Describe your latest project.
Shanghai Girls opens in 1937 in Shanghai ? the Paris of Asia, home to millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, artists and warlords, patriots and revolutionaries, and the Chin sisters. Pearl and May are "beautiful girls" ? models for advertising and calendar posters ? but when their father loses not only the family money but also the girls' savings, he sets them up in arranged marriages to a pair of Chinese brothers who've come from America to find brides.
That gets you started on the plot, and suffice it to say that the sisters go through all kinds of adventures, traumas, tragedies, and triumphs before they get to the last page. I wanted to write about three main things: arranged marriages as they played out in an American Chinatown, China City, and sisters. We had a lot of arranged marriages on the Chinese side of my family, so I know a lot about them and how hard they were for the women. China City was one of four Chinatowns in Los Angeles at the time. It opened in 1938 as a kind of theme park. It was supposed to be an "authentic Chinese city." It was surrounded by a miniature Great Wall and, inside, it was built from the leftover sets from the filming of The Good Earth, so it wasn't too authentic. It had a lot of charm, though, and many of my relatives, who worked there, remember it fondly. Finally, I wanted to write about sisters. I'm a sister myself, and I know how sisterhood can be both loving and fraught. I consider Shanghai Girls to be the closest to my heart and experience of all my books.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Years ago, when I still did magazine pieces, I had an assignment to write an article on whatever happened to Buffy Sainte-Marie. She lived on Maui, so off I went. After I was done with the interview, I went to Oahu to visit a college friend and her husband for a couple of days. I slept on their couch. I was supposed to stay only a night or two, but they wanted me to stay longer. However, I had a big problem. I didn't have any money. Then Bill had an idea. I don't remember exactly how this came together, but he must have worked for or knew someone who worked for a liquor distributor. There was going to be a big liquor convention in Waikiki, so I was given a temporary job as Miss Jose Cuervo. I wore a Miss Jose Cuervo sash and poured a lot of free samples of tequila. I ended up staying for about three weeks and came home with more money than I'd gone to Hawaii with. Not bad! I still have that sash somewhere, and when my husband wants to shock someone ? I'm a writer, but I'm also a lawyer's wife ? he'll say I was once Miss Jose Cuervo. People cock their heads and try to imagine how his ? sweet, sophisticated, intimidating, take your pick ? wife could have ever done anything so wild. If they only knew that being Miss Jose Cuervo is just the tip of the iceberg. Thank goodness they don't know any of my other stories or adventures! (And neither do you.)
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don't completely comprehend. I'd like to live in their clothes a while...
?Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
I used this quote as the epigraph for my first book, On Gold Mountain, which is about the Chinese side of my family. For that book, I spent five years going through papers, letters, government interrogations, and all kinds of things to learn about my family. But that process didn't stop with On Gold Mountain. With my last three books ? Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and now Shanghai Girls ? I've been trying to go back and find lost women's projects, their creations and voices, and bring them out so we can learn from them, experience them, and finally hear those women for who they were and what they did. I hope that those stories are as inspiring to others as they are to me. But on a deeply personal level, I'm really happy when I get to spend time going through old papers and trying to imagine myself as the writer of those words. Yes, I'd like to live in their clothes a while.
How do you relax?
I love to walk. I've done a six-mile walk along the Santa Monica Palisades with a friend every Tuesday for about 15 years. Our lives are very different from one another's, but we always find something to talk about. A lot of the time, we don't even talk. We just look at the ocean and the mountains. Every Sunday, I walk from my house straight up our hill for an hour. This walk I do by myself, and I use it to think about plot or a problem a character is giving me. I play tennis and I do Pilates, too. All this might be making me sound like an exercise fanatic, but I'm far from it. I hate exercise, but I love to be outside, and I've been trying to get stronger because book tours are killers. What else? I love to go to the movies. I see everything and anything. And I guess a writer shouldn't admit this, but I love television, too. I was a huge Battlestar Galactica fan. I'm still in boo-hoo mode since the series ended.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I never thought of myself as the kind of person who would make a literary pilgrimage, but when I think about it now, I have ? though, kind of inadvertently. A few years ago, I was in Shaoxing, China, doing some research. Shaoxing is the ancestral home of the writer Lu Xun, considered the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century. When I was a girl, my grandparents had a lot of books by Lu Xun, and now I have those books, so that day in Shaoxing I thought, I'm here. Why not take a look? The house was beautiful, elegant, and very large. (It's always interesting to me to see how often the most ardent Communists or left-wingers come from very affluent families. What's that all about?) Anyway, I tucked those memories away until I started working on Shanghai Girls. Lu Xun died the year before Shanghai Girls begins, but I decided to go back and see what he'd written about the time and place. He was hugely prolific. In addition to his novels and short stories, he must have written something like an essay a day! One of them was a bit of a diatribe against Shanghai girls. I used that essay in writing the first chapter of my novel.
Right now, I'm on a plane coming back from China, where I was on a research trip for the next book. When I was in Shanghai, I went to Lu Xun's home in the Hongkou district. Back in the 1950s, it was a big pilgrimage site for domestic tourists. Now, no one goes there. A guard unlocked the door, and there I was, alone, in Lu Xun's home. I saw the table where he wrote. He had given the largest and brightest room to his little son. The house had a Western-style bathroom, which was pretty rare for those days. I saw the bed where Lu Xun died. It had a wrought-iron frame with a beautiful hand-embroidered linen canopy. (My Shanghai girls have almost identical canopies on their beds, although theirs are embroidered in a wisteria pattern. It's odd how you can write something from your imagination and then see the real thing after a novel is finished.)
I next went to the place where Lu Xun held the inaugural meeting of the Chinese Left-Wing Authors Alliance. No one was there, either, but it was interesting to see the room and imagine all the writers ? long dead, now ? who were so full of political and artistic enthusiasm, even if much of it turned out to be misguided or wrong.
What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
I'm not much of a shopper, and I certainly am not a woman who cares about shoes, but I do have a favorite pair of shoes and I happen to be wearing them right now! They're a pair of blue cowboy boots. I vacation in Colorado pretty regularly. I found these boots there about 10 years ago. The store had just this one pair and they happened to be my size. I fell in love with them in the fall, but they were outrageously expensive. They were still available at Christmas, but it wasn't until late spring ? when all the skiers were about to go home ? that they went on sale. I watched the price drop and drop, until I finally took the plunge. To this day, they are the most expensive pair of shoes I own. I love them because I can stand in them all day. I also know that no matter what conditions I encounter ? rain, mud, concrete sidewalks, slippery terrain, or a fancy party ? that these boots will see me through. Unlike other shoes, I have to take care of them. They're quite stunning, even after all these years. Maybe I'll be one of those people for whom people will say, "She died with her boots on."
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Bob Dylan. It's a funny thing, but I didn't love him all that much when I was younger. My mom had his early albums, and I was aware of his songs and all that, but I wasn't particularly passionate about him in the same way I was for, say, the Stones. When his voice went, I didn't care for him at all. Then, when I was on book tour in the Bay Area for one of the mysteries, I had a media escort who played Time Out of Mind over and over again as we drove together day after day. The escort was a huge Dylan fan. She'd been to lots of concerts over the years, so she talked to me about his work, even from the "off" years, and about the songs we were listening to. Maybe it's because I heard that CD so many times ? literally over and over again for five days ? that something just clicked. I finally heard what I needed to hear. (Or maybe I was brainwashed.) Over these past few years, I've become fascinated by the way Dylan can tell a whole story in just a few minutes, how he plays with words, and how things don't necessarily have to follow a linear progression. I even got XM radio in my car so I can listen to The Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour. I have to drop everything and go for a drive so I can listen to it. He'll take a single word or concept ? rain, Cadillacs, or presidents ? and play archival pieces related to that particular theme. The music is interesting and often it's stuff I've never heard before, but what I love most are Dylan's musings on the theme. He has one weird mind.
If you could have been someone else, who would that be and why?
Fred Astaire. Well, maybe not Fred Astaire in real life, but the Fred Astaire in the movies. I don't know anything about his personal life ? if he was happy, sad, stingy, tricky, or miserly ? but he had such grace and elegance on film. I'd love to be able to move like that. I'd love to have his subtle humor. I'd love to sing like him, too ? agreeably but by no means perfectly. He looked kind of goofy and often acted kind of dorky, but I wouldn't mind that too much. That just made him human and approachable.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
It seems like I should have a list that has something to do with China, and I'm happy to do that. I wouldn't call these the must-reads if you're going to China, but these books have made me think about China in new ways, pressed me to be more critical (and sometimes more forgiving) of the country, have captured a moment or a subject in a unique way, or have knocked my socks off with the audacity of the subject or the skill of the writer.
Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine by Jasper Becker: To my knowledge, this is the most complete and thorough examination of China's Great Leap Forward, when 30 million people died of starvation caused by Mao's attempt at utopian agricultural policies. It's rare to read a book so well researched, thoughtful, and provocative. I can't stop thinking about it.
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang: People often ask me what it's like for women in China today. Here's the answer. Millions of young women leave their home villages to go to work in big foreign factories to make our tennis shoes, t-shirts, toys, Christmas ornaments, and all the other things we can't seem to live without. They live in factory dormitories, some of which house 80,000 women.
Selling Happiness: Calendar Posters and Visual Culture in Early-20th-Century Shanghai by Ellen Johnston Laing: I've been collecting Shanghai calendar girls for years. Now I've written about them! Ellen Johnston Liang's book is not only beautiful but also paints a portrait of the lives of the artists, their cultural and social influences, and how the images they painted were used to transform everyday lives.
Women Writing in Modern China: An Anthology of Literature by Chinese Women from the Early 20th Century edited by Amy D. Dooling and Kristina M. Torgeson: Often in the West, we are told that in the past there were no women writers. But of course there were! Only so much of what they wrote has been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. China has a different tradition. There were a lot of women writers who have remained in print not only in China but also in this country. There are several anthologies of Chinese women writers. The Red Brush is probably the most comprehensive, and covers over 2,000 years of women writing in China. (Try to beat that, Western canon!) I also like The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, but my favorite is Women Writing in Modern China, which covers the early 20th century. These women write about the same things women write about today ? love, children, family, heartbreak, war, the economy, and all the things that bind us together as human beings.
Diary of a Madman by Lu Xun: Since I've written about Lu Xun here, it seems only right to include one of his works. Although written in 1918, long before the famine brought about by the Great Leap Forward, this would be a good companion piece to Hungry Ghosts, since this book also delves into the desperation and madness that accompanies starvation in a country that has known hunger for millennia.