Friday, February 15, 2019

Interview with Yangsze Choo

In October 2013, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Yangsze Choo about her debut novel, The Ghost Bride. Set among the Chinese community of what was then called Malaya, in the early 1890s, the novel tells the story of Pan Li Lan, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a merchant family fallen on hard times. Desperate to repair his fortunes, Li Lan’s father contracts his daughter to the son of a wealthy local family. Sounds good, but there’s a catch: Pan Li Lan is a ghost bride, married to a dead man. Only a risky and difficult journey through the afterlife can free her from this unwanted bond.

I loved the first book, so when I saw on GoodReads that Yangsze had a new novel due out February 12, 2019, I contacted her right away. Because my podcast schedule had no space in it, Gabrielle Mathieu took over the audio interview about The Night Tiger for New Books in Fantasy, and we cross-posted it to New Books in Historical Fiction. But Yangsze also graciously agreed to answer written questions for this blog.

Yangsze, welcome! I so look forward to finding out more about how The Night Tiger came into being. Your first novel, The Ghost Bride, was also set among the Chinese community of Malaysia. What brings you back to this setting, if about fifty years later, for The Night Tiger?

I find it hard to write about places I’ve never been to, perhaps because a novel is like the unfurling of a dream and the reader has to inhabit this world with you. A jarring note causes this dream state to break up and dissolve. The experience of being transported involves intangibles like the color of the sky, the smell of the rain. When I wrote The Ghost Bride, I set it in Melaka, where my uncle used to live. For my second book, I knew I wanted to write about the Kinta Valley, which is further north. 

The area around Ipoh in this book is where I spent many childhood visits. It’s where my grandparents lived, and my parents grew up. In fact, my grandfather lived in a long, dark Chinese shophouse very much like the one described in The Night Tiger. You can still see many examples not only in Malaysia but wherever the overseas Chinese diaspora migrated, such as Singapore, Vietnam, and older parts of Hong Kong and Macau. I’ve always been interested in old houses because they retain a visceral sense of history and of stories waiting to be told.

Besides old Chinese shophouses, I’m also fascinated by the gracious colonial bungalows, with high ceilings and breezy verandas, left behind by the British. Many have been neglected or torn down, but quite a few have been beautifully restored and turned into hotels or restaurants. Nowadays, almost nobody can afford that sort of lifestyle, which requires a large staff of servants to maintain both the household and the grounds. The lives of those local servants and what they might have seen and thought (an alternate, mirror world to the sort of colonial novel that one tends to read about Southeast Asia—shades of Somerset Maugham!) was another inspiration for The Night Tiger.

The Night Tiger is told from two points of view: Ji Lin speaks in the first person but the past tense, whereas Ren’s story is told in third person present tense. Both of them are vital to the novel, but do you see one as more your main protagonist than the other, and if so which? What can you tell us in a few sentences about him or her?

Ooh! That’s a hard one. I didn’t set out to write a story from two points of view, but I quickly realized it would be hard to cover all the plot twists from one viewpoint. The decision to use third person present tense and first person past tense was fairly deliberate, as I wanted to make both narratives feel close to the reader. You could say that Ji Lin’s narrative is more dominant because it’s in first person. However, I also tried to give Ren’s narrative the quality of vivid honesty that you feel from a child. I actually quite enjoyed Ren’s point of view, in which the reader, as an adult, has the sense that Ren is coming to the wrong conclusions. For example, when Ren tells himself that his master, a British surgeon named William Acton, is “so sane, so reasonable,” the reader, of course, knows that William is actually falling apart.

What we experience through Ren’s eyes and his dreams is also very vivid. A reader told me that he felt the scenes of the railway stations were strangely true. I was happy to hear that, because that’s what I was going for—that feeling when you dream that the dreams are sharper and more meaningful than the real world.

To me, both Ren and Ji Lin are important. And perhaps that’s the point of the book—that all the characters are inextricably entwined together.

The title refers to a local belief in were-tigers, part of a broader category of spirit or sacred animals. What is that belief, and how does it work itself into your novel?

I’ve always been interested in shape-changers and the question of what distinguishes man from beasts. Every culture has its were-creatures. In Europe it is primarily the wolf. In Asia, it’s the tiger or the fox. I find it interesting that it is usually a predator that is said to disguise itself. One doesn’t hear many tales of a were-rabbit, for example.

Shape-shifting is both mysterious and terrifying—the notion that someone isn’t really human at all and is thus no longer subject to the rules and conventions of our civilization. The European werewolf is generally regarded in a negative or fearsome light. In Asia, however, the tiger is revered and sometimes the subject of ancestor worship. Some parts of Indonesia believed that the souls of relatives could pass into a tiger. There’s also the whole notion of keramat or sacred animals, which are said to be guardian spirits.

When I was writing the book, I thought about the contrast between the European idea of a were-creature and the Asian ones, and how in some cases, the were-tiger is not a man but a beast that wears a human skin. That’s such an interesting and creepy thought, which ties in with the whole “who are you?” question that we struggle with.

Ji (Wisdom) and Ren (Benevolence) bear the names of two of the five Confucian virtues. The others—Yi (Righteousness), Shin (Fidelity), and the mysterious Li (Order)—also appear in the novel. Leaving aside Li, whose identity would be a spoiler, who are these characters and why did you decide to use this principle to organize your novel?

You know, I’ve wondered about that myself! I started writing this book the way I started my first novel, with a scene that appeared in my mind. In this case, it was a dying old man who’s asking his eleven-year-old Chinese houseboy, Ren, to do something quite gruesome and sad. Gruesome because it involves recovering severed body parts, and sad because it is a terrible thing to ask of a child. And yet there’s nobility and honor in it. He asks Ren to do it because he thinks he’s saving society; he also believes the boy is capable of the task. So you have all these contradictory emotions together in one place, which is where I think it is best to start a story.

When I began writing this book, I really had no idea how it was going to turn out. I kept writing because I wanted to unravel the mystery. As other characters began to appear, their names actually reminded me of the five Confucian virtues. From there, I somehow got involved with were-tigers and was reminded of the five fingers of a hand, which in many ways is a symbol of our humanity. From cave paintings to space exploration, the expression of our civilization is the outstretched hand, which encompasses both the ability to build and write (plus an opposable thumb).

So I suppose the long answer is that the story grew organically from the Confucian virtues, in a way which often surprised and delighted me. I hope that readers will feel the same way too.

Are you already working on another novel?

Yes, I consider myself a slow writer because it takes time for a story to percolate through, but I’m currently working on my third novel. A lot of the time spent on it is actually trying to inhabit the world of the novel in my head. Only when I feel quite sure about where things are do I start writing. It’s like a mental map. I feel that if you don’t really understand where the book is set, then you can’t take the reader with you. Everything feels vague and out of focus. But when things work out, and the world starts to come together, it’s very exciting!

Thanks so much for answering my questions!

Yangsze Choo is a Malaysian writer of Chinese descent. Her first novel, The Ghost Bride, appeared in 2013 and was a NYTimes bestseller. The Night Tiger is hot off the press as of February 12, 2019.

Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. You can also find out more about her and her books at her website.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Behind the Lines

In my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview, Pam Jenoff answers a question about the main characters in her latest bestseller, The Lost Girls of Paris, by noting that she likes writing books with multiple points of view.

I too like writing books with several points of view, as readers of my Legends of the Five Directions novels, especially The Golden Lynx, can attest—and I say that even though my current series uses a single first-person point of view instead. But what are the virtues of choosing one point of view over another?

First person is immediate and intimate (you’re right inside another person’s head). If the author is dealing with a difficult, guarded character—like my Juliana in Song of the Siren—first person opens up the character by revealing what she would never admit to anyone else. But first person is also limited, since no one can be everywhere or do everything. The reader knows only what the narrating character can know. For certain stories, that too can be an advantage, keeping the tension high by hiding plot points and motivations until the right time comes to reveal them.

But a novel like The Lost Girls of Paris absolutely demands not just third person but several points of view. Grace Healey, the first character we meet, has no connection to the main story, except that she discovers a set of photographs and sets out to uncover who the subjects are. She initiates the search, and she exemplifies the world after the war, its long-term effects and memories. But because Grace lives in the United States and we meet her in 1946, she observes past events, acting only at a distance. The role of onsite participant is left to Eleanor Trigg and Marie Roux, each of whom contributes in her own way to the events.

Eleanor supplies context. As the woman in charge of recruiting agents, she understands the larger structure, the planning, the choices being made. It is Eleanor who eventually uncovers the darkness at the heart of the operation—and because of her position it could only be Eleanor. Marie, in contrast, is on the ground, sent behind enemy lines and forced to deal with the consequences of executive decisions in which she has no say and factors that no one, including the heads of the operation, can control.

To oversimplify, Eleanor represents the agency’s brain, whereas Marie is its hands and feet and Grace speaks for its legacy. It’s the shift back and forth among these three perspectives that gives the novel its power, not least because the three women together can go places that each one could not go alone. Each of them also has her own take on the war, based on those experiences, and the blending enriches our perspective as well. That’s the other great benefit of multiple third person: the ability to contrast the insights of different characters, thus giving readers a broader picture of the whole than is possible for one person alone.

For another example of fluid, expressive use of multiple perspectives, don’t miss Yangsze Choo’s new novel, The Night Tiger—the subject of a New Books in Fantasy interview conducted by Gabrielle Mathieu and cross-listed on the New Books in Historical Fiction link below. You can also check back here next Friday, when Yangsze has graciously agreed to answer my questions.

But don’t forget to read the books as well. They’re quite different, but both wonderful—and definitely well worth your time.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

Although World War II has long been a favorite subject in both literature and history, a new interest seems to have developed in the multiple roles played by women during the war. In The Lost Girls of Paris (Park Row Books, 2019), Pam Jenoff examines from three different fictional perspectives a little-known, real-life British secret service called the Special Operations Executive (SEO). Originally developed to send male saboteurs and radio operators behind enemy lines in France, the SEO had to change its focus when unexpectedly high casualties revealed that men had become so scarce in rural France that its agents were instantly identifiable as people who did not fit in. The director then chose to recruit and send women instead.

The novel opens from the perspective of Grace Healey, detoured into Grand Central Station on her way to work. Grace discovers a suitcase sitting by itself under a bench and, while she’s trying to find out where it belongs, extracts a set of photographs. When she goes to replace them, the suitcase is gone. Grace’s curiosity is piqued, especially when she realizes that a connection exists between the photographs and Eleanor Trigg, whose death in a car crash caused Grace’s detour in the first place.

Eleanor, the second point-of-view character, turns out to have been the head of the female agents at SEO, a job for which she recruits the third character we meet, Marie Roux—a single mother forced to choose between spending time with her daughter and financially supporting her child while serving her country. As we move ever closer, from Grace’s distance in time and place to Eleanor’s founding role to Marie’s experiences on the ground, the danger and the potential for betrayal confronting the SEO agents become increasingly clear.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Cat Wars, Take Two

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about the adjustments in my household necessitated by the ten-day visit of a new cat, unfamiliar with Siamese cat rules and—at that time—still adjusting to the idea that people also have rules and water squirters to enforce them. If you’d like to read that post, you can find it at “Cat Wars.” But the takeaway was simple: you want to socialize a cat, another cat can do it way better than you can. In short, my senior citizen, then fifteen and a half, licked, hissed, and stared the newcomer into shape in no time flat. The rest of us still had some issues, and the newcomer had issues with us, but the two of them worked things out in splendid style.

Advance a couple of years, and the newcomer, Cat #3, now referred to by the Filial Unit as the “grand-cat,” returned for another stay. The original girlfriend moved out, and another has stepped up to the plate, but the grand-cat remains with the Filial Unit and thus with the family. And while I had some doubts about repeating the socialization experiment, clearly the grand-cat could not remain all alone for almost a month in a small apartment with nothing but an automatic feeder and an occasional visit from friends. So I said sure, bring him along. Sir Percy, in an explosion of fatherly generosity, even drove to collect Filial Unit and cat to prevent any issues with the train.

What happened next was mostly pleasant. The grand-cat had become vastly more mellow as a general rule, due to intensive human intervention, although still a bit trigger-happy with his claws. He came out and roamed about within the first hour and showed considerable resilience, given that he’d been transported against his will into a house that already contained two resident cats. His attempts to scratch couches and walk on counters were mostly controllable with a water squirter, although he never quite gave up on either. And he clearly remembered, if not at once then within a short period of time, the deal he had worked out with Cat #1, now a magnificent seventeen and a half and slowing down a bit, but still capable of telling young whippersnappers to get off his lawn and stay off.

The surprise this time was Cat #2, the female rescue now approaching ten years old (the newcomer is four at most). She never hid in the closet for days, as she did during the first visit, so she’s either mellowed considerably or she too had some kind of memory that let her start where she left off. However, she did retreat and refrain from any challenge for the first week and a half, letting the boys jockey and strut.
Then came Day 10. The three of us mere humans had our morning coffee interrupted by a mind-blowing shriek, mixed with a loud hiss and the unmistakable sounds of cats tussling. From then until the grand-cat left (no doubt thanking his lucky stars to be free of this virago who’d appeared to be such a pussycat [sorry—couldn’t resist that  one]), Cat #2 stalked him, attacking at least once a day while the visitor did his darndest to avoid getting on her feline radar. He was perfectly sweet to her, while she went for him every time she saw him. At first I left them to it, figuring they’d work it out. But the day before Cat #3 left, when Cat #2, two-thirds his size, had this fluffy Tuxedo-type bruiser trapped against a wall and refused to back down, I picked her up and carried her off long enough for him to make his getaway. Clearly, no working out was likely to take place in the next twelve hours.

So you know what they say: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Or in this case, a girl cat who’s had her territory invaded and has decided she just ain’t gonna take it any more.

Images: Cat #1 enjoying his leisure time; Cat #2 plotting her next foray; Cat #3 in a basket wondering where he went wrong and what he has to do to get the Filial Unit to take him home, where he belongs. 

All @ C. P. Lesley.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Fitting In--or Not

Society tends to like people who play by the rules, whatever those rules happen to be at a particular moment. But if everyone played by the rules, the leavening necessary for change would be missing and the benefits of different approaches lost. So many societies also include what we might consider safety valves: roles that exist on the margins, where those who don’t quite fit the current pattern can exist.

Grusha, the heroine of my current work in progress, occupies one such role: as a shaman, she enjoys a higher status than that assigned to her at birth, and she provides a service both essential to those with whom she lives and deeply fulfilling in ways she can’t quite articulate. Her challenge, in the novel, is whether to embrace her new identity or return to a family and country she left behind long ago. 

I explored several other options for women in a blog series I wrote back in 2013, most obviously in “Taking the Veil.” (From there you can click links within the posts to move back in time through the series.) A convent is also the route to independence taken by Hildegard of Bingen, whom I discussed with P. K. Adams in my previous NBHF interview.

Olivia Givens, the protagonist of Terry Gamble’s just-released novel The Eulogist and the subject of my latest interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, doesn’t have such a formal outlet, but she does face a similar problem. As Terry Gamble notes, Olivia “suffers from opinion”—a statement that in the nineteenth century, and perhaps even today, is not a compliment when applied to women. She is not well matched to the only acceptable social role available to her: that of conventional wife and mother.

Yet despite the considerable odds against her, Olivia does find ways to retain her independence. She marries a doctor whom she’s assisted in performing autopsies. She supports her volatile younger brother, who alternates between revivalist preaching and drunken womanizing. She becomes involved, without entirely meaning to, in helping fugitive slaves in Kentucky cross the Ohio River into freedom. Most of all, she survives to tell her story and that of her family, long after the younger generation has moved on and forgotten.

And what a story it is. Olivia, her brothers, and the rest of her social circle are wonderful characters with quirks and strengths galore. They remind us that even though society prefers those who color within the lines, those who don’t are much more fun to read about.

You can find excerpts from the interview on the Literary Hub. But do listen to the whole thing as well. We had to leave out vast chunks to fit into the 1,500-word limit of the transcript.

Kudos, too, to the designer, who produced that gorgeous and evocative cover of a Victorian woman reflected in the river that plays such a huge role in the story.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

When Olivia Givens and her family leave Ireland in 1819, they have no idea that they are distant victims of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia four years before. They know only that the crops are failing and the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars have led to the loss of their family property. Fifteen-year-old Olivia has a special reason to want to stay: her first crush on a local boy. But no one listens to a young girl in love, and soon Olivia is standing on the shores of the Ohio River with the rest of her Ulster Protestant family. The city of Cincinnati has just come into being, and that, combined with the illness of Erasmus, the family’s youngest child, convince the Givens to end their journey west in Ohio.

Before long, Olivia’s mother has died in childbirth and her father has abandoned his three surviving children to head south on a paddle boat. James, the eldest son, takes responsibility for his brother and sister. But it’s not the easiest job in the world: Olivia has too much independence of thought to fit neatly into the Victorian vision of “the angel in the house,” and Erasmus cares more for drinking, womanizing, and hanging around with revivalist preachers—even preaching himself—than he does about working in James’s growing candle factory.

Meanwhile, right across the river lies the slave state of Kentucky. As the years go by, the Givens family becomes ever more entangled in helping fugitives cross the water to freedom, whatever the cost to themselves, their lives, and even those they strive to protect.

The Eulogist (William Morrow, 2019) opens a window onto a time when the frontier began at the Mississippi and North and South, although divided by no more than a waterway, occupied different mental and social universes. Terry Gamble’s ability to reveal the many sides of complex conflicts and gift for making even difficult characters appealingly human should not be missed.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Royal Wedding Revisited

No, I’m not writing about Meghan Markle or Kate Middleton or even Princess Diana, lovely as those weddings were to watch—in whole or as highlights—on television. This wedding took place before I (and, I’d assume, most of you) were born, in November 1947, when Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain, twenty-one years old and not destined to assume the throne for another half-decade, married Lieutenant Phillip Mountbatten of the Greek royal house. Britain was still suffering from the destruction inflicted by World War II, with food, clothing, and fuel strictly rationed. If any country needed an excuse to party, the United Kingdom did in those years.

Decades later, when I married Sir Percy, my mother still recalled with fondness the garden parties held as part of the national celebration that marked the royal wedding. Among other details, she remembered the dress that Princess Elizabeth wore, purchased with ration coupons but a glory to behold: a glamorous creation of off-white satin covered with embroidered roses, sheaves of wheat, and other symbols of good luck and fertility. Pearls and beads surrounded the appliqués. A long train, similarly embroidered, fell from the princess’s shoulders and extended behind her down the aisle. To this day, the dress, a triumph of British couture, remains on display at Buckingham Palace.

So when the publicists at William Morrow offered me an advance review copy of Jennifer Robson’s new novel, The Gown (released December 31, 2018), how could I resist? I had no room in my interview schedule, alas, because I would love to discuss this novel with its author. I dove in a few nights ago and devoured it faster than a pint of peppermint stick ice cream, my all-time favorite. And this even though I have to struggle to produce a decent chain stitch of my own.

What makes the book so entrancing? Well, there are the descriptions of the gown itself, of course. The attention paid to the seamstresses who produced this work of art in six weeks draws readers in with its detail without overwhelming us. But the bigger pull comes from the story and, as is always the case for me, the characters, whose secrets I want to discover and whose life choices I’ve become all too caught up in. When you find yourself telling a fictional character she’d be making a mistake if she did that, it’s safe to say you’re over-involved.

The novel begins with Ann, the main character, returning home after dark to the council house she shares with her sister-in-law, Milly. It’s the end of January 1947, and Ann works for the London fashion house run by Norman Hartnell, the man who dresses the women of the royal family. Ann has just received a gift of white heather from the queen (the woman we know as the Queen Mother, at this point still the wife of King George VI) in gratitude for the Hartnell seamstresses’ work. Ann plans to plant the heather in her tiny back yard, reclaimed from the Victory Gardens necessary to feed people during the recent war.

The action soon switches to Miriam, a refuge from France and survivor of the infamous concentration camp Ravensbrück. Miriam, a skilled embroiderer, has just arrived in England. She bears a reference from Christian Dior, but that’s not enough to land her a job. Within a short period of time, though, Miriam ends up at Norman Hartnell’s and becomes Ann’s new roommate after Milly takes off for Canada, where she has family.

Fast forward to 2016, where Heather Mackenzie of Toronto has just lost her grandmother Nan and discovers a curious legacy: a box with Heather’s name on it containing a set of exquisite appliqué flowers that, thanks to the Internet, she soon identifies as identical to those on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress. How is this possible, when Nan had never mentioned embroidery, let alone a past in dressmaking or a job at Norman Hartnell’s? When Heather’s position as a journalist is abruptly terminated as the result of a corporate takeover, she decides to take part of her severance pay, travel to London, and find out.

And we’re off, following these crisscrossing paths through time and across space as the lives of the three women—Ann, Miriam, and Heather—intersect and separate. Somehow the princess’s wedding gown lies at the heart of the mystery, but how churlish it would be for me to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering the answer. Instead, I urge you to read the novel yourself and find out. If you enjoy books about resilient women, female friendships, royal weddings, or the unsung art of the needle, I promise you won’t regret the choice. You can also learn more about the book and author at Jennifer Robson’s website.

Please note that although William Morrow sent me this novel for consideration as the host of New Books in Historical Fiction, the views expressed in this post are my own. I had no obligation to review the book,  and any review I write in any venue reflects my honest opinion of the work.