Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Author Interview: Jennifer Cody Epstein

I'm happy to be a part of Jennifer Cody Epstein's blog tour for The Painter From Shanghai.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your journey towards becoming a published author?

Up until writing this book, I was a student (undergrad Asian Studies/English major, then graduate degrees in International Relations and Fiction) who went on to be a journalist working mostly in Asia. I always knew that I wanted to write fiction, though; I remember asking my dad at around 6 or 7 what kind of job "thinking about stuff and comparing it to other stuff" (e.g., "the windshield wipers on the window sounded like a sad woman") was; I was talking about metaphors, but of course I didn't have the word then. I clarified it more fully for myself at 12, when I was chosen to be my middle school's first "Author's Corner" author. I had a short story--about a magic swing set -- "published" outside the principal's office (e.g., stapled on the wall, along with a broody author photo). Everything about the experience seemed right to me. It took meeting my husband (a filmmaker) and turning 30 (which was the age I always planned to write my first novel by--oops) for me to get serious, though.

What inspired you to write The Painter From Shanghai? What was it about Pan Yuliang's work that spoke to you?

Initially, to be honest, it was the paintings themselves that drew me in. I saw one of Pan's self-portraits at the Guggenheim, and when I saw her life's story arc (as it were) I was hooked. I just had to find out what kind of a person makes that extraordinary leap, from doomed prostitute to accomplished post-impressionist. And her work itself does tell much of the story; it's lush, vivid, daring, with very strong lines and unabashed sexuality. It was that personality I tried to connect to within Painter.

What do you love—do you love—the research process that goes into writing historical fiction?

I do I do! I'm a complete research addict, actually. I probably spend about half my time reading and researching, the other half -- which never seems like enough -- writing. What I read tends to depend on the subject, but I'm enough of an academic still that I love the fact that in order to write about a historical topic I need to first learn about it. For Painter I read a lot of contemporary and classical Chinese short stories and novels, a fair amount of Chinese history texts (anything by Jonathon Spence is highly recommended), several English-language novels set in China (Pearl Buck was a surprise discovery for me; I actually really loved a lot of her work) and, of course, books about the painting process and the art world and Paris and Shanghai in the 1920's and 30's. Some of my favorite experiences were tracking down old guidebooks to those cities (I just love old books; one of my dreams is to make enough money to buy a first-edition Wharton or Dickens) and then just immersing myself in them. It was like time travel. For the novel I'm working on now I'm reading a lot about World War II, a lot of classical Japanese novelists (Tanizaki, Mishima, and Dazai--whom I just love) and also trying to brush up my Japanese (I was fairly fluent at one point) to read Japan-based novels and memoirs as well.

Do you have a favorite fascinating tidbit or fact that didn’t make it into the novel but that you’d like to share?

I was very intrigued by the relationship between Xu Beihong (another very flamboyant modern artist from China who spent years in Paris) and his wife, who was the daughter of a very wealthy and refined family in China. They ran away together after he painted her portrait for her parents (I believe she was already engaged at the time), and she followed him to Paris. She was something of his muse (many of his paintings from that period are of her) but they had a very passionate, tempestuous relationship, with infidelities and jealousies on either side. I probably wrote about 40 pages or so just about them before realizing it belonged in another book!

Do you have any research tips (or writing tips for that matter) you’d like to pass along?

With research, I'd give two somewhat opposing bits of advice: don't be afraid to research your butt off, and don't be afraid to start writing long before you feel like you know what you are talking about. It's a complicated dynamic, but I always find that even when I've spent vast amounts of time and writing on some tangent that I don't end up using, it still informs the whole and adds to authenticity. By the same token, you really can't start to "feel" your material until you start to try to write it; so even if you have to leave alot of blanks (in my case, I use footnotes for every "fact", name or whatever that I know I'll need to research later) just start it. Try it out.

In terms of writing, I'd say--similarly--that you shouldn't worry about cutting stuff out. A very wise mentor (Binnie Kirshenbaum) used to tell me that even if you end up losing something you've written, as with the research, it informs what you are doing as a whole--the end product will inevitably be better for your having written that bit. Even if you don't use it. I also never delete anything I cut out permanently; I have a "bits" file (I've heard other people call it a "goddess" file but that's a bit too new-age-y for me) in which I store everything I don't use. In Painter's case it was almost as long as the novel itself! But it's a good thing to have, first off because you never know if you might be able to fit something in later or maybe use it as fodder for a short story or another novel; and second because it doesn't feel like it's just gone into the ether.

What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?

Writing is, for me, a way to connect--both with myself and with other people. I love the meticulousness of it, the meditative aspect of it. And I love the imaginary journey it takes me on. The easiest part of it, for me, is actually the writing itself; once I sit down and find "the zone" it feels like it just pours out (too much, sometimes--which explains all those deletes!). The difficult part is finding the time and getting into the zone when I do find it; I have a terrible attention span (particularly when I haven't slept, which is often as I'm a mom) and if I'm not really focused I easily end up on shopping sites or facebook. (!)

How do you find the time--do you find the time--to keep reading? Do you have any recent favorites?

I do, because I must--I couldn't live without my books. But there isn't nearly enough of it. I generally fit in about twenty minutes or so before i go to sleep at night. More if I can get away with it, but my husband will make me turn my light off at midnight. As for favorites: yes! The German Bride by Joanna Hershon is amazing; Mudbound by Hillary Jordan; The Music is You by Arthur Phillips; Please Excuse My Daughter by Julie Klam....and recently, I read a really rhapsodic historical novel that I just loved: The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y.K. Lee. It's set in 1930's Hong Kong (a city in which I lived for two years) and I think Lee captures it just beautifully.

If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?

Would the supply of money be limitless after 24 hours? I could use it! (!)

Seriously: I think I'd probably go to 1920's Paris. I know it's banal and cliched, but it's just such a rich and amazing era, and the city was a crossection of so many important movements of the world at that time--political, artistic, literary. Plus, I love French food, wine and clothes--so with a limitless supply of money I could do some real damage!

Other blog tour participants:

Tuesday, June 2nd: The Literate Housewife Review

Wednesday, June 3rd: Book-a-Rama

Thursday, June 4th: Book Nut

Monday, June 8th: She is Too Fond of Books

Tuesday, June 9th: S. Krishna’s Books

Wednesday, June 10th: Becky’s Book Reviews

Thursday, June 11th: Redlady’s Reading Room

Monday, June 15th: Dolce Bellezza

Tuesday, June 16th: Peeking Between the Pages

Wednesday, June 17th: A Work in Progress

Thursday, June 18th: Beth Fish Reads

Monday, June 22nd: Pop Culture Junkie

Tuesday, June 23rd: Do They Have Salsa in China?

Wednesday, June 24th: Bookworm with a View

Thursday, June 25th: So Many Precious Books, So Little Time

Friday, June 26th: Savvy Verse and Wit

Monday, June 29th: Nerd’s Eye View

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Suko said...

What an interesting interview! Jennifer Cody Epstein's book The Painter from Shanghai sounds intriguing.

Anonymous said...

Great questions! I particularly liked the time machine one (the answer is great!) and the one about a tidbit that was left out of the book. How weird to travel 40 pages down a literary path and then figure out that this should go in a different book!

Beth F said...

I'm going to hold off reading this until I've finished writing up my review. I don't like to be influence.

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

Great book and insightful interview. I loved the tidbit about Xu Beihong; I hope we see him in another book by Epstein!