I am so honored that Xinran agreed to talk with me about her new book!
1) Tell me about yourself.
A Chinese daughter, but doesn’t know very much about her parents’ life because of China’s political past which her parents never wanted to talk about it between 1950’s to 1970’s.
A Chinese mother, but doesn’t know much about her only child, because he grows up between Chinese culture and western culture, in his bilingual languages and screened knowledge.
A British husband’s wife, but doesn’t know much about her husband’s culture and adopted western society because her limited English and world knowledge.
A Chinese woman, but doesn’t know much about her roots country because China has changed so fast in last 30 years, there is no so such a historical record/lesson to learn from it.
A Chinese writer, but is still struggling to understand why the history is so unfair to women, and is trying hard to get Chinese hidden voices out.
2) How did you become a writer?
Driven by a childhood dream, grow up with a passion and everyday hard trying of listening, observation, and thinking.
3) How did you come to write Buy Me the Sky?
During over thirty years research on today’s China, I have shocked by some facts which have happened to the most families under One Child Policy, therefore I want to find the answers to these questions and to send an invitation out for people could listen to their answers:
— ‘Is the mother keeping her child as a pet, or is the child keeping her parents as slaves, to be at her beck and call with every wave of her hand?!
— Is One Child Policy much more powerful than any kind of the beliefs rooted in culture, religion, education, and living environments?
— They all belong to the first generation of the One Child Policy, they have completely different views on China, the world, and the concept of a quality life because of their family backgrounds, living conditions, and their pursuit of different ideals. But is there any point they could agree with their family elders after their long march under One Child Policy?
4) At the end of each story, you ask the young people you talked to about the Yao Jiaxin incident. Why did you feel it was important to get their views on that?
Yes, it could help readers to understand there is no such a Chinese and single China there, young Chinese have very different knowledge and views on Yao’s case because the difference of their living condition and family backgrounds, also between rich and poor, city and countryside, and even between 5 years age!
5) Why do you think only-children in China are so different from only-children born in other countries?
A child lives in an adult society must be completely different from a child lives in a society with many other children…
Or we say, English lives in Beijing, in a Chinese Hotong, must feel very different from she/he lives in a building which is full of English speakers…
Childhood society/family culture is the first education/brainwash in our life!
6) What do you think of China’s new two-child policy? Do you think it will effect much change in the short or long term?
One Child Policy, as anything, likes a coin with two sides, (in fact it should be three sides):
In the last three decades, under the One Child Policy, China has prevented 400 million people from coming into this world, buying FOUR years for the world population to reach 6 billion. In this point, One Child Policy is a gift to the earth by its birth control, saving energy, giving more space to all of life being. AND China had got a chance to recover from nearly one hundred years civil war, from a very poor country to today’s big rich country.
But, China has paid high price for it. This policy has led Chinese families jumped a history queue, BEFORE Chinese could have had a time to build up a ‘ready knowledge and support system’ for the one child society, as I have mentioned in my article sent to you:
According to China’s sixth census in Oct 2014, by 2020 there will be 30 million more males than females among the age group of 20 to 45 year olds in China. More than 150,000 Western families have adopted Chinese orphans, mainly girls, since 1991. And also, the most important part of Chinese tradition is our family value which has rooted and shaped Chinese culture and society, but it has been damaged by single children society. Chinese become confused by its social disorders, its rule-less family structure, and polluted by some western celebrity culture, and even drugged sexual behaviours without enough education and any learning process.
I hope ‘two children policy’ is not too late.
I wish more and more hard working young parents could realise that their beloved only child won’t have a real sharing and quality life by lives by her/his own, because money can’t buy a happy family and peaceful sleep!
It might take more two generations for Chinese to realise how much Chinese tradition and society have been damaged by this policy.
7) What are you working on next?
I am working on my new book ‘Talking Love’ a family dating history through its four generations.
8) Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
Great thanks for this question with your cares!
I set up a charity called The Mothers’ Bridge of Love (MBL) (UK registration number 1105543) with a group of volunteers in 2004. MBL’s aim is to provide Chinese cultural support to children in all corners of the world, by creating a bridge of understanding between China and the West, and between birth and adoptive cultures, and helping education in rural China.
After ten years MBL’s achievements of assistance, advice and educational activities to adoptive families around the world, supporting a number of disaster relief and built 15 libraries for some migrant workers’ children, and children living in rural countryside in China, now MBL invites my readers and families from all over the world to support MBL for giving more children with reading possibility in rural China.
Lisa See is best known for her historical novels, especially Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I reviewed here. But she also wrote a fabulous mystery series back in 1997. I recently read all three of the Red Princess mystery books and really enjoyed them. Lisa was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about the series. Check out my interview and enter for a chance to win all three Red Princess mystery books at the end!
1) Tell me a little about yourself.
I was born in Paris but grew up in Los Angeles. I’m part Chinese. My great-great-grandfather came here to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad. My great-grandfather was the godfather/patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. I don’t look at all Chinese, but I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family. I have hundreds of relatives in Los Angeles, of which there are only about a dozen who look like me.
I go for walks and play tennis. I love movies, and I used to see about 100 a year. But frankly, I don’t have much free time these days. I’m a L.A. City Commissioner. I also curate the occasional museum exhibition and do tons of speaking events each year. I’m also a freak when it comes to letter writing. I write lots of letters, and I think I’m pretty good at answering my e-mail in a timely way. My days are extraordinarily full with all sorts of things. These days, I have to say no more than I’d like so I can write.
2) Tell me a little about your writing history.
In one way, I was extremely fortunate with my first book. In another way, I’d already worked a very long time as a writer. To backtrack… I had worked as a journalist for many years and had been the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly for about eight years when I started On Gold Mountain. Like I said, I’d already been working a long time as a professional writer, so people in publishing knew me and my work. (They may not have known me personally, but they read me almost every week and knew, among other things, that I could meet a deadline.) I also benefited from the success of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Publishers were actively looking for more Chinese-American stories. Amy’s agent was Sandy Dijkstra. Sandy has a great American art collection, and she helped me with some of the art sources for On Gold Mountain. After two years of work—doing interviews, traveling back to the home village in China, searching out what I could find in archives, and then writing the proposal—I thought that Sandy would be the perfect person to sell the idea. There was an auction—a miracle as far as I was concerned. So, hard work, timing, and good luck.
3) You published the first Red Princess mystery, The Flower Net, in 1997. Can you tell me how the series came about and what publishing it was like?
My husband is an attorney and he represented the country of China back when most commercial ventures were owned by the government. He had a case that resulted in our spending an evening in a very swanky karaoke bar in Beijing in the middle of winter. This was back in something like 1994, so China was very, very different than it is today. Anyway, we were with all these agents from the Ministry of Public Security—China’s version of the FBI. Now there’s one thing you can say about people in law enforcement: they basically all look alike, no matter where you go in the world. They have a particular build, they carry weapons, they wear black leather jackets, they have their tough-guy attitudes. But these guys also had something else. They were covered in gold: big gold Rolexes, big gold rings, big gold necklaces and bracelets, because they were corrupt but they were up front about it. They were getting up to sing sappy love songs in these gorgeous tenor voices, with the tears streaming down their faces. If you’re a writer and you get to experience something like that, there’s only one thing you can think: This is the best material and I’ve got it!
4) Did you always plan for Red Princess to be a series or was that decided later?
I always thought of it as a trilogy. While I didn’t know what the next two “mysteries” would be when I first started writing the series, I knew what I wanted as an emotional arc for David and Hulan.
5) You once described Flower Net as a snapshot of China in the late 1990s, but I was surprised by how contemporary the books still feel. For example, the descriptions of the factories in The Interior still seem to apply today. Do you think China has changed much since the last book was published in 2003?
Yes and no. You’re absolutely right about the factories. I feel like I was way out front on that subject – long before revelations about Nike or Apple, long before the publication of Factory Girls, which is a fabulous non-fiction book on the subject. I’m very proud of the fact that The Interior helped to lay the groundwork for some of the journalism that followed.
But in other ways China is completely different. When I was first going to China, there were still very few cars. The last time I was in Beijing, it felt like it was all cars and very few bicycles. And just the physical changes that occurred in the lead up to the Olympics and all the way to today! When I first went to China, they had Pizza Hut, which did very poorly back then, because no one liked all the cheese, and no McDonald’s or Starbucks.
The societal and economic changes are also tremendous, especially in the big cities. The money—the sheer number of millionaires and billionaires—well, they just didn’t exist in the early 90’s. Even more striking, at least to me anyway, is the younger generation. If you’re 25 or younger, you personally don’t have memories of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, or the events at Tiananmen Square. You may have heard stories of hardship, but that’s not your day-to-day reality nor does it affect your outlook about whether your future is tenuous or secure.
Lastly, I’d say media—television in particular—has really changed how people look at the outside world, their aspirations, and their sense of what they might be entitled to. While small, isolated, and poor villages may not have Starbucks or experience the economic benefits of being the second largest economy on the world, they do now have electricity and televisions. Even if they only have access to state-run channels, they still see how people dress in the cities, get glimpses of the rest of the world,
and, rather dismayingly, see commercials that are Western in style or content.
But going back to my comment about the mysteries feeling like snapshots… Each one is very specifically tied to that particular year. For example, the day the manuscript for Flower Net went to press, I had lunch with some writers here in Los Angeles. It was quite celebratory, because everything was done—all the writing, editing, and copy-editing. I said, “The only thing that could cause a problem now is if Deng Xian-ping dies.” When I got home, the phone was ringing. It was someone from the lunch, who said, “You’d better turn on the TV. Deng Xiao-ping just died.” We had to pull the book from the printer. And as you know, I added a scene that includes Deng’s funeral.
6) How did you learn so much about the inner workings of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and other official agencies?
As I mentioned above, my husband is an attorney and he had one particular case in which he worked with the MPS. It was the first time—and to this day the only time—that the FBI and Ministry of Public Security worked together. (The FBI has worked with other Chinese ministries since then, and I’m sure that the MPS has worked with other U.S. agencies since then too.) I met many of the people who worked for the MPS. I asked lots of questions. For example: If you were going to dispose of a dead body in Beijing, how would you do it? (I’ve always found that people in law enforcement – all around the world, including here in the U.S. — think a lot about how they would commit a crime so as not to be caught. That’s part of how they catch the criminals! My husband was also having meetings inside the MPS and a prison. He could tell me details about the lack of heat, the type of flooring, and what people wore.
7) After Dragon Bones, you switched to historical novels. Why the change? What are the differences between writing a contemporary mystery or a historical novel?
I first heard about nu shu—the women’s secret writing—in 1999 when I reviewed a book for the Los Angeles Times on the history of footbinding. It was just a short three or four page mention, but I thought, how could this exist and I didn’t know about it? I looked nu shu up on the Internet. At the time there wasn’t much about nu shu out there. (Now there’s quite a bit.) It took me a long time before I realized I would write a novel based on nu shu. I read all this academic stuff written by scholars and I went to southwestern Hunan province to learn what I could. What I discovered was that the scholars—as brilliant as they are—always seemed to leave out the emotions inherent in the secret language. It was something used by real women who had real emotions. I thought a novel would be the best way to explore that.
To answer your second question, writing straight fiction is much easier than writing mysteries or thrillers. Writing the mysteries helped me tremendously with Snow Flower. With mysteries, you have to keep focused on the plot. You can’t overlook a single detail. It’s a very tight form and pacing is extremely important. Today, straight fiction, especially women’s fiction, has very little plot. It’s just a slice of life with an emotional change. I personally prefer novels that have enough plot that I’m anxious to turn the pages. For Snow Flower, the plotline was why does Lily feel such regret, and what happened between her and Snow Flower to create their rift? You see, it’s still a mystery. I had to place clues about Snow Flower’s upbringing, about the hardships of her life, and what the secret message on the fan actually meant throughout the novel for it to work. Writing the mysteries has helped me with the pacing, characters, and emotional arcs of all the novels that have come since. Really, if you look at all my novels, you’ll find secrets that need to be revealed.
8) Do you think you will ever return to mystery writing?
Right now I don’t have any plans to continue with them, but that doesn’t mean I won’t one of these days. Poor David and Hulan have been through so much. I like to think that they’re on vacation somewhere, sitting by the ocean, under a palm tree, sipping drinks with those little umbrellas in them. Those two deserve a break! But one day they’ll be called back to work.
9) What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a new novel called The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, which has three main elements: the mother/daughter relationship, the history of tea (with an emphasis on Pu’er), and the Akha ethnic minority of Yunnan. For the mother/daughter story, I want to write about a woman who gives up her baby for adoption in China, the woman in California who adopts her, and the girl herself.
Annie K. Wong is the author of fantasy adventure Children of Lightning! The Chinese-Canadian writer agreed to stop by and tell us more about her book. Be sure to check out the giveaway at the bottom of the page!
About Children of Lightning
Secrets beget secrets. The curse that befell the Hollows clan has left them incapable of producing male offspring. To extend their bloodline, they have formed a covenant with the serpentine Ophidians, who give them children. In return, the Hollows must keep these monstrous creatures well fed, though the details of the procurement are so abominable that the truth is never revealed to the other clans. In their homeland of Matikki, they live like outcasts.
Through a series of chance discoveries, the secrets of the ancient curse unfold before a warrior named Writhren Hollow. Is her purely female clan the result of a lapse of divine providence, or are the Hollows themselves victims of an enslavement scheme?
If Writhren frees her clan from the covenant, she risks the wrath of the Ophidians and the future of her bloodline. If she keeps the truth of the curse to herself, she is a traitor to her own kind. Either way, she will suffer for what she must do.
This is not a story of redemption, but regret. This is Writhren’s story.
I grew up in Hong Kong and was almost twenty when I left for university in the U.S. Although I don’t get along easily with my mother, she has been instrumental in shaping my life and allowing me to become a writer. If not for her, I wouldn’t have received my college education and years later, immigrated to Canada where I met my current partner, Scott. It was during college that I discovered my ability as a storyteller, and in Vancouver that I had the opportunity to study film, an experience which has changed and enhanced my storytelling skills.
Currently, I work in the transportation industry by day and pursue a writing career in my spare time.
2) Tell me a little about your writing history.
I discovered my talent in storytelling in college, but I did not pursue writing as a career then because I was lazy and afraid. Writing is not for the faint of heart. The writing process can be grueling, the rate of failure very high. I was not ready for the challenge as an undergrad.
Unbeknownst to me, this urge to write had remained dormant in me for more than a decade after I left college and reared its (ugly) head in my mid-thirties when I was older, more mature and perhaps more capable of tackling the difficulties of a writing life. Being the fighter that I am, I battled against this inner voice that beckoned me to be a writer. I did that for a year and lost.
I was reluctant at first, but once I put my fingers to the keyboard, I discovered a new me, an explorer of brand new worlds and dangerous, complex situations. I became hooked onto the adrenaline of every story twist and turn unfolding before my eyes. Yes, writing continues to be difficult, but the difficulty is what makes it so, very rewarding.
3) Your first book is called Children of Lightning. Tell me a little about it.
Children of Lightning is the prequel to a book series I have been working on since 2010. It is about Writhren Hollow, a snake-haired warrior, who while trying to save her clan from extinction ends up becoming the villain in the story.
4) How did this story come about?
Before I wrote Children of Lightning, I spent a couple years drafting the first book in a fantasy series about a young hero rising against an ancient and powerful monster who vows to destroy her family and the world. After I finished the manuscript, however, I became curious about this monster, where she came from and how she became so full of vengeance. Even though she is the villain, I found it unjust to the character to simply bring her out to be defeated. She needed her own story.
People often overlook the importance of the villain in a story, especially in the fantasy genre. Without the villain initiating the attack, there will be no reason for defense, for heroic deeds. For this reason, the villain gives birth to the hero, and a well-rounded villain is more interesting, more challenging. The more we know about a monster, the less monstrous she becomes, and yet, because of who she is, she continues to be threatening. The hero’s battle against this evil force will be more complex and in the end, more rewarding. That is why I decide to write an origin story for the villain in my book series, Writhen Hollow, the result of which is Children of Lightning.
5) Since this is a fantasy novel, you basically built a whole new world with new races and a new mythology. What was building this world like?
Complicated. 🙂 It happened in stages, beginning with the characters and their physical appearances. These “children of lightning” or lucerians as they are called, are not human, and the way they were first created necessitates a homeland filled with volcanoes. Additional geographical details were then added to advance the plot, and a name was given to this mythical land: Matikki.
When the basic landscape was set, I imagined the kind of architecture they would have in Matikki. Would it make sense to have houses made of wood in a volcanic land? Could I make these houses look exotic and plausible at the same time?
Finally, since Matikki is a volcanic land where magic thrives and Writhren and her peers are not human, their culture and beliefs should be very different from ours. What colours do they associate with life and death? How do they organize themselves, govern themselves? Do they have a monarch or a warlord as a ruler? What do they use as a currency of trade? Dollar bills or magic spells? These details took a long time to take shape, the result of which has been a combination of imagination and logic.
6) Are there any themes or subplots you hope readers will pick up on?
There is a Chinese saying that states, “Succeed and become a king; fail and become a traitor” (成王敗寇). The saying refers to the ancient times when people rebelled against a ruthless, suppressive regime, which often involved assassinating the king. The rebel leader who succeeded in killing the king would be the next monarch. He who failed would be killed for treason. Two people having the same intention and making the same attempt for greatness could be defined very differently depending on the result of their efforts. The line between a hero and a villain can be very thin.
My book is an origin story of a villain. To say that Writhren Hollow is a victim of circumstances would be an over-simplification. Yes, fate might not have been kind to her, but she, like any normal person, never set out to be evil. At what point did she choose the path of darkness? How much is she responsible for her subsequent role in the story? Hopefully, readers will give Children of Lightning a try and find out.
7) What writers in the sci-fi/fantasy genre inspired you?
I have mentioned in other posts my love for Garth Nix’s The Old Kingdom series and the works of China Mieville. I also admire the world building work in epic fantasies such as A Song of Ice and Fire series.
One of the books I am currently reading is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. His choice for the narrator and point of view for the story are interesting. Karen Russell is another writer I have recently discovered and love. The works of these two writers are considered as more “magical realism” than strictly fantasy, but I find their stories just as imaginative, not to mention very well written.
8) What are you working on now?
I am thinking of writing a story about a contemporary of Writhren Hollow and continue the mythology from a different angle.
Annie K. Wong was born in Hong Kong and lives in Canada, in the west coast city of Vancouver, BC. She has a BA in Business Administration and Creative Writing from Houghton College as well as a Diploma in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia. Although she explored careers in advertising, television and office administration, the desire to write overtook her at the turn of the new millennium. In 2003 she earned a Post-Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from Humber College and has been crafting stories ever since.
Her current project is a fantasy series, the prequel of which is Children of Lightning.
Connect with her and receive freebies and updates about her book and other upcoming projects.