A Bookseller is Better Than An Algorithm: In Conversation with Janie Chang
On the rainy night of Tuesday February 7, 2017, Harper Collins Canada writer Janie Chang made her way to A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario. In front of a stalwart audience of readers, Janie read from her celebrated new novel, Dragon Springs Road, and spoke to Rhonda Dynes about her past history, her path to becoming a writer, and the role that historical fiction can play in CanLit. What follows is a condensed and edited version of this conversation.
Rhonda Dynes: I’m going to ask some questions just based on my own reading of Dragon Springs Road, and also my reading a little bit of Three Souls just because I think everyone should be buying both and reading both. So, I’ve put together some questions, but I also hope they might inspire your own questions for afterward.
I’ve taken some Chinese history courses, and I wasn’t really thinking of your book as being fantastical at all, but reflective of the time, that this was a historical fiction and I thought that was interesting. Was it a conscious choice to write historical fiction? Did you sit down saying, “Oh, I could write science fiction, I could write some epic saga, but I’m choosing historical fiction”? Was that always kind of an interest?
Janie Chang: Well, I love historical fiction. I also love science fiction; I’m just not really good with the real world right now. And I think it’s more that my first book was inspired by my grandmother’s life, so it ended up of course being historical fiction. Her life had always haunted me, and I always knew that if I ever got around to becoming an author, my first novel would be about her. When you do the research and you start digging up Chinese history, what was actually going on, the political changes, the social changes, you know, the east meets west kind of conflicts — there was just so much material to work with, and I feel as though I haven’t really worked my way through it. Plus, I come from a family with a long tradition of storytelling about my ancestors. My father’s family has a recorded genealogy of thirty-six generations going back to the tenth century, and so he told me a lot of stories about my ancestors. Given so much to draw from, how could I not write historical fiction?
RD: And in that way, was your family supportive of sharing, of your putting these stories together?
JC: Well first of all, I’m totally chicken, so every one of the characters that might have been based on someone in my family, that family member is no longer with us, so I don’t have to deal with the problems that people have right now when they write memoirs, and their aunt cuts them off. No, I don’t really have that problem. And you know, my father came from a family with very strong scholarly traditions, and he practiced the three arts, the three gentlemanly hobbies of calligraphy, painting, and writing poetry. So even though it was really important for me to go to university and earn a living — I have a degree in computer science — I think it would have really pleased my father to know that I’ve gone back to something that’s genetically in our family, I would say.
RD: We were talking about that a bit before, because I have a friend who also has a degree in computer science but went off to LA to become an actor. I think a lot of people say to her, “Those pursuits are so different.” I don’t think they’re necessarily different; I think it’s more just sometimes we’re pulled in one direction or another. It sounds like you kind of always wanted to write?
JC: Yes. I think I always knew that I some point I would write a novel, but I also knew that I wanted to be able to support myself, so that’s how I ended up with a computer science degree. But I think what happens is, after a while, I think women especially tend to put their dreams on the backburner, and everyone else and everything else takes precedence. If you push it off, keep pushing it off for so long, it becomes soul-destroying, and you know you have to do something about fulfilling that other part of who you are. For me, the catalyst came when, several years ago, we had to move my mother into care, because she has very advanced dementia now. When you go into a care home that often and you look around at all the people who live there, you wonder what became of their dreams. Did they ever do everything that they wanted to do, and do I want to be 95 years old in my rocking chair thinking why didn’t I try harder? So, yeah that kind of lit the fire.
RD: And I think it carries over into both novels. Both novels have, as you say, characters who have a lot of conflict, but both protagonists are extremely strong characters, and I think they’re sort of tempered even though sometimes they have to make confusing life choices. Was it important for you to portray these historical fiction stories, portray these women in a specific way?
JC: I think for me it was really important that their behaviour should be consistent with women of their class and educational status, plus the times. For example, sometimes I get emails from readers who say, “Oh, I wish your character had been more of a feminist.” But I think that our version of feminism, if I wrote that into a character at the turn of the twentieth century in China, she would have been an anachronism. I think that you can show that a woman is strong in other ways. In Three Souls, for example, we have a very strong woman stepmother, who actually gets her own way a lot, but it’s because she’s working behind the scenes to persuade, to influence, to manipulate, until finally the males in the family think it’s their own idea. But that’s very real for the way women had to try and mould the situation around them before. I think also that in terms of being strong, maybe my characters are not heroic in an epic kind of way, but I think that they’re heroic in the way that women have always been in societies where they’re not so enlightened; they’re heroic in that they have endured a lot for the sake of the ones they love.
RD: Chronologically, Three Souls takes place after Dragon Springs Road. What I found interesting is that there are a lot of mirrors in Chinese history that are happening, and these women protagonists, in some ways, even if their lives appear very small, are impacted by these larger events. Even when we think about integrating the sort of mythological fox character, as opposed to trying to become a modern woman in early twentieth century, I found there were some mirrors that were going on. I’m just curious, was it a natural reflection or was it when you were doing your research, you were trying to say how a woman might respond to the way history was unfolding?
JC: Yes. Because the truth of the matter is that progress does not move in lock step in a country the size of China. In much the same way that even now, urban China is vastly different from rural China, and rural China in the very prosperous south is vastly different from rural China in the northwest, which is very arid and poor, except for mining. And so, again, it depends on the type of family, the level of education and wealth, as to how women can take advantage of the social and political changes that were sweeping through China, or not. Or they could choose to be blind to the changes, or they could try and take advantage of them. I was at a book event with Shilpi Somaya Gowda the author of Secret Daughter and The Golden Son, and we were chatting about China and India, and she said that her aunt liked to say that India lives in many centuries at one time. I think that is also true for China, because it’s such a big country, and people have so many different belief systems.
RD: You have a variety of characters I think who grapple with all of those belief systems. Jialing tries to share bits of her story with people — I’m thinking later in the novel of Shay, the detective. When we think of the sort of typical, I want to say “Chinese gangster private detective,” they’re very modern, and yet I really liked that this character was much more open than that stereotype. I found that an unique and refreshing way of thinking here’s someone who really wants an answer, but who doesn’t want the answer he’s supposed to get.
JC: And I really hope that I set it up in a way that it was believable that he’s a British policeman who ends up, by choice, living in China, living in Shanghai, even though it’s detrimental to his marriage. So you have to believe that he has some love for or found the culture very appealing, so he was more open.
RD: I’m sure that there might be some other writers or writers in training out there, and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your writing process. I know you’ve hinted at lots of research, but how long did it take you to write Three Souls and Dragon Springs Road?
JC: Well, I think that it probably took me about a year and a half to get to a decent enough manuscript that I felt I could share it with my agent. And then a little bit more tinkering. I’d say it took a couple of years for each book. Having said that, it was a couple of years of writing every night, six nights a week, and my husband was very, very supportive. He said, “If this is what you want to do, I will make dinner every night.” So he did. He also offered to do the housekeeping, and I won’t go into how well he did that. But that’s really what it took, because a hundred thousand words doesn’t just happen like that. It’s not like cramming for midterms. And you probably write two hundred thousand words and throw away half of it before you’re done with the final manuscript. When I talk in front of students, they always ask, “What do you think is the most important thing for a writer?” The other writers and I just look at each other, and we say, “Butt glue.” So that’s the process, and that could be doing the research, reading the non-fiction, reading the reference, or typing away, or staring at a blank screen, but you just have to make that a part of your routine because now it’s your job.
RD: You had to read lots of non-fiction. Is that what you prefer to read yourself?
JC: I prefer fiction. I don’t like the real world at all. But in terms of the research, the experience of the research for Dragon Springs Road was quite different from Three Souls, because Three Souls was based so much on family history. I had a lot of confidence on how to write about the family dynamics of families who were similar to my own — I understood that. So really, a lot of the research that I did was to validate timelines and events that happened and to make sure that if there was something monumentally significant happening in China at the time, the characters were somehow affected by it or at least responded to it, because otherwise it wouldn’t have seemed realistic.
With Dragon Springs Road, when I decided to create a character who was a Eurasian orphan, I ran into a real roadblock, because for Eurasians who are wealthy or middle-class or had some stature, their lives were documented either publically or privately. The poor or the orphans, they were unwanted and they were unacknowledged, so nobody bothered writing about them contemporaneous with their time. It was only after a friend of mine who is a professor in Asian history said, “Why don’t you check out the memoirs and journals of female missionaries of that time?” That was when I sort of hit the motherlode. Even then it was a very tiny motherlode because it was just snippets of information, but it really confirmed what I suspected for a girl like Jialing, which was that if they were lucky, they ended up in a mission school, they got some education, got some training, which might have helped them have a better life. But most of them, the girls were sold into brothels, or they were bonded into, well, really, sweatshops, child labour — I mean, in Victorian England, child labour was going on at the same time, too, right. So that really validated what I suspected was a very cruel and brutal time for someone like Jialing.
RD: I thought that something really interesting was this girl, Jialing, is sort of left in the wing of this house, and her world is so small in some ways. And yet her powers of observation really grow to the point that I didn’t question her. She doesn’t even know what town she’s in; she knows a little bit of her history, and that just sort of grows through the novel, whereas in Three Souls, the protagonist is in a big city, knows everything about the culture, and through the novel her world gets smaller, and in fact ends up almost in just this one space.
JC: That’s a really interesting and astute observation, Rhonda, because Three Souls is based on my grandmother’s life, and she came from a very wealthy and very intellectual family, a very sophisticated family where they put on literary salons in their homes and so on. She wanted to go on to university and become a teacher, which to us is a fairly modest ambition. But because she was a daughter of a certain type of family, her marriage was going to be all sorted out by her parents, and when she tried to run away to go to school she was caught and dragged back, and her father, in a fit of anger, married her off in two weeks flat to a complete stranger in a little town in the back of beyond — to a man who was not her intellectual equal, and I always thought that was really sad. She ended up leading a very cloistered life in the four walls of a courtyard, and you’re right — with Jialing, she starts off in the cloistered life of a courtyard, and through education, through the fox spirit, she sees the world, really, larger and larger.
RD: I only have one more question, and it’s about Authors for Indies. I wanted to know how that process started. What got you interested in being more actively engaged in supporting indie bookstores?
JC: Before you become an author, and you’re just an avid reader, you go to the library, you order books from Amazon, you go into Chapters Indigo, you go to your local bookstore, and you just love bookstores, and you never really think about it. Once you learn more about the publishing industry, and because of my business background I’m always interested in business models, you start looking at what’s going on, and realize the little stores that you love are really suffering. I mean the big chains are suffering, too, but they have more resources to draw on. But the little stores are suffering, and it was also really obvious to me that it was the little stores where the books are curated, where the books by emerging authors and Canadian authors are getting a lot of support, and where you can go in and talk to someone who’s really knowledgeable and who will remember what you love to read. A bookseller is better than an algorithm.
And then I was reading about the American Bookseller’s Association, and they were doing this thing called Indies First, where bookstores were hosting volunteer authors who would come in and pretend to be a bookseller for a day, which is like every author’s daydream. And I thought — fatal last words — how hard could that be? If I just get like a nice little website built, how hard could that be? And I was only going to do it for BC at first, because I really didn’t think that it would spread across Canada. But I set up the website so that if other provinces wanted to join in, they could, and in our first year we had more than a hundred bookstores and almost seven hundred authors sign up for the event. And across the board, the participating bookstores made eighteen percent more on that day than on a regular Saturday. The second year, I had a developer put together a better website that would be more sustainable, and we’re going to do it again this year. But I know you already love and support Ian and his staff in the bookstore, and you really must because without this sort of cultural centre to the community, where would you be, where would your children and grandchildren go to sit in a corner and fall in love and live other lives?