Vancouver author Janie Chang’s latest book Dragon Springs Road came out in January. Set in the early-20th-century Shanghai, two girls – one a Eurasian orphan, the other a daughter of privilege – are bound together in a friendship that will be tested by duty, honour and love. A beautiful, rich book, you can read my review of Dragon Springs Road here.
HarperCollins offered me the chance to interview Chang about her book, and the art of writing historical fiction.
Q. Congrats on your latest book Dragon Springs Road. You draw on your family’s history for your books, calling them “historical novels with family legends embedded”. I read your father was a great storyteller. When did he start telling you family legends, and when did you start recording them?
A. Thank you! The best memories I have of my father are from my childhood, when I was still in elementary school, when he would tell me these stories. Even then, I sensed that he was passing on something important, more than just stories. They were so interesting because they seemed like stories from another world – which of course they were. I used to bug him all the time to tell me another story about our ancestors or his home town of Pinghu. The best thing I ever did was ask him to make a tape recording of stories and his memories. He did this in 1990 and many of those are now on my website, on the Stories page.
Q. You wrote that your grandmother’s story haunted you for years, and it was that story that inspired you to write Three Souls. What made you decide that it was the time to write a book?
A. I always knew that my first novel would be based on my grandmother’s life and I always wanted to be an author. But I also wanted to be able to support myself! So writing ended up on the back burner for a long, long time. Then my mother’s dementia got to the point where our family doctor said she needed to move into care. Every time I went to her care home, I’d look around and wonder about the lives of all those other residents, whether they had been able to achieve their dreams. I decided that unless I actually made a real attempt at writing a novel, I would regret it forever.
My first step was to take a creative writing class at Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Continuing Education from the wonderful Caroline Adderson. Then I applied for SFU’s The Writers’ Studio, an intensive one-year creative writing program, and got into the 2011 class – another lucky break because the fiction mentor that year was Shaena Lambert, who is wise, empathetic and insightful, and who helped me organize my story arc – and thoughts – for Three Souls.
Q. Was Dragon Springs Road based on a family legend as well?
A. No, Dragon Springs Road came out of some research on the lives of Eurasian orphans in China during the early decades of the 20th century.
However, there are details in the novel that come out of family stories. For example, the account of First Wife and her madness came from a family story about a many-times great-aunt; the Door into the land of immortals is from a tale about my seven-times-great grandfather who walked through such a door and became an immortal; the vision of the dancing ghost who foretold death; the tidbit about the men in the family cutting off their queues and how it made their womenfolk burst into tears. These are the details that add richness and authenticity, and I’m lucky to have such family stories to draw on.
Q. The fox spirit is very important in Dragon Springs Road. Is the fox spirit important in your family’s history? Why did you portray Fox the way you did?
A. We don’t have any Fox spirit stories in the family. My initial knowledge of foxes was that of anyone with an Asian background – from folk tales and pop culture. Much the same way an Irish person would know about leprechauns. Of the many supernatural elements in Chinese folklore, foxes seemed appropriate because as shapeshifters, they aren’t totally animal or human or deity but in-between, like my Eurasian girl orphan character.
Once I did some research on the origins of foxes in Chinese mythology and religion, however, I learned that 3,000 years ago, fox spirits were revered as wise sages and counselors to rulers and worshiped as true deities. Over the years, they got devolved into semi-demonic creatures. It seemed really unfair, so rather than go along with the current pop culture depiction of foxes as evil, mischievous seductresses, I gave my fox character more purpose and dignity.
Fox turned out to be the perfect complement to the theme of ‘otherness’ because she lives between her human, spirit, and animal identities and she also struggles to achieve another identity: she wants to transcend her earthly existence and become xian, a fully spiritual immortal being. Both girl and Fox are on a journey for identity and acceptance.
Q. What do you like about writing historical novels? How much research goes into each book? What is your writing process?
A. If you love history, research is the best part of the work because you can fool yourself into thinking that you’re being productive when actually you’ve gone way down the rabbit hole and don’t need that much information anymore!
I’d say about 10 per cent of what I research actually ends up in a novel. At the same time, even the facts you don’t write about are useful because that knowledge fills in a larger picture that allows you to develop your characters and plots with confidence. It means you know what else was going on in their world and why, as a result, they would or would not make certain decisions.
The most important tool I use for staying true to the historical timeline is a spreadsheet. I use this to map events in the story to events in real history and also to the ages of characters. When something big happens – such as the end of the Qing dynasty – your characters should respond, and respond in a way appropriate to their age and interests.
As for writing process, I’d say it’s still evolving. Maybe the process for every book will be different as I learn more. But one thing’s for sure: you need to treat writing as a job or you’ll never get to 100,000 words. You have to work on your book every day, several hours each day.
You can read more about Chang on her website at www.janiechang.com