Eugenia Kim, author of The Calligrapher’s Daughter (Nov 23-Dec 6)
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Greetings from Eugenia Kim. Happy to chat about THE CALLIGRAPHER'S DAUGHTER, but I'm particularly curious about what readers think works best in historical novels; what is cultural translation; your thoughts about fiction that is clearly drawn from autobiography versus memoir; thoughts on your own family stories and if they could become a novel; and how much is too much when integrating historical/cultural information into plot? Bring titles of your favorites and let's have a lively discussion.
And just in time for the holidays, win a free signed copy of THE CALLIGRAPHER'S DAUGHTER. At the end of the chat, one chat participant will be chosen at random. I will contact the person, we'll exchange necessary information, and a book, inscribed as you wish, will be mailed to you.
I have always been drawn to calligraphy , but especially when my Papa bought a page of a medival hymnal and had it framed . Each time I passed it I thought of those times. I also as a child, I am Lutheran, I saw the movie Here I stand about Lutherand had a strong bond with him. But your title intrigued me because I am not sure what time, place,etc it refers. I am sorry I am not aware of your book.
Regarding your questions about what works best in historical novels, I think that honest emotions are what keeps the reader. I love to read about different places and what it is like to live there or what life was like in that time period, but I think restraints are restraints no matter what form they take . The same with any other human conflict and emotions.
Several years ago when I was searching the web for Huxhold, my last name, I came across a novel that used the name Viscount Huxhold. I immediately contacted the author to see if she and I were related, but it just happens she served on a PTA committee with someone of that name and liked it.
But I digress, I found the book and read it. It took place long ago,1800's, but the love story is one that happens all the time-past and present.
I read the recent book about Charles Dickens and the book Edward Drooge? and it was the emotional lives of the people that stuck with me.
I do think that what a person looks for in a novel changes through out their lives, but the search for emotional exploration seems to be the glue whether it is historical, howto, biography, etc.
I hope I have made some sense, I do have a propensity to ramble and digress.
Have a lovely holiday season.
Thank you for your post. I like how you phrase it: that "honest emotions are what keeps the reader." And I find it curious that you say "restraints are restraints no matter what form they take." This touches on a more subtler aspect of books and writing, and also historical novels. For me, when a book is blatant in any way and over-emotional--when moments of strong emotion or violence are written with too many adjectives, for example--then I feel like I'm being clobbered over the head with the story. Restraint is required sometime to let the strongest feelings emerge. Restraint in the writing allows the reader to participate with their own emotion, and makes for a richer experience, I think. I'm going to think about this more, but thank you for mentioning it.
I also appreciate how sometimes a single childhood event or image, like your father's framing of a medieval hymnal page, can have a lasting impact. Thank you for sharing that. It's a striking memory.
And I'd be interested to hear you say more about "what a person looks for in a novel changes throughout their lives." It makes me think that I haven't ever really thought about whether what I've looked for in novels has changed over the decades. Besides the obvious--feeling more sympathy with narrators who are older now--I wonder if the books that have moved me the most have differed. I do agree that the "search for emotional exploration" is the glue.
A thought-provoking message, so thanks for your rambles and digressions!
Sometimes it takes a historical novel to really bring a period of history to life in a way that is accessible to the reader. I can read straight history and most of the time it never has the emotional impact that a novel does. Writing fiction does allow the author to bring the emotional side of a person to light. Sometimes it can also help to straighten out very tangled historical webs. A year ago I read Witch of Cologne and while this isn't a great novel it did help me to gain a better understanding of the tangle webs of the religious wars in Europe in the 1600's. While reading this book and Coffee Trader I had to realize that the author was focusing on one character and in order to tell the story of that one character had to focus on the things that would have been a part of that persons life. To do that sometimes the broader historical outline had to be left to just that -a broad historical outline.
You asked for historical novels that had an impact on us. I finished Welsh Girl a few weeks ago and loved it. It is set in Wales immediately after the D-Day landings and is about a prisoner of war camp. Setting it in Wales allowed the author to explore the underlying feelings of the locals towards the British. As an American it is easy for me to forget that Great Britain is a union of different parts. I tend to think of it as one big whole. It never occurred to me that the Welsh might have some sympathy for the German prisoners because in a sense they thought of themselves as prisoners as well. It took a historical novel to point that out to me.
Funny, I have Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies on my TBR bookshelf. I bought it because he's an Asian American author I admire, so I'm pleased to hear that you loved it (and that it's a non-Asian theme). I'll move it up closer to the top of the pile. I completely agree that the novel allows for more emotional impact than a straight history can. Sometimes all it takes is knowing that a person you know lived through a time in history, and that history will become more alive. I'm sorry if it's morbid, but reading the obituaries does that for me occasionally, where a person's life will be briefly outlined and just seeing their face and their fact, such as "was a member of the OSS during WWII" can add an emotional impact to a soul in a historical context I thought little about before that moment. I begin to imagine what it must've been like to work in the predecessor to the CIA, at a time of rampant patriotism.
It's true what you say about making history more accessible to readers through novels. It's also interesting that you say novels can also limit an understanding of history, since a novel will focus on one character's life; which is always a small part of what gets written up as "history." If it spurs a reader to want to learn a tiny bit more about the history that's touched on, though, I think an author has done her job.
Thanks for your posting!
Like Benitastrnad, I also love the way historical fiction can bring history to life. I can read a book abut a period of time and become emotionally connected to that period for life.
You asked about favorite reads and I have to mention The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani. While I was reading it, I was totally immersed in the life and times of these two Afgani women. Canadian author Linda Holeman is also a favorite. Her novel In A Far Country about India and the missionary system absolutely swept me away.
I think drawing on family history is a good base to build on. I have often thought my great-grandmothers' stories would make excellent reading if I only had the writing talent.
I enjoy reading stories about places and cultures different from my own as again, I feel that becoming emotionally involved allows one to absorb, understand, and appreciate the differences. And of course, reading both globally and historically also gives us a greater insight into the world's situation today.
You know, sometimes I wonder how much "talent" it takes to write. Sure it takes training, hard work, and schooling helps certainly, and there are most definitely people who are better at putting words and ideas together than others. But I think that persistence and desire sometimes are the keys that makes any creative person "successful." I wonder, have you ever sat down to write your great-grandmother's stories? I say this out of knowing how many stories there are of our forebears that are lost, and how fascinating they are, even if for our own family. Just your saying that about your great grandmother makes me interested!
Thanks for mentioning The Blood of Flowers, which I hadn't heard of. I tried to read In a Far Country but it didn't hold me, though I'm interested in stories about white people in Asia, and especially missionaries. Among the highlights of that narrow category is Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. I'm dying to read her new one, The Lacuna.
Thanks for your post!
The ultimate book about missionaries in Asia has to be Paul Scott's Jewel in the Crown quartet. I loved those books. They managed to get down and examine the whole system and its effect on people. However, it also caused me to think that perhaps India is the vibrant democracy that it is today because of the long history of the rule of law that the British enforced, or forced, on India. I also think that a great deal of India's democratic success has to do with the tolerance built into their religion. I also realize that India is not a paragon of virtue with regards to democracy, but in today's world it is one bright light.
Ooo. You're absolutely right. Jewel in the Crown was indeed amazing, as was the BBC miniseries based on the books. At a young age, it helped me understand about the more restrained and quiet type of brutality--both physical, racial, cultural, historical and social--that colonialism imposes. The cycle still continues (doesn't it? aren't we guilty?) today.
My biggest problem is finding the time to read all the books I want to read! Regarding your list above, I have Frangrant Harbour patiently sitting on my shelves waiting for me to get to it. Shanghai Girls is on my wish list, I loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong sounds interesting - on my wish list it goes.
When writing The Calligrapher's Daughter did you find it difficult to separate your mother's story from the novel you were creating?
Also I wonder what you are writing now?
I too have a problem with finding time to do all the reading I want to do. I have both Piano Teacher and Shanghai Girls on my wish list and actually own Red Queen. I like the books by Lisa See. I read Snow Flower and have Dragon Bones on my shelf. Snow Flower was very good at letting me know what the life of a middle class medieval woman in China was like. While I cringed at some of the things that were accepted as a way of life there were some good things about the customs. It was also fascinating to learn how the women figured out a way to communicate through writing and passed that method along to other generations of women.
I took a class on Chinese History from 1500 to the present some years ago at the University and was required to do lots of reading for that class. The time period about which you write, is one that is not well known here. For a while when the movies "Last Emperor" and "Shogun" were sexy there seemed to be interest but I think that is fading in the general population. At least the interest in Asia is fading in the part of the US were I live. There seems to be more interest in the Middle East than in Asia. Of course, the writings of Amy Tan and Lisa See keep China in the literary news, but I think that largely this is unknown history and unknown territory for most Americans. The glamorous Shanghai of the 1920's and 30's is not what we are familiar with. Chinese history goes right from emperors and eunuchs to Mao and Communism in the Cultural Revolution.
I hear you. I cleaned my office before the Thanksgiving break and "downloaded" my to-be-read shelf, only to find 73 titles awaiting me. Ridiculous! I culled through them and am "down" to 56. Hah!
One of the reasons I mentioned both Lady Hyegyong and The Red Queen is that the first is the actual memoirs of the consort of a crown prince who died a most spectacular and tragic death; and the second book is a ficionalized retelling of the story. Crown Prince Sado was insane. As he grew into his mid-twenties, it was obvious that both his murderous and salacious behavior made him unfit to be a king and was based in insanity. His father, the king, who is seen in history as a wise and beneficial ruler, was faced with complex political factionalism and an already fragile hold of power. He asked Prince Sado to step into a rice chest, whereupon the chest was sealed, and Prince Sado perished a number of days later, of starvation.
What a story eh?
Here was a case when the actual emotionalism of the time, despite the difficulty of archaic language and cultural translation, has more impact than the fictionalized historical novel. Drabble, whose work I otherwise admire, makes full use of the story, and as well, layers it against the story about an anthropologist who stumbles upon the memoir while she does research and is also recovering from her own dramas. For me, the historical novel just didn't do the story justice, especially as the Memoirs are the actual writings of Crown Prince Sado's wife, and the mother of his child, who became the next king.
More in a bit. DeltaQueen50 I will answer your question a little later today, and yes, I'm working on my next book, sort of a continuation of The Calligrapher's Daughter, though I'm reluctant to even say that because, being fiction, things change as the story grows.
DeltaQueen50, you kindly asked: "did you find it difficult to separate your mother's story from the novel you were creating?" It didn't feel difficult, probably because process was a gradual one. It took ten years to write this book, and at first it was a nonfiction. What began to happen is that I kept opening the back door and little fictional things began to occur within the context of my mother's story. For example, I couldn't possible fathom what her childhood was actually like, and she rarely spoke about her younger years. Also, while The Calligrapher's Daughter does describe actual events in her life (about 95% I say), I wanted to make the character more engaging to a contemporary Western reader, and so certain aspects about who she was were changed. An example: my mother had not one iota of doubt in her Christian faith. Thanks for asking.
I remember as a child, I loved it when my mother would get out this huge family bible and we would read back through the names of each generation, such a valuable resource. You've certainly given me pause to think about writing down some of my own family stories, I would hate to think they could be lost from the next generation. I don't know about dedicating 10 years to the project though! Your family must be very proud of your accomplishment.
Good luck in your future writings.
It needn't be ten years! I can't imagine doing that again myself. I have a narrative from my uncle, transcribed by his son, that is comprised of several evenings of storytelling, just for this sort of purpose. None of his family did anything with it other than share it, but we are all glad to have it, and one day something may come out of it from a future generation of writers in your own family. I say go...
I come from a big family (37 first cousins in the same town in which I grew up) and we get together often over the holidays. This is a great time for storytelling. We still show slides because I had an Aunt who took thousands of pictures and they were all slides. We look at these slides and that starts all of us talking about people and events. I worry that when my parents, aunts and uncles are gone, how much history will be lost. In the past I sent out an e-mail every week in which I told stories about our way of life. I did this for over five years, but my job has changed and I don't have the time to write like I did, or else I am getting older and just want to sit when I come home from work. Anyway, I have lots of these things written down and filed away in paper. Don't know what I will do with them, but...
Speaking of paper, the reason why I printed out these essays was that, even with all the technology we have available, paper is still the most stable format. I think about all those videos that people took and now can't play, or have to convert to a different format. I also think that the quality of those old slides my aunt took are still fairly good. She started taking those pictures back in 1954. Wonder if we will be able to say that about pictures taken today?
What a terrific legacy, and what a great story about storytelling. I love the email weekly storytelling. Last night I went to hear Alistair MacLeod and Amy Hempel read at the Folger Theatre. Both were recipients of the PEN Malamud Short Fiction 2009 award, and each read and spoke briefly. The reason I mention it is because MacLeod, who is in his 80s I think, mentioned that he's always been interested in the icons that link the present and the past. I thought about what these might be: timepieces, photographs, like your aunt's slides, letters... For MacLeod, it is storytelling. And that is true.
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