It's the ultimate hypothetical question: What would you do if you had months to live?
At age 37, writer Leland Cheuk watched as this hypothetical became his new reality.
Following an unexpected diagnosis with MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome), often referred to as “pre-leukemia,” Leland was told that he had a few years, if not a few months, to live. His only hope: a risky, no-guarantees stem cell transplant surgery. Suddenly the author, who had been penning fictional stories stories since third grade, was faced with two very real and seemingly imminent themes: 1.) Death and 2.) Dying without getting published.
In his gripping Salon.com essay “I wanted to publish a book before I died” Leland confesses: “All my life, all I’ve wanted – above love, adventure, even helping others – was to publish a novel—one silly novel. So it was fitting that I would be told that I was dying, alone, while staring at yet another unpublished manuscript.”
What would it mean to never be published? Leland navigated this pressing possibility in tandem with his illness. He grappled with this question through high-dose chemo treatments, platelet transfusions, and nights in an isolated hospital room. Then, nine months following his initial diagnosis, Leland underwent the stem cell transplant needed to save his life. What happened post-surgery is a truth stranger than any of his fictions.
An hour after learning that his transplant was considered a success, that his stem cell donor’s cells had engrafted, and that he was on the road to recovery, Cheuk checked his email.
“I read a message from one of the indie presses to which I had submitted my enthusiastically titled novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong," recalls Cheuk. "They were writing to tell me it had been accepted for publication.”
Today, nearly two years after the life-saving transplant, Leland is a cancer survivor and published author. Below, he tells us how MDS has influenced his urgency to write, and how earning his MFA in Creative Writing has changed the way he approaches his work.
Q&A with Leland Cheuk, author of The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong
When did you first begin writing?
I wrote my first story in third grade. It was sci-fi and had a character named Phylach Jarvik. I think my English teacher thought I was insane. I started taking writing seriously in high school in a journalism course. We had to put out a national award-winning paper every three weeks. I was the sports editor and a columnist, and it was the first time I was forced to write a lot of publishable, copyedited work in a short period of time.
What do you enjoy most about the process of writing?
In my twenties, I think I enjoyed the sound of my self-proclaimed genius on the page. Now I just love the craft of creating scenes, perfecting sentences, and making characters. I go to bed looking forward to getting up in the morning to improve my work.
What is the genesis story behind your recently published novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong?
I grew up in a very dysfunctional family, and when I started the book, I was 28 and literally trying to divorce my parents. My dad was philandering, my mom was an emotional wreck, but unwilling to do anything other than call me and complain about him day after day.
Finally, I got her a divorce lawyer. I had to sit between them in an attorney’s office. It was awful for everyone, and my mother never summoned the courage to file. My dad also had an unusual amount of financial control over me. He kept putting properties under my name and refinancing (and I stupidly let him) so my credit rating basically got hammered because even though I had a job, I had all this debt to my name.
A lot of those family dynamics are in the book, but decorated with lots of absurdity and dark humor, and set in a fictional small town where the beleaguered son tries to free himself from his father’s hold by running against him for mayor.
How did your diagnosis with MDS, and eventual recovery, shape your identity and/or priorities as a writer?
Cancer has been a weird blessing. For the last couple of years, I haven’t been able to safely work because of my depleted immune system so I’ve been 100 percent focused on writing and I’ve seen more results than I’m used to. The novel is out, and I’ve published nearly an entire short story collection in journals, a personal essay in Salon.com, and a slew of book reviews. I’m working with more urgency than ever, knowing that time may be short, even though my chances of a full recovery are as good as they get.
How did Lesley's MFA in Creative Writing program change the way you approach writing and editing?
Now that I look back, I feel like all the mentors I worked with were saying the same thing to me in different ways. The number one thing I learned from Lesley is a commitment to precision. Know exactly what you’re putting on the page. Know every meaning of every word. Know exactly how and why you punctuated each sentence. Know all the different ways a reader can read every aspect of your work. Know what your characters do and don’t do. You’re the author. You make all the decisions, and you have to know why each decision was made from word zero to word 120,000.
What are you working on now and what are your professional aspirations for the future?
I’ve got a number of books in various stages of development. I’m shopping a novel about a standup comedian and a short story collection. I’m also working on nonfiction proposal for a cancer memoir based on the Salon.com essay. And I’ve drafted a big satire that skewers corporate life in a multinational conglomerate. I just hope to be healthy enough to see those books on shelves one day.