Why did you begin with a long novel before ever having any other writing success?
The author of Yang Shen is like the fellow who decided that without ever having constructed a building or a bungalow he could go directly to the erection of a 100-story skyscraper simply because he once built a tolerable doghouse. College bestowed upon me the bubbling assurance that any graduate could write a novel, and the computer has been my codependent enabler of this fallacy. Before computers someone like me could never have written this novel – given the countless mistakes I make, writing a book with paper and a typewriter would take more than one lifetime. An experienced writer can invent characters for a story – Robert Jordan, Pilar, and Pablo, or Atticus, Jem and Scout – and manage them for the length of a novel. But an inexperienced writer might just as well ask for water from the moon as to hazard the creation of dozens, even hundreds, of interesting characters in a single novel. Richard McKenna did that with his first novel The Sand Pebbles, but such exceptions turn up about as often as a Cubs World Series win and themselves contribute to the pathology that says “he could do it, so why can’t I?”
What do you think you should have done differently?
Start by writing stories and poems and submitting them to magazines. When after a few years and many stories written and critiqued by editors and teachers you begin to publish with increasing regularity and chance a short novel. Then several more, until they began to find their way into print. You’re a journeyman writer for a decade or more before you attempt a novel of three or four hundred pages, because only by this time you invent characters and write narrative, description and dialogue without undue difficulty or delay. Your modest readership earns you a following of editors and publishers. Encouraged by the modest success of your first mid-size novel, you write several more, with each one practicing your craft and accumulating more experience. Finally, looking back over your long list of published titles, you decide it’s time for a tour de force of twelve hundred pages, You are ready to take three or four years to write a long novel, supported by your longtime editor and publisher, and confident that your growing audience of readers will want to read your book. By then you may even have learned how to live more comfortably in the company of others so that writing does not need complete isolation from anyone who might still love you.
Would you say that historical fiction is more difficult to write the contemporary fiction?
Not always, from the viewpoint of research. A great deal of contemporary fiction also involves extensive research, but the information is closer at hand. At the same time, writers of historical fiction are challenged less to find plot – history more or less is the plot. Yang Shen’s stringent approach to historical subject, the bias to capture the full scope of events, the obligation to never stray very far from historical fact when imagining characters and events, and the writer’s effort to incorporate historical fact into the narrative seamlessly, add to the complexity.
So, the scope of Yang Shen is larger than just China?
One reviewer noted the story “is painted on a large canvas,” which is a particular object of the novel. Rather than confine the action to a hermetic little corner of the world, which could hardly be a reality for most stories, the novel observes that minor skirmishes along the lower reaches of the Yangtze delta in 1860 were buffeted by influences coming from far away and originating with people and policy quite ignorant of the lighter drama in the delta. So the tale ranges ’round the world, from Shanghai to Peking, and thence to Paris, London, Moscow and Washington, even to Manila.
Doesn’t keeping close to the facts impose a greater burden?
Not on some historical novelists, to wit Frasers Flashman series, where in one book he has Flashman in bed with the Dowager Empress of China. Such books are entertainment and not believable historical fiction. Other writers will keep their interventions within the boundaries of facts when they are known and keep any extrapolations consistent with the known history. In Yang Shen we note that the columns supporting the House of History are so far apart that a novelist could drive wagonloads of fictional detail between them, so we believe it is not necessary for our narrative to drift into historical fantasy. And we are pleased that a historian like Pam Crossley, who wrote about the Manchu in The Orphan Warriors and ought to know, agrees and praises the book as “historically convincing, and very, very lively!”
What do you mean by “seamlessly” get historical facts into narrative?
Poorly done incongruent facts call attention to themselves and distract the reader. Often writers are content to employ random facts as little more than window-dressing for setting a scene. “More and more men poured into the street putting on coats and hats, many already armed with pistols and muskets, a few with the latest American breech-loading rifles” is an example from Clavell’s Gaijin. The unfortunate image of “streets putting on coats” is only a distraction when “latest American breech-loading rifles” stands out as a fact clumsily calling attention to itself. An alternative like “the crowd grew with men struggling into coats and hats, nervously fingering pistols and muskets or breech-loading rifles” assimilates the historical fact quietly but without losing the import of the fact; the gaffe really is the word “latest” and, once removed, the fact becomes more demure. Clavell also mentions Yedo, “which one day would be called Tokyo.”
How do you “seamlessly” get historical facts into narrative?
The method of deftly blending historical fact into narrative and dialogue I call “assimilation.” As an example take this snippet from Yang Shen that underwent assimilative surgery. “The buoys at the Lang Shan crossing, which had just recently been placed by H. M. S. Bouncer after Admiral Hope’s expedition to Nanking, were visible in the distance.” Here the sentence is both encumbered and unbalanced by historical trivia that serves no purpose; it’s also ambiguous about what was placed, the buoys or the crossing. “In the distance they could see the recently placed buoys at the Lang Shan crossing.” This sentence calls attention to itself with unexplained trivia. Why should I care they’re recently placed? “Recently” acts like “latest” in Clavell’s example and calls attention to the planting of a fact. “The pilot gave the signal to slow as the Triton approached the Lang Shan crossing. ‘Why are we slowing?’ asked a passenger. ‘Of all the shifting shoals in the Yangtze, this place is the worst, even with the new buoys in the shallows. Bouncer placed ’em after the British Admiral ran aground here. Trying to get upriver to parley with the rebels, he was. That was last April, or May, an’ I’d bet gold bars ‘gin gum drops that the channel’s already twisted around some differn’t way. If Triton’s going aground, I’ll be damned if it’s not on a risin’ tide at three knots.” The history’s been better assimilated into narrative here. First, it’s not just thrown out as a one liner to get it in. Second, it serves a narrative purpose as well as dresses up the windows: it’s part of the pilot’s justification for slowing the vessel. Third, its presence has inspired something more than would’ve been there: “on a risin’ tide at three knots” is a good line, an enhancement that came from playing with the historical allusion. Now all that’s needed is to reduce the post-surgical swelling of the text.
Why would a novel need maps for every chapter if the story is told well enough?
Few stories can convey the precise geography of a location in description so, while that’s not always important, some stories that depend on location benefit by having maps, usually one or two at the beginning of a book like Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth. Yang Shen has large-scale maps of China for Chapter One and then, as the action in later chapters moves about the Yangtze River delta and narrows to specific places, has smaller scale maps with local detail.
Why the drawings and photos – shouldn’t such things be left to a reader’s imagination?
Readers do not always have the experience needed to imagine accurately, and much of 19th century life in China is simply beyond imagination, so Yang Shen has several drawings to enhance the imagery. The rigging of clipper ships is shown because such is mentioned often in the narrative. A drawing of the Shanghai Bund in 1860 details all the foreign trading firms. A unique drawing of the Shanghai native city comes from an 1873 Chinese gazetteer. The drawings of the sternwheeler Vulcan and the river steamer Confucius help the reader see these vessels as quite different from the old Mississippi steamboats. Even the battle between Essex and Fokie Tom’s pirates is diagramed to make the action clear to readers who might find that sort of thing hard to follow. Tables for rates of exchange place the different currencies in relative context, and the table of mandarin regalia illustrates the buttons and belts of the different ranks. The photos of the Astor House and the old Shanghai Custom House are the real McCoy taken from contemporary sources. Most readers would not trouble to look up such things but do appreciate finding them there in the novel.