L.A. author Da Chen, who is appearing at Book Soup tomorrow, answered some questions on his new novel My Last Empress for our Ask the Author column.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a tiny village in southern China, where water was fetched from wells, and night was brightened if not by the moon, then by the ubiquitous kerosene lanterns. It was a time of hunger and depravation. A time when I oft saw my parents beaten for their political blackness. It was the revolutionary time, a time when everything was upside down. Yet it was the memory of that darkened age that eventually led me to start my journey to write my first book, Colors of the Mountain, my childhood memoir [of] growing up during this tragic revolution.
Where do you live now?
I recently moved to Torrance CA, from New York's beautiful and bountiful Hudson Valley, which nurtured me to be the writer that I am. Now I am soaking up all the brilliant sun and sea breeze to write my next book.
Favorite book of all time:
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It has a very strange structure; and the lead protagonist doesn't appear until a third into the novel. But the setting in a soggy land of a bygone era brings me back to a time and a stage that only exist in my imagination and nowhere else. But it is the doggedness of his characters, hardened by life and ravaged by suffering, that charmed me to such an elevated plateau of enchantment, anything else afterward all seems imperfect and somewhat incomplete. There is that completeness and egg-shell smooth perfection to his tale, which at once seems urgent and ancient all at the same timer. My favorite line in it is: "I smell like an old lady"...spoken in the tone lamenting the precious time that had lapsed between the two improbable lovers. The greatest love story.
Least favorite book of all time:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The fault should possibly be blamed on the fact that it is so famous.
Favorite book from your childhood:
A book about a young revolutionary, who breaks away from her capitalist family to join the communist movement in 1920s in China. It was the romanticism of a bleak time and age; and the purity of that character and her physical beauty. It broke my young heart when her lover eventually betrays her. I think it's called Song of Youth. How we, the entire generation, have adored her, that bewitching young revolutionary named Miss Lin, a red scarf over her deep blue skirt.
Book, Kindle, Nook, audiobook or other, and why:
Books are still my favorite for deep and dreamy reading. Paper comes from trees; trees remind me of a deep and damp foggy forest, whence dreams are woven and tales form. Best reading is an act of dreaming while best novel writing is dream-making. But what delight to be able to carry one hundred books in the invisible brains of my iPhone, which could be read in light or darkness. So I am progressive, somewhat.
Favorite literary hangout spot:
There is a particular little library filled to its ceiling with shelves of classics, overlooking a single-tree brick courtyard, snuggly tucked away in the back of an obscure yet posh townhouse, quietly existing in the Washington Square neighborhood, where the dim of the city is only a memory. I could read there day and night and some. Fortunately it belongs to a dearest mentor of mine who so graciously hosts book parties for me for each novel I have published.
There is such a special spot on earth for every reader. For some it might just be a little stool in the barn or a spot up a particular branch of his favorite old pine tree where little birds live only twigs away in the fey nest, forever awaiting their mother's return with worms and bugs.
The trailer for the movie version of your new book would go: In a world___
In the world of warlords and religious fiends, emperors and eunuchs, a young American journeys across the unquiet Pacific to seek the reincarnation of his lost love, foretold to be living in between the wall and its wall paper within the deep and echoing chambers of the Forbidden City.
Describe the moment when you first got the idea for your new book.
My newest novel, My Last Empress, which has been garnering rave reviews, including a starred review from Kirkus Review, came from my visit to Yale University a few years ago. After my book event there, a dean there took me to see a statue standing in front of Commons dining hall. He was the first Yale graduate beheaded by Chinese Boxer Rebels who, about one hundred years ago, were fighting to drive away foreign missionaries who came to save Chinese souls.
That moment I shared with this man infused me with all the ingredients that a novelist needs before diving into the river of writing. He could have fled, but he returned to save a boy servant. I felt the chills being ejected toward me looking at his stoic statue. A mood, a certain tonality of the book was born right there, giving me that invisible force that drives a writer to sit through years and years of prose making till its completion. Only then is this mood erased, and light shines through and the novel written.
The novel isn't the chronicle of this man's real life, but an imagined life, built on the crumbs of his noble-mindedness. It is an ode to a glorious man and suitable hymn in praise of the depth of his love for his departed lover.
Most helpful epiphany while writing the book:
That novel making is truth telling. The closer to the truth, emotional truth, the more the book compels.
Dream casting for your protagonist in the movie version, and why:
Emma Stone as Annabelle Hawthorn; Liam Neeson playing her father, the overly zealous church minister/missionary to China; Andrew Garfield as Pickens, the man who ventures to China to find the reincarnation of his lost lover, who is Emma Stone
Dream audiobook reader for your book, and why:
Sir Ben Kingsley. I had a good luck of having dinner with him with others, and he read the first line of the novel. His voice sent chills down my spine.
Typical writing schedule:
Morning till night and night till morning; even in sleep I dream about the characters; frolicking with them in the forbidden slumber land.
Office, home, Starbucks, or elsewhere?
Home Office, with a pencil and paper and an unabiding pencil sharpener.
Favorite piece of music to listen to while writing, if any:
I can't write with music on. I love music too much to listen to it half-heartedly.
Beating up the unabiding pencil sharpener.
Do writers need to drink to be good writers? What kind of drink?
The best poets in ancient China were the drunken ones. One must heed the lessons from history. A sobering book is no book at all.
Drink, but only like a little fish.
What kind of drinks? The potent kind, the Chinese Maotai. It would set your literary self on fire.
How you got your first agent or book contract
My first agent, the late beloved Elaine Koster, read one hundred pages of my memoir and sold it in a five-house auction for six figures. The winner and my very first editor was the esteemed editor-in-chief, president and publisher of Little Random, Ann Godoff, with a six-figure paperback deal. The rights were sold to 14 foreign publishers as well. My writing career was hence launched, with the newest book being my seventh.
Most embarrassing story or other piece of writing you wrote as a kid, and
what it was about:
I wrote some poetry. It was so awful because every single line rhymes.
Your favorite character you've ever thought up, and why:
My favorite character is by far the character I created for myself.
To be able to write about myself in my two bestselling memoirs, I had to lead myself to see myself as a literary character, by distancing myself from myself. And putting myself on the stage so I can start putting costumes on him and makeup for him.
It was no easy task being objective and even critical to your own character.
My eventual technique was to treat him as my twin hence allowing me to see myself not as myself but as my mirror image.
What book or other piece of media you've been consuming lately:
I am reading and re-reading books by Marquez
What book or other piece of media you've been feeling guilty for consuming lately:
Watching lots of Family Guy. It shows my immaturity. The boy within is still vital, kicking and screaming, refusing to budge or age.
What you would do if you weren't a writer:
A dreamer. A teacher of literature. A writing teacher who coaches prodigious young writers and poets. Or a village letter writer. A fortune teller.
To be someone who creates the bonds among men.
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