The author of Shanghai Girls brings back three of her favorite characters in a new novel set during one of China’s darkest periods.
Dreams of Joy is a sequel to one of your previous novels, Shanghai Girls. What made you decide to revisit that story and its characters?
I didn’t plan to write a sequel. I thought the end of Shanghai Girls was a new beginning. Readers thought otherwise. Absolutely everyone, including my publisher, asked for a sequel. I loved spending more time with Pearl, Joy and May. I’ve now been thinking and writing about them for four years, so I know them really, really well. It was interesting to go even deeper emotionally with all of them.
This novel offers a vivid picture of the hardships endured by the Chinese people during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. How did you conduct your research and what obstacles did you encounter?
There are a handful of nonfiction books written about the Great Leap Forward, which helped me with the straight facts. When I was in China, I interviewed people in Huangcun Village who had lived through that time. I also talked to younger people in China to see what their impressions were of the Great Leap Forward and what their parents had gone through. The main obstacle I encountered, even with young, educated people, is the belief—after years of education—that the famine that occurred during the Great Leap Forward was caused by “three years of bad weather.”
All of your books are rooted in fact and real historical events, so why do you choose to write fiction rather than nonfiction?
What I love about books—as a reader myself—is opening the pages, stepping into another world, connecting to the characters, and by extension to larger things like an historical moment, the human condition, how women were treated and things like that. I’m willing to go on a journey and read about history if there are characters, relationships and emotions I can connect to. It’s those things that keep me turning the pages, and along the way I learn a lot. That’s what I love in the books I read, and that’s what I hope for readers of the books I write.
Your fiction has opened a new window on China and its people for many American readers. Do you feel that there are any stereotypes about China that continue to persist despite your efforts?
I actually think people are very confused about China. Is it an economic global superpower or a rigid Communist country known for its human rights violations? Is it one of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of gender equality or is it a place where people give up their daughters for adoption? Is it the country with the third largest number of millionaires and billionaires in the world or a country of dire poverty? On any given day, any stereotype can be accurate, even in this country.
The movie version of your novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan will premiere this summer. How does it feel to see your characters come to life on the screen?
It’s both wonderful and weird. The parts of the film that are true to the book are absolutely true—lifted word for word from the novel. But I’m sure that many readers of the book will be just as surprised as I was to see a singing and dancing Hugh Jackman.
Dreams of Joy makes plenty of references to the Chinese Zodiac: Dogs are likeable, Rabbits are friendly, Dragons are ferocious. Your Chinese zodiac sign is the Sheep; how well do you think you embody your sign?
A Sheep really loves home. I also love to be at home. It’s one of the reasons I became a writer. I can stay at home all day.
What is the most important thing you have learned about writing from your mother, novelist Carolyn See?
Her work habits. Write 1,000 words a day, plus one charming note or phone call.
Your Chinese heritage is obviously very important to you as a writer; are there any other Chinese (or Chinese-American) writers that you feel deserve wider readership?
I love Ha Jin and Yiyun Li. They’re both critically acclaimed, but they haven’t had the readership they deserve.
With bookstores closing and eBooks and self-publishing exploding, the literary world is in a period of rapid change. Are you concerned about what the future holds for books and reading?
Of course I’m concerned. Who isn’t? I love real books, but I also have a Kindle that I use on trips. As soon as I come home, though, I’m back to a real book.