My author of the month for July isn’t one, but many, who all contributed to the 15th edition of Imprint, the annual anthology of the Hong Kong Women in Publishing Society, which celebrates WIPS’ 25th year.
To check out Imprint, click on here.
For my June author, I thought I would feature someone I’ve been fond of for many years but who is no longer with us. I first heard of Eleanor Frances Lattimore more than ten years ago when a friend gave my son Jake an old copy of the children’s book, Little Pear.
I soon found more books in the series as well as others she’d written about China. Some were published in the 1930s–pre-PRC–and many afterwards. Her stories set in China are very culturally-sensitive and show China from eyes of a young child. Little Pear is always getting into trouble with his best friend, Big Head. The boys live in the countryside, but ride a donkey to school.
I was curious about Eleanor Lattimore, so I did a little research and learned that she was born in Shanghai in 1904. Her father taught at a university there, but when he was offered a job at Dartmouth in 1920–when Eleanor was 16–the family returned to the US.
She must have had a fabulous memory because her books set in China are so vivid and make it seem like she was writing from the countryside there. I don’t see any record that she returned to China–at least not to live–after she repatriated to the US in her teenage years.
Travis Lee is the author of five novels and has lived in Hubei province, where I spent a lot of time in the 1990s. It’s not often that I come across another writer who knows that province well, so I was curious about his thoughts about writing about Hubei province and the pros and cons of being known as a China writer. Please read on to learn more about Travis Lee and his writing process!
Susan B-K: You spent quite a bit of time in Wuhan and other parts of Hubei Province. That comes across in your writing. Do you feel that the interior of China is well-represented in English literature, or is there still a need for more?
Travis Lee: As far as I know, there aren’t any novels set in Hubei. When it comes to the rest of the interior, there’s Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside by Quincy Carroll, which is set in Hunan. Maybe Harvest Season? Otherwise, I can’t think of anything else.
There is a need for more in the sense that I wish there was more expat fiction set in China. Good fiction that tells the truth about daily life without relying on clichés or acting like you’re in a zoo the size of a large country. Just honest writing that says, Hey, this is what I see. Take it or leave it. Harvest Season and South China Morning Blues both did that very well.
SBK: When you write about China, what are a few important messages you hope to convey?
TL: I prefer it if people find their own messages. That being said, the only thing close to a message is honesty, as in I don’t want to mislead people about China. I don’t want to romanticize life over there or exploit any “wacky China” tropes.
SBK: Can you discuss your writing process? Do you outline your stories first or do you take a relatively small idea and go from there?
TL: For the first draft, I start with a small idea. I tried to outline once and ended up not finishing the story because in a way, I had already finished; I knew everything that was going to happen.
That’s why I think writing truly occurs on a subconscious level. Your muse speaks and you take notes on what she’s kind enough to give you. As an example, there’s a scene later in The Pale Ancient & the House of Mirrors in which Daniel interviews the widow of a high school principal murdered during the Cultural Revolution. It borrows from the documentary Though I Am Gone, about the murder of Bian Zhongyun.
I wrote that scene on an aircraft carrier. I’m in the Navy, and we were underway twenty-five days getting qualified to go on deployment. In my job, we work twelve hour days. I knew the scene was coming, and all day, it was just under the surface of my mind, little details. I did not actively think about it.
Once I was off work, I went to the ship’s library. It’s right below the flight deck and you could hear the arresting gear snapping as planes landed. I had just worked twelve hours with another twelve tomorrow and twelve more each day for the next fifteen days. All I wanted to do was go to bed, but I sat down with my laptop, put in my headphone (we’re allowed to wear only one, in order to hear ship’s announcements) and wrote.
And the scene came out perfectly. I finished the whole thing and then some, and I didn’t plot it out beforehand. My mind worked out the details and I just put it into words.
SBK: What do you feel about writers who are pigeonholed into a certain subject matter or genre? In other words, would you mind if you were known as a China writer? Or even one who writes about non-conventional parts of China? Not to sound too corporate, but I personally think it’s a good thing when an author has a brand and becomes the go-to for a certain topic. But not all authors agree!
TL: It’s unavoidable when you write enough about one topic. You don’t have much control over it anyways. I write in different genres, but if I’m a so-called “China writer”, that’s great. I’ve written five novels set in Hubei Province, so I have no problem with that.
What I do have a problem with is the perception that no one outside of the expat community cares about these stories. Someone once told me that no one would read my book unless they’d lived in China.
That’s absurd. It’s like saying that nobody would read A Confederacy of Dunces unless they’d lived in 1960s New Orleans.
Going along with that, if you’re in China and you’re writing a novel about an ESL teacher, at some point somebody is probably going to tell you that no one cares, that scene is so old, nobody wants to read about it. Ignore them. They don’t know your vision. You might have an original take on it, and you won’t know until you write it.
SBK: Finally, what are some books in your to-read pile?
TL: Here’s the next five I hope to get to:
Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside by Quincy Carroll, Countdown City the Last Policeman Trilogy Book 2, The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu, The Book of Chuang Tzu, and Beckett’s Fin de Partie.
I am so excited to feature Mary Glickman as my author of the month. I came across Mary’s first novel, Home in the Morning (Open Road Media, 2010) over five years ago and have been hooked ever since. Mary’s first three novels have taken place in the South, whereas her latest, An Undisturbed Peace (Open Road Media, 2016) is set also in the plain states.
Her books are special not only for their fascinating historical settings, but for me mainly for the cross-cultural relationships that feature strongly in all of them. Mary has been so grateful to discuss her books and writing habits with me here.
Susan Blumberg-Kason: Your novels all involve unlikely romantic relationships, usually between Jewish men and African-American women, or in the case of your latest, A Undisturbed Peace, a Jewish man and Native American woman. How did you come to write about cross-cultural relationships?
Mary Glickman: First off, Susan, I’m not sure how unlikely they are. Men and women have been falling in love with the “wrong” person forever! Overall, I’m very concerned with race in my novels, particularly as I set them in the deep South, and you can’t write about the South without writing about race. I’m not sure you can write about America without writing about race. It has long seemed to me that the ultimate answer to our racial problems is not to be found in social programs but in the blending of families and communities. Cross-cultural relationships are the seeds of racial harmony. This is not to say I believe people should sacrifice their cultural origins for the sake of another’s whom they love. That’s an entirely different matter. To be stripped of your culture – as Native Americans were during the mid 19th century and beyond – has tragic consequences always. But the idea that love will find a way, while a romantic one, has fueled human activity since our beginnings.
SBK: Your books are all historical fiction, which take place either in the small-town American South or the plain states. You are from Boston and now live in Charleston, SC, which are both internationally renowned. Why small-town America?
MG: I grew up in a small town outside of Boston and only moved to the urban area when I was an adult. Charleston, though sophisticated, retains a Southern gentility that captures a small town flair, and in any event I live in a sea marsh island outside of Charleston, not in the city itself. So the ethos of small town America is well known to me and I prefer it to an urban one. I like to write about deep passions and strong friendships played out against defining historical moments. Small town America lends itself to quiet, thoughtful moments and bold outlines. This makes them hospitable to my themes in a way metropoli are not. Big cities nearly always compete with protagonists in fiction. They beg to become characters themselves. I prefer mine on two legs and with beating hearts.
SBK: How long does it usually take you to research the history for each of your books? Does it take longer to conduct research or actually write your books?
MG: Usually I have an introductory research phase that may last a couple of months. Even then, I steal away from research texts to begin a narrative as what I learn will spark images if not defined plot. Once I have enough of those, I can begin to imagine a story. At that point, the crafting of fiction and the absorption of fact work in tandem. While I write my story, I’m constantly learning more and more about the era and events that initially intrigued me, so the writing and research go hand in hand. I try to learn only what I need to know to put my characters through their paces. To over-research can cripple the imagination. Naturally, this means I might have to backtrack in the manuscript and tweak what historical details I’ve found later to be incorrect, but that happens less often than you’d expect. Sometimes, I intuit an attitude or event while writing and then have the felicitous experience of having it substantiated by research later on. That’s always a thrilling moment. It gives me confidence that I’ve tapped into the zeitgeist of the times I’m writing about.
SBK: What do you think about being known as the author who writes Southern historical fiction? I’ve heard other authors say they don’t want to be pigeonholed into a certain topic or setting. But I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. Branding is more important than ever in publishing. What are your thoughts about this?
MG: I’ve been realizing lately that historical fiction is my métier. I’m not much of a modernist. I’m finding that my themes and characters are more easily placed in times gone by than the present. I hope to continue to write Southern historical fiction, because the South is my home and its literary conventions are comfortable and inspiring to me. I will write them with a Jewish eye, because that’s who I am. If it so happens that this appeases the gods of branding, than it’s a happy accident.
SBK: What is next? Will you have more books set in the plain states, or are you heading back to the South?
MG: I’ve been encouraged lately to continue the life of Dark Water, my Cherokee heroine in An Undisturbed Peace, as she’s a strong and attractive persona, an icon of sorts. That would take me out West where she’s been relocated after the Trail of Tears. I have to say I loved writing her so it’s very tempting to think about! Maybe I’ll find a way to bring Southern Jews into it. On the other hand, maybe I’ll write something completely different. I’ve launched four novels in five and a half years. I need to pull back and think a little. Just not sure yet!
I’ve an old unpublished manuscript sitting in a drawer for nearly forty years. It’s a biblical novel and it’s very good. I often think about bringing that one out. It would need reworking, but not too much. Only, I don’t know if my agent or publisher would go for it! They like what I’ve been doing very much. They’d like to see me continue. They’ve been so kind and supportive of me. . .I probably owe them what they want! I wouldn’t consider doing so being pigeonholed. My mind can embrace a hundred worlds without feeling compromised. But we’ll see, we’ll see.
Thank you so much, Mary! For more about Mary and her novels, please check out her website here.