Chen Pan [the patriarch] was the hardest. For years, I didn't know what was happening with him. After the early drama [when he comes to Cuba and escapes his indentured servitude on the sugar plantation], he actually settles down to a regular middle-class mercantile existence, and rendering that in a compelling way was difficult.
The novel has a complex three-part structure, with several narratives woven together, jumping around in time and place — from China to Cuba to New York and Vietnam. How did you ever arrive at this structure — did you try it various ways?
I arrived at this story blindly and bloodied from the effort of trying it 2 billion other ways. I threw out four books getting this one finished. I'm usually not this melodramatic! In fact, I'm currently finishing the first draft of a new novel that has proceeded suspiciously swimmingly. What's wrong with it?! Along the way, I kept asking myself: What is essential here? I tried to move from obsession to obsession. Ultimately, that was my guide.
A few years ago, you remarked to me that you were almost exclusively reading poetry. Is that still true? How does poetry feed your fiction?
Poetry has spoiled me for any other kind of writing. I read widely from many different traditions. I'm currently reading a lot of Middle Eastern poetry in translation. Embarrassingly enough, I'm almost incapable of plowing through a novel anymore! Things like plot don't interest me. What I love is the music of a sentence, the jarring juxtaposition of unexpected images. If I didn't read poetry, I couldn't write at all.
We were once on a panel together, and the moderator said that if a writer couldn't sum up his novel in a sentence, he didn't have a novel. You very graciously disagreed — which he did not take well! I laughed out loud after readingMonkey Hunting, because this was the book you were working on at the time — and how would you describe this novel in a sentence?!
I don't remember being terribly gracious. But I'll try to describe it in a sentence, as long as nobody thinks they can then ignore the book! Here goes: It's a 120-year dialogue between Cuba and Asia. Hey, maybe that moderator guy was right!