Maximum Shelf author interview: Jade Chang

Following yesterday’s review of The Wangs vs. the World, here’s Jade Chang: Method Writer.


Jade Chang has covered arts and culture as a journalist and editor. She is the recipient of a Sundance Fellowship for Arts Journalism, the AIGA/Winterhouse Award for Design Criticism, and the James D. Houston Memorial scholarship from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She lives in Los Angeles. The Wangs vs. the World is her debut novel.

photo credit: Teresa Flowers

photo credit: Teresa Flowers


Your journalistic background covered some of the topics in the Wangs’ lives, but still: How different was writing a novel? And how hard?

I never got an MFA, but my college did have a good creative writing program, so I went through writing workshops there. And in workshop, we were always writing short stories. I guess I liked it okay, and when I graduated I continued trying to write short stories, but sometimes a thing is just not your form. And short stories were kind of hard for me. Simultaneously, I was working as a journalist. And I enjoyed writing articles–hated writing on deadline, but enjoyed writing articles. But once I started writing a novel it felt like, ahh!–this makes more sense. Having all this space, all this room, all this time, having a much broader canvas felt more exciting to me. I don’t know that being a journalist affected my experience enormously, except that I think it’s really good training because you learn to not be too precious about your words. I got used to being edited, to rewriting and all that stuff. And that’s good training for any writer.

Did the Wangs come to you fully formed, or did you have to work to build them? Are they based on anyone you know?

There’s definitely no character-by-character corollary for them in real life. I would say that Charles Wang, the father, came to me kind of fully formed. His bluster, his exuberance, his excitement about life, but also his kind-of-asshole side, all of those things felt like–well, like a view of America to me. And then also he just really felt like a lot of fun to do. The other characters definitely felt from the very beginning like real people to me. But I do a lot of character work–I ask myself questions about a character, and a lot of that stuff doesn’t go into the book at all, but it gives me a more well-rounded sense of who someone is and how they will react in a situation that does end up in the book.

Your characters are so rich, and span genders, ages, lifestyles and stages of life.

I knew I wanted to look at contemporary life from several different viewpoints. Growing up kind of between Gen X and Gen Y, I always found that definition of generations really interesting. So I really wanted to have siblings who were in different generations, who looked at the world in different ways. There are roughly 10 years in age between the sisters Saina and Grace, and that’s a huge difference in experience.

Then you have a father who is an immigrant, children born here, and a stepmother who comes from a world that’s actually very different from the father’s, even though to someone who knows nothing about them, you might think that they are from the exact same world. I wanted to show a lot of different viewpoints. And I was interested in getting into a lot of worlds in this book. So you have the father who thinks of himself as a consummate entrepreneur or businessman, who makes a fortune in makeup. And then you have the oldest daughter who is an artist, and so you get to go into the art world. And then you have the middle son who’s a standup comedian and the youngest daughter who is an aspiring style blogger. I really wanted to look at worlds where you have a balance between artifice and reality. It’s all tied to the outset of the financial collapse in 2008, and that particular financial collapse, as most of them are I think, was based on essentially a lie, or the big con–mortgages we couldn’t really afford, and all that. The financial world at that time was falling apart based on a beautiful lie. It made me very interested in other worlds that are based on that as well. I think makeup is definitely that. And then the art world–you know, I love it so much in many ways, but a piece can be worth nothing or millions of dollars, based on who says it is. That is so fascinating to me. I love the overlaps between these worlds, in how we ascribe values to things.

I really enjoyed your shifting perspectives–even the car gets a voice. Was that hard to write?

It was a challenge, and it was a really fun challenge. I definitely knew I wanted to do that. I was joking with a friend that, just like a method actor, I’m a method writer. I just really need to completely be in someone’s head and looking through their eyes in order to fully embody a character. And I liked the challenge of it, honestly. I wanted to see if I could write from five or six viewpoints.

You chose to leave some untranslated Chinese dialogue for the (non-Chinese-reading) reader to decipher from context clues. Why?

A lot of the books that we read in America today are from the point of view of white people in America. Or they’re written for what has been the majority audience, which is white people in America. And I feel like on the one hand obviously this book is for everybody, as every book is, but I wanted a different world of people to get to be the insiders. So people who speak Chinese and can understand the Chinese, they get to be the insiders in this book. But I didn’t want to write it in Chinese characters, because I wanted any reader to be able to kind of sound it out and get that experience of what it feels like to eavesdrop in a language that you don’t understand.

But you’re not actually missing out on anything. There might be something a little bit jokey, or a colloquialism that’s in the Chinese that doesn’t come out in the English, but essentially, it’s all there.

Do you have a favorite character?

I feel a lot of sympathy for Andrew. He is the middle brother, he is really trying hard to find his way in the world, he’s so good-hearted, he really just wants the best for everybody. But he’s also a young guy, and so he makes a lot of dumb missteps. And I just love stand-up comedy. I think it’s so fascinating and so fun. You have to be so smart to do it well, and also so emotionally reckless. I feel a lot of sympathy for stand-up comics in general, and so writing him and writing those scenes where he gets up and does stand-up sets, that really made me love him a lot.

But whichever character I was working on emotionally, working on their emotional arc, I felt a lot of love for that character at that point.

What are you working on next?

I am working on another novel. We’ll see what happens.


This interview originally ran on September 7, 2016 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother ed. by Donald Sturrock

Forty years of letters from a beloved children’s author to his mother offer an intriguing, entertaining perspective on both the man and the world.

love from boy

Roald Dahl, renowned for both children’s classics and eerie adult short stories, wrote his first letter home from boarding school in 1925, when he was nine years old; Donald Sturrock (Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl) edits this collection of previously unpublished letters from Dahl to his mother. In Love from Boy, Sturrock’s minimal narrative appears alongside the epistolary bulk of the text, accompanied by a small selection of Dahl’s photographs and drawings.

Organized in seven chapters by phases of Dahl’s life, the correspondence tracks the growth of a beloved imagination and literary career. Over 40 years, Dahl evolves from funny prankster to crafty storyteller to a more serious and cynical mind, particularly following World War II. Dahl had a thoroughly interesting life even before he began writing in earnest: from English boarding schools to travel and corporate work in colonial Africa, hours logged as a Royal Air Force pilot, diplomatic work in the United States and collaboration with Walt Disney in Hollywood. But Love from Boy also provides a personal perspective on his eye for detail and the absurd, his predilection for pranks, his knack for characterization–“He’s a short man with a face like a field elderberry, and a moustache which closely resembles the African jungle. A voice like a frog…”–and his quirky preoccupation with personal hygiene, especially dental care. Love from Boy is both an endearing glimpse of a much-loved author and a sober view of mid-20th-century world events.


This review originally ran in the September 6, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 tubes of Euthymol.

Teaser Tuesdays, hemingWay of the day and synchronicity: Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother, ed. by Donald Sturrock

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

hembut2
Imagine my thrill to see Roald Dahl and Ernest Hemingway walking alongside one another, pictured in my galley copy of Love from Boy, a collection of previously unpublished letters from the beloved children’s author to his mother.

love from boy

I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book to see the photo! (It’ll be worth it.)

The caption reads,

Wing Commander Roald Dahl and his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, in London, 1944. Roald got to meet many of the great and good in the literary world while he was in Washington. He thought Hemingway ‘a strange and secret man’ for whom he felt ‘overwhelming love and respect.’

For me, this was another moment of chimes sounding, so to speak. I hadn’t realized these two had any contact; I guess I hadn’t thought much about their contemporaneity. What fun to find that Dahl – one of my favorite authors when I was a kid – shared my appreciation for Papa’s work. Strange and secret man, indeed.

I was also interested to see Hemingway looking quite short and fat, next to the tall, thin Dahl. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of Hem: mostly the flattering ones he liked released; fewer in which he appears fatter and wearing his glasses (which he generally avoided being photographed in). While he is a perfectly distinguished-looking man here, in a suit and tie and those offending spectacles, both hands in pockets, striding purposefully across a street, beard clearly dark-going-to-gray (even in black and white) – I suspect this is not a photograph he liked. This one, taken during his third marriage, to Martha Gellhorn, hearkens to a slightly older Hemingway.

I love that there is always more to know.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Stephen King’s The Body: Bookmarked by Aaron Burch

A writer’s examination of the writing that shaped him–even reluctantly–yields layers of self-awareness.

stephen kings the body

Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked series features writers contemplating the literature that has made deep impressions on their lives and work. Aaron Burch’s entry is Stephen King’s The Body, a brief but incisive consideration of King’s novella and Burch’s life in ways that surprise the author and intrigue the reader.

“The Body” is one of four novellas in King’s Different Seasons (which also includes “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). It is perhaps better known for the film adaptation, 1986’s Stand by Me. Burch’s lifelong fascination began with the movie; he writes here about coming later to King’s written work as he becomes a reader, a writer and a teacher. King’s protagonist, Gordie Lachance, is also a writer and very much resembles King himself. The layers of meta-awareness continue in Stephen King’s The Body: Burch refers to his writing of the book and to its earlier drafts.

“The Body” is a Bildungsroman circling themes of friendship, nostalgia and loss as four childhood friends trek cross-country to view the dead body of a boy their age. Burch explores these themes with tenderness and sentiment, even as he resists the latter. Although “The Body” and Stand by Me provide the framework for Burch’s contemplation, his work is at least as much self-reflective memoir or personal essay as it is literary criticism. As he writes, his marriage looks to be breaking apart–a parallel Burch forces himself to confront. The two processes, writing and considering a marriage, prompt a direct gaze into difficult truths, but as King writes (as Gordie Lachance): “The most important things are the hardest to say.” This is a recurring sentiment in Burch’s slim book, where he earnestly attempts to address those hard things.

Burch exposes himself as a striking character who has a complicated relationship with art–the art he produces (up until now, only fiction) and the art he enjoys. He is an unlikely writer of literary criticism, with his resistance to considering authorial intent, and purposefully avoids behind-the-scenes perspectives on his favorite works. “It can be fun to take apart a magic trick and figure out how it actually works, but it also ruins the magic of the trick.” Having pushed himself, however, Burch is surprised to find his venture into literary criticism extraordinarily enlightening.

Burch elaborates on King’s themes of loss and friendship with those of transitions, of firsts: first date, first kiss, first job, first road trip. As Gordie (or King) writes, “There’s a high ritual to all fundamental events… the rites of passage, the magic corridor where the change happens.” The beauty of Stephen King’s The Body is in Burch entering that magic corridor, and splitting the experience wide open–uncomfortably, even–for the reader to study with him.


This review originally ran in the August 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scenes.

author interview: Ridley Pearson: The Price of Darkness

Ridley Pearson is the author of more than two dozen novels, including The Red Room, Choke Point and The Risk Agent, plus the Walt Fleming and Lou Boldt crime series and many books for young readers. He lives with his wife and two daughters in St. Louis, Mo., and Hailey, Idaho. White Bone is the fourth novel in his Risk Agent series.

Pearson at Solio wildlife sanctuary: "Time and time again I was a matter of 15 yards from these rhinos."

Pearson at Solio wildlife sanctuary: “Time and time again I was a matter of 15 yards from these rhinos.”


White Bone’s plot centers on elephant poaching in Kenya. How did this issue come to your attention?

I heard a statistic about elephants, and it really shocked me. In 2014, the first real decent study documented that 100,000 African elephants had been killed in three years. One of every 12 African elephants had been killed by a poacher in 2011. Three-quarters of local elephant populations are declining. In nine years, there would be no more wild elephants in Africa.

Then I met Mikey and Tanya Carr-Hartley, who run a four-generation-old guiding service in Kenya. Eventually I went, under their care, to Kenya to do interviews and see the country and dig into the poaching, and my hair was blown back.

I interviewed 24 people over the course of three and a half weeks, and 23 of them in some way lied to me. These were very trustworthy sources, including our own (U.S.) State Department. Finally, my last interview was an activist lawyer, and we went through my interviews and she told me point by point who had fabricated what. My jaw dropped. There I’d been digging into this to help everyone, and in some way or another everyone had manipulated the truth.

"My guides Ole and Charcoal."

“My guides Ole and Charcoal.”


It was eye-opening, and dangerous. I was in Nairobi when there was a terrorist blast that killed 18 people. I was at a lodge when poachers killed a rhino 300 yards away from me while I slept. There’s a scene in the book where Grace runs into these herdsman, and they try to rape her. Those were two guys I ran into when one of my guides had to go get a vehicle and I was left–by my own choice–and within 10 minutes I ran into these guys, and they did not like me. It was 20 or 30 minutes of, oh boy, all he has to do is lift that spear and I’m going down.

Is there a point at which research makes it harder to write fiction?

My approach is “faction.” My charge is to suspend your disbelief, and I think it works best if I put more fact in than fiction. I do a lot of research. I learned about a guy who was investigating poaching and was a pilot over Mt. Kenya, and his plane happened to go down. A lot of people think that plane was sabotaged; it’s never been proven. I told that story, where a guy was killed in the bush who had been investigating. I just made it a little more palpable and believable for the reader.

Were you searching for John Knox and Grace Chu’s next case, or was this something you needed to write about first, and they were the best fit?

The latter. I just wondered if I could put Knox and Chu into Africa, and what that would look like.

"Ole showed me every plant that could kill you, every root that could heal you: it was unbelievable. I based all that information with Grace off my days with Ole."

“Ole showed me every plant that could kill you, every root that could heal you: it was unbelievable. I based all that information with Grace off my days with Ole.”


I’ve written 51 books. And I haven’t done this for probably 20 years, but I actually wrote the entire book and put it aside and started over. I just wasn’t buying my own story. It wasn’t lighting me up. And it wasn’t the story my editor (Christine Pepe at Putnam, who’s just one of the greatest editors who’s ever lived) wanted. So I stepped back and thought: What am I doing wrong here? I’ve always wanted to do a book about a person out in the wild with nothing. I’m an Eagle Scout, so I’ve gone through some of this in my own teens. When Ole, my guide, told me that a white person wouldn’t last 24 hours in the bush, I said, well, how could I last 24 hours in the bush? He showed me every plant that could kill you, every root that could heal you. It was unbelievable. I based all that information with Grace off my days with Ole.

How did you handle characterization?

I felt a great depth of participation with Grace because of her circumstances. I think this is the book where readers of the series will go, “Oh, that’s the Grace I’ve been waiting for.” I learned a lot about her. She has a lot of stick-to-it-iveness that I really wasn’t sure about. She’s an accountant by trade, but she went through the Chinese army training, and had some short-lived intelligence experience. So I always sensed that she had this potential. This book was her chance to be out on her own, investigating something that’s a little more money-oriented than pure fieldwork, and then it ends up Fieldwork with a capital F. In previous books you never really got in with Grace and felt her, and were afraid or proud or achieving with her.

The challenge is not to put everything in. In my fieldwork, there were some amazing moments. I had an encounter with one of the people who had lied to me. On the very last night I was there, he came up to me at a party and said, “Hey, listen. I’m terribly sorry about how I played that when we were at Solio.” And I said “Yeah, so am I!” But at least he was man enough at the end to come up and say, “Sorry I just lied to your face.” That was a very emotional moment for me. And you can’t get them all in.

"This is me in what they call a 'nice' town near Solio Lodge."

“This is me in what they call a ‘nice’ town near Solio Lodge.”


You regularly write realistically about violence, depravity and corruption. Is this emotionally difficult?

I think you pay for it.

Every day for two years as I wrote this book, these images hung in my head. These stupid idiots come in with automatic weapons on ATVs, they massacre the elephants, they chainsaw their faces off for the tusks, and they’re gone in 15 minutes. For all the dark that Grace and Knox went through, those are the images that haunted me. When you’re there and you see these animals, just how majestic they are–it’s absolutely despicable.

I want to route some of the money from the book there, and get some people at the end of the book to say, “I’ll send $10 to them”–it doesn’t have to be $100,000. It’s just bizarre to me that this is going on, and none of our grandkids will see elephants except in a reserve or in a zoo. An elephant is being killed every 15 minutes, and has been since I started this and long before I started this.

That was the darkness I lived with. Everything else was manufactured. I’ve done a lot of research over 30 years. I’ve been inside the mind of a lot of devious criminals. I’ve spent time in prisons for the criminally insane. I’ve interviewed forensic psychiatrists who have themselves interviewed 140 mass murderers. I’ll say, this is what my guy did, who is he? And we’ll be eating dinner, and the stuff they describe stops me from eating. So there is darkness. And I pay for it.


This interview originally ran in the July 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

movie: Genius (2016)

I have had a book on my shelf for years called Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, sadly. But you know I was thrilled to see this movie come out. Genius is based on the book: it’s about Max Perkins of Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house, who shepherded the careers of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, among many others.

geniusThis movie is about Perkins’s relationship with Thomas Wolfe (although Fitzgerald and Hemingway make brief appearances). I knew almost nothing about Wolfe when I came to the film, and my impressions of Perkins were hazy, based on what I know of Fitzgerald and Hemingway: I understood him to be a decent, humble, kind man, well-suited to handle such stormy personalities and expert at doing so. He is known to be both a very fine editor and a very fine guardian and guide to the difficult men who were his three most famous writers.

These impressions were held up by the film. Perkins (Colin Firth) is quiet and modest and professional. Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) is wild: noisy, passionate, emotive. Talented, but unrestrained in several senses. He sought a father and Perkins sought a son, and their relationship is characterized as such. Together they produced Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River.

Wolfe’s lover and patron Aline Bernstein, played by Nicole Kidman, is an especially tragic character. The couple’s threats and fights add pathos and drama to that already provided by Perkins’s conflicts with his own wife (he is perhaps overly committed to his work) and the fiery, explosive talent Wolfe sprays across his life and Perkins’s offices. The acting is great – to be expected from such a cast.

Following closely on my viewing of Papa, I saw parallels. Literary talents can be oh so dramatic, and their lives can be woeful, tragic and (again) dramatic. I enjoyed both movies very much, but I confess they often hit the same emotional notes. This strikes me as accurate; but I can see where a viewer less invested than I am could perhaps get a little weary. These are the risks of loving characters like Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe.

For fans of these writers, their work and their community, not to be missed. Very fine acting & production and a fine film all around.


Rating: 8 marks.

The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard

Careful research supports this story of a love affair between Hawthorne and Melville that birthed a classic.

the whale

In 1850, Herman Melville was in debt and struggling professionally, particularly with the novel-in-progress he was then calling The Whale. That summer, on a family trip to the Berkshires, he met the older, successful author Nathaniel Hawthorne, and began a relationship that would be passionate and painful, fraught and inspirational. Mark Beauregard explores the intimate friendship between these two literary legends in The Whale: A Love Story.

Based on primary sources including letters and journals, and meticulously researched, this novelization follows the historical record closely, as detailed in an epilogue. Hawthorne’s letters to Melville, lost to history, are re-created here using his other letters and journal entries; Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, however, are reprinted faithfully (with few, documented exceptions). Melville dives deeper into debt to move to the Berkshires and be near Hawthorne. As they discuss cerebral, spiritual and literary matters, grow close and suffer estrangements, Beauregard charts a full-blown love affair. In this telling, Moby-Dick is a labor of love and obsession directed not at a whale but at a man. Melville’s novel (which was dedicated to Hawthorne) continues to compel and confound readers today, and The Whale: A Love Story offers one possible explanation for its tortured mysteries.

In Beauregard’s fittingly emotive account, Melville is preoccupied and fervent, and Hawthorne is changeable, by turns sensitive and cool. Set against a literary community that helped define American letters of the time, this high-spirited story evokes a singular relationship and the complexity of Moby-Dick.


This review originally ran in the June 17, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 flashes of lightning.
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