Shouhua Qi is the author of When the Purple Mountain Burns, a historical novel about the Japanese invasion of Nanjing and the people left behind. This novel probes into the souls of victims and perpetrators of war crimes and atrocities, and hails its unassuming heroes and heroines. As a native of Nanjing, Shouhua Qi came to the United States in 1989. His new collection of short stories is Red Guard Fantasies and Other Stories. Qi is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language, Comparative Literature, and Writing at Western Connecticut State Universtity in Danbury.
Ron Samul: When you were writing When the Purple Mountain Burns, who did you consider your audience? Was it American or Chinese?
Shouhua Qi: I didn't start to write fiction until winter 2002-03. Having written a number of other books, mostly academic and nonfiction, I was looking for a new challenge. I wrote six short stories during the winter break and felt I was ready for the novel. And it didn't take me long to decide what to write about: I'm from Nanjing. What else should I write about except for the one big historical event I heard so much about growing up? Stories about how thousands upon thousands of refugees and former POWs being massacred by Japanese troops when they took Nanjing (capital of China then) winter 1937; how so many of them jumped into the freezing cold Yangtze River with doors, boards, or whatever they could grab and Japanese gunboats plowed into these human forms machine-gunning them to death; and how the river turned red with bodies drifting everywhere. . . .
I wrote the novel for readers in this country (and English-speakers elsewhere) because this historical event was (is) so well-known in China and because it was largely unknown to the West, even among highly educated and well-read people. Iris Chang's nonfiction book The Rape of Nanking (1996) has made the world aware of a sad, tragic historical event that had been largely forgotten. What I was trying to do with the novel was to focus on the human story and to enable readers to experience what it was like living through those horrific days. As far as I know, When the Purple Mountain Burns is the only novel that deals with the subject directly.
When I was finished with the English version of the novel, I thought I might as well translate/rewrite it into Chinese for readers back in China, too. That’s how the two Chinese editions, the simplified for mainland China and the classic for Hong Kong and elsewhere, came into being.
RS: We know that the book has been published in China, what came first, an American publisher or a Chinese publisher?
SQ: Since the two Chinese editions are “by-products” of the novel in English, I had the American publisher first and then the Chinese publishers. The publisher for the simplified edition is Shanghai People’s Press. Each of China’s 30-some provinces has a people’s press as its publishing powerhouse. Through a friend in Shanghai I met with an acquisition editor of Shanghai People’s Press and showed her the complete manuscript in Chinese; three days later we signed the contract. The publisher for the classic edition is a well-known literary press in Hong Kong through the arrangement of the publisher for the English edition.
RS: Did you have an agent when you starting looking for publishers?
SQ: When I finished the novel summer 2003, I started to send query letters to agents. Some expressed initial interest but nothing solid came out of it. In the meantime, I was adapting the novel into a screenplay because I felt the story is so visual in my mind and should be told on the big screen, too. By spring 2004 the screenplay was optioned. Both the producers and I felt it would be better to get the novel out as soon as possible instead of waiting for an agent to be interested. Long River Press was very keen on the story and an agreement was signed soon after we began to talk.
RS: Long River Press, the publisher of When the Purple Mountain Burns, is an East-West cross cultural center for Chinese / American writers, and to me it would seem like it was a perfect fit for your novel? Was it? Is it now?
SQ: In a way I couldn’t have asked for a better publisher for the novel. It believes in the book and is very enthusiastic about it. The editor for the novel, Chris Robyn, has intimate knowledge of both American and Chinese cultures (his master’s degree is in Asian-American studies) and sharp literary sensitivity. He was always available and supportive and understanding. So working with the press and with the editor was quite a positive experience.
Since I haven’t published with Simon & Shuster or any other big commercial publishing houses, I wouldn’t know if a novel like When the Purple Mountain Burns would be a good fit with them.
RS: Has Long River Press been a gateway into publishing in China?
SQ: I had published in China prior to this novel. My first book is a translation of Thomas Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1994), which was followed by the translation of another Hardy novel The Well-Beloved (1998), and several other books: literary criticism, rhetoric and composition studies, and so on. Long River Press has certainly helped “establish” me as a fiction writer in China.
RS: Long River is publishing your new collection of short stories, now that you have published with them already; do you feel like the process will be easier?
SQ: Certainly! I know that commercial publishing houses wouldn’t be interested in your short fiction collection unless you are a best-selling author or something close. Even literary and academic presses are not too different in this regard. So, instead of wasting a lot of time querying (knowing what the answer would be), I approached LRP directly. Last October I was in San Francisco for a 30-minute television interview about When the Purple Mountain Burns. I stopped by the press and dropped them a copy of two of my published short stories. They liked them and asked for the other stories. Having published with them certainly helps even though, for my own ego’s sake, I would say they wouldn’t have wanted to publish the collection if they don’t find the stories appealing.
RS: What is the hardest part of working with a small or mid-size specialty publisher? I know they are not a subsidiary or vanity press, but you might think of them as very content specific in what they publish and who they acquire for an audience?
SQ: The advantage of working with a small press is its size: personable, intimate, and accessible. The disadvantage of working with a small press is also its size, its lack of financial and other resources to publicize your book. I know not every book published by Simon & Schuster or any other major commercial house is promoted aggressively, but its editors and publicists do have access to mainstream reviewers, which is critical for the attention a book will get. Long River Press has done its best, given its limited resources. Through its efforts (and through invitations from civic organizations) I have had a number of appearances, including one on television, and there have been several published reviews. I sometimes wonder, though, whether the book would have attracted more attention if the press were a bigger name and had more resources to publicize it.
RS: What are your responsibilities for traveling and promoting the book? You are a professor, a writer, a mentor in an MFA program, not to mention all the regular stuff that comes up in life – how has that part of promoting yourself and the book been?
SQ: I feel most writers suffer from a kind of split-personality. On the one hand we are shy and like to work in solitary environment and “pretend” to be above promoting ourselves; on the other hand, we do crave attention and would be thrilled if our books get rave reviews. I don’t want to be the person who calls up a library or bookstore and tell them I want to come to do a reading to promote my book. I guess it’s the fear of rejection. So, if I feel a place might be interested, I’d tell the press and ask them to make the call. As I said before, Long River Press had done its best for things to happen and I am grateful. Yes, I live a very busy life, but which writer, especially those who have fulltime jobs, don’t have a hundred things which cry for their attention at the same time? Since the book is the fruit of your labor, months and months of intense, sometimes joyful, oftentimes frustrating labor, it’d be foolish not to do the best you can to promote it. You want your “child” to succeed, to be noticed, and to make a difference in the world. The only way for that to happen is to make the world know it exists.
RS: What are some of the story themes in your short story collection?
SQ: The titles of the stories in the collection may give you a sense what they are about:
“Old Batteries or Pleas of an Environmentalist Wacko,” “Love Me, Love My Dog,”
“Buddha’s Feet,” “Red Guard Fantasies,” “Big Mama,” and “The Long March, Sort of.”
They are about people caught in the unsettling drama of a fast-changing China decades after the Cultural Revolution was over, of the average person–a young hairdresser, a college girl, a migrant worker, a retired teacher, and, of course, a former Red Guard—who thrusts forward in life, stubbornly, despite the bewilderment, the setbacks, and sometimes, the horror they suffer. Quite a few of the stories are inspired by real people and events (as reported in Chinese newspapers) and almost all of them draw from my own childhood and people I know.
RS: Some of your writing in When the Purple Mountain Burns is so lyrical and stunning that it takes some time to digest. Red Guard Fantasies and Other Stories is said to be a mix of reality and surreal vision? How difficult was it to come from a historical novel into a collection that is considered at times fantastical?
SQ: This collection has 14 short stories. Six of them had been written before I started When the Purple Mountain Burns. I wrote the other stories while revising the novel and waiting for it to come out. I wasn’t aware of anything “fantastical” in the stories until I read the jacket description. A few of the stories, e.g., “Buddha’s Feet,” do have “fantastical” (or magic-realistic) elements in them, but most of them are “realistic” stories. If they feel “fantastical” at all, it is because life itself in today’s China, so “distorted” by the dramatic changes, sometimes feels so surreal, so fantastical. Come to think of it, there are some “fantastical” elements in When the Purple Mountain Burns, too. For instance, the skylark, Grandpa’s bird, “intervened” when Brig. General Nakamoto was about to kill Ningning, the 12-year-old protagonist of the novel.
RS: Finally, I would like to ask you what books inspire you to write and why? I think many of us read good books and we are inspired to carry on and continue to contribute. Perhaps you can share some your favorites.
SQ: My story is a different one. I grew up during the Cultural Revolution when classics, or all books (except for Mao’s Little Red Book), were banned, but the few books I did get to read, Journey to the West (the story of the Monkey King escorting a monk on his journey to India to obtain true Buddhist scriptures), the Romance of Three Kingdoms, and A Dream of the Red Mansions (all time classic of Chinese lit.). They left such an imprint in my young mind. All these books have strong fantastical elements in them. I guess that’s why they are present in my short stories even though they were not what I was consciously striving for. Later, during my college years, I read so many western classics in both English and Chinese translations, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Boccaccio, Dickens, Stendhal, Hugo, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Twain, Crane, Faulkner, that it’d be hard to name which impacted me the most. I did my master’s thesis on Thomas Hardy and Tess of the d’Urbervilles is one of my all time favorites. But I am not too fond of the “excessive” sentimentality of many of the Victorian writers and try not to sucumb to its appeal (even though sometimes I do get emotional when bad things happen to my characters). One of my writer friends once said to me: “Chi, you don’t write like any of the writers I’ve read before.” While I am indebted to all the writers I have read, I hope the voice I’ve found and am still developing is distinctive enough to be called my own.