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Author Interview

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with Joanne Elliott, an American-born author who has spent most of her adult life in Belfast, Hong Kong and on Inishbofin, a small island off the west coast of Ireland. The founder of the Kellett School, now the British International School in Hong Kong, she is the author of two books on childhood diabetes, as well as numerous short stories published in British, Irish and South African magazines, has written radio programs for RTE (Irish National Radio), and for seven years ran a local newspaper on Inishbofin. She has also taught at all levels, from preschool to university. Now, at the age of eighty-eight, her novel Love in the Shadow of Mao—the second she has written, but the first to see print—has been published by the London-based Austin Macauley Publishers.

You have said elsewhere that the idea for the story in Love in the Shadow of Mao came to you in 1978, while you and your husband were returning to Hong Kong after a tour of mainland China. Forty-six years later, your book is finally published. Did you work on it throughout this entire period, did you leave and return to it—what does the writing process look like, over the timespan of a few decades? What were the challenges of working on your story for this long, and did it have benefits as well?

The story was in my mind for many years after we left Hong Kong but I did not start writing it as my life was busy, crammed with other writing projects like the island newspaper, The Inishbofin Inquirer, which I started and edited for seven years. I am not an organized writer, have little discipline and tend to throw myself in projects, work frantically at them and then lay them aside for others.

You have described your book as a story of living in two worlds, something which would apply to many of your characters. You yourself might also be said to live in more than one world, marrying across national lines, and settling (multiple times) far from your childhood home. Would you say there was anything autobiographical in your story? What does it mean to live in two worlds, for you and for your characters?

As you say, I also lived in two worlds. Even though I left New York behind almost seventy years ago, when I need to know which way is East or West I imagine myself standing on the corner of 57th Street and 5th Avenue. Then I know where I am.

Some of my characters and incidents are fleeting impressions over many years. When I lived in Arizona in the 50s I once saw a television interview with Hope Cooke, a girl who married a king from a little Himalayan country. The expression on her face struck me and the first note I made for the novel was the line “Julia was hiding.” Actually it was “Rachel was hiding.” I later changed her name because the Chinese have trouble pronouncing the letter “r.” The description of Jen Chiman came from a young oriental man I saw in a church I was visiting in Scotland when I was in Hawthornden Castle in a writer’s retreat working on the China book. Until I saw him, I had little idea how Jen looked. As soon as I saw him in a pew across from me I knew that he was Jen. My daughter who developed diabetes at age eight was, of course, a large biographical element for the character Catherine Lee. At the corner of our street in New York was a Chinese laundry. I never knew the people who owned it but certainly the background was Catherine’s. A man I once danced with at Columbia University’s International House was the image of Ben, recalled some 50 years later. (Warning. Don’t mix with writers. They use everything.)

As you say, I and also my characters lived in two worlds. Perhaps it gives us insight or tolerance and broadens our perspective. It also prevents us from fitting in completely. We are always on the outside looking in.

Your book is set during China’s Cultural Revolution, a time of great upheaval and terrible hardship for many. How much research was needed for the historical and cultural background of your story? What were some of the most fascinating things you learned, and what were the most tragic?

My only real glimpse of the Cultural Revolution was a tour of China taken in 1978. We waited 2 years for permission and saw mostly what we were permitted to see. Occasionally, we caught a glimpse of the truth, a dirty blood spattered jacket on a doctor when visiting the medical building of a commune. A sign saying “We Will Liberate Hong Kong” quickly whisked out of sight. The restaurant Catherine is taken to by Sung in the book is one where we had a feast on the last night of the tour. Since then I have spoken to many people who have toured China. They are all amazed at my stories. Things have changed so spectacularly.

Most of my knowledge of the period is from books, histories, biographies, novels. I have read several hundred of them, starting from Pearl Buck which I devoured as a teenager. I have always been fascinated by the Orient. I spent three years in Japan in the 70s as well as three years in Hong Kong. When I was a child I insisted on eating with chop sticks and cooked minute rice for myself.

The most tragic thing, when researching the Cultural Revolution, was to see how ideals of fairness and decency are impotent against the realities of power and human greed.

Your book is also a story of love. What does your story say about love, especially in difficult times? Does love conquer all?

The love that survives in my book is, of course, the love of Julia for the child, Ping. All other loves, no matter how strong, are dominated by circumstance. Jen was generous in his love because he had been given so much by Lily. I think we are all able to love if we have been in receipt of it.

You’re eighty-eight years young, and have published your first novel. What’s next? Are you working on a second novel, and will it also be a work of historical fiction?

I have been working on an autobiography which is at the moment an amalgam of all the stories I have written over the years. I found, to my amazement that I could follow my life in my own fiction. I wonder what that says about me!

Tell us about your library. What’s on your own shelves?

My library is the heart of me. I remember as soon as I learned to read my favorite game was playing “library,” arranging my mother’s books, making little cards for each one and giving them numbers. I often recall the day we moved to a different neighborhood and my mother leaving the unpacking and the care of my baby brother to her sister so that she and I could find the local library. When I was about twelve my uncle died and left me his collection of classics from the Greeks and Romans through to Emerson and Thoreau. My father built two large bookshelves to house them and they have followed me around the world. I wouldn’t be myself without them. Since then I have added hundreds of novels, plays and poetry. In my study I have housed history, philosophy and religion, the stairs are lined with shelves of fiction, A to Z starting at the top. In the living room are floor to ceiling biography, autobiography, music and art. The China collection takes up a good deal of the space.

What have you been reading lately, and what would you recommend to other readers?

At he moment, I am reading a fascinating novel by Amy Tan called Saving Fish from Drowning. Yesterday I bought a paperback of Any Human Heart by William Boyd. I had already read this on kindle but I wanted it on my shelves because I will enjoy it again when I can turn the pages. I’m afraid I am out of sync with all this technology and I fear very much for our civilization if reading continues to go out of style.