When Dana Sachs asked me to be one of her writers in The Next Big Thing, an author interview project, I immediately thought back to a trip I took to San Francisco back in 2009. I was on a ferry from Napa back to San Francisco, sitting next to my husband Tom but fully engrossed in Dana’s memoir, The House on Dream Street (Seal, 2003). Even the beauty of the Bay Bridge couldn’t keep me from Dana’s book. So it was a like a dream come true when she asked me to participate in The Next Big Thing. Dana’s new novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace (William Morrow, 2013) is just as magical as her memoir.
I also enjoyed her first novel, If You Lived Here (William Morrow, 2008), which I’ll get back to in a bit. Dana’s interview for The Next Big Thing is here. She answers questions about The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, which I loved and recently reviewed here. Her new novel takes place in New York, Memphis, and–where else–San Francisco. If you’re looking for a book to take on spring break (or just for home, which is where I’m going to spend my kids’ spring break), The Secret of the Nightingale Palace is a perfect choice. It’s a quick, intelligent, touching, and heart-wrenching story.
And now for my interview questions. I’ll follow them with a couple of authors to look out for!
What is your working title of your book?
Good Chinese Wife. I originally used the title, Boundary Street, because it represented the border between mainland China and British Hong Kong way back when. I thought Boundary Street was a fitting metaphor for the East meets West of my first marriage. So when I started writing my memoir, I commissioned a fabulous Hong Kong photographer to snap a photo to serve as inspiration.
Of course, few people would understand the meaning behind Boundary Street. And the street itself was not significant to the story, so I changed it to A Good Chinese Wife before a friend suggested I ax the “A” and keep it as Good Chinese Wife.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
As long as I’ve been perfecting my elevator pitch, I still can’t get it down to one sentence without sounding like I’m one to completely ignore punctuation. So here goes: Good Chinese Wife is a memoir of the five years I spent trying to assimilate into Chinese family life after quickly jumping into marriage with a musician from central China. I thought I could handle cultural differences like eating sea slugs and showering once a week in the winter to conserve water. But it wasn’t until I married that I found myself reevaluating what I thought it meant to be a wife, have a family, and later to raise a child, even if it entailed leaving my Chinese family.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
I’ve had this idea for thirteen years. After I left my first husband in San Francisco, my divorce attorney asked me to send her a written description of all that went wrong in that marriage. In the event that our case went to court, she would need to know the whole story. This was in 2000, and I was newly separated and living with my parents. They had an old computer in their basement, so instead of camping out downstairs, I decided to handwrite my story on lined paper. It spanned 67 pages. I read it a few times before sending it to my lawyer, and thought it would make a good memoir. I was also inspired by a couple of books because they included some minor characters that reminded me of my ex-husband.
What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a memoir. The sub-genre would be a travel and relationship memoir.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Ooh. This is getting fun. If I may indulge myself, I’d love to have Byron Mann play the Li character. Byron is a versatile actor who is originally from Hong Kong and works in North America and Asia. He played Silver Lion last year in the badass movie, The Man With the Iron Fists. He’s also in the TV show, Arrow, and made cinematic waves years ago as Ryu in Streetfighter with Jean-Claude Van Damme. And for my female lead, I’d love for Scarlett Johansson to play her (if she’d be willing to dye her hair dark and dress down a ton). I think she and Byron Mann would have amazing chemistry, but would also be able to rock those tense parts of the story. A girl can dream, right?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I am represented by the fabulous Carrie Pestritto at Prospect Agency. I’ve spent the past year revising with Carrie and it’s been nothing but pure joy and great fun. Carrie is not only an incredible editor, she also has a wicked sense of humor because she submitted my memoir to publishers on Valentine’s Day! Please be sure to check out her amazing blog here.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Let’s just say I could write a manual on how not to go about querying agents. I spent a year writing to agents with a proposal and only 50 pages of my memoir. That was back in 2008. I’d read that agents would only want 50 pages and a proposal for any non-fiction project so they could help the writer craft the rest of the manuscript. But as I found out, the agents who were interested in my story wanted the full manscript. And I didn’t have that. So I spent 2009 finishing it and another year or two polishing it with an independent editor after several rounds of querying agents.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Getting back to Dana Sachs, I thought her memoir, The House on Dream Street, had many elements similar to my story. We both moved to Asia as young women and didn’t gravitate toward other expats. In her case, there weren’t many. And in mine, I chose to live in areas without large expat populations. Rachel DeWoskin’s Foreign Babes in Beijing is a bit similar to my story in that it takes place during the very years I lived in Hong Kong. She dated a Chinese guy and experienced some of the same frustrations I did in my first marriage. Among published authors, Dana Sachs and Rachel DeWoskin are my role models for women who moved to Asia and have written about their relationships with Asian men. I have a couple of other inspirations I’ll write about at the end of this interview!
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I thought back to when I was in my early twenties and anxious to move to Hong Kong to recreate myself. I hadn’t dated much in the US and went to Hong Kong thinking that I understood Chinese culture from the college year I spent there and a few trips to mainland China. And in my mind this included Chinese dating culture, which as it turned out, I knew nothing about. So I’m writing this book for women like my younger self as well as anyone who is interested in intercultural relationships. I wish there had been a memoir like Good Chinese Wife when I was younger.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
My story takes place just before China becomes an economic powerhouse. I married six years after Tiananmen, and before people in China had email and widespread cell phone use. So it gives readers a sense of what China was like in the transition between Mao and money.
What writers should we keep an eye out for?
This is so exciting for me to answer! Continuing with the themes I alluded to in Dana’s introduction above, I am thrilled to introduce Jocelyn Eikenburg and Amy Rogers Nazarov.
Jocelyn Eikenburg is a blogger extraordinaire on Speaking of China. She is the authority on relationships between Chinese men and Western women, and is writing a memoir about her big move to China and how she became a yangxifu, or Western wife of a Chinese man. Jocelyn is an expert on books that center on these relationships. In one post, she compiled a list of memoirs that include Dana Sachs’ The House on Dream Street. She also writes for Matador, Asian Jewish Life, and Global Times.
Amy Rogers Nazarov is a writer and foodie based in Washington, DC. She blogs at Word Kitchen and recently wrote an essential and courageous article for the Washington Post about post-partum depression after adopting her son from South Korea. Amy has also written for the Washington Post Express, Cooking Light magazine, and many other publications. She is currently working a memoir about her bout of post-partum depression after adopting her son, which brings me back to Dana Sachs. In her first novel, If You Lived Here, Dana writes about a couple who find themselves on opposing sides when it comes to adopting a little boy from Vietnam.
I would like to thank Dana again, and also Amy and Jocelyn! I can’t wait to read their interviews next week!