine, a kind of an entertaining distraction.  Maybe this will come in handy in our current state.
We never have the benefit of hindsight to see just what all this means, the election of this man (like Voldemort, I prefer to refrain from mentioning his name).  All I can think is that he is the logical extension of what has come before him.  The world as a whole has become corporatized, so having a businessman as head of the most powerful country doesn’t seem that outrageous.  I’d much rather have Michael Bloomberg in there, but it is what it is.  My guess is that in the foreseeable future, we’ll see more CEOs rise to political power.  Not sure if that’s good or bad.  Probably bad.


I’m definitely not a political artist, and overall feel that art does better when it doesn’t mix with politics. I believe that the current state of outrage and paranoia inspired by the elections will lead to an explosion of creativity. A lot of political art will be made, some good, some bad – I know that none of it will be made by me, since, like Sung, I prefer my art to provide an alternative reality rather than making any comment on the current state of affairs.

Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice. She’s also the author of two nonfiction books: Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway and Odd Type Writers.