Describe your latest book.
After eight years, I finally have a new novel: The Valley of Amazement. The title comes from a painting I saw in a museum in Berlin, which depicted a landscape with an ambiguous tone. When I first saw it, I thought it depicted sunset after a storm. But then it appeared to be sunrise before a storm. Or was it sunrise after the storm? The shifting sense of it reminded me of the ambiguity of who we are in changing circumstances. I had only recently learned that my grandmother might have been a courtesan. If so, what circumstances led to that, and how might life in the flower world have changed her attitudes and how she saw herself? My stories have often centered on repeating questions that have to do with our sense of self. How much is ingrained by society — or mothers? If few choices are available, how does this affect our attitude and beliefs? In this novel, the questions play out in the intertwined lives of two women. One is an American, Lucia, who rebels and runs away from San Francisco to Shanghai in 1897, where she struggles to hang onto pride and Yankee ingenuity, as she faces the consequences of her decision. The second is her biracial daughter, Violet, who was born in Shanghai in 1898 as the privileged daughter of an American and who later becomes a courtesan practicing the illusions of love, while also succumbing to them.
I am working on two other books. One is another novel called The Memory of Desire, which was inspired by a house in my family and an inheritance of betrayal. In the novel, the families of different concubines of the same man are waiting now for the man's youngest daughter to die, now an elderly woman who has suffered a stroke and wakes being able to speak only Chinese, a language she has not used since childhood. She recalls several events she has pushed out of her memory — one being a conversation she overheard, which led to a traumatic discovery. The other concerns a man she was about to marry.
The second book is nonfiction and is now called Does Not Yet Have a Title. We'll change it by the time it's published. It will be reflections on the writing life — the reasons I write, the events I experienced on a particular day that correspond to what I later wrote in my novel, and the imagery and thoughts I collect in my journals. There will be a section on the editor-writer relationship, which will include email conversations I've had with my editor on the writing and editing of The Valley of Amazement. We'll have to glean just a few from about 1,500 emails.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Rabih Alameddine's The Hakawati. He is a Lebanese American who writes in English. The novel was a bestseller in Spain and Italy, where he has literary star power. In the U.S., most don't recognize his name. The Hakawati is both a fable and a fictional memoir. A young man at his father's deathbed recalls family stories of real incidents during boyhood and the war, interspersed with different versions of religious tales. The stories are, in effect, strands of differences that were the basis for holy wars occurring today. Alameddine's prose is gorgeous and visceral.
Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why or why not?
I've always taken issue with the idea that fiction writers are telling lies. Lies are meant to deceive, often with ill intent or to keep away so-called harmful truth. Whereas writers and readers are in collusion knowing that the book is fiction, one created from imagination and words, and that the writer intends for the reader to believe the story for as long as you are in it. The reader expects no less, and, in fact, if it is less than believable, the reader judges it flawed. So instead of telling lies, through this form of a long or short story, the writer can convey truths about human nature or the world at large by having the reader experience them on a visceral or emotional level.
On the other hand, a writer with a penchant for specific details can probably do well in a game involving lies. I have gotten away with pretending to be an out-of-work actress who was trying to master a Yiddish accent and whose aspiration was to do yuppie car commercials using a cute dog as a prop to capture viewer attention and an attitude of Asian frugality to appear credible. I know I was believable because people steered clear of me.
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands, and why did you read it?
Last week, we were having an after-concert supper with MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas), conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. The concert pianist Emanuel Ax, who had just played a concerto, was also there. We were talking about differences between Steinways and Yamahas, and how every piano is out of tune if tuned to one key, which it necessarily must be, usually to C. In the old days, piano tuners tuned each piano according to what was going to be played. Suddenly, MTT started talking about Joseph Roth's novel Weights and Measures. The switch, I realized later, was not as much of a non sequitur as I originally thought. The novel concerns a man whose job as the inspector of weights and measures has become obsolete. Things are no longer done according to the standards once the norm. At the end of the night, MTT gave me a copy of Weights and Measures, and as soon as I began reading it, I loved it for its fable-like voice. I was then drawn into the story itself, in which everything before the character is transforming into a state of corruption, hate, secrecy, fraud, and betrayal. It matched my sense of what was happening in Congress with the Republican Congress putting the Affordable Care Act on the chopping block — as if it were negotiable and not law backed by a Supreme Court decision. There are lines that spoke to me: "He was mightily alarmed because he had never really believed himself capable of alarm." And "not only did he not defend himself, it did not even occur to him that he was in any way capable of defending himself. His entire life had been ransacked."
What is your idea of absolute happiness?
My mother gave me the best definition. She had been unhappy for as long as I had known her — never satisfied, never without regret. When she had Alzheimer's disease, her fears worsened for a while. Assurances that her delusions were not true did no good. Eventually I said what I thought she wanted to hear. She feared losing her money, so I praised her for being conscientious with money, and acknowledged no one understood except her — and me, which was why I had put all her money in a deep vault no one knew about. She calmed down. She later feared that someone was trying to steal the leading role in a movie about her, so I said that person was silly to even try because she was the most beautiful and interesting woman in the world and no one could ever replace her. She was content to hear that. Essentially, I gave her what she needed to hear emotionally — that she was right on everything, that her needs came first, and that everyone loved her. Those are the things that a child wants to hear and what a mother wants to hear from her daughter. One day, about a year before she died, she said to me, "I'm happy. I have no worries." I had never heard her say she was happy and I cried to hear it. Absolute happiness is the disappearance — whether by forgetfulness or other means of removal — of all that caused dissatisfaction, regret, fear, and worry. What remains is a sense of being completely understood, safe, and loved by someone you love.
Why do you write?
I write because I know that one day I will die and thus I should experience as many deliberate observations, careful thoughts, wild ideas, and deep emotions as I can before that day occurs. I also have this notion — possibly a strange one — that each day is like the cessation of part of my existence. The day is gone, and the experiences have been experienced. But my writing is proof that I was alive 30, 20, 10 years ago, last week, yesterday. It is not the same as watching a rerun or looking at photos of memorable days. In a story, it is re-experienced as it happened the first time. My writing is my living mind, my feeling self. It contains my obsessions, ideas, contradictions and ambiguities, fears, desires, and curiosity. My writing often contains souvenirs of the day — a song I heard, a bird I saw, which I then put into the novel. (I take a lot out in the final revision.) When I go back and read my journals or fiction, I am always surprised. I may not remember having those thoughts, but they still exist and I know they are mine, and it's all part of making sense of who I am. Today is a continuation of all the thoughts and feelings that preceded the current ones.
Writing also allows me to play with my imagination. I can never fully put into words, however, what I imagine. Time and place don't allow for that kind of disorderly fluidity.
Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Having been an author in a rock band, I can say with absolute authority that the audience is wilder than either authors or rock bands. The Rock Bottom Remainders had fans who lit their fingernails to attract attention from Stephen King. Women threw their underwear at Dave Barry. Fans ran after Matt Groening shouting angrily at him when he could not stay to draw more cartoons. I got propositioned by an Eastern European publisher at Book Expo, who believed I was a dominatrix in real life and not just when I was doing a comedy act on stage. The guy told me he had been bad and needed to be punished. Isn't that wild?
Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
I am definitely in the canine camp. I have had Yorkshire Terriers accompany me on book tours for about 20 years. I learned early on that it is very lonely and disorienting being on book tour. You're surrounded by fans who are waiting for books to be personalized and then you misspell their names because your brain is fried. You have to deal with plane delays, the anxiety of reviews, the fact that you have not had enough sleep and must sound coherent on a morning show. And once you are in your hotel room, a room that is unfamiliar each night, you are alone with all the particles of the day swirling in your head — alone, unless you have a dog! A dog is happy to listen to you and disperse the particles with his wagging tail. You don't even have to say a word. He understands implicitly.
Five books about animal nature, behavior, and intelligence:
These selections are also about our humanness and relationship to animals.
Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich
Adventures among Ants by Mark Moffett
The Genius of Dogs by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson
The Lives of Animals or Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee