A big thank you to writer and journalist Karen Ma, author of Excess Baggage, for inviting me to take part in this literary blog hop! Remember those chain letters we used to write as children? This is the modern literary equivalent. We get to meet all sorts of writers from all over the world and hear about their work, plus I get to work with Karen and the next author in the chain, Christy Fearn, which is a joy.
Karen Ma is a Chinese-American who has lived in more than half a dozen cities around the world before the age of 23, including Hong Kong, Kobe, Tokyo, Tianjin, Seattle and Qingdao. Born in China, Ma spent her formative years in Hong Kong and Japan, before earning an M.A. degree in Chinese language and literature from the University of Washington. She worked in Japan and the U.S. as a journalist and began working on her debut novel, Excess Baggage, while living in China and India. Constantly on the move, she now lives in Beijing with her husband and their two children in a 2nd Ring Road compound not far away from Tian’anmen Square
To carry on the chain I need to answer a few of Karen’s questions.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently writing and researching two new novels. The first is a love story with international themes. A story of innocence lost, the exotic and erotic. It will be a much smaller work than The Woman Who Lost China with fewer characters but I always set the bar very high for myself and am aiming for something magical; a journey from youth into middle age. The book after that is a much more ambitious project in research terms and I am looking forward to some hours in old student haunts; the oriental and Indian reading rooms in The Bodleian Library, Oxford (shhh! The Indian reading room has some of the best views of the city’s dreaming spires) and to packing my suitcase and hitting the road to do some location research. The rest is currently top secret!
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
Much of the “big hit” China related fiction in English that we have become familiar with over recent years has tended to highlight a limited number of themes and perspectives; the cultural revolution of the 1960s and early 1070s, 1930s Shanghai courtesans, imperial concubines, the contemporary “get rich quick” reform narrative, or the American born Chinese experience. For a country such as China with such a rich historical and cultural legacy, this leaves huge gaps for the general Western reader. The Woman Who Lost China deliberately avoids the well trodden communist inspired narratives which in some ways have come to dominate our understanding of contemporary China, and takes the characters back to a point where they do not know the outcome of the Chinese civil war in 1949. As a writer this was liberating as it enabled me to create four generations of Chinese characters in one family from the late Qing or the last imperial dynasty, and take them through the pre-communist Republican period, post war British Hong, the 1997 handover, finishing in modern day Shantou and Vancouver. I hope I have told a different story, perhaps a forgotten one?
Why do you write what you do?
I write because I have to, because it is my way of relating to the world and the people around me. For me it’s a kind of meditation, both internal and external and when I am writing I never feel as if I ought to be doing something else. As a young person I was fortunate to travel and study widely in France, Germany and Spain and I always kept a diary and wrote letters. My interest in the way people interact across cultural, linguistic, historical and economic fault lines probably dates from my early years. At nineteen, I was studying and travelling in China at the end of the Maoist era. At twenty, I was studying and working in Taipei, Taiwan. Although The Woman Who Lost China is a work of fiction, it was born out of my own China journey over a period of more than a quarter of century and was very much a story I had to tell.
How does your writing process work?
The formal writing process starts early in the morning after my husband and son have left for school and work. I go into my study overlooking the garden and sit and write for a few hours. The farmer who lives next door usually drives his tractor into the yard around 10.30am and I take this as a cue for a coffee break.
I am also a Member of Nottingham Writers’ Studio and get a lot of support from the wider community of fantastic creative people in the region and beyond. I go on courses, talk to people who know the business and take feedback on board.
Often my most creative moments are not when I am at my desk. I have just spent nine days in Jordan and really switched off camping in the desert under the stars, but on my return I found my subconscious had been working overtime and a lot of things had slipped into place. At home I get my best ideas when walking on the moor behind my house, chopping vegetables for supper or in the late evening when I am in the bath. The latter predicament means I often traipse the length of the house, sopping wet, from the bathroom to study to make notes lest the muse abandon me and I lose the eureka moment for ever.
“Why don’t you put a paper and pen by the bath?” I hear you ask. Alas, if I did that the ideas might not come!
And lastly it is my great pleasure to introduce the next featured author in our chain, my friend and colleague at Nottingham Writers’ Studio, Christy Fearn. Christy is the author of Framed, a historical novel about the revolt of the Luddites set in the 1880s in Nottingham. I love meeting Christy for lunch in Nottingham and walking the old streets of the Lace Market with her, peeking into St. Mary’s Church and visiting the Angel Tavern where some Luddites used to meet. Her knowledge and her stories in Framed have made Nottingham in the early 1880s come alive for me.
Christy Fearn was brought up in Lord Byron’s childhood home town of Southwell. From an early age when she visited Newstead Abbey, she was fascinated by the local poet who had a tomb made for his beloved pet dog. She studied English Literature and Drama at Clarendon College and then York St. John University, where she wrote her dissertation about William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Byron and the Shelleys.
After graduating, Christy performed in the play ‘The Weathercock’ which toured Greece as part of the Britain & Greece festival. The play was a revival of the production in which Byron himself starred in 1809, before he went on his Grand Tour.
More recently Christy has given talks about Byron, Shelley and Coleridge as part of Lowdham Book Festival and the International Byron Society Festival. She has written a novel; ‘Framed’ about the Nottingham Framebreakers. Byron is a character in the novel, stepping in to aid the local Luddites and making his maiden speech in the House of Lords.
A self-confessed ‘Byron Nut’, Christy has a tattoo portrait of her hero, including the line from his poem ‘Maid of Athens’ – Zwή µou σaς aγaπώ in Greek which means ‘My life I love you.’
Christy has a passion for local history and literature, supporting the campaign to keep Newstead Abbey open, she aims to raise the profile of Byron as a local author.
She will be posting the next link in this chain in a week or so on her own blog. Don’t forget to check back!