Thursday, August 14, 2008

Interview with Jennifer Cody Epstein, author of The Painter From Shanghai

Yesterday, I reviewed The Painter From Shanghai (you can read my review here) by Jennifer Cody Epstein. It was hard to put into words how much I loved this book. I was so engrossed that I almost missed my bus stop! So I was very excited when Jennifer agreed to let me interview her about her novelization of the life of the Chinese painter Pan Yuliang (1899-1977).

When did you first learn of Pan Yuliang, and why did you decide to write her story?

I was actually at the Guggenheim with my husband and some relatives--roughly ten years ago. The exhibition--which was amazing--was on Modern Chinese Art, and there was just one image by Pan Yuliang on display. But it drew me over immediately; it was a typical Pan Yuliang in that it was very evocative of Matisse and Cezanne, and the bright, bold colors and distinctly Western setting (as compared to the huge propaganda-style images and much more subtle ink paintings around it) really stood out for me. I went over to see more, and when I read about Pan's story (prostitute-concubine-Post-Impressionist icon; really?!) it just blew me away. I'd never heard of her before--but I couldn't, at that moment, understand why--it struck me that everyone should know about her.

How much of Pan Yuliang's story in The Painter From Shanghai is true?

Hmmm--maybe 40 percent, tops? I tried to keep true to the broad, factual strokes of her life--things like dates and places. It wasn't easy, as there really isn't much on her life (even in Chinese), and what there is is somewhat mythologized at this point (even the birthdate on her gravestone in Paris is generally agreed to be inaccurate). But there's some agreement on when she was at school, which cities she was in when, and who her main influences and teachers were. So I started with that.

How much research did you do to write The Painter From Shanghai, and how long did it take to write?

Probably a lot more research than was necessary! Although as a former journalist and erstwhile academic (I love universities and basically try to spend as much time as I can at them), the research was actually far less intimidating for me than the writing. For about two years, I really just researched, without writing a word (or, rather, writing mediocre short stories that never seemed to go anywhere). I read everything I could find on China during this period in English, online, in texts, and novels. I also enlisted the help of Chinese- and French-speaking friends to help translate and research relevant texts in those languages (one friend, for example, spent hours on my behest at the Beaux Arts library in Paris), and to vet what I was writing for mistakes. I interviewed a few art historians, painters, and the curator of the Guggenheim exhibit at which I first discovered Pan's work. I also took a couple of painting courses to get a sense of the process and the feeling of painting (although the strongest sense I got was that I'm a far better writer than painter!). At some point I realized that I was using the research as a crutch to keep from starting the novel, because the idea scared me so much. So I had to wean myself off the books and onto Word. From there, give or take the two kids I had en route, it was about eight years.

Could you describe your writing process?

It's still somewhat in formation--but I essentially just make a point of trying to write something--ANYTHING--every time I sit down. I write fairly quickly, so I usually end up with five or more pages a session; then, the next session, I'll begin with those pages, rework them and/or discard them, and try to move on. I'm very big on revision and reduction; at the end of The Painter From Shanghai, I had about 600 pages in my "cut" file (the file into which I put everything I write and then decide not to use, but can't stand to completely delete). But I try to keep in mind something a writing mentor told me once; that even the stuff you take out adds to the finished product. It's better to have written it and taken it out than to have never had that process.

You note in the beginning that The Painter From Shanghai is a fictionalized account of Pan Yuliang's life. What do you want readers to take from the book about Yuliang?

I think essentially, and most importantly, just the knowledge that this extraordinary person lived and created. Pan Yuliang strikes me--not just in terms of talent, but raw perseverance--as a true heroine and inspiration. The only thing I can come up with in terms of her relative obscurity--at least in the West--is that she was Chinese, and most Westerners aren't very familiar with China's history or its arts. I also think the fact that she's a woman had a lot to do with it; women--particularly in her time--were given even lesser opportunity for advancement than they were here, and I think her history as a prostitute made it seem in bad taste to many to appreciate her art (even now I get the sense that it casts a disproportionately long shadow over her accomplishments in China). Though I also think it can be argued that women are largely being left out of the current Asian art boom--for whatever reason that might be.

What are you working on now?

Something set in Tokyo during World War II. I actually have far more experience in Japan than in China (I lived there for five years and speak the language fairly well), so it'll be a nice change!


Thanks, Jennifer, for taking time out of your busy schedule to let me interview you! You can bet I'll read the next book! (I love the WWII period!)


Serena said...

This interview was fantastic. What great questions and responses! I cannot wait to borrow your copy of the book and read it myself. Thank goodness we share an office!

Anna said...

Just let me know when you're ready to read it. I can't wait to talk about the book with you!

Anna said...

Oh, and I'm glad you enjoyed the interview, too! Jennifer went above and beyond with her responses! I really enjoyed reading them myself.

Serena said...

Those responses were fabulous! I should be ready to read the book after I read The Last Queen and Breaking Dawn!

Lady Blogger said...

Hi Anna. I agree with Serena ~ great job! I've got two books to add to my reading list now!

Anna said...

Lady Blogger, glad to provide reading suggestions. I think you'll like this one. :D

tanabata said...

What a great interview! It's made me want to pick this up next!
The book she's working on now sounds really good to me too. :)

Anna said...

Tanabata: This was a great book! I can't recommend it enough! I agree that her next book sounds good, too!

Wendi said...

What a great interview - I'm adding that book to my wish list. I love these types of books!

:) Wendi

Your interview has been added to

About the Author - An Author Interview Index

Anna said...

This was another great book! I loved it! Thanks for adding the interview to your index, Wendi!