I am beyond thrilled to interview author Kelli Estes, whose novel The Girl Who Wrote in Silk (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2015) just came out yesterday. I absolutely adore her book because it has everything I love in a novel: a couple of love stories involving Chinese and non-Chinese characters; a thrilling mystery; an art medium I knew little about; and a captivating setting. I had many questions after finishing her book, so am honored to have had the chance to interview Kelli. Please read on to learn more about her story and her publishing journey.
You grew up in Washington State and write about it in The Girl Who Wrote in Silk with the expertise of a local. How did you become so familiar with Chinese culture and the history of the Chinese in America? Have you always had a fascination with Chinese culture or was it something that came to you later, as an adult?
You may be surprised to learn that my fascination with the Chinese culture began with this book. I knew absolutely nothing about the Chinese culture but had to start learning once I realized there was no other way to tell this story. Chinese people were smuggled into the U.S. after the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and it was rumored that one smuggler chose to dispose of his Chinese cargo by dumping their bodies overboard rather than being caught by the authorities. That was the spark that stuck with me and ignited this story. I resisted at first, thinking I wasn’t qualified to write about the Chinese culture or, especially, from the point of view of a Chinese character, but I eventually embraced the fact that this story needed to be told and I was the one with the burning drive to do so. I spent a couple years reading everything I could get my hands on regarding the Chinese culture, as well as visiting museums such as The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle. Like all things in life, the more we understand something, the more we come to love it.
The United States recently celebrated Loving Day, or the anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, which outlawed bans against interracial marriage. Did you set out to write about cross-cultural relationships when you first came up with the idea for The Girl Who Wrote in Silk? You not only have two characters—Mei Lien and Joseph—in a cross-cultural marriage in the late 1800s, but also Daniel and Inara in contemporary times.
No, I did not set out to write about cross-cultural relationships, yet when I realized that’s where the story was heading, I loved that added dimension. I enjoyed exploring how the contemporary relationship had it so much easier than the historical. We still have a way to go in this country, but we really have come far in our acceptance, and celebration, of all kinds of relationships.
Your characters are so rich and varied: orphaned Mei Lien, strong and silent Joseph, hateful Duncan, determined Inara, her complicated father, and heart-throb Daniel, to name just some. Which character was easiest to write and which was the most difficult?
By far the easiest character to write was Mei Lien. Surprising isn’t it, considering I started out feeling so out of my depth writing from a Chinese point of view! This is where my research really came through for me. I loved weaving (no pun intended!) the cultural beliefs I learned about into her thoughts and actions. I’ve written historical characters before, so thinking like a woman from the 19th century felt comfortable to me. [Spoiler Alert!] But it was through Mei Lien’s love for her son where I really connected with her. I have two boys of my own, so it was easy to put myself in her shoes.
As for who was the most difficult to write, that was Inara. I’m really not sure why she was so difficult for me, but every one of my over a dozen rewrites addressed making her character more likable, more believable, more whatever.
The details of the embroidered robe are stunning. Why did you choose a silk robe over other types of art like painting or ceramics? Did you have an interest in embroidery or traditional Chinese clothing?
As I was plotting this story I knew I needed a physical object to tie my two time periods together and I couldn’t come up with anything that felt like it hadn’t been done before. I took the problem to my plotting group and one of my plotting partners had the answer for me. Apparently, tourists in China can purchase framed embroidered sleeve bands from Han and Manchu women’s jackets. These sleeve bands were much wider than that of the horsehoof cuff in my story, but it was enough to point me in the right direction for my research. Once I started reading about embroidery, I was fascinated by the intricacy and technique involved. Before my research I thought of embroidery as being a nice hobby. I learned it is true artistry. The further I delved into traditional Chinese garments the more I was impressed by their beautifully embroidered silk robes and jackets, each with significant meaning, which is why I designed Mei Lien’s robe as I did.
How long did it take you to research and write The Girl Who Wrote in Silk? Can you tell us a little about your publishing journey?
In all this story took four years to complete. This includes all the time I spent researching (Chinese culture, embroidery, the expulsions, etc.), the actual writing time, and several rounds of revisions.
This manuscript is my first published but it was the sixth complete manuscript I’ve written. Even though those first five will likely never see the light, they were necessary. I consider that time to be my “apprenticeship” in writing because I learned so much from every manuscript and every writer and industry professional I came in contact with. This manuscript was a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) literary contest in 2012 which meant I got to wear a “Finalist” ribbon on my name badge at the conference. When I sat down for my 3-minute pitching sessions with agents and editors that ribbon acted like a vetting process, telling them I knew what I was doing. My agent today was one of those I pitched to at that conference, though it took several months and a full revision before she signed me on. Once the manuscript was ready, my agent sent it out to editors at several publishing houses. In a funny coincidence, the editor that ended up buying the book was one who found my manuscript on the desk of the editor whose job she took on after he left. That original editor was another professional to whom I pitched at the same PNWA conference.
Do you plan to write more novels with a Chinese theme?
I don’t have any stories in mind at the moment, but I’m open to it.
Thank you so much, Kelli! What fabulous answers. For more information about The Girl Who Wrote in Silk, check out the Amazon listing here. And for more about Kelli, check out her beautiful website here.