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Interview with 2015 Winner, Yiyun Li

As part of our 10th anniversary celebrations, we will be interviewing previous winners of the award in the months before the 2019 award ceremony. Read the first of these, with 2018 winner Courtney Zoffness here.



Yiyun Li won The Sunday Times Short Story Award in 2015 for her magnificent story A Sheltered Woman. She has a new novel out now, Where Reasons End, published by Hamish Hamilton, so we caught up with her to discuss it and her thoughts on short stories.


Could you introduce your new novel, Where Reasons End?

It's a novel without a plot, without a setting, and it's constructed as a series of conversations between a mother and her dead teenage son, lost to suicide. In their conversations they discuss many things, including life and death, words that fall short in life, and words that fall short facing death.


A new project--a novel, a story, an essay--often starts with bafflement.


How do you approach a new writing project?

A new project--a novel, a story, an essay--often starts with bafflement. It can be summarized as: something happens, I don't understand it, and let me write to find out what I can understand about it, and let me write to find out how that will change my perception of life.

How has winning The Sunday Times Short Story Award 2015 impacted on your career? Has it impacted on your writing practice?

I'm one of those writers who adamantly believe in the form of short stories, and will never give up writing short stories because people say novels are more important, or sell more, or any such nonsense. Winning the award in 2015 was, of course, a huge encouragement, and it has made me a more adamant practitioner of short story writing.

Something which seems to connect your winning story, A Sheltered Woman, and your new novel is an interest in the roles women play. Is this something which you use your writing to explore?

I hesitate to say that I explore any specific themes or topics in my writing. I've written stories and novels in which men play as equally important roles as women or children. I would say that what I explore in my writing is oftentimes characters I'm curious about.


I'm one of those writers who adamantly believe in the form of short stories, and will never give up writing short stories because people say novels are more important, or sell more, or any such nonsense.


Your writing seems to have a very precise attention to language - is this something which your scientific background influences?

Precision is on my mind all the time when I write. It's partly, I agree, influenced by my scientific background, and partly because I write in a second language. One tends to pay attention to the language more when it's not one's mother tongue.

Whilst you were developing as a writer where there any publications or authors which particularly supported you?

Two writers--they both passed away in 2016--played instrumental roles in my development as a writer: my mentor James Alan McPherson, and William Trevor, whose books and friendship are an important part of my life as a writer. My very dear friend Brigid Hughes, who published my very first story, continues to be the closest reader of my work. Cressida Leyshon and The New Yorker have been an essential support too from the very beginning.

Some people have suggested that the short story is a good way for writers to develop their technique before writing novels, would you agree with that? How intertwined is the methodology? Can you divine whether an idea is a short story idea or a novel idea?

I disagree with that. Short stories are not etudes. To me novels and stories in the end are about the same thing: how close can you get to know a character (or a set of characters). A story can be as epical as a novel, as rich, as all-encompassing, while a novel, sometimes taking on a form of a diluted short story, is less interesting. Most of the time I start a project as a short story. When I cannot absolutely finish something within fifteen pages, I begin to wonder if there is a novel there. (And most of the times the answer is no.)


Yiyun Li's new novel , Where Reasons End, is out now.



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